previous index next

As some Exiles leave with Silverquill, and some contemplate other paths, a stranger arrives...

Silverquill's departure was swift, and Vizz and Entislar accompanied him. Some said that Wilma had been too harsh, and were sad to see the little fellow depart for, if nothing else, a new game, Bullman in the Middle, had sprung up among the children, the durulz's more gaudy feathers being the prize. But the little one had promised to return, and to do so with new information to make his beloved companions stronger....

Darvor Bearstrength is much mentioned before the Berry Festival - will he, as he has always done, load the bushes about the stead with the blessings of the forest? The mood is confident, for the Exiles feel they have been visited recently by the Gods, that the Storm Tribe came to their aid and saved them from the Aramite raid. It is no surprise, therefore, when the summer solstice dawns with a sweet scent of berries just about struggling through the sickening smell of the giant flowers, to which they have now grown accustomed.

As the shadowcats lounge about, shifting occassionally in search of a new patch of sunlight, it is not Darvor who arrives at the stead, his arms laden with berries. It takes a little while for Gyffun, for he has been sat at the foot of the slope examining the pit which Skullcelaver dug, looking for clues as to the origins of this curse, to recognize this stranger. The man is not a Heortling, so it is more than strange to see his arms laden with the traditional gift, although clealy he has come in peace. It is the one saved from the Ochre Fallow's barbarous fire by a black spirit of darkness and by the duck's outrage. It is the man from afar, from the Red Empire.

Gyffun rattles through the customary greetings, delivered flawlessly by the stranger and responded to dumbly by the skald, before he even has time to wonder at this man's presence. Concluding, he tries out the man's unusually sibilant name, "You are welcome here LosisiOor. Gladly I offer you hospitality, and pledge that none shall harm you here if you accept it. And here," he offers the stranger a waterskin. "Here is water, to quench your thirst."

At this point, having taken the greeting ritual as far as he feels he can, the skald realises that he should really take the stranger straight to Wilma. He can't resist the opportunity to speak to him informally first, though, for he is powerfully curious. He is still wary of this foreigner, however, and reluctant to trust him too easily. Beware of Lunars bearing gifts, as Lismelda always says...

"You are evidently well-tutored in our customs, Darjini," he comments, eyeing the man's gift. "I think that you will find our hospitality more to your liking that that of the Ochre Fallow, but must admit that I'm more than a little surprised to see you again. What is your purpose in coming here?"

Given a moment's thought as the stranger pauses to consider Gyffun's final question, the skald considers the odd answer to his first challenge, "A friend to all men who are true in their purpose. Even be they foe to cut down in honourable battle," the man had said. The anger evident in his voice, the Darjinii has a warrior's bearing and it is with a shiver that gyffun realises this is not someone he would wish for an enemy, whatever the definition.

"I bring gifts, as I have learnt from the lame one, to thank the marshdweller who," he says pointedly, "spoke up for me. I have seen he has a protector, but a poleax for slaughter, not a shield to stand by. I come in search of the hospitality which is a traveller's right, and to learn of this place, that I may serve my mistress."

"Your response prompts more questions than it answers," Gyffun notes, smiling. "But your gifts will be welcome, I'm sure. Unfortunately, Master Silverquill is not with us at present, but you will find a traveller's welcome here nevertheless. If you would learn more of this place, and you have tales to tell me in return, then I for one would be pleased to teach you what I know. Who, though, is this 'lame one' that you speak of, and what mistress do you serve?"

"Your welcome is, in its turn, welcome, Gyffun Skald." Casting a curious eye at Gyffun's harp, Losisi lays down his dark shield, covered in a reptilian hide, a row of darts strapped to the inside. Squatting on the ground and laying his left palm facing upwards by his side, he keeps a firm hand on his spear, lifting the tip to point at his host's breast. "You may strike to kill," he says ceremoniously, "but your betrayal will sour my point, poison will creep to your heart, and we will travel together to the Heron Queen, where I will tell of your crime."

"The lame one," he says, aware that he has made the skald uncomfortable by speaking up at him and by his choice of words, so using a relaxed tone to set him at his ease, "is Gordangorl Pegpole, of the Ochre Fallow. He has taken to the gors and boils the woad where he may. He has gone wild, as your Wind Lord. He told me of your Fire Season custom - in Prax, Odayla is weak and I had not heard of the Berry Feast. But this is a good custom and I went Fireday to Fireday collecting the berries. I saw the raiders and helped where I could, but I was weakened by Umathkar and the fire." Turning his forearm to show the snake tattoo coiling from hand to lip, the dry, cracked skin glows red and raw against the impenetrable darkness of the markings, but the coiled tattoo glows and throbs in its own, dark way.

"You ask who is my mistress." Losing himself in thought, the seated warrior gazes once more at the harp. "Bevelatia is my mistress and, as I serve her, so does she serve SurEnslib, the Heron Queen. You might think," he says, waving an arm up at the red crescent moon, "that my mistress is another, but there are stories older than conquest and empire. You and I may be foes, we may meet one day on some field of battle, but we needn't be enemies."

Seemingly on an impulse, the warrior, looking at the harp as he speaks, asks of Gyffun, "Allow me to sing my song," he reaches out a slender, reed-like instrument, "And tell me what you hear?" The man seems almost desperate as he lifts the instrument tentatively to his lips, looking at the uncomfortable skald for his say so.

The skald nods his assent, without hesitation. "Sing, if you will. Music is my meat and drink, and I am ever happy to share such a feast with another."


Losisi's song is wordless. It is instead a haunting song played on the reed oboe. Even as the twinned reeds are moistened by the warrior's lips, Gyffun can see that this instrument is from the man's homeland, that he treasures this instrument above all other possessions. The song has a melancholy which immediately brings tears to the skald's eyes, causing an aching in his stomach. Soon, the slope is peopled by several of the Exiles, pausing in their business to hear this strange sound.

When he has finished, Losisi places his oboe on the ground and looks at the skald inquiringly. "What do you hear?" he asks.

"I hear the eloquent voice of a beloved instrument, a token of a cherished homeland. It speaks to me of pain, and a great sorrow, the depths of which I cannot plumb."

Vurth had been wandering further from the stead, looking for clues regarding the pre-dark scourging this land. He was observed rushing back into camp apparently bursting with news but pulled up short at the sight of this stranger who he vaguely recollects should be killed or was supposed to be called. For once though, perhaps due to his recent impetuousity, he refrains from immediate violent action.

He pauses to observe what is going on and waits for this stranger to state his mission before he acts.

Ignoring the arrival of Vurth as only a confident man of the same trade can, LosisiOor releases his oboe, watching it slowly float down into his hand. "And do you hear the Red Moon?" he asks...

"No, I do not," Gyffun answers seriously. "There are many complex layers to your song, some of which remain hidden to me, but the subtle discordancies of Shepelkirt cannot be concealed. I, at least, am satisfied that you are not the agent of our hated enemy that Umathkar claimed you to be. But we were already convinced of your honesty, I think: I am told that the cloak spoke most eloquently on your behalf, even if that fool of a chief lacked the wit to listen to it."

"Besides, we do not have to rely on my ears alone, or even the testimony of a motheaten heirloom. Were you to have even the subtlest taint of the Predark about you, I am confident that it would not escape the olfactory attention of my friend here."

He turns to the waiting Storm Bull warrior. "Ho, Vurth! Cease your scowling. Our guest has behaved impeccably thus far, and I don't want him to judge all of the clans of the Far Place by the pitiful example set by our Ochre Fallow neigbours. Take a good sniff, by all means, but I think it's time we took LosisiOoor and his kind gift to see the rest of the clan."

Vurth, still scowling at this stranger, comes over and gives him a good sniff.

He addresses Gyffun. "Seems ‘clean’ to me but he’s still a stranger and bears watching, especially in these days and times," he says, and then he turns to Losisi. "What’s your business here then? Come here to entertain us with song dance and berry? I guess if so we can welcome that but perhaps there’s more here than berries?"

Vurth stands there, arms crossed, awaiting a response.

The small brown warrior smiles at Vurth, towering above him. "My first purpose here is to catch a thief - a Dara Happan stealer of secrets. I sought him for two years in Prax, finding only traces, and have turned my thoughts to Skyfall Lake, where I suspect he hides out. I now seek word of him among the Heortlings and the Uz but have met only hostility."

"My second purpose is to bring information I gathered from Gordangorl Pegpole. He has told me that this land is blighted and he suspects you will not last the year. A man's betrayal has thrown the Mother of Plants into conflict with darkness and with evil. She has withdrawn her love from the earth and, where she retains power, will not bless the taking of her bounty but will curse it. Gordangorl hides from other men for he feels shame, but I thought to bring you this warning. If he is right, your harvest this year will be poisoned, whether by Chaos or by Aldrya I do not know, for hereabouts they wear the same cloak, and you will die or be forced to take up the begging bowl."

Losisi smiles at Vurth in vain.


Gyffun feels divided.

On the one hand, he has a number of personal agendas that he feels compelled to pursue. Oshana's evident disappointment at his coolness when they talked about her sister stung him far more than he was prepared to acknowledge, and left him more determined than ever to seek out the mysterious Snow Queen. He is also keen to learn where the trolls that he and Garnatha encountered are situated with respect to the stead. He'd really like to find out what happened to Garnatha as well, but recognises that this, at least, is one question that is likely to remain unanswered.

He is also keen to explore more of their locality, though, and perhaps to help with the stead-building; this might even make him feel more a part of the fledgling community. His bond with the Exiles has been strengthened immeasurably by their many trials and recent triumph, but he still feels excluded from the casual intimacies that he sees all around him, intimacies that are born of long familiarity. For too long he has been an outsider, an exile in his own right from the clan of his birth. For all of their patient acceptance now, he feels almost like Yizar or Silverquill: welcomed and even celebrated as an honoured ally, but still an alien somehow.

And then there there is Vurth's quest. He feels a stronger connection with this gruff misanthrope than he does with most of the other Exiles, and is loath to see him go off alone. He does not doubt that the Bullish warrior can take care of himself - that has never been in question. He does, however, doubt Vurth's capacity to distinguish friend from foe when the Chaos-smiting rage is upon him. Indeed, he is particularly mindful of this failing, given Wilma's condemnatory assessment of the two Storm Bull warriors' ill-advised attack on the plants. The skald has had some small success at calming Vurth's rages in the past, and now feels compelled to accompany his friend in case this uncommon ability is needed.

On balance, he decides, it would be better if he did go with Vurth. Keeping people out of trouble is not really his forte, but in this case he'll try to make an exception.


LosisiOor makes it plain that the aim of his visit is to establish links with the Exiles. It is apparent that he was uncomfortable revealing that he is looking for the Dara Happan, and he would obviously prefer that it be kept quiet. He knows he has not given them enough for them to do this, and begins to talk in terms of striking a deal. When Gyffun raises the suggestion that he accompany them in their quest, he looks skeptical, for this is too much. Finally, he proposes that the Exiles promise to assist him on his next trip to the Lake, or find a way for him to contact the Uz, for the Heortlings have normal relations where they see him as no more than food. In exchange for this, he will accompany them these next few days, as a warrior.

Gyffun is pleased with this bargain, for he is glad of the opportunity to learn more of their mysterious guest, and glad too for an excuse to seek contact with the Uz...

Wilma suggests, none too subtly, that Yizar and Aren might like to accompany Vurth and his companions on their quest. Though the temptation to follow the Duck to seek new myths is strong, Aren (being a responsible person) follows Wilma's strong hint and joins the hunting party.

Yizar is greatly offended by having to accompany Vurth anywhere. He is often heard to mutter something about "kitten" and "drowning" but refuses to elaborate. His preparations to go along consist solely of putting a young alynx named Scatterclaw in "charge" while he's gone and selecting a pair of young females who are nearing heat to accompany him. Otherwise he sits as far from Vurth as possible and pouts.

The latest news makes Wilma ask Yizar more forcefully than before to guide them.

Yizar arches his back and hisses at Wilma when she remonstrates with him. It looks for a moment that he was thinking about actually scratching her but he seems to have reconsidered this. He settles for a spitting retort.

"Silence human. I have already said that I would go along on this expedition. When a cat has made up his mind to do something or agreed to do it he does it. I am a prince of cats and my word is my bond. I must say that you humans don't show the proper respect for Lazy Cat Day but I suppose that's to be expected from your lot. I don't see what all the fuss is about crops failing though. Looking after plants has always seemed a waste of time to me. Nothing wrong with a nice piece of game in my books."

"But I said that I shall accompany and advise this expedition and so I shall. Cease your badgering."

With this he turns his back to Wilma and commences grooming himself.


The dire warnings about a potentially disastrous harvest that LosisiOor conveys from Gordangorl lend Wilma's stern words to Vurth even more weight, and the irascible warrior and his companions dare not delay their quest much longer. Gyffun would really have liked to talk to Pegpole first, to glean further information about the 'betrayal' that the Darjini mentioned and its consequences, but he realises that he will not have the opportunity.

Instead, the skald seeks guidance from those at hand: firstly from his hearth-mother, Lismelda, whose wisdom on the subject of plants is acknowledged by all, and then from the Harp of Thorns, which still retains a connection to the Plant Mother and her Song.

Then, as is proper, he seeks guidance from Drogarsi, asking for the Storm Skald's wit and wisdom to supplement his own faculties, and help him to perceive the way forward. He honours his deity in song and story, taking from the these wisdom that they enshrine, and honouring, in his performance and in his recitations, the sacred role of the Kenning Keeper.

Unsure where else to turn, Gyffun prepares himself for the still-obscured road ahead. When embarking upon a journey in the Far Place it is always customary to give some gift to pacify the Lady. Gyffun, no stranger to either the road or the Lady, he asks for more than mere tolerance on these occasions. She is fickle mistress, he knows, but he has sought and received her aid before. He plays his harp, symbol of the complex nature of his relationship with this savage divinity, hoping to reach her with his plea. Perhaps, if she is listening, he thinks, she will furnish him with a guide, as she did for the Twins in the time of their greatest need.

Ultimately, however, he knows that they must depend upon another guide: Vurth's uncanny sense of smell...


Promising to return within the week, Vurth, Gyffun and Aren gather suplies and set off on the solstice. Accompanied by LosisiOor, following the trail is much easier for Vurth than he might wish and he turns puce, resorting once again to cutting himself, each time they halt he considers how easy this all is, how strong the scent. Aware of this, Gyffun tries to keep the mood up with a spot of banter with Aren or a walking song. Finding LosisiOor to be quite cheerful, he is soon comfortable in the warrior's presence, though the others do not hide their irritation whenever the small man pauses at a brook to cover himself in mud. By the time Yizar has caught up with them the next day, having sworn to observe Lazy Cat Day as is proper, Gyffun is calling Losisi by his familiar name, Crabscratch.

When about the twentieth wren which Gyffun has called upon to guide him sits upon a worn rock tweeting happily, Gyffun realises that they are following the Stonehead path, for beneath the bird's feet is a carved figure, barely recognisable, bearing three spears. Aren confidently states that this is a path of Yarvor's and they must be following a trail made by their Ancestors. Thought this is now further than Gyffun has travelled, Yizar has been here before and warns his companions that soon they will be shadowed by plant people, for that is the domain they are entering. Amazed by the increasing size of the ferns and the monstrously tall trees, they begin to speculate as to the probable size of the elves who reside here.

The inevitable thud of two arrows before their feet is strangely reassuring. The intricate twining and the fern fletching make these arrows easily recognisable as those of elves, and it is a comfort both that the first strike was a warning rather than a shot to the heart, and that the size of the arrows is comensurate with normally sized archers, not giants as their fantasies had begun to led them to believe.

The still in the forest is only interrupted by a wren flitting about Gyffun's feet, eager to continue with its task....


Vurth ponders the arrows sticking out of the ground in front of him. He hated arrows. Nasty things that had a way of sticking in you and slowing you down once you got going. Elves were the worst. Not at all like his good pals in Zorak Zoran who knew how to hold a proper brawl. Still, for now, he merely loosed his klanth in its sheath and waited for Gyffun to do something.

"We come in peace," the skald announces to the forest in general. Holding his hands out palm up in what he hopes is a universally pacific gesture, he communicates silently with the Harp of Thorns and asks if it can do anything to facilitate friendly relations with the Aldryami. Aren also holds his hands up open to the sky. Ready for talk of peace or to call down thunder from the sky, though he would rather talk to the plant folk in this occasion.

From behind the tangle of twigs, brambles, leaves and runners, two Aldryami step out, bows at the ready. One appears to be an Oak elf, the other an Apple. "State your business, humans," the Oak says, in Tarshite.

"We seek the source of an evil that taints the land that we call home," Gyffun replies, cautiously. "And have been following its trail along the ancient path that we now tread. If you know aught of this evil, then we would be grateful for the information, for we have been told that its malign influence has also afflicted your own folk."

As he speaks, the skald watches his wren guide curiously, trying to decide whether it is trying to tell him something. He also listens carefully to the silent counsel of his harp, and, through the agency of his living instrument, to the almost imperceptible sound of Aldrya's Song.

Vurth takes a deep breath to see if any new taint of the pre-dark stains the air. He'll leave the talking to Gyffun, he thinks, while he casts an uneasy eye about the trail wondering just when they would reach wherever it was leading to. Then he has a thought (first time for everything!), and turns to address the elf, interrupting Gyffun's careful diplomacy.

"Hey, you there. Where does this trail head and how come it stinks of the pre-dark?"

Taking aback at the brusqueness, the elf turns his bow towards Vurth. "Northeast to the Lightning Stead. As for predark, we sighted some goatmen five days gone, but we only slew one."

Aren almost jumps on hearing this statement. "The Lightning Stead, You know where this is...?!"

Staring at Aren, the elf responds, "Not quite". Then, addressing them all: "You talk much of the predark, you humans, but it is your sort who disrupt the order and give it life. If it afflicts us, then that is our business, we do not seek your aid."

"And we do not seek your aid, though we would not be so discourteous as to refuse it were it offered to us," Gyffun responds tartly. "By establishing the common nature of our affliction I sought only to demonstrate that we come here not as your enemies, but as the enemy of your enemy."

Even with all of the distractions, Gyffun's inner ear can readily detect the discordant warning tones in the Song, and he recognises the need for caution. Taking a deep breath to still his own frustration, and with a warning glance at his companions, he bows his head politely to the elves.

"But I can sense that our presence here is far from welcome," he says. "With your permission, then, we shall continue to follow this path and disturb your tranquility no longer. We bear you no ill will, and have no wish to remain where we are not wanted."

"You misunderstand us, humans," the elf insists. "You are not welcome but you are not unwelcome. You may pass through, for you have your mission, and we would not wish to impede you. But you must surrend your biting blades or turn back. We will return your arms when you leave on the morrow."

The skald nods. He was half-expecting this, but finds his heart sinking nevertheless, and feels a surge of indignation from Vurth.

"I understand your request," he says hastily. "And we are willing to comply with it if we must, though I fear that at least one of my companions will find it burdensome to do so. But surely you understand that we come here on a mission of peril. Would you have us face our foes weaponless? And if we do give over our weapons to you then what guarantee do we have - and I mean no discourtesy when I say this - that you will not simply slay us out of hand, or refuse to return them to us when we do depart?"

"Is there no other way that we might satisfy you that we mean no harm, either to your kin or to your charges?" he asks.

"No, there is none. Would you allow us into your Great Hall with notched arrows? Well, the forest is our Great Hall. We made the mistake, before, of allowing your sort in. They swore they would sheathe their blades but Betrayer we now call them, those few who survived. You may keep your deathsticks and your hides, but not the biting blades. I see that you hear the Mother of Life and you know that, should we betray you, we would wither, for she would withdraw her grace from us."

"No, it is the biting blades and fire we most fear, as you must know. We will return the blades when you depart, you have my word. We will call you Guest, but we have no food for your sort. If this is too burdensome, you may travel around, it will add but two days to your travel, though I would warn you to beware the Hungry Ones. We shall not protect you from them. It is your choice, and it makes little difference to us. Either way, you will find your path beyond the woods."

"While you decide, I ask you to baffle your harp. Its humming is distressing to us."

Gyffun sighs, and glances warily at the others as he wraps his harp.

"Very well. We shall hold you to your promise, and place ourselves as guests in your power. If you are true to your word, then we shall count you friends henceforth and do what we may to undo the hurts that these Betrayers you speak of have done. But if you prove false, then you and your kin shall know the fierceness of our wrath, and evermore regret your misdeeds."

He turns to his companions. "Come, Vurth. I believe that they are in earnest. Give them your weapon and let us be on our way. Here, elf, is my sword. Keep it well."

Yizar has been watching all this with not a lot of interest. He doesn't sense any immediate attempt to pincushion him so he's been sitting and listening to the exchange. He doesn't have a lot of interest in vegetables other than as food for his food, cover for ambushes or perches so he's not terribly interested in the elves.

He does perk up at the mention of biting blades though and ventures a point to the elves.

"Leafy brethren, the blade borne by the ugly one is not a blade of metal but a blade of stone and wood. Is that not the sort of weapon permissible in the Forest? One closer to the Lady of the Wild than the normal sort."

The elf pauses for a moment, head cocked as if listening to another, then says.

"Stone forged in Lodril's fire bites as deep as bronze. At times deeper, and it mashes the sap. You have been in these woods before, ginger alynx, and we have marked you with our bows many times. But we did not let fly then - why should we now? We grow tired of this talk, and of this distrust. Already our mood sours, and you risk making an enemy of our Lady. Now decide - through or around."

Vurth, who has been deep in thought about some matter important to himself, comes to with a start and stares at the elves.

"You say you'll hold our blades until the other side of this wood and then return them when we continue our journey?" he asks. "And that you'll protect us for the duration of our travels through this land? If so that's good enough for me. Otherwise we go round."

Aren relaxes at Vurth's easy acceptance to the Elves request. If they have another clue as to the where abouts of the Lightning stead then he does not want to upset them unnecessarily. Aren offers Vurth one of his spare javelins if he has nothing else to protect himself with.

Vurth shrugs off the offered javelin and collects a convenient big stick that could serve as a two-handed club. He is careful not to strip it from a living tree as he is aware the the tree-folk are somewhat peculiar that way.


Having handed over their two swords, the Exiles warily follow the two elves deeper into the forest. As the plant life grows more and more entangled and travel grows more difficult, they feel they are reaching the heart of the ancient woods. Gyffun´s wren companion has fallen behind but the stoneheads continue, each one more covered in lichen and moss than the last.

As the day grows on, the Exiles begin to tire and are relieved when the elves indicated an open glade where the evening sunlight strikes the ground. Blinking as they enter it, they realise how dark the forest had become. "You may wait here," say the elves, looking a little nervous, if such creatures can. "We shall fetch our mistress." With this, they scamper up a tree and depart across the canopy. Following them with their eyes, the Exiles can see a few constructions in the canopy. A distant song, with several voices, makes them aware that they are at the edge of some settlement.

As they take their rest, Gyffun examines his harp. Despite being baffled, it is resonating with a distressing song, humming quietly. Vurth, meanwhile, can still smell the predark, and can feel the aching of his ritual scars. Yizar gets a good lickin' in while he’s waiting, his girlfriends du jour helping out.

Gyffun has a deepening sense of unease, and carefully places a hand on his instrument, trying to discern the cause of its distress. Is it merely echoing the sentiments of the Aldryami around it, or actually trying to warn him of something, he wonders? The absence of his sword's reassuring weight on his hip only heightens his feelings of trepidation as they wait for their hosts to return.

As Gyffun fondles his harp, Vurth fondles his club. He scouts around the clearing looking from any increase or increase in the stench of the pre-dark, while Aren, glad to be out of the confinement of the trees, walks to the middle of the clearing and enjoys the sun and the breeze he has whipped up. Once there, Aren relaxes physically and reaches out with his magical senses to get a feel of this place and what is around it. Vurth has by now established that the Stonehead Path and the scent he has been following leave the clearing, opposite the entrance, toward the elfish settlement up in the canopy.

The Exiles remain in the dark, however, as to their hosts’ intentions or any deeper mysteries. If it weren’t for the humming of the baffled harp or the predark scent which assualts Vurth’s nose, the sight of Yizar and his companions happily enjoying the soft sunlight would set the travellers to a grateful dozing. They remain alert, however, and it is almost dusk when Apple returns, with another two elves, one covered in white damson blossom, the other a thin yew. These three stand at the edge of the clearing and draw their bows, arrows pointed toward the ground.

A shadowy figure, evidently female beneath the ivy which wreaths her upper body and cowls heer face, stands in among the trees. "Forgive the rudeness of my brothers," she says softly but clearly. "They seek but to protect me and my sisters. You may rest this night here and proceed on the morrow, unless you would continue now? Take this gift of berries to strengthen you." She holds out a bowl of berries in her gnarled wooden hand. Yew takes the bowl and lays it at the feet of the travellers. "I must leave you now, for we have our own troubles, as you are aware. My name is Berry," she says, fading back into the darkness of the forest.

The elves remain at the edge of the clearing. A little one, apparently a small apple, rushes up and hides behind the larger Apple, peeking out to look at the strange humans.

"Now that we're here," Gyffun opines to his companions, quietly. "I think we might do well to rest for the night and carry on at dawn, as the lady suggested." He nods in the direction of the remaining elves. "I'm still very curious about our hosts, and would welcome an opportunity to converse with them. They seem hospitable enough, but they're still fairly close-mouthed. Perhaps if we can win a little more of their trust, they might be more forthcoming with their answers to our questions."

"What do you think, though, Vurth? You're the leader of this little expedition of ours, and I know that you are impatient to follow the scent. Would you prefer to continue through the night?"

Vurth looks up from the bowl where he has been stuffing himself with berries. He belches and opines ‘not bad’ then responds to Gyffun’s query.

"We got trouble coming up ahead but not just yet if my nose is to be trusted. Better rest now but we keep watch through the night. I’ll stand first then Yizar through the darkest, Gyffun takes over before dawn. Guess we can do without a fire tonight."

Aren and LosisOor voice on objection. Yizar is content to follow the lead of his human companions. He is of course uninterested in berries. Why couldn't it have been a bowl of mice?

Vurth belches again, grabs another handful of berries and his club and walks about, but never moving far from where the others are settling.


The sun has barely set when the weary travellers are attacked. Vurth, on watch, is forewarned by his senses screaming Chaos at him. However, it is but an instant before he is peppered by flung stones crashing against his helm and his chest, then sent crashing to the ground by three small dark bodies flying into him head first. Yizar, a light sleeper, is immediately aware of the cloud of chittering flappy things blotting out the stars. As he tries to rise, he feels his paws held by the undergrowth and leaps into the air, freeing himself.

It feel like it has cost Gyffun half a pint of blood by the time he has freed himself from the tangle of thorns which was holding him to the ground, but he sees LosisOor, less fortunate, bound tightly by think ropy vines. Quickly realising not all his companions are accounted for, he stumbles across a black huddle on the ground. Sweeping the screaming leathery creatures off Aren, he is horrified to see his companion’s pasty white, blood-drained face.

Vurth screams in frustration as the agile foes evade his sweeping blows. He pauses for a moment to assess the situation and notes the states of his companions. He shouts over the din of the battle.

"Off the trail and out of the clearing, it may be aiding them. Follow me."

With that he reaches down with one arm and heaves Aren over one shoulder while using his Wild Wind affinity to summon dust storms and scouring winds to interfere with the bat broos. He then charges through the nearby brush (bitterly complaining about the loss of a brush clearing sword) into a nearby clearish spot that he had spotted before, more free of possibly hostile undergrowth. Yizar and his girlfriends race after him.

Although weakened by loss of blood and badly shaken, Gyffun does his best to evade their attackers while struggling to free his comrades from their vegetable bonds. Fighting for breath, he also struggles bravely to keep his head in the face of this terrible predicament. Reaching out silently to his harp, he immediately provokes an encouraging (if muffled) hum of support, and silently implores it to summon aid from their Aldryami hosts.

While Vurth was unable to smite the batbroos they prove equally ineffective at stopping the breakout of the exiles. They attempt to alight and feed on the fleeing (I mean relocating) party members only to be roughly buffeted by the dust storms that Vurth had summoned. Indeed the exiles themselves would have trouble breathing in those storms if they had been able to breath at all. With the darkness, the storms the flying and crashing bodies, the grasping vegetation and gasping combatants it is a scene of utter chaos (of the non-predark variety).

With Vurth leading the way, they crash through the immediate line of brush but find no recourse, the batbroos continue to attack, the plants to grasp the winds to swirl. Vurth gestures back the way they had come and flailing with club in one hand continues to crash off in that direction. Gyffun meanwhile, supports LosisiOor with one arm while protecting his harp with the other. It is only the agile Alynxes that seem to be any threat to the betbroo. Yizar and followers circle about and leap at low flying broobats and send one or two crashing to the earth where they are quickly dispatched.

Then, suddenly it stops. The batbroos fly off meeping in frustration, the plants act like plants and the air like normal air. Vurth releases his storms and the dust settles and the exiles (and that foreign chap) are able to breath again.

It is only then that Vurth notices two arrows stuck in the ground before them. Bloody elves, he thinks. Did they suspect this all ahead of time? Had they been lead into a trap?

However, too weary to follow up on this line of thought at the moment he drops Aren, arranges his as comfortably as possible and gestures to Gyffun to do whatever he can for their downed comrades while he and the Alynxes warily watch the night for further surprises.

With a groan, wince and a shudder Aren, eyes still shut, comes up to a partly sitting position and immediately regrets it. "Oh what was in those berries, I feel like something the cat dragged in!" He slumps back down to further groaning and holding of head.


Gyffun does his best to clean and bind Aren's wounds, and then turns to his other stricken comrade, only to find the grim-faced Darjini tending his own hurts. Now that they are out of immediate danger, the skald's primal instincts take over, and he curls into an ball to lick his own, fortunately minor, injuries.

A brooding silence descends upon the ragged encampment. No-one wants to voice the clear implication of the night's events: that their Aldyrami hosts, for all their fine words and gifts, were somehow complicit in the batbroo attack. Gyffun grimly recalls the words of warning that LosisiOor carried to them from Gordangorl:

"A man's betrayal has thrown the Mother of Plants into conflict with darkness and with evil. She has withdrawn her love from the earth and, where she retains power, will not bless the taking of her bounty but will curse it... Your harvest this year will be poisoned, whether by Chaos or by Aldrya I do not know, for hereabouts they wear the same cloak..."

He curses his all-too-trusting nature. He also thinks about his harp's discordant response to the Song, and curses himself again for not hearing the warning in it. At the time, he took it for an indication of their hosts' suspicion, but in retrospect it seems to signify something more disturbing: an insidious corruption of the local Aldryami.

Gyffun struggles to contain his anger. Perhaps the elves that they spoke to were unaware of this corruption, he reasons, or at least unaware of the threat that it posed to their guests. Perhaps the plants that attacked them were merely a cancerous offshoot of the stricken forest. Try as he might, though, he cannot shake the nagging impression that they have narrowly escaped from a trap...

When he voices his fears to the others, LosisiOor is quick to agree, "I have fought many foes, but none as persistent or hard to stick with a spear as those bats and the plants. Even in daytime, I would not wish to enter these woods again without an army of archers at my back. It is as the lame one said, then, all things here are tied together - life with unlife, light with dark, beauty with ugliness..."

Gyffun's ears switch off as the warrior carries on, getting more prosaic and harder to follow. A couple of the words stick in his mind, though, and he shakes his head clear. It has been a long night with many images, real or imagined in the darkness, flashing before his eyes, but one sticks out in his mind, one of the briefest of moments. It is of the cowled one summoned by the elves, who gave them berries but remained in the shadow. Why would elves consort with such a being as this? Any mistress of theirs would be a creature of grace and beauty, so he believes, not one afraid to show its beauty if it showed itself at all. Those berries then, still inside their stomachs? Aren complained of ill humours, but he had been set upon by bats intent on taking his life's blood, so that might be the cause.

And the creature's hands, they were old, gnarled and ugly things. Thinking back to the stead and what set them on this path, the roots which Skullcleaver had been hacking at, those combining Aldryan life and the Predark, they were very similar, and after all, they had first been seen as old skeletal hands, so the folk said, grasping at the Exiles. Were they the same as those Aren had fought off, he wonders? Gazing over at the godi, he sees the pale sweaty face and decides to leave his questions for now. But those words, dark and ugliness, have distilled their meaning now to Gyffun, and he calmly lands his thoughts on the repeated mentions of a haunted place around about here, the Hag's Haunt of which the Ochre Fallow warned them. And are not Hags said to be creatures of darkness who will poison you and steal your breath?

But dark and evil though such beings may be, to deal with Chaos? This at least does not fit. If only Vurth and Skullcleaver had not interrupted the cleansing, he thinks, but then would it have solved the problem for longer than a season? And now, how can they possibly untangle this mess?

They really need to speak to Silverquill, the skald thinks. He remembers that the durulz sage had diligently collected all of their neighbours stories of Hag's Haunt, and hopes that he might be able to shed more light upon this possible connection. But what should they do now? Concerned for Aren's welfare, and unsure whether their current path will lead them into further danger, he is tempted to suggest that they return to the stead. What welcome will they receive, though, if they return without a conclusive result to Vurth's quest? Gyffun shares these thoughts privately with his brooding fellow Exile, and asks for the scarred man's opinion.

"And if we do decide to proceed," he concludes. "Do you think that it would be wise for us to skirt around this forest and attempt to pick up the path on the far side? Or does your nose tell you that this place is, in fact, the origin of the Predark taint?"

Vurth vaguely reckons the latter to be the case.

Aren gets to his feet (on the second attempt). "Well we probably should carry on the way we intended," he says, pointing North. "Then reclaim our cleavers from the wood folk when we leave their land".

"We should... We SHOULD.. Err oh crud!" He holds his head and sways a bit, then sits down heavily. "Nope, sorry it will come to me in a bit. Hmmm..."

Yizar looks at Aren and then around at the group. "I will go along with whatever you decide." He shrugs unconcerned and then goes back to grooming himself.

"No," says Gyffun gently. "I think we should return to the stead now, and tell the others what we found here. You're in a bad way, Aren, and LosisiOoor and I have both been hurt too. We're in no state to confront that foe again, and if the elves that took our swords are a part of it, then we'll just have to come back for them another day."

"Then again..." He pauses, and glances over at Vurth, who looks surprisingly wistful, perhaps thinking fondly of his missing klanth. "This may be foolish, but I'm certainly feeling the lack of my sword and would dearly love to have my old friend back at my side..."

He turns and pulls the two arrows out of the ground. Standing stiffly, with the arrows held out before him, the skald continues, raising his voice to address the forest at large.

"The two aldryami that we met here before swore to return our blades when we departed their realm, and to treat us as guests. No guest should ever have to fight alone in the dark, nor run in fear from their hosts' so-called "great hall". If our self-appointed hosts were genuine, and not merely the duplicitous allies of that night-time foe, then perhaps they - or their kin - will overcome their shame long enough to return our weapons now, even if they are too cowardly to apologise for their misdeeds."

The unremitting silence is only broken by a ball of dead ivy whispering past Gyffun's feet as it tumbles in the breeze. Holding the two arrows out before him, he notices how utterly ordinary they seem, and how crudely fletched. Blushing furiously, he lets them fall from his hand, and stands there for a dfew moments more, staring at the ground. Then, without another word and avoiding eye-contact with his silent comrades, he hefts his pack and starts to walk back along the Stonehead Path.

Vurth has been steadily turning redder as the scene unfolded and he now holds out his arm and says (grindingly through clenched teeth):

"Hold on there Gyffun. I'm not about to leave without saying farewell to our hosts and returning the hospitality they have shown us. Yizar, you saw where they went and the trail is but a half day old. Can we put our noses to it together and find our hosts? Gyffun, it seems safe enough here for the moment. Wait half a day I think or a bit less if seems wiser. Then, once Aren and the snake guy recover a bit, start heading back down the trail. And just before Yizar and I head off let me take a sniff around that clearing just so I can confirm whether it be the heart of things or not."

Without bothering to see who agrees or demurs Vurth heads off towards the clearing, club at ready.

Gyffun halts at Vurth's call, and when he realises what his friend intends he hurries back. As he passes the arrows on the ground he looks at them again, and has a sudden flashback to their meeting with the elves. At the time, he thought that the arrows had the intricate twining and fern fletching that clearly signified their makers, but the objects before him now are sorry imitations. But that means...

"Wait Vurth!" he cries. "Stop a moment and look at these arrows. Oh, why didn't I see it before! These are not Aldryami shafts, which means that our 'hosts' before were not..."

He turns to Aren and LosisOor. "Come on you two. Let's go and teach those impostors a lesson or two. Ho! Vurth! Wait for us!"

"Yes, yes," grunts Aren, following the skald as quickly as he can. "But not so fast. It stops the forest from spinning if I take my time..."


In spite of his weakness and the pace set by Vurth, Aren limps along, keeping in sight of his companions. Vurth's occasional snuffling at the ground is looked upon with disdain by Yizar and bafflement by LosisiOor, but it allows Aren to keep up and all signs are that the determined Uroxi is still following the scent of Predark. Aren's occasional protestations that they are travelling the wrong way do cause a little concern among the others, for he is barely coherent, saving most of his effort for the hike.

He is afforded a little respite when they arrive at the clearing - LosisiOor inspects the godi's wounds, declaring that he can spy no wriggly things within, and attends to his own burnt and flaking skin[1]. Aren watches glassy-eyed as Vurth inspects the clearing, declaring it safe, and hears Yizar declare that, if anything, this place is notable for the absence of animal scents.

Before long, Aren must rouse himself again and tag along behind Vurth and the others. Lagging behind once again, he is soon brought short by Vurth returning. The Chaos-hound has finally lost the scent for the first time since leaving the stead. As the warrior expresses his frustrations at their former hosts with a stream of invective, Aren leans gratefully on the shoulder of Gyffun, who has been checking up on him every now and again and has shouldered his pack for him. Mildly amused by Yizar's new trick - he has found that his claws will spontaneously spark on the Stone Head before him - Aren relaxes, Vurth's words fade off into a babble of noise to Aren's ears and he lets his eyes unfocus for a while.

With a start, Aren realises he has almost dozed off. Suddenly more aware of his surroundings, he feels comforted by a warm patch of sunlight which has settled on his wounded neck and brings his mind back to the present, his eyes back into focus. The sigh from the rustling leaves makes him feel a surge of optimism, of elation and of pure joy. In a surge of ecstasy, he feels, for the briefest moment, the touch of his god, as if he has been guided here.

Before him, unnoticed by the others until they see his now wide open, welling eyes, is a ring of coppiced ash, each stand one with a dozen dead-straight and slender poles rising to the sky where they softly sway. The Exiles gaze in wonder: any man, be he warrior, huntsman or forester, would be proud to have tended such fine trees to this state and, when the time came, would seek the best redsmiths, the truest blessings, the most fitting name, that a spear wrought from a single one of these poles could be carried down the generations.

Around the coppice ring stand the maidens[2] - five ash trees, the standards which would have seeded the smaller trees, giants from another age.

Gyffun drinks in the sight of the trees. At first he simply admires the slender trunks of the coppiced trees, but it is their ancient progenitors that draw and hold his attention. These, too, are responsible for the deep sense of melancholy that creeps over him, and for triggering the long-buried memory that slowly worms its way to the front of his mind.

Unsure why the sight of these trees makes him feel so suddenly and profoundly sad, he begins to turn the words over in his mind. Maidens, he thinks. Maidens of ash. Ash maidens. Now where have I heard that before? Such a sorry sight. Why though? Why is it sorry? Or are they sorry? No, not sorry - sorrowful. They are full of sorrow. Maidens full of sorrow. The sorrow of the ash maidens. Ah....

"I have felt the sorrow of the Ash Maidens," he says out loud. His comrades turn to him quizzically, but is still staring, oblivious. He continues, talking to himself. "I always wondered what that meant, but she never really explained. Typical of her, really. Well, maybe this is what she meant." Then, suddenly noticing the looks of blank incomprehension on his friends' faces: "Garnatha. 'I have felt the sorrow of the Ash Maidens'. That's what she said. Don't really know whether its important or not..."

Vurth circles warily around the ash trees, giving everything a good sniff. Elvish tricks momentarily put aside, he focuses on where that chaos trail was leading. To his knowledge, it ends about here: here can still catch a whiff, but cannot associate it with anything in particular. His Chaos Sense, which is separate from his extraordinary olfactory talents, is twingeing, but, unusually, seems to be soothed nearer to the Ash Maidens.

Yizar, meanwhile, has picked up the damp, mossy scent of the 'elves', but it is very faint, given the background smells.

Vurth ponders what seems to be the case. The Predark is somehow leaking from this clearing and flowing down the road to the clan lands. Controlled/corrupted or imitation elves live in the area. And there was that odd woman who gave them the berries.

A thought strikes him: are any of those berries left? He quickly sets everyone to searching through there gear to see if one of the berries survived. The only ones are to be found smeared on Aren's cloak where he lay down at some point, seeds intact. It is difficult to tell if they are the same ones. Vurth grunts. It was a long shot anyway. The berries are carefully set aside for later inspection by those who know more about plants.

Vurth realizes that his strong suit does not lie in attacking chaotic ground. Clearly a case for Bevaran expertise. Vurth shudders at this thought, but acknowledges that they had better get back to 'that woman' and see what she thinks should be done. Hopefully nothing with helmets.

Not sure what to make of the ash trees he shrugs his shoulders and ignores them. Let one of the clever folk figure it out. His job was to seek, destroy and protect (if that didn't interfere with the first two).


Turning his admiring gaze back to the Maidens, Gyffun is horrified to see, where a patch of bark has flaked off, a gallery of tunnels infested with tiny white grubs and emerald beetles dashing about the surface. Examining the five trees more closely, he finds them all to be infested, their lower branches killed. The coppiced daughters seem healthy enough, though.

He immediately alerts his comrades to this disturbing discovery.

"If these great trees are - as I think we all suspect - the Ash Maidens of legend," he says. "Then our illustrious ancestor Lanolf Uzfriend swore to protect them, and our duty here is plain. Perhaps now the origin of some of our woes will become clearer. We must swiftly discern the nature and origin of this infestation, and devote ourselves to fighting it. Vurth, can you tell me if these parasites are tainted with the accursed Predark?"

Vurth informs him that he cannot, and in his usual gruff manner announces that it's time to head back to the stead and get everyone else up to date. They can come back later with more force, he observes, to deal with this in a more final way. He gives a shout for Yizar to see if the alynx is close enough to come, but does not wait, assuming that the alynx will catch up at his convenience.

With a carefully wrapped sample of the diseased wood to take away with them, LosisiOor and the two other Exiles take one last glance at the Maidens and then follow Vurth out of the clearing.


Gyffun has been trying in vain to persuade Lismelda to look at the crushed berries and grubs that they brought back with them, but she is too busy fussing over the half-healed bites and numerous scratches that adorn his face and arms.

"...And just look at these wounds! They've not even been cleaned properly. I'm certain I taught you better than that, you young rascal. Bats you say? Whatever next! Oh, but will you just look at the state of you! Mud-spattered, bramble-torn, berry-stained - why you're still the wildling child, aren't you? And you're absolutely filthy!"

"But we were..." the skald starts to protest, but his hearth-mother is having none of it.

"Yes, yes, yes: I know you've been travelling, but that's no excuse for it. It only takes a lick of water to make a body presentable. And the state of your clothes! Oh, whatever would your mother say if she could see you like this, all dressed in rags and covered in filth from head to foot. 'See how you've raised my boy, Lismelda?' she'd say to me. 'See what a slovenly wretch you've raised...'"

"Just stop and listen for amoment," her nephew insists, trying desperately to wrestle free as she begins to attack his face with a damp cloth. "We need you to look at these for us. And some grubs and beetles that we found in an ash grove. We need to know..."

She glances at his carefully-wrapped packets and sighs. "Oh, but these berries are all crushed and spoiled! Throw them away, you silly boy. And why would you want to go bringing me grubs and beetles? It's not like I don't have enough of those to deal with already..."

"But it's important!" he exclaims, and at last his hearth-mother stops what she is doing, seeing the earnest deperation on the young man's grimy face. "We were given these berries by what we thought were elves, but then we were attacked, and now we're not so sure. And Aren is ill but we don;'t know if that was the berries or the bat-broo. And the woman... elf... whatever it was that gave them to us wouldn't show her face. And the grubs are from the Ash Maidens, and they're infested with them! And..."

"Hold on there a moment!" Lismelda interrupts. "Elves and Ash Maidens? Batbroo and berries? This sounds like a tale that I need to hear in full. Why don't you sit yourself down and start again from the beginning..."

Once Gyffun has finished telling his tales to Lismelda...and Wilma...and Lodi...and Morith...and Rika, for soon all the Exiles are listening agog, Lismelda informs him that the berries they ate should have killed them.


Vurth takes advantage of the ensuing silence by recommending that he (and others) escort Rika back to the clearing to investigate.

The healer's eyes grow wider with each stumbling fumbling word he uses to get this proposition across. For a moment Vurth thinks he has found a way to shut her up, but in a trice she starts up, "It's good to see you've layed off cutting yourself, Vurth. I reckon as my task here's only half done, I said I'd do it and so I will, even despite your interefering, for there's a higher cause than this rabble of folk. Good thing your without your sword as well, so you can lay off your injerdicious hacking at things. Of course I'd go with you to this place your talking about, but I'd be going as the Backboy. If it's like you say it is, it'll take more than half a dozen ragtag godtalkers, singers and loungers to sort it out. It'll take more than just your squally winds too."

Wilma sits there nodding. To Vurth's horror, the priestess seems to be getting on with 'that woman'. He considers renouncing his vows to fight the predark (if only briefly) and then shrugs it all off. The forces of chaos are easy to understand and deal with compared to women. Controlling his horror, he asks Rika what she considers necessary for such a trip. Should they return once more to investigate and plan before making any final decisions?

On the side, Vurth works on his club, smoothes it out, puts on a leather handle, whittles it a bit - carving the club seems to distract him from carving himself.

Rika informs him that she would need flowers - a lot of them, provided Vurth could get her safely into the heart of this mess, which she doubts.

Vurth grumbles at this aspersion on his character.. or rather his combat skills. He got everyone to the heart of the mess last time didn’t he? Got them all back too.

Continuing to grumble he asks if the flowers have to be fresh or will dried ones do? And should they take Morith along to shovel pits?

Rika's withering look is enough to answer the question for Vurth's first question. The second she ignores.


Gyffun is still staring at his hearth-mother in puzzlement, musing over her announcement regarding the berries. "So why aren't we dead?"

"Ohhh.. I'm not so sure about that" A rather grey looking Aren roll back over on his pallet. "I think bits of me might be." He shudders. Rika, already having poulticed the puncture marks in Aren's neck, takes the hint and finally calls upon Ernalda's grace to finish the job. This the benign Goddess does, leaving the godi only feeling weak from the loss of blood and exertions. The latter, the healer informs him coldly, will clear up in a day or two.

Ignoring this interruption, the skald continues. "What are the effects of this poison? Now that I think about it, I did find it very difficult to breath during the batbroo attack. Could that have been the poison at work?"

He indicates the grubs and beetles that they took from the Ash Maidens.

"And what does this infestation signify? Is it the instrument of some agency that is attacking the Maidens, or merely the physical symptom of a less tangible malaise? Or a natural phenomenon that has exploited their weakness, which has some other cause?"

Lismelda looks quizically at Gyffun, "Why are you not dead?" She holds the thought for a moment then comes to her conclusion. "I suppose you are lucky. I'd normally expect to see you grow a tail of entrails, your guts cut to ribbons and tied in Praxian knots a shaman couldn't fathom. As it is, you do look a little off colour. Here - take this, you'll be better in no time."

Offering Gyffun a piece of bark to chew on, she turns her attention to the next imponderable. "Couldn't breathe, eh? I expect you were getting a bit excited again, weren't you?"

Wilma, sensing perhaps that Lismelda is not being too helpful, finally takes charge. "Interestin' story, boys. Not sure we learned much new, 'cept that them plants is sick and we got a big crunchy problem here. Reckon Vurth's got a big bite but not enough teeth, so we'd be needin' some assistance there, just to be able to get to work on this problem. It'd be good to know some more 'bout how this situation came about - it's them Ochre Fallow as told us about it first, so reckon it's them as'd know mebbe."

"Actually I believe that it was Gordangorl, through LosisiOoor, who passed on the information. He has taken to the wild gors, however, and may prove difficult to find. I shall gladly to seek him out, if you believe that we need his counsel. He did suggest that this matter needs to be resolved very soon, however, if we are to have a harvest worthy of the name. And I might not find him quickly..."

He pauses, stroking his beard in thought. "I am also not sure what reception he would give me, even if I could find him. Perhaps if LosisiOoor were to accompany me, Gordangorl might be more kindly disposed towards my embassy, but we have already prevailed enough upon our Darjini friend's good nature and he might not be willing to undertake another expedition without some aid in recompense. I know that Vizz had some dealings with Gordangorl - perhaps it would be better if he were to accompany me. Ah, but he is yet in Alda-Chur, and we know not when he shall return..."

"But then there is the matter of Hag's Haunt. If that was, in fact, the true nature of the forest that we unwittingly stumbled into, then we should not return there without consulting Master Silverquill, who made it his business to collect all of the Ochre Fallow's tales of that accursed place."

The skald looks to Wilma and the others for guidance. "Time seems to be our enemy in all of this. What might we do now, that is the question. And I must confess that I am at a loss for answers..."

Wilma brightens at Gyffun's suggestions, giving him her magical radiant smile.

"Time it is, oh yes, that's the important one here. We can't be waitin' for Vizz to come back, we've to be about our business. I 'spect he's even now got to Alda-chur a'ready. If he and Entislar brings us back some food, that's grand, but it's a temp'y measure. We'd then be alive but owin' a rotten deal we would.The duck - well, he's been a mighty friend, but I figured it was kinder to send 'im away.

"Yes - that Gordan blokey - he'd be useful. If this mess is down to the Predark, it'd help to know the cause. If he's gone the way of Varanorlanth, as LosisiOor says, well, reckon you'll find him somewhere wild 'n' windy. Somewhere as ye could easily forget to wash fer two weeks.

"That's what I was thinking," says Gyffun. "Very well, I'll check with the Darjini, and even if he doesn't want to come along with me, he can tell me where to start looking. I'll set off tomorrow, and return as soon as I can."

Wilma turns to Vurth.

"Now, if you've found the source of this problem, an' it's summat elvish, well that fits our problems with plants here. I'd guess as them Maidens as 'as 'ad summat 'appen to 'em which 'as made the forest go funny an' our way to fix things is to sort 'em out. You say you reckon we waits for Vizz and Entislar to be back, but that's not the muscle I meant. I was thinkin' rather of the Ginunga Boys. They done us wrong. Well, they done me wrong anyways, an' so they can help us out now. They can at least get us in there when them beasts is about. Problem's gonna be what to do once we're in, and what we want the Boys to kill or not. How we're gonna untangle this mess of chaos an plants an' all."

Comprehending now that their comrades in Alda-chur may or may not be back in time, Vurth suggests that he go and get them and alert them to recent events. He will then ask for their assistance in persuading the Gap Bulls to come and assist the Exiles with their little problem, calling upon the debt still owing from the shameful Red-eye Frenzy.

Vurth claims to have thought of this whole plan all by himself.

Wilma is quite astounded by Vurth's novel display of rational thinking, particularly by his realization that Silverquill is the only one who might, if he is willing, be able to travel safely to the Gap.

As they are debating plans for the trips, they note that Yizar has gone missing. Few are bothered, however, for the alynx plainly lives in a world of his own...


[1] LO has a skin problem, being from a humid area.

[2] Coppicing: maidens or standards you leave, they set the seeds. Coppices you tend for poles. Simple.