Ascension, Chapter 3: The First Dinner

An elf who went by the name Swallowtail stood watching the woman in the other room. She was also an elf, but not the same as the pale-skinned Swallowtail. Her skin was black as the new moon. She stood the height of an average human man, with broad shoulders and round hips. Despite the typical elven predisposition for light, lythe figures, Swallowtail preferred woman with curves and muscles. He also liked strength and skill, and this woman had plenty of both. Sylva was extremely skilled, both with the short, razor-edged sword she wielded, and the enchanted whip she was practicing with.

It was the length of a regular bullwhip, but the final two feet were encased in linked steel, making it look like an earthworm made of armor. The whip acted as a normal one, albeit one that caused exceptional damage. But it also behaved much like a snake, obeying Sylva’s every command. She was “fighting” with several wooden mock-ups of human warriors, and to no one’s surprise, she was destroying them rather than simply scoring hits.

Finally she stopped. She sheathed her sword and her whip wrapped around her like an obedient snake. “Swallowtail, I grow bored with this. If I am to practice, I need opponents that will scream and bleed.”

‘We musn’t waste life so needlessly my dear.” He admonished. The ebony-skinned woman glared from beneath her ivory eyebrows. “Do not mock me, elf.” She warned.  Swallowtail chuckled and walked away from the window. He had once been a warrior himself; expertly skilled with paired short swords and a champion for the men and women of the south’s forests. As time went on, he became disenchanted with the heroes life, and slowly moved into smuggling and mercenary work.

Now he transported everything from goods to people for the right price. Rumors were circulating that normal people were developing divine powers. Some people reacted with fear, others hope. To Swallowtail it spoke of one thing; Profit.


 

The group sat around a fire a few miles out of the nearby village. They didn’t want to approach at night; guardsmen were usually twitchy after sundown and none of the markets would be open until the following morning. The oxen stood quietly tied to a tree. They had tapped both barrels and were cooking some of the food the caravan had been transporting.  Glowie had turned some cooked chicken and an array of herbs and vegetables into a delicious smelling stew. Trying to do her part, Vildree walked around and ladled stew into bowls for everyone in the group.

When she offered a bowl to Perrin, he asked if he could have some without any chicken. Vil was perplexed. Perrin smiled and took the bowl from her, then poured it back into the pot, then scooped some broth and vegetables, then tossed in some fresh beans. “I worship nature and see all animals as my brothers, so I prefer not to eat them. I do not discourage others from it, as it is the natural course of things, but I choose not to partake.” He sniffed deeply, his face in the rising steam of the broth, split with a smile.

Vildree seemed shocked. “You don’t eat meat? How are you so big?” He chuckled. “The oxen over there are grass eaters, yet they are heavier than the lot of us combined. The gnome eats more than the oxen yet he’s the smallest of us. Everyone uses food differently.” He grinned as the young women nodded, absorbing his words.

“Why?” She asked.

Everyone chuckled. If there was one thing everyone liked about this girl, it was her insatiable thirst for knowledge. Her curiosity was boundless. “Because my dear, as a child until I was a young man, I saw carnage daily. I was a gladiator fighting for the entertainment of others. I ate almost nothing but meat, and practiced and fought my every waking minute. By the time I escaped and embraced by nature, I had lost my taste for it.”

Vil nodded. There was an awkward silence and the young woman felt a bit sheepish, although Perrin was clearly unfazed by her question. Fennec broke the silence for the girl. “Vildree is an interesting name for a human girl.” Vil nodded. “It got me a few weird looks in school.”

Fennec smiled. “You know what it mean, right?”

Vil smiled back. “Yes. It’s elvish for ‘Hummingbird.’ My mother thought I was a very tiny baby.”

“It’s a beautiful name. It fits you well.” Brieze chimed in. Everyone was surprised. The elven warrior had been quiet for most of their time together, withdrawn even. She was not part of the original group; Perrin, Beryl and Fennec had been a team for several years, but Brieze had joined on the rescue Vildree. Due to her skill and experience she had naturally fallen into the role of de facto leader, but had kept everyone at an arm’s length. No one bothered to pry since the new team seemed to work like a well oiled machine, and she never asked anyone to do anything that she herself was not willing to do twice over.

Vil nodded in thanks and approached the warrior with some soup, which she accepted with a quiet thank you. Fennec spoke up again. “Lucky you. I am named after a small desert fox. They have enormous ears, and my dad thought there was a similarity between us.” He pointed to his oversized pointed ears with a smile.

“I barely remember my dad.” Vildree said. “I was very young when he died.” Perrin nodded. “Mine too. l was barely seven when raiders killed my family and destroyed our farm. I lived in the woods by myself for weeks before being captured and sold off to the gladiator pits.

Beryl snorted. “Fathers are overrated. Mine is still alive and well. But let him burn in the fires of the old dwarf gods for eternity for all I care.” She downed the contents of her soup bowl then followed up with some ale. “Look at my face, girl. What’s wrong with it?”

Vildree looked the dwarf woman over. By any standards she’d ever known, Beryl was normal looking, pretty even. She shrugged, not knowing what she was supposed to be looking for. “I’m sorry, Hummingbird. I forgot the Misty River valley was lean with dwarves. The moist air isn’t great for smelting. Anyway, I’m missing a beard. I’m ‘too soft’ looking my dad said. No man would want to marry a beardless dwarf woman.”

Vildree blinked, surprised. “It’s okay, Vil. Different cultures have different standards. Mine calls me ugly. I’m like a deformed freak. So I left, rather than becoming an outcast. My friends accept me.” She gestured to Fennec and Perrin, both of whom nodded and smiled toward her. “And when you have good friends, they’re more family than family. We’ve all lost, so that binds us. We also like stabbing things for good reasons and money, so that helps.” She winked and downed the rest of her beer before letting out a loud, chest rattling burp.

Vil burst out laughing, as did the rest of the group. Even Brieze managed a small smile. “Fennec’s dad had to leave to keep a vigilante group from hurting his mother and him as a toddler. Perrin has lost more than I can imagine.”

Vil gave the dwarf woman a sober look. “Do you speak to any of your family?” Beryl stared at the young woman for a moment, her rich green eyes studying her for any hint of irony or mirth. All she found was curiosity and no small measure of compassion. She motioned for more ale, which Perrin happily rose to fetch.’ I don not, my young friend. Some people are just toxic. If you can’t purge them from the world, at least purge them from your life.”

Perrin walked over with two more flagons of the rich ale and sat down next to his friend. “Some of us never had the chance to love or hate our families. I barely remember mine, except that they were kind and loving. Then they were gone. I lived off the land until I was captured. I fought and trained from when I was a little boy until I was almost twenty. I grew large and strong. I was a mule for many years, then one day I no longer trained and carried grain. I trained and fought.”

“I fought every day so that fat old pale men from the north could laugh and drink and gamble. One day, on a whim, instead of killing the poor bastard in the arena with me, I killed the guards protecting those old gamblers. I scaled the pit wall and rushed them. They cried and cowered. I wanted to kill them, too.To take out my pain and rage on them. It would have been too easy. Instead, I ran through them, leapt the wall, and ran into the forest.”

He took a long pull of his beer. “That time I spent way more than a week in the wilds. I found myself living off the land; harvesting vegetables, eating honey and fruit. Drinking from streams. Eventually I could hear the land speak to me. I found I could coax plants to help me if I asked correctly. Animals would no longer run from me in fear. I like to say I didn’t become a druid, nature asked me to work for her, and in return, I do my best to protect her and her children. I don’t reject the constructs of the intelligent races, I just try to guide them in a direction that doesn’t require me to kill them to protect our mother.” He winked.

Vildree sat down with a glass filled with water that she had chilled with a minor spell. “I;m so sorry…” She said. Perrin waved it away with a cheerful smile. “I am here now under the clear sky with friends I consider my family. Everything that has happened in my life has led to this point, and this point is grand, so why have regrets? My family would want me to be happy, right?”

Vil smiled and nodded. Beryl grinned and elbowed the big man in the ribs. “What he said.” She gestured to Fennec. “How about you, ears? You going to tell Hummingbird about your family? I think you’re the only one of us that isn’t a tragedy.” The ranger grinned and stood. “If you insist.” He swallowed a quaff of ale and then quickly drew his sword, laying the blade across his forearm and showing it to Vildree. He allowed her a minute to take in the design. It was slightly longer than a standard longsword, and curved slightly forward at the handle before curving back so that the tip lined up with the handle.

The handle itself was intricately carved white wood with black grain and itself curved for easy welding. It was long enough to be used two handed, and the overall utility reminded her of the human made katana blades from the far north. Along the length of the blade, engraved in the bleeder were elven sigils of power. Vil recognized many of them representing strength, integrity, kindness, nature. etc. She nodded and gently ran her fingers along them; she could feel the power emanating from them.

“This is a very special sword, isn’t it?” she asked, recognizing it was not just any magical elven blade. “Correct!” Fennec beamed. “This was given to me by my late mother, Oya Kinniun. She was a warrior woman from the mid-land foothills. She became frustrated with her people’s views on a woman’s place, so she braved the World’s Spine mountains herself to find a new life. On the other side she encountered an elven village, and quickly showed promise as a ranger. Before long, she was one of the most respected forest shepherds around. She took an elf man as her husband and eventually was awarded this.”

He held the blade up in front of his dark skinned face. “Never has any human been granted so great a gift. So respected was she that when my father got her pregnant, they didn’t bat an eye. I am one of the rare half-elven children that did not grow up suffering prejudice from my father’s people.”

“What happened?” Vildree asked, curious what the others had been hinting at. “My father was wrongly accused of a terrible crime and was forced to leave. He promised to return someday.” Fennec slowly slid his sword back into the scabbard as he stared wistfully at the stars. “He’s still out there, somewhere. Running from elvish law, but no doubt doing as he once did, protecting innocents from the orcs, goblins, death gnomes and other horrors of the world.”

“What of your mother?” Vil was curious that he hadn’t mentioned her since she seemed to have set him on his current profession and was clearly his idol. His smile became sad. “My mother was the greatest woman ever born. Powerful, brilliant and kind. She raised me to respect the land I live on and showed me more love and kindness than ten children would typically experience. We tracked and worked together for years. Sadly, one day we were defending a farm against an attack from a small army of goblins and death gnomes when a young black dragon came to their aid. Oya killed the beast herself, but not before it had picked her up in its mouth and bitten and tossed her around like an excited dog with a stick.”

Vildree’s eyes teared up. “I’m so sorry, Fennec. I didn’t mean…” The ranger waved his hand and smiled. “She would not have had it any other way. She said old age didn’t suit her. Better to die fighting than with failing bowels in a bed. Plus, unlike so many others, at least I was able to say goodbye.”

“She gifted this blade to me on her deathbed. It is a special sword, it even has a name; ‘Shard.’ It’s an old elven word that means ‘truth’, but the common meaning of the word always suited me. It can only be wielded by those that would only use it for good. Notice I didn’t say the most virtuous.” He said with a wink. Vildree laughed and drank some of her water.

“Now the can has been opened and the worms are crawling around. Another one of you needs to step up and share your story with our new friend.” Everyone looked around. Glowie seemed to shrink back at the suggestion. Perrin held up his hands in mock defense. “I already told.” Beryl laughed. “Me too!”

Perrin nudged her. “No you didn’t. You explained why you’re not married to some shield-smith, not how you came to be here.” Beryl gave the big man a sidelong glance, then feigned a punch. “Fine. FINE. I’ll tell. I’m the youngest of 8 children fathered by Strongarm Coalfire, the Prime Engineer of the Steelfist clan. They are a gigantic dwarven country that fills the tunnels under the Tail of the World Spine mountains. If you aren’t familiar, the Tail is a thick tangle of mountains where the Spine meets the sea. Our land reaches hundreds of miles inland in the mountains and includes many peaks that are in the ocean itself.”

“While other girls spent their days learning leather making, carving, cooking, whatever… I was fighting with my seven brothers. I skipped any classes on taking care of homes and snuck into classes on tower defense, axe fighting, weapon repair, whatever. My father encouraged it to a point. But when I started to become a woman, and my face hair didn’t grow in, he became concerned.”

“I studied to become a warrior. All dwarves do to some degree, but this was different; I wanted to fight, not spit out babies for some smith and mend his armor. I wanted to fight and mend MY armor after killing ogres or tunnel trolls. My father fought with me for years about this until one day he said I would marry his friend’s son and be a good wife or he would disown me.” Vildree gasped. “Didn’t he want you to be happy?”

Beryl nodded but wore an evil smile. “He did. Except he wanted me happy by his standards, not my own. He wanted me to submit. See, the fact that his friend’s son would marry meant he was stooping out of pity. See, unlike the other dwarf maids, I didn’t have a strong nose, a broad jaw line or a fine bear. My father had to bribe his friend’s ugliest son to do me the honor of taking me as a wife, because it meant bedding a freakish, ‘ugly’ spinster to make babies.” Vil was horrified. “How could a father do that to his own child?” Beryl shrugged. “I was the last. I wasn’t a boy. As he saw it, I was a burden and a disappointment. My mother was a dutiful wife so she sided with him. My brothers… Well, they didn’t fight with me out of sibling competition, they treated me as an outsider. So my family can fornicate itself with a hot iron. I don’t need them. I had my own armor and weapons forged, and as soon as I could manage, I left. As you can imagine, Fennec’s mother is somewhat of a hero to me.”

The half-elf beamed. The dwarf woman glanced over at Brieze who seemed to be enjoying the stories, but was conspicuously quiet. “How about y-” Beryl started.

“No.” Brieze said before she could finish.

“But we-”

“Nope.”

“Why?” The dwarf asked.

Brieze sighed. “To be blunt. I don’t know any of you well enough yet. If and when I do, you’ll understand why. Please do not press me.” Her last sentence was the closest any had heard to a plea from the elf, so they respectfully backed down. When the gazes fell to Glowie, he shrank a little. “Uhh… What she said?”

He swallowed.

“I’m not going to be that lucky, am I? Very well.” The little man stood up and drained his glass of whiskey, then lifted his mug of beer. “I am without family myself. Mine was not the best, but it’s neither here nor there. I was a thief by traid, stealing purses and sneaking off with what food I could. One day, a man who grew up with the monks of Normandy caught me stealing a cut of pork belly from his cold room. Instead of having me flogged or having my hand cut off, he gave me a job.”

Glowie smiled as he thought back. “At first it was gross work; mopping, washing dishes, getting rid of garbage. He kept a close eye on me. He was curious as to why out of all the things I could have stolen, why pork belly. I told him I liked the taste. It was then that he stopped making me do menial work and taught me to cook, for real. You see, I have a highly developed sense of taste and smell. Any food or drink that you like, I love. Any that you love, will probably make me pass out from ecstasy. I literally love food more than my family. That my family cared about me less is part of the reason I am on my own.”

“That man showed me ten.. Ten! Ways to prepare that pork belly. And those don’t include smoking and curing it for bacon, which he also taught me. Tomorrow, I will fix you all the first meal he ever taught me. If the markets in the village have eggplant or squash, then I can prepare a version of it for our huge friend Perrin as well.”

“Humor me as I share…” Glowie cleared his throat as he prepared to describe the meal’s preparation. “Take a loaf of bread and break it into small pieces. Add chopped onion, carrot and celery into it. Pour in a couple cups of poultry broth. Add finely chopped rosemary, thyme and sage. Add salt and pepper. Crack in two eggs. Mix by hand and put in the bottom of a well greased cast iron pan.”

He wiped his mouth, and oddly everyone seemed rapt, hanging on his every word. “You take a chicken, cleaned and feathered. Or a squash.” He winked at Perrin who nodded. “Rub them down with virgin olive oil. Stuff handfuls of herbed butter under the skin. Stuff it with two or three heads of garlic, then rub every surface with coarse salt and pepper. Put it on top of the bread mixture, and let it roast in a hot oven for an hour at least. If you poke the breast and it leaks clear juice it’s done. If you can poke the squash with a fork, likewise.”

“Take the main course out and let the bread roast another ten minutes. When it’s all done, serve it with biscuits, gravy and green beans. Milos, my mentor, taught me that. He pointed me at the ingredients, spoke the words once, and left me to take care of it on my own. We sold out of chickens the first night.”

Beryl and Perrin started clapping, followed by Fennec and Vildree, and finally Brieze, who was smiling. Perrin stopped and with deadly seriousness said “Now, if you fail to make this for us tomorrow, I will crush your head like a gourd.” He winked at the gnome who realized suddenly that for a split second he wasn’t sure if the big man was kidding or not. He clearly was, but that bolt of panic was a reminder he didn’t know these people all that well.

The small man then grinned evilly. “I guess there’s only one of us to hear from then…” He pointed at Vildree. The young woman rolled her eyes and stood. “Fine.” She playfully stuck her tongue out at the gnome. “I am Vildree Willowbough, which you all know. My mother is Shandrelle Willowbough, which you also know. She is the duchess of Willowbough and governs a small country along the Misty River. She started off as a war mage and is one of the most powerful enchantresses in the southlands. My father was a blademaster who died in battle when I was just a baby. My mother raised me herself and taught me magic as soon as I could speak.”

“She sent me to school so that I could be taught by people who had the time to give me their undivided attention. My mother is my hero.” The young woman positively glowed with pride. “Also, I’m fourteen. Most of my life has been lessons and play. The only real excitement I’ve had you all were there for. It’s been more fun that I care to describe, but I am looking forward to sleeping in a bed and not in danger of being rained on.” She said with a smile.

Brieze leaned forward, genuinely intrigued by the girl. “Vil, how are you ranked in your class?”

“First, ma’am. Although I am in the class for students in their mid twenties.” Vildree blushed slightly, clearly proud but too modest to brag in front of the elf. Brieze’s eyes widened in surprise. She blew out a low whistle. “Very impressive. No doubt you will surpass your mother. in skill and power someday. Maybe even sooner than you think.” Vildree was completely caught off guard. Brieze wasn’t unfriendly, just… Distant. To receive such a strong unsolicited compliment was as surprising as it was welcome. “Thank you, ma’am.” She said somewhat sheepishly.

“Vil..” Brieze said. The young woman looked her in the eye. “You can call me Brieze. We’re partners, not student and teacher.” Vildree smiled and the rest of the group watched on, as surprised as the girl at the elf warrior’s sudden candidness. “A wizard is as good as her mind and her creativity, but there may be times your spells fail you, or you are caught off guard. If you wish, we will purchase you a staff at the village and I will teach you how to use it.”

Vil and the others were floored. “Not a magic staff…”

“No, but a length of wood. Although should you decide to carry a magic one someday, my lessons with come in handy. Are you interested?”

Vil tripped over her words “I thin.. well. may… Hmm. I mean. Crap. Yes! very much yes!”

Brieze smiled. “Good. It’s not the same as shooting ice bolts from your fingers, but crushing someone’s gourd with a big stick is satisfying.” Perrin laughed out loud “I’ll second that!” The campsite soon broke into small groups chatting, and then eventually everyone fell asleep.

All except Brieze, who watched the young mage drift off to sleep. She felt the need to protect this girl, and against her better judgement, to get involved. The thought scared her. She was terrified of letting anyone in, but this girl had too much potential to leave her alone. She would be important someday, the elf warrior could feel it.

She spent most of the night staring into the stars, remembering the past several centuries. She didn’t nod off until sunrise.


 

The following day, they arrived in the small town of Whitefoam, a merchant hub that provided a lock system for boats travelling down the Misty River. The town was named for the dangerous rapids that necessitated the locks, which in turn made the surrounding town possible. It was a wonderful place for anyone interested in trade.

They sold the oxen and the wagon itself, along with the raw steel to a single vendor, and most of the ale and whiskey to his cousin that ran a local pub. Glowie protested at first, but when the man offered to let him use his kitchen for his promised dinner and quarter-priced drinks, the gnome relented. They traded for things they could practically carry along with them; as many gems as possible, and goods that were easy to transport and kept for a long time. Since they were going to be travelling on foot, it was finally time to get Vildree something other than the long wispy dress she’d been wearing for the past few weeks in the wild. It was impractical and fraying everywhere. The fact that her feet weren’t covered in blisters was a miracle.

Perrin and Beryl took her into a store that specialized in clothing. They kindly provided a small room for Vil to try on various outfits. Most were as impractical as her dress. At one point she emerged from the room wearing knee-high pants and a small shirt that showed off her midsection and had a plunging neckline. Both the druid and dwarf warrior had their hands crossed over their chests and deep scowls painted on their faces, looking every bit the part of disapproving parents. Vil had lept out with a smile, which quickly faded. Both adults shook their heads in unison.

She sheepishly crept back into the room. Next she emerged in a brown leather outfit. A cream colored shirt with long sleeves was under a leather vest of sorts that tied up in the back. She wore an ankle-length skirt with a long slit for mobility, and black leggings under it, along with a pair of light but strong leather boots that laced up to her calf. Beryl was impressed. “Appropriate, and even more so because that leather will provide protection from more than just the elements.”

Perrin nudged her. “Oh, and it looks great, my dear.” She looked at the owner. “We’ll take the whole thing.” Afterward, they met with the others at the Copper Pig, the pub where Glowie was working on their meal. Brieze had procured a five foot long wooden staff made of hickory, and a leather strap that would allow Vil to wear it across her back if she chose. The smells of many fine foods drifted around the establishment, and cut crusty bread, olives, strong cheese and sliced apples were set on the table along with chilled white wine, a large growler of strong beer, and fresh water.

It turned out the cousins had had previous interactions with the team the group ambushed and were no fans of them or their employers, and were therefore more than happy to give the group compensation for the full value of the purloined equipment. Brieze assessed the outfit Vil now wore. “Lovely and practical. I am impressed, young lady.”

Vildree smiled. “Thank you ma’a- Brieze.” The elf offered her the booth next to her. “Now let’s get that hair up where it won’t get in your way. This is why I keep my hair back in a braid.” She motioned to her own head. True, she didn’t always fight with it back, but then again she had been fighting for several centuries. “Sit down, and turn your back to me.” Vildree complied. Brieze set to task pulling the young woman’s hair and weaving a tight, intricate braid into her hair. “I can do the same for you, beryl. if you would like.”

The dwarf reached up and tousled her wavy brown hair. “What’s wrong with my hair?”

Brieze grinned at her. “Nothing. Until someone stronger than you gets a hold of it.”

“He will regret getting that close.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe you could set pride aside for a moment and listen to someone who has been fighting longer than all of your lifetimes put together.” Brieze said without a hint of arrogance or condescension. Brieze continued. “I would happily help all of you on your techniques if you are so inclined. I have been fighting since I was a child, seven centuries ago. As am very silly man once said to me, I know a thing or two about a thing or two.”

Every cell in Brieze’s body screamed “What are you doing?!” She’d lived with loss and loneliness for so long, the very act of being even a bit open with others filled her with a very uncustomary fear. The other day she’d de-fingered a giant and then ran up its arm to cut its throat without hesitation or fear. She’d killed a dragon weeks before. She’d fought and killed some of the most feared beasts known to Fhina including one of the oldest and most powerful red dragons.

But the prospect of letting anyone back into her life filled her with terror. She sublimated the fear. courage in battle was fine, but she saw this as cowardice. She was afraid of herself, of hurting at the loss of another, so she never even tried. But here she was, braiding a young woman’s hair, about to do the same for a dwarf, and offering to become a teacher to the lot of them.

But she’d made the first step, she’d offered to teach them more than they could learn without her. IF she backed out now she would have to go against everything she stood for. It was a great strategy she almost immediately regretted., She could not, on her honor, back out now. She’d rather die. She’d finished tying back Vildree’s hair and the young woman was analyzing her reflection in the window. “I love it! It’s so comfortable!”

Brieze smiled. “More importantly, it won’t get in your way. Beryl?” The dwarf sighed. “Fine.” She sat in the chair in front of the elf. “By the old gods,woman, have you ever used a brush?” Brieze said as she sat down. “Hilarious, elf. Every morning. How about braiding without commentary?”

Everyone chuckled. “That costs extra.” Chimed in Vil. Beryl sarcastically shook her fist at everyone, but sat quietly as the elf dragged a brush through her hair and braided it. When Brieze finished, Glowie emerged from the kitchen. “We’ll be serving in a minute, sit down and get ready!”

Several servers emerged with plates of food that they could taste and smell before they even reached the table. New, cold water was placed on the table, along with a bottle of chilled mountain vodka. Once the food was served, Glowie and Marucus, the owner joined them at the table.

At Vil’s request, they had procured rooms for the night. They decided that almost three weeks on the road was plenty for the girl, and that they had earned a night with their guard down. They had two rooms, one for the men, another for the women, so everyone let go a bit, downing more vodka, beer and wine than they would have normally. Even Vil enjoyed a small amount of wine. Once the main meal Glowie had prepared was finished (Perrin said he might have to consider squash meat it tasted so good) dessert was served. It was simple, sticky cinnamon buns with a sweet wine on the side. Once done, they all staggered, laughing up the stairs, bid their goodnights and split into their rooms. In the men’s room, it was quick. The lot of them stripped down into their undergarments and fell into bed and deep sleep.

Vil, Brieze and Beryl chatted for a while before turning in. Beryl had removed her armor for the first time Vil remembered. She knew the woman bathed as often as possible, but somehow managed to do it where no one ever saw her. Despite the feminine shape of her armor, this was the first time Vil had ever seen her as a woman, rather than a curvy man. She was surprisingly delicate for a dwarf, her limbs, fingers, toes… all were slender and delicate, more like a short human woman than a dwarf. Understanding how her people treated strength and what humans and elves considered masculinity, she understood why she had been treated the way she had by her people.

At the same time, surface appearances aside, Beryl was incredibly strong, and tougher than stone. She was probably the toughest member of the team; even the immense Perrin seemed soft next to her. Vil found she admired the short woman a great deal . She had inner and outer strength that made her want to to try. With Beryl, pain didn’t exist. She’d said several times that women were stronger than any man ever could because no man could force a child from his genitals and live.

Brieze drew a sword and jammed it into the floorboard in front of the door blocking it. Beryl used her shield to block the shuttered window. Even in a secure city, they took no chances. Vil fell asleep with a smile.

 

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