It has been raining for several days now. It rains often on the coasts of the Sorrows. In the town, the streets are slow flowing rivers of mud, through which a pack of children play by the fading daylight. Splashing mud and water at each other, shouting and laughing as they make their way towards the docks. The girl at the head of the pack, muddier and most thoroughly soaked of them all, turns to laugh at a boy behind her who has tripped and landed face first in the mud. She does not see the innkeeper rounding the corner in time to dodge. She runs headlong into the woman’s legs, leaving a child shaped splash of muck on the innkeeper’s apron, and knocking herself back into the flooded street.
“Child!” the innkeeper exclaims, “What has gotten into you?” She pulls the child out of the street and produces a rag to clean the girl’s face. “You got eyes in that skull, yes? You ought to be using them.”
“I’m sorry, miss Ren,” the girl says hastily.
The innkeeper’s face goes pale in an instant, and her eyes go wide. The girl has seen grown-ups make faces like this before, but usually after she has said a dirty word. She is confused, because she doesn’t think she’s said a dirty word. She’s sure she heard the storyteller call the innkeeper Ren.
The innkeeper’s face relaxes.
“Been listening to the great green blabbermouth again, I suppose,” the innkeeper sighs as she resumes cleaning the girl off, “Nobody here calls me Ren, child. My name is Delilah. You understand?”
“Sorry, miss Delilah,” the girl says still confused. She fidgets under the innkeepers attentions for another minute before the woman lets her go. She rushes around the inn to enter the common room, where her friends (all still muddied and wet) are already gathered about the fireplace, waiting for the story to begin. The old grenz smiles to her as she enters and leans forward in his seat as she takes her seat by the fire.
Where was I?
Ayla was on her way to Oakfast, the hold of the wizard Valdora.
Rarely had those outside the wizard’s own household laid eyes upon the fortress, built beneath the boughs of the great tree, Father Oak (whose kin, Father Ash, Ayla had met in the Wandering Wood). The stones had been laid in ancient days, when the lands of the South had united in war upon the Witch-Haven. Its high, thick walls had over the centuries become overgrown with flowers and ivy. Those towers which had not crumbled were topped with complex instruments for observing the stars.
Ayla was taken into the castle, still in great pain, where the wizard’s servants took her, and the goblin Pek, to tend their wounds.
As they did, the wizard listened to Ayla’s story. She told him of her adventures, and how she had tried to cross the land of Xeph. She told him of her misfortune there, of how she had lost her friend, the raven, and of her troubles in crossing the Haven.
The wizard heard her story, and as wizards are often capable of doing, he could tell when all creatures were telling the truth. Valdora was known as the Great and Terrible, but he was far from heartless, and he felt pity for the lost girl.
He resolved to care for the girl, to shelter her here, within the walls of Oakfast.
Ayla did not care for this at all. She had not given up hope that she might cross the Haven, to reach the land of New Xeph and the sea. That she might find passage North, and return to the her mother Aster, in the Land of Genn.
She pleaded with the wizard to let her go, to let her leave Oakfast once her wounds were healed, and attempt to finish her journey.
The wizard would have none of it. The Haven was no place for a child, much less a little girl. No, he was adamant, he would not let her leave. She would remain in Oakfast, under his protection, until she came of age. He would not treat her unkindly, he assured, and he would even instruct her in the mystic arts.
Ayla was furious, and attempted to escape Oakfast that very night. She falled.
Though each night Ayla would attempt to escape, each day the wizard would attempt to teach Ayla the precepts of magic. Ayla had no head for magic, even if she had been inclined to heed the instruction of her captor. For that was what he was, even if a well intentioned one. She spent most of her time in which she was meant to be studying in the castles forges, pestering the smith. For his part, the smith of Oakfast did not mind, for the wizard rarely called upon his services, and he enjoyed showing the young girl his trade. Where Ayla had no natural interest in mysticism, the forging of metal intrigued her, and she endeavoured to learn much from the smith.
During this time, Pek, the goblin guide, had confessed to Ayla his part in the terrible night in which the Black Blade, Gaska, had given her that second grievous wound. He confessed that no master or mistress had treated him so kindly as Ayla. Even the Witch of the River, who had gifted Pek to Ayla, had been a harsh mistress in truth. He wished no harm to Ayla, and begged her forgiveness.
Ayla had not hesitated in forgiving him.
Days passed into weeks, and the weeks passed into months, and still Ayla tried to escape.
Ayla was the best at hiding, at least in her village, but none could hide from Valdora within his fortress. She sent Pek to search for a method of escape beyond the wizard’s sight, but even the goblin could not find a path to take. She had even attempted to attack the wizard, not meaning to bring him real harm, but to force her way past him. Each time the wizard had turned her back through his mastery of magic. Each time he would tell her that he thought only for her safety.
Ayla never stopped trying to escape, for it was not in her nature to give up, but she was disheartened by these failures.
The smith of Oakfast, who had been teaching her the secrets of metalcraft, counseled her to speak with Father Oak, who rose high above even the castle’s highest towers. For none bound to the wizard’s service could go against the will of their lord and help her escape. Father Oak was older than the wizard, older than Oakfast, even older than the Witch-Haven itself.
And so Ayla went to the great tree, and sat among the massive gnarled roots, calling up to Father Oak.
Father Oak’s trunk creaked and the winds rustled his leaves. With a voice like the snapping of strong timber he called back, “Is that Ayla I see down by my roots?”
“Yes, Father Oak. I have come to ask your help,” Ayla pleaded to the ancient tree, “I am a prisoner here.”
“Hrmmmph. So I see. But you are child, and far from home. Hrrrmmmgph,” the tree groaned, “I fear the wizard does more good to keep you here.”
“I would rather have been wounded and free, than be safe and locked away. I miss my home. My village in the land of Genn. I miss my Mother, Aster, whom I love,” Ayla’s eyes welled with tears at the thought of never laying eyes upon her home or mother again, “Am I to remain this wizard’s poppet until I grow old, or he tires of me?”
“Grmmph,” said the stubborn tree, “I am not as easily swayed as my brother, Ash. You expect me to bend to the wishes of a child, when your leave of this place would likely bring you harm? Hrrmmg”
“I expect nothing from you!” Ayla shouted. She stood and stamped her foot at the titanic tree. “You fear for me, and that is kind, but whether it is my place to say this I shall say it regardless: you are a coward! You and the wizard! You would rather lock me away than even let me try for my home. Instead you have decided that it is best to give up entirely. That is cowardice even if it is well meant! I will tell you as I told the raven, Father Ash, the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood, the knights of Teag, and all who would stand in my path and say “go back”: I will not be turned away! I will go on! Even if the wizard seeks to keep me locked within his hold until the very end of my days. Even when my strength is faded with age and I can no longer lift the Green Hammer, I will keep on, and I will escape. I swear it.”
And her words cowed the great tree. He saw that there was some truth in her accusations, and he saw that she would truly never willing remain in Oakfast.
The great tree wept a single amber tear.
It fell to the ground before Ayla, and Father Oak spoke to her one last time.
“Hrrmmph, I am still of the mind that here is the best place for you, do not think I am not. But as you must leave, Grmmm, take this tear to the smith. Work it yourself in his forge. Fashion it with your own hands into a totem, and it will carry my protection with you.”
Ayla thanked the great tree, and left without another word.
She took the tear of Father Oak to the smith, and though the material was alien to him, he found that it was easily worked, and he instructed her in the fashioning of. Ayla chose to mold it in a simple breast plate which, as it cooled, became the color and texture of ancient, worn bronze.
When at last it was complete. Ayla gathered her hammer and cloak, provisions from the kitchens, and carried off into the night, with Pek the goblin in her pocket.
The wizard was aware at once, as he always was, and appeared in Ayla’s path in a crash of thunder and lightning.
“Return at once to your rooms, child,” the wizard demanded, as he always did.
“I will not,” replied Ayla, as she too, always had.
The wizard raised his hand, waved it in a flippant gesture, as he had often done to magic Ayla back to her rooms in the castle. But tonight was different. His magic could not hold her, and Ayla was sent nowhere.
The wizard scowled, raised both hands and growled an arcane word to send Ayla back. Again his spell washed over her, accomplishing nothing.
The wizard growled again, and his staff of power appeared in his hands. He held it high, calling upon all his power, and demanded will all his mystic might that Ayla return to Oakfast.
But all the power of the world could not have done so. For though the wizard Valdora held the castle in name, in truth Oakfast is and always has been the domain of Father Oak. And Ayla wore armor from the tree’s own amber.
And so Ayla walked past the wizard, whom so many called the Great and Terrible, as he stood speechlessly staring, and she left Oakfast.
The old grenz eases back into his chair, and raises a hand to the innkeeper, who rolls her eyes. He intends to tell more of the story tonight, but first he will require wine.
A young lad takes this pause to ask a question.
“What ever happened to the wizard?”
“Oh, He has his own stories,” the old one says, “Some before and some after he met Ayla. Wizards do tend to get around in their lifetimes. Not like witches. Witches settle down somewhere and mostly keep to themselves. Wizards are always wondering about. Causing trouble.”
“Did he ever meet Ayla again?” another child asks.
“Oh no no no…” the grenz shakes his head quickly, “Shame would keep him from ever crossing paths again with the Green Hammer.”
The innkeeper sets the cup of wine on the table next to the grenz without a word, and the old one takes his drink, soothing his tired voice.
“So where did Ayla go next?” asks the girl who arrived last.