Part 2

The Faithful Ones: Part 2

Chapter 17

Raine blinked as sat up, looking around. Sky was cloudless and blue above, and it would be a wonderful day to sing and run with Mel again. Raine thought over the past year or so. Her six friends had been set four tasks and met Mel in the process, who’d set the tasks and saved their lives Raine and her friends each had Spirit’s Glitter on their right wrist and in their hair, and over the course of their journeying they’d become closer friends than anyone expected. Everyone else had woken by now, and soon they’d be ready to keep moving.
“For love and light, we stand together, forever strong!” they called. It seemed every day dawned in the same way and yet nothing was the same. When they sang their voices echoed across the land. Every day brought them closer to the Dwarvern Caverns, which they’d decided to travel to again since Raine, Rose, Sunny, Salma, Freya, Matthew, and Blaze had made many friends there.

Mel often told stories about her Creator. This one, she said, her Creator had told. A farmer went out to sow his seeds. Some fell on the path and the birds ate them, some fell on rocky ground and grew quickly but withered when the sun got too hot, some fell where thorns grew and were choked, and some fell on good ground and produced fruit.
“The seed is a message and the ground is the people who hear it,” Mel explained.
“That’s a strange way of telling someone something,” Salma said.
“I suppose. He also said that the reason He told stories was that people wouldn’t understand otherwise because they just couldn’t in their ways of thinking.” The stories Mel told were similar to the ones Nimue had told months ago, Raine thought.

Raine told Nimue about the glowing cave in the Caverns ans asked her about the tune she used to hum to Raine when she was upset.
“There’s a spirit in that cave, as I’m sure you noticed. The songs could be the same, but I can’t quite remember it, so you’ll have to take me when we get there,” the Water Spirit said.
“I’ll show you,” promised Raine.
“We’re at the hills!” called Sunny and Raine looked ahead. Indeed, they were at the hills, which were just as beautiful as they remembered. Mel and Nimue hadn’t seen them yet though, of course, so Raine took care to show them her favourite heights and valleys.

The night was blue and indigo, and the stars shone a bright pearl-white, brighter than the pale silver moon. The campfire gleamed, chasing the shadows of night away, drawing dancing and laughing shadows closer to its warmth. When sleep called louder to the shadows they rolled under their blankets and talked for a while longer as the fire died until one by one everyone was asleep. When the brightest star rose in the morning, everyone awakened to begin their travelling again. Choosing words to fit as she went, Mel made up a song.
“The sun is bright,/ warm is its light,/ and joy in my heart does bloom./ Oh I could run a thousand years,/ even so far as the moon./ The wind carries a thousand voices,/ and it will carry mine/ with joy ever burning in us/ for we are free.” The others joined in once Mel had sorted out the words and tune, and at one point they stopped singing to run and only slowed down for midmeal and a rest. Raine and Rose filled the water-skins and after eating the group swam for a short time.

“How don’t you melt when you’re near a fire?” asked Matthew.
“Well your skin gets hot if you get too close, or if you touch the fire it burns you. It’s the same for me, only I would boil and steam, and it’d take a day or so to heal,” the Spirit answered.
“What’s the promise we made long ago, when we understood so much less?” Raine had been mulling over the words of the song from the glowing cave.
“That you would follow where true hope is not yet, wherever that wild path goes, to be led by one ever on the move where they would go to light fires in sleeping heart.” Well, the group had followed Mel and they’d lit fires in their once-sleeping hearts, but that made the promise only half kept –although they had their whole lives to keep the promise, so there was no hurry. Raine remembered the day they’d agreed to promise that. It had been late winter, the tIme when winds began to warm ever so slightly, when they carry whispers of magic.

Raine dreamed that the campfire grew into a wildfire surrounding her. She woke to the half-light of night before dawn.
“It’s alright, everything’s ok,” murmured Mel, who’d woken just before Raine. She took a deep breath and calmed down, remembering that she was safe with Mel. And, really, fire was rather beautiful once she got past her fear, in its mesmerising flickering that seemed to form shapes and faces. She just had to stop her mind building the flames higher into a nightmare or memory. The best memories were of singing of dancing, so that’s what she usually did when she got scared.

Rose was doing Sunny’s hair, Mel sat with them plaiting her own, and Salma listened to the conversation. They discussed the books about children and a lion. Raine sat with Freya, Matthew, Blaze, and the Spirit, just watching the clouds, lost in thought, as they lost their pinkness and the stars came out. Raine got up to stir the stew bubbling over the fire, and declared it ready. They’d kept walking until two fingers’ width between the sun and horizon, so it was later than usual. Everyone was excited to see the dwarves again, and they’d arrive in half a moon. The days seemed longer, full of anticipation and knowing what they’d find at the Caverns. The natural border between Westheath and Northesa loomed ahead, tall and beautiful.

The crescent moon, a tiny slice of light now, pulled the friends closer and closer to the dwarvern Caverns until at last the tunnels welcomed them in. The days had grown colder and it was a relief to enter somewhere warm and out of the wind. Sunny bid the sun a friendly farewell for the time being, since they would likely not see it again for at least a moon. Zadut and Taigat-Zhëtzen weren’t there so they headed straight to see Gatûkai-Zhëtzen.

Chapter 18

“How good it is to see you again! But who are these other two?” cried the dwarvern king.
“I’m Mel. My friends met me in the forest last year, and I am the one who set them their tasks,” Mel answered.
“I’m the Water Spirit, and I told them all the stories they told you.”
“Welcome, welcome. You’ll stay in the trader’s quarters like last time of course. Now please tell me the rest of your tale so far.”

They settled in quite well, and after dinner Raine sat with Mel in the rock-roofed courtyard.
“There’s a hymn in Jes’ world that will guide the next part of our journeying. I’m going to teach it to the others,” Mel smiled her strange future smile.
“It’s strange that I always want to travel but also stay for long periods. I can never decide whether to long for travelling or for time with friends,” Said Raine.
“Yeah…” They fell into the loud and friendly silence that close friends often have a capability to experience.

The group went to each clan, talking to friends, introducing Mel and the Water Spirit, telling their tale over and over to everyone. Mel and the Spirit told stories to Gatûkai-Zhëtzen. The traders were there too.
“How go your travels?” Piper asked.
“Very well, thanks.” What about yours?” Raine replied.
“There were quiet whispers of rebellion in Northesa — it seems the Northesians are tired of the way their king rules. But other than that all goes well.”
“How does he rule?”
“Cruelly I’ve heard, but I don’t know.” Raine frowned.

When Mel wasn’t telling stories she was in the Buchod Room with Amedël, or in the Hollow or Ice Clans’ gëmenzrzëtûm. Raine showed Nimue the glowing cave, and the singing spirit talked to them, remaining hidden the whole time. Nimue greeted the spirit as a sister, and they talked a little of how the magic was stirring more. Raine said she’d found what her heart sought, and asked why the dwarves seemed to fear the cave. The spirit answered that they believed it to be haunted by evil because of a strange tale passed from generation to generation about a dwarf who’d gone mad seeking something it’d sung to them about. The spirit’s voice filled with regret at the mention of the tale, and she said her singing wasn’t meant to e obeyed but rather heard as something beautiful that would come of its own accord. How strange it was that so many things told of long beforehand came to pass with little or no help.

“This is the story of my Creator’s death and how He conquered it,” Mel began, she and all the others in the throne room telling stories to Gatûkai-Zhëtzen. “I must start at the very beginning, just after the creation of the world. The world was new and perfect, and a man and a woman lived in a beautiful garden. They were told they could eat anything but the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which stood in the middle. But the woman was tempted and she disobeyed, and shared the fruit with the man. The Creator is just and fair so, even though He loved the man and woman, He cast them out of the garden. and made life hard for all who would come, because disobeying was carried through all generations and covered the world. Many years passed, more than many thousands, and although it had been promised that one would come to break the hold of evil, it seemed they would never come.

“The Creator never forgot, never broke His promise. He, Himself, came into the world as a baby, born in a stable, laid in hay. A bright star shone above the stable, and shepherds came to see him after angels brought them the news. When the child was about a year old, magi came with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He grew into an adult, and travelled about with twelve disciples, teaching everyone through stories, and performing miracles. He healed the sick, made blind men see, deaf men hear, and raised dead to life. He called Himself the King of the people He travelled amongst, He called Himself the way, the truth, the life, the Son of Man, the Son of the only true God. Priests and authorities didn’t like this, not understanding that He was these things.

“On the night of the beginning of an important festival, He was eating with His friends. He said that one amongst them would betray Him and hand Him over to the priests and authorities. He broke bread, saying it was His body, and passed wine around saying it was His blood. Later, they went to a garden, when He prayed (talked to His Father, who was part of Himself, but this is a confusing point that no-one quite understands — simply put, there are three parts that make up the one God). He was very sad and troubled He said ‘if it’s possible, please don’t let me suffer in this way. Yet not what I want, but what You want.’ The priests and authorities arrested Him, and put Him on trial. He was silent despite all the claims they made against Him, but still He was sentenced to death, nailed to a cross, and left to die upon a hill as people mocked Him. The disciples had fled, and He was alone, severed from everything but the last strands of life. He shouted ‘forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing’ and hung His head. And it was finished.

“He was buried near the hill where he died. The day of rest passed, and on the third day since his death three women took spices to put on the body, but the heavy stone covering the entrance had been rolled away and the body wasn’t there, and the clothe had been folded up. The women became worried and sad, but an angel said ‘Do not be afraid! You’re looking for He who was nailed to the cross, but He is alive!’ So the women rushed to tell the disciples. Indeed He was alive, for afterwards He appeared to many people. He was fully alive, the scars fully healed. Death was the punishment for disobeying the Creator, but He, who never did any wrong, took that punishment for everyone because He loves us beyond any measurement. You only have to believe and you will be clean of all guilt, shame, and blame.”

“He- He died because He loves you? He gave Himself so you wouldn’t have to be punished?” said Gatûkai-Zhëtzen after a moment. The only sound in the hall was breathing. Mel nodded, her face calm but wild, as if she herself could scarcely believe it.
“How was He raised to life?” asked Blaze.
“It was a miracle,” replied Mel. “There’s much evidence that He did come back to life fully healed and well, even records written by a ruler of that time.”
“Wow,” breathed Rose.

“He let His throne, to die, to know the people He created who’d disobeyed Him.” Gatûkai-Zhëtzen couldn’t quite take it in, and silence filled the room again, then the dwarvern king spoke again, “How opposite to the king who rules Northesa. That king should not have that title, for he traps his people in his kingdom with some kind of binding he should have no use of . So terrified of him are his people that his name had been lost and he’s called the Raging wolf for his ferocity.”
“We can’t leave them there, Mel!” exclaimed Raine, startled to hear of the way the Raging Wolf treated his people.
“You would have to fight to free them,” replied Mel, turning to face her friends.
“We’ve never lifted a sword! We can’t lead them into battle!” protested Rose.
“The Northesians are stuck there and long to be freed. Would you leave them there because otherwise you must fight?” Mel answered, a strange new look of determination filling her eyes that told of dark secrets.

“Then we’ll go. We’ll free the Northesians from the Raging Wolf,” Freya decided.
“Please let us come!” called a voice from the shadows. Everyone looked to see Zadut, Taigat-Zhëtzen, Amedël, and Bouniek stepping out of the shadows.
“You can come,” smiled Mel, always ready to welcome friends along as she had done with the Water Spirit.
“You’d better prepare then. I’ll have provisions ready for you tomorrow,” Gatûkai-Zhëtzen said. They nodded, and went to pack. The Spirit said she wanted to stay, and although she would be missed as their friend nobody minded much.

Chapter 19

The group, twelve in total now, left the Dwarvern Caverns. Mel taught them the song whose lyrics would guide their adventuring, although only Raine knew they did so. They walked through the Northern Ranges, the movement keeping them warm in the wintry air.
“Our group should have a name,” said Sunny.
“Followers, because we follow Mel,” suggested Blaze.
“Faithful Ones,” replied Amedël.
“Roamers,” added Bouniek. They couldn’t think of any other ideas, so they voted and decided on ‘Faithful Ones’.

“Wake up! Mel’s gone and there’s a leopardess in our camp!” said Taigat-Zhëtzen.”Calm down, it’s fine. Mel won’t be far away,” answered Raine sleepily with a smile on her face. She was awake now though, so she got up and helped the dwarves get ready.
“We can’t leave yet, Mel’s not back,” said Amedël when the Faithful Ones were ready to leave.
“It’s fine, she’ll be back when we stop for midmeal,” replied Freya. So they went on, and the leopardess followed, setting the dwarves on edge a little.
“Go away!” Zadut made a shooing gesture towards the leopardess, who only blinked calmly in response. “Do you think it understands us?”
“I understand you. Avënou lieke, tëm tëk perainû keta utzou getëûpai,” the leopardess smiled and changed form.
“What?!” exclaimed Amedël, amazement and surprise painted on her face. Raine remembered her meting Mel in the forest for the first time, and her amazement at it all. That night she explained to the dwarves how Jes was writing their story It confused them as much as it had confused the others so, at least now knowing about Jes, they started singing around the fire. The nights’ warm campfire and talk was something that the Faithful Ones always had wherever they travelled to.

Every night, Taigat-Zhëtzen wondered at the stars, calling them floating fires, and how far away they must be to glow so dimly. Amedël, Zadut, and Bouniek were content to keep their eyes lower than the peaks around them, unused to the empty space above their heads. But Taigat-Zhëtzen was a fire-keeper so he spent his time around bright, flickering, burning, glowing lights. The stars seemed opposite to fire, given that they provided no warmth and little light, but both were mesmerising in their different kinds of magic.

They travelled through a pass and eventually reached a valley where three tributaries merged into one river, and the valley forked. Instructed by Bouniek, they followed the valley west and one of the streams through. It was the eighth moon, the beginning of winter, so the air was quite cold and the stream was icy. The Faithful Ones wrapped their cloaks about them and huddled together at night, and Mel spent a lot of time in Leopardess form. Blaze’s birthday passed, as did the days as the moon swelled. Clouds thickened, sometimes casting down rain or sleet or most often settling on the peaks in the mornings, and the sunshine began to weaken. Trees and bushes stood empty of burdens, their leaves strewn on the ground.

Mel told the Faithful Ones stories of her Creator and taught them songs. The dwarves told their only stories, and they often sung the Forgen Song. One night, Taigat-Zhëtzen told a story about a Red Clan hero, a story the Faithful Ones had heard several times before, each time told by different people. Taigat-Zhëtzen’s telling was different from what they’d heard previously, not that those tellings had been the same either.
“Zhôrfaiduln was a warrior of enormous strength and good heart. He was the Leader of the Red Clan, in the First Age, of people’s beginnings, when myth was true. He and a number of the clan were roaming the icy peaks in the eight moon. He heard the Westheathites and Northesians marching to fight to claim borders. Zhôrfaiduln with his good heart wanted to spare as many lives as he could, so he led the dwarves to the battle. Stop fighting’ he cried, but the humans didn’t hear. He led his warriors into the valley where men already lay mortally wounded, and the dwarves fought hard to stop the humans but lost many of their own. One of Zhôrfaiduln’s friends was killed and when he saw it he cried out so loudly that the mountains seemed to shake. He went berserk with fury and, raising his battle-axe high, he fought beyond the point of exhaustion to drive the Westheathites and Northesians away. But he was gravely wounded, and turned to stone-sleep only two days before his clan returned to their caverns. The Red Clan bears Zhôrfaiduln’s roaming spirit to this day, warriors and good brave dwarves still.”

“Oh, you still call him Zhôrfaiduln?” Amedël asked, “I call him Zhofadoun.”
“Why?” asked Rose.
“There’s two different pronunciations of his name. We dwarves used to have a Westheathite accent in the First Age, but we lost it when we stopped roaming so much. So ‘Zhôrfaiduln’ became ‘Zhofadoun’,” explained the buchod keeper.
“That is well, but people name their kids after him. There’s a fire-keeper apprentice named Zhofadoun, so I have to differentiate,” replied Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“Oh little Zhofa!” Amedël smiled and Taigat-Zhëtzen nodded, apparently surprised at her enthusiasm. “He like to some and read after midmeal.” Taigat-Zhëtzen grumbled something.

“I didn’t know dwarves used to roam about,” Matthew said, and Bouniek started discussing dwarvern history with the group. It was quite interesting, although Raine got distracted every now and then, watching the landscape as they walked. It was quieter in winter without the chirping insects, she noticed. Suddenly the valley ended, and became a small cliff about twice as tall as Mel when she was in Elven form. The stream flowed out of a crevice in the cliff, tumbling over rocks and back the way they’d come to merge with the other tributaries. Mel shifted back into leopardess form and, shuffling her paws as she gathered herself, made the easy leap to the ledge above the cliff. She then shifted back and helped the others up. They had to climb a little, and then Mel would grab hold of them and pull them over the edge. Then it was a steep walk with little rest to the top of the rise, where the Faithful Ones stopped to rest and eat a while and continue over the mountain.

Raine woke from a nightmare about an hour before dawn. Once she realised it wasn’t real and her breathing slowed a bit, she softly sang the lullaby she and Salma had made in the forest. When Mel woke and saw that Raine was awake, she asked why, and Raine explained. She started rambling about her family, and Mel told her things from Jes’ life that had been happening in that world. She sang a song that helped when things got too much, and it comforted Raine. It was nice to wake, even from a nightmare, and begin the day with song and a friend who understood.
“Although my family is long gone and turned to ash, and I still miss them, the Faithful Ones are my family. All of you are my siblings, and I would fight for all of you,” she said, making Mel smile and draw her into a blissful hug, and Raine repeated the words to everyone throughout the day.

Chapter 20

The Faithful Ones looked down the mountain, to the south where Westheath lay, then the north where Northesa stretched out in their path.
“There,” Bouniek pointed to a town just north-west of them, a little way from the base of the mountains. “I know a woman there, and she will let us stay in her home for a few nights.” They started their descent, and the next day they came to a valley that became uneven grassland. After almost all them had tripped or stumbled at least once on the unfamiliar and more rocky terrain, the group slowed and went more carefully. It occurred to Raine that the mountains were not so much a border but dwarvern territory, for even though the Caverns were commonly the dwarvern kingdom in themselves, they were its capital. Bouniek and Amedël had told them that there were a few other clans living in other parts of the mountains, in smaller cave systems. Besides, the dwarves didn’t keep entirely to their underground halls, since the hunters and gathers had to find and provide enough for several clans.

It took the Faithful Ones another two days to reach the town Bouniek had pointed out. Some of the people recognised Bouniek and Amedël, and some stopped to watch the group pass.
“Come play with me, Amedël!” called a little girl.
“Not right now, Lily. Maybe later,” Amedël replied.
“Why not?”
“I have to talk to your mother. Do you want to take us to your home?” Lily nodded eagerly, taking the dwarf’s hand and practically pulled her along.
“Amedël, Bouniek, what are you doing here?” asked a woman who must have been Lily’s mother.
“Travelling, although that is not all. How are you, Tania?” Bouniek answered.
“We’re doing fine, but Lily has missed you. How are you?”
“We’re well, thank you,” replied Amedël, “May we stay at your house while we’re here?”
“I’ll find room. Come in, come in!” Tania nodded.

Lily helped her mother bring food to the table as the Faithful Ones introduced themselves.
“What brings you here?”
“We heard whispers, told to us by traders, of a wish to rebel,” said Rain. Tania sighed, setting a jug on the table, and looked at each of them.
“We are too afraid, and you look too young — if I may say so — so there is little but fragile wishing. Most believe it is too hard.”
“But the Raging Wolf keeps you here. Surely you want freedom.”
“The Raging Wolf knows some dark thing that lets him bind us to Northesa, some kind of black magic,” Tania said quietly, filling her voice with hate and fear. Mel gasped and growled.
“How did he come to know this magic? It is not easily found without knowledge given to him that should never be shared.” she asked, but Tania didn’t know.

Mel told a story over dinner — after explaining Jes to Tania.
“The Creator’s people became slaves, and male children had to be thrown into the river. One mother didn’t do this, instead raising her child until she could no longer hide him, then sending him down the river in a basket. One of the king’s daughter’s found him, and raised him as her own. The boy became a man, and he didn’t know that he was not a prince as he had been told. One day he saw someone beating one of the Creator’s people, and he killed them, hiding the body. The next day two of the Creator’s people were fighting and when the man stopped them they asked if he would kill them like he had the other man. He became scared and fled the city.

“He sat by a well, and the seven daughters of the priest of that region came to water their animals. Some other shepherds tried to chase them away but the man stopped them, and then watered the daughters’ animals. He agreed to stay with the priest, and he married one of his daughters. As he was looking after the sheep and goats, he came across a burning bush that didn’t burn up. The Creator spoke to him saying ‘I have heard my people cry out. I will bring them to a good land. Now go the king and lead my people out f this country’. The man asked what to say if they asked what the Creator’s Name was, and the Creator said ‘I Am’. The Creator gave the man power, and sent him back.

“The man said to the king ‘let my people go’, but the king refused and punished the slaves, and the man turned his staff into a snake. Still the king would not let the people go, so the man struck the river with his staff and the Creator turned all the water to blood. Again he went to the king, and again he refused, and each time The Creator sent a different plague upon the land but protected His own people. He sent frogs, gnats, flies, sickness on the animals, boils, hail, locusts, and darkness. Still the king would not let the Creator’s people go, so the Creator declared that He would kill every firstborn son. The Creator’s people were told to smear lamb’s blood on their door-frames, prepare a meal, and ready themselves to leave. They did so, cooking the lambs and making a sort of flat bread. At midnight, every firstborn in a house without blood over the door-frame died. In every household someone was dead.

“The king called the man to him and told him ‘take your people and go!’ So they went, travelling to the sea, and when they were gone the king changed his mind and sent his soldiers after them. The Creator’s people were scared, but the Creator told the man to lift up his staff, and He parted the sea so His people could walk through on dry land. So they went, and the king’s soldiers started chasing them, but as soon as the Creator’s people were across the sea filled the gap again and the soldiers were drowned.”

“Well that Creator is certainly powerful.” Tania got up and stacked the dishes on the kitchen bench then came and sat back down. “How do you plan to set us free?”
“I will go and convince the Raging Wolf to undo his dark spell. Whoever will stand for their freedom must do so. The Raging Wolf must know that the Northesians won’t stay under his spell willingly any longer, and they will be free. This will help to weaken his resolve. We’ll welcome anyone who joins us, even if they’re renegade soldiers, regardless of if they are spies or not, because we need the Raging Wolf to know we’re coming. My Faithful Ones and I will return to the Dwarvern Caverns to ask their king for some armour and weapons, but the Northesians must also forge or find their own as well. In the mean-time, you must spread the word across all Northesa,” answered Mel, and everyone nodded solemnly.

“Come everyone, come gather hear hear me; I have great and wonderful news!” shouted Tania, she and the Faithful Ones standing in the town square.
“What’s going on?” asked someone as people came to see.
“Here stands those who would lead us into battle for our freedom from the Raging Wolf! If you will join us, come with a weapon, and we will travel to the castle in Belfaiten and be free.” The crowd roared and cheered.

The next day, the Faithful Ones packed themselves up, having decided to return to the Caverns they bade Tania and the town well in their preparations, promised to return as soon as they could, and thanked her for letting them stay with her. She in turn thanked them for all they’d said and done, and wished them safe travel and the dwarves easy forging. Then they left, back across the Northern Ranges.


Chapter 21

The Faithful Ones told Gatûkai-Zhëtzen about the Northesians and their plan, and he promised his dwarves would provide some armour and weapons, and join the army himself.
“It’s not an army,” said Mel.
“It is a multitude of people who will go to fight together. Therefore it’s an army,” he point out, and Mel sighed. Raine didn’t like the term either, or fighting in general, and nor did anyone else else in the group, judging by their frowns and the overall pensive mood they’d had since leaving Tania’s town.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, whatever she did. Only reading paused her circulative, repetitive pondering, but Raine couldn’t read forever. She sought out the bards and her friends in the Ice and Hollow Clans to keep her company, searching for a way to keep her mind off the battle and what she knew would come. It was just wrong that they would fight for freedom but kill those they fought against, because the dead cannot enjoy the freedom won. Raine turned her thoughts from the matter again and focused on the record book she’d borrowed from the Ice Clan, which described all the things the bright carvers had made is the past fifty years. Some were simple jewellery pieces while others were huge decorations given to other clans or to the king. But none were ever made to seem dull or worthless. There were many types of records; Clan records of daily life and big events, guild/profession records, diaries of various leaders and rulers, trading records, and such. They could be anything from genealogies, to history books, to diaries, to anything that would track dwarvern history. And all of them kept Raine’s mind off the battle.

Raine sat beneath the Forgen with Nimue, listening to the song and telling stories to each other about things they’d done. The Water Spirit had been telling her stories and making friends with the dwarves, although some were ambivalent towards her. When there was nothing else to tell, they fell into compatible silence, and Raine started humming along with the Forgen to keep her thoughts off the battle. Nimue started singing in Dwarvern rather well, without hesitation between words; she knew the language and song much better than Raine did. She started singing too, and their filled the nearby passageways with their voices. After several repeats, Nimue stopped singing.
“What are you doing?” asked Raine, tilting her head.
“Just wait a moment,” replied Nimue, who had gotten up and now faced the Forgen, “Zëtha-vûnbouzie, aizhek ôld zieën vouraliel lebain. Zeigan yëzhd en ouvrô tôul utie ôler uzen, zum tafô atai tôul tef uzëmû. Ôld mër zhal zeigan nûk tôul utie kanû failë ôler, zum er hërzhëzhû kaim nûk aifnôr.” The tune changed a little, and whatever magic lived in the Forgen now had a quiet voice that sung ‘Those who hear, wondrous journeying awaits you, and you must join the battle to find that life’. It sung this in Dwarvern between the old humming.

Mel was casting spells on the metal so that when the armour and weapons were complete they would have special properties, and Nimue went to help her. Raine went to sit in the cave they’d first met Zadut and Taigat-Zhëtzen in, and found the other Faithful Ones on the way. They came to join her and they sat there talking about the Spirit-Pool Village before they’d left. The four dwarves listened, and told stories of their own childhoods. When Mel and Nimue were finished, they came to the Faithful Ones carrying packs.
“King Gatûkai-Zhëtzen said we could go to the forest, since he could tell we need something to keep our minds occupied,” the Spirit explained, and all jumped up, excited to travel. That was something familiar to them, something mostly not related to battles. They put on the packs and went, walking along the mountain range.

The winter’s snow had long ago melted, since it was the twelfth moon. Time seemed to run ahead and slip away from the Faithful Ones, leaving them thinking it was earlier in spring than it truly was. In Northesa the snow had still been melting and flowing into little channels, although that had been two moons ago now. The sky overhead was overcast but there was little threat of rain, and soon the sun returned as bright as ever, and the clouds that remained were thin and wispy. Flowers speckled the grass with bright colours and Rose and Sunny wove crowns from them, as they often did, humming like the bees that traced invisible paths between the flowers. The friends sang their favourite songs, and at last they forgot the battle to come. They were enjoying the travelling, the peaceful way the land seemed to stay the same even as it changed as they walked and ran on towards their destination.

They filled their water skins with sweet cold water from the rivers as they crossed, and swam for an afternoon. The Spirit played hide and seek with them in the water, almost vanishing completely whenever she sat perfectly still. Then the gentle current would lift her hair to the surface and they’d find her. They dried by the warm campfire in the late afternoon and watched the sun dye the sides of the mountains gold and orange. At sunset, the sun was fire and the fire was sun, and it was beautiful. During twilight, the orange faded to soft pink them merged with the darkening sky to a lavender then an indigo. The stars came out, and the Faithful Ones played the star-spotting game. When the fire began to die they pulled the blankets over themselves and slept.

The forest sat as a green smudge, growing each day until it was upon the friends. Clouds had gathered and thickened, swollen to a bruised blue-grey, and loomed overhead until the afternoon one the Faithful Ones had set their packs down somewhere safe. The rain held no longer than that,and it fell gently with its song of pitter-patter-splash. But it didn’t matter because it was beautiful and cast peace over the group. Mel shimmered and turned into her leopardess form, and leapt into a tree where she sat with her tail hanging down from the limb. The others climbed into trees around her, two or three to a tree, and the Westheathites helped the dwarves up.
“Remember the day I met you here in the forest? It was so long ago,” said Raine.
“Even then I had known the battle would come. I had known, even before you met me, of your fear of fire too, and of the rock fall,” replied Mel, the same future smile upon her face she had worn a year ago.
“What of the future?” Amedël asked.
“There is much more than I could tell,” Mel faltered for a moment, worry and sorrow flickering over her face, “but there is always joy to be found, and we will find our place as we journey over oceans ad seas.” The Leopardess-Elf warmed the cold silence with her voice, keeping fears hushed. The rain lightened as night drew closer, and by the time it had fallen it was little more than a gentle mist that left everything damp or drenched depending on where it sat. Rose climbed down and got out ohtceks for everyone which were eaten with delight and then, since the ground was just as wet as they were, they slept in the trees.

In the morning the rain had stopped and the sun managed to cast its golden warmth through the misty corridors between trees before the clouds returned. The mist settled back along the ground as it rained again, a fine drizzle that was indistinguishable from the mist. It was peaceful, and the peace silenced Raine’s worrying and fears, replacing them with hope. They would win the battle, they would set the Northesians free. She smiled, and closed her eyes to sit silently as Mel often did, although her mind wandered. Throughout the quiet day her mind slipped between silence and daydreaming, and she had no need to guide her thoughts. So far away from the battle preparations, they forgot all about it.

Chapter 22

By nightfall the rain had stopped, and everyone helped to find dry firewood so they could have a hot meal instead of more ohtceks — which were good but had gotten a bit soggy and everyone was cold. Several of the group had started sniffling and coughing, so Blaze and Mel went to find some things to make tea with so they wouldn’t get too sick. Those who weren’t sick tended to the fire and prepared a stew, and added their voices to the orchestra of the forest. Frogs croaked, the fire crackled, crickets chirped, raindrops dripped from branches, and a breeze stirred the leaves with little more than a sigh. An owl flew overhead, silently searching for the home of the stars and moon. Blaze and Mel returned and they made some tea as they sang with the others. When it had brewed they poured it out and gave it to Amedël, Taigat-Zhëtzen, Freya, and Rose.

“Water Spirit, you looked like you merged with the rain,” said Bouniek.
“It’s like how I seemed to merge with the water in the river. I’m made of water and magic, so of course I look like I’m merging,” she smiled in reply.
“Remember all those stories you old us before you sent us adventuring ?” Sunny asked, tossing her hair to mover her hair which had fallen over one eye.

“Of course.”
“I remember the one about the blood-key you told us right before you left. That one passed around quickly, I think everyone was fascinated by how strange it is.” Amedël coughed and drank some more of her tea.
“Oh yeah, that’s one of my favourites. Hey, it reminds me of the story about how the Creator sacrificed Himself and conquered death,” realised Raine, and the Leopardess-Elf smiled. The stew was ready now, so Matthew served it to everyone, and the clearing fell quiet as the Faithful Ones enjoyed its delicious warmth. After the bowls, given by Gatûkai-Zhëtzen, had been cleaned they sang more before sleeping. Raine dreamt of the battle, a nightmare where the foe was fire and her only weapon was a wooden sword. Then suddenly she was holding her key to her chest, and Mel was falling over the cliff as some nightmare-imagination of the Raging Wolf edged closer with a huge black sword. Raine woke with a gasp, several tears in her eyes sliding down her face as she blinked them away.
“Nightmare?” Amedël asked. It was still dark.

She nodded, and took a deep breath to calm herself. A nightmare is only a dream after all, not something that could physically hurt her.
“Just a dream about the battle.”
“Me too,” replied the dwarf. “It helps to know that I’m free though. There is truly nothing that can harm us.”
“You have a key?”
“Yeah, see, it’s got a dragon on one side and knots on the other.” Amedël held it up so the starlight shone on the head/handle.
“It’s really pretty,” Raine mumbled, and fell back to sleep into a dream about a dragon made of stars. When next she woke, it was dawn.

They packed themselves up and began the journey back to the Caverns. They ran less than usual because Amedël, Taigat-Zhëtzen, Freya, and Rose were sick, but they sang as they always did, changing paces with the songs to collectively stamp the beat with their footsteps. How perfect and awesome it was, to be filled with a wild joy that was incomparable to any other feeling. This wild joy was a kind of courage full of hope, giving power to do anything — how Raine needed the power of courage when they were to fight. But that wasn’t yet, so she forced it from her mind and sang with all her strength. At midday they stopped to rest and eat, then they continued but without running at all because the four with colds were tiring. Matthew found a good piece of wood, which might have been firewood that night except he claimed it for carving. Raine remembered with a smile the time in the forest the year before when Blaze and Sunny had gone gathering wood for his birthday. She remembered, too, the little fairy he’d carved for her, buried at the bottom of her pack.

Clouds covered the sky, and the sun cast its yellow light on their undersides so the whole world looked strange. Tea brewed and a meal was cooked, and when the light was gone the clouds remained. The moon wasn’t up either, but the campfire was bright. They played a game of storytelling, each saying a word to build the tale and try to pull it in their direction, going around the circle the Faithful Ones sat in around the fire.
“Once,” began Freya.
“Fly? That’s not how… oh well. There,” grumbled Taigat-Zhëtzen.
“Many.” Rose couldn’t say her word for all she was laughing and coughing.
“Sorry. Lilypads.” So it went on, becoming a strange fairytale about a princess who lived inside one of the lilies and all her efforts to get away. In the days that followed, whenever someone burst out laughing it was usually because of some strange arrangement of words that didn’t quite make sense.

The four who’d gotten sick had stopped coughing and sniffling now. The half-moon hung low in the west as the sun sat several hands above the east. To the south was the Spirit-Pool Village — which hadn’t ever really been a home to Raine — and the Coastal Mountains, and to the north was the shelter of the Northern Range whose Caverns were almost like a home they’d spent so much time there. Further north was Northesa, where Tania and many others would be preparing for battle. Fear churned in Raine’s stomach, but she reminded herself they’d be fighting for freedom, and began singing the lullaby.

Rose braided Salma’s hair, and Salma and Raine gathered flowers to put in their plaits. How strange to think this was the thirteenth moon of the second year they’d spent travelling. It was in the last week of this moon two years ago that Nimue had told them about their tasks. Raine had been twelve, and had felt too young to lead. Now fourteen, still too young to lead, she travelled endlessly and how beautiful the world was and yet so full of darkness. But oh, how long ago her years in the Village were, how distant it was.
“We were so little when you told us your stories and then of the tasks. We hardly understood any of it, yet here we are truly alive because we retold all of it a thousand times until we almost understood,” Raine said to the Spirit.
“You were so much more unsure of yourself, still trying to understand the world and how to live with your aunt. Yet I think we never cease trying to understand. As soon as you think you’ve figure it out, you enter a storm of doubts and questions and conflict, and it leaves you to start again,” she replied, and Raine nodded.

“Do you feel Him in your heartbeat even when you’re running?” Mel sang to herself. Raine overheard, and began a different song.
“Yes! I am running, won’t be long ’til I am home.” Mel Looked at Raine and smiled, and they tried to sing between panting as they took off running ahead, but running took all their breath. They stopped to wait, then sang a different song with the others — the hymn that guided their adventuring now.

The moon was empty now and the Caverns were nearing. Raine watched the last star of night fade as the sun crept closer to the horizon, but it hadn’t risen yet. She was the first awake — not because of nightmare, for once — and she’d spent the time watching the sky lighten. Tonight they’d share their meal with the Red Clan (although Bouniek and Zadut would eat with their clans). Until their return, however, they could still pretend the battle would never happen.

Chapter 23

The Faithful Ones were greeted by one of the blacksmiths who’d been working on the weapons.
“The King sent me, he said you should be back today. The weapons and armour are ready.”
“Thank you,” smiled Mel, but Raine saw it was hiding her fear, she saw in Mel’s eyes that she was terrified by the reality of it all now. They went to Gatûkai-Zhëtzen’s throne room and were allowed in almost as soon as the guard realised who they were.
“So you have returned, only to leave as soon as we’ve finished our preparations,” he said with a chuckle.
“Yes, that’s how it goes with endless travelling,” replied Raine.

After the freedom of the forest and travelling without fear of what would come, Raine found the caves strangely pressing down on her and trapping her. Now, whatever she did, she couldn’t stop thinking about the battle to come. Her mind imagined the battlefield during and after the battle, it imagined death, it imagined the Raging Wolf in his castle. Where could she hide when the things she fled were in her own mind? She tried to sleep, but as she drifted off she kept beginning to dream of the horrors her mind had imagined. She got up and tip-toed into the stone-roofed courtyard and saw Mel curled up in the corner. Mel started then realised it was just Raine.
“Are you thinking about the battle?”
“Yeah,” Mel sighed, “but also other battles Jes fights.” Raine sank to the floor beside her friend and they talked about battles until they fell silent and simply sat there lost in quieter thoughts. Eventually sleeping and dreaming mixed with thinking, and wakefulness disappeared like an owl on a moonless night into darkness past the hushed midnight bell which had tolled quite a while ago. The deep silence of latest night hushed their dreams, too, giving them peace from nightmares and providing rest.

it was nearly time for midmeal when Raine woke and saw Mel was still half asleep.
“Morning,” she mumbled, stretching as she yawned. “The floor is more comfortable than it looks.” Raine agreed, standing and stretching as she went to get dressed before stumbling out to find food.

The day was spent in preparation for travelling to Northesa. There were many dwarves who’d chosen to go with their king, and most wondered about the new part of the song the Forgen sang. Raine smiled when she heard its echo, remembering how Nimue had spoken to whatever spirit lived inside the Forgen. Mel took them to choose their weapons, to the dismay of all. Raine chose a long dagger, Rose, Sunny, Freya, Blaze, and Amedël chose swords, Salma, Matthew, and Bouniek chose shields, Mel chose a long bow, and Taigat-Zhëtzen and Zadut chose pole-arms. Afterwards, they returned to their quarters to pack their belongings.
“Should we name our weapons?” asked Rose.
“I think it would be cool, but you don’t have to,” replied Mel.
“I name my sword ‘Radiance’.”
“I think I’ll name my dagger ‘Endurance’, because I will endure this battle to fight for freedom and for the Creator.”
“My bow will be called ‘Emrísorn’ which means ‘morning’ in Elven,” said Mel. It was the first Elven word she’d said to them, and it sounded strange and pretty. The others didn’t name their weapons, but everyone was hoping they’d be able to protect themselves and others with them. Raine put her dagger in her pack, and stayed in the room until nightmeal. Outside the room, in the courtyard, Mel, Sunny, Matthew, Blaze, and Amedël were talking quietly. Rose had gone to read in the Buchod Room Amedël took care of, Salma and Freya had gone to the Ice clan, Taigat-Zhëtzen was working with his fellow fire-keepers, and Zadut and Bouniek were talking to the sages. When the bell called ‘dinner time!’ Raine only traced her Glitter and stared blankly at the door before shaking her head and heading off to eat.

Raine slept fitfully, and was glad when morning came despite the fact that today was the day they’d leave for Northesa. Before noon everyone who was coming was ready and amassed around the Caverns’ three main entrances. By afternoon they were on their way. There was roughly four hundred dwarves coming to help free the Northesians, all of them following the Faithful Ones who’d come this way before. They distributed themselves throughout the large company, which was the beginning of an army, telling stories and teaching songs and generally sharing life together. How wonderful it was, when most of the dwarves were singing the same song with the Faithful Ones and it echoed through the mountains. They often sang the song that guided their journey, and when the thoughts of battle were too much Raine remembered the line ‘we know the outcome is secure’ and remembered that victory was certain. But that didn’t stop her mind form imagining nightmares.


The dwarves camped outside Tania’s town while the Faithful Ones visited their friend.
“Four hundred dwarves have come with us to help fight for your freedom, including their king, Gatûkai-Zhëtzen,” said Mel.
“Thank you. I sent word to everyone I know, to tell everyone they know and so on. Those who have joined this rebel army are gathered in the region surrounding Belfaiten where the Raging Wolf’s castle is. There are about twelve hundred I think, and more who won’t fight but help us in other ways. Oh, I’m glad you’re back. He knows we’re planning rebellion, and his soldiers have been patrolling the streets of every town and village in case we dare to do anything, but they nit-pick every wrong look and almost took someone to gaol the other week.”
“Everyone is relatively safe though?” Rose moved her hair aside. Tania nodded.
“Are you coming to fight as well?” asked Raine.
“I’m worried about Lily. What if something happens to her during the battle? What is something happens to me?” The same fear that dwelt in Raine’s nightmares was evident in Tania’s face, a fear for oneself and one’s beloved ones.
“Maybe we can find someone who’d be able to look after people’s children during the battle, so they’d be safe and out of the way,” suggested Matthew. Tania thought about it for a moment then agreed.

The dwarves and Faithful Ones stayed near the town that night, and Tania and Lily joined them the next day when they moved on. Soon her pretty voice was added to the deeper chorus of the dwarves. Other voices, timid voices, joined as they passed towns and villages and gathered those who had been too scared to fight but now knew they had safety in numbers. Raine still feared what her mind had imagined, but she reminded herself every day that they’d be safe.

The walls of Belfaiten rose over the land, and the castle turrets rose higher beyond like mountain peaks. Then a horn sounded in the distance and Raine saw a relieved person running towards them.
“You’re here! The fabled Faithful Ones are here, and with support from the dwarves under the mountains!” they exclaimed. Raine smiled and nodded.
“Soon we will be free from the Raging Wolf’s tyranny,” replied Tania. The dwarves set up their tents beside the Northesians’. Raine sat outside, near her tent, going over the dagger tricks she’d learnt over the trip from a hunter. Gatûkai-Zhëtzen came and sat near her, having also finished setting up.
“Who’s looking after your kingdom while you’re away?”
“My nephew Zëbûnr-Vazhtien, named for his bright curiousness and wonder. He tends to stay with the sages rather than in the Royal Quarters, and he is wise. He’ll be a good king when he is old enough.”
“He didn’t hear the Forgen’s song then?”
“I wished and wished he would, but for all the wondrous voices of the earth and sky he hears he cannot hear the spirit in the Forgen,” the dwarf shook his head.
“At least you know there is someone trustworthy guarding your throne.” Gatûkai-Zhëtzen agreed.

The sun was two hand spans from the horizon. Mel gathered the Faithful Ones and they went foraging and hunting with some Northesians and dwarves in search of provisions for everyone. It was hard work but by nightfall there were pots of stew being prepared across the whole rebel army camp. Raine slept fitfully again, waking from a nightmare and slipping into another as the light of silver stars travelled from east to west.

Chapter 24

The sun in the east brought the second day in the rebel army camp. Mel had found out the day before that there was a renegade guard from the castle, and had organised a meeting with him, Gatûkai-Zhëtzen, Tania, and several other Northesians who had — so far — been doing most of the arranging. Raine sat close by with Rose, listening and quietly commenting or wondering.The guard, whose name was Gilvin, was a friend of one of the local lords, Cedric, who had also spurned the Raging Wolf and torn his loyalty from the tyrant. They seemed to be in charge of the meeting. Mel told everyone her plan to convince the Raging Wolf to undo his spell. Then Gilvin explained the castle layout so Mel would be able to find the Raging Wolf without bringing half the castle guards down upon her. They decided that everyone would march through the streets and surround the castle, drawing out the guards. During this time, Mel would go to overthrow the Raging Wolf.
“Soon our tyrant will be dead and we’ll be free!” Cedric declared, and the meeting was over.

Mel told strange stories about loving one’s enemies, about the Creator healing a lame man, about a prodigal son who took his inheritance and spent it all, about a sheep who ran away but was rescued by the shepherd. And although the Leopardess-Elf acted reasonably calm, Raine saw two other stories in her eyes. Mel was afraid, and Mel knew some secret she dared not confess. Raine had looked into those blue-grey eyes for years in her dreams, and they almost always held some unspoken message. First it had been the knowledge that soon they’d meet, then that they’d go to the Fire Plans, then that Mel would save them form the rock fall, and now she had a secret. Raine couldn’t interpret whatever message it was, but her friend wasn’t alright and that was bad — not that Raine was alright either.

Raine sang the forest lullaby over and over and over because she could not find sleep. It found her several hours before dawn but they weren’t enough. Mel went out a message declaring that the battle would be tomorrow, that they would rise before the sun. Worry and fear was written all over Mel’s face.
“We’ll win, it’ll be alright in the end,” Raine said.
“I know,” sighed Mel, knowledge of the future showing in her eyes, ” but battles are hard and I wish they didn’t have to be fought.” Raine started singing songs she Knew Mel liked, especially the one she’d sung on repeat one night. They both skipped dinner and went to bed while the sun was still up, and their tiredness kept nightmares at bay and sleep near.

Mel’s waking call rang out.
“Rise and ready yourselves!” The morning filled with shouts and the sounds of armour being put on as the Army prepared itself. The dwarves were painting their fingers with two red dots and an orange one between, and three small gold dots just above the fingernail, on each finger. Rain and Mel painted their hands the same way as the dwarves told the colours’ meaning. Red for love of their own, orange for determination, and gold for victory. The army stood ready. Nimue drew her sword, the only sound in the still morning. The blade was silver, the cross-guard was gold, and the pommel was copper. The blade glowed, stating with deep pink at the cross-guard, through to red and orange, and ending with yellow at the tip. A clear, pure diamond was set into the pommel. She’d been walking around that morning, resting her sword on the shoulder of almost everyone and they’d became healthy and strong. When she was finished, those who had horses mounted them. They sky was overcast. Raine remembered a line form the hymn, ‘and with the sword that makes the wounded whole’.

the Faithful Ones called out their battle cry, the dwarves shouted theirs, and the Northesians shouted ‘for freedom!’. They charged into the city, Mel (in leopardess form) ran with them, quickly arriving at the castle with Raine, Amedël, Taigat-Zhëtzen, Rose, and Blaze. They fought every guard they met, together, but when they drew close to the throne hall Mel sent them back to the streets.
“I’m coming in there with you,” said Raine.
“No! You must help the Northesians,” Mel blinked slowly at them, something hidden in her eyes that seemed like a sorrowing dread and slight expression of guilt that Raine couldn’t understand. “Go! I will return when it is done.”

Mel leaned on the great doors with her front paws and pushed them open. The Raging Wolf was sitting on his throne, a scabbard on his lap. His eyes were unfocused and his face showed sadness.
“Why do you carry a bow?” he asked upon noticing her. Mel put it down and shifted into elven form.
“What sorcery is this, that you can change shape? Who are you?!” he demanded, gripping his armrests.
“I am Mel, the Leopardess-Elf, who is Jes, creator of this world. It is my army of Northesians and dwarves and my Faithful Ones. They believe I will kill you, to free the Northesians from your black magic.
“Oh great, a hero who thinks they cam free my land from its tyrannical leader. Go right ahead why don’t you, sorcerer” he scowled.
“I can’t. I will be merciful and let you go. But tell me why you cast the spell over Northesa.”
“If you’re some creator, don’t you know already?”
“I want you to tell me. You’re not as fierce and cruel as they made you to seem.”

“I wanted to protect them from the dangers in the world,” he began slowly, hesitating. “Well, that’s how it was when I cast the spell. My parents were never there for me, always doing work for the kingdom, so I guess I felt neglected. I thought, if I can protect my kingdom and keep my people form wandering to dangerous places then I’d be a good ruler.”
“And now?” Mel asked gently.
“And now… Now I keep them here against their will and they’ve had enough, and you, — the creator of his world, you said — are here to not kill me but still you take them from me. The responsibility of a kingdom, no, the power of ruling, is too much for me to stand against and it had taken over. The work is difficult and I fell for the lie that more power makes it easier. I learnt a magic that I should have left uncovered, to keep my people from finding a better king.
“I understand.” The Raging Wolf smiled, a mostly false smile, not trusting Mel.

“You said you can’t kill me. But it was a lie to lure me into a false sense of security,” his eyes narrowed as Mel pulled an arrow from her quiver.
“I truly haven’t the heart to. I’m kind, and I’m giving you a second chance. Even my closest friend in this world doesn’t know I’m doing this. You must flee Northesa and never return. Never tell anyone you were king here.”
“What if someone finds out?”
“I will stand beside you and protect you. Take nothing but this arrow, and go to Icendell. Now take it, and go!” The Raging Wolf stood, muttering evil words as he took the arrow and fled.

Mel ran back into the streets in elven form. The battle had ended. She returned to the camp, and was joined by the fighters in the streets when they saw her.
“He is gone, you are free!”

Everyone called out their battle cries, ending the battle the same way it started. The Faithful Ones sang the song their story was based on, joy filling everyone’s hearts. A secret glowed in Mel’s eyes. Thunder cracked the clouds open and it began to rain.