The old grenz in the corner of the inn stretches his legs out in front of him and leans back in his chair. He takes a sip of his mulled wine, pauses, tilts his head as if listening to the pop and crack of the log on the fire. Finally, he sets down his cup, leans forward, and clears his throat.
How shall I begin?
Shall we start by saying “once upon a time?” Stories such as these often begin that way, but no. Not this one. That is far too vague. If I started this story like that, or something else like “Long ago and far away” you will think the story is not true. That the old man is making things up again. That won’t do. No sir, not at all. I will be as specific as possible, for this is a true story.
Sixty-two years, 7 months, and….5 days ago I think, there was a village in the land of Genn. In this village lived Ayla, the daughter of Aster. Aster did not give birth to Ayla, but in their village it was known: Aster is Ayla’s mother, and there was truth in that.
At the time, Genn was known as the land set between the Sea of Sorrows and Wandering Wood. But, as is it’s nature, the Wood began wandering. This time it wandered towards the sea. It wandered all the way up to the village where Ayla and her mother lived, and the villagers were afraid.
“What shall we do!?” they cried. “The wood will wander over our fields and farms! It will tear up our streets and crush our houses, and we will be left with nothing!”
The Lord of the village knew his people could not stay in the way of the Wandering Wood. The Wood went where it pleased, and no one had ever turned it aside. Great Kings and Empires had tried to corral the Wood, but all had failed. Many a brave champion had sought the Wyrd at the heart of the Wood, to plead him or force him to turn the Wood away, and none had ever returned. Though it grieved him to leave, for the Lord of the village was himself a man of the land, he ordered that all the people of the village pack up as much as they could carry, and they would leave to find a new home. Though it grieved them all as well, the people of the village did as their Lord bid them. All except Ayla the daughter of Aster.
“I will not leave,” she said, “What right does the forest have to tell us to leave. This is where we live, it should go somewhere else.”
The people of the village laughed, for Ayla was but a child, and children are expected not to understand such things.
“Ayla, the Wandering Wood goes where it may.” said the Lord of the village, “No one can turn it aside or command it save the Wyrd at the heart of the Wood, and none who’ve gone in search of him have ever returned.”
Ayla nodded, “Well I’m going to find this Wyrd and tell him to leave us alone.”
She said it so matter-of-factly, that the villagers almost took her seriously. But then they laughed and said to eachother, “The little girl thinks she is a brave knight or a champion. Is that not cute? Is that not adorable? That a little girl might succeed where grown men have failed.”
Even the Lord of the village, who was a friend to Aster and Ayla, stiffled a chuckle.
Ayla simply stuck out her jaw and stormed away. She went to the house of Aster, and while her mother was busy collecting the things they would need for the long journey away from the Wood, Ayla prepared for her journey into it. She took her sturdiest traveling boots, a cloak made of oiled cloth to keep her dry, a satchel she filled with oat cakes, cheese and some pork, and her mother’s best knife.
Ayla was the best at the game of hiding, and so that evening, while the villagers were preparing to leave, she made her way without being seen to the edge of the village and into the Wandering Wood.
Ayla traveled the whole night, heading deeper and deeper into the Wood. The Wandering Wood was not meant to be traveled by mortal feet though, and as Ayla went further and further, she became more and more lost. For hours Ayla walked, not knowing where she was going or how to get back, only hoping that she might eventually find the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood.
“What are you doing?” came a voice from the trees. Ayla looked up to see a sleek black bird perched upon the branches above her. “What are you doing?” it repeated.
“I’m looking for the Wyrd of the Wood,” She replied.
“You are far from there. And no mortal man who has ever reached him has lived to tell of it,” the bird croaked.
“Then show me the way, good raven,” Ayla implored, “The Woods shall wander over my home unless I find him.”
“Even if I showed you the way, you have no way to convince or compel the Wyrd to turn the Wood aside,” the raven said piteously, “Better to go, find a new home. I can show you the way out of the forest.”
“No. I must stop it. I will not abandon the village where I was raised, the village of Aster who took me in as her own daughter. I cannot let it be trampled by the Wood.”
“You will not be turned aside?”
“No more easily than the Woods,” Ayla said defiantly.
“Then I will show you a path through the woods,” the raven croaked and flew down to land on Ayla’s shoulder.
“To the Wyrd?” Ayla asked.
“No. To one who might know how to turn the Wood aside.” And so the raven lead Ayla through the woods, over hills and through valleys, until they came to a great tree, so tall that it seemed to pierce the clouds. This tree was Father Ash, an ancient and proud tree, who had seen the Woods before they wandered. Ayla stood before the tree, straining to see the top, and asked the raven, “Does Father Ash know how to stop the Wood?”
“Father Ash does not. But there is a wizard who sought to make a wand of Father Ash’s limbs. Father Ash trapped him inside his trunk. Foolish, but he does have much arcane knowledge. If anyone can tell you how to compel the Wyrd, it will be the wizard.”
Ayla nodded, and walked up to the giant ash.
“Father Ash,” She cried.
The tree groaned and creaked, and said, “Is that Ayla I see down by my roots?” It was not surprising that the tree knew Ayla’s name, for the truly ancient know most things.
“Yes Father Ash, I come to speak to the wizard who is your prisoner,” said Ayla.
“Hmmf,” said the old tree, “That young upstart? I will not allow it.”
Ayla pleaded, “I beg of you Father Ash. Raven says that he might know how to turn the Wood aside.”
“Turn the Wood aside!? Hrmmf. Not possible. Only the Wyrd can tell us where we may and may not go.”
“Could you tell the Wyrd to take the Wood elsewhere, Father Ash?” Ayla asked.
“No. The Wyrd will not listen to me.”
“Then I must speak to him, please Father Ash.” Ayla cried out. Her eyes were filled with tears, but Ayla the daughter of Aster stood tall. Father Ash saw that she would not be turned away. And so he groaned, and opened his roots, releasing the wizard from his prison.
“Thank you for saving me,” the young wizard said, “What can I offer you to repay you for my freedom?”
Ayla helped the young wizard to his feet, and it was then that the wizard realized that his savior was a girl of no more than 10 winters.
“I seek a way to turn the Wood aside, and to save my village,” Ayla declared.
The wizard looked down with sad eyes, “Little girl I am sorry, but the Wyrd will not be as easily swayed as Father Ash. The Wyrd goes where he wills and pays no heed to mortal words. Not from kings or emperors or even great wizards. He is not likely to be turned aside by a young girl. You should have the raven take you home.”
“No!” Ayla shouted, “I’ve had enough of people telling me to turn back. The Lord of my village, the raven, Father Ash, and now you. You say you owe me your freedom, then I demand you help me. Tell me how to compel the Wyrd.”
The wizard was taken aback. It is not often that a wizard is shouted down by a little girl. He stared at Ayla long and through his Art, looked deep into her. Though he said nothing at the time, it is said by some that he saw great waves crashing against the shore, where they were broken and the shore remained unchanged. The young wizard nodded.
He said nothing, but reached into his robes, where he pulled out a war hammer. Not an ornate gilded and jeweled war hammer like that of a lord or knight, a simple war hammer for a common soldier. He handed it to Ayla, and clapped his hands, and the wind came to carry him away.
“Go now into the heart of the Wandering Wood, young lady. The raven will show you the way. Good luck to you,” he called as the wind took him above the trees and out of the forest.
And so the raven led Ayla to the heart of the Wood, begging her one last time to let him lead her home instead, but as always Ayla refused.
They walked and walked, until they came to a dark and murky glen, where the Wyrd was holding his court that wandered like the forest. The Wyrd felt the approach of one who would compel him, and called out into the forest.
“Come forth, mortal champion! I am the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood, and I bow to no man or beast of this earth! Step forward into the light, and I will face you in combat. If you defeat me, then the Wood shall wander where you demand. But know this: all who have attempted to do so, have died.” The boast was not idle. The Wyrd held aloft a sword carved wholly of ironwood, sharpened and tempered by deep magic, and stained with the blood of thousands who had sought to turn the Wood aside. The court of the Wyrd of the Wood parted to make way for the approaching challenger, and they readied themselves to watch the fight. Many of the forest folk began to place bets on how long this latest challenger might last.
Ayla stepped out into the clearing of the court.
There was a pause.
Then the Wyrd began laughing.
His laugh was not a quiet chortle or a stifled chuckle, it was the full hearty laugh of a man who has lost control of himself. He laughed at the little girl of 10, dressed like some character from a tall tale, carrying a hammer to large for her, with a raven perched upon her shoulder. The court laughed with him. This was the champion who thought to compel the Wyrd of the Wandering Wood? What a lark. What a right and proper lark.
The Wyrd and his courtiers laughed so hard, they did not notice that Ayla was walking across the clearing. They did not notice her raise her hammer. They only noticed when she brought the hammer down on the Wyrd’s head. She struck him so hard that he dropped his ironwood sword. The Wyrd cried out in pain, and Ayla struck him again. The court gasped and stood in shock as the Ayla the daughter of Aster struck the Wyrd again and again with her hammer. She struck him until he was driven into the ground like a nail into wood, and the Wyrd finally cried out, “Enough! Enough, mortal! I yield the fight to you. The Wood shall Wander as you compel it.”
“It will wander back to the land it was in before the latest wandering, and there it shall stay, until I say otherwise,” Ayla demanded, “And along the way, you will stop at every village the Wood wandered over and apologize to the people whose homes you ruined. Or I shall return and strike you again.”
The Wyrd agreed, and with head hung in shame, he turned the Wood aside and began the wandering back to the lands it had left. The court of the Wyrd dispersed, not wishing to invoke the anger of their liege who’d been defeated. All left in shocked silence, save one mischievous forest folk who had bet on the mortal champion.
Ayla was led home by the raven, where the village welcomed her back with cheers. All except Aster, who demanded the return of her best knife, which had been taken, and immediately sent Ayla to her room for running off without a word. But Aster, the mother of Ayla, took the hammer of Ayla, stained forever green by the heartsblood of the Wyrd, and displayed it proudly above the hearth of their home. And all in the land of Genn were told that Ayla Green-Hammer had defeated the Wyrd of the wood that would wander no more.
The old grenz sets down his empty cup, and nods. Done with his story and his drink. The small group who sat and listened begins to leave. Some return to their own tables, some to their rooms, some leave the inn entirely. All except a little girl who sits on the floor by the fire. She sits there looking at the old green-skin as the barkeep brings him a new cup of wine.
“The story is over little one,” the grenz says, “I’m too tired to tell another one tonight.”
“Did all that really happen mister?” she asks him, “With the talking raven and the wizard and the Wyrd getting beaten by Ayla?”
“It most certainly did,” the old man smiles, “Sure as the sun rises and sets.”
“Then I don’t like it,” the girl says with a sulk.
“Oh? And why’s that?” he asks.
“Cause after all that, Ayla just goes home. If it were me, I wouldn’t go home after that. I’d just go looking for another adventure.”
“Oh ho ho,” the old grenz chuckles, and a light flashes behind his eyes, “You think that’s the only adventure Ayla went one? Why don’t you come back tomorrow night, and I’ll tell you about Ayla’s greatest adventure. How she became the Warrior Queen of Genn.”
The old grenz eases himself down into his chair with a groan. He nods to the innkeeper, who nods and ladles him out a fresh cup of warm spiced wine. The small crowd of townsfolk are waiting for him to begin, a smaller crowd than last night, but not too small. Among them is a young girl, who wants to hear a particular story. She was promised this story, though it has troubled the old grenz all day. How to tell it? Where to begin? It is not so simple a tale as the tale of the Wandering Wood. He has made a decision though. He runs his hand over the folded red cloth on the table beside him. He takes the cup from the innkeeper, takes a long drink, and then sets it down with care, far from the red cloth and it’s precious contents. He clears his throat with a deep grunt.
“This is the Tale of Ayla and the Giant of Teag Mountian.”
“Hey!” a small voice shouts from the crowd. It is the girl, the girl whom he promised. The crowd turns to stare at her incredulously. “You promised! You said you’d tell the story about how she became the Warrior Queen of Genn.”
The crowd turns back to the old grenz. An interruption is one thing, but a promise broken is another matter entirely. He nods his head, and picks up his wine. Taking a small sip and setting it down with a pointedly sluggish pace.
“So I did,” he says, “But the story is not as simple as that. It is not a story over in a single night young one. I said I would tell you the story of the Warrior Queen. The story begins here.”
The girl is quiet, then she deliberately mimics the grenz’s slow nod. She is satisfied, for now.
“Well that is not true,” admits the old grenz, “It did not begin here, nor did it truly begin when Ayla ventured into the Wandering Wood. But for the sake of the telling, we shall say it began here. In a small village in the land of Genn.”
It had been a year since the Wandering Wood had been turned aside. The land of Genn, free from the trouble of the Wyrd of the Wood who now sat sulking in his forest court, had become a peaceful and quiet place. Not so to the west, beyond the forest, in the mountain kingdom of Teag. A giant had taken up residence at the mountain of Teag, and he threatened to destroy the kingdom.
News of the giant spread into the land of Genn, where it came to the ear of Ayla Green-hammer. The news was that the King of Teag called for warriors of strength and courage to defend his land. Ayla thought, “I am a warrior of strength and courage. I will go and slay the giant.”
So Ayla took down her hammer from the hearth in the house of Aster, the mother of Ayla, and (remember how cross her mother had been when she had run off to the Wandering Wood) Ayla left her mother a note.
“Gone to slay a giant. Back soon.”
Ayla thought this sufficient, and so she left her village in the land of Genn, setting out for the mountain of Teag.
All along the way she hear dark tales that came from the land of Teag. The giant had trampled the crops, had devoured all the cattle, and had crushed many a brave knight beneath his heels. The maw of the creature could swallow a horse whole they said. They said he picked his teeth with oak trees. Ayla was not afraid. She had faced the Wyrd of the Wood, she would not be frightened by stories of an something others said was “unstoppable.” They had said the same of the Wandering Wood, which at this time wandered no more.
And so Ayla came to the land of Teag. And saw it nearly in ruins. No fence could hope to stop the giant, nor stone wall it seemed. The castle at the foot of the mountain where the king of Teag held court was in barely more than rubble now. Ayla ran forward to the castle, worrying she was too late to save the land of Teag.
She came upon the King, standing outside the castle with his knights. Ayla Green-hammer called to them.
“Your grace! Has the giant attacked the castle?” She asked, bowing deeply, but unaccustomed to the gesture, and off balance due to the hammer, she stumbled and nearly fell.
The king of Teag was offended, “Captain, take this child away!” He cried, ordering his captain to send her home, and to berate her parents for letting their child wander about in such dangerous times.
Ayla struggled against the captain’s grip, demanding he release her. The captain had some knowledge of magic, though he had never cultivated the talent, and he recognized the presence of Ayla’s hammer.
“You carry a powerful weapon, child. Where did you come by such a thing?”
“It was given to me,” Ayla told him.
“Liar,” accused the captain, “No one would give such a thing away idly. Much less to a little girl.”
“It is not a lie,” Ayla said stubbornly, “It was given to me in the Wandering Wood, and I have come from the land of Genn to slay the giant with it.”
The captain laughed, “You? I’m sorry little one. We have not time to play with children today. We ride to face the giant on the mountain. We may have need of a weapon such as this though. Will you give it to me?”
Ayla thought for a hard moment. The captain was rude, but if the weapon was as important as he said, it might save the lives of many if she gave it to him. On the other hand, this weapon was a gift from the young wizard. It would be wrong to give it away. The captain was angry, but he knew that the theft of such items is as likely to leave a man cursed as it is to help him in battle, so he left the girl at the edge of a nearby village and returned to the castle to regroup with his men.
He warned Ayla that if they spotted her again, he would personally beat sense into her. He did not know that Ayla was the best at the game of hiding.
Ayla sneaked back to the castle, and when the King led out his battalion of knights to ride up the mountain, Ayla sneaked behind them as well. The mountainside was great for hiding. So many nooks and crannies to duck behind. Ayla found a spot from which to watch the knights as they traveled up the worn mountain path, and off in the distance, she could hear a rumbling like distant thunder. It came out from around the mountain so suddenly, Ayla nearly yelled in surprise. One minute there was nothing, then the road ahead was filled as the giant stepped out from behind the rock. The massive thing (for he was 100 feet tall if he was 10) looked down on the knights with dark, dumb eyes and billowed out a laugh. The knights brayed their own challenge and charged at the giant’s feet. Archers of the group unleashed a hail of lethal shafts, but the giant swatted them from the air like so many gnats. The wounds from lances and swords at his feet caused him a mild discomfort, but all it achieved was to make the giant’s foot feel asleep. The shifting and testing of his feet crushed knights and horses without thought.
When the giant came to realize he had been attacked, he roared like the very mountain was collapsing, sending rancid smelling spit and horrid breath forward from his maw. He kicked a knight a 100 paces back into the air and off the mountain side, where he tumbled to his certain death. He grabbed at men and horses, some he tossed into his gaping mouth, others he simply squeezed.
The old grenz squeezes his wine cup till it breaks. The children jump in surprise and fright. A displeased look from the innkeeper is ignored as the story continues.
Ayla Green-hammer watched from afar, terrified. The size of the thing was enough to frighten even the most staunch hearted warrior. The knights were routed, the men at arms scattered, and the whole troop retreated down the mountain, despite their king’s pleas to stand and fight. The giant chased them a ways, but soon lost interest in them.
As the giant sauntered back up the mountain to it’s lair, Ayla wondered how she could possibly defeat such a creature. No matter how hard she swung her hammer, surely it would be nothing to that creature. She sat upon the mountain side and thought. She stayed there for hours watching the sun set over the beleaguered land of Teag, watching the mountain birds fly by without a care for the monster who lived below them on the mountain.
That is when Ayla had her idea. She stood up from her seat, and let out a sharp whistle. Loud and long and echoing on the mountain. She waited only a moment before a fluttering of wings announced the arrival.
“Ayla Green-hammer, why have you called me?” said the raven.
“I have need of your help again my friend,” Ayla said, picking up the black bird and stroking it’s feathers.
“It is said that your mother was worried sick over you. That you had gone to slay a giant.”
“I did, raven, but I cannot do it alone. I need your help.”
“My help. My friend, I am no giant slayer. If you seek my advice on how to kill a giant, I would suggest finding the Swords of the Twelve Peers, and 11 knights to wield the others for you.”
“I will need no knights, wise raven, but I do need allies. Will you carry a message for me?”
And so Ayla walked up the mountain road in the early morning, to the lair of the giant. It would be a lie to say she was unafraid, but Ayla would not turn back. She stopped before the entrance and paused, breathing deep and steadying herself.
She hefted her hammer, and banged it against the rock. The clang rang out, into the dark lair, and there was a stirring and rumbling of the massive creature within. The creature burst forth from the lair. Roaring it’s displeasure at being woken. As close as Ayla was, the creatures breath nearly knocked her over. Ayla turned and ran.
She did not run back down the mountain road, which led back to the land of Teag. Instead, she ran up, along the road that led up higher into the mountains. The road was rough and uneven this far into the mountains, and Ayla Green-hammer was forced to scramble on all fours over the rock. Staying only barely ahead of the giant, it laughed. A great braying laugh like a donkey and a thunderstorm. It knew that a rockslide had blocked the path ahead.
Ayla came to the rockslide which blocked the road ahead. To her right was the rock face of the mountain, to her left a cliff, a thousand feet deep at least. She threw herself up the rock face, climing up as quickly as she could with her heavy hammer on her back. The giant caught up to her, and its laugh returned. Rather than escaping, his prey had merely moved closer to his eye level. He raised his hand to the rock to pick this pesky morning morsel.
Ayla gave a sharp whistle.
It was answered by a hundred cries, as the flock of mountain birds, led by a sleek black raven, burst from hiding and fell upon the giant. They pecked at his eyes and the giant cried out in pain. He swatted at the birds, ane though many fell, many more found their mark. The giant was blinded.
The creature shrieked, beating its fists on the rock wall in an attempt to catch the monster who’d led him to this fate. But Ayla was no longer on the wall. As soon as the birds had attacked she had dropped back down to the mountain road. Standing now between the giants feet, careful of the massive thing’s steps, she took her hammer and lined up her strike. She whirled the hammer all the way around, and brought it as hard as she could to the back of the giant’s ankle tendon. The giant stumbled, stepping back to steady itself. Stepping right off the cliff.
The giant roared as it fell, then there was a crash that shook the ground so hard Ayla Green-hammer was knocked from her feet. The roar had stopped.
Ayla crawled to the ledge and saw the giant’s body wrecked against the lower peaks. Ayla thanked the birds for their help, and stayed for the mourning of those that had been killed by the giant. Then she went back down the mountain to the land of Teag. She met the king and captain on the way down. They had heard the final roar and felt the crash, and had come to find the cause.
“I warned you to stay far away child,” the captian said dismounting. Ayla raised her hammer, prepared to defend herself. But there was a fluttering of wings and raven landed on Ayla’s shoulder.
“Your grace, most noble king of Teag, will you allow your captain to beat the saviour of your kingdom?” The raven croaked.
The king of Teag raised his hand, stopping his captain. “What do you mean, wise raven?” He asked.
“The giant of Teag mountain lies dead. His body broken upon the rocks in the valley beyond. It was through Ayla Green-hammer these things were done. Though many of my mountian kin joined in the battle.”
The king stood speechless. He recognized this girl as the one he’d had removed from his presence a day before. Could it be true? Had this child saved his kingdom.
“You speak truthfully in this, clever raven?”
“I swear by the Lady Morrigan, Queen of Ravens, that I speak the truth.”
The king dismounted from his horse, and knelt before Ayla, the saviour of Teag.
Ayla was somewhat embarrassed by this.
“Brave child, Ayla Green-hammer, saviour of Teag, I am in your debt. Tell me what I may do to repay what you have done for my kingdom.”
“Good king,” Ayla said blushing, “I need no reward. I think I shall return to my home now, in the land of Genn.”
“I will not let you go home empty handed. It would shame me and my kingdom,” the king of Teag stood, “Captain, bring my horse!”
The king’s horse was brought forth. A red courser mare with a white blaze on her nose. The king of Teag handed the reigns to Ayla. “This is Sathial, and she will carry you home. My gift to you, small though it may be.”
Ayla thanked the king, and rode the mare down the mountain, and away from the kingdom of Teag. Word spread from the mountain quickly, that the same young girl who had defeated the Wyrd of the Wood had saved the kingdom of Teag. Ayla Green-hammer, slayer of Giants.
The ending is met with a knocking of cups on tables and a few claps. The patrons begin to disperse. They know the old grenz only tells one story a night, even if the night is young. The youngsters are somewhat disappointed, but they know this too. All except on little girl, who is planted right were she was throughout the story.
“She went home again?” she asks the grenz.
“Oh?” he says, waving to the innkeeper for another cup of wine. She raises and eyebrow and shakes her head. She is still not ready to forgive the breaking of a cup, even if it was for dramatic effect.
“Why? She’s got a horse and a magic hammer, and a raven for a friend. I wish she’d just go out and adventure already, stop going back to her village.”
“Who said she went back to her village?” the old grenz asks frowning.
The girl is confused, “You said she rode back home.”
“I did not,” he says, sighing sadly, “I said she wished to go home. I did not say she made it.”
Second Night, Second Story
The old grenz stands just outside the inn and takes a long deep breath from his pipe. The innkeeper has tolerated the thick smoke of his pipe on some nights, but after the cup earlier her patience is at her limit for the evening. He holds the smoke in his lungs for a moment, and slowly lets it out in a plume the towns children say resembles dragon’s breath. The grenz knows better.
“Where is Genn?” a little girl standing in the doorway asks.
The grenz frowns, takes a moment to consider the stars, then points out Southeast over the Sea of Sorrows. “Across the sea and down a ways from here.”
“Is that where you’re from?” she asks him.
“Yes and no, little one,” the old one tilts his head back, taking another long draw through the corner of his mouth. He nods up at the stars, “My people came from up there, once upon a time.”
The little girl looks skeptical. “You said stories with ‘once upon a time’ weren’t true.”
“I said you would ‘think’ the story wasn’t true,” the old grenz says smiling. He knocks the bowl of his pipe on the heel of his boot, “I never said it *wasn’t* true.”
He turns round and walks back inside, patting the girls head as he walks through. He returns to his seat, in the corner by the fire. He pats the red cloth bundle once more, making sure the contents have not been meddled with. He settles down and reaches for a cup that has been refilled in his absence. He does not normally tell more than one story a night, but this is a special occasion. He clears his throat and begins again.
The quickest way back to the land of Genn, from the mountain of Teag, led through the Wood that Wanders no More. Knowing the the Wyrd of the Wood had not forgiven her his humiliation, she consulted the raven for the next fastest route. They turned South, the raven deciding to travel with Ayla until she come safely to her home. The road South took them down to the ruins of Xeph, devastated ages ago by the dragon Abrugess. The dragon was long gone, but the devastation remained. No crops would grow there, no birds flew, even insects and things that feed upon decay shunned the wasted land. Raven warned Ayla, that neither she nor her horse, Sathial, should drink any of the water or eat a single blade of grass while in the land of Xeph.
As they trekked across the cursed land, Ayla was overcome with awe. The city that lay in ruins before her was bigger than any she’d ever imagined. It spread as far as she could see. Many of the buildings stood, even as they crumbled, as higher than any building in her village, and some even higher than the castle she’d seen in Teag. The old wide road that cut through the city was broken and choked with foul weeds (the only things which would still grow in Xeph).
Ayla asked, in wonder, “Why did the dragon attack Xeph?”
“Perhaps the riches of Xeph provoked the dragon’s greed, or their arcane knowledge the dragons envy. The motives of dragons are driven thusly,” the raven replied.
“But you don’t know?”
“No one does,” replied the raven, “That knowledge may only be known by creatures as old as Father Ash or the Morrigan.”
They traveled until nightfall, when they made camp beside the road, among the ruins. Sathial seemed to understand the raven’s warning, and made no move to touch the water of Xeph. It was after dark when the traveller came upon their camp.
The traveller had been a simple merchant on his way through the territory. He had not heeded the warning though, and had drank from the tainted water. The dragon’s curse was in him now, and all a dragon’s cruel ambition. He spotted the fire of Ayla and her company, and saw the green hammer of Ayla, glittering like emerald in the firelight. To the traveller’s eyes, the eyes of a dragon, its value was clear. Priceless.
The traveller greeted Ayla warmly, with a friendly smile, and asked to share her fire. Raven’s eyes were far sharper than Ayla’s, and he saw at once that the traveller was not to be trusted. But Ayla was young, and the traveller had many exciting stories to tell of the lands South of Xeph, which Ayla had never heard. Indeed, Ayla had never met anyone from beyond the South of Genn.
The traveller told many tales that night. The tale of Jaydal and his hundred mice, the tale of Sart and the princess, and many stories of the Witch-haven. But into his stories, he wove a spell. Even the raven realized all too late the true danger their small company was in. And the black bird too fell asleep, as the enchantment fell upon them.
Ayla fought to keep her eyes open as the raven and Sathial the mare fell under the spells influence, but in the end, even her eyes fell under the heavy weight of the traveller’s sorcery. He smiled a wide wicked smile when Ayla’s eyes were finally closed, and boasted to the enchanted girl, “Foolish child. How one such as you came by a weapon so grand I cannot guess, but it is wasted on you surely. It should be mine, and so it shall.”
He crossed the camp to Ayla, and wrapped his thin hands about the hammer’s shaft. It is known foul things follow the thief of such a treasure, but a dragon’s greed will hear no reason. For the only words a dragon hears when he sees a thing of such value is, “I want. I want. I want.”
And so the traveller lifted the hammer. He could not take it however, for Ayla’s hand was still gripped around it tightly. He snarled at the sleeping girl, “Let go.”
He pulled again, shaking Ayla, but still she would not give. “Let go!” he hissed again, and he yanked the hammer hard. Ayla struggled and fought, and opened her eyes just slightly.
“No,” she groaned out, “It is mine. It was a gift.”
“I don’t care. You will give it to me,” the traveller said with the force of strong enchantment. Ayla’s eyes nearly fluttered shut once more, but opened when she felt the hammer tugged again.
“I said,” she strained, and turned her head up to look the traveller in the eye, “it is mine.”
The traveller wove more witchcraft into the air, and tried once more to forced the child to give him the hammer. With one final push he poured his will into the child. “Give it to me!”
And Ayla struck him. With all the might she could muster she threw her tiny fist into the traveller’s eye.
“I said no!” she cried. The traveller fell back, and his spell was broken. Raven and Sathial awoke as if returning to life.
“Ayla, what has happened,” croaked the raven.
“The traveller tried to take my hammer. He made you fall asleep, I don’t know how,” She replied. Raven squawked out in alarm.
“Run, daughter of Aster. We must run at once,” he cried.
“Why?” she asked, but even as she did, the traveller stood, and she saw that where she had struck the traveller, there was no bruise or blood. Instead, where she had struck him now shone with a silvery glint of scales, and his eye was black as the night itself. The raven squawked again in fright. The raven knew the curse of Xeph lived in the water and plants that grew in this land. But those that drank the water simply awoke the dragon’s greed and ambition. This traveller had called on powers greater than he could contain though, and when he had failed to take the hammer, something else had woken in him.
“Run Ayla, I beg of you, you cannot fight this thing,” the raven cried as it took flight. The traveller’s eye followed the raven, into the night. Followed it even beyond the firelight where no mortal eye could see the silent black bird. The traveller opened his mouth, and a sound like the screeching of steel on stone was accompanied by a jet of fire spit into the air. Not a plume or a cloud, for it did not behave like an air or vapor, it was like liquid, and it flowed along through the air like a river of fire. A mighty river of burning death, with tributaries branching off, some to rejoin the river later, others to reap their own smaller destruction elsewhere. For a moment, in the light of such a fire, the night was as day in the land of Xeph. The traveller had had a dragon’s greed, and now he had a dragon’s wrath.
Ayla had never run from a fight in her life. She had fought the Wyrd of the Wood, and the Giant of Teag mountain. She ran from the dragon fire.
She threw herself and her hammer over the back of the frightened Sathial and fled. But Ayla’s eyes were not as sharp as the raven’s, and she could not be sure in dark of which way they had entered the city from. She looked behind her, and saw that the traveller’s eyes were following her now. His mouth had burned, but where the skin would have been black and blistered, more silvery scales had appeared. She threw her heels into Sathial, though the mare needed little convincing. The mare picked the direction, and Ayla did not protest, wanting only to get away from the horrid thing behind them.
Ayla heard the screech she had heard before, and pulled hard on Sathial’s reins, turning them down through the broken side streets of Xeph. The pillar of death that cut through the building behind missed them narrowly. Narrowly enough to catch Ayla’s cloak on fire. The old cloak lit up like a torch and Ayla scrambled to remove it as Sathial guided their flight. To the North, in the land of Genn, the sky was lit by strange lights that, while no one could explain why, all would say looked foul. Aster, the mother of Ayla, looked out worriedly from her home, while Ayla Green-hammer, rode as fast as she could. To the South.
The old grenz sets down his cup. There is no round of clapping this time. Those that did stay for the second story is mostly gone already, and it is quite late. He looks at the dying embers of the fire, and yawns. “We will continue again tomorrow night, little one.”
The girl groans, “Can’t you tell just one more? Where did she go to? Why did the traveller turn into a dragon? Does everyone who drinks the water in Xeph turn into a dragon?”
The grenz chuckles as he sighs, “So many questions, and I am too tired to answer all of them. But I think I will answer one. Tomorrow night, we will start with the tale of Ayla’s arrival in the Witch-haven.”
Third Night, First Story
The old grenz frowns at the rain pelting against the window. A storm, blown in from the Sorrows, has turned the roads of the town to rivers of mud. He is unlikely to have any audience for his story tonight. He sighs and warms his hands at the fire. His gaze occasionally wanders away from the window to the red cloth bundle on the table. The ends of the cloth are torn and tattered, the whole of it is only a quarter of its original size. It was once a cloak. A fine, resplendent cloak of red that adorned the shoulders of a legend. Now, it was a wrapping, a package, a shroud. The grenz feels his blood boiling with anger and sorrow.
There is a thunk, and the door of the inn opens. Five young children enter and find seats by the hearth. The one who sits closest to the grenz is a young girl, her eyes eager and determined. She had refused to let the rain interrupt her story.
The old grenz smiles, and runs his fingers over the red cloth. He raises his hand and nods to the innkeeper.
When Ayla fled the land of Xeph, her steed Sathial took her South. When the sun rose the morning after the attack from the traveler, Ayla Green-hammer found herself lost and far from home. She was in pain, for her cloak which had come alight during her retreat had scorched her terribly, and she hoped to find a place to rest, far from the wicked traveler and his dragon fire.
She came to a green hill by a river, and finding the place beautiful and free of wear from travel, she took her rest her. Sathial, the mare, went to graze of the hill’s green grass, while Ayla went to the river. The cool water felt good in her throat, and on her skin where she had been scorched it soothed the burning. She bathed in the river, and wept for her friend the raven, who had surely been taken by the dragon fire when he fled into the night sky. She did not cry long, for Aster, her mother, had taught her that weeping solves nothing. A strong arm and a strong will are what is needed.
Ayla did not know that she had strayed into the lands of the Witch-haven. A land ruled by pagan gods and old magics. She was spotted as she bathed in the stream. A goblin whose name was Pek spied the girl in the river, and fled to the house of his mistress in a nearby wood, there to tell the witch what he had seen. He told her of a human woman bathing in the river within the borders of the Witch-haven.
“What!?” the witch cried, “A human woman bathes in my River!? I will not suffer this!”
The witch whispered a wicked word, and a hundred goblins came at her call.
“Go to the river. Bring me this human who dares to break the ancient pacts, and enters the Haven without leave.”
The goblins raced to the river and fell on Ayla and Sathial. The goblins attacked, wielding clubs of birch and lashes of willow. Sathial was no farmstead nag, she was a warhorse, and so when the goblins leapt at her, she bucked and kicked and stomped the creatures who thought to catch her. Ayla too, was not easy prey. For though she was young, and not much taller than the goblins, she kicked and bit and hit any goblin who dared to come near her. But Ayla’s hammer was not with her. It was tied to the saddle of Sathial. So, eventually, she was overcome by the witch’s goblins.
Bound and gagged, for the goblins had had enough of her biting them, they brought Ayla to the witch. Sathial as well was muzzled and taken away. They were dragged away from the river, and into the forest, where the witch made her home. The goblins took them before the witch, presenting their prizes, and offered them up to their mistress.
The witch was not pleased.
“Pek!” she cried, and the goblin came forward, missing a tooth from the battle with Ayla at the river, “Who are these creatures. You told me a human woman was bathing in my river!”
“I did, and here she is my mistress. We captured her just as you asked,” the goblin called Pek said. The witch was furious. Goblins you see, are born full formed. They have no children among the goblin folk, and therefore no word for them. The goblin Pek had said a woman, and the witch had taken his word. For her to have ordered an attack upon children was not quite forbidden, but it was unseemly.
The witch ordered Ayla untied and brought the girl into her home. She offered her food and drink, but Ayla had grown more wary since yesterday, and she dared take nothing from the witch.
“What is your name, little girl?” the Witch cooed.
“I am Ayla, daughter of Aster,” Ayla said proudly, “The Green-hammer, and Slayer of Giants.”
“Oh?” the witch said disbelieving, “And have you sailed the Sorrows by night, and ridden dragons to war?”
“I have never even seen the sea,” Ayla said sadly, “But I have seen a friend taken by dragon fire.”
The witch saw Ayla’s eyes, full of pain, and knew she spoke truth. “Where are your from, Green-hammer?”
“I come from the land of Genn. Though I do not know where I am now.”
“Child, you are in the Witch-haven. You are many leagues South of Genn, and the blighted land of Xeph stands between us.”
“I must return home,” Ayla said standing, the steel in her voice making clear her resolve, “Even if I must face the cursed land again.”
“You cannot go that way, child,” the witch lowered her gaze, “The wind whispers of foul things awakening there. Things not seen since the turn of the Age.”
The witch explained to Ayla that there was another road to return to Genn. To the west on the coast of the Sea of Sorrows, was the kingdom of New Xeph. From there she might find passage north to the land of Genn.
“It will not be an easy road,” the witch said, “To get to New Xeph, you must cross the length of the Haven. In the depths of these woods, you will find many less civil things than I.”
“Less civil than those that would send goblins to attack me?” Ayla said. Half in jest.
The witch smiled, and nodded slowly, “I deserve as much. Stay tonight as my guest, and in the morning I shall send you on your way, with a gift.”
Ayla agreed, but she still did not fully trust the witch. After retiring to the room in which she was to sleep, Ayal Green-hammer, who was the best at the game of hiding, crept back to spy upon the witch. The witch gathered together three jars, and took them outside to the forest.
With the first of the jars, the witch took a pinch of moss, a pinch of dirt, and sweet smelling flower that looked like a blue star and placed them all inside.
The second she held to her lips and whispered into, then held it up as if to catch the wind before she sealed it.
The third she held out to the west and the setting sun, letting the rays of the sun pass through the jar until the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Then she sealed that one as well.
She took these jars to her cauldron, and began to boil a potion. To this potion, she added the moss, dirt and crushed flower, then she upended the two empty jars over the brew. Finally, the witch took down thread. She hesitated for awhile over which thread, before she settled on a crimson spool. She took the spool, and dipped the whole of it into the cauldron, whispering secret things to it as she did. Then, she drew the thread out of the cauldron.
She took the thread to a loom behind her house, and began to weave. Ayla would have sworn there was not enough thread to weave much of anything, and yet the thread seemed endless when woven through the witches hands.
The work went all night, and Ayla did eventually succumb to sleep. In the morning, the Witch woke her, smiling, and presented her with the gift. A cloak.
Not an ordinary cloak, as I’m sure you have guessed, but an enchanted cloak. This cloak could be as soft as the forest floor to sleep one and smelled of fresh cut flowers. It was light and quiet as a whisper on the wind and was as warm as if it had been laying out in the sun.
Ayla blushed, thinking that such as gift was far too extravagant, but the witch draped it over her shoulders and smiled.
“It suits you well, child,” the old woman said, straightening the cloak on the girl, “It is big for you now, but you will grow into it. And you may need to repair it as you travel through the woods. I trust your mother taught you how to sew?”
Ayla nodded, and the witch whispered a wicked word. The goblin Pek appeared.
“Open your pocket child,” the witch instructed, and Ayla did, “Now get in you useless thing,” the witch spat at the goblin, who jumped hurriedly and afraid into a pocket of Ayla’s cloak.
“Goblins are dim, nigh useless creatures, but this one may be of some small help to you. Take him away from me before he causes more trouble, and I will call it payment for the cloak, and all our debts settled. Agreed?”
Ayla embraced the witch, and said she hoped they would meet again. The witch gave Ayla a bit of food and whispered an apology to proud Sathial before sending them on their way. And so Ayla set out into the Witch-haven proper, making her way to New Xeph, the Sea of Sorrows, and home.
The grenz takes his hand off the red bundle. He had been resting it there when he had described the making of the cloth. The girl and her friends clap a bit, but then settle down quietly, waiting for the next story. The grenz stretches a bit, and swallows a mouthful of wine.
“I thought witches were evil?” one of the children asks.
“Not all of them,” says the old grenz after a moments consideration, “No more than any other folk.”
“I always heard witches eat children,” the young girl says.
“Living Sun no!” the grenz exclaims, “Who would ever do such a thing? What possible reason?”
“That’s how other stories go,” the girl says slightly embarrassed.
“Well you would be wise not to say as much to any witch you happen to meet,” the old one warns.
“What did she do next?” another child asks, “Ayla I mean.”
The grenz waves to the innkeeper for another wine, “Next, she begins her trek through the Haven, and meets a few…unsavory characters.”
Third Night, Second Story
The young girl’s friends are sipping soft cider and chatting while they wait for the next story. The old grenz is talking with the innkeeper, who still seems cross with him about breaking a cup last night. The girl is not looking there though, she is looking at the grenz’s small table, and the red cloth that sits atop it. The girl goes to the table and looks at the cloth. Didn’t the grenz say the story had really happened. She wondered, excitedly, if this red cloth was the cloak of Ayla, the Green-hammer. She went to the table, and she reached out for it. He finger touch it, and she expects to feel the warmth of a summer day, and the softness of a bed of moss. She feels none of these things, she feels only the weave of the cloth. She decides it can’t be the same cloak.
“Do not touch that,” the grenz growls through sharp teeth. The girl jumps back frightened. She had not heard him approach. He is glaring at her. His eyes are hard and angry.
“I’m sorry,” She says, flushing red with embarrassment, “I thought perhaps it was Ayla’s cloak.”
The old grenz’s frown remains, but his eyes change. The anger fades, and is replaced by a sadness. He goes to the table and touches the red cloth just as the girl had.
“It was so fine a cloak in days past,” he sighs, “Who would believe it now?”
A long silence follows. The grenz seems lost in thought, and the children are too frightened to interrupt him. The silence is broken by the thunk of the heavy door swinging open. A pair of sailors walk in, soaked to the bone, and call for mugs of something hot. This breaks the spell of silence around the hearth, and the old grenz shakes his head and eases himself into his chair.
Where was I? Ah yes….
The Witch-haven is not a place to follow the laws of men or even the laws of nature. Like the Wandering Wood answered only to the Wyrd before Ayla bested him, the Haven has it’s own masters. As such, the Haven’s length and breadth are not so fixed as other lands. The distance across the land depends solely on the path one takes. In the days after meeting with the witch by the river, Ayla rode by the guidance of Pek the goblin, who lived in her pocket. He showed her the secret goblin ways, which would take her far in little time, but had their own dangers. For goblins used these ways, naturally, and though Pek and his kin were bound to the witch by the river, other goblins were bound to others or to no one, and they might seek to waylay any traveler who was not a goblin. Ayla thought fastest was best, and thought on how Sathial and she had nerely fought off a hundred goblins, and without the use of the green hammer. Surely any goblin who came to give her trouble would regret their course.
And so Pek showed Ayla the goblin paths, and she followed them. Twice would be thieves attacked Ayla, and twice she sent them on their way with great lumps and warning to keep clear of Ayla Green-hammer.
Word carried ahead of her, and soon no goblin would travel a path if they heard that the Green-hammer was to come that way. These words of dread finally came to the ears of Kest, a great goblin chief, and he was furious. A human walked the goblin paths with impunity, and his people quaked in fear of it. His pride would not allow this. He called upon all the goblin clans under him. The Breakers, the Gnashers, the Bursters, the Slashers and many more came to his call in a great meeting of the clans. All had heard of the trouble on the goblin paths, and all were eager to hear the great chief’s plan. Kest the goblin chief called upon the clans to send a raiding band armed with the sturdiest clubs and sharpest lashes to teach this human a lesson, and drive her from their secret paths.
The clans agreed, and each would send thirteen goblins to meet the Green-hammer on the path, for thirteen is a lucky number if you are a goblin. Thirteen clans sent thirteen goblins, which was thought to be very lucky indeed, and all one hundred and sixty-nine goblins were armed with a hefty club and a cruel lash. A band more ferocious had not been sent along the goblin paths since the very founding of the Haven.
The band found the path Ayla was to take, and stood in her way. When Ayla came around the bend in the path, she saw the band before her and stopped.
“Hail, goblins,” Ayla said, “Will you let me pass?”
“We will not,” called back the leader of the band. The goblins charged, waving their clubs over their heads prepared to strike. Sathial snorted, and dug at the earth with her hoof.
“You are eager to fight, Sathial, but this is many more than we fought at the river,” Ayla whispered to her mare. Still Sathial snorted and pulled on her reins. She remembered the humiliation suffered at the hands of goblins, and she longed for vengeance. Ayla was not immune to the urge herself, and so she squeezed Sathial’s sides with her heels, signalling her agreement with the warhorse. They charged headlong into the goblin band. Many clubs struck Sathial and Ayla, but the green-hammer swept down from atop the horse and did far worse as it smashed through the goblins that Sathial did not simply trample beneath her hooves. The goblins changed tact quickly, and struck at Sathial with their lashes. The mare was startled and reared up, tossing Ayla off and into the waiting goblins. They whipped their lashes at Ayla, splitting skin in deep red cuts, but this did not drive her back. Instead, the green hammer came down upon the head of the nearest goblin, where it hit with a wet and hollow thunk. Then she whirled around to the next goblin and drove the butt of the hammer into his gut. Though they fell on her by the dozen, she swung her hammer in great arcs that would take three or four goblins in a single motion. With each goblin felled by the hammer, those behind grew more and more fearful. Still they came until only a quarter of their band was left, the rest struck by the hammer and broken, or trampled under the hooves of the warhorse. The goblins rallied and formed a line upon the path.
“Go away human! You are not welcome on goblin paths,” called the leader of the band.
“I am Ayla Green-hammer,” Ayla called back, “And I will not be turned aside!”
Ayla charged the line, and the goblins broke their ranks, running down the path or off to even more secret paths so Ayla might not follow them. Ayla smiled and slung her hammer back over her shoulder. Climbing back to her saddle, Pek spoke to her.
“This was no ordinary goblin band, mistress,” he said wringing his hands, “Such a band has never been in the memory of Pek.”
“Are these the dangers you warned me of? The goblins bound to another power?” Ayla asked.
“No, mistress. None have so many bound,” Pek explained that these were goblins bound to no one but whom they would choose, and goblins choose poorly.
Ayla worried, for to have sent so many, her passage may have caused more trouble than she had ever intended. However, again, she decided fast was best, and the goblin paths were fastest. She rested a day, to tend to her wounds.
While Ayla rested, the goblins of the raiding band returned to their clans. They carried news of the fearsome Green-hammer, and of her monstrous steed. What could mere goblins do against such a force. To defeat such a human would require more than clubs and lashes, but goblins do not know the secrets of metalcraft.
It was then that a stranger came to the meeting of clans. Shrouded and shadow and reeking of sulfur, he was human and not human. The goblin guards at the entrance of their meeting hall threatened him with their clubs, but they cowered in fear as the stranger passed them into the hall. He came silently into the center of the clans and told the great chief Kest that he was a friend, and wished to help them in their hour of need.
“My ears have heard your cry for weapons that might drive this human from your paths,” the stranger said, “And I have brought such weapons to arm your goblins.”
“Your ears are too sharp by far,” the chief Kest said, “To have heard goblins cloistered planning.”
“My ears are sharp as the cutting arctic wind,” said the stranger, “But my aid is not a gift. It has a price.”
“Speak your deal, stranger,” Kest growled, his nose wrinkled by the stench of sulfur..
“Behold,” said the stranger.
The grenz reaches into the red cloth bundle, and draws forth a dagger of black metal. He holds it before him on the palm of his hand, and watches it as if expecting it to leap away.
“I bring you metal, strong and sharp, with which to cut the trespasser Ayla.”
The goblins examined the blade with awe. The secrets of metalcraft are wondrous to them, as wondrous as magic is to men. The stranger said he had many such blades, and he had only one thing he required in trade for them.
“When you have cut her, and when you have driven her away, I desire her hammer.”
Kest the goblin chief had hoped to take the Green Hammer as his own trophy, but he decided he liked the black blade better than a green hammer. He agreed and called upon the clans to form a new raiding band.
But the clans did not agree. They feared this stranger and his black metal and his sulfur smell. They would not deal with this stranger. Kest was furious. He threw them out, and cursed them. He vowed that when the human was defeated, and he controlled the goblin paths, he would never allow those who betrayed him to walk the secret paths again.
Kest made his deal with the stranger. He gathered the last eleven goblins who remained loyal to him, and the stranger armed them with black metal blades. They stalked down the path, blades at the ready. Twelve goblins in all, which was not lucky, but Kest thought it close enough to be so.
They met Ayla on the path, and bared their steel. Ayla knew something was amiss when she saw the great chief, taller than the other goblins by half, he was taller even than Ayla. With short blade bared, he snarled a challenge, and his goblins charged.
Sathial stomped the first of them, and Ayla swung her hammer at another. A goblin attacked Ayla with his new blade, but unused to the weapon, he struck Ayla with the flat. That one was struck by the hammer as well. Sathial kicked one goblin into a tree, crushing the creature. The goblin chief Kest finally came upon Ayla though, and he lunged his blade up to her seat atop Sathial.
Ayla was cut by the black blade along her arm, and she cried out in pain. The wound boiled and blistered at the touch of the tainted steel of Xeph. Ayla screamed and threw her heels into Sathial, and they fled. They rode hard and fast, leaving the goblin paths behind to get away from the goblins. The goblins raised their weapons in a cheer, but the stranger came upon them with anger, demanding that they give chase.
The great chief Kest and his goblins numbered only 8 now, and even armed as they were, he did not wish to lead his goblins off the safety of their secret paths. The stranger’s shadow grew great and terrible, towering over the goblins. One terrible fiery eye glaring out from the black shroud.
“Remember our deal, goblin chief!” the stranger roared, “Black blades for a green hammer! Where is my hammer?”
The goblins cowered, even the great chieftain. They feared the shadow, but they also feared the open Haven beyond their secret ways. The stranger’s shadow withdrew, and he spoke softly to the goblins. As he spoke, his words carried shadow and smoke, and it curled and coiled around the goblins.
“You fear the Haven, that I see, so I will send you forth with my protection,” and his words formed into cloaks of soot black shadow for the goblins, as dark as the knives they carried, “Go now, goblins of the Black Blade, concealed by smoke and shadow. Go now, and bring me the hammer of Ayla. All debts will be settled then.”
And so the Black Blade goblins set out, following the trail of Ayla Green-hammer.
The old grenz moves to put the knife away, but one of the children speaks first.
“Why would Ayla run from a single cut? Wasn’t she cut many times by the lashes?” he asks.
The grenz pauses, thinking for a moment, weighing a risk. Then he takes the black steel knife and draws it across his thumb. He hisses in pain, and his skin about the thumb turns black as the steel that cut it, covered in boils and festering. The children scream and clamber back as the grenz raises his wounded hand. The grenz grits his teeth and his face contorts, as the bubbling of the wound slowly stops, the boils recede, and the wound finally closes. The grenz flexes his hand, wincing in pain once more, then places the knife back into the folds of the cloth.
“Grenz heal faster than humans,” he explains as he massages his hand, “A broken bone heals in minutes or hours, not weeks. And a simple cut upon the thumb will heal in seconds.”
He holds up the thumb for them to examine, then pulls his sleeve up his arm.
“Imagine such a cut, running the length of your forearm. Now imagine you are not a grenz, and that the wound will linger, for days.”
The children are silent. The innkeeper strides angrily to the old one. She does not like that he has kept such a thing here in her inn. He surrenders it reluctantly.
“Do not destroy it,” he asks the innkeeper as she leaves, “Lock it up tight, but please…so few of her things are left.”
The innkeeper nods, but the young girl by the hearth sees a tear in her eye, as she takes it to the back, without a word.
The grenz sighs, and looks at this cup. It is nearly empty, and the hour is late.
“Please one more,” the girl says quickly, before the old one can say he is finished for the night, “you cannot leave it there. Tell us, what did Ayla do? Did the Black Blades find her?”
The old grenz sighs. The children lean forward, nodding eagerly for him to continue. Even the sailors by the bar look hopeful the Grenz will continue. He nods, “I suppose I have time for one more, tonight.”
Third Night, Third Story
“How big are goblins?” a young boy asks, “You said the goblin chief was taller than Ayla, but you said Pek could fit in her pocket.”
“Most goblins stand about…so tall,” the old grenz explains, holding his hand at the height of the armrest of his chair, “But goblins are not like people who are set in their size. A goblin can sneak through a mouse’s hole if he so chooses. The sneakiest of them might slip through the cracks in the floor.”
The children eye the floor of the inn. Some of them skeptically, others warily.
The grenz has refilled his cup. He did this himself, as the innkeeper has not yet returned from hiding the black steel blade. With a full cup, he sits back, arranging the memories in his head, and begins again.
When Ayla fled the Black Blade goblins, she was quite lost. She asked the goblin guide Pek where they might be, but even he could not be sure. They rode until Ayla was forced to stop. She begged Sathial to slow and let her down. She could barely stand the pain was so terrible. Tears in her eyes, she fell to her knees beneath the shade of the trees. She wept and held her burning arm, the skin turning black and festering.
In the brush not far away, a goblin, cloaked in shadow, sat and watched. This was Gaska, one of the Black Blades, and she was an old and clever goblin. Not many goblins can live beyond a century, but Gaska had. Not because she was the strongest, but because she knew when to strike and when to wait. She saw Ayla, sitting and weeping beneath the trees, injured and weakened. But she also saw that Ayla’s good arm was uninjured and the green hammer was still in reach. She would wait, she would make ready, and she would attack when Ayla was weakest.
Sathial nudged Ayla, grunting her sympathy, and Pek urged her to rest.
“Goblins will not leave their secret paths and travel the open Haven. They will stay to goblins paths and goblins lands, or those they are bound to,” he said.
“Why won’t they follow?” Ayla asked through gritted teeth.
“Goblins fear the Haven beyond the lands they know,” Pek said with a fearful glance to the trees. Ayla pulled herself up, herself fearful that the goblin band was close behind her. Gaska watched from the brush as Ayla mounted Sathial once more and her guide Pek leapt back into the pocket of her cloak, and Gaska was filled with a seething hatred. For many days the goblin clans had accused one another of showing the human their secret paths. Now she saw who the traitor was, and she cursed him. She growled foul words that made the very leaves of the bushes wilt.
Still she did not attack. She followed.
Through the forest of the Haven, over hills, and over streams Ayla rode. They rode until Pek recalled a stone pillar that stood in their path.
“Tis the mark of Valdora, the great and terrible. Goblins will most certainly not follow here,” Pek said.
“If Valdora is so terrible, should we trespass on his land?” Ayla asked, still in pain but growing more accustomed to it.
“He is only terrible to those who anger him. Give him no cause to be furious while in his fief, and he will not trouble you.”
Gaska knew well the stories of the wizard Valdora, and his staff of every wood. He had long ago driven goblins from his lands, and Gaska felt the fear in her heart. She also felt the fear of Kest, the great chieftain, and of the dark stranger and his burning eye. These are not what compelled her to follow into Valdora’s wood. What drove her was hate. Hatred of Ayla, and more importantly, her hatred of the goblin Pek.
Now, thinking themselves safely beyond the reach of the Black Blades, Ayla and her companions slowed their pace, and she allowed herself to examine the wicked cut. Her mother would have chastised her for waiting so long to check the wound. Aster, Ayla’s mother, had some knowledge of the body, and had warned Ayla that even a scratch can kill a man if left to fester and rot. Ayla thought that perhaps it was too late, for as she examined the cut, she saw the black skin and thought it must be rotten. It did not smell of rot though. Ayla had seen a man whose foot had need of severing due to rot, and the smell had been nigh unbearable. This smelled not of rot, but of sulfurous vapors. The wound had been a lucky one, missing the vein that runs along the forearm, though Ayla did not know that at the time. She saw that it was not as deep as it felt, and that heightened her spirit at least a little. She asked Pek if he knew of a stream or river that ran through Valdora’s land, and he guided her to it.
Once in the stream, Ayla cut the sleeve from her shirt with her mother’s knife, setting it aside to make a bandage later. Then Ayla dipped her arm into the cool water, and though it painful, she was determined to clean the wound.
Pek, the goblin guide, rested nearby, being weary from the day’s journey. Pek never heard Gaska’s approach. She slipped through the trees, unseen by Ayla or Sathial, and fell silently upon the tired goblin. The guide woke from his rest to the touch of a black blade against his throat. He wished to cry out, but Gaska hissed, commanding him to be silent.
She cursed his name and growled at him. She demanded to know why he had betrayed his kind. Why he had shown the human the secret goblin paths. Pek whimpered and begged Gaska to release him. He tried to explain that he had orders from the witch by the river to guide the human through the Haven, but Gaska would not hear it.
“You will help me kill the human,” Gaska said, “Or you will die.”
Pek was afraid, and knew Gaska would kill him in the span of the heartbeat if he refused. Pek the goblin nodded, and agreed to help kill the human Ayla. Gaska produced a second black bladed weapon.
“The uninjured arm, or any leg, is all I need. You need not finish her yourself if you have grown attached,” Gaska hissed.
Pek took the knife, eyes cast to the ground, and Gaska faded back into the shadow and twilight of the forest. Pek hid the knife when Ayla came to him, the removed sleeve fashioned into a bandage. She winced as she tested the movement of the arm.
“I fear this dark wound,” she said, “It pains like no other cut I’ve ever received. Is there no one friendly and able to help in these lands?”
Pek nodded slowly and told Ayla of a village of humans under the protection of Valdora within the Haven. It could not be far he said, and they were skilled in woodcraft. If a healing herb could be used to counter the taint of Xeph, they would know he said. It was a lie though. Pek knew of no such place, or anyone who could help her. Goblins are not known for loyalty, and Pek feared for his life.
He leapt back into her pocket, and waited. He liked the human, and did not wish her dead, but a goblins see to themselves first, and Pek feared Gaska would succeed in killing Ayla given time. He would surely be next if he did not help her.
He waited until the dark of night, when Ayla slept. Sathial the warhorse was still on guard, she was trained to be watchful always. But Pek was already past her guard, he came out from Ayla’s pocket, and he drew out the black blade. He stood over Ayla, and raised the blade high.
He did not strike.
He liked this human. Pek the goblin lowered his knife.
Gaska was upon him in the time it takes to draw breath. Sathial whinnied with alarm, and Ayla’s eyes sprang open. Too late to stop the Black Blade. Gaska cut the goblin guide down mid stride, and lunged at Ayla.
Ayla spun away, and came up holding the green hammer. Gaska lunged again, thrusting the black blade forward. Ayla took her hammer in both hands, forcing herself to move through the pain in her arm. She used the shaft of the hammer to knock away the tip of the blade, then wheeled the pommel to strike Gaska’s face. Gaska ducked and brought the blade back across at Ayla’s legs. Ayla leapt over the small goblin entirely, spun and brought her hammer down. Gaska rolled away, then leapt back roaring and spitting. A slash at Ayla’s face, which she dodged narrowly, and swung her hammer to drive Gaska back. But Gaska did not evade. She was struck by the hammer, but as the hammer hit her, her slash came across Ayla’s uninjured arm. Gaska was thrown away, but Ayla cried out in pain and dropped the hammer. The curse swelled anew in her bandaged arm, and a new black and festering wound appeared on her other arm. Ayla tried to pick up her hammer again, but the pain was horrible. She lifted it weakly, and Gaska smiled. Though she was blooded and injured, Ayla’s guard was easily overcome now. The warhorse was coming, no doubt, so she would have to finish it quickly. The Black Blade gave a war cry and charged.
And lightning split the sky.
Among the trees, in a pillar of fire and lightning, stood the wizard Valdora.
“Who dares to bring the taint of Xeph to my domain!? To spill blood in the name of the Blighted Land!?” he shouted with a voice of falling stone.
Gaska hissed and pulled her cloak of shadow around her. She faded into the forest, hidden from even Valdora’s eyes. He looked to Ayla, and saw her injuries. Wounds which would bring grown men to their knees, yet she stood and held her hammer up to guard against the wizard.
“Child, your wounds are great. Who has done this?”
“A cruel goblin, great wizard. I beg your aid, but first for my guide,” Ayla said running to Pek, and kneeling down to him, “He was stabbed with a blade meant for me. I beg you to save him if it is in your power.”
The wizard looked at the goblin, and waved his hand. A chariot drawn by three white horses came from nowhere in the woods to carry them all away.
“You have brought much trouble to my domain, human. Your very presence is a transgression in truth, so long as the taint of Xeph comes with you.”
Ayla made to protest, but Valdora held up his hand for silence.
“Your words will be heard, but not here. You will explain yourself at the Oakfast.”
“We shall end here tonight,” the grenz says to the moans of the children.
“But what is the Oakfast?” the little girl asks.
“The hold of Valdora of course,” the old one says, “I shall tell more of it tomorrow night.”
“But you were right in the middle of it,” the girl complains.
“We have reached the point in the Tale when things are not so easily broken apart. Be patient,” the old grenz urges. The children gather at a table, and begin playing some game with a pair of copper coins, while the green skinned grenz goes to return his cup to the bar. The innkeeper has returned, and she shakes her head at the storyteller.
“I wish you wouldn’t tell this story,” she says after a long silence.
“I told her I would tell the story.”
“I don’t want to hear it.”
“Ren,” the old grenz looks into the innkeepers eyes pleading, “I have to tell the tale.”
The innkeeper sighs, folds her arms, and closes her eyes. At length, she finally nods.
Fourth Night, First Story
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.
To be continued….