Ranadin sat on the edge of the platform gazing up to the stars where she could see them strengthening as the sun snuck over the sky to spend the night somewhere else. Soon humans would settle in their beds and would stop doing their chores in the world where they did not need fear constant attacks in their loving home. Humans were not prosecuted for their race as her kin was.
She could sense another presence behind her as the newcomer sat beside her.
“It is a lovely night that is being born”, the snakeman said. Ranadin turned to watch Avagan who was smiling wistfully into the sunset and then his gaze met hers. A lonely tear, rare to the snakekin, rolled down her cheek. She wanted to mourn Gav who had always been in reach, but she had a mission that was now even more important. She stood and a challenge was in her whole being.
“You are sure? I was once known as the best warrior on the mountains”, the highland Dratoan warned.
“You have met your match”, Ranadin answered and surged forward. Avagan was barely able to dodge her attack as they moved into a blur of motion.
Ell could feel the top of the tree thumping around him and he feared he would fall to the ground. He held tightly to the bed feeling sea sick.
He had never expected such kind treatment from the snakekin as he was human, but he could see that they were wild beings with customs and ways he could not understand.
He got up carefully and opened the door, but retreated in the same split of a second as he had almost been hit by a bladed weapon. Fearing the attack to continue, Ell raised his gaze only to find the most amazing sight in front of him.
Instead of an attack directed at him, it was as if the two Dratoans were fighting full force with an intent to kill each other. Their faces were twisted in bloodthirsty grimaces, deadly scowls on their brows. They moved faster than Ell could fathom, but decided to brave it anyways.
He stepped forward only to find himself on the ground, nose bleeding fiercely with two worried snakekin gazing down at him asking him how he was feeling.
“I’m fine”, Ell said and let Avagan help him up. He held his nose that was painful, though thankfully the bleeding had stopped.
“What the hell were you two doing?” he asked puzzled. Equally mad smiles appeared on their faces.
“It is the way of our people to work through strong emotions”, the snakeman answered.
“It is dangerous to walk in the middle of a fight, has no one taught you that, squire?”
“I thought you had stopped”, Ell complained feeling like a moody child. Ranadin’s smiled turned benign.
“Silence is never the sign of the end of war. The only true silence in this world is when there is no man standing on the battlefield”, she explained. Ell nodded his answer, then pointed to the door and his nose.
“I was holding my staff in this fashion”, Avagan said and then proceeded to showcase what he meant by lifting the dark, thick stick of wood in front of his eyes. It was long and had reached all the way to the door, and Ell had walked right into it. The human rubbed his nose in sympathy of himself. He knew that such wood was extremely hard.
“Who won?” Ell wondered as he lay down. He felt faint and barely saw the two Dratoans shrug with no clear conclusion. He smiled knowing he had interrupted them.
“That boy sleeps a lot”, Avagan stated with a slight sneer. Ranadin made an agreeing noise in the back of her throat but did not answer as she kneaded the dough expertly.
He admired her hair that was as white as the snow on top of the holy mountain. He had not seen the like for many centuries, not since the death of his wife. The memories invoked made him want to touch to feel the softness of the strands.
But he knew to hold away such thoughts as she was not his wife who had been well into her majority when they had met. This young woman did not need to bare more burdens than she already did, a girl who for the looks of it was barely out of her adleten.
“I should continue on my journey”, the young snakewoman sighed. It was time for her to accept that her cousin was irredeemable.
“When are you leaving?” he wondered and winced when her sun coloured orbs turned to him filled with disbelief.
“When am I leaving?” she repeated.
“I thought you were to join me.”
“I had said so, but I have had time to consider the matter more closely. This is your journey, your quest, your destiny, one that has only been given to you through the words of your father. These things never happen under the skies due the decision of a mere child such as yourself. I do not know if it is meant that I am your travel companion. That is not decided by me.”
Her shining eyes narrowed into shining slits that almost blinded him. Yet Avagan refused to back down.
“Who knows, if your cousin was taken away from you for the very same reason.”
Ranadin said nothing struggling to stay calm. She began working on the dough again with some more force than before.
“Only the destiny of the skies knows”, Avagan whispered careful not to light a blaze that was threatening to explode. But instead of erupting, Ranadin huffed.
“I do not believe in destiny”, she hissed and continued kneading. The bread dough seemed to be in pain, but her body was tight as a stringed bow. Avagan thought it wise to leave her alone after that and stayed as silent as possible so that he would not need to suffer under the wrath of a snakewoman.
Nothing scared him more.
As the new morning rose Ell woke up and realised he was alone in the cottage. He got up quickly, pulled on his boots and slung his cloak on his shoulders. He rushed outside and looked down from the edge of the platform. He could see neither of the snakekin, but the vine was swinging slightly as if it was being used, but he was unsure if the one using the vine was climbing up or on their way down. He couldn’t even decide which option was preferable.
If both of the snakekin left, he could stay in the cottage and make a reclusive life there. The option was oddly fascinating for a human who had come from a big city where he had had many friends. Yet there up above the forest he would never have to worry about the future or his family’s expectations.
He then glanced down at the still swaying vine forgetting all about being a hermit. A new decision solidified in his mind and he grabbed the vine beginning to slide down it at an alarming speed. He landed on his but at the feet of Avagan and Ranadin who were both looking down at him with equal expression of amusement.
“What?” he asked from his position on the ground. Silence reigned while he got up and observed the snakekin from top to bottom.
Ranadin lowered her eyes and then turned them to the north hopefully. She would’ve liked to be on her way already and the human was delaying her. But Ell had made up his mind.
“I wish to come with you”, he said with no sign of doubt in him. Ranadin regarded him with surprise and Avagan froze.
“Ell… You do understand my destination, do you not?” the snakewoman inquired carefully. Ell shook his head in denial though he had a funny feeling he did know.
“I don’t care”, he said stubbornly.
“She is travelling to the mountains, the home of our people”, Avagan revealed before Ranadin was able to react. She glowered at the snakeman murderously and then rolled her eyes. The young man nodded. Avagan’s words only confirmed his suspicions.
“I don’t care”, he repeated.
“And death, you do not fear it? Because it is most certain that you will be killed the moment you step into one of the Dratoan citadels”, Avagan confirmed.
“I don’t care”, Ell continued without pause. The life of the snakekin was much more interesting than his had ever been or could ever be.
He had never revealed such a thought to anybody, but he had always been fascinated by the snakekin and had wanted to visit their homeland. His father had had a true Dratoan as his nanny and he had learned much about their culture and legends.
The snakekin exchanged glances and Ranadin motioned Ell to follow. The young man had no other possessions, except for his cloak, and after they had said their farewells to the kindest snakeman Ell had ever met, he followed the other into the unknown.
Ranadin could have travelled twice the speed if the human had not accompanied her. The companionship was welcome though she would have wanted to run and be at the root of the mountains in only a matter days. Or so she assumed at least.
Ell made a lot of noise while he moved through the ever lighter forest. The eyes of the human were weak. But the young man did not complain just held his eyes on Ranadin’s agile form so he would not be left behind. Nobody would come and look for him here. He being saved the first time had been a fluke and against all the rules Ell knew.
When the sun had risen they came to a vast and deep river which bordered the Great Forest signalling its end. Ranadin raised an eyebrow in bewilderment. The Great Forest was only a few days in breath. When she examined her surroundings she saw an ancient bridge that seemed to be from the age of the Dratoan Empire. She turned to Ell who was smiling.
“That is the bridge of Gezensten. My uncle lives near here. Gezensten is only half a day away in the north over the bridge, and my uncle’s farm is just an hour away by foot following the river to the east.
Ranadin acknowledged his words and removed her pack. She opened it only to lift out a piece of rope. Ell only looked at her oddly when she offered it to him. Sighing she rubbed her forehead in frustration.
“Ell, is it not possible that you have captured a Dratoan while you have been away? I cannot walk free amongst your kin.”
She explained this as if it was elementary. Ell finally understood grabbing the rope and tying it loosely around the snakewoman.
“Tighter”, Ranadin ordered harshly and he followed her instructions though carefully and apologetically. Soon they were on their way towards the farm owned by Ell’s uncle.
On their way to the farm, Ranadin told Ell that she came from the mazes of Caroon where there lived hundreds of her kin. Ell spoke of his life in Adanor as the son of a merchant and the ocean. About his uncle Joarik, his brave son Haumm and beautiful daughter Ytja whom Ell loved and who he thought, or at least hoped, loved him back. He also mentioned Joarik’s horrible wife Frenna and about her affair with the gamekeeper. And of course Joarik’s bastard son Thull whose mother was the gamekeeper’s wife.
“…and Frenna slapped Haumm around the ears. Haumm was red with embarrassment because his friends were there. His long-time girlfriend Gulda left him soon after. Well, served him right fooling around in the barn with Ytja’s best friend and being found out.”
Ranadin laughed and was about tell Ell a funny story about Tomari and Yoning, but paused when she spotted a large mass of stone rising ahead of them. Ell stopped and pointed at the formation.
“That’s my uncle’s castle”, the young man presented with a shy pride. Ranadin could not help, but notice the banners flying in the castle turrets. Some were a deep blue with a great eagle flying over an empty battleground and on the battleground there was a double-edged sword, but in the tallest of the towers flew the colours of the Ferengeti militia. Ell followed his friend’s eyes and sighed deeply.
“My other uncle is visiting. He is infuriating. Even if he is king, it does not mean he can treat his family like dirt.”
Ranadin’s sharp gaze focused on Ell.
“You are of royal blood?”
“I wish I were anything else”, Ell cursed putting great weight in those words. Ranadin felt slightly better. She was not the only one who hated Ferengeti.
“Come on. Let’s enter through the side gate”, the human urged and she followed obediently. This time.
The castle courtyard was magnificent. The grey stonewalls rose high above Ranadin’s head. There were embrasures everywhere making it easy to defend even the inner parts of the castle. The sides of the courtyard were filled with stables, smithies, servant apartments and the entrance to the kitchen.
The yard was in constant motion as smiths, cooks, cleaners, servants and other hired help ran around in an organised chaos filling their duties. Ranadin had never seen so many humans in one place at one time.
Ell moved carefully over the yard trying to stay out of everybody’s way. A group of human children ran from behind the hennery chasing the poor chicken whose feathers flew all over the place making it hard to see through the obstruction.
One of the children saw Ell, waved towards him and then re-joined the group. The child turned once more to curiously peek at the beautiful woman standing by Ell with her hands tied. The child’s interest soon turned as they heard the dinner bell ring. The child’s friends had already ran towards the sound like a pack of hungry wolves and the lone young one joined them.
The sound woke the other people on the yard out of their ever busy minds. Tasks were put to rest. The smith who had been making a sword cleaned his hands and wiped them into his apron. The stable boy swept the horse dropping by the wall, set the broom to carefully rest against it and then ran towards the kitchen to join his comrades. The chambermaid met her dear by the one of the many doors leading to the courtyard, kissed him on the cheek and they moved towards the food together as the man wore a silly, dazed smile on his face.
Ell regarded them. Life had went on normally without him. His stomach rumbled, but he made his way with the snakewoman to the other side of the now empty completely yard.
“I am taking you to my suit of rooms. You’ll be more comfortable there”, the young man explained in a friendly tone as they stepped into one of the many corridors that led into the depths of the castle. Ell turned to climb a spiral staircase which they climbed up three stories. There they came to a new hallway filled with doors one of which Ell opened. They came into a small parlour where there was a table for more than one person and more doors leading into other rooms.
“Bedroom, weapon storage, bathing chamber, servant quarters”, Ell listed pointing at the different doors which gave no other indication to what they could have been. They were without decoration.
“I don’t have personal servant at the current time, so you can stay in the servant quarters. I think it’s safe.”
They stepped into a small room with a desk, a wardrobe and a bed. The floor was covered with a warm animal fur. There was a window that had an ordinary view to the courtyard. The first ones had already returned work and the children had books with them as they head to the castle school.
The child who had greeted Ell earlier was leading the group this time way ahead of them seeming enthusiastic. The other children were dragging their feet. Only two other seemed slightly more enthusiastic about the prospect of learning something new. They were the youngest of the group and Ranadin thought they must have only recently began going to school.
”I’m apologize, Ranadin, but I need to lock the door to this room, so that no one gets suspicious and comes in here.”
Ell was extremely regretful, but the snakewoman merely inclined her head. The young man took her pack and battle staff setting them carefully on the bed.
“I’ll go eat now. Do you need anything? Any special salves?” he inquired like the good host he was. The snakewoman stayed silent merely repeating her head movement.
“If you want to clean up, you only need tell me, and I’ll have warm water brought up. I’ll… go now”, he said and locked the door on his way out. Ranadin sat on the bed and realised she was exhausted. She had not slept for two whole days and settled under the coarse, yet warm cotton sheets.
Ell sneaked into the kitchen hoping the head cook would not see him, but that hope was futile. Madame Farning always knew what happened in her kitchen, especially if you did not belong there.
“Good heavens, Ell! I haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been? Your uncle is very angry and worried. The search party returned yesterday. Oh my, how dirty you are! Now, go clean up. You will not get anything from this kitchen until you are dressed in a new change of clothes. I should tell your uncle. Not yet? All right then…”
And so on. Madame Farning was an ample and folksy busybody who adopted her mother hen tendencies whenever possible. Ell who had wanted to be unseen could not escape the castle cook who was the queen of the kitchen. Nobody could escape her.