The first thing I noticed was the smell. What is death supposed to smell like? Rotting flesh? Damp earth? In a wooden box there is nothing more to smell than memories, but a box was not my fate, nor did a deep grave hold me. The smell of nature brewing tickled those once frozen nostrils of mine. I could almost see the odour dancing around that log-walled cabin. The perfumed maiden twirled in circles from a steaming pot. She smelled of peppermint, and Echinacea blossomed from her swirling form. She curtsied to a short man stirring the pot, before spinning into the air. She played behind a thousand jars on a thousand shelves set into walls of wood. She skirted along tables a mess with flowering plants, herbs, and tools for their manipulation. The maiden dipped low, alighting on chests filled with all manner of trinkets and collections. Her journey was long, but the result was satisfying when she drew in close caressing my face. Her perfume stroked my nose seductively while her tresses fell low, gliding against my skin. Her breath on my neck caused it to tingle with pleasure. My skin was speckled with the cold sweat that only comes with embarrassment or fever.
A song reached for my ears, but it was not the sweet voice of this perfumed goddess. The voice of the man stirring the pot was pleasant in its own rugged way.
Green, the grass that does not die.
Blue, the taste of winter’s nigh.
Red, the smell of sun-kissed sands,
Gold, the colour of maiden’s hand.
She kissed me once, she kissed me twice,
Then she spoke to me so nice.
With lips so soft and skin so fair
How could she love this old bear?
Riul, Riul, the maiden of life
Loves all creation as a wife.
Her face is seen in tree and stone,
But oft she’s missed e’en when she comes.
The words fell away into a hum, but the tune continued. I tried to rise from the bed on which I had been lain, but it was as if the feathers sucked me into a smothering embrace, not wishing to let me go. My head rose from the pillow, but the rest of my body was unmoved. It felt numb with old wounds and unworked muscles: the paralysis of inactivity.
I heard the giant wooden pallet in my companion’s hand clank against the side of a pot before liquid was poured into a cup. He came over to me, holding the brew like a peace offering. “Don’t be moving too much yet. Sure to be stiff, there.” I’d seen his face before, but couldn’t quite place it. Once he spoke, it was even more clear to me that I should recognize this man.
“Where am I?” My tongue felt heavy and stupid inside that hole of a mouth. Its dry exterior knocked against the roof of my mouth as I spoke. The tea was surely to help with that. He set it on the top of a log which acted as a table for the accompanying pile of feathers I sunk into.
“You’ll be needing some help, there.” I almost didn’t feel his hand against my chest, the other underneath me. Those hands forced me to a sitting position and my joints creaked and groaned with the effort, but I gave no such complaints. My head began to spin as blood rushed around to fill the places where it was needed most. I raised one hand to my head in an attempt to steady myself. “This’ll help there.”
I took the cup from him gladdy, and raised it to my lips. The minty after-taste was glorious as it soothed my dying tongue and trickled down my throat like an April shower. Coughing a little, I lowered the mug from my face. “What is it?” I had so many questions, and the tea was the least of my worries, but what else could I really say?
“That there is your doctor. She’s been checking on you, there, quite regular.” His smile looked warm against the soft skin on his face.
I took another sip of the tea, trying not to gulp it down. The wet was a nice change to the dryness of my throat and tongue, but too much at a time would be less than pleasant. “Where am I?”
“So many questions, there. I suppose they make sense. You’re still in Keltone Coessarde, if that’s what you’re asking there. More particular, this be my home. I heard you blasting that horn there like some crazed lunatic. Good thing you didn’t lose her.” He motioned with his chin the the Horn of Riul which sat atop a low table at the foot of the bed. “A mighty shame it would be to lose such a piece as that.”
I tried not to laugh too hard, but even so, my chest screamed in defiance at the sharp breaths I drew for the hearty exchange. My face contorted into a wince and I clutched at the pain.
“Careful there. You’re still being weak.”
“You don’t say.” More tea filled that hole in my face after the word, but this time I wasn’t so careful. The dry burn of my throat turned into a hot scorch as the liquid spilled down it. I let out a short gasp and thought better of kicking myself at the foolishness.
“Careful there. She’s hot.”
“It seems I have to be careful all around.” I didn’t want to lash out at this man, but my frustration at the pain had to be vented somewhere. He just happened to be the unlucky sod sitting beside me. “Sorry,” I mumbled weakly.
He only gave me a piteous smile in return. “Just let that lady there do her work.” He motioned toward the cup with his chin. His hands went elsewhere, searching among the animal skin blanket that covered me. “Let’s check those wounds there.” He pulled the blanket down and a chill brushed against my skin. Goosebumps rose quick as they could, standing tall on my arms and legs. “Sorry, I’ve been trying to keep her hot in here.”
Judging by the roaring fire beside the bed where the tea was brewing, I was sure the heat was sufficient for a healthy body, but my half-naked, feverish one challenged its sufficiency. I say half-naked not because I wore any type of regular garments, but the cloth bandages holding my frame together covered much of my skin, and a thin sheet had been hung around the more private areas: certainly not the type of clothing one would walk through town in, and it was even less favourable to the chill I knew would greet me outside the hut’s walls.
Most of the bandages were soaked through with blood and mere spots of white stood out from the red and pink. Lifting up my left leg, the man with me begun to unravel the layers of cloth. I could hear the tear of dried blood fighting against the cloth but didn’t feel it until that final layer. He tried to be gentle, but the cloth stuck to my skin in the worst way, and I almost dropped the tea because of it. Surprisingly, most of the skin on my legs was still in tact… but the colouring was off. The old blood on the cloth stuck to my leg hairs more than open cuts beneath, but the purpling, patchy colour of my leg was evidence of the bruises.
He unwrapped the other leg, and it looked much the same. “Most people wear a coat there when it’s cold. Riul isn’t friendly to naked skin in the north.”
I didn’t say anything as he moved to unwrap the bandages around my chest, and I’m sure he didn’t expect me to. On my chest and back is where the cuts were most evident. Some scabs were partially torn off with the cloth. Fresh crimson dots rose from a large blackened scab on my chest, but most of the small cuts remained sealed, and many of them had already scared over. “That one there will be a battle wound the brag about.” He distracted me with those words, pouring a stream of drink on the now-open cut.
I gritted my teeth against the sting. “What is that stuff?”
“Many pour it into mugs and tankards. I find it being mighty on the open wound, there.”
“Stronger. Drink this there and you’ll burn a brain-cell or three.” I could have used a strong drink right about then, but didn’t say anything. Unbeknownst to me, this man had been caring for me some time now – the fresh scars on my chest evidence of the healing that had already occurred. Surely, he knew what he was doing.
“Who should I be thanking for this help?” The man was familiar, but I still couldn’t place him.
“Riul generally, myself in particular. I suppose you’re wanting my name there?” He began to dab away stray blood and alcohol with a corner of cloth. “Raod.”
“Raod.” I tasted the word for a time before continuing. “I don’t know what I have done to deserve such treatment, in particular, but Riul has done nothing for me to thank her for, in general.”
Dipping the cloth in a bit of water, he continued to clean me up. “Why’d you being found with that horn there, if Riul deserves no thanks?”
“That horn, sir, is a foolish trinket I was swindled into purchasing by a crafting merchant. He told me that I could command the voice of Riul herself with it. How foolish I was to believe it.”
“Foolish is a good description of that man I found being naked in the snow there, but he must’ve thought something of the thing he blew on to no end.”
A foolish attempt to die, perhaps. “If Riul deserves my thanks… you can tell her for me. I screamed into that horn til there was no more to say, yet she never came for me. If she listens to you more than me, my thanks would sound better on your lips, perhaps.”
“Arms up.” He reached for my chest with fresh bands of cloth and began wrapping the new bandages around me. “What do you expect of her?”
“Expect?” That question made me pause to think. “Well… I suppose she could help me when I’m in need. Is that too much to ask of a god?”
“Goddess,” Raod corrected, “And has she not helped you, there?”
“Where?” I mocked his over-use of the word.
“I’m sorry,” This man didn’t deserve me snapping at him. “I’ve just been through a lot.”
Raod finished wrapping me up, but remained silent. As he tied off the bands, he spoke, but his words were the farthest thing from what I had expected. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have sold that horn there, being as you don’t appreciate it.”
He continued working the bandages while I stared at him, shocked. “That was you?” It all came back now. I hadn’t expected a merchant travelling from Dete Plych to Glanderxe to be hiding out in Keltone, but the man was the same. I remembered the cart, the pony, the man… the horn. Did he really think it held some kind of power? “Why?”
“That there’s an odd question without context.” Raod watched his work but spoke to me.
“Why would the same man who cheated me out of 150 gold pieces now care for my wounds?”
“120 with a promise being thirty more from the queen… not that I expected to receive it.” He paused for a second before continuing, though still not answering my question directly. “And it was no cheat.”
“You expect me to believe that the horn has helped me?” It was hard not to be angry at a man who had cheated me of so much money, but this man had also saved my life. I was certainly in a strange way.
“I know not of times before, but Riul helped you in the Wastes there.” He seemed to actually believe what he was saying.
“How is that? I had nothing left but death on my plate, and she couldn’t even serve me that.”
“And yet you are being alive.”
“But that was your doing, of which I am grateful.”
“What do you expect of Riul? Should the Goddess come in pillars of fire and be working magic from smoke? Perhaps a spiritual glow in the night, showing you the way to the River West, there? Riul is creator and goddess of nature. Do you fault her for using her creation for the helping?” Raod finished wrapping me up and helped me reposition myself so that my legs hung loosely down the side of the bed. They felt heavy and useless, but my knees were thankful for the change in scenery.
I had nothing to say in response, and Raod took the opportunity to begin singing again.
Riul, Riul, the maiden of life
Loves all creation as a wife.
Her face is seen in tree and stone,
But oft she’s missed e’en when she comes.
As if in response to his own song, the man continued. “Tell me of the horn, there. How have you used it?”
I thought back to all the times when the foolish thing had been blown. “Well, Riul attacked me with wolves and the horn caused an avalanche which almost killed me.”
“But it did not? Is an avalanche not being of Riul’s design? She helped you, there, from a wolf attack, no?”
“Maybe…” the rock fall was natural because of the ridiculous noise I caused with the horn, wasn’t it? “Alright, then what about the attack on the bridge. I was fighting an allmarach and blew the horn. The only thing that happened there is that a wolf – which turned out to be a Tallri – jumped on him and then I lost my spirit.”
“Wolf, Tallri, worshippers of Riul…” I didn’t let him finish.
“Okay fine, well what about now. There is nothing ‘natural’ about you saving me. Rocks and wolves may be of nature, but you are just a guy in the mountains. You could have found me without that silly horn.”
“Oh? And how would that be being? A naked man there in the snow. The sound, there, let me find you. And am I being of Riul creation as well?”
I had no more to say to him. Could it be that Riul had been helping me this whole time, but I hadn’t even seen it? “Why do you care what I think of Riul? You can have the horn back if you want it so bad.”
“Because…” He took the empty tea cup from my hand. “I am Tallri.”
“Tallri?” The dumbfounded expression was plain on my face. “But you’re…” what was he? Approachable, quirky, short, not an attractive woman? The only other Tallri I knew was an attractive thief who knew her way around a fight, but her tongue poked at me more often than blade. She was a lying, manipulative trickster. Yet still I care for her… but only in the same way a knight would care for any woman. At least they had one trait in common. Raod had tricked me into buying a useless horn… or was it useless. I wasn’t sure anymore.
“Yes?” Raod looked at me as if peering over the rim of his speckles… not that he wore any. Clearly I had paused for longer than natural conversation allowed.
“I don’t know.” I said, still trying to size up the man in my head. “You’re just different.” That was a good word to describe this man with, whether I was trying to compare him with Kyra or not.
He laughed at that, taking my cup over to the still steaming pot of tea. Setting the glass on a wooden table by the fire, he uprighted an equally fashioned dish then proceeded to ladle out more drink. “Different than you be expecting a Tallri?” He moved to the second glass. “Or different than a hermitous merchant in the mountains, there?” Raod picked up the glasses, holding each one by the rim. With measured steps, careful not to spill, he returned to his place by the bedside and offered me one of the cups. “Careful. She’s hot.”
I accepted the drink by the rim, quickly setting it down on a nearby flat-topped log. The minty violet liquid spilt over the rim a bit, but I managed to pull away before burning the intact skin on my hand. “Tallri, I suppose. You see…” How much should I trust this man? Yes, he saved my life… but still… “I imaged your race different from the stories, that’s all.”
“Stories!” Raod took a sip of his tea before setting it down himself. “Is lore being your speciality now?” His bushy eyebrows almost seemed to lift from his face.
“I wouldn’t say that. I’ve just heard a thing or two.”
“I hope you’re being a better knight than liar… though how I found you, there, would suggest otherwise.” True, a naked form lying on the ground isn’t how most people envision a knight. Perhaps it would fit better by a tavern or brothel, but the naked man wouldn’t be a knight; just an impostor dressed as one, for there is nothing noble or “knightly” about such places.
“It is true, lessons in deceit were never part of my training at Glanderxe.” Leave that to the politicians. There was no use in trying to lie now. It was no secret that the men and women of Glanderxe Coessarde didn’t know that the Tallri or allmarach existed. I had been sent out to seek the Pharosh – the last remaining race of old… or that was the story anyway.
“I don’t suppose ‘History of the Tallri’ was being a class there either?”
“No, I…” he clearly wasn’t going to let this go. “I met one of your kind of my journey west.”
“My kind?” He laughed again, but not the over-joyous explosion that one would hold their stomach in for. His laughs were more that of a mouse, halfway between a chuckle and a snicker. “You say it like speaking of an alien disease.”
“Sorry…” I screwed up my face a little. Was it that obvious that I still didn’t really know a thing about the Tallri?
Raod took another sip of his tea, letting the cup linger by his lips for a time, breathing in the smell of Echinacea pedals and mint leafs. “Who was this Tallri you met there?” He no longer seemed to speak to me, but stared off in the distance through the steam rising from liquid close to his face.
“Umm…” He seemed… disturbed? Distracted? “She stole my money, led me off of the beaten path (in the most literal sense imaginable), and then tried to kill me.”
“Sounds like a right upstanding lady, there. The kind of company I’d expect a knight to keep.”
There’s the Tallri I know. The man certainly spoke, acted, and well… everythinged differently, but the stabbing sense of rumour remained. I took a sip of my drink, opting to give no reply. Though the jesting had a familiar taste, it wasn’t nearly as crude of vile sounding from Raod. If it was Kyra talking, I surely would have snapped at her for that comment.
“Did she leave a name there while stabbing you in the back?” He continued to look into the distance, fixated on nothing in particular.
“Kyra.” What would holding her name back serve? She hadn’t really done me any favours, and I couldn’t really trust her, but could I trust Raod?
He didn’t say anything at first, and I almost thought I saw a hint of surprise in his eyes; but whatever it was faded quickly. “Where is this Kyra being now?”
“You can leave that to Riul to figure out. Last I saw her was in the abandoned castle to the north.” Or was it to the north? I didn’t really know where I was anymore. “She made a pretty good mess of someone up there before turning into a bird and flying away.”
Raod shook himself from the self-imposed trance and set his tea back down. “Riul is not the one to be asking, there. She holds no favour for the Tainted.”
Tainted, I had heard that before, but Kyra was never too open about it. “Some kind of exile?” That’s the best way I could explain it anyway, with my limited knowledge.
“An adequate translation I suppose. Being cast out for rejecting Riul,” then he turned to me, and those copper coloured eyes seemed to smile. “But what am I being explaining to a lore-master like you, there?”
I smiled back, but didn’t dignify the joke with a laugh. Tallri humour had always caused me to lash out in anger, and it would take time to adjust to this more pleasant form of jest.
“Tallri are being the Gifted. So perfectly attuned with Riul’s creation that we can take on its form. The goddess gifts us there with power over her voice, directing creation with her desires.” This was a rather lengthy explanation to give to a lore-master. “The Tainted have been cast off, cursed for being defilers.” He took a sip of tea, pausing long enough for me to ask a question.
“Tallri is perfection. No evil. The tainted spirit is being dirtied, cut off from Riul’s power, there.”
“I heard some of this before.” Cargh had explained it some when I was imprisoned in Kho Arian… though it was probably just to spite Kyra. This was certainly a more friendly way to acquire information about the Tallri. “So, how’d you get kicked out?”
“Tainted?” He paused for quite a time before responding. Perhaps it was a painful memory. “I left Mhoarid, there.”
“The forest?” What type of strange religion forbade leaving a forest? I guessed it was no stranger than worshipping a rock… sorry, The Rock.
“Mhoarid is being a sanctuary. Untainted. The imperfect world outside, there, corrupted me.”
I laughed at the prospect that there was a place of perfection. The forest was thought to be haunted by wild beasts, or the dead, or whatever strange story the people of Glanderxe would come up with next. Never before had I heard it described as a sanctuary. “The world will do that to you. No one can stay young forever.”
“…Perhaps.” Raod had that far away look about him again. There was obviously a lot more to this story, but I suspected he wasn’t going to share it all with me. Who was I to him but a near-death survivor, and mostly a stranger? My suspicions were proved true as he shook away that far off look and took empty tea cup from its place atop the log table. “That being enough stories for now. Your wounds still need much healing, there. Rest, rest.”
My head felt almost heavy with the suggestion, but my legs were heavier. As I spun to re-acquire a lying position, my arms aided my legs back into place. I wasn’t paralysed, but my legs weren’t too strong yet, and moving them proved more difficult that I had hoped.
Raod stood up and placed the glasses in a basin he had filled with water that sat beneath the table he’d gotten them from. He walked toward the door to his small shack, and placing a hand on it, he turned to look at me. “You be getting a good rest, there. It’s a long ride to Glanderxe.”
My half closed eyes almost shot out of my head with surprise. “Glanderxe?”
“I’ve got a full cart of wares for being sold. They won’t travel the road there without me.” He gave me a half smile and his eyes laughed at the suggestion. “The Great City is being a mighty market for the long forgotten goods of Keltone there, and it wouldn’t be proper to leave a half-dead man alone in this cabin, there. Now, rest, rest. I being gone to prepare the journey load.”
Glanderxe. I let out a sigh as my over-tired eyes fought with me. After such hardship to get this far, who knew the journey back would be this easy. Nothing about this fool’s errand had been simple so far, and I looked forward to lounging on a cart for the remained on the journey… not that I could do much else, being half-dead and all. Maybe if I blow the Horn of Riul she would heal me up through some natural healing rain or something. I laughed at such foolishness while Raod left the cabin, and my mind left to sleep.