Morrigan blinked, and debated whether or not to tell her tale to the odd fiendling across the table. After all, she was in the lands of men, now, and one could never be certain about their kind; on the other hand, Padraig was obviously an outcast, and if he sold her for supper, she could return the favour.

"Well," she said, "It began like this..."

Years ago, in the far reaches of Hambolshire, there lived a young halfling girl and her mother and brother. She was a lively young thing, and loved to dance, sing, and tell stories when she was not about her work, and sometimes, even when she was. In the mornings she milked, in the evenings she cooked, and most of the time in between she sat outside sewing and hoped for a passing traveller to whom she could trade bread for fresh stories.

She was quite content and set in her ways for many years, and she learned many a tale sitting out by the gate with some loaves and her stitchery. It was a good life for a halfling girl, and some day, she thought, she would marry and have children like herself to keep the farm running and the stories coming in. And, so, she was sitting out to meet fate on the day her life was changed.

It was her sixteenth birthingday, and the air was sweet with the smell of drying hay. While she watched the road, she stitched up the hole her brother had put in his pants when he jumped out of the loft and caught himself on a nail. Boys were just like that, she supposed, clumsy and rash. She sighted a cloud of dust up the road, and guessed it would be a messenger from the town up the road riding to the next shire with his package. Nothing else ever moved that quickly. As the rider approached, she discovered that she had been mistaken; he was tall as men are tall, and his horse was foaming as though he's crossed two shires alredy that day. He looked afraid, as he drew his horse to a halt beside the gate.

"My name is Randall," he gasped, "Please help..." And with that, he toppled from his exhausted horse, and hit the ground with a resounding thud. Morrigan looked more closely at him: his tangle of long dark hair, the torn black cloak, the gaping wound in his side. Her eyes grew wide. She thought quickly, and using the pair of pants she'd been sewing to extend her reach, she managed to get the wounded traveller draped across his slouching stallion. Luckily, the tired beast was in no shape to argue with her. She collected her things, and led the horse and its unconscious rider back toward the house.

It was weeks before Randall could stand. Whoever he had fought had done more damage than was initially suspected. Morrigan stayed by his side, and cared for him as best as she could, changing his bandages and bringing him water. He had, she thought, the most intriguing violet eyes, when they were open, that was. What intrigued her the most, though, were his dreams. He had violent nightmares and called out in his sleep. He spoke deliriously of wizards and conjurers and their armies of devils from the blasted lands; from what she could gather, there had been a great battle in one of the Houses of Magic, but she knew almost nothing about them, so she couldn't tell which one. Why would the wizards of a cloth take to killing one another? It didn't make sense, but it was what he screamed about when he dreamed. When he did wake, he would quietly beg her for water, and swear she'd come down for him from the places beyond the sky.

When, at last, he had recovered enough to stay awake for more than a few minutes, Randall was introduced to the rest of the family that had saved him. He was not a terrible wizard, he claimed, and he was a fair scholar, to boot. He offered to repay their hospitality by staying on as a teacher for Morrigan, to be certain she learned things of the world that would never fail to impress an audience -- stories from the goblin lands, the way to tame wild birds to sing along to music, all sorts of wild things that a girl who likes stories should know. Morrigan eagerly accepted, and for five years, she was his eager student. Sometimes, sitting in his room in the loft, she would ask him about things that he'd glossed over, but he would get a faraway look in his eye, and say "I hope you never know, little one."

For her twenty-first birthingday, Randall presented Morrigan with a small silver ring, of dwarvish design, beset with a rich blue crystal from the southern lands. Before she could draw breath, he proposed. Morrigan was overjoyed. She could have everything she dreamed she would have and so much more! Not only would she have the farm and the children, but she would have wise and lovely Randall to share them with. She looked deep into his enchanting violet eyes and accepted.

That night as she slept, Morrigan was awakened by a sound from outside the house. As she came to consciousness, she realised it was the horses out in the barn -- and they were screaming? She hadn't realised horses could scream until that night. She leapt out of bed, grabbed the dasher from the churn, and stalked out into the night, hunting whatever had spooked her horses. Surely, she was being silly, she thought, Randall would have taken care of it by the time she got out there, but she went anyway, determined to do something. As she drew closer to the barn, she was struck by a very unpleasant smell, almost sulphuric and coppery. Morrigan cautiously entered the barn through the partly open door, and nearly vomited at the sights she was presented with -- every animal in the building had been torn apart and heaped in the center of the floor. Panicked, she called out for Randall. There was no answer. Caution aside, she ran to the ladder and climbed up to the loft. There lay Randall, mangled in a way that left no doubt as to his death. Beside him, nailed gruesomely to the floor with Randall's table knife, lay something so horrible, Morrigan could not name it. She stood frozen and staring at the carnage until dawn, when her brother found her and the wreckage.

"I have to go," she said, hollowly.

He nodded, and began to gather Randall's belongings. He would miss her, yes, but she was right, she had to go. She had to destroy the responsible party before he learned of her existance, or she would be this.

It was with many tears and fond farewells that Morrigan took up Randall's old satchel full of books and maps, and set out on the road, in the direction from which he had come, that fateful day.

Padraig just stared for a moment. "Gwythyr's eyes, that's a nasty business you come from!" He paused "Can I get you some more soup?"

She nodded halfheartedly, and he was quick to oblige.

"Of course, you'll stay here tonight. Nevermind the barn, I'll find you a blanket or two and you can sleep by the fire." He looked sympathetically at her, "You poor thing...I hope you get every last one of those fatherless sons of whores and burn their eyes out!" He scowled meaningfully towards the door, as she quickly ate her soup.

Padraig found some blankets for his guest, and wished her goodnight, as he wandered off to his own bed, and dreams of the wild places in the world, places he painted, but had yet to see.

next week: Down the Road a Piece

Maerklon's Story | Ophandir's Beginnings | Padraig's Younger Days | A Traveller in Cambry

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