Tales of the fox
Wak’an winter, year 0
The nursery was silent. No, not completely silent. Soft crying and wailing could be heard, when close enough. Midwives, dressed in the customary garb, trotted between the cots and cribs aiding the babes. They spoke softly, soothing. Nurtured, burped. Changed nappies.
A cry was approaching from outside the room. The door opened and another midwife entered the nursery. One of the two newborn she held let the world know of its arrival with strong bursts of wailing, having left the warmth and comfort of the womb. The newborn boy was laid in a crib and wrapped in a warm blanket and his wailing quieted somewhat. The girl was laid in the next crib and began to cry a soft, almost silent, cry.
A girl, perhaps two or three winters old, in a cot close by watched the newborns curiously, attracted by the sound of wailing. Her hand moved over a section of her blanket, she just recently discovered had an interesting texture.
The ceremony had been completed. Of the three, only two had a mark on their throats. On one the mark was new, pulsating with a dim light. On the other the mark had almost faded.
None of the three was aware that there had been no ceremony for the newborn boy.
Wa’kan Summer, year 5
A girl ran over the courtyard with great haste. She had been given a task and was determined to see it through. Not only to avoid punishment, that could be handed out anyway whether it was earned or not. Collective punishment was common after all.
Wuying was proud to be given a task by the grownups and eager to help. She had been given two sisters for this assignment. She thought she was the oldest. She was the tallest, a fact she reminded the others about whenever she had the chance. Today she was about to see the kitchen courtyard! She was excited! No one had ever left the outer courtyard! Perhaps some of the older sisters, but they were not here anymore. This would be something to talk about forever!
To her left she could see the nursery courtyard and garden for the younger sisters. They were just about too young to begin their training to serve but they would start soon, very soon. Wuying thought she was about eight winters now, and she already knew who her little sister was going to be. She had been shown a sister that looked about five or six winters, still playing with a doll.
Small and skinny, as if she did not eat properly. That sister was to be her responsibility, her charge. The girl thought that the little sister better not embarrass her. She will make certain her little sister eats properly.
The girl slid to a halt by the large gates leading to the kitchen courtyard and put all thoughts of little sisters aside as Wuying and her sisters ventured into territories unknown.
Wa’kan Fall, year 8
A soft whimper escaped the girl called Yingtai as she held the fingers of her right hand. The pain pulsated and spread from the knuckles to her fingertips, even to her arm. The teacher gave her a stern look and Yingtai swallowed the pain and held out the aching right hand in the air, palm down, and continued to draw symbols in silence with her left hand.
She relaxed slightly as the teacher continued down the row of students. The sharp sound of another sister receiving a switching for not drawing up to standards. Whoever it was sat far enough away that Yingtai did not hear whimper nor sobs. Wuying, her first designated older sister since a few winters back, braved a comforting smile but her eyes were worried. Yingtai smiled back and Wuying relaxed.
The two could almost know what the other was thinking and spent the little free time they had together.
That would soon come to an end. Yingtai sighed softly. She would be assigned a little sister of her own. Wuying would be transferred to the inner courtyards of the palace and begin advanced training. Hopefully they would see each other again. Yingtai was very curious to hear about them. Wuying still told the tale of when she went to the kitchen courtyard once.
A blinding pain emanating from her right-hand fingers made the girl whimper softly once more. The teacher eyed her with a gaze promising further punishment after the class ended as the tip of the switch pointed at the blot of ink. Yingtai had lost herself in her thoughts. With a clenched jaw to shove the pain away, and stop the tears forming in her eyes, the girl resumed her drawing of the symbols.
The next class of music would be problematic and result in more punishment. She steeled herself.
Wa’kan spring, year 11
The questions never ended. Yingtai tried her best to not show any annoyance and to keep her expression tranquil. She had lost count how many times she had told her little sister that she did not know how or what they were doing to the newborns in that room. She should have known better than to bring Xiulan. She could not be more than six or seven winters, Yingtai thought.
The assignment had been simple enough. Delivering various items to and from the nursery court was not uncommon. It was a bit more uncommon to deliver items to the delivery rooms. Yingtai and Xiulan did not question this, of course. There are easier ways to taste the switch.
As they were taught, the two sisters took position at the far side of the room, folding their legs under them and sat in silence, unmoving, awaiting command. They observed as more and more newborns and babes was brought into the room and laid in cribs by midwives. The sound was almost deafening. Yingtai thought they cried and screamed incredibly loud.
Dusk had come and gone. Yingtai realized that several figures had moved into the, now dark, room. She did not recognize their garbs however they were not the garbs of the midwives who was in a hurry to leave the room, closing the heavy doors behind them. Xiulan and Yingtai stayed still.
A sudden display of light almost blinded Yingtai and when she could see clearly again, she saw something that was the most beautiful and, at the same time, terrifying she had ever witnessed. Beams, streams, no, something surrounded the figures as they moved around the cribs, leaving a mark at the throat of each child. The mark pulsated with a dim light.
It was over as quickly as it had started, and the figures began to leave the room. One of the figures halted by the doors and turned around to pierce the two girls with its gaze. Yingtai felt as if her flesh would rend from her bones. The figure turned and left the room. Shortly after, a few palace warriors and one of the teachers stormed in followed by the midwives. They lit the lamps in the room and dragged both Yingtai and Xiulan out to the courtyard.
The two sisters would not soon forget the switching they received.
Wa’kan spring, year 12
Xiulan was her second little sister. She had deduced that she was assigned to a big sister, got a little sister assigned to her and that she would transfer to the inner courtyard at a certain age. That was not all, however. Other factors must have been at play. Factors she did not know. Yingtai glanced at her little sister as she listened half-heartedly, keeping her expression tranquil and still as the pond in the courtyard garden. She had seen sisters younger than her transfer to the inner court while she was still here.
Certainly, she had been receiving more teaching in music and dance. Physical training where the teacher twisted and bended her limbs and body until she thought she would break like a dry twig. Yingtai knew that she was shorter than most of her sisters, even though she was now among the eldest. She was skinnier as well, even though she ate and strictly followed the diet she was assigned.
Plucking a white peony flower and placing it in Xiulans hair, she picked up on something the little sister had said. She asked Xiulan to repeat and came into a realization. That must be a factor that she had not considered. Yes, before transferring, the bodies of her sisters had begun the journey from girls to young women. That must be a factor that she had not considered.
She looked at the flower in Xiulans hair, she wondered when she would blossom and transfer to the inner courtyard. The sound of a gong was heard, and the two sisters made their way through the garden to the courtyard. It was time for more classes. They would learn the tea ceremony beginning today. Yingtai wondered if they would be allowed to drink some. She liked tea.
Yingtai (to the left) and Xiulan dancing.
Wa’kan fall, year 14
The day had come, finally. This evening would be the first night in the inner courtyard. Even though Yingtai was sad to leave her little sister, she told Xiulan that they would meet again, when Xiulan would transfer, Yingtai almost failed in keeping her expression tranquil and in control. She tried to comfort her little sister and wiped away her tears.
Two palace soldiers escorted her through the gates onto a bridgeway, leading to the inner courtyard. The procession walked in silence. She was taken to a dormitory and left by the door. The soldiers left without a word or command. The door opened and an older sister motioned her inside. There were many sisters in this dormitory. One sister rose gracefully and walked towards her. Yingtai bowed her head in greeting at her big sister. Their expressions calm and tranquil however Yingtai’s eyes were filled with happiness meeting her big sister Wuying.
She soon realized that there was little time to reminisce. She was to take part in a dance recital the day after. Her sisters helped her learn and rehearse the steps, as well as teach her the rules of the inner courtyard. They sounded harsh and left little to no room to err, nor patience for such. She could feel that there was something that they did not say. A glance here, a silence there. Whatever it turned out to be, Yingtai was determined not to embarrass her big sister.
Evening time drew near, and they left the dormitory and entered the courtyard. Yingtai realized for the first time that this was not a class with the teachers. There was an audience. The courtyard was lit with torches so that the musicians and dancers were clearly visible. She thought she saw palace soldiers as she took her position among the back-up dancers. Her sisters took their positions, behind instruments or as dancers, and the recital began. Yingtai felt such proudness for herself and her sisters as no mistake was made, not that she showed such emotion as expression, of course.
As the dance ended, however, she felt a strange feeling. Low murmurs could be heard from the dark figures that made up the audience. A laughter there, a chuckle here. Fingers where pointing at different sisters, at Yingtai as well.
She noticed a palace soldier out of the corner of her field of vision, his face barely illuminated, watching her intently. She held her posture, she was not going to let a soldier distract her.
That night, many of her sisters seemed to sleep elsewhere. Wuying was one of them.
Wa’kan fall, year 14
The following day were filled with classes. Yingtai understood that the pace was even faster here at the inner courtyard. Many of her sisters, her big sister Wuying among them, were still absent since last night. She hoped that they would not get in trouble.
Lessons speaking a foreign language. Cosmetics. Coiffure management. Physical exercise. Dance. Instruments. Yingtai had once thought the classes of the outer courtyard was alot. This, here, was on a whole other level.
Yingtai knew that she would never be selected to play any instruments in the front rows, however she was more interested in the dancing and was one of the better among her sisters. She hoped that she would be selected for advanced dance training.
Therefore, she took the message that she had been summoned to the center courtyard with excitement more than surprise. She had heard her sisters talk about the center courtyard. That was the next level to be transferred to. Only the most beautiful and skilled sisters were selected for that honor. It was something to strive towards. To give their absolute best.
She was given a set of garbs to wear that seemed to leave little to the imagination, but it was not the first time she or her sisters were given such garbs. On the contrary. Following the instructions, Yingtai ceremoniously prepared a tray with all the items needed for the tea ceremony she was to perform. An older sister graciously trotted up next to her, giving her a slight reassuring smile as she laid her hand on Yingtai’s right forearm. Yingtai gave her sister a glance and continued her preparations, determined to make this, her first assignment at the inner courtyard her very best.
She thought that she recognized the palace soldier, one of the two, that escorted her. He was one of the audience members from the dance recital. She entered the room.
Mind tranquility. Calm like the garden pond under the full moon. Show no expression. Do as commanded without hesitation.
She was pressed against a pillar. The men had discussed warfare, Yingtai had gathered. The beginning of the tea ceremony had started so well. She had made no mistakes. The meeting was close to its end when she had arrived, as instructed. Not too early, not too late.
She was turned over to her stomach. She had not spilled even one drop of tea, as she filled the cups, raising the teapot as high as she could manage while sitting on her knees by the ceremonial table. Exactly two drops of lemon added to each cup. Yingtai was worried about her hairpin at one point, it felt as if it was loosening. She had styled her hair to the best of her ability.
A large, and strong, hand gripped around her neck firmly. She thought that she would dance for the guests. She had been surprised to see two older sisters sitting in the customary position by the entrance to the room. Not that she showed any surprise in her expression, of course. Just as little as her sisters showed anything in theirs.
She was laid on her back in the bed. She does not remember ever studying how the roof was built before. How the wooden beams connected to each other. How the wooden boards were slightly overlapping. How the structure was self-supporting. It was almost like a lock and key. Everything fitted. If one part failed, all would fail.
The soft voices of her sisters reached her. They had brought a tray with pain relieving salves, steaming warm water and heated cloths, among other items.
She understood now, why they had been assigned to wait by the door.
She understood, that this was the first of many, this was what she was trained for.
Natha at one of her dance recitals.
Wa’kan Winter, year 16
Yingtai regretted that she did not have more time with her little sister Xiulan. It was almost as if they did not want them to spend time together. The day Xiulan was transferred from the outer courtyard to the inner courtyard, Yingtai was transferred to the center courtyard. She did not have the time to tell her little sister what was going to happen. To prepare her.
As she was escorted by the palace soldiers towards the center courtyard, she reminisced that she had not seen her big sister Wuying since that first night transferring to the inner courtyard. She hoped to see her now that she had received the honor of being selected to serve in the center courtyard.
She had done her very best to accomplish her assignments. She had given it all in her classes. She thought she had gained a favorable reputation for her advanced skills in dancing as she was quite often requested for such recitals. One of the teachers had, once, nodded slightly when judging her dancing! It must be for these skills that Yingtai was honored to ascension so soon.
She had heard that the very first recital at the center courtyard was for the Shogun himself. The outcome would decide where every sister is placed in the Courtyard hierarchy and, of course, the possibility of the Shoguns grace.
Yingtai calmed her mind. Tranquil. To aspire for such an honor would be foolish and lead to mistakes.
It would be better to focus on the assignments to come and complete them to the best of her ability.
Wa’kan summer, year 17
Each breath hurt. It felt as if there was no air, only fire. She felt dazed as if she was tumbling through the darkness. The heat was unbearable. Her lips were dry. She thought that she had run out of sweat. Her body ached.
She did not know who had angered them, or what had made them angry. Yingtai had lost all concepts of time. The wooden crate was too small, even for her. They had squeezed her into it before they nailed the lid shut. She remembers that she joined in the soft, terrified, screams of her sisters as they were all dragged to boxes to receive this collective punishment. Yingtai thought her crate was in the western part of the courtyard. It would not matter; the courtyard was built so that the sun would shine from dusk to dawn.
The punishments, personal and collective, had increased as of late. There was no more laughter in the dormitory. There were no more pranks during classes. The switch was ready and willing for any sister that displayed an emotion too sincere. A move without purpose. Anything that drew attention without command.
Most sisters slept on their side or stomach. Most sisters, if not all, had started to understand, Yingtai as well. They were to be like the dolls she used played with. Dolls do not laugh. Dolls do not act out of place. Dolls are quiet. Dolls wait. Dolls serve. Dolls follows your wishes. Dolls are for your enjoyment and comfort.
Her knees and hip hurt something fierce and Yingtai attempted to change her position and cried softly, as her muscles protested by sending flashes of pain through her body.
She though she heard a gentle stroke along the box at one time.
At least, she knew that those that survived this, would receive a day or two of rest. Salves and cosmetics would hide what was left.
Broken and damaged dolls is not played with.
Natha looking thoughtful while listening and observing
Wa’kan winter, year 19
She carefully corrected the pillow under her hip. Xiulan applied the herbal salve with great care. She would advance far as caretaker for wounded soldiers. Yingtai’s little sister had a natural ability for tending injuries and ailments. She was a bit surprised, usually the punishments did not leave injuries such as these. Pain, yes, however rarely this level of incapacitation.
There was war raging in the province. More often than not, her sisters and she had to comfort soldiers rather than prominent guests of the Shogun. Yingtai did not find much appeal in that. Soldiers were drunk and often rough. She could understand, on some level. They could be dead tomorrow. They needed to find something to cherish and hang on to. They did their duty, as she did hers. She kept her mind tranquil. Her expressions to a minimum. Through the pain, through everything. Salves and cosmetics could hide most things. The soldiers were protecting them, after all. How else could her sisters and she, show their appreciation. They gave the blood and lives. Yingtai and her sisters gave themselves. It all sounded as a fair deal.
However, Yingtai could not forget the reason leading to the extensive switching. How could she.
The soldier’s expression, they showed so much emotion, changing from extasy to shocked surprise to the limpness as the life spirit leaves the body. The tip of the katana, retracting out the neck of the soldier.
The fearful figure revealed by the soldier falling away from Yingtai. The warm, red, liquid covering her face and upper torso. The terror of knowing that her flower would be snuffed out, plucked, wither and vanish.
The figure let the tip of the sharp sword hover over Yingtai’s throat. She steeled herself, proud that she showed no expression in her face. She would end proudly, expressionless, accepting. As her training had thaught her. That was important. While she did not show any expression however, her eyes were filled with fear.
A familiar voice was heard, telling her that she would be severely punished for this. The fearful figure slowly removed the kitsune mask.
Yingtai’s eyes widened. She could not hold back that expression. Her big sister Wuying regarded her down the edge of the terrifying sword. Her face painted in white, red and black. She said that Yingtai would have to survive the punishment. She said to meet at a point in the nursery courtyard, at the new moon of spring. Yingtai was given a choice. Yingtai nodded slightly.
The sound of heavy boots was heard in the distance. Her big sister seemed to dissipate in the shadows of the dimly lit room. Yingtai remained as the palace soldiers bursted into the room and soon grabbed her, dragging her out to the courtyard. Silently, she saw the switch raised as she was laid on the ground too be punished.
She would have trouble sitting through the training tomorrow. Xiulan laid a towel drenched with an herbal concoction carefully on her buttocks as Yingtai observed the flames of the fireplace with an empty expression. Her eyes, however, burned in sync with the flames as thoughts raged through her mind.
Wa’kan spring, year 20
Yingtai rose early, the dawning sun barely shading the sky. A hand grabbed her forearm and she heard the soft whisper of her little sister, Xiulan, asking what she was doing, drowned in sleepiness. Yingtai paused for a moment before promising her little sister that she would be back for her. Xiulan drifted back to sleep. She did not notice Yingtai watching her, she did not hear Yingtai’s promise that she would be back for all sisters.
She carefully opened the dormitory door. A palace soldier was standing outside, shuffling his feets slightly. They had rarely spoken. He had never requested her. She had never comforted him. They exchanged a slight glance and proceeded towards the inner courtyard then turning towards the bridge leading to nursery courtyard.
Escorted by a palace soldier, she received no questions of her doings. As they passed through the gates of the nursery courtyard, the soldier deviated to his assigned post, as Yingtai proceeded ahead, no exchange of the slightest whisper. She steered her steps around the youngling dormitory and was standing between it and the thick outer wall.
She thought she felt the slightest of tingling, as a section of the wall seemed to dissipate, revealing a nook just enough for a person to crawl through. A muscular person at least, for Yingtai, it was large enough. A fox stuck its head out. A fox of white red and black. A soft voice spoke before the fox vanished into the darkness of the nook. Yingtai followed, crawling. It reminded her of the time she and her sister were locked into boxes, trapped in the blazing sun.
Her big sister dragged her from her crawling to a stand. She was told that the figures would take her to a caravan destined for a city the other side of the mountains. Her big sister gave her a kiss on her cheek, told her not to use her real name, before pushing her up the large horse. Yingtai clasped her arms around the man in the saddle and held on as the riders set off.
Wuying, in her combat painting
Giantspire, summer, year 20
Yingtai never introduced herself. She tried to make herself useful. What was she, if not a doll, a tool to be used? She helped with the dishes, the nurture of babes, gathering of firewood. She applied all her training as the caravan moved west in a slow pace. Most showed annoyance in their expression, claiming they could not hear or talk to her. She spoke the foreign language of common as articulate that she could.
The caravan leader, a middle-aged man reminiscing of some of the Shoguns guests of trade, had been close to her as soon as the armed riders were a day-ride away. He was somewhat rough however not the worst she had experienced. Of course, she did her duty and comforted him. That was part of her training and, though she heard of concepts of coins and trading, she figured that, since she had none of these coins, she had to trade in other ways.
His wife despised her. Yingtai could not understand why it was so. As she saw it, she and the wife were in the same positions, although, the wife was not nearly, not in the slightest, as trained in self-control as Yingtai was. On the contrary, the woman often let her expression and emotions flare for all to see. Yet she did not retreat in shame, this was curious. She did not seem to lose face towards the others, this was spectacular. She was not punished, not even for the lack of self-control, this was extraordinary. Perhaps she would benefit spending a few years in the palace. Yingtai thought it was not even a contest to overshadow her with her training in self-control and obedience. She had won!
Hearing the language of foreign, she remembered her what her big sister told her. The caravan reached a village and while the horse was rested, she had taken a liking to horses, she sat in a corner of an inn, observing and listening. She caught a name mentioned for one of the women serving. She took a liking and tried it in her soft voice. Natha..lhie.. It sounded good. She could not pronounce the name as these tall giants of people did, however, it was not her real name, and she followed the instructions of her big sister. A few manly figures sat down opposite her at the table. They were laughing and drinking, obviously been spending time on the latter for some time. She understood that they asked something about something and then asked about her name.
She replied that her name was Natha. Of course, she would serve and comfort them.
She would be the perfect doll.
Western Giantspire mountains, spring, year 21
A large part of the caravan broke off. Natha understood that they were heading to another destination. A destination in a hold. Somewhere high in the mountains, she suspected.
The caravan leader’s wife had begun to become unbearable. Screaming and fetching the switch as soon as she laid her eyes on Natha. She had not comforted him, nor he requested her to do so, since his wife walked into the wagon seeing Natha and him. Natha could not understand how the problem of this woman and this man involved her. He played with a doll; his wife was a person. He could, at any time, throw the doll away. It was not her fault that he did not. His wife should blame him, not her.
As the moon passed, it became a new moon again, they descended from the mountains upon a city. The caravan leader told her that she was payed for to be brought along this far. His wife glaring at her victoriously, an expression Natha would never show in her face. This woman was acting like a youngling, the caravan leader mentioned something about being welcomed back, as Natha hefted her bag and walked through the large the gates of the city of Peltarch.
A city, she only knew from a small dot on a map.
A city, from where she would plan her rescue…
The Land of Lies
Peltarch Commerce District, year 21
The boy, armed with a wooden sword, had approached the adventurers seeking aid in rescuing his sister. This, of course, had struck a chord in her heart. She thought that the sister had been kidnapped. She could understand that much. She heard her name, a question to aid in the rescue. She accepted and listened intently as strategy and tactics were discussed.
Natha was assigned to the rear guard. She had no objection to this. From the stories and tales, heard from soldiers during her upbringing, it was an important role. She would have no skill to add to the front in any case. A warrior she had met before, whose horse she had spotted in the strangest of places, would be by her side.
The boy leading the force, consisting of many prominent adventurers, some she knew, some were strangers for her, set out towards the abandoned camp slightly south and west of the city. Marching into the spider infested forest. A strong force. Mighty. Awe inspiring. Natha felt an honor to be a part of it.
Whatever band of brigands that held the sister would rue the day this action came to mind!
Natha had not the slightest of clue of the horrors that was to come.
Natha did not like insects in general. She did not like anything with more than three eyes and/or five legs. Well, perhaps butterflies would receive a pass. However, she outright hated spiders. And these were huge. Coming from ground and trees. Even though the warriors at the front cleared a wide path, there were spider attacking them from the sides and from behind. She had never been this deep into the forest before. She started to worry slightly as the spiders grew larger and larger. No, she was part of this and will do her best. She will be useful. The forest thickened.
The spiders in the forest beyond the abandoned campsite had been creepy.
The party had to squeeze between tree trunks that seemed to widen as they did. Tried to pin them, hold them. Ducking under branches that seemed to wish to grasp and pull them away to who knows what. An agonizing, crushing, death most likely. She could hear sounds of others but not see them. Infront of her, to the sides. Yells and curses as the woods seemed to be more a wall of massive trees, thorny leafless bushes and sharp low hanging branches. She did not want to know what caused the squishing sound at each step on the ground. Nathas short sword helped a little to clear away the worst but not by much. Thorns stuck in her cloak and clothes stung her when she moved. Twigs scratched her face and almost gouged her eyes out. After an eternity, the woods began to disperse.
The crawl through the dense, deep, woods had been intimidating.
An ominous pass seemed to lead through the ridges that loomed before them. The trees had finally given way. Natha took a deep breath of relief and rested as much as she could during the time the boy and the prominent adventurers discussed their course of action. The pass seemed to lead through the ridges. The call to proceed came. They ventured into the narrow, dark, pass.
Suddenly Natha heard shouts ahead. Soon followed the sound of metal meeting metal. Metal meeting flesh. Screams of pain and twisted yells of death. The warrior by her side rushed forward and her mind was divided. Should she abandon her post and follow? Or remain in the shadowy nook as instructed? Her dilemma was solved for her, as a heavily armored figure where approaching the red-haired novelist woman known for her no bullshit attitude. Natha hesitated, uncertain, calculating.
The fight between the armored foe, the novelist and someone else, that she could not see, began. She nocked an arrow while moving quickly around a boulder for a better position. Just as the hostile hulk of armor struck, sending a rapier flying, Natha loosed her arrow. It flew straight at the foe. Natha felt ice wrap her heart as the arrow shattered on impact.
The large man turned towards her and she reached for her sword, knowing full well that her skill would be no match for this enemy.
Suddenly, a roar. With the roar, a dwarf, sailing through the air, crashing into the armored man, knocking him to the ground. The dwarf swung his axe, burying it deep into the head of the enemy.
Although the adventurers were many, with several of the most skilled and fearsome warriors Natha knew of, they had been hard pressed.
The battle out of the pass had been brutal.
They had reached a temple in the woods. It towered above them as they approached in a slow, wary, march.
The front line charged. Several adventurers made their way inside. Natha and some others waited, acting as a second wave should there be battle. Nothing was heard. No battle cries, no banging metal sounds, no spells conjured.
A call to come inside was heard. They could not all be captured, could they? No, of course not. Someone would have made a ruckus, fought back.
Natha walked up to the entrance, looked inside, and froze. She did not see the somber faces of her companions.
Blood. Corpses. Stench of rotting meat. Piles of things Natha did not want to think nor know about. The inside provided a gruesome sight. Yet, in the middle, three figures kneeled while praying completely oblivious to the force of adventurers and the macabre surroundings. Behind the three, an ominous looking gate of sorts. A portal.
As those with better minds and larger muscles than her began discussion their course of action, Natha concentrated on her task, keep watch behind them as part of the rear guard. She did not understand how magic worked, however she hoped that this was it. That they could close the portal and they could all go back to Peltarch.
The call that she dreaded came.
They all entered through the portal…
Natha’s Steamed Giantspire buns
About 26 buns
Ground meat or vegetables 0,5kg
Chinese 5-spice 0,1 tsp
White pepper 0,1tsp
Sesame oil 20g
Pour 50g water in a bowl and mix in the yeast and stir. Let it rest for 20 minutes.
While blending, mix in the flour, salt and oil. Add the yeast water and blend, adding the rest of the water during blending until it becomes a fine dough. Let it rest in room temp for 2 hours.
Peel the onion and the ginger and mince them. Mix all the ingredients in a big bowl and blend it well. Let it rest 1 hour.
Shape the dough into a long roll, about a thumbs thickness. Cut the roll into pieces, about half a thumb. Use a rolling pin to flatten the dough pieces. Lay a piece in the palm of your hand and use about a teaspoon of filling and place in the middle of the flat dough. Fold the dough up and around the filling, ending by twisting the ends. It will almost look like an onion in shape.
Use a steamer pot of choice. When the steam is well and good, steam the buns for 15 minutes.
Serve warm for that juicy deliciousness. However, the buns can be chilled or frozen for later use.
Filling can be changed according to taste. It is important to allow some ingredients that gives either fat or juice, lest the buns become dry.
South Giantspire Foothills, year 21
“NICE!” The insanely tall woman shouted at her, she would be able to break her in half like a twig, as her arrow went through one the left temple of the orc, and out the other. The tall woman cleaved another orc, almost in half, with her axe.
“Well done!” The spellcasting goblin had not seen her flank it. A man smiled and winked at her; she had not yet deciphered this movement with the eyes. More men than women did it, however. He seemed to be blessed with strange restorative powers.
“Good shot!” An elf nodded. She could not see if it was a compliment or a phrase said out of courtesy. The elves had a strange way of portraying expression. She assumed like herself. He was never satisfied of adventure, always seeking new challenges. They looked at the fallen umber hulk
“Ye did well, lass” The words of this short, no, she should not think short. They were not that shorter than herself. They were wide, though. In this land of lies, she was happy to stand behind this warrior and his shield.
All these excursions into the wild. Outside the walls. She was not accustomed to committing nor hearing this. Not when it came to actually be fighting and hurt, wound, kill other living things.
She was fortunate that they didn’t mark the ten, or, hundredfold times she did NOT hit her target.
Certainly, Natha had her share of kitchen duty, skinning and disembowel game. She was not as squeamish as she might look. However, this was different. Not to think of the risk of being on the receiving end of the aforementioned. In classes and recitals, of course, playing and performing at battle. This, here, was with risk of life and limb.
She had been surprised of how easy it was to step over that threshold, and Natha suspected that it would not be as easy to return.
How did it come to be, that she ventured on these trips with, more or less, strangers?
Natha was sitting in her usual seiza position, watching the flames, the multilayered pot and the steam rising from it. She had folded her cloak to make up for the somewhat uneven ground.
She did not need to reminisce too far back before the thought of going outside the outer wall of the palace would not even assume to enter her mind. On the contrary, she always strived to be the best, to be selected and elevated to reach the courtyards further inside the palace. Perhaps that night, when meeting her, once, bigger sister, changed her in the core. Perhaps, Natha had always wanted to go outside the walls. Perhaps, she had never wanted to be presented with the opportunity.
Perhaps the man, following this Torm, in the city commons was right that, it is hard to admit things to yourself. The inner struggle made her commit actions not becoming of her.
Natha had inner struggles before. Her expression soured somewhat, and she stirred the glowing embers a bit. She had thought she would be rid of them. The consequences and results of losing those battles, Natha did not want to pull up from the depths where she had once hidden them. She could not allow to lose herself to that. The experience of her insecurity before the recital high in the mountains was close enough.
Natha slid open the top lid of the pot and glimpsed in for a moment. A scent of steamed dough, cilantro, meat, soy and spices filled the air around the small fireplace as a cloud of steam released. It was a three stories pot, the top two had holes in the bottom to let the steam through. The bottom pot held a mixture of water, salt and some herbs. The boiling water sent the steam through the whole thing. It held enough buns, she thought. She glanced at the skin pouch, now empty. She had used it all.
Natha hoped it was enough. Anyone that ate would have its effects, she hoped. Natha also hoped that they would like it. The last of the spice she brought from the palace.
Instead of using it for herself, Natha thought she would give the buns to those who had shaped Natha for the journey in this new land. She shuddered a little, thinking of some of the overly salted dishes presented in this land.
The effect of the flavors was not dissipating, like when frying, but staying inside the bun, spreading through the dough. The richness, the waves of spice and herbs, rolling over the palette.
Natha sighed slightly and started to prepare the next batch. She grabbed her rolling pin and began to roll small pieces of dough to be filled and tucked into buns. With a spoon she took a bit of the grounded meat mixed with herbs and spice and tucked the bun together.
Peltarch, Spring, year 21
Natha sat in absolute silence. Her eyes were fixed on the mug of wine. The innkeeper had given it to her for free, in a rare show of kindness. Nathas expression was determined, but also regretful. She had just recently returned to the city of Peltarch.
She had been escorted for a safe return to the large city. She was honored.
She had been invited to perform. She was ecstatic for the oppertunity and honor. The first real dance appearance.
She had received an advise by… No, that is not important. She is to blame. The responsibility did fall on her. Is she not responsible for herself?
If she had not taken the root. Grounded into the powder and mixed it with her tea, perhaps it would not have been so...
She concentrates on the mug of wine. Attempting to conjure memories. She remembers speaking with someone. She remembers the lady with the horns on her skull, regarding her. She thinks that she remembers that she danced. If she can not remember it at all. Pff! How was her dance appearance, if she ever danced, if she ever did. Perhaps stumbling around like…
Like... Lika a...
Contemplating the, for her, failed performance and her bad conduct.
She pushed the thought out from her mind.
She remembered a man. A man that walked by her as she ate according to her diet. She kept following the diet, although no teachers were around to check her. Two boiled eggs and vegetables.
She did not plan to take the root. She was nervous. She wanted to make a good impression. She wanted to be perfect.
How would she have known, how strong the root was. Had she known that she would be out of herself. Making an attendance to a ruler, without knowing or remembering what she had done afterwards… Well, she knew now, didn’t she?
She only hoped that she had not made a complete fool of herself.
She was not scarred. She was not dead. She was not… She didn’t feel anything wrong.
She lifted the mug of whine to her lips and drunk.
She would never again use that root, no matter how nervous she was.
She glanced at the snowtipped mountaintops from where she sat, at the Dancing Mermaid Inn.
No matter how she tried to rationalize it, the only on to blame, was herself.
Giantspire Foothills, West Peltarch, spring, year 21
Natha with her shortsword. A gift to her, she answers if asked.
Sweat gathered in beads on her forehead as she raised from stumbling on her feet’s once again. Her tutor looked at her with what seemed to be the epitome of patience. In her mind she cursed herself. She was an accomplished dancer! How could she shame herself like this!? Show such an ineptitude!?
It was the unfamiliar weight of a real weapon. They had used fake, wooden, swords as part of their dance trainings and recitals in the palace.
She knew the moves. She was quick. She had good aim. However, her tutor quickly illuminated her that it was an epic difference in playing at swords and fighting at swords. And the weight threw her off. She did not have the muscles to support this. She was embarrassed but determined.
She exercised every day in the Ashald park. Her agility, her strength. She would build the strength to handle this blade. The giants of this land, for a choice of a better word, wielded weapons much larger than this. Natha sent a warm thaught for one of thoose giants. She would never be able to defend herself with such weapons. She had been afraid to even ask her friend, the huge tall woman in white black and yellow, to try to lift her massive mass of metal called a weapon.
She took her stance, one of agility and speed. Balancing with her heels slightly, just slightly, raised. Like the hind legs of a fox. Her tutor yelled an instruction. She followed, striking the upper part of the shield held before her as hard aand true as she could manage.
She would learn to be perfect, even in this.
Natha, dressed for colder weather, travelling noth at one point
She wished that she would live as long the elven woman mage. She had started to teach Natha how to read this foreign language of common. Two hundred years of life! And then some! She and her sisters could speak this foreign common language well enough. Her teachers in the palace had them memorize words and phrases. Not taught to read.
That was beyond them, they were told. However, they needed to be able to converse with the lords and ladies that visited them. Recite poems and speak wise words. Of course, she taught this elfess her own language of Shou in return.
Natha had learned enough to at least speak freely coherently. Yes, she needed to think for a while and gather, pernounciations and words, in her mind before speaking. This foreign language was so strange. They bent words, instead of saying how it was. You just state the situation! Instead of bending words to imply this, or that.
She pulled these thaughts and crumbled them. Storing them somewhere deep in her mind. She had taken her stance, her tutor yelled out another command and she followed.
She stumbled on her feet again. She saw the grass, every straw, falling. Before long, her head hit the ground and the only color was the butterflies flying in her mind. Sweat ran down her forehead.
She would learn this.
She would be the perfect doll.