I arrived at my cottage late in the evening, exhausted. I staggered in the door, swinging it closed behind me, and stumbled down the stairs into the darkened room. I peeled off my armor and fell into bed on my back, my eyes closed before my head hit the pillow. I awoke with a start and sat up straight. There was a pounding at the door. I groaned and swung my legs over the side of the bed sitting with my head in my hands a moment to collect my thoughts.[/P]

The pounding sounded again and I stood up banging my head on the stairs above my bed. I cursed as I grabbed my head with a grumble, walked around the staircase and headed up the stairs. As my hand reached for the door, it vibrated on the hinges as someone pounded once more. I jerked the door open with a frown and found someone I didn`t recognize.

“Yes? What is it? Do I know you?” My eyes tried to adjust to the dimness of the outside light, squinting to try and pick out features on the man in front of me.

“I have a message for you from Derfel Cadarn. You weren`t easy to find,” he said as he thrust out his hand. I looked at the scroll in his hand and took it, looking confused. I had not heard from Derfel in some time, and thought him to have gone to visit another land. I snatched the note and murmured a thank you as the man turned and sped from the house. After I closed the door, I thought perhaps I should have asked him to come in for refreshment or rest. Oh well, the time had passed now and it was too late.

I carried the note into the living room to the candlelight and opened the parchment with shaking hands.

Dearest Snowimp,

I hope this letter finds you well. I know we have not seen much of each other since we both left the Queen`s service.

Have you news of Mudshark or Jaharadine? I am not privy to the conditions of the Queen`s operatives anymore, and the dark rumours coming out of Sanamar worry me.

I would ask you to write back, but much has changed, and I ask you to meet me instead. I cannot talk of the nature of what I ask of you yet, but it would be wise if you intend to help me, to bring several days` rations and clothing for mountainous travel. I will be at the cottage in three days time of you receiving this missive.

Give my regards to Fiona and the rest of your household.

Your loyal vassal,

Derfel

I re-read it and then looked out the window at the snow falling. If Derfel was talking about heading out for a long journey into the mountains now, something was definitely up. I was not sleepy any longer, now I had things to do. I wanted to be at the cabin tonight since the messenger said it had taken a while to find me. I could not be sure how many days ago the note had been written. I quickly rolled the parchment again as I turned to head down the stairs.

I began to dig through the trunk and pull out things I thought I might need. I was also making a mental note of what I would buy in Holtburg before going to the cabin. I laid out a couple of robes for the cold weather, my bedroll, arrows, potions, rations, some cheese, and my new bow. I emptied out the miscellaneous items in my pack, and re-organized it all. I put on warm clothing, wrote Fiona a note explaining what happened, and picked up my armor before heading back upstairs.

I was dirty and sore from my last trip, but I decided I was not going to stop and worry about it now. I could wash and rest at the other cottage. My sollerettes thumped over the wood floor as I hurried to the fireplace to leave the note for Fiona. Once done I stood in the middle of the room and looked around me in the dim candlelight. Each time I left on one of these trips, I was never sure if I would be back or not. Each departure was bittersweet.

I pulled on my armor, swung my pack up on my back, took bow in hand and stepped through the front door. I took a deep breath of the cold air, and looked up at the sky. It was beginning to get light. I took out a Holtburg gem, rolled it my hands, and stepped into the portal that appeared before me. Once in town I headed to the grocer and picked up some torches, along with some food items before heading to the cottage.

I thought about the note again. He had asked about Jaharadine and Mudshark. How could I answer him? Could I bring myself to speak of them? Jaharadine and Mudshark had joined Varicci, and been labeled traitors, but it was a ruse. Jahar was still loyal to the Queen, and had joined to spy on Varicci. She and Mudshark had gone through a lot, and it had not played out well in the end. He would not like the most recent news.

I collected my purchases, placed them in the backpack, and pulled out my orb. I walked around the back of the shop and cast the spell to take me to the cottage. I appeared and saw Derfel walking around the corner of the cottage with a smile on his face.

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“Glad you could make it m`lady.” I smiled and hugged him thinking he felt thinner under his armor. I looked him over.

“I`m very glad you could too,” I said as I linked my arm through his and we walked towards the cottage.

“How goes town life?” he asked with a smile.

“Hectic as always, and you know how much I like that,” I said making a funny face. He laughed.

“One of the reasons I chose my new home, well besides this one.” I nodded, understanding what he meant. “I`ve been making my home at Neydisa Castle of late.

“It`s a beautiful place, especially at this time of the year. I called it home too, many years ago.” I smiled and let my mind travel back to those days of hunting out in the forests near the castle in the dead of winter. My escorts back then were Mr. Spears and Rick Martin. We wore matching white robes, and Ursuin helmets. I sighed remembering and snapped back as we entered the cottage and Derfel spoke.

“I`ll speak more of my time there later.”

“Fair enough,” I said with a nod. “I look forward to hearing about it.”

“It does remind me of my days back on Ispar though…” he murmured. I stole a glance and knew what he was thinking. If he were back on Ispar, if fate had not been so cruel, he would most likely be royalty himself by now. I walked towards the fireplace and quickly changed the subject.

“Ah, it`s good to be back, and in much happier circumstances!” I smiled and looked at Derfel. The last time we had been here together was when he had escaped from Varicci. He had been barely alive, and it had taken many days for him to recover enough to venture out on his own again. Derfel looked at me with a smile.

“Aye, it is.” He crossed to stand beside me in front of the hearth and we warmed out hands as I took off my armor.

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“So how has your life been lately?” Derfel asked as I sat down. “Since my capture we haven`t spoken much…”

“I have been… away for much of that time. I confess that I have become a bit of a hermit.”

“I know the feeling. Not so much in the Queen`s service any more?” He asked. I shook my head and drew my lips together tightly.

“I`ve even sold my villa and moved back to a cottage.”

“I had heard actually.” Derfel stole a glance in my direction.

“I know that Mudshark`s villa has been sold as well,” I added and heard Derfel sigh.

“I guess Varicci finally caught up with him.”

“I suppose so,” I said staring at the fire.

“And what of Jaharadine?” Derfel asked quietly. I hung my head as I spoke slowly.

“She is around, but what we heard was true. She was the one to kill Mudshark. She wrote and told me the whole story.” Derfel`s face turned grave as he looked at me. “I still don`t want to believe it.”

“Is she still in the service of the Queen?” Derfel sounded hopeful.

“Aye but she is a hollow shell of what she was. Killing the one she was so close to was a fatal blow I`m afraid.”

“Since my capture I am not privy to such information anymore.” Derfel gulped. “Does her majesty know what Jahar did?”

She knows,” I nodded, “and as a result Jahar is not… welcome in these parts at the moment. She returns secretly now and then.”

“Even in the name of the mission, I couldn`t imagine the Queen condoning that. Not after what happened to Antius,” Derfel said with a sigh.

“I think the situation was too similar to her own situation for the Queen. It was too strong of a reminder that her own actions ultimately caused Antius his life. At least the Queen knows Antius did not die by her own hand, whereas Jahar, must live with that every day.”

Derfel`s eyes took a steely shine for a moment as he spoke in a cold whisper. “I can only hope she uses it as fire to feed the flames of Varicci`s demise.” I nodded in agreement.

“Jahar is not fooled by this peace we have with Varicci,” I said through gritted teeth. Derfel placed his hand on mine and I looked up at him.

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“I agree with Jahar… he is biding his time. You don`t have to talk of this if it pains you.” I smiled at Derfel and put my other hand on his.

“Thank You… it`s good to have someone to tell this too. `Tis a heavy burden to carry alone.” I smiled.

“I can imagine,” Derfel said with a smile. “Glad I could be here.”

“I think that is why I am so glad that winter is here at last! It always signifies new beginnings to me. It is a time to wash away the dirt of the past. Start fresh, bright and refreshed.”

“It seems to suit you,” Derfel said with a chuckle. “It`s a good look.” Then his face grew serious. “It is to that end that I asked to meet with you.” I listened as Derfel got to the point and explained what his mission was to be.

“Are you aware of the rumour of Frore?” He asked me. I thought about it a moment and shook my head.

“No, I have not heard of it.” Derfel smiled at me briefly before going on.

“Well during my time in Neydisa, I heard of it myself. It is a great city, built by the Empryean long ago. Some frost worshiping undead held it. It caused some trouble years back, before my time here.” He paused and I nodded.

“They sapped the heat from the earth itself,” Derfel grinned as he paused to look at me. “You would have felt right at home.” I grimaced with a wry smile as he laughed before going on. “But they were defeated. Rumours are, however, that their warriors and mages still hold the city, and not only are there treasures there to be found, but it is one of the most outstanding, breathtaking sights to behold on this island.” I nodded listening to the tale, growing more interested in the possible journey ahead.

“I intend to visit this place.” Derfel paused and looked at me adding, “I would greatly appreciate your company, but I will leave that up to you. It would mean journeying into the frozen north for days. I do not ask lightly. The Esper Range is bad enough at the best of times, let alone this winter.” Derfel`s eyes grew dark for a moment and he said, “But this is something I have to do. I haven`t felt a calling like this since I was given leave of the Queen`s service after the uh… incident.” I nodded and squeezed his hand.

“Well you know I would do anything for you Derfel, and I came prepared to be away from home for as much as a couple weeks if need be. I kind of figured if you were asking to meet, it would be something like this.” Derfel smiled and laid his hand on my shoulder, his eyes filled with gratitude.

“Thank you my friend.”

“You are welcome Derfel. I always feel honored that you ask me to come along.”

“To be completely honest, Snowimp, there`s no one else I`d rather have with me on this.” He paused for a moment and I got us a drink of water while he talked. “I hear there are three standing stones in the north that hold the key to what we seek.” I nodded.

“Sounds like the place to start then.”

“As I said, I have been living in Neydisa for weeks now, training. It is time to face up to what I am, to live up to my training, I think… I am sick of the espionage assignments we have done in the past. Even if my lands are gone and my line is dead, I am still a Knight of Aluvia! No more skulking in shadows in some damp Viamontian dungeon in deniable missions.”

I nodded in agreement as I added, “Well, you are not alone Derfel, just remember that. I may not be a Knight, but I have your back.”

“You have proven time and time again you are braver than most Knights I knew.” I blushed at his compliment and faith in me and walked to my pack on the floor.

“I figure we can eat off the land as we go since I have learned to cook a bit. I have some basic food stuffs…” Derfel looked distracted, lost in thought far away, then he snapped back to reality.

“Yes!” He exclaimed, half in response to what I said and half as if in response to a private conversation with himself. “It uh… would make sense that way. I have faith that your bow could bring us some good Mattekar meat in those mountains.”

“Perhaps we could get a rabbit or chicken now and then? Or maybe even some deadfall apples!” I smiled. “I have brought my bedroll, water, flasks, torches and even a heavy robe to use.” Derfel laughed.

“You are better prepared than I am. I usually have a days ration on me, but it would be best to bring about a weeks worth. I don`t have a robe, but I have recently padded my armour.”

“It is ok Derfel I have a robe for you, and enough food to keep us going.” I smiled at him. “I have learned with you, it is best to come prepared!” I giggled and Derfel laughed.

“How true Ok, it is up to you my friend, but I think if you wish we can reach the first standing stone tonight and make camp, get an early start for the following one. On the other hand, we can rise early, gather anything else we need and leave in the morning. I leave it to you my friend. I owe you that much.” I knew that Derfel was thinking of the last time we were here at the cabin. I had taken care of him until he was on his feet again, but he knew he really owed me nothing.

“Let`s sleep, grab any missing supplies in the morning and then head out. I`m anxious to get going, but think we must discuss a few more things before we get too far into it.”

“Sounds good to me. How about we rest here for the night?” Derfel suggested as he stoked the fire. I nodded in agreement. We put aside all the supplies and lay on the bed in the firelight.

“Wow, I have not been on this bed since I stumbled in months back.” I chuckled at Derfel`s comment.

“It has been awhile,” I agreed as I stretched with a wide yawn and lay back on the pillow closing my eyes.

“The people in Neydisa snore,” Derfel said with a chuckle. I giggled.

“Good night dear friend, see you in the morning.”

“You as well Snowy.”

I lay in the dark for a while, listening to Derfel breathe. His breathing was relaxed and it made me smile. He felt safe here in this cottage, just like I did. Tomorrow we would be putting ourselves in danger, venturing forth into unknown dangers. But tonight, we could relax, be at peace, and enjoy the comfort of the cottage. I began to drift off… seeing us running through the mountains, through the snow… towards an unknown light.


Join us next time as the story unfolds!

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