Paechra's Tale
Part Seven
By: Timothy Law

The year is 514, Vladimir the Young is Sage-King of the human kingdom of Thuraen.

Paechra stood aboard the deck of the Picturesque Picaresque and stared through the fog that surrounded the ship. She watched for any sign of sunlight and anything that would show her how close they were to land. There was something tingling in her senses, a feeling that home was so near. The creatures who crewed such a vessel shuffled around her, not daring to draw too close to the sylvan. Left in peace Paechra watched and waited.

"Witch, you have been asked for by Queen Catherine," announced Thomas the Butcher, with blundering thoughtlessness he broke the druid's moment of tranquility.

With a sigh and a nod Paechra then left the deck and returned to the cabin she shared with Thuraen's queen.

"How long?!" Queen Catherine demanded to know the very moment she heard Paechra begin to open the cabin door.

The sylvan almost regretted leaving the fallen city of Andrapaal with the monarch, but in truth she was gladdened to see Catherine recovered from her feverish state.

"Good morning to you as well, your majesty," replied Paechra. "It is wonderful to see you up and about."

"I'll not step foot outside this cabin until we reach land," continued Queen Catherine, ignoring the sylvan. "A sea voyage, in my condition."

Paechra noticed that a bump was becoming evident where the queen's child was growing. In a few months there would be no denying that a new member of the royal family would arrive soon.

"I promise you, Queen Catherine, the sea voyage was necessary," Paechra began in explanation. "As dangerous as it is it would be considered far safer when compared with dragon flight."

"Dragon flight?" exclaimed Queen Catherine. "The royals of Thuraen do not fly."

"Regrettably…" muttered Paechra.

Catherine offered a cold stare and then asked again her question.

"How long?!"

"If all goes as I hope, your majesty, it shall be within a day."

"Humph," replied Queen Catherine, a noise Paechra knew to be a dismissal.

Gladly the sylvan left, the healthier queen of the humankind was far more difficult now that she was stronger in mind and body.

Paechra felt better upon the deck of the ship, the sky above and the smell of the sea evident all around her. The wind concerned the sylvan however, blowing the ship and all upon it away from their destination. As the ship's captain had stated though it was in the interest of the ghouls to slow the journey. The more chance there was of a mistake the greater the chance of a meal, a soul to snag and another victim for the Picturesque Picaresque to claim for eternity.

"Row! Row faster and harder!" Paechra quietly prayed, wishing that Anton, Michael, and the other poor slaves in the belly of the ship would heed her words and add an extra effort.

As the wind changed for a moment Paechra glimpsed forest in the distance and her heart leapt with joy. An idea dawned and Paechra began to make her way around the deck.

In a little nook where Paechra hoped nobody watched on the druid began to sing.

"Tha-i o'lette, tha-i o'hnee… Anth-thlik rethull rethullii…"

As she sang, the druid made the sign of the fishes with her hands. The faint blue glow of magic appeared at her fingertips and then flowed outwards to drift towards the surface of the choppy sea. As the soft singing continued the eerie blue glow broke the surface and made its way under the ship. School upon school of fishes large and small were drawn to the magic. School upon school of the scaled creatures bumped upon the vessel's hull, bit by bit, inch by inch, driving it forward against the push of the wind.

Within half an hour the ship was clear of the fog, happy with what she had achieved the druid stepped out into the sunshine. Regardless of the horror of the monstrosities on board Paechra still managed a sigh of contentment. That was until the ghoul named Aaron came in search of her.

"Paechra!" he called mournfully. "Paechra, you know not what you have done…"

Paechra greeted the ghoul with a mix of disgust and guilt, it was she felt somehow because of own words or actions that the teen had suffered the fate of becoming an accursed ghoul.

"Aaron please explain," requested Paechra, though she thought it possible she knew already what the creature was to tell her.

"You have driven us forward far faster than the captain and the ship desired," accused Aaron.

"What proof have you that such a thing occurred?" asked Paechra.

"Do you deny such an accusation?" then asked Aaron.

"If I was not seen then I see no reason to admit such guilt," replied the druid.

"You have spent far too long with humankind," suggested Aaron.

Paechra made to retort that the boy was of that same kind, but it had only been the night before that Aaron did serve the ship as a young human teen. Once bitten by the ship's crew and not devoured the poor boy was human no more. Paechra noticed already the usually bright and frightened eyes of Aaron had become clouded and emotionless.

Two larger ghouls came up behind Paechra and grasped her about the shoulders. The druid thought to summon the magic to strike and free herself, but she could also see that Aaron would have stepped in should she have tried to escape. Succumbing to her fate the druid sighed and allowed herself to be half marched, half carried toward the captain's cabin.

"You have broken the rules, druid," growled Captain Overtian. "To hasten the ship is against nature and I was of the understanding that you foresters loved nature."

"To keep the ship cloaked in an unnatural fog, slowing the journey, controlling the wind… Is that not also breaking rules?" suggested Paechra, willing herself to show no fear.

Captain Overtian smiled; sharp fangs revealed.

"It be not cheating if ya be the one making up the game," the captain suggested. "Me and this here ship has an understanding."

"So, what is the penalty you would have me serve?" then asked Paechra, wishing nothing more than to end the time she was spending with this ghoul.

"Since ye wish to be rid o' me and me crew it just so happens that the Picturesque Picaresque wishes to be rid o' ye as well," the captain announced with a grin.

"What does that mean?" queried Paechra.

"Our contract is cancelled, girlie," announced Overtian. "Now before ye start accusing me o' eating yer friends I must tell ya that we still hold true to the bargain struck."

A look of relief crossed the sylvan's features.

"My companions remain unharmed?"

"Even the child that grows within that queen."

"You knew of the child?"

Captain Overtian sniffed the air and then gnashed his teeth.

"Girlie, we monsters smell souls…"

The ship slowed and slipped back into the fog. The wind blew back against the sales, agony for the rowers as they tried in vain to propel the ship onwards. For Michael and Anton such torture was finally over. They rubbed at their aching shoulders as they stood with Paechra, Queen Catherine and Thomas the Butcher awaiting their disembarking.

Captain Overtian was there was well, along with Aaron and a few of the other ghouls who had taken an interest in Thomas.

"Be ye certain that ya wish to follow the forested one?" asked the captain.

"Most certainly," replied Michael, without hesitation.

The others were a mixture of muttered responses.

"Well then, shall we make ye jump?"

"Certainly not," replied Anton, immediately he stepped up to Queen Catherine and placed a protective arm around her shoulder. "You would not dare place the life of a royal of Thuraen in such jeopardy."

"I would and I can," replied Captain Overtian with a sharp toothed smile. "Lucky for you lot though we have little need for them lifeboats."

"You hear that Michael," laughed Anton humorlessly. "We get to row again."

"I would much prefer rowing our own boat that this accursed ship," said Michael.

Time and time again did Thomas offer to take over the oars from either Anton or Michael, but the older men refused him each time.

"Be quiet, Butcher," grumbled Anton. "You are disrupting my rhythm."

"Please don't apologize again boy," begged Michael. "It is that which puts me off."

Paechra ignored the men, instead willing away the last of the fog that somehow seemed to blind her.

"And what is our plan once we reach the shore at last," stated Queen Catherine, obvious to everyone it was not a question.

"This is not my plan," began Paechra defensively.

"Of course," laughed the queen dryly. "If I recall correctly, you were taking us to your people to beg for help."

"I knew that you were not human, Paechra," added Thomas. "But I did not think you were a sea creature."

There was a moment or two as the oars dipped in and out of the choppy ocean. Then Anton began to laugh, followed by Thomas and then even the queen began a gentle chuckle. A tear threatened to drop down Paechra's cheek. Not for the laughter, but for the lack of support from Michael Stormsong.

The laughter ceased immediately as the fog fell away and all aboard the rowboat discovered just how close to shore, they were.

"Quickly men, row," ordered Queen Catherine.

Michael and Anton waved away Thomas' offer and began to stroke double time.

The boat was pushed up onto a pebbled beach, this time Thomas was allowed to assist. Catherine took Paechra's offered hand as the sylvan jumped ashore.

Before them all was forest, but nothing like the humans had ever experienced. It was vibrantly alive, so lush, and green; utterly enriched with a ferocious spirit. Thomas and Anton looked at each other and then the queen. Michael only had eyes for Paechra, and her eyes were sparkling.

"It feels so good to come home," announced the druid. "A true pity that home is still so far away though."

Without hesitation the druid made her way confidently from the beach through the undergrowth and within moments she was gone.

"Paechra, wait!" called Michael.

At a brisk pace he too bravely ventured across the pebbled beach. There was a moment of uncertainty and then he thought he caught sight of Paechra, and he crashed through the undergrowth.

"Michael! Michael Stormsong!" cried Queen Catherine. "I am your queen and I order you to wait!"

"I will fetch him back, your majesty," announced Thomas and with the energy of youth he raced at the blanket of greenery.

"Thomas, you fool!" cried Anton after the boy. "Stay with us! Always remember there is safety in numbers!"

It was too late though. The butcher, one of the Eleven of Andrapaal was beyond the undergrowth and lost to all sight.

"Thomas, over here!" called Michael as he spotted the younger man.

Thomas raced towards the voice and then faster still when he too saw Michael. It was incredible how easy it was to hide; it was almost like the forest was helping to keep figures hidden.

"Your queen as ordered that you return to the beach," demanded Thomas, the butcher sounding like a somewhat spoilt child.

"Even if I wanted to return to the beach which way would I go?" asked Michael.

Confused, Thomas looked about him. Everything had a similarity to it. Each tree was almost like each and every other tree. In fact, Michael and Thomas could not tell what type of tree they were, so different they were to the flora of Thuraen.

"Ironbark they are so named," explained Paechra as she appeared to step out from the very trunk of the tree Thomas was looking at.

"Ironbark?" asked Michael.

"With bejeweled axe-heads do we chop them down and use their bark for weapons and armor," Paechra continued.

"Using sticks against swords," laughed Thomas. "What witchery is that?"

"Our weapons are as strong and sharp as any fine crafted by your people," suggested the druid.

Michael knew it not to be a boast but a plain truth. Thomas though was not as wise.

"I call witchcraft," the butcher cried. "Your people use spell craft upon the wood.

With all of his strength Thomas then attempted to break off a low hanging branch. For all his efforts all the young man was able to break was a sweat.

"If you are finished with your foolery, Thomas," began Michael as he stifled a smile. "Can you please tell us where the others are?"

"I was so enchanted by this strange place that I almost forgot them," cried Thomas in surprise.

"They are this way," announced Paechra confidently.

"Come on, boy," said Michael as he took Thomas by the arm and dragged him after Paechra.

"We have been calling for hours!" grumbled Anton.

The look that Paechra, Thomas and Michael saw on the face of Queen Catherine seemed to suggest that it was not only Anton who called out.

"My queen," stated Michael and Thomas together.

"In all truthfulness your cries did not penetrate the wall of wood," stated Paechra.

"Ironwoods it is," said Thomas.

"Actually, it is Ironbark," added Michael, correcting the younger.

"Come, we must enter the forest together, otherwise it is highly likely you will become lost," stated Paechra.

Again, the sylvan walked away from the group and again Anton and the queen made argument.

"Why should we follow you?" asked Anton.

In a huff the druid turned to face the head of the Truth Keepers of Thuraen.

"In the city of Andrapaal you knew where you were, what you could and could not do and how you needed to live your life," stated Paechra.

"And you stole that certainty away from me," growled Anton.

"Your own stole that away when they smuggled the black tome into your city," spat back Paechra. "I just happened to be there to smuggle you out when everything went wrong."

Anton swallowed his next argument as he recalled their escape from the fallen capital.

"Well, I know where I am now, follow me and bet on the help of my people and our weapons made from trees or hope back in that boat and see if you can find your own way home and your own solution to a very big problem," the sylvan added.

"Lead the way and I will follow, Paechra," announced Michael as he took a stride toward the forest.

"I will follow you while there is no other option," added Thomas though he remained beside the queen and looked to her for confirmation.

Paechra smiled inwardly, glad that once again she had the confidence and support of Raven's father. The fickle nature of Thomas' support she was happy to take as it came. To lose Michael's faith though made Paechra think she was losing Raven's as well.

"Of course, Thomas, I would expect nothing less," stated Paechra and Catherine together.

As the druid turned away from the group once more and towards her home she marched forward with a prayer in her heart.

"I do so hope this works," she stated.

Half the battle was won though as this time all followed her and none remained behind.

In the thickest part of the forest darkness came quick. Paechra had hoped that as a group they could have moved faster. Anton was very protective of the queen however and so their race against the remaining daylight was a futile one. As the group began to come across signs of sylvan life, signs that only Paechra could see, there came a renewed effort to move faster. All of this came to a very sudden halt, however. As Anton deviated from a path that Paechra asked them all to follow there came a snap and then a flourish of movement along the forest floor. Ropes, thick and strong erupted from within the undergrowth and suddenly a net flew up into the trees. Caught within the highest treetops the party swayed in the wind.

"Now what do we do?" whined Thomas.

"This is all entirely your fault," began Anton, trying to catch Paechra's eye.

The sylvan however was far more interested in the figures she noticed coming silently through the branches of the Ironbark trees.

"Who be it that approaches us?" called Paechra, sylvan words that sounded to the humans like a strange song.

Casting a quick spell, the druid enabled her words and the words of her people to fall upon the humans hearing and to be translated.

"She returns!" cried one voice and then the chant was taken up by that of the three others who stepped out from the cover of the forest's foliage.

"It is indeed you, Paechra of the Lightheart clan," stated one of the sylvan, all four males. Each was dressed in an odd garb of tree bark from head to toe. Each wielded a six-foot spear, each weapon expertly carved from a sole branch.

"It is indeed Paechra Lightheart whom I be," replied the druid. "I return home and I have brought with me guests."

"Cut her down, cut down the princess," demanded one of the sylvan.

"Princess?" asked Anton.

Queen Catherine also heard the term though she chose to say nothing.

As the net was sliced free of the ropes and gently lowered the humans had a chance to look closely upon their captors. Short and lean, well-tanned, these figures were built for the wild.

"Your majesty," echoed all four of the sylvan figures. In unison they all knelt before Paechra, a surprise to the druid as much as it was to her companions.

"Please explain this to us, Princess Paechra," demanded Queen Catherine.

"Honestly, I am as much at a loss as you all are," replied Paechra. "I too do not understand."

To Be Continued…

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