Misharika was traveling north with an escort of three armored riders and had left the flatlands that had been her home for the cooler, higher North.  She was a typical Southern girl of nearly two decades, slim and brown with long raven hair that would have been straight if she ever wore it loose.  The coach in which she was riding was pulled by a single mammoth, as was appropriate for royalty, and was driven by a man of four decades or so with the manner of a seasoned servant.  Misharika had been fussy and petulant the entire way, with the driver bearing the brunt of her bad mood.  He was quiet and placated her with short, overly polite answers when spoken to. She was unsure who the riders were, or if she knew them at all.  They wore silkmail that hid their faces even early on, before leaving the warm climate. Perhaps the armor was intended to protect their identities from Misharika’s spitefulness.  Whoever they were, they appeared to be high in rank, as they carried broad, customized sabers of the sort that were reserved for officers who had proven themselves.  The mounts they rode were also an indication of higher status.  Any unicorn was thinner and sleeker than the wooly rhinoceroses that were their wild ancestors, but these were bred for size and speed. Each thoroughbred warsteed was half again as long as a man is tall and had a thick horn longer than a man’s arm on its snout, topped with a sharp metallic point that served as a lethal reminder of the rider’s profession.  It seemed almost wasteful that such mounted warriors ambled along in a slow formation, one to each side and one behind the coach, but their presence would ensure safe passage.  Misharika tried to convince herself that it was a sign of her own value, but she knew better.

            The riders were there to protect the marriage that her father had arranged for her. She knew that he had wanted to refuse, but the king of her home city of Mellisia had ended the latest war with a promise.  A bride of royal blood was to be wed to the enemy chief and Misharika’s father was the king’s cousin. She could remember the pained look in his eyes as he had explained the situation.  The privileged life that her family had given her came with a price which would be paid in obligation.  She had believed that she would satisfy that obligation by becoming one of the wives of a prominent citizen, not by placating a vicious Northern warchief with her companionship.

            She had known that her father was right.  The Northerners and their troll allies had come swarming southward to surround the walls of Mellisia.  They had simply waited out of range of the bows used to defend the city and deterred the cavalry by making an artificial thicket of lances with the shaft-ends planted in the ground.  If any rider were able to get past that defense, the Northerners could use those axes of theirs.  A Northern swingaxe consisted of a handle similar to that of a farmer’s scythe, as long as a man is tall with a grip set at a right angle and a curving head that ended in a broad hatchet-blade where the point would be on a scythe-head. Mellisian warriors viewed such weapons as crude and barbaric without doubting their effectiveness.  The king had known his options.  He could have sent warriors into a battle in which the enemy had every advantage, defended and fortified only to prolong the predicament until the city he ruled was weak with starvation, or negotiated.  Misharika had wondered what concessions, other than her betrothal, had been made in that agreement.  She also wondered why the war had begun, but nobody had seen fit to share information on either point with a courtly woman, whose concerns did not include those of a warrior.

            Misharika would do her duty, but she would not be happy about it.  She knew how to express herself as a lady of her station.  In courtly life, gossip was the favorite pastime of nearly everyone and she had seen to it that the gossip would be about her dismay at the sacrifice she had been ordered to make. She knew that the other courtly ladies had noticed her behavior and would talk about poor Misharika and the way she strained under the burden that fate had assigned to her.  At least she would have that.

            “How much further is there to go?” she asked, addressing the question to the back of the driver’s head.

            “I am unsure, Lady Misharika,” The driver answered formally. 

            “Unsure!” Misharika snapped.

            “We have entered troll-held land and are to be met on this road by a representative known by a white flag with a blue circle, Lady Misharika,” the driver explained.  He was so polite as to be condescending, but Misharika had expected such behavior as a response to her deliberate petulance.  Both Misharika and her driver knew that the lady’s escort was to meet a man who flew a white flag of truce decorated with a blue circle representing an agreement. She looked out the window.  She had already journeyed through the fertile plains around Mellisia, over rolling, forested hills and onto a barren path of a road into the mountains to the north.  She was sure she had been spotted.  The various tribes of trolls had claimed the mountains, as nobody else wanted such a home, and they used the terrain as a barrier.  Misharika was relieved that the creatures had not stopped her to demand tribute or order her escort to disarm.  Safe passage must have been arranged.

            The land around her was inhospitable.  Even traveling on the road, one had to negotiate steep rises and dips, mostly rises as Misharika was traveling to the high land.  The terrain was mostly naked, jagged rock and the few trees and shrubs that could be seen had been twisted into unattractive shapes by the relentless mountain wind.  The air was noticeably cool and breezy in spite of the sunny weather.  Going by what Misharika had heard about the land of the Northerners, it was not much better.  It was said that the land beyond the mountains was a cold, windswept place and that the few animals that lived there were dangerous.  Misharika was sure that she would miss the warm, grassy planes and sandy beach near her childhood home.  It was also said that the Northern people did not build cities, or even towns, and spent their lives in camps consisting of tents exposed to the wilderness.  The prospect of her new life made Misharika shiver.

            The coach swayed uncomfortably on the uneven road.  Misharika considered fussing at the driver, but decided to sit quietly.  She was already feeling homesick and began to inventory everything she was giving up.  She had lived in the finest accommodations that Mellisia had to offer and anticipated that she would have to adapt to a downgrade in lifestyle.  The idea made her belly sink.  Also, she had always had bodyguards and had enjoyed the privilege of leaving the walled city whenever she pleased because she was protected.  Mellisia was situated on a grassy plain with a relaxed climate.  Outside the walls, fields had been planted, protected by simple fences and tended by commoners who lived in the humble outer section of the city.  Beyond the fields lay a gentle wilderness, which she remembered fondly. She had especially enjoyed the nearby beach.  It faced west and she had sat on the sandy expanse and watched the sunset many times.  She was sure that if there were beaches in the North, they were cold and rocky shores.

            Personal safety was an even more serious concern than the loss of luxury. She did not wish to contemplate being at the mercy of her Northern husband and his people.  Of course, she had no weapons or any training in how to use them.  That was not permitted for women.  Her only defense was that which her mother had taught her in private.  She had learned the secret way of fighting that was held in reserve as a last resort by courtly women.  She had practiced until she had learned the maneuvers, mainly kicking or pokes to vital areas, but it would be of little use against an armed man or men.  She also had no idea what Northern customs consisted of, or what sort of bizarre punishments she might be expected to suffer for breaking unanticipated rules.  The rules and protocols that a Mellisian courtesan was expected to follow had been difficult enough to learn and now she would have a new set of rules to figure out.

            Misharika was uncharacteristically quiet as her driver and escort moved deeper into the northern mountains.  Travel was slow and the road had become rougher.  In fact, she wondered if her coach was still on a road at all.  Road or not, this land did not accommodate wheels and her driver was constantly preoccupied with the challenge of moving over a variety of obstacles.  As tempting as it was to take her misery out on him, Misharika had decided that it was best to let him work.  As the coach bounced along, she could feel cargo in back shifting.  Let it bounce, she thought.  She had left all of her delicate luxuries behind, anyway.  Before her departure, her father had insisted that she take only that which would fill a single bag, so she had brought only warm, durable cloths, a small knife and a tinderbox.  Most of the crates contained supplies, mainly food, including grass for the animals and basic fare for the people, as the mountain land looked as though it could not feed a mouse.

            Misharika did not keep track of how many days were spent barely moving through the mountains.  She spent her time trying to ignore the way her coach would only stop bouncing around when the driver had to stop for repairs.  At night, she hid under a thick blanket and listened to the distant calls of unknown wild animals.  Her companions had become increasingly irritable, so she chose keeping her mouth shut over making everyone even more miserable.  Even the mammoth that pulled her coach was fidgety and there was no way to halt the massive creature if it decided to bolt.  As uncomfortable as taking a coach over a poor excuse for a road had made her, she had no desire to finish her journey on foot.

            After moving on with stubborn persistence, the travelers had no choice but to halt as they reached the edge of a sheer cliff that towered above them. They could see no way around the formation.  The driver and guards dismounted and huddled together while Misharika waited in the inert cart, which was still attached to the nervous mammoth.  The creature backed up and she braced herself for the animal’s uncontrolled departure as it pushed the coach in reverse, but it merely reached out with its trunk to uproot and devour a struggling shrub that had been growing out of a cracked rock.  The men grumbled to each other and occasionally looked around.

            Misharika heard a whistling call echo off of the bare stone around her. Everyone listened to the unusually loud sound and one of the armored riders looked up.  Someone was standing on the ridge above.  As the cavalrymen stepped back and watched, the person presented a staff with a flag attached and waved it back and forth.  Misharika’s escort reacted quickly and defensively, mounting in haste and surrounding the coach.  The driver strode to stand next to the mammoth, saying something in a soft tone that would reassure the animal.  None of them could actually see more of the figure above than a black silhouette.

            The unknown person let the staff fall and the driver went to examine it as it landed.  He held it up with a wry, relived smile.  The flag was white with a blue circle.  The person on the ridge had disappeared.  The driver leaned the staff against the side of the coach before opening the back.  The three cavalrymen moved into formation as a prelude to going back the way they had come. As Misharika waited, the driver retrieved her bag, opened the coach door and offered his hand to help her out. Misharika gave him an incredulous look.

            “Thank you, driver, I shall wait here,” she informed him. 

            The driver gestured to the staff with his head.  “Your journey is concluded, Lady Misharika.”

            “And you would deny me a few moments of comfort and have me wait alone in this cold and windy place for some stranger, who may be a bandit who stole a flag for all we know, to show himself.”  Misharika was being difficult, but she could see by the driver’s face that he knew she was right.  Her escort simply wanted to go home.  The driver closed the door.

            One of the riders moved his mount to the left of the coach and Misharika could see that the figure from the ridge had approached silently.  He was covered by a hooded cloak and appeared to be unarmed, but was obviously male as well as short and stocky.  As the rider took a position between the unknown person and Misharika’s coach, the stranger pulled back his hood.  Misharika was taken aback by the man’s ugliness, as he had a low forehead, a heavy brow, a thick but chinless jaw and a wide, misshapen nose. His skin was unnaturally pale, his unkempt hair was the color of a wooden table and his eyes were a disconcerting shade of sky blue.  Misharika realized that he was not a man at all.  The stranger was a troll, a member of the race that is known in a different time and place as a Neanderthal.  All of the frightening things that she had heard about trolls raced through her mind. The creature spoke, addressing the rider.

            “Gwenr is waiting at our camp,” he said simply.  The troll’s voice was nearly accentless and surprisingly human. Misharika turned the name Gwenr over in her mind.  She had known her husband-to-be by the name Chief Eaglekeeper, which had been given to him by her people for the pet he had brought with him to the negotiation.

            “Identify yourself, troll!” the rider by the coach demanded.

            “Remember where you are and mind your manners,” the troll snapped gruntingly. The rider forced himself to relax and the troll continued.  “You may call me... Whistler.”  He whistled and the call was returned several times over from somewhere above by unseen persons.  “I have been asked to bring the symbol of agreement and return home with the lady.” The troll pulled the hood of his leather cloak back over his head and waited.

            One of the other riders off to the left raised his hand in an impatient gesture as the others prepared to leave.  The rider next to the coach gave his mount a squeeze and the beast ambled away. The three riders waited in formation as the driver helped Misharika out of her seat, handed her bag to her, climbed onto the coach, turned the vehicle around and prepared to leave.  Misharika watched quietly as her escort departed the way they had come, picking their way along the mountain path.  The troll was waiting quietly, looking straight at her in a way that a courtly lady was unaccustomed to.  She figured she had better be polite and careful.  Although she knew that the Northern people had an alliance with the trolls, she still wondered how the creature would behave.

            Misharika approached the troll and curtsied in greeting, which elicited a curious look.  She shivered as the mountain wind chilled her, ignored her inappropriately fancy cloths.  “Where to now, kind sir?” she asked with a polite smile.

            “Wait,” the troll said simply.  She could see his teeth as he spoke, which were heavy and reminiscent of a dog’s, with an upper and lower pair of elongated fangs.  The troll took off his cloak and Misharika felt a rush of fear. She stepped back, preparing to deliver kick to the creature’s groin if his intentions were what she feared.  He wore a leather vest and loin-cover under the cloak, which seemed to have been shaped to fit him and left his thick arms and legs free.  The troll smiled, but his eyes were strangely distant.  Misharika had heard tales of how strong trolls are, far more powerful than any man.  The troll stepped forward, still holding the cloak, and Misharika would have bolted if she knew of anywhere to run to.  In a sudden move, he draped the cloak over her.  It was made out of a skin, with soft fur on the inside, and Misharika felt much warmer immediately.  She smiled and thanked him, with her eyes on the ground, feeling relieved and embarrassed.

            The troll smiled.  “You did not bring Northern clothing,” he observed.  That was true.  Although her cloths were heavy by Southern standards, the warmest thing Misharika had with her was the purple wool cloak in her bag which was of no more use in the windy mountains than the long-sleeved dress and high-heeled boots she was wearing.

            “I am Lady Misharika of Mellisia,” she introduced herself formally, hoping to prompt the troll to do the same.  Whistler only nodded.  He turned and whistled, causing the sound to echo around her.  In response, others whistled somewhere above and ahead.  The troll motioned for her to follow and walked away with his attention on the ground where he was stepping.  Misharika followed him as best she could as he eased over the bare, uneven rock in the sock-like leather bags he used for shoes.  She had to put her weight on her toes, as the high, thin heels of her boots could not be relied upon to support her. Whistler led her to a spot where the cliff dipped and than whistled again.

            An unseen someone above responded by dropping what looked like a giant leather bag with a rope attached to something inside it and the troll stepped into the bag and pulled it up to his armpits.  The bag rose slowly as unseen persons above must have been pulling the rope.  Whistler steadied himself by using his hands to walk upward as he went.  Someone reached out and grabbed him near the top.  After a moment, the empty bag landed again with a plop. Misharika eyed it suspiciously and decided to take her boots off before putting on the bag as Whistler had done. Her feet found a wooden disk with a hole in the center, placed just above a knot at the end of the rope. She easily pulled the bag over herself and stood on the disk.  She was pulled up slowly and was barely able to balance as the disk bumped uncomfortably against the cliff.  She was sure she would have fallen, were it not for the bag.

            At the top, Misharika found herself dangling from a beam with a hole cut in it, through which the trolls on top of the cliff had pulled the rope.  She felt herself being lifted from behind and turned slowly.  A female troll with red hair and an astounding number of freckles held the lip of the bag behind Misharika, inspecting her as if she were a freshly caught fish.  The troll-woman silently placed her on solid ground and helped her out of the bag.  Looking around, Misharika was surprised by what she saw.  The edge of the cliff had been shaped into a hidden battlement, manned by a formidable number of trolls.  Heavy throwing lances and rocks only a troll could lift had been placed within easy reach.  Whistler stood talking with another troll not far away.

            Whistler motioned for Misharika to come closer and introduced the other troll as Ghant.  He explained that Ghant would take her to the camp where Gwenr and his entourage were waiting.  She followed the two trolls to a small hut not far from the battlements and Whistler took his cloak back as Ghant provided another leather cloak and a pair of sock-boots of the sort that the trolls wore.  After she changed and put her fancy boots in her bag, Whistler stayed while Ghant led her down a gentle slope to the north.  The pair walked down a footpath between a profusion of scruffy fruit trees growing out of pits that had been made in the stony ground.  Beyond the makeshift orchard was a cluster of tents that made up a troll camp, pitched on a flat stretch of stony ground.  Ghant led her to a large tent and Misharika could hear voices coming from inside, speaking in the Northern language.

            “Wait here,” Ghant instructed, before entering the tent.  A moment later, two Northern men emerged.

            As the two men looked her over, Misharika introduced herself and curtsied. Either man could have been her husband-to-be.  Both were tall and powerful men dressed in furry leather that left their arms and legs free and both were armed with hatchets that hung from their belts by a leather thong looped through a hole at the end of the handle.  Both men had golden hair and beards, as well as the same sky blue eyes, and Misharika wondered if they were related.

            After a pause, the one on the right spoke.  “I am Gwenr Sortnsen and this is my cousin Runl.  We were about to make hot tea and you are welcome to join us.”

            “Many thanks,” Misharika said, smiling at the prospect of a warm drink.

            Misharika followed the two men as they entered the tent and sat down by a glowing fire inside a circle of stones under a round gap overhead, that let the smoke out.  Misharika sat, wriggled out of her cloak so that she could absorb the comfortable warmth and arranged her dress to cover her legs.  A plump, brown haired woman sat across the fire from her.  Runl prepared a makeshift teapot and hung it on a metal bar over the fire.

            “This is my wife Nelgi and my feathered companion Pearl,” Gwenr said, gesturing to each.  As her eyes adjusted, Misharika noticed that a brown eagle with a single, white spot on its breast looked back at her with domesticated calm.  She was a little relieved not to be Gwenr’s first wife.  At home, only wealthy men had multiple wives, which meant a nice house with servants.  She assumed that equivalent privileges existed among the Northerners.

            Nelgi greeted her with a forced smile and the bird cocked her head and blinked.  Misharika bowed where she sat and introduced herself to Nelgi with formality.  The woman looked a little uncomfortable and glanced at her husband, who said something in the Northern language to her as he moved around to sit between his wife and the bird.  His feathered friend hopped onto his shoulder and peeped for attention.

            Nelgi turned to Misharika and said “greetings” with a heavy accent. 

            “I will have to translate for you until you learn our language,” Gwenr observed. Misharika had not thought of that. She would have to become fluent in the guttural Northern tongue if she were to spend her life here.  At home, for a foreigner to move in without knowing the language would be a serious breach of etiquette. 

            Nelgi spoke and Gwenr translated.  “How was the journey here?”

            Misharika thought before answering.  She figured she should play the fool a bit, so that she would not be expected to know Northern ways.  She had heard frightening tales of how they responded to insults.  “I came unprepared,” she said, pretending to be ashamed.  “I did not bring warm clothing or useable shoes.”

            As Gwenr translated, Runl said something and the three of them exchanged amused glances while Misharika looked curious.

            “You would be a courtly lady of the South,” Gwenr said delicately, his eyes twinkling.  Misharika could tell that he had ommited a comment about her being a typical Southerner from the translation.  “You are with us, now.  Be free to ask for anything you need.”

            Misharika smiled.  Nelgi asked a question.  “You seem to be without a sword as well, unless you are hiding something,” Gwenr translated.

            Misharika was taken aback by the question.  “Sword?”  The three Northerners just looked at her.  “I have never touched a sword in my life,” Misharika said, as if she had been accused of smuggling.

            “What do you do for protection?” Gwenr asked. 

            “Southern men protect women,” Misharika explained.  Gwenr translated and Nelgi answered, sounding shocked or even outraged.

            “You depend on men for protection?” Gwenr translated.  Misharika nodded and looked away.  Nelgi complained and Runl explained something to her.  She watched with interest as he pantomimed swinging a weapon.  Misharika gave Gwenr a curious look.

            “A Southern sword is not a woman's weapon.  Runl and I have seen them used in battle and they are as deadly as any swingaxe.”

            “Women have need of weapons here, I take it,” Misharika responded.  Her eyes took on the look of a trapped animal as she wondered why such protection was necessary.

            Nelgi rummaged through her things and then stood, holding a sword, scabbard and belt with a look of righteous determination in her green eyes.  She offered the weapon to Misharika and spoke in halting Southern.  “Yours, now.”  Gwenr gave her a look that asked his wife if she was sure.  Misharika accepted the weapon but held it as if it might be about to bite her.  It was shorter, narrower and lighter than what she would have thought of as a sword.  More like a giant carving knife, except that it seemed to be double bladed, by what she could see of it without drawing it from the scabbard.

            Nelgi said something defensive to her husband and gestured to Misharika before sitting back down.  Gwenr smiled.  “We can’t have you walking around unarmed.”

            Runl poured the tea and Misharika put her sword down as she accepted a cup. She was surprised to see that the tea was ready and free of leaves, even though she had not seen Runl use a bag. She smelled it, noticing fruit and spice smells mixed with the odor of strong tea, and blew on the cup before tasting it.  The warmth it gave her helped her to relax and she was surprised by how good it tasted.

            After tea, Gwenr went out with Pearl to hunt, leaving Misharika without a translator.  Nelgi and Runl chatted and laughed while Misharika sat and waited.  Later, Gwenr returned with four small animal carcasses, which he had already skinned.  He saved the leather and bones and boiled the meat while Runl went out and traded with the trolls, exchanging the animal heads for fruit from their orchard.  When Misharika asked, Gwenr explained that the brains could be mixed with ash and used to treat leather.  To her chagrin, he also told her that she would have to learn how to hunt and skin animals, something she had no experience with and saw as a repulsive chore that was beneath her.  She chose not to protest and soon a supper of meat stew with boiled fruit was ready. She was stunned by how good it tasted, especially because Gwenr had made it and she had never in her life seen a man, a warrior no less, perform the menial task of cooking.

            After supper, Nelgi provided Misharika with clothing in the fashion of a Northerner.  After changing, she was dressed in a leather vest and loincover as well as separate leather sleeves and leggings, all made with the fur facing outward so that the softened leather covered her skin.  The trolls let her keep the cloak and sock-boots she had been given, in exchange for leftover stew.  She went with Gwenr and the others to join the crowd of trolls that had gathered on a ridge to watch the sunset over the mountains.  The sight distracted Misharika from the untranslated conversation around her, which continued as the sky darkened and a cold wind blew through the mountains.  Eventually, the four humans went back to the tent to sleep and Misharika slept surprisingly well.

            After a breakfast of raw, crisp fruit, Gwenr informed her that it was time to leave and meet his family.  Misharika watched him take apart the tent and roll the six wooden tent posts in the large sheet of leather.  He easily carried it on his shoulder as the others packed their things and followed him down the northern slope.  The group reached a small camp of trolls and Gwenr greeted them casually before retrieving an ox, which was tied to a nearby post.  Gwenr held the animal’s harness as Nelgi and Runl loaded the tent and luggage on its back and secured the load with a rope.  Then the group was on its way.

The three Northerners continued to chat in their own language.  As they eventually paused, Misharika admitted to Gwenr that she did not know Northern customs, as a way of starting a new conversation, and then asked what her wedding would be like.  Southern weddings were large social affairs, but she would not be surprised if the casual Northerners were hitched one night over supper.  Gwenr looked strangely evasive.

            “You shall join the family and be welcome,” he said quietly.  Misharika wondered what he was hiding.  She had heard that the Northerners lived in nomadic tribes consisting of cousins and in-laws that were referred to as families, but she knew nothing of their marital customs.

            “As one of your wives,” she said with fake enthusiasm, prompting him to expand on what her place would be.

            “Mmm”, he answered with reservation.

            Misharika stopped, prompting Gwenr to turn and face her.  “Am I not to be your wife?”

            Gwenr braced himself and spoke.  “We will honor the treaty.  You are now a member of our family.”  He let go of the ox and the animal waited where it was.

            Nelgi interrupted with a question and Gwenr responded with an explanation. She turned to Misharika and her eyes flashed with anger.  Misharika backed up and stopped herself from drawing the sword Nelgi had given her out of a fear of attack.  A person with strangely light-colored eyes was disconcerting enough and to see such unexplained fury in them nearly frightened Misharika out of her wits. However, she still had the reality of her situation in mind.  Just because she wore a sword did not mean that she knew how to use one and both women had similar weapons hanging from their belts.  For Misharika to provoke a physical attack would most likely be her last mistake.  She calmed herself and made sure to keep her eyes down and her hands away from the hilt of her sword.

            Nelgi made no move to attack and only spoke in an offended tone.  Gwenr translated.

            “Nelgi wants to know why you think she will give up her husband.”

            Misharika looked at the ground in front of her as she spoke.  “I had thought I was to be one of his wives.  I am here because of the treaty, a marriage to create a new relationship and end a war.”

            Nelgi listened to the translation and answered, sounding shocked.  “A man with two wives?” Gwenr translated.

            “It is what I was led to expect,” Misharika answered.

            “Women put up with men having more than one wife where you come from?  Why would any woman let that happen?  It is obscene!  No wonder women are not allowed weapons!  If a man were disloyal to a woman of the North with another, she would be within her rights to stick a sword in him!”  When Gwenr finished the translation, Misharika took her eyes off the ground and gave him a look that asked if it were so.  He nodded gravely and then said something to Nelgi that made her calm down considerably.  Misharika took in what she had been told.  She had never questioned the practice on the part of Southern men to take multiple wives when success allowed.  It was simply how things were done.  Still, the relationship between the first wife and the others, especially the second, was a notorious source of household disharmony.

            “I would speak with you,” Gwenr said, uncomfortable.

            The two of them walked together while Runl led the ox and Nelgi walked ahead with him, giving the pair some privacy.

            “I employed deception,” Gwenr informed her, uncomfortable.

            Misharika listened for more, looking unnerved.

            “I agreed to a marriage although I already have a wife only to end the war. In truth, there will be no marriage between us, although you will be a member of our family and your circumstances will be as good as any of our own.”

            “A lie,” Misharika mumbled, realizing that she would not be given the position of chief’s wife that she had anticipated, even though she had left her old life behind.  “Does honor mean nothing to you?”

            “It was that or more spilled blood,” Gwenr explained.  “All we sought was the right of our troll allies to visit the grassy South and trade with caravans without being accused of aggression.  Giving people away as wives is not our tradition!”

            Misharika let out an exasperated sigh.  “Who am I to marry?”

            “That would be your decision.”  She wondered how she was supposed to make such a decision without someone to arrange it for her, but decided against asking.

            “Mmmmh,” Gwenr intoned, uncomfortable.  “I must ask for your discretion.”  Misharika simply looked back at him, uneasily.  “If your people were to know that you and I are not to be wed, they may cease to honor the treaty and provoke another war.  If my people were to know that I had given the impression that I would not merely take you in, but make you my wife, they would react as did Nelgi.”

            Misharika sighed again, sharply.  “Certainly. Do you really think I want the world to know I was deceived in this manner?  I have no desire to be a laughing stock.”

            Gwenr looked down.  “You will be well taken care of,” he mumbled.

            “What?”  Misharika snapped, seeing his sympathy as something she could take advantage of.  “Speak up when you address me!”

            Gwenr looked up suddenly, startling her by looking her in the eyes.  She could tell by the anger in his face that he felt pushed and would respond by pushing back.  “My choices were few.  Would you prefer a continuation of the war?  With the army I commanded and our troll allies, we could have taken Mellisia by surrounding the city and waiting for your people to starve.  Would that have been preferable?”

            “No,” Misharika said with a dark smile.

            “As I have said, you will be our kinswoman,” he continued, taking the upper hand.  “If that position is not lofty enough for your ladyship, you could leave us and make your way on your own.”

            Misharika had never in her young life been spoken to in such a manner. “You would turn me out?”

            “No, but we will not make you stay against your will, either,” Gwenr said. The corners of his mouth eased into a smile as his eyes scolded her.

            Misharika turned away.  She was indulging in self-pity and she knew it.  Gwenr’s sarcastic tone had not gone unnoticed and she did not want the others to see her cry like a spoiled child.  “I need to think,” she mumbled before walking a short distance off and finding a cold rock to sit on.

            A few moments later, she felt a pair of strong hands kneading her shoulders. She looked up, ready to scold Gwenr for touching her so, after having refused wedlock.  She was surprised to see Nelgi standing over her, rather than Gwenr.  The woman spoke softly to her in the Northern language and Misharika could hear the sympathy in her voice.  Nelgi left one hand on her shoulder and motioned for her to come back to the others.  Misharika wiped her eyes with her fingers and adjusted her cloak before returning.  Gwenr gave her an apologetic look.  The four travelers moved on in uncomfortable silence.  Soon, they had left the mountains and moved to the plains beyond.

            Misharika was surprised by what she saw.  The lowlands had a thick covering of small, tough-looking leafy bushes and she could see herds of wild mammoths and rhinoceroses in the distance, as well as other animals that were unfamiliar to her.  With Gwenr leading, they traveled north, more or less, choosing a route that would not bring them too close to a herd of animals.  Misharika was especially worried about the rhinoceroses.  She was familiar with their domesticated cousins, unicorns, but she had never seen wild ones.  They were much heavier in build and too wide to be ridden. Their fur was much thicker, seemingly impenetrable, and each did have the same single, curved horn near the end of the snout.  Runl turned and put a finger to his lips, although nobody was talking.  He pointed to a pair of animals that were lounging between some of the taller bushes.  They were not close, but were not far enough away, apparently.  Misharika had never heard so much as a tale about such creatures, but she could see that they were obviously predatory.  They resembled tawny hyenas, not that Misharika had ever seen a hyena, but they were so large that a man’s head would be level with their shoulders.

            The travelers stayed as far away from those predators as possible without moving close to a herd of animals.  As the Northerners moved slowly and quietly, Misharika followed their lead and did the same.  She had always been told that the North was a wasteland and was surprised to see so many animals.  She was a bit frightened to be on foot around large wild beasts at first, but she soon noticed that the others followed a set of rules.  They kept their distance from the animals and moved slowly without talking.  It was easy to see anything large enough to be a threat.  The carpet of bushes that the Northerners called shrivrs never seemed to be much taller than a person’s foot is long and the few trees that could be seen occasionally were thin and small.  The Northerners also found food easily.  Nelgi showed Misharika how to find wild potatoes and Pearl provided a supply of fat, tasty wild hens.  Misharika noticed that using the eagle to hunt allowed the travelers to have meat without having to hunt in an area populated by large, dangerous animals.  Eventually, they found a river and followed it.

            At one point, Misharika saw a live specimen of a Northern wild hen.  The knee-high bird was flapping, squawking and hopping up and down nearby.  Gwenr, Nelgi and Runl searched the ground where the hen had been, leaving Misharika to hold the ox with Pearl sitting on her shoulder.  Misharika had become friendly with the eagle and stroked the bird’s head and back absently with her free hand while she watched the others wander about, staring intently at the ground.  Runl squatted, having found something, and the others joined him. The hen rushed over, making an angry racket, and Nelgi grabbed the unruly bird and held it upside-down, ignoring its panicked flapping.  The trio returned and Nelgi stuffed the live hen in one of the baskets the ox carried, saving it for a later meal.  Misharika saw what Runl had found.  He had four large, speckled eggs, which he packed carefully, putting each in a small leather bag made furry-side in before securing them to the ox.  Misharika had had grassbird eggs before, but she had never seen eggs that size.  She realized that the hen must have been trying to distract attention away from her nest, but had only succeeded in revealing that it was nearby.

            That night, the travelers camped near a river and supper consisted of scrambled eggs mixed with pieces of fish that Pearl provided by skimming the river and plucking them out of the water.  Gwenr showed Misharika how to clean a fish.  She was reluctant at first, but he explained that members of a Northern family were expected to prepare their own food.  That evening, she was also asked to take a shift as lookout for the first time.  Gwenr told her to whistle or yell if anything came around and she paced outside the tent, carrying a lit torch, as one of the others always had done on previous evenings.  As lookout, she had time to think.  She realized that she was getting used to her new life.  She was learning to do things for herself, as opposed to having everything done for her as she had in the past.  It was more work and she would often have to do gross things like cleaning a fish, but she realized that she would never again have to worry about who would provide her with servants. She also realized that she was earning the trust of the others.  Early on, no one had said anything, but she had the impression from their mannerisms that they thought of her as child-like.  Now they trusted her enough to use her as a guard.  That was something, she thought.  In the South, nobody would have trusted her to ensure their safety, not even in the direst of circumstances.  She realized that she had slowly ceased to dread the new life that she had expected to be so primitive.  She could get used to it.

            The next morning, the dawn revealed that the travelers were not alone.  At first, all Misharika could see were shadows against the sky, which was brightening ever so slightly.  Something was resting in a slight depression near the river, just beyond the light from Misharika’s torch.  As she looked and tried to see whether the shapes were animals or something else, a head turned toward her and she could see two eyes reflecting light from her torch back at her.  Misharika froze as she figured out what to do.  The animals did not seem ready to attack.  In fact, they seemed to be lying down.  However, they showed no fear.  As the sky brightened, the increasing light revealed three giant, hyena-like predators of the sort she had seen when she had been led out of the mountains.  She considered following her instructions and screaming, but she remembered how quiet the Northerners had always been when the creatures were around.

            As always, the others were inside the tent, wrapped in their hooded cloaks as they slept.  Misharika moved slowly as she went in and gave Gwenr a gentle poke with her toe. His eyes snapped open and she put a finger to her lips.  Silently, she showed him what she had seen and he simply nodded.  Gwenr woke the other two travelers and, slowly and quietly, they dismantled the tent, packed their things and eased away.  The predators were still at rest, but at least one of them was always watching.  Misharika waited until they were out of sight before speaking to Gwenr.

            “I am sorry,” she said simply, assuming he would know what she meant. He had trusted her to be a lookout and, the first time she was on duty, she had let those monsters get dangerously close.

            “What is wrong?” Gwenr ask.

            “I am a poor lookout,” she babbled.  “I let them sneak up on us and failed to sound the alarm."

            Runl had overheard the conversation as he led the ox.  Although he did not speak the Southern language, he could understand a few words, such as hello, yes, no and sorry.  He asked Gwenr something in Northern and Gwenr answered. Runl said something to Misharika in a forceful tone.

            “It is good that you were quiet,” Gwenr translated.  “Those wargs must have had full bellies, or they would have found our ox to be a tasty treat.  The beasties spend most of their lives laying around and are only dangerous if you make a loud noise or sudden move.”  She was not sure how much of what he said was Runl’s comment, as opposed to his own observations.

            Nelgi complained.  She was muttering and looking at the ground, glancing at the others occasionally. “My wife is concerned about the warg problem.  Such creatures were unheard of in this country until my father’s time.  Now, there are more of them and they are as dangerous as they look when roused.  She has heard that Lanichi, a sorcerer and Elvin chief, is responsible."

            “Elves can be dangerous,” Misharika admitted.

            “Have you had troubles with them in the South?” Gwenr wondered.

            “Occasionally.  Our cavalry can deter them, in spite of their skill with sorcery.  Provocation on their part has led to glorious victory for us in the past.”  Gwenr translated for the others and Nelgi moved to walk beside Misharika as she responded.

            “Normally, we have good relations with them, as we do with the trolls,” Nelgi said, pausing as Gwenr translated.  “However, this Lanichi is up to something sneaky.  The elves used to wander, as we do, but it is said that they are gathering near a sacred cave.  Some even say that the cave is a way to Tyrn.”  Misharika knew very little of the Northern language, but she had heard that Tyrn was their word for the ancient homeland, where people had come from before time.  In the South, it was only spoken of in children's tales that nobody actually believed.  She wondered if the Northerners were making a joke of some sort.  “Wolves and other hunters take only the old, young or sick,” Nelgi continued.  “But packs of wargs can take down any animal and they eat the whole carcass, bones and all, without even leaving scraps for the birds.”

            Misharika wondered what a wolf was and why Nelgi cared about the eating habits of predators.  She guessed she would find out as she became more familiar with the Northern way of life. “You wander?” she asked, seeking more information.

            “We do not build walls and simply dump all of our refuse on the surrounding land,” Gwenr commented with pride.  Misharika suppressed the urge to respond to the jibe about the Southern lifestyle.  “We move our camp when we have been in one place for too long.”  Misharika had heard that the Northerners lived in camps, but always with the Southern opinion that they were unable to build walls.  She had not realized that it was by choice.  However, the Southern practice of burying refuse in predetermined locations and using plumbing to dispose of filth or turn it into fertilizer seemed to work, making wandering unnecessary.

            “Seems to be much work, always moving,” Misharika observed.

            “We follow the herds,” Gwenr pointed out.  "Little in the way of crops will grow here.”  He squatted and showed her a shrivr, pushing the plant aside so that she could see where its stem disappeared into the ground.  “The roots hold the soil, so it will not blow away in the wind.  Were we to clear the land and plant food, the soil would be gone in a generation.”

            “Makes sense,” Misharika answered.  She realized that Northerners were much more knowledgeable than she had been led to believe.

            The four travelers moved on for a few more days, following the river.  One afternoon, Misharika noticed that she was being led toward a rough thicket or forest, which she could barely see from where she stood.  The land around her was thick with shrivrs and she could see herds of animals in the distance.  As she approached, she noticed that the thicket was not a natural feature at all.  Wooden poles stood at an angle, facing outward.  She realized what she was looking at once she was close enough to see it clearly.  Strong lances of wood had been set in the ground to form a circle.  She had seen this tactic from the city wall of Mellisia during the war, except that the lances had faced inward.  It was obvious, she realized.  They used a row of lances set in the ground instead of building a wall.  She had heard from frustrated Southern cavalrymen that their charging mounts had been unable to breach the lines around Mellisia, so the lances must have been there to protect the camp from herd animals.  Gwenr led them to the edge of the lance barrier and whistled.  The response he received from inside could only have been an excited greeting.  Two men pulled up the lances directly in front of Gwenr to make a gap large enough for the ox.  The others entered by walking in between the lances, which were just far enough apart to allow person through while close enough to stop a charging animal.  Misharika followed.

            Misharika took her first look at what she was sure would be her new home. It was a cluster of tents much like the one she had stayed in at the troll settlement, but larger.  In between the tents were various stations for craftsmen and the like.  Everyone was dressed in leather vests, loin-covers and leggings of soft leather that disappeared under the loin-cover at the top and were tucked into sock-boots at the bottom.  As Gwenr walked slowly to his tent, word spread that he had arrived and people dropped what they were doing and came to greet him.  Many people embraced him and the other Northerners enthusiastically and Misharika could hear the excited noises of the children who had been scattered about, but had joined the gathering.  From what she could tell without a translation, people were asking all sorts of questions and making comments and jokes as they received answers. Misharika was surprised to see such a festive atmosphere.  In the South, a king or leader would never be mobbed so.  People would keep their distance and avoid looking or staring, as a sign of respect.

            Gwenr put an arm around Misharika.  “Come meet the family,” he said with a grin.  Gwenr then introduced her to everyone.  She guessed that there were over a hundred people in the family and that about forty of them were men of fighting age, although everyone was armed.  Men carried hatchets of the sort that Gwenr and Runl had, women wore swords similar to the one Nelgi had given to her and the children had small daggers on their belts.  Misharika tried to remember everyone’s name, but there were too many.  At first, she also curtsied with a shy smile as she was introduced, but that only made the Northerners laugh.  Although friendly enough, they all had the disconcerting habit of gathering close while looking directly at her. In the South, those habits would have been rude and provocative, even if practiced by people of high station, but she ignored it and hid her discomfort.  A tall young woman handed her a metal mug filled with brown liquid. Misharika took a sip and realized that it was an alcoholic beverage of some sort.  The woman also handed drinks to the others, all of whom gulped the stuff down.  Misharika tried it and nearly gagged as tipsiness slammed through her body.  She stood blinking, hearing laughter around her.

            Nelgi took her arm gently and said something that sounded like reassurance. She, Gwenr and Misharika continued to walk through the camp, trailed by the crowd.  They stopped in front of a tent and the three of them answered questions from the gathered family.  As family members asked Misharika questions about the South and her old life, Gwenr acted as translator.  Everyone seemed to know who she was but not that she had been promised as a wife, to her relief.  When the impromptu gathering eventually broke up, Gwenr and Misharika entered the tent.  Nelgi entered after a few moments, carrying three more mugs of the brown drink.  She handed one to her husband, another to Misharika and kept the third.  Misharika sipped slowly on her second portion of the stuff and realized that it was making her feel warm.

            She turned to Gwenr, who had gulped his drink and was preparing a fire by arranging dried Shrivr stalks inside a circle of stones.  “Will I be staying here?” she asked.

            “Until you have your own tent,” he informed her as he searched the floor, which consisted of a round fur rug, and found a small bag.  He pulled out two sticks, one thick with a hole through the center lined with rough stone and the other thin and dry.

            “Where may I purchase a tent?” she asked, wondering what it would cost.

            Gwenr put the thin stick through the hole in the other and then held it as he spun the thick one like a propeller.  It made a scraping noise and began to smoke.  He spun the stick a second time as he answered.  “You will be given a tent after the next hunt, when we have more leather,” he told her.  “Remember that you are now our kinswoman and will not be asked to trade with us like an outsider.”

            He started a fire by placing the thin stick on top of the neat pile of stalks, leaning forward and blowing with his hands cupped around his mouth.  It produced less smoke than Misharika expected and what little there was wafted straight up and out of a small hole at the top of the tent.  He found a clay pipe among his things, loaded it with leaves and lit it with a twig from the fire.  He took a puff and offered it to Misharika, who shook her head, and then to Nelgi, who took it and inhaled deeply.  The two of them exhaled upward, aiming for the chimney-hole.  Nelgi said something.

            “After you have rested, the chiefs have invited you to dine with them.  The ox we brought is being slaughtered,” Gwenr translated.

            Misharika thought for a moment.  “I would be pleased to meet your vassals,” she said with formality.

            “What is a vassal?” Gwenr asked.

            “Those who serve under you,” she explained.

            Gwenr chuckled and translated for Nelgi, who looked at Misharika as though she had just said that fire is cold.  Gwenr puffed thoughtfully on the pipe before handing it to his wife.  “We are kin.  No one serves under any other.”

            “Do children not serve their parents, as in any family?”

            “We take care or our own,” Gwenr declared, not knowing what she meant.

            “Do you not rule here?” Misharika asked as her tipsy mind tried to figure out what he was telling her.

            “Our chiefs decide important matters for the family," Gwenr explained gravely. "Any person may ask to become a chief at any time when the whole family is present, but must stand before the gathered family and ask who says yes and who says no.  If more say yes than no, a new chief is recognized.  Most who ask are turned down, though. Those selected are usually elders and only the wisest of them.”  Gwenr sat back and switched languages to answer a question from his wife.

            “So, you are one of the chiefs?” Misharika wondered, looking to confirm her assumption.

            “No,” Gwenr began.  “I am but a warrior.  During the war, the chiefs of several families honored me by asking me to lead our warriors, those who joined us from other families and our troll allies.  Now the war is over and I am the same as any other kinsman once again.”

            Misharika sat and sipped thoughtfully at her drink.  Her mind flashed back to her education.  She remembered a tutor who had taught her about obedience, when she had not yet had a decade of life.

            “Why must we follow orders?” young Misharika had asked.

            “Without authority, each person would pursue his or her own ends,” the tutor had explained.  “Nothing would be accomplished and fighting would be frequent.  We obey because it is each person’s duty to work together.”

            “But why are kings and nobles the ones to give orders for commoners to take? Why are women obliged to obey men?” she had asked next.

            “It is how the gods made us,” the tutor had explained.  “Each of us is given a fate which they expect us to accept.  If the gods did not want the king to lead us, he would not have been born king.”

            “My brother is stupid,” Misharika had said with a child’s pout.  “Why would the gods want me to obey a stupid person?”

            “That is not for us to know,” the tutor had declared.  “You are so sure that you know better than your brother.  That is the sort of arrogance that will get you into trouble.  When people disobey, they put themselves ahead of everyone else and will inevitably harm others, perhaps all others, by doing so."

            “And that is why lawbreakers are given such pain in the city square for all to see,” young Misharika had observed.  “To convince us all not to harm others.”

            “Yes,” the tutor had said.  “Very good!”

            What Gwenr had told Misharika went against the outlook she had been taught and she feared that the Northerners lived their lives in a dangerous state of chaos.  She wondered how long she could survive among such people.  Still, they had fought well enough to force a treaty out of her king and they seemed to live happily.  They must practice some form of discipline.

            “So it is the chiefs who rule?  It is they who make the laws?” Misharika asked.

            “Laws?” Gwenr wondered.

            “Rules for all to follow,” Misharika explained.  “In the South, it is the king’s responsibility to write the law and his judges say if one has broken a law and how a lawbreaker should be punished.”

            “Mother-Goddess!” Gwenr swore.  His shocked look surprised Misharika.  “I had heard that Southerners keep slaves, but I did not know that all are enslaved.  Perhaps we should have brought down the walls!”  Misharika scooted away from him and averted her eyes.  Nelgi interrupted and the two of them had an ugly-sounding debate in their own language while Misharika kept her mouth shut.  The conversation ended with Nelgi scolding her husband and gesturing to Misharika.

            “Fear me not,” Gwenr said with humility, as though he were asking a favor. "My wife has reminded me that it is not for us to say how the people of the South live their lives. It affects us not.  If all were unhappy with things as they are, the king would be brought down.”

            Misharika winced at the idea of attacking one’s own king and finished her drink in one gulp to steady her nerves.  “It can be difficult to understand the ways of another people,” she said diplomatically.

            “True enough,” Gwenr chuckled.

            Nelgi said something.  “As you are our kinswoman, do not allow yourself to be given orders here.  It would be taken as a sign of weakness,” Gwenr translated.  “If something is needed of you, we will ask and explain why.”

            A teenage boy entered the tent and all eyes were on him.  “Kuln, my youngest,” Gwenr said before introducing Misharika using the Northern language.

            “Greetings,” the boy said in heavily accented Southern.  He looked at Misharika with a predatory smile that made her uncomfortable.  Fighting the urge to act like a demure Southern courtesan, Misharika looked the boy straight in the eyes.  “Hello and well met,” she responded.  Nelgi distracted the boy with questions as he took a seat by the fire.  Misharika noticed that he was drunk.  She decided to continue the conversation with Gwenr.

            “Tell me,” she began.  “What do you do here if someone is causing problems?”

            “First we talk and try to explain.  If that is not enough, the chiefs negotiate on the family’s behalf and solve the problem by having the troublemaker swear an oath.  If negotiation fails, it is for the chiefs to ask the troublemaker to leave us.  If a person will neither swear nor leave, or breaks the oath, mmmm, such a person would have to fight many duels.”

            Misharika was surprised to hear that the informal Northerners fought duels, as she would have expected a fight between them to be something less than the ritual event that was reserved for noblemen in the South.  “Are there many duels, here?” she asked.

            Gwenr shook his head.  “We typically get along with each other.  Few of us are oathbreakers.”  Misharika could tell by the way he spat the word “oathbreakers” that he was disgusted by the practice.  She was relieved to know that there was honor among her new kinsman and she nodded with understanding.

            Kuln spoke up.  “The chiefs are ready when you are,” Gwenr translated.  Misharika stood and steadied herself.

            “Would it not be rude to keep them waiting?” she urged.

            Gwenr nodded and stood.  After a little easygoing conversation with his wife and son, he led Misharika to the center of the camp.  Six chairs had been set up around a large fire and four elderly Northerners were enjoying slabs of ox meat and wild potatoes, as well as ale and loud conversation, both with each other and any passing kinsmen.  Gwenr stopped nearby and waited until their attention was on him. He spoke and it sounded to Misharika like a formal introduction.  “Our chiefs,” he told her.

            Misharika averted her eyes and knelt.  One of the chiefs, an elderly man with a long, gray beard, rushed over and put his arm around her shoulders.  His eyes looked concerned and his voice was gentle.  Gwenr squatted near her.  “Are you unwell?” he translated, with a twinkle in his eyes.  Another chief, a large woman with graying brown hair down to her waist and mirthful blue eyes strode over and spoke. She said something in Northern and then addressed Misharika.  “Benr is our healer.  His talents are indispensable, but he is quick to diagnose on occasion.  We are unfamiliar with Southern formalities.  Please, sit and have something to eat.” She spoke the Southern language with only a slight accent.

            Misharika rose with an embarrassed smile and sat in the simple chair that the lady offered.  Gwenr and Benr engaged in what sounded like a heated verbal exchange, which soon ended in raucous laughter from both men.  The large woman prepared two plates.  Gwenr and Misharika were soon seated by the fire, each with a heaping portion of roasted ox meat and a boiled potato.  Misharika looked around for utensils and noticed that the Northerners ate with their hands, holding the plates on their laps.  Misharika followed suite, although it seemed inappropriate for a formal occasion.

            The woman sat next to Misharika.  “I am Lenki and this is Kirinr, Gurtr and, of course, Benr.”  The other chiefs were all old men.  It seemed no man of the North shaved his face, but those fellows had particularly prominent gray beards, which were braided and decorated with beaded leather thongs.  Each of them also wore a broad leather headband and Misharika assumed it marked them as chiefs.

            “Eat!" Lenki prompted simply.  Misharika stuffed herself while the chiefs and Gwenr spoke in their language over supper and ale.  Misharika was keenly aware that she had no idea how to act and was in danger of making an error in etiquette that would be forever remembered.  She was shocked by the total lack of formality.  When introduced, nobody had so much as stood. Each had simply nodded when he heard his name.  She speculated that it might be unseemly for her not to eat what she was given, so she finished the oversized meal.  She would have been mortified be seen eating so much at a Southern social occasion.

            “You must have had a tiring journey here”, Lenki said as Misharika finished her meal.  She responded with a false smile.  Lenki handed her a cup of ale, which Misharika intended to nurse.  The food had counteracted the effects of her earlier experience with the stuff.  After supper, the chiefs asked questions as they consumed more ale.  They mainly wanted to know who she was and hear any news she had from the South.  Misharika answered politely and found out as much as she could about Northern customs in the process.  She discovered that there were no formal titles in the North and even a chief was more of a parental figure than a ruler or nobleman.  She also found that Northerners expect each other to speak their minds on all matters, pleasant or unpleasant, and that one could do so without causing offense.  This is not to say that they fought no duels.  She found out that duels were rare, but would be fought if a person provided more than verbal provocation.  Infidelity was the most likely reason, although any dispute that could not be resolved through discussion could result in a duel. Misharika was informed that all duels were to the death and that women were no less likely to fight one than men. Going by what she was told, it was not unheard of for a woman to challenge a man.  She also discovered that, if the camp were attacked, everyone who could swing a weapon was expected to fight.  As such matters were discussed, she was aware of the weight of the sword that hung from her belt.  Misharika also came to know that she was viewed as an adopted kinswoman and such additions were common among the Northerners.  The wandering families encountered each other frequently and would have a celebration when they met.  Among other things, those occasions provided the opportunity for family members to find spouses and a couple would often get married before the event was over and choose to go with one family or another.  In fact, it was customary for a family to welcome any who wanted to travel with them.  The more family members there were, the stronger.  However, divorce was also a casual affair.  In the South, the dissolution of a marriage was a nearly unheard-of disgrace, but in the North, either spouse was free to end a marriage at any time, although Northerners took fidelity very seriously when married.

            Misharika also found out more about Lenki, who was acting as translator since she was the only chief who spoke the Southern language.  She had become a chief because she was well traveled and familiar with foreign customs and languages.  The Northern family that she had been born into had been attacked when she was a young girl, she did not know by whom.  Lenki had survived by drifting and being taken in by any who would have an unfamiliar girl.  She had been a servant in Mellisia and had wandered with elves, trolls and other Northern families before she had married and come to live with the Sortnsen family. Later, she had become a widow after having raised four children and made herself useful by teaching the young. Many among the family had encouraged her to ask to become a chief.

            As the evening continued, Misharika was shocked to see how much ale the Northerners drank.  One young person or another came by periodically and offered more.  Misharika herself kept it to a minimum, slowly sipping the stuff and constantly pointing out that she was not finished with the portion she had already been given.  The conversation drifted away from the subject of her arrival and toward hunting and defending the camp against the increasing number of wargs in the area.  Lenki translated the drunken debate, although Misharika suspected that she was making what was said sound more civilized.  Eventually, Benr ended the meeting by declaring that he was tired and observing that the fire had gone out.  Before leaving, each chief gave Misharika a hug, perhaps just to let her know that she had been accepted.  The last embrace came from Lenki, who held her by the arms and said, “There is room for you in my tent.”

            “I have already accepted Gwenr’s kind offer to be a guest of his and his wife’s.  I would not want to disappoint him.”

            “Mmmh,” Lenki said drunkenly.  "Gwenr and his wife should be left alone to do as husbands and wives do!  I am a lonely widow and your company would be more pleasure than inconvenience.”

            Misharika looked at Gwenr for a response and he nodded amiably.  “Many thanks,” she said graciously.  Lenki led Misharika back to her tent.  It was smaller than Gwenr’s, but there was plenty of room for two.  The morning after the meeting was quiet and the family, with the exception of those on lookout duty, slept late and had leftovers for breakfast.  That day was the start of Misharika’s instruction. Lenki became her tutor and took the time to instruct her in everything from cooking and making cloths to sword fighting.  As it turned out, Lenki took her in and she never did acquire a tent of her own.  Lenki helped her adjust to her new life among the Northerners.  Misharika was grateful to have the advice of someone who knew both Northern and Southern customs and Lenki was happy for the company.  Misharika also adjusted to the unplanned lifestyle of the Northerners.  Rather than drawing calendars, counting the days and making schedules, they did things as needed or on cue.  When they were low on food, a hunt was organized.  When the seasons changed, they moved the camp.  Soon, Misharika was built like a Northerner.  She had been eating way too much, by Southern standards, but was also working too hard to become fat.  It seemed to her that the pampered Lady Misharika, who could not walk for a day without whining for a break, was no more. Mishki, as the family had come to call her, was a different woman.  She had the powerful build of a Northerner and when she looked back on her experience with courtly life, it seemed as though she had been a puppet that did not even notice the strings.

            Northern life moved from event to event, so that days and even months ran together.  Misharika’s arrival had been an event and she found out that the Northerners had brewed ale for the occasion. She adopted the family’s habit of being sober most of the time and then drinking too much when celebrating.  The next event had been a meeting between families, with drinking, gambling, trading, music, dance, storytelling and flirting.  Lenki had encouraged Mishki to seek candidates for a husband from that other family, but she had not been ready. Early on, Misharika had viewed many of her kinsmen as perspective husbands, but Mishki knew that, even in the absence of blood relations, a marriage between two of the same family would be viewed with disgust.  She simply enjoyed the event and slept off a hangover the next morning.

            Moving the camp was also an event.  When the seasons changed, the family packed their things and rolled up their tents, filling packs and handcarts.  Everyone walked to another of the locations that the family knew to be good places to camp, except the young and old, who were given a handcart ride. They set their lances in the ground when they arrived, creating a circle, and then set up tents inside before cooking up a feast and celebrating.  Late in autumn, the family approached the edge of troll territory and would trade with them often during the winter, sending out small groups to find their camps.  They moved north in early spring, to where the land was one continuous field of shrivrs, and hunted grazing animals.

Another event took place when a hunt was organized.  The process began when food was running low or family members became bored, whichever happened first.  One family member or another would go through the camp and ask for volunteers.  The volunteers would take up a few lances and go.  Later, they returned and asked for help.  Family members then followed the hunters to the carcasses, butchered them and returned with animal parts to be turned into food, leather and bone.  A feast began after they returned to camp and finished their work.  The next morning, all the meat that had not been eaten was dried, pulled to preserve it and bagged, while raw leather was turned into clothing, new tents and anything else that was needed.

            One summer day, Runl invited Mishki to join a hunt.  A herd of mammoths was grazing nearby and the family was low on food. It was the first such invitation that Mishki had received and she accepted with enthusiasm.  The excitement appealed to her.  She found the hunting party that was gathering just outside the camp.  As Runl had organized the hunt, he was in charge and was at the center of a huddle of experienced hunters as the party gathered.  When forty or so people had joined and each had taken a lance from the barrier, Runl announced that he was ready to go.  The hunters followed him on foot armed with hatchets or swords as well as the heavy lances.

            The hunters approached the herd in full view, as there was no cover on the plains, and the mammoths knew they were trouble.  The herd stopped what they were doing and shifted their positions, ready for a siege.  The young, old and cows gathered close as the bulls surrounded them.  The hunters could hear their trumpeted warnings.  Some of the more experienced hunters found places to set their lances and the other hunters followed suit.  Soon, there were three clusters of lances set with their points low, forming a trap in anticipation of charging beasts.  Mishki’s enthusiasm was replaced by fear as the hunters moved toward the herd.  She did not know much about hunting, but she did know that hunters were sometimes injured or even killed.

            The seasoned hunters moved as close to the herd as they could without provoking a charge and one of them started a small fire.  Torches consisting of axe-handles wrapped in shrivr stalks with the leaves attached were passed around and everyone lit a torch.  The small fire was allowed to burn out, but fire was passed along as hunters touched torches.  The hunters then split into two groups and ran, going around the herd.  Some of the bulls charged after them, thumping the ground with their feet angrily as they went, their long, curved tusks down and ready to stick anyone they could catch.  The two gangs of hunters rejoined each other behind the herd and turned toward the animals.  Some of the seasoned hunters began screaming and waving their torches and the other hunters followed suit, causing the torches to sputter and smoke.  The herd turned and ran.  One courageous bull headed straight for the hunters, though.  Mishki heard someone swear and the crowd of screaming hunters parted as the enraged bull raced for them.  Mishki saw several torches fly at the charging mammoth as hunters threw them. As she stood watching, she realized that the bull was headed for her.  She hesitated, her mind blanked by fear, and then she felt something inside her snap and she acted on pure instinct.  As the mammoth charged toward her at frightening speed, Mishki threw her torch and ran for her life.  She threw it so that it spun horizontally, as if it were the stick used in a Southern game she had played as a child, and she ran along a course that would force the speeding bull to turn in order to chase her, which he could not do at speed without allowing her to gain ground.  Her torch struck the mammoth in the face, provoking a cry of pain and fear.  The beast ran away, avoiding the hunters as he passed them and kept going.

            The hunters wasted no time in renewing their noisy pursuit of the herd. Mishki could see how the seasoned hunters steered the frightened mammoths by shifting their positions as they took the lead.  Soon, the mammoths were stampeding toward the lances.  Mishki heard a cry of pain from one of the mature bulls in the lead, then another cry.  As the herd fled, they were soon past the lances and the hunters ceased pursuit. In the distance, Mishki could see the herd slow and scatter.  The hunters checked the lances and retrieved the ones that were not damaged or missing, and then the hunting party reassembled and walked after the herd, allowing their torches to expire as they went.  The animals that had been wounded in the stampede were not hard to track and the hunters broke up into smaller groups and followed at a leisurely pace, waiting for them to fall.

            Mishki was part of a group of a dozen or so hunters who found their prey, a wounded cow, laying on her side and moaning.  To their dismay, a pack of four wargs had found her first and the predators had surrounded her.  As the hunters watched, one warg darted to the cow and took a bite out of her hindquarter before retreating in hast.  The cow had just enough strength left to attempt a kick and move her tusks in a threatening way.

            The hunters kept their distance, except for one young man who drew his hatchet and screamed.  The youth ran forward, seemingly in an attempt to scare away the massive wargs. One warg turned and stared, the fur on its neck rising.  With startling speed, the creature went from standing in place to springing into action. It was upon the young hunter before anyone could react and knocked him down, pinning him to the ground by standing on his chest with a clawed paw.  The hunter shoved his hatchet into the warg’s mouth in a panic as the creature’s fangs came toward him, intent on separating his head from his shoulders. A seasoned hunter threw his hatchet and the warg gave a strangled yelp of pain.  The thrown hatchet fell to the ground, leaving only a small nick in the warg’s thick hide, but the wounded youth wriggled away while the beast was struggling to remove his hatchet from its mouth.  As the enraged warg recovered, the young hunter rose and rejoined the others as fast as he could.  The warg stood its ground, growling with its head low and its ears flat. A second warg walked over and stood next to it.  The hunters stood looking, silent.  Nobody moved until the two predators turned and went back to the mammoth.  The hunters moved away, slow and quiet. They could only watch as the wargs feasted.  One seasoned hunter checked the wounded youth.  He was bruised and his attacker's claws had pricked his chest, but his injuries were minor.  As the hunters watched, the wargs gorged themselves.  All of the hunters knew that the wargs would eat until the carcass was no more, guarding their meal for days in the process, and the only thing that could drive them off would be another pack of wargs.
            Mishki followed as one older hunter led a dejected, quiet parade in search of the rest of the hunting party.  Before long, they found the other hunters clustered around a mammoth carcass. As the newcomers approached, Runl saw that they had a wounded man and rushed over to them.  Hunters clustered around and exchanged news.  Runl swore profusely upon hearing of the loss of a carcass to wargs.  Morale improved, however, as the reunited hunting party guarded the other carcasses while sending messengers home.  When more family members arrived, they cut the two carcasses into manageable pieces and carried them back to camp, where they were greeted with cheers, cups of ale and the opportunity to tell stories.  The family members who had made up the hunting party rested while the rest of the family cooked the meat and treated the leather.  While they worked, they sang hymns to the Mother-Goddess.  Mishki had not formally converted to the worship of her, but had simply ceased to bother with Southern rituals.  In the North, worship was as casual as everything else.  Although there was a belief in spirits and ancestors, only the Mother was seen as an actual deity.  They sang hymns more for their own benefit than for hers, though.  Devotion was expressed more by what the family did not do than what they did.  The Mother had created the land around the family and she would not be pleased if it were harmed.  Mishki began to see the Southern practice of worshiping an astounding variety of gods by exchanging rituals or sacrifices for prayers heard as less than sensible.  The absence of such practices had made no difference in her life.

            Before long, the family was feasting, drinking and telling stories. The party lasted well into the night and was followed by weeks of quiet living.  In the spring following her first hunt, Gwenr gave Mishki a gift. His prized eagle, Pearl, had mated and laid a pair of eggs.  Her nest was nestled between lances at the edge of camp and marked with a flag so that family members could avoid it as they entered or left.  Gwenr came to get Mishki when the eggs were hatching and gave her a tiny, fluffy eaglet to care for.  To Mishki’s surprise, Pearl raised no objection and even seemed proud as she stood over her nest.  With instructions from Gwenr, who was recognized as the family’s expert on eagle training, Mishki made a pet of the bird as it grew.  Only she fed and handled the eaglet, so that he would be hers. Before long, Gwenr was showing her how to encourage her bird to perch on her sleeve or shoulder and the eagle, who she came to call Blacktalon, followed her around as Pearl followed Gwenr. With his help, she taught the eagle to fly and to respond to whistling and hand signals.  Once the bird could fly, hunting came naturally.  Soon, Blacktalon was away flying or hunting more often than not and no longer needed to be fed by hand.  Gwenr helped Mishki train the bird to present her with carcasses in return for praise and affection.  She would either cook the kill herself or give it away and it made finding food, especially fowl, much easier.  By the time of the family’s autumn move, Blacktalon had grown to adulthood and was larger than pearl, knee-high to a man with a wing span half again as long as a man’s arm and talons the length of a man’s thumb.  To Mishki, though, he was a loyal pet and a good listener.

            Life for the family continued from event to event and during one meeting with another family, Mishki met a smith named Westn.  The two of them were soon acting like old friends as they spent time together at the meeting and the following evening.  After Westn and Mishki had both enjoyed plenty of ale, he asked her if she was interested in a husband.  Before long, he was telling her how much he liked her company and singing to her about her beauty as she blushed.  Mishki had a playful idea and stood.

            “My husband you may be, if Blacktalon likes you,” she declared. The eagle was perched on her leather-clad arm when she made the offer.

            Westn addressed the eagle.  “Are we not friends, you and I?” he said gently, reaching out to stroke the bird’s head.  The eagle shifted slightly to invite the man’s gentle touch.

            The two were not alone and had the attention of those around them.  A kinsman of Westn’s said, “he has the eagle’s blessing!” a bit too loud, causing much raucous laughter. 

            So it was that Mishki was married.  As was typical of Northern families, her nuptials consisted of simply telling her kin that Westn was now her husband.  After she had explained to him that she had come to live with the family because of a treaty between her former king and Gwenr, he volunteered to travel with her kin.  As he brought with him a large, well-made tent and the tools of his trade, Mishki was given hearty congratulations from Lenki as she moved out.  Westn and Mishki had become close friends quickly and the family was happy to have their new kinsman with them, as he was very good at his job and made fine swords, hatchets and axes to pass around or trade.

            Mishki had little trouble settling into the role of wife, as it was little different from being single.  She spent much time using Blacktalon to hunt, so she could provide fowl, fish and small animals.  The eagle gave her a socially acceptable reason to avoid joining hunting parties although she was able-bodied.  However, something strange happened during her third summer with the family, or perhaps her fourth, she was not keeping track.  The packs of wargs that infested the plains where the family summered suddenly migrated northwest.  Warg numbers had been increasing and the creatures were thought to be a plague of beasts by many.  Rumor had it that the elves were responsible.  News had also reached their ears by way of the other families that the wandering Elvin tribes were gathering around the cave in the northwestern mountains where the sorcerer Lanichi made his home.  When, all at once, the wargs moved in that direction, it was not hard to see that those elves were up to something.

            The family became aware of the wargs’ sudden move when the creatures could be seen passing by in packs one morning.  One pack of six was intent on migrating through their camp.  The alarm was raised by a lookout moments before the beasts reached the surrounding barrier of lances.  Family members who had been enjoying a leisurely morning dropped everything and prepared for a fight.  Swingaxes were still being handed out when the first warg galloped into the lances and fell with a yelp of pain.  Three warriors armed with swingaxes moved to finish it.  Frighteningly, the warg rose in spite of the bloody wound on its chest and a second warg entered the camp through the hole the first had made in the lance barrier.  Four more of the horse-sized predators charged, leaping over the lances at full speed.  The barrier normally worked, mainly because most large animals had nothing to gain by moving through it and only tried if panicked, but it seemed that something had disturbed the wargs.

            The camp became chaos as the family swarmed into battle with the warg pack. The men who had missed the distribution of swingaxes took lances from the barrier and put them to use.  The men with swingaxes swung them hard. Women with swords and children with knives or hatchets joined the battle.  Even wounded and outnumbered, the wargs moved through camp and into the opposite side of the lance barrier, flattening it from behind as they went. Mishki had narrowly avoided being mauled as a warg had passed her and she had taken a swipe at it with the double-edged sword Westn had made for her.  If she had penetrated the beast’s thick hide at all, she could not tell and her wrist hurt from the impact.  Around her, wounded and dead kinsmen were being tended to and she could see old Benr struggling to concentrate as he used sorcery to heal wounds.  Others were cleaning up the mess of collapsed tents and overturned tables that the beasts had made.  Gwenr called for volunteers to reset the lances before more creatures arrived and Mishki sheathed her sword and joined him in that task before helping clean up.

            When the camp was more or less repaired and the wounded had been seen to, kinfolk set about constructing funeral pyres outside of the camp.  The family had lost three brave men, a woman and a small girl who had been trampled.  In a reverent silence, those closest to the deceased laid the bodies on the pyres as the family gathered around.  Five people with torches stood ready until Chief Kirinr gave a sober nod.  The pyres were lit and the family cried out as one in an agonized release of grief.  Women wailed and men screamed as if wounded.  As the fires burned, someone began to sing a song of mourning and the others joined in, many with hoarse voices.  As the fires died, the family grew quiet and mourners turned the soil with shovels, burying the ashes.

            After the funeral, the chiefs announced that they would have a meeting. Ale and food were not handed out as they had been under happy circumstances and the kin simply crowded around to listen.  After waiting for the family to assemble, Benr addressed the crowd.

            “All know I am saddened by our losses, but we were fortunate to have lost so few to those accursed wargs.  It seems they have gone and I am glad to be rid of them.”  The crowd’s reaction was mixed, but people kept their comments to themselves, as only chiefs typically spoke at meetings until someone else was asked to comment.

            “Not natural to begin with, those creatures!” Kirinr responded after a pause. “It is said that the elves are behind their presence.  Something has changed and we know not what.  Makes me uneasy.”

            “One elf in particular,” Lenki pointed out.  “The works of Lanichi the sorcerer-chief appear to have started many a tongue wagging.”

            “Stories can be entertaining,” Benr began.  “None among us truly know how Lanichi uses his talent, and to what end, but I care not, so long as he does what he does to the northwest of our lands and troubles us not."

            Kirinr adjusted his necklace, which he wore as a reminder that he had led kinsmen into battle with success on his way to becoming a chief.  “I doubt this Lanichi will limit himself to his own lands.  If we let his power grow, he will complete some plan of his.  I suspect he will trouble us when he is ready.”

            “And if his plans do not involve us, we could provoke an unnecessary war with the elves,” Benr pointed out.

            “Our problem is that we know not,” Lenki spoke up. 

            Gurtr, a very elderly chief who had been listening quietly, stirred and spoke. “True.”  He chuckled.  “Lenki, among us only you know the elves.  What do you say about their intentions?”  All eyes were on Lenki as she paused to compose an answer.

            “Elves care little about us and do not seek power over humans, although they are not immune to greed or an ambitious hunger for status.  I doubt they would trouble us for the sake of doing so.  They would need a reason.”

            “Although they are able to make much trouble when they do have one,” Kirinr added.

            Gurtr sat up straight and peered into the crowd of onlookers.  “Gwenr, you led our last fight.  If we take on the elves, might we win?”

            Gwenr stepped forward and addressed the onlookers as much as Gurtr. “Victory would be slow in coming and paid for with the blood of many,” he began.  “As our family has not enough warriors to win on our own, we would have to negotiate with the other families to join us.  That will take time.  Also, it is said that many Elvin tribes gather at Lanichi’s mountain, which could be a large force.  A fight between our families and the elves is not to be entered into lightly.”  The chiefs considered this.

            “We must know their intentions,” Lenki said with a frustrated scowl.

            “If what they do does not involve us?” Gwenr asked.

            “I have known the elves as an enemy and a devious and cunning one at that,” Kirinr stated.  “Too bad we cannot simply ask them their plans.”

            Lenki looked up as if startled.  “Why not?”

            Kirinr gave her a condescending look.  “A hunter does not tell prey where and how he will attack.”

            Gurtr spoke up.  “We are not sure that they hunt us at all.”

            “If we ask them what is happening, we would at least know more than we do now, which is nothing,” Lenki pointed out.  “If they lie or are silent, that will serve as a clue.”  Gwenr nodded in agreement.

            Kirinr fidgeted.  “I still think it may be a mistake to wait for them to come to us.”

            “We need not,” Gurtr reasoned.  “We could send someone to the elves and others to neighboring families to gain their support.”  Kirinr grinned.

            Lenki chuckled sharply.  “Mishki,” she said, motioning for her to step forward.  Mishki had been standing on the edge of the gathering and the crowd parted for her. 

            “The Southerners trade with the elves much more than we do, correct?” Lenki asked.

            “By sea,” she answered.  “They also exchange ambassadors.”

            “If you are willing, perhaps Lady Misharika could pay a nice, friendly visit to her Elvin allies and see what needs to be seen,” Lenki suggested. Kirinr responded with a mischievous grin and chuckles rose from the onlookers and the other chiefs.

            “Willing I am,” Mishki said with a playful smile.  She turned to Gwenr.  “Due to the nature of the treaty between our family and Mellisia, it would be preferable if Gwenr were to accompany me.”  She could see by the look on his face that Gwenr understood. She wanted him to pretend to be her husband.

            “My pleasure to escort you,” Gwenr said with ironic formality.

            “So it is decided,” Lenki said.  “In the morning, we must assemble volunteers, swift runners to go to the other families,” she nodded to Kirinr, “and a few travelers to accompany Mishki and Gwenr.”  She paused to see if there were any objections or comments.  No one spoke up, although the crowd of onlookers was already breaking up into smaller groups and whispering among themselves.

            Mishki had little sleep that night.  Westn surprised her by whispering to her in the dark that he would volunteer to go along, if she and Gwenr accepted, and she requested that he ask her in the morning.  Lenki had more or less placed her and Gwenr in charge when she had asked them to go, so it was for them to decide which volunteers would join them.  She knew Westn would not wish to be left alone while his wife went on a mission with another man, especially if he found out that Gwenr would impersonate her husband.  She also reviewed the way she should act during a diplomatic visit. She knew the manner in which a Southern lady should behave, although that way of life seemed prissy and stifling to her after her time in the North.  She wondered if she could still play the role convincingly.  She was reasonably certain that Gwenr realized she planned to have him pretend to be her husband.  She would have plenty of time to talk about it on the way and her mind rehearsed that conversation, not just with him, but also with Westn and other volunteers.  When dawn came, she was not sure if she had slept at all and she rose early to gather her things, rousing Westn in the process.

            Mishki packed a bag for the journey and went outside.  Gwenr and Nelgi were waiting, surrounded by a pack of volunteers. Gwenr approached Mishki and spoke quietly.  “I feel that smaller is better. I would dismiss the volunteers and go with you and Nelgi?”

            “And Westn,” she informed him.

            “Does he know?”

            She paused.  “Not Yet.” Gwenr started to say something, but Mishki cut him off.  “I would no more leave him behind than you would Nelgi.”

            Gwenr grinned.  “Just the four of us?”

            Mishki nodded.  “Blacktalon and Pearl?  They can hunt for us, so we would meet fewer wargs.”

            “True,” Gwenr said.  He turned and addressed the crowd.  “Thank you for offering, but a small group will draw less attention.  I, Mishki, Nelgi and Westn will be going.  If anyone has a pair of traveling tents, I would ask the use.”

            A young man answered that he would gladly give them his tents and added that he was content to stay in the safety of camp, eliciting chuckles from the others. One woman invited the four of them to have breakfast before they left.  After a hearty meal and a pep talk from their hosts, the four travelers went through camp and said their goodbyes before exiting between the lances with the morning sun behind and to their right.

            For a long time, the four of them simply walked.  It was a clear and windy day and they had the hoods of their cloaks up as they stepped between shrivrs.  Before long, they found a path of trampled plants that led nearly straight in the direction they were headed.  Nelgi put down her hood and gave her husband an uncertain look.

            “This trail should lead us to the wargs,” Gwenr said in a neutral tone.

            “Easy to track,” Westn pointed out.

            “If we wish to meet them,” Nelgi added with apprehension.

            Mishki looked around and smiled.  The plain around them was empty and would have been quiet if not for the wind. The two eagles circled lazily above, not far away. 

            Gwenr spoke up.  “Easy walking for now, we could always turn off the path before we meet trouble.” The other three accepted this and they made better time on the trail than they would have stepping between shrivrs. In spite of the cool wind, they left their hoods down and talked.  After some talk about how much nicer the plains were in the absence of wargs, Westn brought up the subject of how to act if they did meet the ambassador.

            “Be natural,” Mishki said dismissively.  “No one would expect you to be familiar with courtly ways anyhow.”

            “But we must be deceptive in one respect, so each of us should know how we are to present ourselves,” Nelgi prompted.  So far as Mishki knew, neither she nor Gwenr had ever mentioned the treaty or the fact that her people believed her to be married to Gwenr to any of the kin.  She decided to bring it into the open, now that they were away.

            “Yes, Gwenr, we should continue the deception you began when you convinced my former people that you are a king and agreed to accept me as one of your wives.”

            Westn balked.  “Wives?”

            “I merely agreed to accept you as our kinswoman as a peace gesture and did not correct any mistakes on the part of the vanquished.  The rest was their doing,” Gwenr said in his own defense.

            “And it was not challenged?” Westn asked with a shocked look.  “They just traded away a kinswoman as if she were a stock of goods?  Southerners are hard to understand.  And they knew not that you had already wed, Gwenr?”

            “She was to be one of my wives,” Gwenr admitted.

            Westn addressed Mishki.  “And you were not only sent away, but expected to let your man be with other women?” Mishki nodded.  “Aah!” Westn exclaimed, as if struck.  He placed a hand over his heart as if it hurt.

Mishki embraced and kiss her husband.  “I love you,” she whispered in his ear with pride.

Nelgi giggled. “I suppose, when we get there, I am to play at being Westn’s while you would be Gwenr’s queen?”

Mishki slowly let go of Westn.  “It would be more believable if you and I were King Gwenr’s first and second wives. However, the king goes nowhere unless his trusted general Westn is along to assist him.”

“General!” Westn scoffed.  “That lie would not survive the first question about the art of warfare asked of me.  I am a simple smith who came along to better himself by trading a few wares.”

            “And what have you to trade with us, smithy?” Mishki asked playfully, using an exaggerated accent of the Southern language.

            Westn snickered.  “I traded my wares for coin along the way and wish to purchase ore.  I have heard that these mountains yield fine metals.”

            “Smart,” Gwenr said sincerely.

            “Let us see your coin,” Nelgi added.

            Westn reached into his pack and pulled out a small bag.  He opened it for all to see.  The bag's bottom was heavy with gold coins and a single diamond rested on top.

            Gwenr laughed out loud.  “Where did you get such baubles?”

            “From the trolls,” Westn answered.  “As we have little use for this kind of wealth, I had planned to melt down the coins and make a setting for the diamond, to increase the trade value of both, in my spare time.  However, I figured that gold coins might come in handy on this trip.”

            “Quite so, my husband,” Mishki said with admiration.

            “The elves prize coinage, which they use in the sea trade,” Gwenr added.

            “So, we are to be Gwenr’s wives and Westn a merchant and prominent friend of the king,” Nelgi said, changing the subject.  “If I am to accept my husband’s second wife without anger, I am unsure that I can be convincing.”

            “Be angry,” Mishki pointed out.  Her eyes twinkled and she spoke playfully.  “It will give the ambassador's wives and court something to gossip about.  The more they wag their tongues about how Gwenr’s wives do not get along, the less room there will be for doubt.”

            “And news of it will reach your father’s ears,” Gwenr added.

            “He shall be overcome with guilt and ask his gods for forgiveness, for dismissing his beloved daughter!” Westn chuckled.  “Would serve him right!”

            “We should also pack our weapons,” Mishki added, with a contemplative look. “In the South, it is not customary to be armed when you enter the courtly home of a friend for a diplomatic function, at least not openly.  Many a sleeve may hide a dagger, but no weapon should be seen.”  The others chuckled.

            “Not trusting, even of kin, hm,” Gwenr pointed out.

            “Customarily, one demonstrates trust in one’s host and his guards by entering unarmed,” Mishki explained.  “Women are expected to be unarmed always.”

            “Sounds like an excuse to disarm those you wish to mistreat,” Westn griped. “No one should let another say when she is armed or not.”  He reached into his pack and pulled out two small daggers in scabbards designed to be strapped to one’s wrists.

            Mishki chortled.  “When did you make those?”

            Westn showed them to her.  “You brought them from the South, remember?  You said I could have them for scrap.”

            Mishki examined them.  She had forgotten that she had the devious weapons, as she now wore an honest sword on her belt.  Someone, her mother perhaps, had arranged for the knives to be hidden in her bag before she left the South and she had not found them until after she had arrived.  She explained as much to her fellow travelers, chuckling.  Little did her anonymous benefactor suspect that her new kin would insist that she accept a sword for her own protection and learn to use it.

            The four of them moved along the trail, chatting and joking about their plan until the conversation move to other subjects.  The unnaturally straight trail did not end until after they had followed it for days.  There was not a warg in sight and the travelers did not even need to hunt, as they were able to find wild potatoes along the way in addition to meat provided by the eagles.  The trail ended only when they reached the forested hills, where there were no more shrivrs to be trampled.  Although Mishki had never been to the region, she knew of it.  This was more or less where Elvin territory began.  The mountain range was far older than the one she had crossed to get to the North.  The mountains were lower, gentler in their incline and covered by a thick forest.

            As they entered the forest, Gwenr stopped and looked around.  “Tell me if you see a deer.”

            “We have no bows,” Nelgi pointed out.

            Gwenr nodded and drew his hatchet.  Anyone who knew him knew that he could throw a hatchet with lethal accuracy. Gwenr did bring down a deer the next day and the four travelers stopped to turn it into meat, leather and bone. The skin and more useful pieces of bone were given to Westn as merchandise and after the companions had eaten their fill of roasted meat, the leftovers were pulled dry and saved.  As they moved on, Mishki was amazed by the richness of the forest around her.  Ancient trees whose branches came together to form a roof that dispersed wind and rain into gentle elements and made the sunlight into a dim, greenish glow covered the hills.  Traveling was slow but comfortable.  Mishki had never seen a thick, old forest.  She realized why the elves had so much quality wood to trade.  They could easily take a bountiful harvest while doing little more than clearing enough land for themselves.  The nights were very dark and the cries of wild dogs and other, unknown creatures could be heard in the distance, but no danger presented itself as the travelers took turns watching the camp by night. However, the comfort and beauty of the woods encouraged a lowering of one's guard.

            One day, as the four travelers picked their way between trees and over ferns, they were startled by the distinct growl of a warg.  The sound was dangerously close.  Next, a command was given in the Elvin language and eight wargs revealed themselves.  They were being ridden by elves, much to the surprise of the four humans.  It had never occurred to any of them that the beasts could be ridden.  This was the sort of information that the travelers had been sent to uncover.  It was easy for one to surmise that the elves had used sorcery to call home their steeds.  Their purpose was still unknown and many frightening possibilities could have been contemplated.  The riders were equipped for a fight.  They carried long, wooden lances tipped with sharp, metallic blades shaped to carve an enemy in the event of a charging impact.  They also wore vests of silkmail armor over cloth tunics, made of twisted cords wound around their torsos to protect their vital parts.  Aside from that they looked like typical elves, short and slight with low foreheads over protruding browns, prominent ears with tufts of hair that made said ears appear to be pointed and sharp-looking teeth similar to those of a troll.

            “Greetings!” Gwenr spoke up.  The riders exchanged surprised glances.

            A rider approached, bringing his warg uncomfortably close.  “Greetings,” the elf answered.  His voice was suspicious and heavily accented.  “It is my duty to ask why you have entered our forest.”  The elf’s eyes narrowed under his heavy forehead.

            “We seek the Mellisian ambassador for a diplomatic visit.  I am King Gwenr and these are my wives Nelgi and Misharika and my kinsman Westn.”  Mishki curtsied and Nelgi followed suit, imitating the unfamiliar gesture.  Westn bowed slightly when his name was mentioned.

            The elf did not introduce himself.  “We were told of no diplomatic visit,” he said.  The warg he rode sniffed Gwenr, looking into his eyes in an unfriendly way.  “You may pass if you submit to our ways of protecting ourselves from spies.”

            “Certainly,” Gwenr said.

            The riders that surrounded the humans moved closer.  “You are here to see Galanka?” the elf asked.

            Gwenr almost said yes, but Mishki interrupted.  “That would not be his name,” she corrected.  She knew that Galanka was not a name at all, at least, not the name of a Southerner.

            “Silence, woman!” the elf ordered.  “You do know who it is you visit?”

            Gwenr thought for a moment.  “He is known as ‘Reader ‘ among us, although that name is not how he typically introduces himself.  I have not yet made his acquaintance, hence the diplomatic visit.”  Gwenr watched to see if his would-be captor believed the lie.  “Among the Southerners, I am known as Chief Eaglekeeper, although my kinsmen know me as Gwenr Sortnsen.”

            The elf’s expression betrayed recognition.  “Eaglekeeper, the warchief who humbled Mellisia and took the king’s cousin as a bride!  All know of him, but I take it you have no proof of who you are.”

            Gwenr waved and Pearl glided from a nearby branch, landing on his leather-clad shoulder.

            The elf made a decision.  “You may pass only if you agree to the precautions we use to protect ourselves from spies,” he declared, repeating himself.  Gwenr nodded.  “You will come to our camp and be given lodging, which you will not be allowed to leave, and you will surrender your weapons.  We will ask Ambassador Senicasto if he will see you and escort you to him if he will.  If not, you will leave our land without a having seen more.”

            “Reasonable,” Gwenr acquiesced.  He made a show of looking to the others for agreement.

            Mishki spoke while looking at the ground in front of the Elvin rider.  “We thank you for your fair treatment,” she said with formality.  The rider turned and motioned for the others to follow.

            The four travelers followed, surrounded by the eight riders.  They were escorted to a camp that consisted of wooden huts surrounding a single, large lodge with a chimney.  There was also a row of posts with several wargs tied to it.  The beasts turned to stare as the travelers entered the encampment.  With an order from the leader, the one that had spoken to Gwenr, the elves dismounted and hitched their warg steeds to posts.  The travelers were escorted to a small hut and two elves armed with lances were left as guards.  Inside, it was apparent that the wooden hut was meant to serve as a bedroom.  Once the travelers were inside, one of the guards closed the door and bolted it from the outside.

            Nelgi glanced out the hut’s only window before speaking in a whisper. “Reader?” she asked Gwenr.

            He shrugged.  “I had to think of something.”

            “We may be in trouble, still,” Mishki cautioned in a low whisper.  “I know of Senicasto.  He and my father did not get along and he was a friend to few in the king’s court.  He was probably sent to the elves so the king would be rid of him.  He has no love for my family and may refuse to see us.”

            “Mmmmh,” Gwenr grumbled.

            “Is he not obligated to at least meet with Chief Eaglekeeper, as part of his position?” Westn asked.

            “Yes,” Mishki answered.  “Whether or not he will meet that obligation remains to be seen.  It was whispered that Senicasto was not above poisoning his rivals at court and, here, he is away from scrutiny.”

            Nelgi’s eyes were wide with shock.  “Poison?”

            “Slipped into food or drink, or sometimes into clothing,” Mishki responded. “It is not unheard of in the South.”

            “If he must kill a rival, why not do so in a duel and boast of it to deter the next fellow who would rival him?” Gwenr asked.

            “Brave men fight duels, cowards use poison,” Mishki observed with a scowl. The others nodded.

            “I suppose we wait for an answer,” Nelgi prompted.

            “They have not taken our weapons, yet,” Mishki pointed out. 

            “They will, surely,” Gwenr predicted.  “Would have already if we had anything larger than a hatchet.  I am not too proud to admit that I dread a fight.  One lance-wielding elf on the back of a warg would be best avoided and we are outnumbered.  I know not why they feel the need for such fierce warsteeds.”

            “That would be the sort of secret we are here to uncover,” Mishki pointed out. “My only hope is that Senicasto will be friendly, so we will see our kinfolk again.  I know not Elvin ways but in the South any person found to be a spy is put to death.”

            Nelgi spoke in a reassuring tone.  “Worry not.  We have come as friends and without weapons of war or efforts to hide.  They have no grounds.”

            “Except that we have seen too much,” Gwenr added with cynicism.

            “There is nothing to do but wait,” Mishki reasoned.

            “We should assume the manner of relaxed, friendly travelers,” Westn suggested.  He raised his voice above a whisper while telling a joke and the others feigned laughter.  For a time, they played the roll of king and companions and made a show of being unworried while assuming that the elves were listening. Later that evening, an armed elf came to gather their weapons, tell them that a messenger had been sent to Senicasto’s home and inform them that their weapons would be returned when the ambassador responded.  The four of them stayed in the hut for a few days and, although they were not allowed to leave the confines of the uncomfortably small structure, the elves were gracious hosts.  Mishki had not handed over her daggers and had strapped one to her wrist, under the leather sleeve attached to her vest, while her husband had hidden the other in his boot.

            An elf that appeared to be in charge came to them a few days later and told them that Senicasto would receive them.  Their weapons were returned and they were given time to motion for Pearl and Blacktalon, who were free but had not gone far.  Four riders were sent with them and the wargs they rode ambled along, two in front and two behind, as the travelers made their way on foot.  Little was said and the journey took the better part of the day.  The riders led them to a valley that met the sea, where a village of huts and lodges had been constructed near a sandy stretch of beach.  Two trading ships could be seen on the horizon and the type of boats that were used by traders to take goods from ship to shore had been pulled onto the wet sand.  The escort led the humans to one of the larger lodges surrounded by a dozen or so huts and departed without a word.

            An elderly Southern man stood by the door of the lodge, dressed as a servant. As they approached, he put on a fake smile and bowed.  “Greetings, Chief Eaglekeeper and Lady Misharika,” he cried.  “May I announce you?”

            Mishki stepped forward, forcing herself to look down her nose at the man. “You may announce Chief Eaglekeeper, his first wife Nelgi, second wife Misharika and kinsman Westn,” she answered formally, gesturing to each as they were named.  The servant opened the door for them and announced each as they entered. Inside, Southern-style furniture was set up and an extravagant mirrored oil lamp hung from the ceiling. Senicasto sat at the head of a long table, where several courtly men and woman were seated.  He rose in greeting and all others followed suit.

            “Eaglekeeper, your visit is an unexpected pleasure.”  He gestured to four vacant seats at the table, each with a cup of wine.  “Please, sit and join us.”

            The four guests took their seats.  Pearl moved from Gwenr’s shoulder onto the back of his chair.  Senicasto introduced the others at the table, four of whom were his wives and the rest were his underlings, each of whom nodded but said nothing.  Senicasto ignored everyone but Gwenr, which seemed a bit rude.  With a flap, Blacktalon hopped onto the table, standing in the center.  The others around the table tittered with quiet laughter.

            “Can you not control that animal of yours?” Nelgi asked sharply.  Mishki was a bit taken aback.  All eyes were on Nelgi, who looked defiantly at Mishki.

            “Silence, wife,” Gwenr said, softly.  He turned to Senicasto and spoke in a low voice that was not so low that the others at the table could not hear, switching to the Southern language.  “My apologies, good host.  I can never quite seem to stop my wives from arguing.  You know how things are.”  Mishki gently took hold of Blacktalon.
            Senicasto chuckled.  “Too well, say no more of it.  Relax. Drink.”  Gwenr hesitated, remembering Mishki’s assertion that their host might be a poisoner.  He took a tentative sip of wine.  One of Senicasto’s wives, seated across from Mishki, coughed loudly twice and then fumbled with her necklace.

            “I trust that the elves have not treated you too roughly.  They can be strict,” Senicasto said conversationally.

            Gwenr sat back.  “Their suspicion was not excessive.  Our families have not always enjoyed good relations with the elves.”  Mishki scratched her nose and then leaned forward, rubbing her hands together slowly.

            “My people are fortunate enough to be out of their reach, with the exception of sea trade,” Senicasto pointed out.  “They and we both benefit from it, so good relations are important.  We gentle folk seek smooth relations with the elves as much as we do with the people of the North, who are now our allies.” The wife across the table leaned forward and rubbed the palms of her hands against one another.

            Gwenr nodded.  “I was also distracted by what I saw.  As a trainer of animals, I was quite impressed by the sight of elves on wargback. I have known those animals only as wild creatures and had no idea they could be controlled.”

            “Stop your fidgeting,” Nelgi scolded in a rough whisper.  Although the complaint was obviously directed at Mishki and in the Northern language, the wife across the table jumped as if startled and put her hands on her lap.  Mishki gave Nelgi a hard look.

            “Barely controlled,” Senicasto corrected, ignoring the women.  “I would advise caution around those nasty beasts.”

            “Seems to be folly, then, to have so many as mounts,” Gwenr said, skeptical.

            “They are a way that Venerable Lanichi has of demonstrating his considerable talent,” Senicasto informed.  “Have you had the pleasure of meeting him, yet?”

            Gwenr shook his head.  “We came to enjoy the benefits of trade.  My kinsman Westn is a smith and he has heard tales of fine quality ore being taken from the mountains.  Also, it is a pleasure to travel.”

            Senicasto smiled a false smile and Gwenr intuited that his host knew he was lying.  “I see.  Tomorrow, I can introduce you to a merchant who has a store of ore for Westn to look at,” Senicasto offered.  Gwenr translated for Westn, who smiled and nodded.

            A servant came and provided a small pastry for each person at the table, as well as offering refills of wine.  The guests waited quietly until she finished serving.  Gwenr and Senicasto chatted awkwardly for a little longer, while the Northerners ate and drank as little as possible.  Before long, Senicasto instructed a manservant to see his guests to one of the wooden huts in his compound.

            The manservant left them and Mishki watched to be sure he was gone.  “His wife signaled me,” she said quietly.

            “Mmmh," Nelgi intoned.  She sounded disappointed with herself.  “I sought only to play my role when I scolded you.  I did not mean to hinder you.”

            “You were convincing,” Mishki reassured her.  “A man such as Senicasto pays little attention to those below his station, anyway.”

            “I noticed,” Westn quipped.

            “You will get your ore,” Gwenr said, his eyes twinkling.  “Great chief Eaglekeeper will see to that!”  Both men chuckled.

            “My cousin Anrilinja signaled me, using the secret signals that the ladies among my relatives use when they wish to deliver a secret message.  It is doubtful that any of the others know of it,” Mishki explained.

            “Interesting,” Gwenr noted.

            “And useful,” Nelgi added.

            “She will come to us sometime after dark,” Mishki announced.

            “We act natural until then, I take it?” Gwenr asked.  Mishki nodded.  “As we are not confined to this hut, I believe I will enjoy a smoke and Pearl needs to spread her wings.  Do you not, deary.”  He caressed the eagle’s head and then went looking in his bags for his pipe.

            “Blacktalon could fly a bit, too,” Mishki pointed out.  The two of them left.  Outside, they appeared to be following the eagles as they flew, but they were able to have a covert look around.  The beach was crowded with lodges and huts where elves mingled with Southern merchants and sailors.  The huts closest to the beach, only some of which were occupied, were for guests and tables had been arranged into a marketplace between the huts and the rest of the village, where all sorts of goods and delicacies were sold.  Gwenr and Mishki stayed on the edge, feigning concentration on the birds and whistling occasionally for show.

            That afternoon, Mishki and Gwenr returned and answered questions from Westn and Nelgi about what they had seen.  A servant brought them a meal just before sunset and, after eating, Mishki went outside and returned with a nervous-looking Anrilinja.

            “You signaled of treacherous plans,” Mishki said, gravely.

            The Southern woman spoke formally, with her eyes on the ground.  “My husband is a deceiver, for he has secretly allied himself with Lanichi the Sorcerer.  That devious elf is planning to send his warg riders to exact tribute from the Northerner families and, while they are preoccupied, my husband will order his agents among the Mellisian cavalry to attack the trolls and then retreat.  His hope is to provoke a counter attack that will start a war in which troll lands will fall, in the absence of Northern assistance.”  Mishki translated.

            “What would he have to gain from such a plan?” Gwenr asked.

            “He and Lanichi are convinced that, in the end, the elf-ruled lands would meet Mellisian territory and that his family will become rich and influential along with new circumstances.  Lanichi, too, believes he will be a great conqueror.  He says that the elves were here long before humans and should rule all.”

            “Why tell us of this plan,” Nelgi said with suspicion.  Gwenr translated the question.

            “I would stop a pointless war if I can,” she answered, still looking down.  “I had believed there was nothing I could do until you good folks arrived.”

            “Many thanks!” Gwenr said sincerely.  Anrilinja smiled.  “So the wargs left our land only to return with Elvin lancers on their backs, who would exact tribute from our families.  A poor plan in deed!  We have little of value and we will fight.”

            “It is whispered that Lanichi’s sacred cave is a place where time and distance mean nothing," the girl informed.  "He did summon the wargs from Tyrn, the Tyrn of the ancient past. It is said that in the Tyrn of today no elf, troll or goblin lives and that such creatures are only known of by their petrified bones on display in scholarly houses.  He fears that the same will happen here in Aveiron if humans are not brought into submission."

            “Nonsense!” Mishki exclaimed.

            “I only know what is said,” Anrilinja mumbled, defensive.

            “Our tales tell of such a cave, although we have forgotten where it is,” Nelgi pointed out.  “It is said that, for a time, the Mother-Goddess allowed humans to go through a special cave and travel between Tyrn and Aveiron.  It is how we came to make a home where we now live.”

            “Truly?” Mishki asked.

            “So it is remembered,” Westn confirmed as he heard the translation. Gwenr nodded.

            “I must go before I am missed,” Anrilinja said.

            “Wait, cousin,” Mishki said.  “Do you wish to stay with Senicasto?”

            “He is my husband,” the girl pointed out.

            “But is it your wish to remain with him and be a part of what he does?” Mishki asked.

            “It is my duty”, Anrilinja stated.  “Was it your wish to wed a Northerner?”           

            Mishki paused.  “It was my duty,” she conceded.  “But no man orders me to stay.  Northern ways are different and I am able to leave whenever I wish.  I stay because I love those who have become my kinfolk and they love me as one of their own.”

            Gwenr spoke in a thoughtful tone.  “I believe that a friendly warning to the King of Mellisia from his ally Chief Eaglekeeper is the best way to foil this plan.  A word to the trolls is in order as well.”

            “You are contemplating a sea voyage, are you not?” Westn asked with a sly smile.

            “It is the fastest way,” Gwenr confirmed.

            “My coin is at your disposal,” Westn offered.

            “You will meet a merchant tomorrow, still?” Nelgi asked.

            “You live here,” Westn said, addressing Anrilinja.  “Is it possible for the five of us to depart by sea this evening?”

            “I am not certain,” she answered after Mishki translated.  “There is a lodge near the edge of the market.  By day it is a place where a simple meal can be purchased but by night it is a tavern where sailors do business over ale. If a ship for hire can be had, that is the place to look.”

            Nelgi took the young girl’s hand.  “Come with us and be welcome?” she asked invitingly.  “Mishki’s cousin is our kin.”

            When Mishki finished the translation, Anrilinja gave her an excited, questioning look.  “I have found that men and women of the North live as free as any soaring eagle,” Mishki declared.  Gwenr handed her sword to her, which she put on with a smile.

            “Go I shall,” Anrilinja decided quietly.

            Gwenr handed Nelgi her sword, next.  “Pack up!” he said with enthusiasm.

            Westn held his bag open to show Anrilinja what was inside while Mishki asked, “is this coin enough?”

            The young woman gasped.  “The jewel alone should do.”

            The travelers packed quickly and slipped away quietly.  They had no trouble making their way to the tavern unseen.  Although there were guards stationed near the outskirts of the village, the streets were empty.  They entered the tavern and sat at a table near the door.  Sailors, some of whom were Northerners, occupied two other tables.  Westn walked over and spoke with one man briefly and then returned to the table. Before long, a sailor sat with them and worked out a deal for immediate passage in exchange for the diamond.

            The ship was a small, fast sailing vessel and the voyage was pleasant, although the quarters provided were cramped.  They dropped Westn off along a rocky shore near troll territory and moved on.  The ship sailed to the beach near Mellisia and the four travelers were taken to the shore in rowboats.  It was early morning and the only witnesses to the landing were spindly crabs that darted away if humans came near.  Mishki sent Blacktalon to catch several of them, before leading the others into the tall grass beyond the beach, which provided cover.

            “What are we to do with those?” Gwenr asked, indicating the crabs.

            “Eat them,” Mishki answered, surprised.  Anrilinja was eyeing them hungrily.

            “How?” Nelgi asked.

            Mishki put the crabs down and, rather than run away, they opened their claws and postured for each other.  She fumbled in her bag and found a cup.  “We will dig a pit, make a small fire and boil them.  Then we break open the shell and suck out the meat.”

            Under Mishki’s direction, they dug a small, hidden fire pit, filled it with dry grass and started a fire.  As Mishki hung Nelgi’s pot over the fire and put the crabs in, she explained that they must be put in cool water and heated, as they would climb out if one were to heat the water beforehand.  Soon, the travelers were enjoying a breakfast of boiled crab.  Nelgi and Gwenr reluctantly admitted that it was a treat.

            After breakfast, they went toward Mellisia on foot, down a walled road of flagstones.  The city must not have been on the defensive, because they passed no armed people.  Nobody spoke to the four strangers dressed in Northern cloaks, or looked at them openly, although many took a covert peek.  At the wall, two footsoldiers stood astride the main archway and Mishki lowered her hood and approached, adopting the strut and posture of a noble person addressing a commoner.

            “Soldier, take us to the king,” she ordered evenly.

            “Who are you?” he asked, uncertain.

            “I would be the Lady Misharika and this is my husband, his first wife and my cousin.”

            “Lady Misharika, you know our duty, no?  We must stay here and deny entry while a messenger asks the king if he will see you,” the man explained, cringing. 

            “I think we will enter now and seek comfortable accommodations,” Mishki responded with a condescending smile.

            “It is my duty to request that you wait here,” the footsoldier countered. “Please accept my apology, but I am obliged to follow orders.”

            “Be quick about it,” Mishki said sharply before strutting back to where the other travelers stood and listened.

            “Provocative,” Gwenr observed quietly in the Northern language.

            “Their true orders are to arrest strangers.  If one assumes the manner of a powerful noble, they fear to do so,” Mishki answered, dropping the act.

            After a long wait, a messenger approached the travelers and informed them that they would find a warm welcome in the home of Lady Misharika’s father, but that the king would meet them at his convenience, if at all.  The four of them walked through the arch unchallenged.  Mishki advised that they remove their cloaks and conceal their weapons before leading them to her childhood home. The two Northerners had never seen the inside of a Southern town and took in the sights as they went.  The street was lined with stone apartment buildings consisting of humble rooms.  Cooperation was necessary for anyone to move through the ample foot traffic.  Mishki pointed out that the crowd moved in an orderly fashion and encouraged Gwenr and Nelgi to watch and follow the rules.  She also explained that one could see why obedience and orderliness were so highly valued in the South with the satisfaction of a person whose viewpoint was vindicated.  It was easy to see that without etiquette, a simple thing such as walking down a street would be a difficult chore.  Nearer the center of town, the streets were lined with townhouses and then walls interrupted by ornate archways, each of which was guarded by an armed manservant and decorated with an insignia.  Through any of the arches, a passerby could catch a glimpse of an extravagant villa within.  The travelers came to an archway guarded by an old, portly woman in addition to a single armed guard.

            “Lady Misharika!  As I live and breath!” the woman exclaimed.

            “Nanny!” Mishki answered, using the Southern term for a child-rearing womanservant as if it were the elderly woman’s name.  She rushed to her and the two embraced each other.

            “I was so worried for you!” Nanny said.  “When we heard from you not I assumed the worst,” she scolded in a polite but self-pitying tone.

            “Writing and delivering letters are not Northern art forms,” Mishki explained. “Tell me news!” she added with anticipation.

            Your marriage has brought us unrestricted trade, as well as peace. The king’s coffers are full.  As there is less to do, many turn to the home for drama.  Your father’s wives do bicker, mainly over marital arrangements for their sons and daughters, but also over your father’s attention.  Anyhow, your father has been kind enough to keep me on, even though his children are grown, for which I am grateful.”

            “You are a member of our household,” Mishki pointed out.

            “Tell me of your life,” Nanny requested.  “I can tell with one glance that the North has made a different woman of you.”

            “True,” Mishki said, grinning.  “My new family has accepted me as their kinswoman.  Northerners are not as I had always been told.  I have come to enjoy their casual ways and they know the land like no others.”

            Nanny grinned playfully.  “And you have a muscular husband, smelly and leather-clad though he may be.  I would lay odds that his lance is large and impressive, making for a relaxed and happy wife.”

            Mishki’s smile faded quickly and she looked at Gwenr with apprehension. Anrilinja cringed.  “Smelly and leather-clad though I be, I still believe that the size of my ‘lance’ is a private matter,” Gwenr said, surprising the woman with his command of the Southern language.

            Nanny stood with her eyes down as though awaiting execution.  “I would visit with my dear father now,” Mishki said evenly, before making a dismissive gesture.

            “Yes, Lady Misharika,” Nanny said.  “I take it that you will be discussing discipline in the household.” The old woman’s eyes were pleading.

            “We Northerners are accustomed to open conversation,” Gwenr explained dismissively.

            “Many thanks, kind Chief Eaglekeeper,” Nanny said with a curtsey before leaving.  Mishki led the travelers over the marble patio that stretched between the wall’s archway and the three front doors of the manor.  Gardens that yielded fruits and vegetables were placed on either side of the patio and were tended by a pair of gardeners.  The two servants looked, but said nothing and went back to work when Gwenr looked back.  Mishki approached the door in the center.  Although it was made of heavy, thick timbers, the door swung open with a gentle push and the travelers eased down a central hallway lined with closed interior doors.  Mishki led the others to one of the doors and knocked.  A manservant opened the door and stood, silent and at attention.

            Mishki entered, followed by the others, who stood gaping at the room’s interior.  The walls were painted white and decorated with fine tapestries and paintings.  The ceiling consisted of a stained glass skylight, so that the morning sun filled the room with color.  Mishki’s father and three of his wives were seated on padded chairs and couches, enjoying purple fruit juice and chatting.  Father rose and strode forward as the three women followed.

            “Misharika, my dear daughter!” he said, embracing her.  Her mother gave her an enthusiastic hug and then waited.  The other two women simply smiled.  “And do I have the pleasure of meeting my son-in-law, the great Chief Eaglekeeper?” Father prompted.

            Mishki made formal introductions, Including Chief Eaglekeeper, his first wife Nelgi, Cousin Anrilinja, Pearl and Blacktalon.  Father bowed to each, although only Anrilinja responded to the gesture as she curtseyed politely.  Father introduced himself, formally welcomed his guests and then introduced Mishki’s mother, who was his third wife, and the other two women, his first and fourth. Each curtseyed on cue.  Father then invited them to sit.  Mishki went to a small table against the wall and began pouring juice for everyone.  A serving girl who stood by the table gave her a confused look.

            “My, have you changed,” her father’s first wife pointed out.  She and the fourth tittered, only to receive a disapproving look from Father.  Mishki suddenly realized what she was doing.  It was no more her place to serve juice than it was the serving girl’s place to sit with the family.  Mishki decided that she no longer cared about places and finished pouring juice for herself and her companions before having a seat.  Blacktalon left her shoulder and perched on the back of her chair.

            “Is that the famous eagle you were named for?” Father asked Gwenr, ignoring the women in favor of examining Pearl as she sat quietly on Gwenr's sleeve.

“Yes she is,” Gwenr answered cheerfully, patting the bird’s head.  “I am called ‘Gwenr’ by my kinfolk,” he added with an inviting smile.

“Then Gwinier I shall call you, with your permission,” Father declared.  Gwenr responded with a nod.  Father made polite conversation about eagle keeping and hunting.  Gwenr made it a point to include Mishki and Nelgi in the conversation and make sure that Father knew that both women were capable hunters and keepers.  Father steered the conversation back to keeping animals and began to brag about the quality of his spinners and the fine silk they produced for clothing and silkmail armor.  He kept several of the unnaturally large arachnids in a kennel under the manor and would be glad to give Son-In-Law Gwinier a tour.  Gwenr politely declined the privilege of meeting the giant, poisonous spiders that Southerners keep for their silk.

            Mother began a side conversation with Mishki by scolding her for not writing letters home and then commenting on how much she had changed.  She pointed out that her daughter now wore leather in the parlor and had disconcerting Northern habits, such as looking servants in the eyes and interrupting male conversations.  As her mother tested her patience, Mishki responded by describing her adventures in hunting and hawking, as well as learning to use a sword.  She caught herself just before she let it slip that she was married to Westn the blacksmith.  Father’s fourth wife, a young lady with her smooth, raven hair worn in a complex braid, asked to be introduced to Blacktalon, calling him an adorable creature.  This began a discussion about how Mishki had raised one of Pearl’s chicks and learned hawking as she went.

            As the others conversed, Father moved to sit near Anrilinja.  “It pleases me to see you as well, Cousin,” he said with a grin.

            She brightened, slightly.  “Thank you for your hospitality,” she answered, sounding unsure of herself.

            “I must know, how is it that you have come here in spite of the viewpoint of your husband?  It would be unlike him to send you to me.”

            Anrilinja looked down.  “I have fled his house,” she admitted while bracing herself.

            Father chuckled.  “Then I offer you the protection of my home, Cousin.  You shall be safe from his influence here and are welcome to stay as long as it suits you.”  Father sat back, looking pleased with himself.  Anrilinja sighed with relief.  Father rose and motioned to the manservant by the door, who hurried over and listened politely as Father instructed him to have Nanny arrange a single room for Anrilinja and a large bedroom for the chief and his wives.  Father’s first wife took the instruction as a cue and offered the travelers a change of cloths.  Under her direction, servants provided a tunic for Gwenr and dresses of silk for the ladies before showing them to their rooms, where they unpacked their things.  Afterwards, the first wife helped them find a place on the roof for Pearl and Blacktalon and gave them a tour of the house, with the exception of the basement and servant’s quarters.  Before long, it was time for the guests to join Father for supper.  The overt conversation deliberately avoided important matters, but Mishki and her mother appeared to fidget as they signaled each other.  After supper, Father invited the guests onto the patio for wine and Gwenr smoked his pipe, which elicited questions from Father about the unfamiliar practice.  Afterward, Mishki, Gwenr and Nelgi went to their quarters together.

            “Who will sleep where? “ Gwenr asked, eyeing the single large bed in the center of the room.

            “It would be best if we share the bed for appearances, if that is all right,” Mishki suggested.  “The servants will gossip if we do not.”

            “There is more room in that bed then in a tent for five,” Nelgi pointed out.

            Gwenr answered with a nod.  “I shall be spending a typical night with my two wives, then,” he said, his eyes twinkling playfully.

            Mishki grinned.  “I am impressed with your skill as a deceiver, Husband.  You are a match for any in a Southern court.  Father likes you.”

            Gwenr responded with a rascal’s grin and a pause.  “Yes.  Father likes his Son-In-Law.”  He stood, holding his head high and proud.  “First Wife, have the servants prepare supper while you stand around not looking at them!”  He spoke in the Northern language with an exaggerated Southern accent, except that he borrowed the titles that seemed to replace names from the Southern language.  “Daughter, I must have the pleasure of Son-In-Law’s company while I talk to him and ignore you.  Gwinier, let me give you a tour of my basement full of giant, man-eating spiders.”  Nelgi laughed, sharply.  Mishki gave her kinsman a look of mock reproach.

            Nelgi spoke in the same manner as Gwenr.  “Daughter, why do you not write to us?  Is it that you have assumed the primitive ways of those smelly Northerners? Why have you not kept in touch with the family that sent you away?  Are you distracted by that mighty lance your husband bears, as Nanny suspects?”

            “What she signaled to me was worse then that,” Mishki confided.

Nelgi was practicing walking like a Southern lady in her silk dress, causing Gwenr to collapsed onto the bed and sit with his elbows on his knees, laughing uncontrollably.  Mishki could not stop herself from giggling, which brought on another bout of raucous laughter.  In the silence that followed, someone in the hallway failed to suppress his own snickering and the guests could hear him clearly through the door.  Mishki signaled the others for quiet and snuck up on the door, flinging it open to find a manservant kneeling to peer through the keyhole.  The man looked up in terror.  To cover his own embarrassment, Gwenr rose and assumed the posture of a warrior ready to smite an enemy.  Mishki grabbed the man by the sleeve of his tunic and hauled him into the room before closing the door.

            “A spy at our door!” Gwenr rumbled in the Southern language.   “Mercy, please!” Mishki pleaded, placing herself between Gwenr and the spy.  “You gave your word that you would stop killing men in duels while in my father’s house.”

            Gwenr took his cue while Mishki watched, looking uncertain.  “But he is a wretched spy seeking to dishonor us with gossip!” he protested.

            “He was surely ordered to do this by Father, who is merely exercising the right to observe his own household, as all Southern noblemen do,” Mishki pointed out. “Is that not right, Allestro?”

            “Yes,” Allestro answered, watching Gwenr fearfully. 

            “I am about to exercise my right as a man to avenge an invasion of my quarters by prying eyes!” Gwenr said, taking a step forward.  Allestro drew a knife from his sleeve and tried to back away, pressing himself defensively against the door.  “What will you do with that, man? Pick your teeth?”

            “Fight for my life,” Allestro answered.

            “Our women can overwhelm you,” Gwenr taunted.

            Mishki embraced Gwenr and whispered in his ear.  “I am saving his life by talking you into backing down in return for his obedience,” she instructed.

            “True,” Gwenr said simply, loud enough to be heard.

            Mishki let go and turned.  “I believe you owe us an apology,” she prompted sternly.

            Allestro relaxed.  “I humbly apologize for the offense I committed when I listened in,” he said formally, placing his knife back in the scabbard up his sleeve.

            “Accepted in return for your obedience,” Gwenr rumbled, eyeing the man suspiciously.  “An apology means little if you continue to give offense by repeating our private conversation.”

            “Agreed,” Allestro said, surrendering.

            “Swear to your gods,” Gwenr insisted.  The man swore obedience on the spot and Mishki had him sit on the edge of the oversized bed and talk.  Soon, a deal was worked out.  Allestro was to tell Father that he had overheard a discussion of Senicasto’s plan and the best way to ask him for assistance.  He was not to share any of the ridicule that the Northerners had expressed.  Allestro was grinning with enthusiasm when he left the room and Mishki knew he was pleased with his roll in influencing events.

            The three of them had a good night’s sleep and were brought a breakfast of eggs and fruit in the morning.  After bathing and changing, Mishki had one of the servants request a private diplomatic meeting between Father and Gwenr.  When the manservant returned, he informed Gwenr that Father would meet him in the basic room immediately.  Gwenr followed the man and Mishki, Nelgi and Anrilinja tagged along, carrying their bags. The basic room was a small room with a single window, furnished with a table and several chairs that were uncovered and without padding, unlike most of Father’s furniture.  The walls were thick and the door had no knob or keyhole, only a hinge on the outside and a bolt designed to secure it from the inside. The servant seated Gwenr across the table from Father, as Mishki went to speak to him.

            “Father, may I have coin.  I wish to take my kinswomen to the market while you men discuss matters of importance, but in the North we trade without the use of currency."

            “Certainly, Daughter,” he answered, handing her a pouch.  Gwenr noticed that the pouch had been concealed under his clothing.  “I must assign a contingent of guards to escort you there as well.  You know what the market can be like.”

            As Father turned toward the manservant, Mishki interrupted.  “No need for that,” she insisted.  She reached into her bag and pulled out three sheathed swords, handing one to each of the other women before putting hers on over her complicated silk dress.

            “What would women do with those?” Father asked.

            “Those are women's swords, designed for their use,” Gwenr explained. “Misharika is very quick with a sword, more than a match for any robber or cutthroat your market can provide.”

            “Gods!” Father said with annoyance.  “As you wish, Daughter,” he added as Mishki gave him a dark look.

            After the three women followed the manservant out of the room, Father bolted the door.  He sat back down and leaned forward.  “We will be undisturbed and unheard, here,” he prompted.

            “I am on an important task,” Gwenr began.  “As you may know, our summer hunting ground was plagued by wargs.  My journey began when the wargs suddenly moved away, all at once, and we followed to find an explanation of their unnatural behavior.  Their trail led us to Senicasto’s household and Cousin Anrilinja told all, in return for her extraction.”

            “Senicasto the Poisoner,” Father said with contempt.  “Please, tell me of his latest nefarious scheme.”

            Gwenr smiled.  “Know you of Lanichi the Sorcerer?”

            Father nodded gravely.

            “He summoned the wargs for use as mounts by an army of his Elvin followers. He and Senicasto have formed an alliance.  Senicasto would send his agents among the warriors of Mellisia to raid the trolls and retreat, provoking an attack, while the elves seek to bring the Northern families into submission.”

            “And with a lucrative position for himself in the new order, no doubt!” Father responded.  “Many thanks, Gwinier, for this news.  I have the king’s ear and even if Senicasto’s raiders are not found, a war might be avoided.  I only hope that the trolls can be reasoned with, without the necessity to defend ourselves.”

            “Worry not about that,” Gwenr said with a sly smile.  “As we sailed for your land, I dispatched a kinsman to the trolls to secure their cooperation.”

            Gwenr was surprised by Father’s change in expression.  He was suddenly appreciative, even in awe.  “And your allies can be trusted?” he asked quietly.

            “With our very survival,” Gwenr assured.  “Forget not that I have fought shoulder to shoulder with them, as have my kin.  I anticipate that even as we speak, the troll chiefs are preparing defenses around any target Senicasto may choose for a raid.”

            “I have no doubt that the king will wish to meet with and thank you, when I tell him of this,” Father declared.  “With your permission, I will ask that we send the cavalry to aid the Northern families.  I suppose we shall see which makes the better warsteed, a unicorn or a warg.  The trolls would allow passage, would they not?”
            Gwenr smiled.  “The trolls will take up the heavy lances that only they can throw and join the parade, after having been informed!”

            Father thought for a moment.  “Gwinier, your people know the trolls far better than we do.  Can we of the South trust them as allies?  We would not want to place those who may become our enemies behind us.”

            “As good as a troll is in a fight, no troll-chief wants war.  Any who keep their word and refrain from making threats or giving orders would be unmolested,” Gwenr explained.

            Father’s face dropped and then he wore an embarrassed grin.  “Our last treaty with them ended in a war and my people remember it well.  An alliance with Northern people is welcome, but to make allies of trolls presents a challenge.”

            Gwenr bristled.  “I mean no insult, for I know not the truth.  However, I do know what our troll allies have said.  In making a treaty with you, they expected safe passage into Southern lands for trade purposes.  Troll lands are harsh and trade is something they need for survival.”  Gwenr braced himself.  “They claim it was you who broke the treaty by turning them back.”

            Father smiled and spoke delicately.  “One cannot change the past.  Now, Northerners and trolls are permitted to enter our lands to trade.  I hear that the trolls flourish.  Anyhow, safe passage is all I would ask of them.”

            “Sad that the shores of our homeland lack a place to land a ship, or we could go around the trolls entirely,” Gwenr complained.

            Father nodded.  “Also, our unicorns do not fare well at sea.”

            “I wonder,” Gwenr wore a look of deep concentration.  “Could we send your cavalry to defend our lands and arrange passage for footsoldiers into Elvin territory by sea?  If the cavalry can provoke the wrath of the elves, so that they send away their riders, the defenses around the sacred cave might just be thin.  Trolls are experts at mountain fighting."

            Father laughed.  “And the king’s own merchantships can be used for transport.  However, I know not where ships can land near troll territory.”

            “Land, no.  But there are places along the shore where boats can be launched and taken to larger vessels,” Gwenr surmised. “Would the king favor such a plan?”

            “I shall go to him and propose it,” Father decided.  “First, you should meet him and tell him what is afoot, then I shall propose the plan.  He will certainly assemble his advisors, to decide how to answer the Elvin threat, and I am one of his appointed advisors.”

            “Agreed!” Gwenr responded.

            Father rose and opened the door.  “Fancy a meal?”

            “After a smoke,” Gwenr said politely.  Father and Gwenr moved to the patio, where Father's four wives joined them.  Gwenr noticed that the women were quiet and let Father do the talking and that Mishki’s mother was especially cool toward him.  Soon, the noontime meal was ready and Mishki, Nelgi and Anrilinja had returned from the market with full bags.

            Mishki’s mother went to her immediately.  “A word with you, Daughter,” she said sternly.

            “Yes?” Mishki answered, stepping forward.

            “Is it true that you refused the services of your guard, Celinro, when you went to market?” Mishki nodded.  “He has been insulted by your refusal.  It seems you have completely forgotten your place.”

            Mother obviously expected her to apologize, but she responded to being scolded by holding her head high.  “My place is with my new kinfolk, where women fight next to men, rather than take orders from them!”

            “Think yourself a man, then?  Perhaps Celinro should challenge you to a duel.” 

            As Gwenr and Father watched the exchange, Gwenr stood.  “I would wager that our Mishki is able to humble this Celinro,” he said with pride. 

            Father spoke in a tone of voice that would have been appropriate for quoting the law.  “There will be no duel to the death involving my daughter, not in my own household!”  Mishki’s mother scowled at the floor.

            “To the death, no,” Gwenr agreed.  “What of the sport of fencing?”

            “Fencing is a harmless form of entertainment and victory should satisfy Celinro’s honor.  I hear that my daughter has become quick with a sword and I would be interested in a demonstration.”

            “A fencing woman?” Mishki’s mother snapped.

            Father put his arm around his third wife and spoke to her quietly but firmly. She nodded and hurried into the house. “It is decided, then.  The servants will fetch silkmail for both contestants and Celinro has his broadsword.  We shall see if he is warrior enough to teach my daughter a lesson in manners.”  Gwenr chuckled.

            Before long, Mishki faced Celinro on the patio.  Father’s servants had covered both contestants in silkmail, which consisted of ropes of white spinner-silk as thick as a man’s arm that had been twisted for hardness.  The armor was wound around the wearer’s body so that it covered all but the hands and feet, which were protected by thick gloves and boots.  Gaps between the ropes were open, so that the wearer’s eyes and mouth were uncovered but protected.  Celinro stood ready with a broadsword as long as he was tall and Mishki was armed with her Northern sword.  Each contestant had chosen a second from among the staff and it was the duty of each second to tie a sheath to the opposing contestant’s sword and wrap it in silkmail rope.  Empty, overturned flowerpots had been used to mark boundaries and the duel would begin when a glove was dropped between the two contestants.

            The glove was dropped and Celinro moved with surprising speed, landing a blow with his broadsword that nearly knocked Mishki off her feet as she advanced. He raised the weapon to strike again.

            “Concede!” Mishki yelped, crediting her opponent.  She heard a sharp laugh from her mother.  Celinro stepped back and moved the handle of his broadsword over his head so that the blade was angled downward and forward.  Mishki placed the tip of her sword before her left shoulder and advanced.  Celinro swung fast and high, but Mishki blocked the overconfident smite by parrying upward before surging forward and bringing her sword down on the man’s chest.

            “Concede,” Celinro said in a grumbling tone.  Mishki backed off and soon the two of them were engaged in a rhythmic dance of parrying and then striking.  Mishki took a hard trust to the chest and fell backward while Celinro stood over her with his broadsword raised. 

“Concede!” she said with resentment, prompting him to back away.

            As soon as Mishki was on her feet, the blocking and striking began again, until she delivered a blow to her opponent's hands, forcing him to drop the heavy broadsword.  Mishki moved to stand over the weapon with her sword arm cocked, daring him to come.  He conceded her second point and she went back to her starting position while he picked up his weapon.  Celinro turned his back to her, forcing her to either wait or lose the match by attacking from behind.

            “I will not concede the last point!” he shouted, addressing the audience. “This woman will have to knock me off my feet!”

            He turned, raised his sword and swung.  Mishki parried by knocking the oncoming broadsword downward, but it struck her anyway.  Celinro moved to her left, readying his sword and expecting her to concede, which she did not.  He swung, forcing Mishki to parry hastily, and then aimed a powerful thrust at her belly. Mishki turned sideways, dodging his sword, and then spun her entire body, landing a blow on Celinro’s shoulder that sent him stumbling away.  Knowing that he would not concede, she rushed him.  She was able to move close, as he was against the boundary of flowerpots.  Mishki aimed a thrust and succeeded in poking her opponent just below his breastbone.  His armor protected him, of course, but she did succeed in knocking the wind out of him and forcing him to double over.  Without waiting for a concession, she landed a backhanded swing on the side of his head that sent him sprawling.

            Celinro rolled onto his belly and made a grab for his broadsword, which lay where he had dropped it.  Mishki took the weapon before he could reach it and threw it past the flowerpots.

            “Concede or be humiliated!” Mishki ordered.

            “Concede!” he said, as if the word were a curse.  Mishki helped him to his feet and the two opponents bowed politely to each other while the audience applauded.

            Gwenr congratulated Mishki with pride while Father and his wives rose. Father bowed to his daughter as soon as her attention was on him.

            Mother gave him a sharp look and he looked back.  “A woman who wears a sword and fights duels!” she grumbled.  “Why not have her command troops as well?”

            “Mishki would make a fine commander,” Gwenr pointed out.  Mishki made a show of looking relaxed and amused.

            Mother turned to Mishki.  “A woman who carries a sword is no lady,” she scolded.  Father was about to say something, but Gwenr spoke first. 

            “I should think that a sword on a belt for all to see is more befitting an honest lady than a knife up a sleeve.”

            Mother’s face turned red as she looked away.  Father hid a laugh by pretending to cough.

            Mother shook her head.  “The insults I bear!” she mumbled.

            “If you find me insulting, you could challenge me.  Bring forth my swingaxe!” Gwenr responded, speaking through derisive laughter.

            “You ridicule me in my own home!” said Mother, sounding hurt.

            “No more so than you have ridiculed me and my wives,” Gwenr said coolly.

            Father cleared his throat.  “Perhaps we should all keep respectful tongues in our heads, for the sake of household harmony if for nothing else.”  Gwenr nodded and Mother looked at the ground with a resolute grimace. 

            Gwenr changed the subject by asking for a closer look at the broadsword Celinro had used in the duel.  Father showed him the weapon with pride.  He handed it to Gwenr and it was lighter than it looked although easily as heavy as a swingaxe.  The blade was as wide as a man’s hand is long and as long as the distance from a man’s chin to the ground.  Gwenr explained that Northern swords were much shorter and normally used by women. He had never seen a broadsword up close.  Father pointed out that the counterweights were placed along the blade, two hand spans from the handguard, to make for an easier swing.

“When swung, it is best to pivot the blade by moving ones hands counter to the swing,” Father instructed.  “A more extended swing can hit harder but leaves an opening that an opponent can make use of.  Try it, Gwinier?”

Gwenr stepped into the dueling circle and took several practice swings.  His use of the unfamiliar weapon was awkward at first, but his movement soon showed the grace of a skilled warrior.  He handed the weapon back to Father, who sheathed it and returned it to Celinro.

Later that day, Father invited Gwenr and Mishki up to the roof to discuss eagle taming while he took a closer look at the birds.  The evening was pleasant and Mishki’s mother had ceased her scolding, although her manner was still cool and disapproving.  Father and Gwenr went to see the king the next day while Mishki went sightseeing with Nelgi and Nanny.  The king greeted Gwenr as an equal to his own position, still believing that he was a chief, and listened patiently as Gwenr presented information about the situation and requested a cavalry expedition.  The king took pride in being asked for assistance by the enemy who had once vanquished his forces, but was careful to do so politely.  He said he would call his advisors before making a final decision and offered Gwenr the use of the royal bath.  Gwenr accepted and enjoyed the exotic sensation of soaking in heated water while a pair of musicians preformed for him and serving girls brought him delicacies.  He accepted a snack and smoked his pipe.  One of the girls offered him a different kind of refreshment. When he explained that he was a married man, she gave him the impression that she did not understand why it mattered and told him that it was his privilege to choose any of the servants. In the end, he answered that he would not dishonor his wives and the matter was closed.

            After bathing, Gwenr dressed and waited until Father came to meet him. Father gave him the news as they walked back to the manor.  The king had indeed offered the use of his ships to transport trolls, to place the ships under the command of Chief Eaglekeeper and to send Lady Misharika to guide the cavalry.  Gwenr expressed surprise that the king would trust a former enemy with such a valuable asset.  Father explained that, at sea, the captain of each ship would truly be in charge and that the king saw it as folly to send a Southern officer to command an army of trolls when a Northern chief with an existing relationship with them was available.  Lady Misharika, as a Southerner, would fit in with the cavalry much better than their former enemy as well as being familiar with the area.  Gwenr agreed and complimented the king’s wisdom.  He also asked to bring Nelgi on board with him, to which Father agreed.

            Upon returning to Father’s home, Gwenr told Mishki and Nelgi about the plan. Nelgi grinned as if the war had already been won, causing Mishki to titter with anticipation.

            “General Misharika!” Nelgi exclaimed.  “Should make your mother proud.”

            “She did suggest it,” Mishki answered.  The two women chortled.

            The next morning, Gwenr and Nelgi said their goodbyes and boarded one of a dozen or so royal ships that had been placed at their disposal.  Once they had left, Father explained Mishki’s duties to her, although she knew full well that she was to guide a contingent of volunteer cavalrymen as they arranged safe passage through troll territory and then moved into Northern lands.  What would happen next would depend on the situation.  A royal messenger arrived to announce that the volunteers were ready and Mishki said a formal goodbye to her father and his wives.  She thanked Father, who broke with etiquette and bowed low to his daughter while saying how proud he was of her.  To her surprise, her mother asked her to stay and offered to never scold her daughter again if she would forgo the privilege of risking her delicate life for her Northern kinsmen.  Mishki simply said she knew her duty.  Nanny said nothing, but let her exaggerated weeping speak for her.  As Mishki was just about to leave, Father stopped her in the hallway and privately gave her a gift.  It was a heavy, curved cavalry officer's sword, custom made and decorated with the family insignia that he had, no doubt, been saving to give to one of his sons.  He explained that the weapon was a replacement for the guards he would have sent with her if she needed protection.  She accepted the gift and embraced her father before striding out the door to the town’s main gate.

            When she arrived, Mishki was surprised to see over a hundred volunteers, all mounted on unicorns.  Men and beasts alike were decked out in silkmail armor and armed, the men with cavalry swords and the unicorns with shod horns ending in bladed tips designed to slip easily in and out of the target of a charge.  Mishki had become accustomed to seeing wooly rhinoceroses, the unicorns’ wild cousins, and was struck by the graceful leanness and well-disciplined manner of the domesticated mounts.  The mounted men waited politely as she passed them, making for the front.  A commander waited on his mount, facing his men. The silkmail that covered his chest was painted with a gilded insignia, decorating armor that was otherwise the same uniform white as that of his men.  The man held a second unicorn by the reigns as the animal nodded, causing its long, curved horn to dip up and down.  As he saw Mishki approaching, the commander walked his mount toward her with the second animal in tow.

            The commander gave a nodding bow from the saddle.  “Lady Misharika, I, Colonel Philicano, am at your service, as is this faithful mount.”  She figured that Philicano must be a fine officer to have been placed in command, but the rank of colonel was the best an officer could expect to achieve in peacetime and she speculated that he had volunteered in anticipation of a promotion.

            “Accepted with thanks,” Mishki said warmly as she curtsied.  She placed her bag in one of the animal’s saddlebags and her traveling cloak in the other, opposite bag, walking in front of the animal and affectionately stroking his armored head in the process.  Internally, she reviewed what little she had learned about riding as a child.  She had not ridden a unicorn since then and could only hope not to embarrass herself.  Removing her cloak had revealed that she was dressed Northern style, in a furry leather vest, loincover with leggings attached and sock-boots.  Feigning expertise, she placed her left foot in a stirrup and swung herself onto the unicorn's back.  The animal turned his head and one large eye studied her.  To her relief, the warsteed stood still and waited.

            Philicano rode close beside her.  “The men must now swear,” he pointed out.  “Would ‘protect’ be acceptable?”

            “Given the nature of our mission, ‘obey’ would be more appropriate,” she answered.

            “It is said that you humbled a man in a fencing duel,” the colonel began.

            “News travels fast,” Mishki observed, surprising the colonel with an out-of-turn interruption.

            “I must ask that you not humble my men, so they may carry out the king's errand with pride,” he requested.

            “Obey and protect?” Mishki asked.

            “Attention!” Philicano bellowed.  “All those who would give their loyal assistance to Lady Misharika, raise a hand now!”  He paused as hands went up.  “I, Colonel Philicano, swear on my honor to obey and protect the king’s representative, Lady Misharika, at the expense of my life if necessary, and to be known as a coward if I falter!”  The men repeated the oath, each using his own name.

            Mishki made a decision.  She knew she was usurping the colonel's position, but she was determined to let the soldiers know who was in charge, lady or not.  She gave her mount a tentative squeeze and was surprised as the animal trotted forward.  Barely in control, she steered the warsteed back and forth as if inspecting the men, to cover the fact that she could not stop him from trotting.  Eventually, she succeeded in stopping the animal close to the line of bladed horns and spoke, relieved to hear that her own voice was steady.

            “Know that we ride to the rescue of those who the king did make allies of when he gave his people the gift of peace.  We will fight not only to assist them, but also to cleanse our people's honor of the stain placed upon us by one who disobeys.  All will know that the treacherous shall be undone with a single word from the king we serve!”  She paused as her words were repeated through the ranks.  A squad leader drew his sword and held it over his head.  Then, one by one, all of the men’s’ cavalry sabers were bared and held up to reflect the morning sun.  Behind her, Mishki could hear the colonel's blade whisper out of its scabbard.  Mishki drew the saber Father had given her and returned the gesture.  The colonel was the first to sheath his sword as he rode forth, giving orders.  Soon, Mishki was riding next to the colonel, at the head of a column that followed the same route she had once taken in a carriage.  After a few days of traveling and camping, the cavalry column had made it into the trolls’ mountain home.  Mishki was surprised by what she found.  The trolls were hard at work carving a pass into the natural wall that they had been using as an obstacle to Southerners and had placed broad, makeshift ramps for the cavalry’s use.  As the cavalry approached, the trolls stopped their work and gathered around.  One burly troll-woman approached Mishki and the colonel as they rode ahead.  “Greetings, friends from the South,” she said in halting Southern.

            “Hail and well-met!” Colonel Philicano said with a polite grin.

            “Our chiefs would speak to you, if you have time enough,” she said.  She punctuated the statement by saying something to the gathering trolls in her own language and they rushed to finish placing the ramps.  Mishki asked the colonel to lead the column while she went to see the chiefs, which was fine with him. The meeting was brief and casual. She learned that Gwenr had been by recently and had filled the royal ships with troll volunteers, as well as taking on Westn as a passenger.  The chiefs had also assembled a supply of food.  It was more than she could carry and the column was having success at living off the land as they went, so she took only as much as would fill her saddlebags and thanked the chiefs formally before hurrying to catch up.  Having had some practice, riding had become much easier although she wondered if riding into a fight would be within her abilities. Before long, she had taken her place next to the colonel as the cavalry walked through the mountains and onto the shrivr plain.

            As she entered familiar Northern territory, Mishki was relieved to see that the large animals that lived there moved away from the column, rather than challenging it.  Before long, she saw a Northern family of fifty or so camped on slightly high ground.  She knew something was wrong, as the customary barrier of lances was absent.  A young boy raced out to meet the column on foot and the colonel ordered a halt.

            “Greetings!” Mishki said while instructing her mount to amble forward.

            The boy raised his hands.  “Please! We are unarmed and are able to offer no resistance.  Mercy?”

            “Tell me what has happened here,” Mishki ordered gently.

            “We have little, but we will do as ordered, as we have been vanquished by the warg riders and will be obedient subjects,” the boy babbled fearfully.

            “Fear us not,” Mishki said, trying to reassure the boy.  He looked her over, noticing that she was dressed Northern-style.  “We have come to hunt warg riders and have no quarrel with their unwilling subjects.  Please, tell Mishki what has happened in her absence.”

            The boy came closer.  “You are here to fight the elves?”

            “We are allied with Gwenr Sortnsen,” she said, watching the recognition on the boy’s face.

            “Those damnable warg riders swept over the plains,” the boy answered. “They demanded that we give them tribute and obedience.  Worst of all, they ordered us to disarm and renounce any intention to fight them. They took our weapons, leaving us defenseless before any wild beast that happens along.  It is said that it is the same for all the families.”

            Mishki winced.  “Where can we find them?” she asked concisely.

            “The elves are camped northeast of here,” he said, pointing.

            “We will pause here to rest our mounts, with your family’s permission, and send runners ahead,” Mishki decided.

            “You have my permission,” the boy said with a grin.  “I will tell the chiefs,” he added, running off.  Mishki told the colonel about the conversation and the cavalrymen spread out and dismounted.  Two fast runners were sent ahead to quietly find the elves and the Northerners came out with meat and potatoes for the men and mingled with them.  Mishki spoke with Sirtn, one of the family’s chiefs, who offered to support the Southerners in any way that he could.  The runners returned before long.  They had seen an Elvin encampment protected by a lance-barrier, where elves and wargs alike loafed about and lived off of the tribute brought to them.

            Colonel Philicano held an impromptu meeting with Mishki, the squad commanders and the runners.  “We should hit them hard and fast!” he began. 

            “Not through a lance barrier,” Mishki cautioned him.  “I say surround them and tempt them to come to us.”

            “A Northern tactic?” the colonel asked with distain.

            “Which works,” Mishki added.

            “Impertinent woman,” the colonel scolded.  “But one who speaks the truth.”

            “We could strike and withdraw,” a squad commander suggested.

            Philicano turned to the runner.  “How are the lances secured?”

            “Shafts are set in the ground in the Northern way,” the man answered.  “The barrier appears to be made of lances taken from the Northerners.  Their metal-shod weapons are kept ready for when they ride.”

            Another squad commander spoke up.  “If we ride fast, we could turn their lances inward and trap them with their own defenses.”

            Mishki’s eyes gleamed.  “Clever!” she complimented.

            “Difficult to do if they have bows,” Colonel Philicano pointed out.  “The speed of our mounts would counter such weapons, but turning the lances would have to be done with caution.”

            “We could be on them before they have readied their weapons,” the squad leader answered.

            “Not traveling on this flat land,” Mishki stated.  “Perhaps if we circle at speed and take up the enemy’s lances? We can then charge in our own time.”

            Colonel Philicano sighed.  “If only you were at the siege of Mellisia, the last time we faced such a barrier.”

            “I was witness to it, but no soldier would ask the advice of a girl,” Mishki quipped.

            The colonel changed the subject.  “We may not need to take the time to remove the lances.  Would a saber stroke at speed not knock a lance aside?” 

            “Yes,” said a squad leader in a tone of revelation.  “In formation, each rider could strike once and turn.” 

            “Brief and assemble your men,” The colonel ordered, addressing all squad leaders. Before long, the cavalry was assembled in two long lines, with Colonel Philicano leading one and Mishki leading the other.  The colonel raised one hand and his row walked.  Mishki gave her unicorn a gentle squeeze and was on the move, with her row following. Once in sight of the Elvin camp, the colonel urged his mount to gallop, leading his men toward the barrier to the right, with his saber in his left hand.  Mishki pushed her knees together with all of her strength and her unicorn gave a grunt of protest and stopped.  She tried again while leaning forward and the steed surged into a galloping gait so suddenly that Mishki nearly fell backward.  She let go of the reigns and held the saddle, so she would not accidentally tug on them and stop the animal again.  The beast lowered his head as if seeking a target for his horn and made for the barrier, about to impale himself on one of the lances.  Mishki fumbled with the reigns and managed to signal a turn just in time.  She whipped out the saber on her back while her unicorn narrowly avoided the lance-points.  She swung and her sword impacted hard with the combined speed of her mount and her sword arm, knocking three lances aside before it was torn from her grasp to spin away.  She turned hard to lead her column outward.  Behind her, she heard the jagged drumbeat of sabers on lances as the soldiers followed her lead.

            Inside the camp, elves had untied their wargs, mounted them and readied their lances.  In a scramble, the riders came through the lance barrier with ease, as the lances were set facing outward. Meanwhile, several elves armed with bows stood and shot as rapidly as they could.  The first Elvin rider to meet the cavalry was struck down.  A unicorn rider had turned as he approached and impacted with force, instructing his mount to drive his horn deep into the enemy warg’s side.  The unicorn swung his curved horn with a scooping motion, lifting the creature and tossing it onto the lances behind it, killing warg and rider instantly.  After the impact, the rider was unable to steer away from the lances and, in spite of so many having been knocked aside, rode into the barrier.  His own mount gave a bleating cry of pain as a lance-head drove through his belly and out his hindquarters.  The set lance halted the animal and his rider fell into the camp.  A warg was on top of him immediately.  The creature’s rider instructed it to apply its fangs and finish the unfortunate cavalryman.

            As she sped away, Mishki hastily rummaged in her bags and found the Northern sword she had worn while traveling.  She drew it and turned her unicorn.  Behind her, her column followed at speed with warg riders bearing lances at the ready in pursuit.  Inadvertently, she led the soldiers into a turn, so that they did an about face and charged the warg riders as one.  Many of her men cried out as oncoming riders struck them down using their metal-shod lances.  Mishki nearly wept.  Following her, they had turned into the enemy charge, rather than keeping the advantage of being chased.  However, the Elvin riders were outnumbered and all were downed by horn and saber as the cavalry column moved as one, swallowing their formation.  One warg rider was headed for Mishki, charging.  She turned in a panic and thrusted with her sword while narrowly avoiding the lance-head meant for her.  Surprising herself, she plunged her narrow blade between the silkmail cords that protected her attacker’s chest and the force of his own charge sent the sword through him, leaving her hand inside the elf’s flesh.  She grasped her sword by the blade with her free hand and yanked her other hand out of the enemy corpse.  Disgustingly, the warg that the dead elf had been riding turned, pounced and devoured the body, armor and all.

            The colonel’s column had made a gap in the lance-barrier and ridden through the enemy encampment, taking it with ease.  Mishki slowed her mount to a walk and ordered her men to tend the wounded. She then gathered a small contingent of men to help her remove the lance barrier from inside.  The colonel approached her.

            “A fine red dress my lady wears,” he gloated.  Mishki looked at the skins she was wearing, which were now decorated with elf blood, and became painfully aware of the smell.  She felt her stomach tighten and breathed deep, hoping desperately not to be sick for all to see.

            Mishki pulled herself together and it had not escaped her attention that the colonel had addressed her as his lady, in a manner appropriate for addressing one’s commander.  She sat up straight and took a deep breath before answering.

            “Excellent work, Colonel,” she praised, looking in the direction of what had been the Elvin camp.  “Casualties?”

            “Few,” he said with pride.  “We have numbers on our side.  Most casualties are punctures from those thin-headed arrows.  At home, such a wound would be minor but here, with treatment far away, I have to wonder."

            “You forget why we are here, Colonel,” Mishki corrected.  “I speak Northern, so it is for me to request care for our fallen.” She looked away, over the flat land around her.  “I will find help.  Have the men cremate the enemy and burn their camp.  When there are only ashes, spread them over the soil.  I want no sign to remain.”

            “Yes, My lady,” the colonel answered, taking her orders as he would a general’s.

            Mishki turned her mount and headed toward an area that she knew would make a nice camp for a Northern family while covering herself with her cloak.  Before long, she did find a camp and, fortunately, it belonged to a family that she knew.  After a brief gathering, they agreed to provide food and care for the wounded cavalrymen.  A crowd of volunteers followed Mishki back to where the cavalry was stationed.  They were easy to find, as a cloud of smoke had formed while the cavalry followed her orders.  The Northerners knew where the elves were camped.  Two more camps had been set up, to the north and west, and several Northern families to the east had joined together to fight.  The opinion was that their chances of beating the elves and their warg steeds were slim without warbeasts of their own.  One volunteer spoke of the warg’s surprising ability to leap over a lance barrier and enter camp unharmed and fully armed.  The tactic had been devastating, allowing the elves to sweep through the land.

            After a brief meeting with the colonel, it was decided that they would split their forces in two, in order to remove the other two camps, and that the cavalry should ride hard so that the attackers could outrace word of their coming. The Northerners offered to help, but the colonel explained that they had to move fast and footsoldiers would be left behind.  Mishki addressed the volunteers and asked that they prepare defenses in anticipation of the elves’ return. Also, she quietly made funeral arrangements for the fallen cavalry.  She knew that the dead would be cremated and the unicorns slaughtered for food, but she was relieved that the Northern allies kept the specifics to themselves.

            As the cavalry prepared to depart, a soldier found Mishki and presented her with a saber.  It was the weapon that her father had given her, which the soldier had found and recognized by the family insignia etched onto the hilt.  She thanked him and was surprised to see that he bowed in the manner a soldier does when addressing a commander.  No one among the cavalry had said anything, but she could see by the way they acted that she was no longer viewed as a civilian to be protected, but as a leader.

            Mishki’s cavalry reached the next Elvin camp as quickly as they could without tiring their mounts.  The enemy was obviously not expecting them and she led the cavalry around the camp at speed.  She had a much easier time controlling her mount and the cavalrymen concentrated on the area where Mishki had ridden in and taken her first swing at the standing lances.  A hole was opened quickly so that several squads in the rear were able to ride through the camp.  Their steeds tossed aside enemies as they went.  There were few wounded and Mishki ordered the camp to be burned, except for any intact lances, which were neatly stacked and waiting to be claimed.  She left one squad with the wounded, who would send riders to find Northern families, and moved on in the direction of Elvin lands.

            Word spread of the cavalry's accomplishments and the warg riders either retreated or were overwhelmed by one of the two cavalry columns or by Northerners who were no longer deterred by the threat of a counter-attack in response to an uprising.  Before long, Mishki found the colonel and the two of them led the cavalry to the edge of the elves’ mountains.  The Southern cavalry was met by a troop of troll footsoldiers.  Mishki ordered her men to dismount and wait.  She knew she could trust her people to get along with the trolls, but she did not want them to enter the forest provocatively. 

            Mishki made for the beach-village where she had last seen Senicasto. Before long, she was reunited with Gwenr, Nelgi and Westn.  The three of them had pitched their traveling tents near the beach and rose when they heard the voice of their kinswoman.

            “Is this my wife?” Westn exclaimed playfully.  He pulled her off of her faithful mount, held her and gave her an enthusiastic kiss.

            Gwenr waited until they were ready to talk.  “There are rumors from our homeland,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. “It is said that the elves have been driven out by a frighteningly effective troop of Southern cavalry.”

            “So it is said,” Mishki answered.  “A troop of cavalrymen waits at the edge of the forest.  They are wondering if their assistance is needed.”

            Gwenr and Nelgi chuckled and Westn favored his wife with a sly grin.  “Work here is done.  Those brave troops may consider themselves on leave and loaf on the beach with cups of ale,” Gwenr declared.  He raised his voice in mock self-importance.  “So says Chief Eaglekeeper!”

            “And Lady Misharika does concur,” Mishki answered.  Being reunited with her companions made her feel like herself again.

            Before long, the four travelers went to the sailors’ tavern.  The establishment had been commandeered by the trolls, who were now in charge, and was being used by their chiefs as a meeting hall.  After an exchange of news over a meal and ale, a messenger was sent to let the cavalry know that they should consider themselves to be on leave and invite them into town.  Mishki found out that the trolls had routed Lanichi’s elves and that a shaman-chief had used his own talent to bind the upstart sorcerer, forcing the old elf to give up the sorcery that had caused so much trouble.  Once that had been accomplished and the cave had been captured, the Elvin tribes that had been loyal to him had asked for terms.  As the trolls had little interest in acquiring territory so far away from their home, the choice territory that had been ruled by Lanichi was given to those Elvin tribes that his forces had vanquished and the less desirable areas were given to the sorcerer's former servants.  The surviving wargs had been driven off, although most were killed because of their tendency to attack rather than flee.  Senicasto’s home had been found to be empty with no clue as to his whereabouts.

            Mishki also entertained the chiefs and their mixed audience of trolls, sailors and newly arrived cavalrymen by telling the story of her victory against the elves.  The meeting became a celebration and lasted well into the night, before Mishki and Westn were given a hut to sleep in.  The next day, Mishki was invited to see Lanichi’s cave.  Westn told her that he, Nelgi and Gwenr had seen it and had no urge to see it again, as its interior was an uncomfortable place.

            Colonel Philicano found Mishki and offered to go with her, as he wanted to see the famous cave, too.  Seeing him on foot and without his armor, Mishki was surprised that the man was not larger.  Although he was slightly taller than her, he was shorter than most men and slim, with intense black eyes and a clean-shaven brown face and head.  He was dressed in a simple gray tunic with no insignia of rank.  The two of them climbed the steps that had been carved into a fairly steep mountain slope and came to a landing in front of a simple-looking hole at the base of a moderately sized cliff.  Two barrel-chested trolls guarded the entrance.

            “Lady Misharika and Colonel Philicano,” said the guard on the left, a heavy troll woman with long, yellow hair.  The colonel bowed politely and Mishki said “greetings” in the troll language, using one of the few words she knew.

            “May we go in?” Mishki asked.

            The troll glanced at the other guard before responding.  “Certainly,” she answered.  “Be cautious of reading the carved symbols as some of them are written in dream language.  If you are in there for too long, we will find and awaken you.”

            Mishki entered and waited a moment for her eyes to adjust.  Light from the entrance was enhanced by the strangely reflective floor, filling the place with a gentle light like that of an overcast dawn.  The walls were thick with cryptic symbols and drawings carved into the rock and painted with bright colors.  They seemed to almost glow in the dim light.  Mishki felt a tap on her arm.

            “My Lady, what is dream language?” the colonel asked in a hushed tone.

            “I wish I knew,” Mishki answered.  She could see by his expression that he was feeling as unnerved as she was. She looked at the carvings, attempting to make sense of them.  Since the colors faded over time, it was obvious which carvings were new and an image of a warg between two abstract symbols drew her attention.  As she looked, one of the symbols, a set of interlaced squares of different colors, seemed to shift.  One square and then another appeared to be on top.  Mishki suddenly realized that she was in the dark and that the symbol was the only thing she could see.

            “Lady!”  Philicano had given her a rough poke in the ribs, concerned.  Mishki blinked several times and could see again in the dim light.  She saw Philicano eyeing the symbol suspiciously and then he was standing unmoving and staring.  Mishki slapped him on the shoulder and he jumped.

            “Strange,” she said simply.  Philicano looked back blankly. 

            Careful not to look at any one image for too long, Mishki perused the set of new carvings.  The drawings, at least, seemed to make sense and were not all that different from Southern writing. “Wargs lured here from outside by meat?” she guessed out loud.

            “Perhaps,” Philicano answered.  Mishki looked around and saw stuffed animals, some familiar and some unknown. She was in a large, open space lit by oddly white light and surrounded by several raised stages, each decorated with a set of the sort found in a theater in which stuffed animals had been posed.  A stuffed warg looked back at her with his head down and teeth showing.  The beast’s fur was wrong, being more like that of a deer fawn than the tawny color of the wargs she had seen.  There was a metallic plaque below it, decorated with strangely angular and unrepresentive symbols.  “Hyenadon?” she heard herself say.  The nonsensical word surprised her and she blinked, trying hard to rouse herself. Everything was suddenly black and windy and she had a bizarre hunch that time and space were shifting around her. Jarringly, she found herself standing in a sunny place where a rocky cliff met the ground, which sloped away downward.  The slope overlooked a landscape where she could see packs of wargs hunting other giant beasts.  She slapped herself on the cheek and nearly panicked when she did not wake up.  When she went to lean on the cliff, her hand passed through solid rock as though it was no more than a shadow and she stumbled into the cave, having lost her balance.  Lanichi was there with several other elves and an untamed warg in a net.  The sorcerer dangled a set of colored beads in front of the beast and hummed, calming it into a submissive state.

            Mishki awoke with a start as she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder.  She and Philicano had been standing side-by-side, motionless, staring at the carvings when the yellow-haired guard had put a hand on each of their shoulders.

            “Eyes down,” the troll-woman said gently, making the order sound like a suggestion.  “You were warned,” she pointed out as she led the two humans out of the cave. 

            At the entrance, Mishki thanked her with enthusiasm.  The troll-woman shrugged and the other guard chuckled.  “Happens to us all,” he rumbled.

            One look at the colonel told her that the soldier was deeply shaken. Mishki told him what she had seen in order to start a conversation that would satisfy her curiosity. 

            “I also saw stuffed corpses,” he told her.

            “Truly?” she pushed.

            “I saw a goblin, an elf, a troll and then a man arranged in a line, with one of those metal plaques naming it a tree belonging to a man’s family.  I had some strange premonition that I was in the ancient land told of in children’s tales and everyone other than humans was long dead.” Philicano’s eyes had taken on a crazy, shocked look.

            “In the North, we call that place Tyrn,” Mishki observed.  “We have a tale that our ancestors came to Aveiron through a cave.  Perhaps the same cave, I know not.  Also, it is said that Lanichi had the same premonition you did.  Dream-language.”

            “That would explain…” Philicano’s voice trailed off.

            “Yes,” Mishki said.  “I would not want to find out what the world would be like with just us.”

            Philicano pulled himself together.  “I would not mind the absence of those furry goblins,” he said, looking playful.

            Mishki snorted.

            Philicano change the subject and started a conversation by asking about the Northern sword Mishki was wearing.  They chatted about anything other than what they had seen in the cave.  They parted ways when they reached the beach, as Philicano joined his men and Mishki found her husband, who was with Gwenr and Nelgi. The soldiers were still enjoying leave and gifts of gratitude from those among the elves who had become their allies as the four Northerners prepared to depart on foot.  After Mishki had found as many of them as she could, expressed her gratitude and said her goodbyes, the four travelers made their way home.  They found their family’s camp in a familiar spot and Mishki resumed her simple, happy life with them.  Travel had been quick and easy, in the absence of wargs and the need to avoid them.



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