Hellbore left the Talos Valley with a heavy heart yet she had something pulling at her to go onward. It would have been so wonderful if she could but turn around and return to the Red Gryphon Inn and the safety and warmth of Karl Strange's arms.
"Not yet." Hellbore sighed as she spoke aloud to the world around her.
"Not yet, but one day, Lady of the Wolves!" A voice out of nowhere spoke to her.
Hellbore spun about to see who had spoken but even her keen eyesight could not locate the speaker.
"Who is that has spoken to me?" Hellbore said as she continued to spin about trying to find the one who had spoken. One foot after the other she continued to spin looking for the unseen speaker until finally dizzy from her efforts, she tripped and fell soundly upon the ground. She was just finishing brushing off her clothing when the voice spoke again.
"Pray that your footsteps are far more careful than your grace this day, my Lady of the Wolves. Those you hunt will not be so careless and I have heard that they know you are coming for them." The voice teased her, "Trust not your eyes on this venture, rely only on your keen senses and instincts! I hope to see you alive when you return to the valley." Then the voice fell silent with only a faint melody like the voices of a hundred birds singing was left in the voice's place.
Puzzled by the encounter Hellbore continued on her way north from the valley, the strange melody of the flute player still reaching her ears.
High in an Acacia Tree that grew at the far end of the Talos Valley sat a Wood Elf straddling a wide branch near the top of the tree. In the Wood Elf's hands was an ancient flute, a flute of legends, known as the Pan Pipe. He continued to play his playful songs even as the one he called the Lady of the Wolves vanished from his sight, now his songs called to hundreds of birds and they came to that calling. Birds of every color and size jostled each other for a place near the Wood Elf and his magical music; they bobbed their heads as if answering his mysterious questions. When the music ended the birds began fanning their wings and rose in a cloud of colorful feathers and returned to the sky from whence they had come, each species now having a quest to complete for the Wood Elf.
The Wood Elf, satisfied that his will would be done by the avian beings, moved from his hidden branch and began his decent from the Acacia Tree to the ground. The Wood Elf was quite unique among his own kind, he had the ability to blend in perfectly with any tree he took shelter in, his flesh morphing to imitate the bark of his host tree. His hair, though normally a pale brown in color could at his choosing change to varying shades of green to mimic the leaves of his host tree, his eyes were called hazel and could be anything from pale watery blue like clouds in a summer sky to the dark brown of the soil after a spring rain. Few who ever saw him could say just what he looked like, each having his own description of the strange being. The Wood Elf had a secret name among his own kind but preferred the human name given him long ago by the tall man who ran the inn in the valley, Jon Skysinger.
Jon knew Hellbore's secret and would keep it to himself. She was good for Karl Strange and he would be good for her once her quest was finished. But Jon left nothing to chance and had summoned the birds to be his eyes as she traveled across the Phantom Realm. His avian friends would keep him informed of all Hellbore's adventures and in turn, Jon would create songs that would tell the world about the Lady of the Wolves.
Hellbore had traveled for better that three days from the valley when she came across the smoking remains of what looked like several abandoned wagons that had been broken up for firewood for a campfire. That opinion quickly changed when her nose picked up the foul scent of offal and the sweet sickly smell of burned flesh. Hellbore wrinkled her nose as she cautiously followed the odor. Hellbore stopped in her tracks when her eyes beheld three stakes that driven deep into the soft ground, hanging from those stakes were three men, their bodies pierced by the sharpened points of the stakes, their eyes bulging in horror. Hellbore had seen such sights before and knew that these poor men had been alive when put on those stakes and had each died a cruel and painful death.
Hellbore felt cold inside as she walked about that scene of cruel carnage, her eyes searching for possible survivors, her mind knowing she would find none. She still thought that these might be traders, robbed for the gold they might carry after a market day and so she looked for anything that might tell her from whence these men had traveled so she could send word back to waiting families or friends. Mounds of cloth had been carelessly strewn about the area and bales of cotton broken open, their contents drifting along the ground like tiny balls of fluffy snow. It was while searching for some mark or brand that could tell her these travelers identity that she found the body of the first woman.
The woman's body had been slit from the pubic area to the sternum, her insides spread out around her as if someone had searched for something hidden there. The woman had been alive when she was cut open, her blank eyes reflecting the terror and pain that she had endured before death released her.
Hellbore shuddered as she gently closed the woman's eyes and discreetly covered the poor woman's face with a length of cloth laying nearby. Hellbore rose to her feet and continued searching for some mark that would identify these people. It was not long before Hellbore found two more women, but these women had not met death instantly. These women had been clearly raped and tortured before they had been allowed the release of death. Hellbore gently covered the twisted and torn bodies of these younger females and had barely turned away when her ears caught the faint cry of something ensnared in one of the piles of cloth. The sound was small and weak as it reached her ears as Hellbore searched for the maker of that sound. It was under one of the wagon wheels that she discovered the body of a small dark haired girl. The child was barely alive as Hellbore uncovered her and it was obvious what had been done to the child. Her small body was covered in bruises and burn marks as if someone had struck her with burning brands. The dress the child had been wearing was now stiff with its owner's blood. The little girl's legs had been broken at the hip joints, as someone had spread her legs too far and the still developing limbs had broken under the pressure, like the branch of a tree. The legs lay at the wrong angles to her tiny body just like a broken doll. Hellbore could not tell what the child had looked liked before her attack, for the small face was black with bruising and swollen from the attack. Then the child opened her eyes and stared at Hellbore.
"What happened here, child?" Hellbore asked as she gently held the child's battered head in her arms.
"Men on horses." The child's voice faint, the effort of speaking being almost beyond her ability and a sheen of sweat quickly covered her beaten and bloody face.
"When?" Hellbore asked the dying child, she could feel the life as it left the girl's fragile body.
"When the sun rose. Gerard and Emile Patagon killed me; tell the people of Cattmeyer that we tried to get home. Tell them that Marcus Stillborn, my father, was returning home." Those were the last words the child spoke before her body stiffened in pain once more and then was released in to the open arms of death.
Hellbore carefully marked the names the child had spoken in her last moments of life as she lifted the girl into her arms and carried her to where the bodies of the other women lay. She arranged the women together and then lifted each of the three men from the stakes and lay them with the females; not knowing which man had been the unnamed child's father. Hellbore began taking her anger out at the unspeakable crime that had been done in this place out on the broken remains of the wagons. She kicked and pulled the wagons and wheels apart until she had amassed enough wood to cover the remains of the dead, then she discovered an unbroken jug of lamp-oil laying away from the wagons and poured the contents over the pile of wood and from the still burning brands she lit the pyre that would hopefully burn the bodies down to ashes to be carried away on the winds. Satisfied that she had done all that could be done under the terrible circumstance, Hellbore turned her steps to the northeast, toward the place called Cattmeyer. In her mind she held the vision of the carnage that had been done and her nose carried the scent of those who had raped the tiny young girl, the ones the child had named as her killers. Gerard and Emil Patagon.
Hellbore, though exhausted from her exertions at the burned out campsite, burned with a magnificent fire inside her breast, a fire called vengeance. It surrounded her being and drove her forward blindly not allowing room for thought and caution. She knew not the passage of time and did not even see the sky darken as the sun fell behind the distant hills. Onward her legs carried her until at last she found herself ankle deep in icy water and awaking her from her near deranged stupor.
"Brr!" Hellbore spoke through quivering lips as the icy water chilled her bones. "Now how in the name of the ancient ones did I wind up here?" Hellbore looked around her and recognized nothing of the area. She saw that she was in a small tarn and quickly waded out of the water her body shivering from the icy dip.
Hellbore carefully removed her backpack and gathered the things that would be needed, including a fagot of sticks to make a fire. Drawing out her flint and steel she deftly created a spark that lit the pitch filled pine needles and then concentrated on feeding the small flames with more pitch filled pine needles and the small sticks until the fire was strong enough to take the smaller branches and when those were giving off enough heat and fiery coals she added the first of the larger branches until she had a proper campfire blazing to warm her and dry her clothing and boots. From her pack that Dora had packed for her at the Red Gryphon Inn, Hellbore drew out a leather pouch containing dried meat and journey cakes, a flagon of heady red wine to warm her insides and a special cake filled with nuts and berries that Hellbore had so enjoyed during her weeks at the Inn. Once her empty stomach had been sated and the wine coursed through her body warming away the last of the icy chill that had nearly overcome her, Hellbore sat back and reflected of the events of the past week.
Leaving the valley had been extremely difficult for her, then strange voice and music talking to her and the worst of all was coming across the burned out wagons and the pitiful victims left behind. That was the last conscious thought that Hellbore could recall, all most all was a blur after that. How long she had traveled since she had burned the dead of that group of travelers she did not know for all was a blank from then on, her first conscious thought coming after she found herself ankle deep in the icy tarn with darkness all around her. But exhaustion was upon her being and Hellbore gathered full green branches of the fir trees and laid them carefully in a pile with the points into the ground and spread out her sleeping furs over her bed, before laying down she tried to stretch the kinks from her muscles out of her back and legs, to no avail. She finally gave up and lay upon her firs and tried to relax and sleep, her last words before sleep overcame her were, "If only I had a horse to ride..." Hellbore was at last in a deep sleep.
High above the sleeper an owl watched over her, its golden eyes glittering in the light from her campfire, it had heard her final wish before sleeping and flew off on a mission of its own, but not before leaving a family of squirrels to watch over the sleeper, the owl had issued a dire warning that if anything happened to the sleeper while it was gone, the squirrels would themselves on the owl's next meal menu. So Hellbore unknowingly had company in her sleeping robes, three younger squirrels curled long her bare back, while the adults were staked out in her fanned out hair, ready to drive out any creature that dared come near to the sleeper as one curious snake was to find out. The squirrels had a good thing going with the owl and would guard the sleeper with their very lives.
The sun was but a faint pink blur on the horizon when the owl returned to the tree, it's mission completed it checked on the sleeper and was satisfied when it had reassured itself that she was safe and but sleeping. The squirrels had been vigilant in the owl's absence, as the torn body of a small snake attested to, it lay in a twisted pile near the sleeping woman.
The owl bowed to the squirrel family and they all returned to their own homes in the tree before the woman awakened.
The sun was shining down on Hellbore's face before she awakened that morning, disturbing a wonderful of dream about the Valley of the Dragon Gods and a tall dark man with silver raven streaks on the sides of his hair. Hellbore tried to pull her furs over her head to block out the intrusive sun to no avail, those brilliant rays seemed to be cruelly seeking any opening to irritate her with radiant happy spears of light.
"Grr!" Hellbore grumbled as she threw off the sleeping furs, exposing her naked flesh to the cold of the morning air. Instantly she was covered with millions of goose bumps and she scrambled quickly into her clothing before building a morning fire to warm her. Hellbore's hair was tangled and twisted about her head like a lion's mane, her face still bore the marks of sleeping on the branches of fir boughs. She stumbled about preparing for the day's journey not knowing nor caring how far she had to travel. When her fire had been lit and going strong enough to cook a brace of rabbits she had found in her pack wrapped in a cloth bearing the sign of the Red Gryphon.
"Dora must have packed this for me also." Hellbore mumbled.
When the rabbits were on the spit and cooking, Hellbore made her way down to the edge of the tarn to wash her face and hands. She saw her reflection in the mirror perfect water and laughed.
"I am glad that Karl cannot see me now! He would run away in fright!" Hellbore laughed as the thought of Karl's deep blue eyes widening in fright and running from the wild creature she saw reflected in the pool. Hellbore had barely pulled herself to her feet when she noticed a tiny Wood Thrush hoping near her boots in the wet mud at the edge of the tarn. She ignored the little creature thinking that it had merely come down for a morning drink and bath for itself. The bird tweeted at her and made a hop in her direction. Hellbore backed up thinking that it must be afraid of her. The bird cocked its head at her and hoped toward her yet again. Hellbore turned to leave the pool to the thrush but it jumped on the toe of her boot and pecked at it in an irritated manner and cheeped yet again.
"I am giving you your pool you silly bird!" Hellbore spoke more for herself than the bird.
"Cheep! Cheep! Tweet!" The bird's demeanor was angry now as if it was trying to convey some message to the woman.
Hellbore looked more closely at the creature then her form shimmered and she became a bird herself.
"You silly twit! Can't you understand anything?" The bird scolded the bird that had been a woman.
"What are you trying tell me?" Hellbore chirped back.
"Follow me!" With that the Wood Thrush flew off in a westerly direction not looking back to see if the strange newcomer was following it.
Hellbore followed the thrush to a place beyond the hills, where the cliffs enclosed a small valley where the grass grew green and lush and a small river ran through the center of the hidden vale. Hellbore followed the little thrush to the narrow end of the valley where only one entrance and exit could be seen. The thrush landed on a small boulder near the opening and fluffed its wings as it settled down on its stone perch and waited for something. Hellbore lit also and shimmered once more and became her human self once again.
"Well, here we are but why? " Hellbore spoke to the bird, but this time she retained her knowledge of the bird's language for communication.
"Wait, oh, impatient human!" The bird had a very irritating tone as it spoke to her.
"Wait? Wait for what?" Hellbore asked the thrush, her nerves were already worn thin from the recent events in her life.
"Patience, human!" The thrush was enjoying itself. It had been upset by the owl's imperious command the night before, but this human was fun to tease, such an easy mark for fun. It decided to forgive the owl.
Suddenly the vale echoed with the sound of thunder as if a storm was coming into the valley from ground level. Hellbore could feel the ground shake and quiver beneath her feet and she quickly looked around for the source. She at barely turned her attention toward the opening into the valley when her eyes beheld the sight of golden bodies rushing into the valley. Ten magnificent horses thundered into the valley, manes and tails flying.
Hellbore did not recognize the breed. They were all larger than the standard horses found though out the Phantom Realm, nothing too unusual about that because Karl Strange also had horses much larger that the standard breeds that had been used as battle steeds, the Trencherons. Hellbore had never bothered with the beasts because of her dual nature of human and beast. Horses tended to shy around her and would not let her ride them. She wondered why the bird had brought her here to this valley to see these very beautiful creatures. They were very distinctive in their coloring, their hides were the golden color of the sun, and their manes and tails were the color of silver, all except one, whose mane and tail was as black as a moonless sky. Palomino was the name that came to Hellbore, she had heard about such beasts though never having seen one of them. These were the creatures only the great kings and queens were known to ride upon. She could recall no mere commoner owning such a beast. She watched in awe as the horses played and ran from one end of the small valley to the other, nipping upon each other on the flanks and necks as they ran close to their kin. The sun reflected off their shining coats like golden coins. Hellbore was so enraptured in the vision she did not see one of the beasts coming up behind her.
The first thing that Hellbore noticed was the feel of warm moist air being blown upon her neck. Next she felt her hair being tugged and heard the sound of chewing. She froze, not wanting to scare off the being behind her. Instead she leaned backwards against this daring being, feeling the warmth of its body against her back. The beast gave forth a rumbling deep down in its chest to express its satisfaction with the woman's actions. It had been drawn to her from the time it had entered the valley. Now it leaned its head over the top of hers and stared her in the eyes.
Hellbore looked upward and gazed into liquid gold. Her hands rose of their own volition as she touched the beasts muzzle and rubbed her knuckles under its chin. Hellbore felt her body turning to face the beast though she was unaware of giving it that command. She moved as if in a dream, she knew she was aware of her present time, but also knew she had no control over the situation.
Hellbore felt her body as it climbed onto the broad back of the beast and the creature bunching its muscles as it prepared to run. The horse and rider began their odyssey together that morning in the small nameless valley as they raced around the perimeter of the high cliff boundary. The other beasts moved aside to allow the horse and its new rider to pass safely, then the golden beast with the black mane and tail stopped before the largest of its herd. It extended one of its forelegs toward the larger animal and bowed its head.
What the two creatures said to each other was temporarily blocked from Hellbore, then she felt the gentle pushing of another creature's thoughts against her own protected mind. She allowed the transfer of thought and was surprised at the ease with which it communicated.
"My daughter has chosen you as her rider and I wonder why? It has been more than a thousand years since my band has had any contact with your race, yet here in our hidden valley you stand. I cannot help but wonder why. What has brought you here?" The stallion asked as he stared at Hellbore.
"Actually it wasn't my idea. I followed a thrush into the valley. I did not even know of this place." Hellbore arranged her thoughts so the stallion could see the events as they had happened.
"You are different from most humans, there is something hidden inside you." The stallion gently pushed harder against Hellbore's mind-blocks until he felt something give and he became aware of just how different Hellbore was from most humans.
"Yes, I am a shape shifter." Hellbore sent out her thoughts to the great stallion, she was prepared for the normal rejection that other beings had given her when her other selves were revealed.
The stallion scanned her thoughts for the true nature of her being and saw for himself that she was not an eater of the Meat of humankind nor did she hunt horseflesh for cruel pleasure, as did many such beasts.
"I have seen into your mind and I agree to my daughter's choice, but the final choice must be hers after she has seen your every form. Do you so agree, shapeshifter?" The stallion's thoughts flooded her mind.
This time Hellbore used her natural voice to answer. "Yes, I agree to your terms." Hellbore then turned to face the now prancing female standing impatiently behind her. Hellbore's body shimmered and became a Werewolf, complete with dripping fangs and snarls. The female responded by lathing her rough tongue across Hellbore's furry face.
Not to be put off, Hellbore transformed herself into a winged dragon, followed by as many beasts she could think of clearly. Still the silly filly butted her head in affection against the side of whatever creature that stood before her.
The huge stallion snorted as Hellbore returned once more to human form. "It seems my daughter is taken with you, for whatever reason she has inside her. It has been ages since one of my kind left our band to follow strange pathways and I have seen with you those pathways will indeed be very strange." He then turned to his daughter and gave his assent to her going with Hellbore. Then he called to the remainder of his herd and led then once again from the hidden valley.
"Well, it seems you and I are going to be companions. But what shall I call you?" Hellbore asked the black manned golden horse. She walked around the creature's beautiful body and then suddenly jumped backwards; the horse had disappeared before her eyes. Hellbore turned quickly to see what might have happened to the filly when her next turn ran her smack into the side of the creature that had suddenly reappeared.
The filly nickered with glee and butted Hellbore in the chest.
"So, there is more to you than meets the eye, my dear girl. I believe I shall call you Shade." Hellbore told the horse as she stroked her strong hands along the horse's nose.
"I like that!" The horse once more surprised Hellbore by talking to her directly.
"You can speak in words?" Hellbore responded to this new ability with her mouth hanging wide open in surprise.
"Better close you mouth before a blue-bottle fly enters and lays nasty eggs." Shade giggled.
"But you use words?"
"Just don't tell my father, he thinks that just because the rest of the herd have lost the ability of speech, all of us have. My mother never told him that she can do this also, but then what he doesn't know won't hurt us.." Shade teased.
"Do you have any other surprises for me?" Hellbore inquired of the filly she had called Shade.
"Oh, yes. But I shall save them for later In case they be needed." Shade kept the mysterious tone when talking about her abilities.
"Fair enough!" Hellbore responded as she held onto Shade's mane and jumped onto her broad back. Hellbore used neither saddle nor reins when riding just like she had done when she had when she had been a child in her village so many years ago. Instead of reins Hellbore wrapped her fingers into Shade's mane and leaned down close to the horse's neck. She barely put pressure into Shade's ribs when the horse exploded under her and they were swept together out of that hidden valley.
The Wood Thrush had seen everything and when he had been convinced that all was well with the female shapeshifter, he flew off to tell the owl of the turn of events. Hellbore had asked for a horse to ride and she had gotten her wish. The Thrush's reward for a job well done was a nesting site, protected from predators, in a certain Acacia Tree at the entrance to the Talos Valley.
Jon Skysinger sat high in the branch of the Acacia Tree strumming out a tune on his lyre as the owl related the tale of Hellbore and the Palomino horse. When the owl had finished Jon asked him to perform another task, the owl bobbed his head in assent and flew off. Jon leaned back against the rough bark of the tree and smiled to himself as he envisioned the adventures that would indeed be coming his way as Hellbore and Shade made their way across the Phantom Realm.
"Lady with your hair of flame,
Together with a horse of a shadowy name,
Together you travel across these lands,
From frigid mountain passes to hot burning sands."
Jon Skysinger idly strummed on his lyre, his mind filled with visions of Hellbore and her flaming red hair flying about her head like the snakes on old Medusa's head. Jon laughed to himself as he dared to compare himself to the mythological Cupid, god of love.
"I don't need arrows to prick the flesh of lovers, I just use a plan." Jon giggled even harder when he recalled the face of Karl Strange as he gazed at Hellbore Reid. Humans relied on that age old need for passion when it came to falling in love; while Elves merely mated when it was time to do so, the females raised the babies until it was time for training and then they were separated and the boy offspring were trained by the males and the females were tested and trained by the proper women of the band according to their gifts. Simple, no fuss, no worry.
Hellbore and Shade traveled out of the hidden valley and headed once more in a northerly direction toward the village of Cattmeyer to find the home of Marcus Stillborn and the two killers, Gerard and Emile Patagon.
The second day out of the valley a storm broke overhead, drenching the two travelers. A flash of lightening illuminated the surrounding area exposing a small recessed area in the side of a nearby hillock. That is where Shade headed. The shelter was barely large enough for both the horse and rider, if the rider didn't object to being scrunched up next to the back wall of the niche while the horse blocked the entry.
"I would revel exactly how put out I am about this, my dear companion, but as long as this storm carries on so, I have no choice." Hellbore remarked in a put out tone of voice as she tried to did some more of the of the looser soil away from the interior wall of the depression to give herself room to lay down or at least get below Shade's rear end. Horses were dear companions but to be so up close and personal had its drawbacks, if one had to smell that area too long.
Shade snickered in response and said, "I promise to be very good and not deposit any of my bodily waste on your delicate person." She couldn't turn around to see the look on Hellbore's face at her words, but from the stiffening of the woman's body she knew Hellbore wasn't pleased by the turn of events. Shade could not resist one more snicker, but she got a sharp pull on her black tail in answer to her amusement.
Shade decided that perhaps Hellbore did need more room to move about and breathe fresh air and so she vanished from sight.
Hellbore had had her back turned digging at the back of the depression in the hill when a blast of cold wet air hit her back and she turned around startled. Shade had vanished!
"Shade? Shade! You silly creature get back in here right now before you get hit by one of those nasty bolts of lightening!" Hellbore screamed as she leaned out of the protection of the cave. She pulled her head back inside quickly when the air in front of her suddenly came to life when a bolt of lightening hit just beyond the cave and turned the black sky blue and filled her nose with the scent of ozone. Hellbore fell on her backside so quickly did she retreat to the safety of the back of the cave. She could only shake her head in worry and give a private prayer the filly would be safe through the night when this storm was sure to abate.
Hellbore was confused though about how Shade could just vanish like that without her hearing her. That would be the last thought Hellbore had that night as the need for sleep crushed down anymore-conscious thoughts. Curled tightly in her sleeping robes Hellbore dreamed of a tall dark-haired man with sliver wings along the sides.