Kelsandra, Chapter 3

Sterjin’s sleep was very short, but in that time, Kelsandra found herself feeling very fortunate that they had kept to the forest. Reading the map, she realized that they were either within or very near the Halacon Cataracts, uncomfortably close to several centaur camps and settlements.

When Sterj awoke, Kelly felt safe falling asleep herself, as there hadn’t been a single threatening event since the incident with the bandits. However, he looked hungry and perhaps needed a swim; she hated the idea of prioritizing her own fear over his needs and rationalized that she would find something after her rest.

In the late afternoon, a bird flew onto a rock beside her and, hopping up and down, chirped annoyingly. Kelly abruptly woke and she looked at Sterj with half-closed eyes. Though awake, he lay on his stomach in a weakened state, and Kelly knew she had to find something before dark, for as they went farther south, the land would be less familiar to her, and they’d get hopelessly lost.

The bird flew away as she stood up and stretched. She unfolded her map again and scrutinized it, trying to pretend that there was a source of water or place of civilization that didn’t require going straight through either a centaur camp or the open, no man’s land in between. There was not.

Kelly sighed and looked at Sterj again; to his credit, he was standing up and trying to be attentive for her, but he needed food, at the least.

She patted her pockets and made sure she had everything, then began to walk eastward, Sterjin following with his inefficient gait.

 

Viathan Lake was directly to the east, but Kelly thought she would have to often stray in order to avoid any encounters with centaurs. But for the next hour, it didn’t seem to be the case; sometimes she heard the echoes of yells off in the distance, but there was no danger around her. Not a single living thing, actually.

She didn’t let down her guard, however, and her shoulders tensed up when she saw something that didn’t seem to belong—a heap of clothes on a rock. No, it was a man. Or a creature. Was it a large, sleeping wolf? But she had never seen a black one.

Kelly cleared her throat and cautiously walked forward. The heap was completely unmoving; only the black fur moved in the soft wind. Kel looked at her drake. Even an invisible threat, she had learned, would put him on edge, ready to take the initial attack, but Sterj at that moment had lost interest, focusing instead on a rabbit that had chanced a run across his line of vision. He stared at it, and then at the bush into which it had hopped. She really needed to feed him soon. The rabbit might do, but later. Sterj still stayed in his spot, beside and slightly behind his owner.

She looked back to the dark heap. Kelly walked up to it and bent down, pulling back the thin fur. She gasped. A Norn. She’d never seen one before, just read about them in books, but to see anything other than a human was terrifying; she always was so careful never to put herself anyplace where that might be a likelihood. His face was square and dark and covered in black, coarse hair.

He was twice her size. It would take forever for her to revive him, but she had done it plenty of times. Sterjin had suddenly taken an interest in the dead Norn. He slapped forward and in examining him, grazed his teeth other the Norn’s chin, saliva dripping onto his face.

“Stop,” Kelly said. Sterj backed up, and she further pushed him aside to crouch next to the large figure. She began to revive him, feeling the constricting of her body, her strength dissipating, and she was more aware of having not eaten anything, feeling more empty. She kept her breathing even. It took only a minute or two, much shorter than she thought it would.

He suddenly groaned and his eyes shot open, as if waking up from a bad dream. Kelly fell back, breathing hard, but she grabbed her bow and walked backwards. Her drake followed with a low growl in his throat.

The Norn stood, cricking his neck and, when he was satisfied, looked at them. Even with the distance they had between them, he still had to look downwards. There was a quiet, the sounds of the calm forest around them, as he smiled at the drake and began laughing. It was a strangely playful and high laugh than one would expect, and it made Kelly uneasy.

“For all of the animals to have,” he said, sucking in a high breath, “why choose one of the ugly vermin that infest every river in Tyria?”

Kelly shifted her weight, slightly embarrassed. The impression she seemed to be leaving on everyone was how inexperienced she was as a ranger. Meanwhile, the Norn touched his face and hurriedly looked around, aware of something that was missing.

“Do you have food?” Kelly asked.

“Where’s—“ He looked at the ground to his right, then his left. “Ah.” He bent down, picked up a medium blue mask and fitted it over his face.

“Erm—sir, please. My drake is—well, I’m hungry. I’m willing to pay you if you can catch food, or if you have—“ Kelly stepped forward and noticed that the mask was very similar to a theatre mask, the sad faced one, and something stirred in her memory, a lesson from her books that she had forgotten about until now. “Are you a mesmer?”

He picked up his staff, which had also fallen to the side, and patted his pockets, just as Kelsandra had done an hour ago. “I didn’t call you a ranger,” he finally said.

A pause.

“My name is Kelly,” she said, walking up to him. She feigned confidence and made sure, out of the corner of her eye, that Sterj followed right beside her.

“Valgar,” he said, and shook her hand. His free hand was soft and about three times the size of hers. He glanced down at Sterj.

“He’s been my pet since I was little,” Kelly briefly explained.

“That always seems to be the story, doesn’t it?” Valgar waved his hand in front of Sterj’s face. Sterj followed it with his eyes, but then looked off to the side at the bush where the rabbit was.

“You said he was hungry?” the Norn asked.

Kelly was quiet.

“I’ve got—“ He took a large leather sack off of his back and searched through it, and then took out an old, overcooked slab of meat. He threw it at Sterjin. It hit him in the face, and Sterj bit into it eagerly.

“Thank you,” Kelly said.

He shook his head and put a hand up. “You revived me.”

“Were you killed by centaurs?” she asked, discreetly looking around. They were out of the forest, but in a hilly area, so there was still some coverage.

He pulled his sack closed and put it back on. “The last I remember, yes. I was part of the distraction as the humans raided their camp.” He looked at the sun, which wasn’t yet close to the horizon. The sky was turning from blue to a soft orange as the day neared evening. “I wonder how long it’s been.”

“We’re trying to get to Viathan Lake,” Kelly said. She gestured to Sterj. “He needs to be near water. I should travel most of my way nearer to the shore.”

“Most of your way where?”

She paused. “South.”

He nodded. She wished she could see his face; the mask made her uncomfortable. “I can show you where to get supplies and food before you get to the Lake. You can’t go directly east from here; for a mile to the north and south you’ll be stuck between the centaurs and the water, and you don’t want that.”

She sighed. “How far is it to get supplies?”

“It depends. I need to check the camp in this direction.” Valgar pointed north. “If the humans have taken it, great, but the quiet here could mean that the centaurs have regained their camp and are rebuilding it. Then we go to the human encampment and see what the next plan is. I’m not sure, but if I’m right, you’ve woken me just in time for the raid with the greatest rewards.”

“What sort of rewards?” she asked.

“Money, mostly. Honor, if that matters anything.” He shrugged. “It’s best not to think too much about the reward, really.”

“And what sort of raid?”

Valgar looked to the ground in front of her, and she imagined that he was smiling as he answered, “The takeover of the Overlord’s Greatcamp.”

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