Chapter 5: A Nightmare and Haun

By Michelle Michel

Riquith eyes widened as she watched Lyrrin's white mare gallop south, away from the party. Her breath froze when Lyrrin's shrill cry reached her ears, and the sudden drop of her stomach left her reeling. She barely acknowledged Grunt as he spurred his stallion after her - he was the first to follow, being the only one still on horseback when the mare bolted. Thalec cursed, his voice bringing her back to her senses.

She turned and leapt onto her horse, vaguely aware of Thalec already wheeling Quickshade around, firmly telling Valaya to stay put and to start dinner. Sorren watched them lazily, reclining back on his bedroll, his pale eyes drooping slightly. "Aren't you going to help?" Riquith demanded angrily, her voice barely above a snarl.

He merely raised an eyebrow in response, letting his eyes drift closed completely. Growling, Riquith kicked her horse after Thalec. Valaya called a good luck to their retreating backs.

Grunt and Lyrrin were already specks in the distance, the dusk light quickly fading, restricting even Riquith's vision. She turned her eyes to Thalec, instead, following him as he made his way quickly after the distant pair.

Quickshade quickly proved to be as good as his name. His dark fur made him barely noticeable as night set in, the lack of a full moon only hiding him further. And he was fast, pulling ahead of Riquith even as she pushed her horse to its limit. Snarling, she kicked again, urging her horse faster.

Ahead, Lyrrin's screams stopped. The only sound now came from the pounding of the horse's hooves on the ground, of her own harsh breathing as she imagined the worst. She blinked, her eyes jumping from Thalec to where she had last seen her sister's distant form - and was dismayed at being unable to find her.

Fear left her gasping as her trained, huntress eyes searched the horizon for any sign of her sister. But all she could see was Lyrrin's possible fate - Lyrrin hurt, Lyrrin dying, Lyrrin dead. Her brilliant green eyes, once bright and filled with the desire to see the good in everyone, unresponsive and dull. Her beautiful little sister, whom she had all but given her life for, gone.

Growling angrily to herself, forcefully pushing her fear aside, Riquith kicked again. Lyrrin was stronger than that - she'd thought her lost before, and had been shocked to find her safe and whole and laughing not a day later. She had teased her about underestimating her and had mirthfully promised that, should she ever die, she'd make sure she had Riquith's permission first. After all, it wouldn't do to have her guardian angel feeling she'd failed her chosen charge.

Grasping firmly at that memory, Riquith focused her attention once again on Thalec. She would trust that her sister wasn't dead yet - not until she's seen it for herself this time.

"Up ahead!" Thalec called back to her, his voice hoarse. He pulled Quickshade into a trot, avoiding a stand of trees. The horse leapt over a small stream. Thalec led Riquith around a small bend in the stream.

"Lyrrin!" Riquith exclaimed, letting out a breath she hadn't been aware she was holding. She leapt off her horse and ran toward her sister. Lyrrin was hugging tight to Grunt, her head buried in his chest as she took long, shuddering breaths. Not far away was his stallion and her mare, both perfectly calm, munching on the grass as Lyrrin attempted to calm herself. Her head shot up at Riquith's cry.

Riquith pulled her close, whispering soothing words as Lyrrin trembled. Silently she berated herself. She knew Lyrrin was terrified of horses; it was a fear she had often teased her about in the past. There was no real reason for it (at least no reason that Riquith knew of) but it was there nonetheless. And yet rather than insist on walking to Haun, Riquith had instead forced her sister to ride when she clearly wasn't ready.

"Not your fault," Lyrrin muttered briefly, letting out another shuddering breath. She laughed slightly, though her eyes still continued to drift warily to the white mare, which Thalec was busy checking over. Grunt was with him, giving the siblings space. "Don't think it's your fault. And I'm fine."

"How-"

Lyrrin smiled weakly. "It's in your eyes. No, it's not your fault. Never was. We needed to ride." She turned to glare fully at the horse. "I just happened to get a living nightmare."

Riquith shook her head and pulled Lyrrin close again. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I should have made sure of that horse before letting you ride her."

"What did I tell you? It's not your fault. And besides, you didn't let me ride her. If I hadn't wanted to ride, believe me, I wouldn't have." She sighed and shook her head. "Really, Riquith, I'm fine."

"Good to hear," Thalec said, approaching the pair with Grunt. He brushed his hands off absently, glancing back at the horses. "Well, neither of them were seriously hurt - your mare got a nice scratch on her leg, but that's nothing. How about you, Lyr?"

She smiled up at him, her eyes glancing at the mare again. "I'm fine. Nothing a little rest can't cure, in any case. Thank you for your concern." She turned and smiled at Grunt. "And thank you, Grunt. You probably saved my life." He nodded, smiling slightly.

They were silent, shifting slightly as each searched for something to say. Grunt snorted after a moment and, after patting Lyrrin comfortingly on the head, left to retrieve his stallion. Thalec cleared his throat and grinned. "I guess we'd best be getting back to camp," he said finally, waving his hand back in the camp's general direction. "Or else Sorren and Valaya will eat all the food. This chase took a little longer than I expected - your horse can run pretty fast."

Lyrrin giggled, but eyed her horse hesitantly again. Riquith, seeing her reaction, quickly stepped up. "You don't have to ride that monster, Lyrrin."

"No," she said slowly, shaking her head. "I do. Or else I'll never ride again." She laughed slightly. "Fall off? Get back on. Almost get run off the continent?"

"Get back on and show'er who's boss," Thalec finished, grinning as he held out the mare's reins. Lyrrin's hand brushed his as she reached out to take them, and Riquith raised her brow in mild amusement as they snatched their hands away a moment later. "I'd be willing to teach you how to ride, Lyr, if you like?"

She smiled softly and nodded. "Thank you. That would be nice." Suddenly she laughed.

"What?" Riquith asked, turning to look at her fully.

Lyrrin shook her head. "It's nothing," she said after a moment. Breaking away from Riquith, she swung herself up into the saddle again, tensing as she reached for the reins. "Just figured a name for this thing."

Thalec grinned. "What's that?"

"Nightmare," Lyrrin said relaxing slightly when the mare decided not to bolt again. "After all, she's a living one." Leaning slightly in the saddle, she murmured, "Aren't you?"

Nightmare nickered, tossing her head in agreement.

*****

Valaya glanced up again, scanning the horizon for her new friends. She'd done as Thalec had requested upon leaving - setting up a fire and getting their evening meal ready for when they came back. Hopefully they'd come back with all the members of the party. She liked Lyrrin, thought of her as a friend. True, she'd tried to steal from the Half-Elf cleric the first time she saw her, but that was in the past. She hadn't known her then, and so technically it didn't count.

She suppressed (barely) a grin as she glanced Sorren's way again. While the Drow had shown distinct nonchalance at the white mare's sudden ability to fly, he had been periodically glancing up at the horizon in search of their missing companions. If he caught Valaya looking his way (which wasn't often) he'd simply scowl and grumble about dinner.

Unable to remain still, she bounced up and away from the fire, determined that Sorren would at least admit that he was worried. "Do you think they're all right?" she demanded, jumping in front of him, startling him into straightening. Before he could say anything she sank back onto her heels, turning to look where her friends had disappeared. "I think they are. They have to be, right? I mean, Thalec knows how to handle horses, and Riquith went, and -"

"Do you always talk so much?" Sorren demanded suddenly, glaring at her. She rocked back and forth on her heels, her head cocked to the side. She smiled.

"I guess so," she agreed, nodding vehemently. "Grunt says I do anyway - not that he complains, mind you. He just likes to say I'm a chatter-box."

Sorren raised an eyebrow and snapped sarcastically, "Gee, how surprising." He shook his head and glanced to his right. He sneered and pointed toward the fire pit. "You may want to tend to that."

She heaved an exaggerated sigh and skipped back to the fire pit. She took her time toying with the meat, flipping it to make sure it was heated on both sides, before drifting back onto her heels. She rocked slightly, continuing her scrutiny of the distant horizon and of Sorren. The Drow seemed to finally notice her observing him and snarled, leaning back against his bedroll and stared at the sky. He glanced her way once, his glare daring her to speak, before quickly turning back to the sky. Well, Valaya never turned down a dare if given one.

Once more leaving the fire pit's side, she moved to Sorren's side, craning her head back. "Whatcha lookin' at?" she asked, amused when he rolled his eyes. She frowned lightly when he didn't answer. "What do you think's taking them so long? I mean, they've been gone an awful long time, don't you think?" Her eyes grew wide and she turned back to where they had gone. "You don't think they're hurt, do you? Oh, I hope not!"

"They have only been gone half an hour," he said, his voice straining as he attempted patience. "Perhaps Lyrrin's horse managed to get further away than they expected."

"But what if she's hurt?!" Valaya asked. "Shouldn't we go help?"

 

A sound, somewhere between a laugh and a snort, brought her attention back to the Drow. "And just where do you suppose we look to help? By the time we caught up, they'll already be on their way back."

Valaya kicked the ground. "I don't like not being able to do anything," she admitted bitterly. He raised an eyebrow.

"I can see that," he said. She mouthed "ha, ha, ha" and stuck out her tongue for good measure. But she was grinning again.

 

It came as a relief to the both of them when the four errant party members appeared in the distance, after another half hour, none looking the worse for wear. Valaya hurriedly removed their meal from the fire, not caring if it was burnt. In her mind, it was better than it being cold - after their particularly eventful day, a nice warm meal would be good for all of them. Besides, she never claimed to be a chef, and she'd had other things on her mind.

Before they could approach completely, Sorren turned back to his bedroll, affecting, yet again, an air of distant interest. She grinned and shook her head, handing him a plate of food.

"It's burnt," he said after a moment, disgust turning the corners of his mouth. Valaya shrugged.

"It's still good," she protested, taking a bite. She faltered, then said, "Well, it's still edible in any case. A little burnt meat won't kill you."

"I wouldn't be too sure about that," he grumbled, leaning back against a nearby rock and settled into his meal. Valaya stuck her tongue out at him, filling four other plates for the rest.

She held out a plate to Lyrrin as all but Thalec swung off their horses and wearily settled around the fire. Thalec took the reins and led the horses off to a clear patch of grass to remove their saddles, brush their sweaty fur briefly, and picket them for the night.

"You okay?" Valaya asked Lyrrin, watching as the cleric mumbled a thank you and settled between Thalec and Riquith, blowing gently on the still smoking meat.

A grateful smile was sent her way. "I'm fine, thank you. Nothing a good meal and a night's rest won't cure." She placed a bit of her meat onto a piece of bread, ignoring the fact that it was burnt, and took a bite before nodding in thanks again. Valaya beamed.

Grunt settled beside her, quietly relating what had happened in a series of grunts and snorts. He'd caught up with Lyrrin after a few minutes chasing her and managed to catch hold of Nightmare's reins - which Lyrrin had dropped in her fear. Once he caught hold of that it had not been hard to lead her to a stop. Lyrrin had all but collapsed off the saddle, clinging to him like a child, trembling and shuddering. He'd done his best to comfort her until Thalec and Riquith showed up, after which he more than willingly handed her over to her sister. After a few more minutes of letting her relax, they returned to the camp.

"Well, I'm glad you're safe," Valaya said suddenly, breaking the comfortable silence that fell over them after Grunt's tale had ended. "I think Sorren would have had a heart attack had anything happened to you."

The Drow in question choked, spluttering as Valaya giggled happily. Thalec smiled into his canteen as he took a sip, while Riquith glared at Sorren suspiciously. Grunt remained nonchalant, chewing loudly on a particularly crunchy piece of burnt meat.

Lyrrin smiled over her own meal as Sorren glared dangerously at Valaya. She could see him scrambling for something to say.

"It would make the journey more difficult than it has to be," he said finally, under his breath. "It would not have been good fortune to lose our only healer before we even reach Haun."

He tossed his empty plate at Valaya, glaring at her again before declaring he would take third watch, and to wake him then. He silently settled into his bedroll, turning away from the group as they each, with the exception of Riquith, who merely shook her head, chuckled softly.

"That's not a bad idea, really," Thalec agreed, yawning. "It has been a long day. We should probably get ready for bed ourselves. I'll take first watch again."

Once watches were set they settled into their bedrolls, save for Thalec. He checked on the horses one last time before settling in for first watch, taking up a glass of the party's mead. Lyrrin paused on her way to her bed, turning to look at him over the fire.

"Something wrong?" he asked lightly, looking up at her. His levity quickly changed to concern. "Are you all right?"

She laughed quietly. "Yes," she said shaking her head. "I just. thank you, again. For everything."

He smiled. "Don't mention it. Now get some sleep. Sorren will wake you in a few hours, and I'll spend some time with you while we're on the road. You and Nightmare'll be friends in no time, you'll see."

She gave a snort and a wry grin. "You're that good a teacher, then?"

"No, just that sure of myself," he replied, and she laughed again. He nodded toward her bedroll. "Sleep well," he said, grinning. "And just think: a real bed tomorrow at Haun - we'll be there for the night at least, knowing Sorren. Should be the stuff to dream about."

She smiled and shook her head, absently rubbing her hands on her arms. "Good night, Thalec," she said finally. As she passed him, she reached down and placed a hand on his arm, smiling warmly. "Thank you again," she whispered, kissing him on the cheek. She hurried off, her eyes shining in the firelight as she finally slipped into her bedroll.

Thalec stared after her, eyes wide. He blinked several times, his mouth opening and closing as he sought something, anything, to say. When he realized she was sleeping, or at least trying to, he cleared his throat gruffly and shook his head. What was that about? he wondered to himself, turning his back to the camp.

He sighed and settled back, bracing his feet on the ground before him, letting his left arm drape over his knees. He sipped at his mead, turned away from the firelight to let his eyes adjust to the dark. Soon the only thing accompanying his thoughts was the crackle of the fire.

*****

The party rose with the sun the following morning, eating a quick breakfast and mounting their horses soon after. With Riquith leading the party, and Valaya and Grunt bringing up the rear, Thalec and Lyrrin spent the day working with Nightmare. Thalec taught her proper seating and how to best order the horse. For her part, Nightmare was calm, taking too hard pulls at the reins and under-breath mutterings in stride.

The day passed slowly for the others. Grunt and Valaya played various games, from teasing Sorren with various riddles (some which he could not answer, a source of great amusement to Riquith), to tossing a knife back and forth as they rode.

During midday break, when Thalec and Grunt led the horses off to a nearby stream to drink, Riquith followed. They had stopped just off the road for lunch and resting the horses. Thalec raised an eyebrow as she approached, asking, "Is anything wrong?"

Away from the party, she said, quickly, "I just wanted to thank you both for your help last night." Before they could reply, she was gone, seated beside her sister as they ate lunch. Thalec looked at Grunt and shrugged.

"Women," he said, shaking his head. Grunt chortled as they led the horses back to the party seated on the brilliant summer-green grass. There were no trees around for a reprieve from the summer's heat, and Sorren's cloak and heavy robes were the center of the small talk. Even by the time the party clambered back onto their horses and continued on their way to Haun, not a one could decide just how Sorren was still alive.

It was dusk when they finally reached Haun. Valaya sheathed the knife she and Grunt had been amusing themselves with (tossing it higher and higher between them as they rode, taking great care to catch it by the hilt rather than lose a finger) and breathed a contented sigh.

"A bed!"

"A bath," Lyrrin groused, slumping slightly in the saddle. She was sore, tired, and downright annoyed with the stubborn mare she'd been learning to ride on for the better part of the day. Nightmare seemed equally relieved to have finally reached the city. She tossed her head eagerly, causing Lyrrin to tighten her grip apprehensively.

Thalec moved Quickshade closer to tug on Nightmare's reins. The mare stopped, eyeing him as if he might taste good. Quickshade pulled out of the way of Nightmare's bite, taking Thalec out of danger. He smiled reassuringly at Lyrrin, then turned to Nightmare.

"You're going to have to be faster than that, little lady," he told her seriously. She snorted and flicked an ear in response.

Lyrrin shifted in the saddle again, eager to finally leave the mare in someone else's care. As Sorren led them into the city, past the guard post whose attendants waved them by, she dreamed wistfully of a hot bath and hot food. She was surprised when she caught herself at it - Lyrrin wasn't one to require the "finer things in life". She was always content to traveling on the road with her sister, eating whatever trail rations she had, aiding those who needed it both inside and out of the Temples of Feena around the continent.

Glancing down, she decided the nightmare she'd been required to ride for the past seven days might have something to do with her sudden desires of soft beds and hot baths.

As they passed the front gates, Lyrrin realized belatedly that she and her sister had been here several times before. She watched Riquith speaking quickly with Sorren, pointing to the building just off to their right. It was "The Bard's Tale" inn, one she and Lyrrin had stayed at a few visits ago. Watching, she saw her sister point off into the distance in front of them, undoubtedly relaying the location of the "Oasis Restaurant and Inn", the inn she and Lyrrin had stayed at the last time they were in town.

As they began making their way down the cobbled main street, avoiding the citizens still out and about, Lyrrin pursed her lips, trying to remember all she could of the city. It was mainly divided by the main road, the nobles living in the northern half, the commoners in the southern. Beyond the many small side streets leading to and between the various buildings, the main road led to four others, two heading north (one to the Crossroads, the second leading back around to Arnon), and two south. The first road, closest to Lyrrin and the others' entrance, led alongside the infamous Haun fighters' guild to the monastery. The second road led to the main doors of the Oasis Restaurant and Inn, as well as to the Temple. Lyrrin's eyes widened slightly when she realized that fact.

"How long are we staying here?" she asked as they passed the street leading to the Temple. Perhaps, if they were there long enough, she could find some clerics of Feena and offer her assistance.

"Just the night, I think," Thalec informed her from her side. "Sorren's pretty eager to get that staff."

Lyrrin shook her head slightly, watching the temple as they passed mildly dejected. "Oh," she said finally, tilting her head back to look ahead. "Okay."

"Why?"

She glanced at him and smiled. "I usually avail myself to the other clerics of Feena when we're in town; if we're not going to be here, though, then there's really no point." He nodded understanding.

The open market was closing up for the night as they passed, the new moon making it almost impossible to do any shopping there. Beyond that were the main stores, still open and inviting, and the stables just beyond that.

he shadows prevented the city's brilliant green grass, immaculate from the citizens' care, from being seen as anything more than an oppressive black presence. The lack of moon or any source of light beyond some wanderers' torches bled the colors to mere black and hues of gray. She glanced up, noticing the lack of trees left the dark sky, littered with stars, open and threatening. Even after all her years away from the village, Lyrrin still disliked the feel of no trees around to protect her. She allowed herself, momentarily, to reminisce on her youth, when she and Riquith were contained in the small Elvin city that seemed set on hating the illegitimate Half-Elf amongst them.

She shuddered at the thought.

They finished the ride to the Oasis Restaurant and Inn in relative silence, Valaya's humming to herself the only real sound coming from the six aside from the horse's hooves clapping on the cobblestone street. Thalec took the horses to the stable with Grunt, while Sorren led the girls into the inn with him.

"Ah, Lyrrin, Riquith!" a voice called. A big, burly man stood up from a table, grinning crookedly at the group. His black hair fell to his shoulders, and his beard and mustache fell just as long. His blue eyes, twinkling with glee at seeing the sisters, stared out from under bushy black eyebrows. He was dressed in a plain white shirt and brown tunic and breeches. He paused in front of Lyrrin, Riquith, and Valaya. Sorren slipped away with a raised eyebrow to purchase rooms for the night, unseen by the big man. "Weren' you two jus' here?"

Riquith shook her head slightly. "Barios," she greeted. "You've been drinking."

He nodded vehemently. "O' course!" he exclaimed. "End of a hard day's work, what kinda man you think I am, to not go out for a nice drink? Pah!"

Lyrrin grinned happily. "Nice to see you Barios," she exclaimed, reaching up to hug the man. He stood a good inch or two taller than Riquith, and so over half a foot taller than Lyrrin. He hugged her tight, and she felt the air forced from her lungs as she attempted to squeeze back. He dropped her unsteadily to her feet, gripping her shoulders

"It's good t' see you well, little one," he said, his breath making her gag as he placed a scratchy kiss to her forehead. He patted her head, a bit harder than he would have had he been completely sober, and turned to Valaya. "Who're you?" he asked.

She grinned. "I'm Valaya Lightfoot, nice to meet you," she said, standing on her tiptoes to clasp hands with him. He stumbled ever so slightly as he straitened, looking down at her. His wide smile was hidden beneath his beard.

"'Sa pleasure, Miss Lightfoot," he said, bowing deeply. Riquith grabbed his arm to keep him from falling. She raised an eyebrow over his shoulders at Lyrrin, who hid her smile behind her hand, chuckling softly.

Thalec and Grunt approached, Thalec smiling widely as he came to stand beside Lyrrin. "Who's this?" he asked her as Valaya introduced Grunt.

"An old friend," Lyrrin explained shaking her head. "Riquith and I met him a few years ago, the first time we came to Haun." She smiled distantly. "We'd been a little short on funds, and he offered to put us up for the night - we just had to help him with a pest problem. We did, and since then whenever we come to Haun we stop by to say hello."

"Looks like you didn't have to stop by anywhere," Thalec observed, leaning forward to clasp the man's hand. "Thalec," he said, gripping his hand firmly. Barios squeezed his hand back, and Thalec smiled in greeting. "Nice to meet you.?"

"Barios," the man said, his voice slurred slightly. He cleared his throat and straightened. "So what are you all doing with my two fine girls here?"

Riquith rolled her eyes at the endearment as Valaya exclaimed, "We're helping our friend Sorren look for a special Staff of Mourning."

Barios's crinkled with confusion. "Ah. Sounds. interesting.?" he said, turning to pick up his tankard. "Sit, sit! Drinks are on me, my friends. It's not often I get to see my girls!"

"It has not even been two weeks, Barios," Riquith reminded him softly as he waved over a waitress and ordered five more of "whatever he was drinking". When she scowled he just laughed, reaching over to clap her on her back. Beyond a raised eyebrow, she did not react to the over-enthusiastic pats.

They sat around the table, and Lyrrin noticed Thalec scanning the room briefly. She did the same, knowing he was looking for Sorren. The Drow had disappeared from the room. When Thalec looked confused, Lyrrin said, "He's probably being shown the rooms."

He nodded. Barios drained the rest of his tankard (it had been almost gone when they'd sat down) and asked in the same breath, "Who?"

"A friend of ours," Lyrrin said quickly before Riquith could reply. "The one we're trying to get the Staff of Mourning for. He was purchasing rooms for the night."

Barios nodded thoughtfully. "What's his name?" he asked finally, waving for another tankard. Riquith and Lyrrin raised an eyebrow, but kept silent.

"Sorren," Valaya replied, again before Riquith could come up with a sarcastic reply. "He should be here. Doesn't take that long to order rooms."

"Like Lyrrin said," Barios agreed, tossing a coin to the waitress who brought him another tankard, "he's probably being shown your rooms. He should be back in a few minutes. Pull up another chair - I'd like to meet the man that could hire our little Riquith here - she's more the do her own thing kinda girl."

Riquith narrowed her eyes at him, but Lyrrin and the others laughed. She rolled her eyes then, muttering under her breath in Elvish, and took a mouthful from her tankard. She made a face at it, but forced herself to swallow, coughing.

"What is that?!" she demanded, her voice raspy, glaring up at Barios. He laughed gleefully, thumping his tankard against the table. Lyrrin eyed him hesitantly, and then brought the tankard close for a sniff. It smelled vile.

"House whiskey," he said. "All someone like me can afford, especially not on a pay day." His eyes twinkled as he winked at Lyrrin. "If I'd have known you two were coming, I might've sprung for a little better."

"I-" she started, but Thalec stood up and waved at someone near the front desk. Lyrrin turned to see Sorren looking around for the rest of his party. She smiled, moving to catch his attention as well.

"Sorren!" Thalec called before Riquith could say anything. She glared at him, having been interrupted three times in as many minutes. As Sorren began walking toward them, Barios turned, ready to welcome the last party member to the table. When his eyes fell on Sorren, however, they lost their cheerful twinkle - rather, flushed with whiskey, his face contorted on itself. His face turned red, his eyes bulged, and he bared his teeth.

"Drow!" he shouted angrily, yanking a belt knife from his side as he leapt to his feet. Before they could react, he charged Sorren, knife raised at the stunned Drow.