As the trio entered the forest, the night truly began to settle in around them. The densely-packed foliage subverted all attempts to walk straight, and Philius found himself either face-first in the dirt from an out-jutting root, or face-first in a bushel leaves, courtesy of a low-hanging branch.
“I’ll be honest, I really can’t stand these sorts of places.” Philius complained aloud, as a broken branch nicked his ear for the eighth time.
“Truly? It’s such a wonderful forest, though.” Chrysalism sighed in contentment. “Listen, you can hear the sounds of the nocturnal beasts out hunting already!”
“And I needn’t remind you, you’re welcome to leave any time you wish, lad.” Brogan sniffed haughtily. “You’re certainly not here on MY invitation, I should think.”
“Besides, we’re almost there.” Chrysalism broke in, heading off an argument.
“Oh? You can tell?” Brogan was surprised. “You surely can’t see the campfires from here, can you?”
“No, I just have particularly good senses.” She responded, smiling. “There’s a hint of smoke in the air.”
“Could’ve fooled me.” Philius scoffed, butting ahead. “Still, if there’s smoke there’s fire, and hopefully some place less cluttered.”
“Ah, not so fast lad.” Brogan cautioned, stopping up short. “We’re getting close to the edge; you’ll want to go carefully.”
“Edge? What edge?” Philius asked, dumbfounded.
And then he vanished into the shadows.
“And there he goes.” Chrysalism smiled softly.
“Harrumph. I did warn him!” Brogan muttered. “You did hear me warn him, didn’t you?”
“We’d better get after him before he finds himself in trouble again.” Chrysalism returned. “The path down is just to the left, yes?”
“You weren’t exaggerating about your senses, I see.” Brogan nodded approvingly. “Alright then, ladies first.” He bowed, as Chrysalism slowly descended the steep path perpendicular to the incline.
Philius was in immense pain.
After tumbling head-over-heels down the side of a steep embankment and, as far as Philius could tell, hitting every tree and rock along the way, he was now lying on his back in the darkness, his body twisted like a limp piece of rope.
“Well, he’s dead for sure.” An unfamiliar voice remarked from somewhere close to him.
“No, look, I swear he just moved.” Another voice responded to the first.
“With his neck all twisted around like that?” A third broke in. “This kid must not have an unbroken bone left in his body after that fall.”
“Ouch.” Philius muttered. Then, realizing his mouth was full of sod, he began spitting up dirt and grass in equal measures. “Blech, that’s vile.” He complained aloud.
“…the hell? This kid’s still moving!” The first voice exclaimed, a mixture of surprise and disgust creeping into his voice. “Hey kid, can you hear me? Try not to move. Your…uh…your head is twisted around backwards.”
“Oh. That would explain why I’m lying on my back but face-down in the dirt.” Philius sighed. “A moment, please?”
With an ear-grating scraping of bones, Philius began to straighten his twisted limbs. As each bone fragment approached another, they snapped together like attracted magnets as his broken body quickly reassembled itself. Finally, he reached out and gave his head a solid 180° turn, and was whole again.
“Damn, I’m gonna barf.” One of the voices moaned. Philius turned his reinstalled head to see three shabbily-dressed men looking down at him, one of which quickly turned and deposited his recent eatings into the bushes behind him.
“Kid…who are you?” The older of the three addressed the youth. “Or rather, what are you?”
“I wish you all would stop calling me “kid.” He complained, snapping his body forward into a sitting position, causing his rib fragments to rebound inside his chest back to their original locations. “I’m a Chronian, and just so you know, by my race’s standards I’m already an Elder.”
“What does one of the Cursed Races want with us?” The second man asked, his hand already on the sword belted to his waist.
“Nothing with any of you, specifically.” Philius smiled, addressing the trio. “Although, I’m currently looking for someone in dire need of saving. Any of you three know somebody like that?”
“Are you making fun of us, monster?” The third man asked, having finished emptying his stomach.
“I’ll take that as a no.” Philius shrugged good-naturedly. “But if I was trying, you’d be an easy mark. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.” He winked at the third man. “Preferably not in that direction, I’m bare-footed, so I’d prefer to avoid stepping on your supper, friend.”
“That does it, you’re dead, kid.” The man growled, drawing a pair of jagged daggers from his bandolier.
“Ahem, what’s all this then?” A familiar voice interrupted the upcoming spat.
“General!” The man broke into a hasty salute, along with the other two men. “This Chronian just invaded our camp, I was merely trying to put him in his place, sir!”
“Oh? Invaded you say?” The General’s mustache twitched in the hint of a smile. “I’m sure he was in a fine condition for invading us after that tumble he took.”
“Well, ah, as you can see, he quickly recovered.” The man retorted. “And seeing as he’s one of the Cursed Races, I thought to be safe…”
“Oh pish posh, that lad couldn’t give us trouble if he wanted to. I already ran him through earlier this day, taught him a good lesson at that. Put those knives away before you do yourself an injury and go fix some supper for our guests. Chop chop, now!”
“But General…sir…” The man started to object.
“DIS-MIIIIIISED!” The General bellowed in a crisp drill-sergeant voice that sent a flock of nearby birds flying for cover.
“Sir, yes sir!” The man snapped to attention, sheathing his blades and hurrying off into the rows of trees and tents sprawled throughout the gulley, closely followed by the other two bandits.
“You weren’t joking about being a General.” Chrysalism smiled softly, gliding out from behind Brogan.
“Pah, that’s old hat.” He waved her comment away. “It just does these hooligans the power of good to have somebody put them in their place from time to time. Come, I’ll take you to your meal. We can talk about our arrangement after supper.”
“Now you’re talking, old man!” Philius grinned. “Lead on, lead on!”
“Oh? I was of the belief that Chronians didn’t have to eat.” Chrysalism commented.
“Just ‘cause I don’t have to doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it.” Philius shot back, grinning from ear to ear. “I haven’t eaten anything aside from an overripe apple for the last month and a half!”
Brogan wiped a tear from his eye, his trembling upper lip causing his mustache to quiver in sadness. “Such misfortune at such a young age. I don’t rightly know the circumstances of your race, but nobody should have to go so long without eating. Come along, you’ll be feasting tonight until you’re truly sated.”
In a trice, the trio reached the center of the encampment, where over twoscore men of varying ages laughed, ate, and drank around four roaring bonfires. A couple curious glances were tossed in the direction of the newcomers, but most were focused on their own amusements, and the festivity was undiminished by their entry.
Philius scanned the campfire-hued clearing. “Looks like a full house.” He quipped. “If we want a seat, we’ll have to settle for one of the ones a little further from the fire.”
“Well, it’s not as if we’re exactly guests.” Chrysalism noted.
“Harrumph, I beg to differ.” Brogan muttered, half under his breath. “‘scuse me a moment, all.” And with that, the General strutted up to a tawny-haired man with long legs and knobby knees which peeked out through his pants’ numerous windows.
“I say there, laddie-buck. You notice our two guests there?” He gestured officially at the two.
“I see them, General.” The man responded, a little put-out at having his repast interrupted. “Something I can do for you.”
“And you note how one of them is a lady?” He continued, his voice even and impassive.
“Couldn’t miss her, sir.” The man smiled. “She’s not exactly hard on the eyes, if you get my meaning.”
In a flash, the General booted the man head-over-heels, sending his beloved tray of food careening into the back of another unfortunate bandit.
“Well then, if you noticed her there, why haven’t you offered her your seat, eh?” The General boomed. “Explained yourself, sirrah!”
“Sir! I have no excuse, sir!” The man shot to attention, ignoring the gravy oozing down the front of his shirt.
“And that goes for the rest of you louts!” The General boomed in fine parade-ground voice. “We have guests, and a lady among them. Let’s show a little decorum, shall we?”
In a trice, no seat was occupied, as every able man rose and saluted Chrysalism. A swarm of attendants promptly saw her seated, with all manner of refreshments brought before her. In the center of it all, Chrysalism looked like a lone flower, waited on by a legion of bees, each vying for her attention.
“Here ma'am...er...miss, a footstool for you. You must be tired after your journey.”
“Care for a cup of water to start? It’s crystal-clear spring water, I drew it myself this morning.”
“Are you daft? Water? Surely the lady wants some of my blackcurrant wine. Naturally, it’s stream-chilled.”
“If I may, there’s a bit of a chill in the air, I think a mint tea might suit the lady better…”
Chrysalism cleared her throat, instantly silencing her helpers. “If I may,” she started. “The fire light is a bit strong; might I request a spot a tad further away?”
“Any spot you wish, ma’am!” A ruddy-haired man with a scruffy beard exclaimed. “Oy, you lot, find the lady a seat!”
Ignoring their offered placements, Chrysalism strode around the clearing, a mischievous smile on her face as every man she approached stood to attention until she had passed. Finally stopping in front of a rugged-looking man with equally patched hair and face, she addressed the bandit.
“Might I be seated here, sir?” She curtsied.
“With pleasure, miss.” The man rumbled, stepping aside and laying his overcloak across the log for her. “Anything else?”
“A little time alone with my friend, if you don’t mind.” She smiled winningly, noting Philius watching her with a bemused expression.
“Of course, miss.” The man bowed low with a creak. “C’mon you lot, give the dame some space.”
Collaring the rest of her entourage, the man lumbered off, leaving Philius and Chrysalism alone together.
“Enjoying yourself?” Philius smirked, throwing himself down next to her.
“Immensely.” She smiled back. “In my country, there is no social differentiation between men and women. It’s a sterile and terribly boring culture. This might be the first time I’ve felt it advantageous to have been born a woman.”
“I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side.” Philius returned, biting into a hock of venison. “Can I get you anything?” He asked, noting his companion’s lack of a tray.
“Thank you, but this cup of water is enough for me.” She smiled. “Like you, eating isn’t a necessity for my people.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged, returning his attention to his meal. “Necessity or not, you have to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. They're about all you can count on.”
“I hope you’ve found our hospitality suitable.” Brogan commented, striding up to the pair.
“And then some.” Chrysalism rose and curtsied deeply. “You are quite generous, General.”
“Pish-tosh, nothing of the sort.” Brogan denied, shaking his head. “About this much is just to be expected, really. Besides, I have to keep the lads’ manners in practice, it isn’t every day a lady visits. Not to mention,” He continued leaning in closer. “As per out agreement, tomorrow’s your last day. Any man worth his salt would ensure a decent send-off.”
Chrysalism bowed deeply, and the General walked back off towards the campfires, whistling.
“A peculiar man.” Chrysalism noted softly. “I can’t quite understand him.”
“Really?” Philius asked. “As he said, about this much falls within the bounds of common decency towards a lady.”
“Is that so.” Chrysalism pondered the idea. “Well, then what about you? You seem less burdened by etiquette than our host.”
Philius laughed. “Lady, in my country, I’m an Elder. I out-rank you when it comes to the requirements of etiquette.”
Chrysalism’s face became pensive. “I see. I apologize, I shouldn’t have pried.”
"Don’t do that.” Philius smirked. “We both have out circumstances, from the sounds of it.”
Chucking away the bone from his meal, he rose to his feet again. “I’m off to get another helping, but before I go, I heard something from one of the bandits you might want to know.”
“Oh?” She responded.
“Turns out only a stone’s throw north-north-west of this valley, there’s a simply massive tree all the bandits call “The Heart of the Forest”. You were making a pilgrimage here, right? I figured that’s like as not what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you, Philius. That sounds exactly like what I was searching for.” She smiled warmly.
The youth nodded, then made a bee-line for the nearest spit with meat still on it.
Now by herself, Chrysalism silently watched the rest of the group, a far-off look in her eyes.
“Wait for me, big sister.” She muttered to herself.ns184.108.40.206da2