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by Xandra
Rated: 18+ · Draft · Fantasy · #1613205
Princess Moira must recover the Heartstone and save Yggdrasil from utter destruction.
Author's Note: This is the first draft of a work in progress. I'm aiming to make a book out of this. All suggestions are appreciated and will be noted for the revision phase. My first goal is just to complete a rough draft of the manuscript.

         All around her was the Tree. It’s massive trunk filling the land behind her and rising impossibly high into the upper aether. Great branches with leaves large enough to roof a cottage whispered and rustled above in the never ceasing breeze. Sunlight dripped down, riding great, tear shaped droplets of rain from the previous night’s storm.
         Moira herself was sliding down a thin, silken rope, one hand clinging to the rope, her other caressing the Tree even as she used the contact with it to slow her descent. The Tree. It filled the world and anchored it. During the day, sunlight speckled golden through the branches and at night the stars blossomed in the leaves, dancing and swaying in ambient moonlight.
         There was a sun and a moon above the Great Tree—somewhere above its top they swung through the aether and the lands of the gods. Down here, among its branches, all they saw was the light and on the ground, at the tree’s roots the light was often dim and uncertain. Behind Moira, her personal guard of Tree Striders also slid down silken ropes.
         Their armor was colored in varigated shades of green and brown. A complicated mix of leaves and bark carefully harvested from the tree itself. These were then mixed, spun and woven with magic and potions to create a flexible, light yet very sturdy armor that provided protection as well as camouflage. They were armed with bows, arrows, short swords and two carried javelins. On the whole, Tree Striders are distance fighters, only resorting to melee combat when absolutely forced. They also remained in the Tree or among the branches of smaller trees. Only a few ever ventured to the ground and only when absolutely necessary. Among the Tree Striders, only Princess Moira was comfortable, even happy, walking the earth at the roots of the Tree.
         “Where is this new portal, Gorat?” Marious ran a hand through his golden brown hair irritably. His green eyes flicked around the small glade at the foot of the tree nervously. It was soggy, rain soaked and barely more grass than mud. His feet squelched when they moved and he definitely did NOT like the way it sucked at his boots, as if the ground itself were trying to pull him under.
         “It is not far, young Princeling.” The troll’s voice was deep, smooth and soothing. “It is a rare one too. The world it leads to is losing its magic, having a portal spontaneously open to it is an incredible rarity.”
         “Hmph! A world losing its magic is better off dead. Are you sure we should even be exploring this portal, Your Highness?”
         Moira turned and raised an eyebrow at the female Tree Strider who had spoken, “Cera, Gaia herself instructed me to see to the securing of this portal. I know you don’t like ground work but I am sure you are up for the challenge.”
         “It’s not the ground I have a problem with. It’s this blasted mud. I feel like I’m going to sink in clear over my head!” Cera pulled one foot up out of the mud with a loud slurping sound. The other Tree Striders nodded and muttered their agreement.
         “You just need to get used to it. Take your time, move slowly and don’t stray far from the group. Some sections of mud will suck you down over your head. But I’m sure Gorat here has found us a safe path, haven’t you Gorat?”
         “Of course, you’re Highness.” The troll’s lightly green tinged skin glistened in a fragment of sun. He smiled at her earnestly, his long, swept back ears curved down toward his spine twitched with his earnestness. He was tall, even for a troll, and towered over Moira’s 7-foot height by a good 8 inches. He was straight, well muscled and dressed like all the trolls of the Tree’s roots. Leathers and furs well tanned and colored to blend with the grass, mud and stone of the World’s Floor. His eyes were solid onyx black and the teeth revealed in his wide lipped smile were sharp, but well kept and glistening white. He pointed towards a rocky outcrop protruding from the surrounding greenery.
         “During the last great storm, a root coiled up from the ground. The portal is in its arch. I will lead you by the least muddy path to the top and your Tree Striders will be able to clean their boots.” His eyes sparkled laughingly.
         “They will be so pleased.” Moira drawled back. “Come Striders, let us do the Gaia’s bidding and then we can get back up into the Tree and you can stop complaining.”
         The five Striders bit their lips and formed up behind Princess Moira. Of all of them, only she had ever been comfortable, even happy on the World’s Floor. She would wander for days, exploring the wilderness at the roots of the Tree and conversing with the Trolls. Tree Striders lived in trees, mainly in The Tree. The World Tree, The Great Ash to which all worlds were linked. It’s trunk and branches were the stairway of the Gods, leading up to the Aether, or down into the frigid depths of The Abyss.
         The Gods had made the Tree Striders the Guardians of the Great Tree, its caretakers and warriors. They tended it leaves branches and trunk, cleansing them of infection and infestation. They guarded the portals that formed in its branches and at its roots.
         The Trolls had been given the task of guarding and tending to the lands that were the World’s Floor, the very ground the Tree’s roots dug into to anchor it and feed from. From the very beginning there had been competition between the Trolls and the Tree Striders, each vying for the favor of the gods, each race desiring the most important and sacred of tasks. Each hoped that their Queen would marked as the next Gaia.
         For the Gaia held the World’s Heart in her breast. The World’s Heart was the focus of all the power the gods had used to create the Tree and the worlds its portals lead to. The Heart was the nexus of elemental power that powered all the life of the Tree and the World’s Floor. Without the Heart, the sun and moon would fall from the sky, the Tree would wither and the World’s Floor would crumble and fall apart, loosing the Tree into the void. All that the Gods had created would be sundered from the Tree and their link to the Gods. Without the Tree and the Gods, the worlds would die and no new worlds would be born.
         In the beginning, the Gods had given the Heart’s care to the Mother of the Trolls and for Millennia; she used the power of The Heart wisely and well. Eventually however, her unending task of caring for the Heart became a maddening burden. She began to misuse the power of The Heart, creating and destroying worlds on a whim and trying to enslave the Tree Striders.
          There was a great war then, between the Tree Striders and the Trolls and their Mother Goddess. Many lives were lost, worlds were destroyed and the Tree itself suffered terrible injury. In the beginning of the war, when the madness fell upon the Troll’s Gaia, she severed the Tree’s top from the Aether, so that they could not descend the Tree and take the Heart from her. The Tree Striders fought valiantly but they would have lost if not for the bravery and wisdom of their Queen.
         Unable to defeat her with out divine assistance, the Strider’s Queen, Ashiala searched for a way to bring the Gods back to the Tree. It was her druid councilor who made the dreadful suggestion. A rite of healing had to be performed for the Tree itself, that its top might regrow and once again reach into the Aether. To perform a healing, the Healer gives of their own life energies to the injured. The more badly a person is injured, the more of the Healer’s life energy will be sacrificed. To Heal the Tree would take far more energy than any one person could give. More than even ten people could give. It would take at least one hundred willing lives to heal the Tree and bring the Gods back to render justice upon the Corrupted Gaia.
         This was a terrible sacrifice to ask, but Ashiala had no choice. To make matters worse, she could not even allow herself to be on of those willing to sacrifice herself for the Tree. By their own laws, a pregnant female must not deliberately act in such a way as to endanger her child. She had been forced to stay back from the fighting because of her pregnancy and lead from the rear.
         There was yet another terrible burden in store for the Queen. There were few of their people left, mainly pregnant women and children. Most of the others were ill or injured. To find One Hundred volunteers seemed impossible. When the request was made 99 volunteers came forward. All then seemed lost, until the King stepped forward. For neither he or his Queen would ask of their people what they were not willing to do themselves. With tender kisses he bade his wife and unborn child farewell and led the volunteers away to perform the Rite-- and die.
         Once the Gods returned to the tree, the Gaia of the Trolls was cast down and the Heart retaken. The Trolls were sent fleeing back into the depths of the World’s Floor sobbing for the loss of their Mother. As for the Tree Striders and their grieving Queen, they were blessed for their loyalty and sacrifice.  Then the Gods took council with one another and decided that the task of guarding the Heart for eternity was too great a burden for any one being and so a new method of guardianship was decided upon.
The Heart was given to the Queen to guard until old age and death came upon her. As each Gaia is a chosen, an heir to the burden would be marked by the Gods, a sign upon her heart of the burden that lies ahead for her. When the Gaia lies on her deathbed, the Heart will be passed on to the next chosen Gaia, and the previous Gaia’s soul would rest within it, to guide the new Gaia in her task.
         In this way, the burden of the Heart and the Sacred task of The Gaia had passed through the generations of Tree Strider Queens until it now rested upon Moira’s Mother, Queen Aliana. Princess Moira herself bore the mark of the next Gaia upon her breast.
Occasionally slipping in the thick mud, the group made its way across the clearing, to the foot of a steep incline of mud and rock. Here the trolls spread out among the group to assist them with the climb. It was an arduous journey up the spill of mud and loose stone, Gorat stayed near the Princess, often giving her a hand over the worst of the obstacles and steadying her when muddy earth slid from underneath her boots. After an hour’s hard labor, they reached the jagged summit of the new formed ridge. No one made it to the top unstained by mud, though the Troll’s climbing expertise left them cleaner than the Elves. there was much grumbling from the Tree Striders as they wiped fruitlessly at the clumps of dirt on their faces and in their hair.
         “By the Gaia I hate groundwork! I’ll need three baths just to get back to dirty again!”
         Moira laughed as she cleared loose, muddy hair from her eyes, “Just stay outside during the next storm Cera!” she turned to look ahead and gasped, “By the Gods! What are those…growths on the root?”
         “Growths?” Marius whipped around to stare in puzzlement at the great Tree’s Root in front of them. It arched up out of the ground curling up and over into an arc that stood 20 feet high. The revealed length of root was dark with mud, but studded all over the base to the right with black growths shaped like puffer mushrooms. They pulsed and quivered in a manner that made Moira’s stomach heave and a dark, malevolent humming seemed to fill her ears. She had trouble looking away from the growths to examine the rest of the portal.
         Marius stormed up to Gorat, fuming angrily, “What is this Gorat? why did you not tell us there was an infection here? We have come ill-prepared to deal with this. Are you trying to make us look like fools, damn you?”  Gorat sputtered, but kept his anger in check
         "I do not know Prince Marius! These growths were not here when we found the portal.” The rest of the trolls bristled, some snarled, curling back their lips and clacking their pointed teeth. On both sides hands fell to weapon hilts.
         The snarling brought Moira back from her trance with a jolt. “That’s enough!” She snapped, pushing her way between Marius and Gorat. She planted her hand squarely on Marius’s chest and shoved him backwards. “Control your temper brother! The war was millennia ago! I’m not going to let you study history any more if it’s only going to make you more hot headed.” She turned to stare down both parties. “We have been reunited for over a thousand years. I don’t know what’s behind all the bickering and infighting of late, but I am not going to tolerate it in my presence! Have I made myself clear?” She glowered back at Cera and the others. They bit their lips, but bowed respectfully.
The trolls slapped their fists to their chests and bowed in salute and silent submission. She turned to Gorat, “Gorat?”
         “Yes Your Highness. Eminently clear.” He too, was glowering at his Trollish cohorts.
         “Good. Marius?”
         Marius looked like a schoolboy who had just been spanked by his teacher. He blinked up at her, making his eyes big and round and glistening with held back tears, “Forgive me elder sister?” Moira barked out a laugh and punched him in the shoulder. “Good! Let’s see what’s going on with this root—what are you doing? Get away from there!” Gorat spun on his heal and threw out a hand, shouting, “Giza! No!”
         Two of the trolls, anxious to make amends for their foolishness, had made their way across the treacherous terrain to the infected root. One of them, a female was reaching out curiously to touch the pulsing mushroom.  She jerked back at her commander’s shout, but it was too late. The pulsing growths exploded, covering the two of them in sticky black slime. It splashed across their faces, getting into their eyes and mouths. They clawed at themselves and screamed as if they were being burned.
         All fell into chaos. The other trolls rushed forward to help their friends, only to get the sticky black goo on themselves and suffer the same fate. Soon they were all screaming and clawing at themselves in agony, trying desperately to scrape the stuff off as if it were burning them. Only Gorat, held back by Moira and Marius was saved.
“What’s happening to them?” He cried in horror as one by one, his fellow trolls collapsed to the mud. They curled into fetal positions, still sobbing and scratching at themselves weakly.
         “I don’t know Gorat. I’ve never seen an infection like that one before.” she began gesturing and singing under her breath. A gentle, soothing breeze drifted across the World’s Floor and danced up the hill, bringing the scent of The Tree with it. Reflexively, Gorat closed his eyes and inhaled, the heat of fear cooled under the gentle touch of the breeze. Marius took him by the arm and led him back a few paces.
         “Stay here; we’ll see what we can do.” He whispered urgently. Gorat nodded, bemused by the soothing spell. Marius and the other Tree Striders stepped forward, putting Moira in the center of a sweeping arc that encompassed the afflicted trolls and the Tree’s Root. They lifted their voices in song, hands gesturing in unison. The light trickling down from above grew brighter and more focused on the twitching trolls.
As the song swelled, the black substance splotched all over them seemed to writhe and steamed under the increased sunlight. Slowly it seemed to evaporate, the patches shrinking until no trace of it could be seen. Song and sunlight swelled still further towards a triumphant climax when the troll named Giza and two of her fellows suddenly shot to their feet.
         She drew her sword, snarling viciously her eyes were now solid black orbs narrowed against the bright sunlight.
         “Death to the Elven Queen and her minions! Long live our Mother!” She shrieked and charged Moira, sword aimed for her heart.

          The violent disruption of the cleansing spell lashed through the elves, causing them immense pain. Two clutched at their heads and moaned, helpless in the face of the sudden onslaught.
         “No!” Gorat cried. He darted past Moira and under the charging troll’s blade.  He came up underneath Giza’s arm and shoulder checked the female hard, lifting her off her feet and throwing her to the ground.
         “Giza! Stop this!” he pleaded as he struggled to pin her down. Giza hissed and snarled, clawing at his face and wrenching viciously at the earrings on one of his long, elegantly curved ears. Agony shot through him and he instinctively collapsed to one side, struggling to free his ear from Giza’s fearsome grip. Giza leapt to her feet, still twisting his ear. Gorat shrieked as the earrings in her grip tore loose from the flesh of his ear. Blood sprayed across them both, not all of it was from Gorat’s ear.
         The two elves clutching their heads were cut down within seconds. Moira, staggering from Gorat’s rush past her struggled to draw her blade. Marius recovered first, drew his blade and cut down one of the killers before he could recover from his attack on the helpless elves. The second troll turned and engaged him with fearsome skill. Giza turned away from Gorat, threw his earrings over her shoulder and began advancing on Moira once again, sword held low and swinging rhythmically.
         “Princess!” Gorat gasped and struggled to his feet, pulling his long sword from its sheathe he staggered toward Giza’s unprotected back. Moira finally pulled her short sword clear and dropped into a defensive position.
         “Giza! Stop! In the name of the Gaia Stop!” She pleaded, backing away from the advancing troll. Giza laughed spitefully.
         “In the name of our beloved Mother, NO!” She hissed, raised her sword over her head and charged. Moira braced herself for the strike and parried it, though not easily. The force of Giza’s two handed swing sent sparks shrieking from their blades and Moira staggered back a pace. She barely had a chance to regain her balance when Giza closed again, battering at Moira with vast, over hand strokes. Again and again Giza beat at Moira, driving her backwards. It was all Moira could do to parry the blows and stay on her feet. The ground seemed to be trembling underneath her. A terrible roaring was in her ears and she couldn’t seem to think straight in the sudden chaos.
         “To the Princess!” Gorat cried desperately. He just couldn’t seem to regain his balance; he kept tripping and stumbling over the ground. He fell to one knee and dizzily realized it wasn’t just him, the ground /was/ shaking. It was the Root, it was moving. The great arching Root that formed the portal was spasming and constricting, pulling itself back down into the earth that made up the World’s Floor.
         Marius and the other Tree Striders were shouting to Moira, but they couldn’t reach her. Giza was pushing her back towards the shrinking portal with every blow, but they were cut off, still defending themselves against the relentless troll attackers. The rest had sprung up from the ground and they were out numbered. Gorat struggled determinedly after the two females, the mud sucking at his boots with every step. The entire battle was as a nightmare from his childhood. No matter how hard he pushed he just couldn’t seem to get close enough to help the Princess.
         And then disaster. The ground suddenly heaved under Moira’s feet, throwing her backwards through the portal. Giza laughed and ran through after her.
         “No!” Gorat threw himself forward, “Odin help me!” he cried impulsively. There was a sudden burst of warmth behind his eyes, his legs flexed mightily and he hurled himself through the portal. There was a wrenching sense of vertigo and then something hit him in the face and he blacked out.
         Moira fell for what seemed like forever before her back struck the ground on the other side of the portal. The air whooshed out of her and sparkles danced before her eyes for a long, dizzying moment. When she inhaled again the air was cold, thin and acrid with pollutants. It snapped her, finally, into full consciousness. She rolled and came up to her feet as Giza landed on the place she had just been. Behind her, Moira heard a scream of terror and the thump of falling wood. Still laughing, Giza gestured suddenly and a rock the size of Moira’s head flew from its place on the ground. Moira ducked. There was another scream, then the horrible gurgle of air being violently expelled from a body and the thump of a body crashing into a wall. Moira hazarded a look over her shoulder and gasped in dismay. A child! The rock had struck a child square in the chest, hurling her against the wall of some sort of house!
         “You’ll die for that Giza!” Moira cried in anguish. Swinging her sword furiously, she reengaged the troll female, singing a battle song. The sound of their sword blows rang across the little clearing, echoing off the walls of the cabin and its outbuildings. Moira and Giza circled each other, occasionally ducking behind nearby trees to avoid one another’s blows. Giza was the better melee fighter though. It wasn’t too long before she had the impulsive Princess pinned with a dagger against a large oak tree.
         “And now Princess, you will die!” Giza hissed, raising her sword for one final stroke. Moira stared woodenly ahead, not daring to flinch as Gorat rose up behind Giza and ran her through the heart. His blade sunk into the tree next to Moira’s cheek. Giza gasped, choked, and gurgled as blood suddenly poured out of her mouth. Gorat yanked his blade from her body and she collapsed twitching to the ground. Within moments, she was dead.  Moira watched as Giza’s body writhed in on itself, withering and drying out. The skin turned dark green, then black and curled like drying bark until suddenly it crumbled and fell to dust.
         Moira reached up and wrenched the dagger from her shoulder. She dropped the blade to the ground and sagged, suddenly exhausted. Gorat caught her up in his arms. “Princess! I’m sorry I did not get here sooner. I have healing balm. Let me tend to you.”
         “No! the child! Hurry Gorat, she might yet live!”
         “Child?” He had been so focused on the fight; he had not seen the little body lying on the ground next to the house. He turned to see what the princess was pointing at, “What happened to her?” Without a second thought, he picked Moira up bodily and carried her over to the fallen girl.
         “Giza threw a rock. I did not realize there was a child right behind me or I wouldn’t have ducked.” Moira was grief stricken, “She must be only half grown…where are her parents?” She looked around as Gorat set her down and began to examine the unconscious girl.
         He rolled her carefully onto her back and opened her shirt to check the severity of her wound. “She’s no child, Princess. She is full grown if I’m any judge.” He prodded gently at the spreading bruise. It was a hideous blue-black and already covered most of the right side of her rib cage, just under her breasts. “She’s bleeding internally. And her ribs are broken.” He leaned down to listen to her breathing. It was hoarse and bubbly. “She will need more than healing balm. I should have a potion…” He began to dig through his medicine pouch.
         “No.” Moira pushed herself into a sitting position and held a hand out over the girl’s battered chest.  Inhaling deeply she paused for a moment, lifting her face to the twilit sky she began to Sing a healing spell. Gorat caught his breath and watched as Moira’s hand began to glow with a soft, golden light. It grew brighter as the song progressed and for just the briefest of moments, he caught the rich, earthy scent of The World’s Floor. The light spilled from Moira’s hand like thick golden water and spread over the girl’s wounded chest. It glimmered then sank deep into her skin. It glowed from within, highlighting the bones, muscle tissue and blood vessels as they knit themselves back together. The hideous bruise faded away as Moira’s song finished and the gentle, glowing light went out.
         Moira sagged, and then lay back on the ground. “The wound was deep.” She said weakly, “But it is healed now. She will live, despite our carelessness. Where are the others Gorat?” She leaned forward as Gorat undid the straps on her breastplate and pulled it off of her.  His eyes were filled with such concern that she began to fear the answer. “Gorat?”
         “I do not know, Highness.” He pushed her gently back into a prone position and scraped the mud from her face and neck. His eyes were sad, his torn ear twitched as he considered what he had seen just before leaping through the portal. “Let me tend to you now. Marius will flay me if I do not get you back on your feet. You have expended much of your energy on the Girl’s healing and this is a poor world. The natives have done it much harm.” He unscrewed the cap from the jar of healing balm.
         “What happened to the others Gorat? I could see nothing but Giza after the spell broke.” She pushed. She had to know what had happened to her brother and her friends.
         “I’m not sure, Marius was still on his feet and fighting, as were Calla and Josef when I last saw them. I’m afraid Destran and Cera were killed in the first attack.” Moira bit her lip, but would not allow herself to cry. The girl was sleeping peacefully now; it would not do to wake her with wails of grief. Gorat dipped his hand into the jar and began gently smearing the waxy, cream colored stuff across the wound in her shoulder.
Trolls excel at crafting balms, potions and other useful items for storing magic. Their own magical abilities were severely curtailed after their Mother was cast down at the end of the Great War. Moira had always found Gorat to be particularly adept at both the creation of useful items, and at always having just the right one on hand.
         A warm tingling spread across her shoulder now as the balm began to do its work. A sense of well being washed over her, dulling the sharp pain of loss for a few precious moments, allowing her to think clearly for the fist time since the group’s spell had been shattered mid-casting. She stared up at the night sky, absently noting it was becoming hidden by oncoming clouds.
         “We must make sure this girl is properly Healed and we must either erase her memories or glamour them so they do not cause her distress. Then and only then can we return to Yggdrasil to speak to my mother about what has happened.” Thunder cracked a sudden explosion in the peaks above the cabin. Gorat leapt to his feet in consternation, then bent to scoop up Moira.
         “I must get you inside, Princess!”
         “No!” Moira snapped, “Take the girl. She is our first duty!” Gorat snapped his teeth in frustration, but the princess was right. He turned, scooped up the human and ran to the cabin’s nearby door. It was unlocked and he was somewhat familiar with the ways of this realm. He shouldered it open, curled the girl up against his chest so he wouldn’t scrape her against anything and hurried inside, ducking his head low to pass through the doorway.
         He’d come in through the back entrance. This room was small, lined with shelves, a bench and cubbies for muddy shoes. He sort of kicked his feet to get the worst of Yggdrasil’s mud off his boots, then hurried through the tiny space. This next room was used for food preparation. It was obvious because of the roasted fowl cooling on a platter on the counter. He hurried past these good smells into yet another room. This was what he wanted, it was a large square with a good woodstove. He could hear a fire crackling inside it. There were a large and a small couch as well as a very comfortable looking carpet in here. He laid the girl out on the carpet and rushed back outside to get the Princess.
         The wind had picked up and was howling through the trees as it rushed up the side of the mountain. Gorat smelled rain and more lightening in the air as he burst out the doorway.  It was going to be a strong storm.  Rushing back to where he had left Moira, he grunted in annoyance. She had put the lid back on the healing balm, and she was trying to push herself to her feet. With out much ceremony, he scooped her up in his arms, kicked her breast plate expertly so that it flipped up and landed in her lap and rushed back to the house. It happened so fast Moira didn’t even have a chance to protest. In fact she was so startled that she laughed.
         Gorat twisted sideways and ducked into the cabin just as the first sheets of rain began to pour down. Lightening flashed and thunder cracked again as he shouldered the door closed. Moira was still laughing, clinging to Gorat’s neck she laughed, her face buried into his chest she laughed and laughed and laughed until suddenly she was sobbing. Gorat’s heart ached for his Princess and for the loss of his comrades. He had been dealing with the crisis of the moment and had not had a chance to mourn himself. Frustration welled up in him suddenly, unconsciously he tightened his grip on Moira. He had been helpless to stop any of it! Moira’s breast plate slipped off her lap and clattered to the wooden floor as another blast of thunder rolled over the cabin. The smell of fresh blood snapped him out of the rapidly building rage.
         “Princess! Princess! That is enough tears for now. We must deal with the problems of the moment before we can properly grieve for our friends.” He said urgently. “You are still bleeding, you are weakened from the battle and the Healing. You must let me tend to you now, please.” Moira’s sobs slowed. She hiccupped once before settling into hoarse, raspy but regular breathing.
         “Yes Gorat. You are right.” She swiped at her face, smearing bloody dirt over it without realizing, “We must not forget our responsibilities.”
         Gorat moved into the kitchen, noting the blood trail being left behind. He had to stop her bleeding soon or she would be weakened further yet. The floor here was tiled in black and white. There was a large, solid farm style table pushed up against one wall. It was just long enough to accommodate Moira’s height. He set the princess down, peeled off the back of her chest plate and grunted as yet more blood spilled from the exit wound.
         “Do not move, Princess.” He ordered firmly and rushed over to the sink. He had explored this realm before and had a grasp on some of its household basics. He snatched up a clean looking towel from a stack lying on the counter and wetted it under warm water from the tap. Hurrying back to the princess, he pulled a pouch of cleaning powder out of his satchel, rubbed it into the towel and began washing the exit wound quickly. Moira hissed, but otherwise did not complain at the quick scrubbing. She knew healing balm did its best work when a wound had been properly tended to. If you left dirt in the wound, you wound up with a discolored scar. Some of the trolls carved patterns into themselves, rubbed ink into the wounds and then applied healing balm, creating a tattoo. The only problem with this idea was, if you decided later you wanted to get rid of the tattoo, you had to slice it off and get Healed by one of the Tree Striders. Getting tattooed was serious business.
         She almost passed out from relief when Gorat applied the healing balm. He grunted in satisfaction as the bleeding stopped and the wound began to scab over. “There, now you won’t bleed to death on me.” He said gruffly as he went back to the sink and rinsed the blood and mud covered towel off thoroughly. He looked around and chose a pot from the rack hanging over head. He filled it with steaming water and added cleansing powder to it,  fetched a fresh towel from the stack and came back to the table.
         “All right Princess, now I can see to the rest of your wounds.” He began unstrapping the rest of her armor. The muddy gear piled up on the tiles as he stripped her down to her small clothes. Moira cooperated eagerly, all of sudden, she very desperately wanted to get clean.
         “Gorat, how did you know how to get the water out of those…devices?” she asked curiously after he had washed her face and neck.
         “I’ve been to this realm before.” He dipped the towel back into the pot of sudsy water and continued  scrubbing her down. “A few times, with Giza. We found an empty dwelling once and explored it.”
         “I thought you said the portal you found was the only one to this realm.” She said somewhat accusingly.
         “No Your Highness, I said a spontaneous portal to a realm like this one was very rare.” He corrected her gently, “There are a few permanent portals that have been linked to this realm since the first world’s creation.”
         “What?? This realm is that old?” She gasped. Gorat took the pot of water away to rinse it out and refill it with fresh water. All the rolling around in the mud had made Moira very dirty. He returned to the table and began scrubbing his way down from her hips.
         “Yes, You’re Highness. I do believe this is the first realm created in Midguard.”
         “The first realm? But…it’s dying!” Moira was horrified. How could this happen? The first realm--the gods had spent most of their time there, learning the art of world craft, they had left behind so much magic and knowledge there. How could its natives let it die?
         “I know Princess.” He said soothingly, noting the nasty bruising around her right knee, “I don’t know what happened to the natives here. But it seems as if their enthusiasm for gnomish invention has gotten out of control.”
         “Do they even realize what they’re doing?”
         “I don’t know. I have only encountered a few of them in the past. Most of them ran away. Only one stood to fight. I let him think he won and he went back to his village full of pride and with a very honorable trophy.”
         “A trophy?”
         Gorat shrugged, “I happen to be carrying a clay doll that day. So at the right moment I had it switch places with me and the native went home with what he thought was my head. I trailed after him invisibly and watched the celebrations. He became chief of his tribe and everyone seemed to expect him to do rather well at the job.” He finished Moira’s right leg and began scrubbing her left one. “We’ll have to be careful when the girl wakes up, Highness.”
         “I know.” Moira sighed, “This may not be very pleasant. We may have to tie her down to work the spell on her…what do you think happened to the poor girl’s face?”
         “I’m not sure how, but she has felt the wrath of fire at some point in her childhood. Those are old scars. There are images of the girl and I believe her family, hanging up on the walls in the room I left her in. I did not look at them closely as I was in a hurry, but I’m fairly certain they are unscarred and she is hiding them from the image taker.” He cocked his head thoughtfully. “This is a good home, it has been well tended to. Once I have a chance to rest and meditate, I’m certain I can contact the spirits within this dwelling and learn more about our unwilling hostess.”
         “That would be excellent Gorat.” Moira yawned and her stomach growled suddenly, “Ooh…please tell me you still have rations in your satchel.”
         “Naturally. And I’ll give you some just as soon as I finish examining your foot. Did you break a toe? You keep twitching it out of my hand.”
         “I think may have sprained one when I was fighting Giza. I kicked her at one point, it was like kicking a stone! And she hardly flinched when I managed to connect with any of my sword strokes, no matter how much she bled from the wound—ow!” She hissed as Gorat held her foot firmly and began checking toes. It was the middle toe that caused her outcry. He grunted as he inspected it carefully.
         “It may be fractured. Hold still now.” He opened the jar of healing balm again and began massaging it first into the injured toe, then on all the deeper cuts and bruises on her body.
         “Gorat! You’re going to use it up and we don’t know where the nearest portal home is.”
         “It’s a big jar Highness.” He said mildly as he worked his way up her legs. He paid careful attention to the bruised knee. “You are going to need all your strength here, this area is fairly clean, but the cities.” He shuddered, “Even if we avoid the cities, the pollution is unavoidable and you come across some nasty spots very unexpectedly. We may have to fight with poisoned spirits. Can’t have you limping and infected during a situation like that.”
         “No I suppose not.” She sighed as the healing balm’s effects washed over her again, “Do you think we can do something for the child’s scars?”
         “She’s a fully developed, mature female, Princess.” Gorat corrected gently, “But perhaps, once you’ve rested, there may be something we can do. We’ll see.” He finished rubbing balm on the last of her cuts, a long shallow one across her right arm. “There. Now I’ll find you something to wrap up in for warmth and we’ll check on our sleeping hostess.”
         “And clean up our mess.” Moira said, surveying the kitchen. There was a trail of mud and blood that had dripped off Moira’s boots as Gorat ran through the kitchen. The table was covered in dirty, red water and there was a pile of dirty towels lying in the sink. Not to mention the muddy armor dripping onto the floor it rested on.
         “And clean up our mess.” Gorat chuckled. Having a mundane issue to focus on was a bit of a relief. He dug a ration bar out of his satchel and gave it to Moira. Then peeled out of his muddy boots and set them next to Moira’s armor. He knocked the worst of the mud off his armor and washed his hands before heading deeper into the house to find something for his princess to wear.
         After a few minutes of opening doors, he found a room he had seen before but did not understand. There were two sinks, one was a smaller version of the one in the food preparation room and the other was a very large one, low to the ground. Hanging on a hook behind the door was a pair of robes. One short and white, one longer, heavier and brown. He took the brown one. It would be too short, of course, but it was better than nothing. He had found some blankets in a large hall cabinet, he figured the princess could wrap her feet up in one of those.
         Reentering the kitchen, he found Moira licking her fingers after finishing off the ration bar. “Ready for another one?” He asked as he came back to the table.
         “Yes, but after I’m dressed. It’s a little chilly in here.” She shivered.
Gorat helped her slide off the table to a clean patch of floor, toweled off the damp spots and wrapped her in the robe. “I found this in one of those rooms I don’t understand yet.” He said cheerfully, “I think it belongs to someone other than our hostess. It’s much longer than she is tall.”
         “It smells like a male too.” Moira said, sniffing the collar curiously, “but it’s warm enough.”
         “I also brought some blankets. You can rest on the couch near the fire.” He dug two more ration bars out of his satchel, draped the blankets over one of her shoulders, took her by the elbow and led her into the next room. Moira looked around curiously as they entered the living room. There were the large and small couches, set in next to each other to form an L shape. Behind the longer couch was a wide, deep window that looked out over the porch and down the slope in front of the cabin. Lightening flashed and rain poured down furiously outside. The ceilings in this room were tall, sloping up wards a good fourteen feet.
         There was a second floor over head; its balcony was directly over the room they had just come from. A good half of the house had a second floor over it, but here in the living room there was just the high cathedral ceiling and a metal staircase in the corner the allowed access to the second floor.
         She understood the forged metal woodstove easily enough, though it didn’t seem large enough to cook a decent meal on. The stone slab it sat on was a stone she’d never seen before. She liked the long hand carved mantle backed by a mirror and would have gone to look at the images resting on it, but she spotted the girl lying on the floor and staggered straight to her determinedly. Gorat followed along, helping her move in a straight line, but expressed his concern diplomatically.
         “Princess…don’t try anything tonight. You must rest first.”
         “Yes yes Gorat. I know.” She said impatiently, dropping to her knees next to the human female. “I just want a chance to examine her up close. I can do that, can’t I?”
         “Of course.” He said mildly, “But I know how impulsive my Princess can be.” He helped her settle down more comfortably, wrapped the blankets around her and stepped back. “I’ll clean up our mess in the other room.  Shout if you need anything.” He got back to his feet and went back to the kitchen.
         Moira ran a hand across the girl’s forehead, gently untangling her long raven black hair and pushing it away from her face. It was a hard face to look at. It had once been beautiful, that Moira was sure, but now the creamy brown skin on the left side was bubbled and melted, as if it had turned to hot wax and begun to drip off her skull. Part of her skull on that side did not grow hair. There was a black eye patch covering the eye as well. Steeling herself, Moira gently peeled the eye patch off the girl and laid it on the floor. She stifled back a sob as looked over the damage there. The eye had gone; the fire that had burned the girl had boiled it away completely. There was no eyelid and no eyebrow left to adorn the empty socket. Moira caressed the burned face. Despite Gorat’s repeated assurances and the evidence directly in front of her, the Princess could not stop herself from thinking of the girl as a child. A half grown woman at best.
         “Oh little one, how did this happen to you?” she asked the unconscious form and continued her examination, occasionally wiping away horrified tears. The scar traveled down the left side of the girl’s neck and encompassed her front left breast, left shoulder and a large swatch of her back. Moira surmised the girl had been wearing some kind of clothing that had caught fire. Close examination of her hands showed scarring there as well. She must have struggled to free herself of the burning materials.
         Moira sat back and forced herself to eat anther ration bar as she considered what kind of magic it would take to get rid of the girl’s scars. She really was perfectly formed in every other way. For her size, her breasts were plump and pleasingly shaped. Her unscarred skin was soft and blemish free, obviously well cared for. Her hips were properly wide, indicating she would breed well and could safely birth many children. There was a little extra fat on her, but it was carried all over her frame and not located just on her belly and hips.
         That meant she would have extra stamina in colder weather. She seemed fairly fit, her arms and legs were firmly muscled and Moira recalled the split firewood that had been scattered around the body. She must have been bringing wood in for the woodstove. She seemed to live in this house alone…at least, no one had returned yet and Moira would have thought that any mate or family member would have rushed home before the storm. She looked around the room as she thought the situation over. There were many strange decorative knick knacks she didn’t understand, but she was fascinated by the images of the people. How did they do that? Was it a very clever method of painting? She pushed herself back to her feet and went over to the mantle, feeling abit stronger now after eating that second ration bar.
         There was a collection of images; all of them had the girl in the somewhere and showing her at various ages. She really had been very tiny as a child. There was the girl, burned side of her face tilted away from the image taker and a slight cringe in her stance. There was an older male, the white in his hair and wrinkles on his friendly looking face indicated he was an elder. His skin was dark brown and his black hair was done into two braids draped over his shoulders. He dressed in; Moira had to lean in closer to get a better look, yes leathers it seemed. Beautifully fringed vests and pants made of some strong blue material. Just like the pants the girl was wearing now, actually. He always held the girl protectively close to him. Some of the images showed another woman as well, wearing similar clothing. Her hair was solid grey and her skin a different, darker shade of brown. The grey hair was long and wavy, braided back intricately.
         She too would hold the girl protectively close in the images and her face seemed to always have a touch of sadness in it. She stopped appearing in the pictures after the girl reached about two thirds of the height she was at now. Moira frowned as she wondered where the woman had gone and considered the pictures without her. Both the girl and the man seemed to be sadder in them, though they smiled for the image taker. It was something in the stance. The woman must have died or left them. Moira sighed and went back to the girl.
         “Where is the old man to care for you now, little one?” she stroked back her hair again for a minute as she ate the last ration bar quickly. The girl’s small clothes prevented her from seeing all the damage to her breast, side and back. Impulsively, she lifted the girl up into a sitting position so she could strip her completely and examine the scar better.  She tossed the clothes into a pile on the floor, lay her back down on the carpet gently and began a minute examination.
         She was saddened to see the breast had been badly burned, though it seemed some healer had tried to minimize the scarring here. The melted skin reached about halfway out to where the nipple should have been and wrapped halfway around the breast. It was cut off so abruptly that Moira surmised some form of healing had been used in an attempt to minimize the scarring. The skin past the scarring was smooth. Completely smooth, the healer had not been able to save or regrow the nipple it seemed.
         That would never do. Despite her other scars Moira did not see a reason why she could not be a strong, fertile mate for some lucky male of her race. But a missing nipple would cut her ability to feed her infants in half. Moira ran a fingertip in a spiral over the place on her breast where the nipple should have been and Sang a searching spell. Trying to find out if she could regrow the nipple with the proper spell.
         The girl came awake with a scream and swung a wild punch. Moira had been so intent on the searching spell that she was unprepared to defend herself. The punch caught her on the cheek, breaking the spell abruptly and knocking her onto her side. She cried out as the spell broke on her, the second time in one day! And collapsed clutching her skull in agony.
         “Gorat!” She howled desperately as she struggled to regain control of herself through the pain. Several kicks to the side of the hide didn’t help any. Thunder and rain boomed louder and then there was a slamming of a door. The girl had fled outside.

         Gorat had finished cleaning up most of the mess in the kitchen and had gone to the room in the back of the house, using the long low sink to clean the Princess’s armor. He dropped everything at the first scream and ran towards the front of the house. He heard the front door slam as he pounded through the kitchen and slid to a stop in the living room, staring in horror at the Princess lying on the floor, clutching her head; blood was streaming from her nose. He leapt to her side.
         “Princess! What happened?” He dug quickly in his satchel and pulled out a precious vial of healing potion. He worked at its cork with his teeth.
         “She woke up.” Moira gasped, “She panicked and hit me, knocked me over. Kicked me a couple of times and ran away.” She struggled against the urge to wretch as Gorat rolled her on her back. He waited, tilting her head gently to one side so she could throw up if necessary. She managed not to. He held the vial to her lips.
         “Drink.” He commanded so fiercely that she obeyed automatically. The healing potion washed through her on a golden wave and she drifted into unconsciousness before she knew what was happening. Gorat picked her up and lay her down on the longest couch, carefully curling her legs up so that her feet wouldn’t dangle off the foot of the couch. Then, growling impatiently to himself, he stormed outside to find the human girl before she hurt herself in her panic.

         Outside the wind was raging and the rain was pouring down in sheets. Gorat peered through the darkness, blinking in an effort to help his night vision kick in more quickly. The random blinding flashes of lightening were making this hunt difficult. He stood on the porch for several seconds, peering around the cabin’s grounds, trying to decide where the girl would flee to.  There was an expanse of grass, a graveled road that circled up to the house and led down the slope. To the left were the trees he and the princess had come from. To the right, ah, to the right was a pair of outbuildings.
         He doubted the girl would flee into the trees or down the road without protection from the storm. He chanted the song of the chameleon as he left the porch and hunched down next to a bush. Only after the camouflage spell had taken effect did he start to stalk his way towards the nearest outbuilding. It was small and smelled of oil and dirt. Slowly he opened the door and peered inside. There was bench with plant pots and bags of soil stacked on it. Tools were hung up neatly on racks. He slipped inside quickly and checked in all the small cabinets and crannies of the room. It was some sort of gardening shed and the girl was not here.
         He stealthed out of the shed, making sure to close the door properly behind him before moving on to the larger outbuilding. This one wreaked even more of oil and pollutants. There was a very large door that looked as if it rolled up towards the ceiling and a smaller door that looked more like the ones built into the cabin. Slowly, despite the howling winds and rain, he twisted the doorknob. It was locked. He cursed mentally. This was ridiculous. The Girl was going to get sick if he didn’t get her back inside where it was warm and dry. He had not wanted to cause any damage to her home but he also had not had any time to become acquainted with the house hold spirits here.
         He had to get the girl back inside. He had to get her calmed down and they had to decide what to do with her. To do that, they would need to speak her language. Fine then, the rough and dirty way it would be. If need be, they could glamour her memories and it would all be a strange dream or something. He wasn’t sure how a glamour would explain the healing but to hell with it.
         Snarling in frustration, he punched his hand through the glass in the door, reached in and unlocked the knob. Somewhere in the back of the building he heard a startled scream. Slamming the door open he hunched over and entered the building. There was some sort of large metal vehicle taking up most of the space in the room. There were shelves lining the walls and apparently storage racks built in over head. Scrambling sounds indicated the girl was climbing desperately into that overhead space. He leaned back and watched as she scrambled like a monkey across the storage beams.
         “Agile little creature. Come down from there female! Believe or not, we aren’t here to hurt you.” He tried to keep the frustrated growl out of his voice, really he did. Didn’t work though. She squeaked and scrambled faster. The vehicle was in his way, but he could stalk the square of the room easily enough. He moved until he was underneath her and reached up.
         “Time for you to come down now.” He made a swipe for her. She shrieked and pushed a heavy box so that it fell between the beams. He caught it easily enough and set it down. By the time he turned to look for her again she had scrambled past him, dropped down and was pushing her way out the door.
         “Gotcha.” He grinned, inhaled and sprinted. He caught her half way across the lawn heading for the trees. She screamed and struggled in his arm as he lifted her off the grass and headed towards the house. She kicked and screamed and fought furiously, at one point landing a lucky blow to the side of his knee. He staggered and fell; she pulled loose, grabbed a piece of firewood from the grass and tried to hit him with it. He grabbed it from her hand.
         “Feisty little thing, aren’t we. That’s enough I said!” He picked her up again and made it up onto the porch before she slammed her head back into his chin painfully.
         “ARRRRR!” He roared indignantly, “That’s it!” He bent her head to the side and bit her on the shoulder. This time her scream was so loud, he was afraid she’d damage her voice and abruptly went totally limp. He regretted the impulsive bite almost at once. The taste of fear in her blood was so strong and bitter that he almost couldn’t learn anything else from it.
         He staggered inside and kicked the door shut. He walked over to where the Princess lay near the fire and sat down with the girl in his lap. Leaning back against the couch he sighed and licked another mouthful of blood from the shoulder wound. So much fear and not all of it fresh. Closing his eyes he concentrated, chanted the song of tongues he struggled to learn the language of the natives.
         It was all so disorienting. There were words, but the definitions did not always make sense. Many words had multiple meanings and spellings. The images of her past were chaotic and painful. There was so much loss and over riding it all was the memory of fire. Betrayal, those who should have cared for her had hurt her.
         Beating and whippings and all the name of God. Drive out the demons; let not this child become a monster. There must be purification. A ceremony of cleansing fire…And fire had become everything, burning everything, every person. Wrapped in fire and fighting to escape—He snapped out of the trance with a gasp and realized he was close to crushing the girl in his grip.
         He set her down on the floor and tried not to wretch as images continued to swirl behind his eyes. Her name was Pearl. This was her home. She was alone. There had been elders who had cared for her after the fire, but they were gone now. He looked at the bite on her neck. It was scabbing over properly. Good, he’d use the healing balm on it after she had woken up, as proof of their good intent. But until then…He’d have to secure her until she was calmed down. He couldn’t let her attack the Princess again.
         He searched the house wearily and came back with some pillowcases and blankets. Gently he tied her arms in front of her and then her feet so she couldn’t easily get to her feet and run.  Then he lifted her up onto the short couch, settled her in what seemed to be a comfortable position and covered her with a couple of warm blankets. Only then did he allow himself to lean back against the couch Moira was sleeping on and eat a ration bar. He wasn’t too concerned about food. There was plenty in this realm that was edible and besides, eating the food of the realm would help them adjust to it faster.
         Moira wasn’t going to like that, he thought idly, watching the fire dance in the woodstove. They were both going to lose strength and height while they were here. If they stayed long enough, they would start to lose their intelligence too. Or at least he would. He grimaced; he should have time, a few months at least. Maybe even years before it became a crippling issue. Even still, the sooner they took care of Pearl and went about finding their way home, the better. He thought about getting up to finish the clean up job and decided against it. One of the girls might wake up again and need tending to. He checked the wood box and found it to be half full. Good enough for the night he thought tiredly.
         He put more wood on the fire, stretched out on the carpet next to the Princess’s couch and allowed himself to drift into a light slumber.

         Princess Moira woke as the morning sun peeped in the big window and shone into her eyes. She yawned, stretched without thinking and kicked a metal lamp off the end table. It crashed to the floor with a tremendous noise, snapping Gorat out of his sleep. Pearl’s eyes flew open and she tried to scream. All that came out was a hoarse, strangled cry of fear. She’d screamed herself hoarse during her desperate attempt to escape Gorat.  Gorat leapt to his feet, ignoring Pearl’s thrashing and hurried to Moira’s side.
         “Are you all right Princess?”
         “Yes. I...forgot where I was and kicked over this…thing when I stretched.” Moira blushed furiously.
         “It is called a lamp Princess, it’s a light source.”
         “A lamp? You’ve learned her language then?” Moira looked over at the whimpering girl and sighed, “It didn’t do any good, did it?”
         “I haven’t had a chance to try speaking to her yet.” Gorat sighed, “She’s a feisty creature. I’m afraid I lost my patience while I was bringing her back inside.”
         “Lost your temper?” She went over to Pearl and looked her over closely, soon spying the bloody bite on her shoulder. “Gorat! Could you find no gentler way?” She scolded and crouched down next to the couch. Hushing Pearl gently and stroking her hair, no matter how desperately she tried to pull her head away.
         “No Princess, not really. She was—IS—too frightened to be rational. Look at her; even now she pulls away from your touch.”
         “She’s been without gentle touch for far too long.” Moira continued to run her fingers through Pearl’s hair. “Teach me her language Gorat. Quickly, before we lose her completely to fear induced madness.”
         “Yes Your Highness.” He sighed and settled on the floor next to Moira and began to speak.
         “I am speaking now in the language of this girl’s people.” He started talking, slowly and enunciating with great precision. Pearl stopped thrashing and stared in amazement at the troll as he spoke. Moira, still caressing Pearl gently, began to Sing. Her song was like that of many different song birds, all singing at once. At first it seemed a great cacophony, but as Gorat continued to speak in English, the bird song began to unify slowly from many birds down to one bird and then, somewhere, suddenly, she was singing in English. Pearl choked, swallowed hard and began to cough. All the screaming and struggling had left her with a very dry throat.
         “All right Gorat.” Moira said carefully in English, “I think she needs some water.”
         “I’ll get some at once, Your Highness.” He said obediently, got to his feet and left the living room quickly. Pearl stared after him with frightened eyes and tried to swallow some saliva into her parched throat.
         “It’s all right little one.” Moira said soothingly, petting her hair again, “We’re not here to hurt you. We didn’t mean to come here at all.” Pearl blinked at her and tried to look down at her injured shoulder.
“          He bit me.” She rasped out.
         “Yes. I’m sorry about that.” Moira sighed, “He needed to learn your language. I’m afraid tasting your blood was the fastest way. We’ll put some healing balm on it as soon as you’ve had your water. All right?”
         “Yes, don’t you have healing balms?”
         “Have…antibiotic lotion.” She coughed.
         “Here, You’re Highness.” Gorat came back in with a wine glass full of water. He held it to Pearl’s lips so that she could sip from it slowly. She drank eagerly and smacked her lips lightly to wet them when the glass was empty.
         “Thank you.” Her voice was less raspy now.
         “You’re welcome.” Gorat said as pleasantly as possible. His voice was deep and gravelly, yet melodic in its way. “If you promise not to fight, I’ll unbind you now.”  Pearl cringed away from him clutching at the inside of the blanket.
         “What did you do with my clothes?”
         Gorat sighed, “You ran out into the pouring rain. You were soaking wet. I peeled you out of them and put them in that…bath basin in the bathroom.” He spoke the unfamiliar words slowly, as if tasting them.
         “I want my clothes!” She insisted.
         “Don’t you have a dry set of spares?” Moira asked reasonably.
         “Of course. In my room.” Pearl glanced up at the second floor balcony.
         “Well you’ll be able to get them yourself after we untie you.” Moira reached out to peel open the blanket so she could undo the bindings at Pearl’s wrists. Pearl twisted sideways, still clutching at the blanket.
         “NO! Don’t touch me!” She tried to roll away and wound up nearly tumbling to the floor. Moira caught her and held her tightly against her.
         “What is this foolishness now?” she asked in surprise as Pearl thrashed and squirmed. Gorat considered and shrugged.
         “Perhaps there is some taboo about nakedness we are not aware of.” He suggested.
         “What foolishness. Well, here, you hold her then.” Moira passed the squirming girl over to Gorat and stood up. She slipped out of the brown robe she had borrowed and knelt down again. “Here, you get the blanket and I’ll wrap her in this.”
         Though she squealed and squirmed with all her might, Pearl could not fend off the pair of them. Before she knew what had happened, she’d been expertly peeled out of the blanket and wrapped up in the brown robe. She’d hardly felt the chill of the morning air, it had happened so fast. Gorat undid his knots and stepped back quickly, leaving her sitting on the floor with just her ankles tied.  Moira also stepped back and waited to see what the girl would do next.
         Pearl yanked her arms inside the robe and slipped them back out the sleeves. She untied her feet as fast as she could and leapt to her feet, clutching the robe shut and backing away from them until she bumped into the couch. She almost fell into it. She tried moving sideways to get around them, but they only stepped back and waited patiently. Both of them were expert hunters and they were ready to leap the second Pearl tried to bolt for the door.
         “What…What do you want with me?”
         Moira rolled her eyes and sighed. “Nothing. We owe you recompensation for your pain and your hospitality, unwilling though it is. We just want to help you little one. I am certain that with the right spells we can rid you of your scars and regrow your eye and breast properly.” Pearl shrank back, blushing deeply, instinctively ducking her head so that her hair fell back over the scars on her face. They waited for her answer patiently.
         “Spells…Do you mean magic? And…Are you really a Princess? What sort of Princess? What are you?”
         Gorat barked out a laugh. “At last! An intelligent question!” Moira elbowed him sharply as the girl ducked her face again.          “Gorat! That was rude!”
         “I’m sorry Princess.” He sighed, “I’m tired and it’s made me irritable.” He turned back to Pearl, “Yes, she really is a Princess. Don’t you have Princesses in this world? You have the word for them.”
         “In Europe. We don’t get Princesses in America, except visiting ones.”
         “Huh. At any rate, Princess Moira is a Tree Strider Alf. I’m a Troll.” He put his fist to his chest and bowed politely, “First Scout Leader Gorat, at your service my little hostess.”
         “An Alf?” Pearl thought for a moment, “You mean, an ELF? A real elf? And a troll? But…but Trolls are supposed to be evil. At least that’s what the stories say.” She finished lamely.
         “Depends on the Troll.” Gorat drawled, “Most of us aren’t evil. At least, not by choice.” He sighed, remembering Giza and his friends, “Your people must have some memory of the great war.”
         “War?” Pearl shook her head and sighed, “We’ve had lots of wars here. I don’t know about one with elves and trolls—except the Lord of The Rings maybe.” She shifted uncomfortably on her feet, “Look, I want to get dressed. Please? I don’t like to cook without wearing clothes. Splashing hot grease is dangerous.” Moira and Gorat nodded quickly and stepped away from the staircase.
         “Of course,” Moira said warmly, brightening up since Pearl no longer seemed like she was going to take drastic action. “We’ll try straightening up our mess. We are sorry about that too.”
         Pearl was hurrying up the stairs, “That’s ok.” She answered breathlessly, “why don’t you take a shower or something while I get changed?”
         “A shower?”
         “Ah, that is in the bathing room, Highness, I will show you. I learned of it from our little Hostess.” Gorat said encouragingly, “While you shower I’ll finish cleaning your armor. It should be a little easier now that the mud has all dried.”
         “Good idea.” Moira said brightly and followed Gorat through the kitchen and down the hall. Gorat showed Moira how to use the shower, who admired the invention greatly before throwing off her small clothes and jumping under the hot water. Gorat took the pile of armor and carried it outside.
         He settled in a place just under Pearl’s window and began banging away noisily at the armor to clean off the dried mud. Pearl had just been leaning out the window but yanked her head back quickly inside and slammed the window shut. Gorat smiled to himself mirthlessly.  The girl still did not trust them and had been looking to escape by stealth. Just as he had expected. He finished scraping the mud off Moira’s armor and carried it back inside.
         “All finished, Highness.” He called over the sound of running water and Moira’s ecstatic groans. He smelled perfumed soap wafting heavily on the air and restrained a sudden rush of longing.
         “Oh. Thank you Gorat.” Moira sighed, “This is heavenly! Have you tried it?”
         “Not yet, Highness. If our hostess doesn’t mind, I could give it a try later.”
         “Oh, I’m sure she won’t. She seems quite pleasant now that she’s calmed down.”
         “Yes, indeed. I’ll just go see if I can lend a hand with breakfast. Ah, enjoy your shower Princess.” He hurried out of the bathroom, closing the door behind him quickly.  He found Pearl in the kitchen, fumbling with a heavy cast iron pan.
         “Can I help in any way, my little hostess?” He asked easily. He was pleased to see that she seemed to have given up the idea of running away. Now he just had to make sure she didn’t try to poison them out of fear. She squeaked and nearly dropped the heavy pan.
         “You startled me!” She gasped and sagged over the pan.
         “I’m very sorry.” He said smoothly, helping her lift the pan back onto the stove. “Moving silently is second nature to a scout. I have some familiarity with this room now. What would you like me to fetch?”
         “Um, eggs, I guess and…bacon? Can…can you eat those?”
         “Oh yes.  Though our chickens and pigs are larger than yours.” He smiled gently, carefully keeping his lips closed over his teeth. He didn’t want to intimidate her any further.
         “Ok. Um, biscuits, I can get biscuits from the freezer.” He watched her cross the room and enter a stairwell that led down into the cellar. He knew from her own blood memories that there was no exit that way.  He considered her clothes. A dark blue turtleneck, denim jeans and sturdy boots covered her completely from head to toe. She even wore brown gloves to cover the scars on her hands. Her hair had been brushed and combed back over her face and of course, the eye patch was back in place. He was grateful for that, he had to admit. That empty eye socket was a horror to look at. He dug into the refrigerator and located the eggs and bacon. Pearl was downstairs for several minutes.
         When she returned she was carrying a wide, flat basket filled to brimming with carefully stacked potatoes, apples, oranges and onions. Balanced on top of the vegetables was a large freezer bag filled with frozen biscuits and two loves of frozen bread dough. She set the basket carefully on the kitchen island and set the oven to warming up.
         “I thought you might like some sliced fruit to start with.” She said shyly, “I wasn’t sure if you’d had anything to eat since you, um, arrived.” Excellent! She’d finally come to terms with their presence. He could feel it.
         “That sounds good to me.” his pleasure clear in his voice, “We’ve had some rations, but it would be best if we started eating the food of this world.” A blood memory nudged him and he reached into a cabinet to pull down a bottle of olive oil. He then dug two cutting boards out from their place and set them on the kitchen island for her. He let her fetch her cooking knives for herself. Best to keep away from any potential weapons until she was completely settled. She blinked at him as she picked out a large plate and a sangtoku blade.
         “You’ve had some time to explore my house in.”
         “Yes, some.” He picked a place at the edge of the counter that was out of his arms reach of her and leaned against it. He crossed his arms over his chest and said gently, “But most of my knowledge comes from your blood memories.” He watched her reaction carefully, either she would panic again, or hold herself calm. He was pleased to see her stiffen, but otherwise remain calm.
         “My blood’s memories.” she said slowly as she began to slice the apples and oranges, “You learned more than English from my blood then?”
         He nodded, “Yes. I’m sorry; I didn’t have time to prepare properly for the learning. There are certain rituals that can make the bloodletting less painful and allow the taster to absorb the blood’s memories in a more orderly fashion. Because I was unprepared the information I gained from your blood is—chaotic. I gained your language, but not all of the images that go with the words make sense. I also gained far more knowledge of your personality than would normally be intended. That’s how I knew you’d try to climb out your window after you’d dressed.”
         Pearl bit her lip and began to carefully arrange the fruit slices on the simple black plate. “You know all about me then.” She said, not able to keep the bitterness completely out of her tone.
         “Not quite all about you.” He said gently, “As I said, the memories are chaotic. I know you live here alone. I know your scars have isolated you from the rest of your kind. Most of the children your age refused to come near you and said many terrible and cruel things. Even other adults, who should have known better, kept their children from you. There are very few people that you trust, and those, you suspect, are good to you out of respect for your grandparents and not out of any real affection for you.”
         Pearl put down her knife and wrapped her arms around herself, turning away from Gorat. He was stunned at the waves of emotion suddenly washing over him. He almost reeled away from the counter as terrible rage, shame, guilt and loneliness pounded at him. He had not expected the blood link to be this strong. Pearl shuddered, struggling not to cry or scream or throw the fruit at this—this intruder of the mind.
         Finally she said quietly, “I never finished filling the wood box last night. Would you mind finishing that chore for me while I finish breakfast?”
         Relieved for the excuse to leave the room, Gorat nodded and went out the back door. Outside he shook himself and inhaled several deep breaths. Even this little distance helped dampen the surprisingly strong link. He’d tasted the blood of many peoples and creatures and only through strenuous ritual had he achieved an empathic link of such depth. He wondered if the girl was not a latent talent of some type. He filled his arms with firewood and passed silently back into the house. In the kitchen, Pearl was slicing potatoes with prejudice while oil heated in the frying pan.
         He put the wood in the box and put more on the fire. He was just straightening up when Moira came in humming happily as she tightened a strap on her left arm guard.  She stopped humming when she saw Gorat’s face.
         “What’s wrong?” She asked quietly.
         “I…seem to have developed a rather strong link with our hostess.” he said, his voice low, “I had no intention of doing so, but it is there and as it’s caught me off guard, it is nearly overwhelming.”
         “What?” She hissed in shock and dismay.
         “Will you help me with another load of firewood? We can discuss the matter outside.” Moira nodded and followed him out the front door. Once out by the woodpile she looked at him searchingly.
         “Are you all right? Do you want me to cast a barrier spell?” Gorat thought about it. As painful as this sudden link was, he instinctively rebelled against the idea of putting a barrier between himself and the human female.
         “No. No I don’t think so.”
         “Why not? And how did this happen?”
         Gorat shrugged, “I had no time to prepare a ritual for the blood tasting. With out a ritual to guide the absorption of the blood memories the results are chaotic and uncontrolled. I’ve never had much luck with deliberately forming empathic links before. I suspect Pearl may be a latent talent of some kind.”
         “An unawakened magician? Or a psychic?”
         “I’m not sure. In either case, the link is quite strong.”
         “Does she seem to be receiving your emotions?”
         “It doesn’t look like it, but then again, she’s still so afraid of us, that she may not be able to receive anything from me at the moment. We won’t really know until she starts to trust us more. She’s furious with me at the moment. I’ve not only invaded her house, but her mind as well.”
         “Oh dear.” Moira sighed, “What a mess. It doesn’t seem as if a simple glamour is going to be enough to heal the trauma we’ve caused to her now.”
         “No, Highness. I’m sorry.” Gorat hung his head, “I’ve failed you terribly over the last two days. I should have kept my squad under tighter control. Then they wouldn’t have been tainted and all of this,” He gestured widely, indicating the battle and Pearl’s involvement. “would not have happened.”
         Moira shook her head, “No, Gorat. This isn’t your fault. My own people have been acting strangely lately as well. This taint and the storms assaulting the Tree seem to be causing all sorts of serious problems. We must get back home and report to my mother. But we cannot leave Pearl in the state she is in either.” Moira chewed on a fingernail in frustration, “Caring for the innocent is our priority. We must heal the damage we have caused here. We are the only ones who can. If my brother survived the battle, then he will report back home and Mother will have at least some idea of the crisis we are facing.” She looked into the tree line where the battle had taken place, “What happened to the portal? I seem to remember seeing the Root moving as I fell through it.”
         Gorat nodded, “It was receding rapidly. I felt it snap shut virtually on my heels as I jumped through. The portal we came through is closed. We’ll have to make our way to either a permanent portal, or find a place where the barrier between realms is weak enough for us to forge a temporary portal back home.”
         “We’ve been gone for an entire night. They must be worried about us.”
         “I’m sure they are, Princess. But remember, time passes differently between the realms. It may not have been as much time for them as it has been for us. Or it could be even more. We won’t know until we get home.”
         “Right. Well, I hope it’s moving more slowly for them then. Marius gets impulsive when he’s worried.”
         “Oh and you don’t?” Gorat joked weakly.
         “Oh Gorat! You know me, I’m ALWAYS impulsive!” Moira laughed, “Mother says it’s my greatest fault.” She held out her arms, “Let’s get the firewood inside and see how our Hostess is doing. Maybe I can get her to believe you didn’t mean to form the link.” Gorat nodded and quickly loaded Moira’s arms with firewood. He picked up another load of his own and followed his Princess into the cabin.
         Inside the smell of frying potatoes, onions and bacon made their mouths water. The smell of biscuits baking in the oven warmed their hearts and their spirits. It was quite chilly outside. The leafless trees indicated fall was well advanced towards winter. Pearl was chopping cold roasted chicken into chunks and putting them into a bowl. Moira dusted her hands off after she had emptied her arms and walked into the kitchen, a warm smile on her face.
         “That smells absolutely delicious Pearl.” She said cheerfully.
         “Thank you, Your Highness. There’s a plate of sliced fruit on the table for you to eat while I’m cooking.” Pearl answered quietly. She kept her face down, staring resolutely at her work, though for a moment she glanced up at Moira and added, “I’m—I’m sorry I hit you last night.”
         “Oh, thank you.” Moira said to Gorat, who had picked up the plate and offered it to her. She picked out some apple slices and turned back to Pearl. “It’s all right Pearl; I understand you were confused and frightened.” She bit into an apple slice with a loud crunch. “Oh, these are good apples.”
         “Thank you. I buy them from a farm down the mountain.” Pearl began arranging bowls of various food stuffs near the stove. “I have mushrooms, peppers, onions, chicken, cheese and ham chunks. What would you like me to put in your omelets?” She set a large bowl full of eggs next to the stove and waited patiently, facing them, but still with her head tilted down.
         “You don’t need to hide your face from us Pearl.” Moira said gently, “Lift your head up.” She waited until Pearl had done so. “Good. Much better. As for my omelet, hmm, I’m still famished so something of everything sounds good to me. How about you, Gorat?”
         “The same please.” Gorat sucked the pulp out of an orange slice with a sigh. “These are good oranges. Do they grow at the farm down the road as well?” Pearl had turned quickly back to the stove and begun cracking eggs into a bowl.
         “No. It gets too cold this far north to grow oranges. Unless you put them in a pot in a green house. Those were shipped out from California.”
         “California?” Moira asked, crunching through another apple slice.
         “It’s a state on the western coast of this continent.” Pearl added salt and pepper to the eggs and began whisking energetically. “We’re in New York State, which is on the eastern side. California is about 1800 miles* away.”
         “That far? How do they get the oranges here before they spoil?”
         “There are several different ways. We ship lots of things using trains, trucks and airplanes.” She poured the eggs into the hot pan, which began sizzling loudly.
         “Trains, trucks and airplanes? I’ve never heard of these things. Are they more interesting devices such as we have seen here in your home?”
         “Yes ma’am. Um, after breakfast, I can pull out some books or we could turn on the TV and I could show you.” Pearl’s hands were moving fast, forming the omelet, adding a generous amount of filling and finally; adroitly flipping the omelet in half and turning it out onto a plate. She added a generous portion of fried breakfast potatoes and several pieces of bacon to the plate and brought it to the table. “Would you like juice, tea or coffee with your breakfast?” She asked nervously.
         “Ah, juice, please. I tend to have tea with my lunch and I don’t know what coffee is.”
         }“Oh.” Pearl blushed, turning her face away. “Coffee is that dark liquid brewing over there.” she pointed at her hissing coffee machine, “It’s got a strong flavor, a lot of people like to drink it black but I think it’s too bitter that way, so I add cream and sugar.” She poured a large glass of orange juice and set it next to Moira’s plate. Silverware and napkins had already been laid out, Moira noticed as Pearl hurried back to the stove and began on Gorat’s omelet.
         “Pearl, I’m very interested in learning about your world. Especially since it seems we’re going to be here for a little while.” Moira said gently, “But first I want to make sure you understand, our coming here really was an accident.”
         Pearl nodded quickly as she worked resolutely on Gorat’s meal, “Yes, You’re Highness.” She said quietly, “I understand.”
Moira glanced at Gorat questioningly and he shook his head slightly. Moira sighed softly.  Pearl caught the little exchange out of the corner of her eye and fury suddenly gave her courage.  She turned and advanced on Gorat, waving her egg spattered spatula threateningly.
         “Haven’t you done enough to me?” She raged, “You invaded my house, you bit me, you---you put your hands on me, took my clothes and now you invade my thoughts! Why don’t you just rape me and get it over with?” Tears dripped from her good eye as she stood trembling in front of the Troll. Gorat put his hands up defensively and backed away slowly.
         “Pearl!” Moira gasped and stood up, “Pearl! Gorat has no such intentions. Nor have I ever known him to mistreat any female. We are not staying here to take advantage of you in ANY way. We want to help you. We owe you that, don’t you understand?” she imposed herself between Pearl and Gorat and caught the girl by the shoulders. Pearl winced and pulled away, rubbing at the shoulder that was still wounded. Moira let go instantly and cursed herself as she saw blood begin to seep through the cloth.
         “Gorat! Didn’t you put healing balm on that wound?”
         “No, Highness, I did not get the chance. “ Gorat said apologetically, “I cannot reach the wound with out our little hostess removing her shirt and I don’t think she’s willing-“He watched with a sigh as Pearl bolted out the side door, “To do that.” He finished lamely. Quickly, he walked over to the stove and dumped the eggs and filling on to his plate. It wasn’t a folded omelet, but it was edible. He turned the heat off and looked back at Moira. “You’d best chase her down, Highness.” He fished the jar of healing balm out of his satchel and tossed it to her, “Perhaps she won’t suffer from this odd taboo if only another female is involved.”
         Moira groaned and caught the jar adroitly. She grabbed a few more apple slices from the plate on the table and ran out the door after Pearl.

         Pearl bolted for the woods. This was her home and she knew the entire area in a five mile radius like the back of her hand. She needed help and help was downhill, towards town. She knew she couldn’t use the road; it would be too easy for her tormentors to find her and catch up to her on the road. They were tall and strong and supposedly had magic, but, she thought, how would magic stand up to Sheriff Iron’s bullets? If she could just make it down the mountain to the main road, it would only be another mile run to town and she could do that in 7 minutes. Pearl ran like a deer through the woods, leaping easily over fallen trees and stumps, skittering around boulders with blinding speed.
         Moira dashed out the mud room door and looked about quickly. Down the mountain, she saw birds launching suddenly from their roosts. Pearl, she realized, could run almost as fast as any Troll. Grimly she walked over to a tree, laid a hand on its bark and began to Sing.
         Pearl rounded a corner, leapt over a seasonal streamlet and slid to a sudden stop, mouth gaping open in shock as the great oak tree in front of her began to bend and twist down towards her, reaching out with its branches. Shrieking, she turned to run around it but found the stand of birch trees she was heading for also beginning to turn and twist, reaching out for her. She spun again and again, but everywhere she turned, the trees were reaching for her.
         Desperately she scrambled and wriggled, sobbing now in sheer terror as she struggled to make her way downhill. After a desperate five minutes, she found herself tripped up and tangled in tree roots shooting out of the ground. She struggled and screamed in helpless fear, convinced she would be dragged down into the suffocating earth.
         Moira made her way down the hill as fast as she could, Singing for all she was worth. Gorat had warned her truly, magic was much harder to accomplish in this world. She soon caught up to the entangled Pearl. She was a pitiful sight. Her clothes were torn and mud smeared and she was covered in dozens of scratches. As Moira approached, Pearl struggled and cried out all the more, completely fallen to absolute panic now. Moira shook her head and changed her Song.
         Pearl’s struggles became weaker as sleep overtook her until suddenly; she was sound asleep, hanging limply in the grip of the Oak Tree’s roots. Moira slipped her arms under the girl.
         “Thank you, friend Oak; you may release her now into my care.” She said to the tree. It straightened, lifted Pearl up slightly then unwrapped its roots from around her, depositing her gently into Moira’s arms. It resettled into its old position and fell back into its own slumber. Cradling Pearl gently, Moira headed back up the slope.
         Back at the house, Gorat sighed in relief as Pearl’s terror faded from the link. He sensed her fall into slumber and considered their options as he finished eating his breakfast. There were not many. They could spend days or weeks trying to soothe her fears and befriend her. Or they could resort to magic. He had several potions that would charm Pearl instantly, but he was uncertain about how long they would last in this world. Plus, he did not think Moira would approve of magically befriending the girl. That left one other option. He began to prepare a pot of tea.
         Moira made her way back up to the house and shouldered the back door open carefully. She found Gorat in the kitchen carefully pouring hot water into a small blue teapot and sifting a small amount of herbs into the steaming liquid.
         “What are you making?” She asked quietly.
         “Lion’s Heart Tea, Your Highness.” He said firmly.
         “Lion’s Heart! Gorat! I will not—“
         “We haven’t got a choice Princess.” He cut her off firmly, “Pearl has lived almost all her life in fear of strangers. We can not overcome that within mere hours. We don’t have the time. We don’t know how much time has passed at home. We need to complete our obligations here and get back.” He stirred the drink and blew on it to cool it a bit.  “Besides, it’s not a charm potion. Lion’s Heart will only give her courage and that will allow her to think more clearly and rationally. Now, put her on the table there.” Moira blinked, she wasn’t used to Gorat ordering her around. Though she never liked using magic to influence others, she recognized that his reasoning was sound.
         She gently set Pearl down on the table and propped her head up so that Gorat could dribble a little bit of the tea into her mouth. He massaged her throat to encourage her to swallow. After he coaxed her into drinking half the cup he nodded to Moira.
{indent]“You should be able to wake her now.” He handed her the tea cup and stepped away from the table. Moira Sang two sharp notes and Pearl’s eyes fluttered open. She gasped and flailed for a moment.
         “The trees! The trees are moving!”
         “Shhh….” Moira hushed her gently and held the tea cup to her lips, “It’s all right now Pearl. Drink your tea.” she held the cup to her lips to help her drink. “There we go.” She soothed, “Tea is good for settling one’s mind as well as one’s stomach.”
         Reflexively Pearl drank from the proffered tea cup. It was delicious and yes, it was very soothing. It soothed her sore throat and when it hit her belly, filled her whole body with a hot golden glow. Suddenly, she felt stronger, more capable as her fear melted away. She did not know these strange people, but whether they meant her harm or not, she was certain she could defend herself. She finished the mug of tea and set it down, then looked herself over.
         “What happened?”
         “You ran away.” Moira said calmly, “I couldn’t catch up to you so I woke the trees up. They’re very fond of you, you know. They were afraid you’d hurt yourself, running away down the mountain like that.”
         “They are? They know me?”
         “Of course they do. You take good care of this land, just like your grandparent’s did. Now, do you think we can get beyond all the screaming and yelling and try to be friends?”
         Pearl blushed furiously, “I’m sorry. I was being childish.” She slipped off the table and brushed at herself. “I’m a mess. I should shower and change. Did you get breakfast yet?”
         “You made an omelet for the Princess.” Gorat reminded her, “I can warm it up in the micro-wave while you clean up” he said the unfamiliar word slowly. “After your shower, you should let the Princess tend to those scratches and that bite mark with healing balm before you dress. Ok?”
         “I’ve got plenty of antibiotic cream.”
         “Healing Balm is better.” Gorat said firmly, “It will close those wounds up right away. There won’t even be a scar.”
         Pearl sighed, “Oh all right I guess.”
         Moira beamed, “Excellent! Just call out to me when you are finished with your shower. Gorat will wait out here until you’re dressed again.” Pearl nodded and slipped out of the kitchen. Moira looked at Gorat, “Did it work?”
         “It looks like it.” He set Moira’s plate in the microwave, considered its front carefully and poked some buttons with a green tinged finger. He frowned when it failed to start until he remembered he had to close the door. Once it was humming along he turned back to the stove.
         “Feels like it too.” He said as he began scrambling some eggs carefully, “I’m not sure how long the effects will last though. It could fade out within hours or it could last for days. I’m just hoping it will last long enough for her to get used to us.”
         Moira nodded and nibbled on another apple slice. “Me too.” She blinked at the microwave when it beeped. “Oh, is it done already?”
         “Yes. Just push that button on the bottom there and the door will pop open, then you can take your food out.” He pointed at the bottom of the faceplate of the microwave, “It’s an odd device, I have the words but I don’t understand what they mean. Apparently a microwave is an actual something that is somehow projected inside the device and heats up the food.” He frowned “A slang term for this process is nuking.”
         “Nuking? What an odd phrase!” She laughed as she reached for the plate. She jerked her hand back quickly, “Oh! The plate is hot! How peculiar. It heats the plate and the food? But I couldn’t see anything happening.” She bent down and peered around inside the microwave’s interior. It was a pristine white with only a few greasy spatters on the walls. “Where do these Microwaves come out of?”
         “I have no idea, I’m afraid.” Gorat added some vegetables to the scrambled eggs and stirred it up vigorously before dumping them onto a plate and adding the last third of the breakfast potatoes and bacon.
         Moira used a towel to pick up the plate and carry it to the table. She settled down to eat, testing the temperature of her omelet carefully before eagerly sticking it into her mouth. “Mmmmm….” She sighed and began to eat enthusiastically. Gorat chuckled as he set a plate cover over Pearl’s breakfast and put it on the counter. He began to wrap the bowls of leftover omelet filling with saran wrap. Moira was so overcome with hunger that she didn’t even notice him struggling with the strange, clear plastic material.
         It wasn’t until Pearl called down the hall “Um, Your Highness? I’m ready for that, um, Healing Balm now.” That Moira pulled herself out of her breakfast induced ecstasy. She licked a finger with a contented sigh.
         “All right Pearl, I’m coming.” She wiped her hands on a towel and hurried down the hall to the bathroom.
         Pearl was waiting by the mirror, looking shy and defiant at the same time.
         “Well now, let’s get these scratches taken care of.” Moira said briskly, unscrewing the lid of the jar and stepping into the room.
         “Please, um please shut the door. Ma’am.”
         “Oh. All right. Gorat’s in the kitchen though.” Moira pushed the door shut with a foot then stepped closer to her.
         “Yes ma’am, but he might come looking for something.”
         “Maybe. Is it such a big taboo for your people?” Moira asked curiously as she nudged aside the robe. She dipped her fingers into the balm and began to massage it gently onto the bite mark.
         “Um, what?” Pearl felt confused and off balance. She was shy, but she wasn’t scared. She couldn’t understand why not. She knew full well her normal state of being was just short of terror. At least when it came to social situations. She inhaled deeply of the Healing Balm’s fragrance. It was a warm, honey smell with hints of lavender and vanilla. It made her feel a little giddy. Add that to her sudden burst of calm confidence and she was reeling just a little bit.
         “Being naked. Is it a taboo for your people? A big one?”
         “OH. Um. Taboo. Um, yes, it’s considered immodest and improper for the most part. Depending on your religion it’s not right for anybody to see you naked whether they’re the same sex as you or not. But it’s even worse for a member of the opposite sex to see you naked. They might get…ideas.” She answered dizzily.
         “Ideas?” Moira was puzzled, “What’s wrong with ideas?”
         “Um, ideas about sex. We’re not supposed to think about it or encourage it. Except for procreation.”
         “That’s ridiculous!” Moira was stunned. “Sex is about more than procreation! It’s supposed to be! If it weren’t we females would go into heat the same time of year that all the rest of the animals do!”
         “Um. Ok.” Pearl shook her head, suddenly, she didn’t want the princess thinking she was some religious conservative “It’s religion stuff, ok? I didn’t say I think it’s right. Exactly. It’s just…also…there’s a risk in acting like a…a…” She struggled with terminology, she wasn’t sure if the word slut was something to be said in front of a princess, “an immodest woman. When men are around. They um, they uh think it’s ok for them to do what they want. Even if you don’t want them to. After all, if you didn’t want to, then why did you let them see so much of you? You must just be playing games with them then, right?”
         Moira shook her head and sighed, “Yes, I see what you’re saying. Has it never occurred to your people that hiding your bodies away and making the pleasures of sex some big mystery only encourage that sort of foolish thinking?” Finished with the bite mark, she began on the deepest of Pearl’s scratches.
         “Well…Yeah, a lot of people think that way too, actually.”
         “What do you think?” Moira asked pointedly as she worked.
         “I think that no means no and um, maybe you are right?”
         “Yet you were very adamant about getting your clothes back.”
         “Well, yeah, I mean, I don’t know you. You just showed up at my house and talk about trolls and elves and magic and you could just be really tall crazy people looking for a “little fun” at my expense.”
         “Well, we’re not.” Moira said firmly.
         “No, I don’t think you are either.”
         “Ah, and what brought this change of mind around?”
         “This healing balm stuff. I don’t think crazy bad people could tolerate it. It’s…I don’t know, there’s something special about it.”
         “It has unicorn tears in it.” Moira said with a smile, “and you are right, anyone tainted by evil wouldn’t be able to stand it. To them, the smell would be noxious and its touch would be like acid burning into their skin.”
         “UNICORN TEARS?” Pearl gasped, “real unicorn tears?”
         “Of course. Fake ones won’t work at all.” Moira chuckled and screwed the lid on the jar. It was half empty now, but the usage had been worth it. Pearl seemed finally convinced. Moira had considered trying some on the scars on her breast, but the damage was so old and so severe, she didn’t think it would do much good.
         “How do you get them? Do you chop onions under their noses or something?”
         Moira burst out laughing and Pearl blushed, quickly closing up her bathrobe again.
         “Oh, I’m sorry Pearl.” Moira gasped, holding her belly with one hand, “It’s just...ah no, we don’t do it like that.” Moira wiped a tear from her eye, struggling to control her outburst. “We ask them to think about what a terrible place the world would be without unicorns in it. They’re vain creatures, though good hearted, and such an idea makes them weep with pity for us. What would we do without their magnificence?”
         “I thought unicorns were the essence of pure goodness.” Pearl reached for her clothes and began to dress. There was a polite knock on the door.
         “Yes Gorat?” Moira wheezed through her giggles.
         “Is everything all right Your Highness?”
         “Oh, yes, everything is fine Gorat. We were just discussing the healing balm and how to get Unicorns tears. Pearl had an…interesting suggestion for the procedure.”
         “Ah. Well, don’t keep her in there too long Princess, her breakfast is getting cold.”
         “She’s getting dressed now. We’ll be right out.”
         Pearl rubbed one finger over the place on her shoulder where the bite mark had been. “That’s amazing! It’s completely gone!” She looked over the other places the balm had been applied to. “They’re all gone! Everywhere you put it! There isn’t a scratch left!”
         Moira nodded, “That’s Healing Balm for you. It can heal some pretty severe wounds, depending on how much you’re willing to slather on. Otherwise, you can just use it to stop severe bleeding and keep a wound from becoming infected. It won’t regrow a missing limb or anything like that.”
         “Wow.” Pearl breathed, her mind whirling. She hadn’t really believed it until now. Yes they were really tall, but then, so was that Chinese basketball player. They had funny ears and Gorat had green tinged skin, but that could have been makeup. There was no faking this, however. That bite mark had been real. It had hurt and bled and her arm had felt a little weak until the balm had been applied. Real magic. A real Elven Princess! A real Troll! In her house! Why?
{indent]“Pearl?” Moira asked gently, breaking the woman’s reverie, “Pearl, your breakfast.” Moira prodded.
         “Right! Right, thank you I’m sorry. It’s just, it’s all real. I can’t believe it and yet…well, I can. But, how? Why? You said you were fighting somebody?” She allowed herself to be led down the hallway to back to the kitchen.
         “Sit down and eat while we explain.” Moira nudged her into a seat. Gorat put a plate and a mug of coffee in front of her. He had already added the cream and sugar. Pearl began to eat, suddenly ravenous.
         “Ok, shoot! I think I’m ready for anything.” She said in between bites. Moira and Gorat shared a glance, Gorat nodded. Moira took a deep breath and began to explain.

Chapter Break

         Pearl finished the last of her breakfast as Moira reached the end of her explanations. She could hardly believe everything the woman was telling her. All the old spirit stories and fairy tales her grandmother had told her were real. Or at least, there was a seed of truth in them.
         “Ok, so let me get this straight.” She said after a long drink of Orange Juice, “Ygdrassil is basically the center of the universe, just like the old stories say it is. But instead of a talking head named Mimir, the source of wisdom is Gaia. Trolls and Dark Elves are pretty much the same people and not all of them are bad. Except when they get sprayed with some kind of nasty black stuff?”
         Gorat wrinkled his nose and wagged his head from side to side, “That’s the basic way of looking at it, yes, though in all truthfulness, the potential for evil exists within my people in the same manner that it exists in all peoples.”
         “That goes for Tree Striders too.” Moira added, “We’ve had some troubles over the years, but nothing too widespread or uncontrollable. Not since the last Great War anyway.”
         Pearl massaged the scar on her face thoughtfully, “But now weird things are happening, not just with your people, but with the Tree too. Great big storms and now these spore things that made your friends attack you.”  She paused as she set her silverware on her plate thoughtfully, “In all the old stories I’ve ever heard, it’s usually pretty tough to outright destroy evil Gods. Is there any way this…Astraya could be causing these new problems?”
         Moira shook her head, “I don’t see how, the Gods threw her into the Abyss. She sank beyond the Tree’s roots and disappeared into the Void Below.”
         “Well, maybe some kind of pollution has seeped into your realm from one of the others.” Pearl made a face, “I know that’s a major problem here. One country pumps out carbon gases into the air and all the rest of us have to put up with it. Oil spills get caught up in currents and get dragged across the ocean if we don’t hurry to block them and clean them up. Meanwhile, whatever birds and fish and other wildlife in the area get covered in the gunk. We try to save as many as we can but many of them die before we can clean them all off.”
         “That seems to be a more likely situation.” Gorat said. “The Tree spawns new portals on a regular basis. It could easily have opened one into an area of pollution and allowed it to leak into The World’s Floor.”
         Moira sighed, “But which realm and what sort of poison is it? We have a long, dangerous search ahead of us.”
         “I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from Earth.” said Pearl, “We’ve done nothing but cause this world damage for decades. Ever since the Industrial age kicked into full swing, in fact.” she winced as a thought came to her, “We’ve even got nuclear power plants now. It’s supposed to be clean energy, except we don’t have a real plan for dealing with the radioactive waste it produces. If a portal opened up into one of the storage areas, you would have all kinds of terrible results.”
         Moira and Gorat shared confused looks and turned back to Pearl. “Nuclear power? Radioactive waste? We are not familiar with these terms.”
         Pearl blinked and thought for a moment, “Hmm…I’ll get my science book from 8th grade. It’s got some good pictures that will help you understand.” Pearl scurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs to her bedroom. There was some thumping around and then she came back downstairs carrying a book and a pad of paper. She had a pencil stuck behind her ear. They hovered behind her as she resettled at the table and riffled through the book. She settled on a page with pictures of sticks and balls stuck together. There were obscure letters labeling them.
         “Ok, you understand the concept of building blocks, of course. It takes a lot of bricks stacked together to make a house, right?”
         “Right.” Gorat nodded.
         “Ok, Atoms are like bricks, except very very very tiny. You need a special microscope to see them. Everything is made up of atoms and atoms have three components to them. The same way bricks need clay, water and straw. With me?”
         “Good, now, the three parts to an atom are Protons, neutrons and electrons. Depending on how much you have of each, you get different atoms. A whole lot of atoms stuck together makes molecules. That would like, ummm, a course of bricks. It takes many courses to build up a wall. It takes a LOT of atoms to make enough molecules for us to see the results. Water, for example, is made up of Hydrogen and Oxygen atoms. Two Hydrogen to one Oxygen atom makes up one molecule of water.”
         “Umm…Ok.” Moira wrinkled her forehead. “Where does nuclear come in?”
         “I’m getting there. First you needed to know about all the parts. We don’t know HOW electrons and neutrons and protons come together to make an atom. Not yet.  That’s called Fusion. “She made a motion with her hands, as if she were squishing bread dough into a ball. “Nuclear power is Fission. Breaking atoms apart. We figured out how to fire an electron into a group of atoms and cause them to break up. The parts fly away and bang into more atoms and cause more of them to explode apart and those pieces fly off and hit more atoms and it just keeps going, see?” She pointed to various diagrams demonstrating the break up of atomic bonds. “We harness the explosions and turn it into electrical power. The power plants send it through the power lines to homes, schools, businesses, factories and wherever else we need it to go.”
         Gorat gaped in horror, “That’s monstrous!” he gasped. “How can you dissolve the bonds of creation with such careless abandon?” without meaning too, he bared his teeth.
         Pearl winced away from his vehement reaction. “It’s not MY idea.” she said defensively.
         Moira put a hand on Gorat’s shoulder. “Easy Gorat.” Her voice was shaking, “I know how you feel. It’s an abomination against creation. But it’s not Pearl’s fault.”
         Gorat pulled his lips over his teeth and pulled away from Moira. He stomped across the room waving his hands and growling curses in Troll. Pearl watched him, a part of her wondering why she hadn’t bolted from the room at his outburst. Moira turned away from the angry troll, he wasn’t smashing anything and she still had questions.
         “Where does this ‘radioactive waste’ come in? How can there be anything left if you are destroying the atomic bonds?”
         “The materials used don’t get completely destroyed. Just mostly, and they’re leaking atom bits all the time after that. It’s those leaking atom bits that are dangerous. They cause burns and illnesses if you’re exposed to a whole lot of it all at once. If you’re only exposed to low amounts over time, you develop mutations like cancer. It’s theorized that an area of living material, like a forest or something, will develop other types of mutations. I read about a scientist studying worm mutations inside the radioactive zone of Chernobyl. He says they’ve increased in size by 15 percent over the years.”
         “Oh, it’s a city in eastern Ukraine. Um, that’s a continent on the other side of the world. They’re nuclear power plant had a malfunction. The explosion blew a huge cloud of radioactive gases into the air. It drifted across most of central and southern Europe. We’re still trying to figure out how much damage that caused. It’s hard to tell how many cancers and problem pregnancies can be blamed on that pollution.” Pearl flipped a few pages in her science book and showed Moira the map that showed the radius of Chernobyl’s explosion.
         “Are we on this map?” Gorat asked, all but materializing behind Pearl. She jumped and barked out a laugh.
         “You startled me!”
         “Sorry.” Gorat leaned over her shoulder, “Are we? On this map?”
         “No, this is a map of the Eastern Continent.” Pearl opened her folder and pulled out a folded up map. Pushing everything on the table aside, she unfolded it carefully and laid it out on the table. “Here, this is a map of our world.”
         “Why are there chunks missing from it?”
         “Because it’s a two dimensional picture of the globe; our world is round. You can’t get the proportions right on a two dimensional map unless you cut some chunks out of it.” She pointed to a spot on the map, “Here, this is New York State and where I’m pointing is approximately where we are right now.” She stretched her arm out to point out Chernobyl, “and this is the place I was just talking about. It’s about—“She trailed off as she ran some numbers through her head, “XXXX miles.”
         “How many days would it take to get there?”
         Pearl stared at Gorat, “You don’t want to go there do you?”
         “No, I’m just trying to get a better understanding of what a mile is.”
         “Oh.” Pearl was relieved, “Hmm, probably two or three, if we could get straight flights out with no stops in between. The longest part of the trip would be getting from the airport to the site itself. I think that would take a day or two by itself, depending on the weather.” she grinned, “That doesn’t help answer your real question though. An average person can walk a mile in 15 minutes without trying too hard. I can run a mile in 7 minutes. Does that help?”
         “Yes, thank you.” Gorat paced away from the table again thoughtfully.
         “Well,” Moira said slowly, “this is a frightening possibility. That kind of destruction could have weakened the separation between realms. Good thing there was only one such explosion, eh?”
         Pearl winced, “Actually, there’s been several other explosions. We used two Atomic bombs on Japan back in 1945. And there were all the test explosions in New Mexico before that of course—“She was cut off by horrified cries. She huddled in the chair and grit her teeth against the urge to run. It was several minutes before the angry pair settled down.
         “Several explosions!” Gorat growled, “And deliberately used on cities full of people! Madness has taken over this world! It is no wonder it is dying!”
         “Dying?” Pearl gulped, “What do you mean?”
         Moira shook her head in frustration, “He should not have mentioned that.” she shot Gorat a look. Gorat hung his head and bit his lip.
         “Well, he did. So you just better explain it.” Pearl snapped. She realized suddenly that she had gone so far into fear that she had come out the other side and found courage. Or some suicidal semblance of it. Moira stared at her for a moment, and then nodded.
         “A realm will last for eternity if it stays in balance. But yours has fallen out of balance; so far out of balance I’m not sure if it is even possible for your people to fix it. You would all have to make a lot of changes to how you live your lives for there to be even a hope of putting things right again. Your magic is dying because you have neglected it for the sake of science.
         “With these terrible experiments of yours into ‘nuclear energy’; deliberately destroying the primal bonds of creation, using it to kill thousands of your own people…I don’t think you can stop that cycle.  You’ve begun the unraveling of your world and I think only the gods could put it back together.”
         Pearl sagged in her chair and sighed heavily. “I guess the Aztecs were right then.” she muttered and rubbed at her scar.
         “The Aztecs?”
         “They lived in Mexico and central America a couple hundred years ago. The Spanish pretty much wiped them all out during their search for gold and conquest. Anyway, the Aztec calendar predicts the end of the world.”
         “When is that supposed to be?” Gorat asked.
         “December 21st, 2012.”
         “And what is today?” Moira frowned.
         “October 30th, 2012.” For some reason, Pearl felt very calm. “It’s all right Princess. We’ve done it to ourselves.”
         “No.” Gorat said firmly, “No, that can’t be right.”
         “Of course it is, Gorat, you both just told me what was happening to our world.”
         “They got the date wrong.” Gorat insisted, “Yes, your world is dying, but not that quickly. It should take another hundred years or so for the unraveling to reach the point where your world collapses.”
         “Watched many worlds fall apart, have you?”
         “No. But we trolls can feel the--structure of your world in ways that you cannot. And I’m telling you that yes; it is unraveling, but not so fast as to collapse in less than two months.”
         “Unless they were to do something else to accelerate the process.” Moira pointed out.
         “Unless they were to do something else—Princess!” Gorat protested.
         “Sorry Gorat.”
         “Something else…Like the Hadron Collider in Europe?”
         “The what?” They swiveled to stair at her.
         “The Hadron Collider the international science community built in Europe.” Pearl explained patiently, “They’re looking for all kinds of particles. Some of them want to prove string theory, some of them want to prove the multi-verse theory, some of them want to find the particle that gives all other particles mass (that’s the Higgs particle). Anyway, a collider sends beams of energy shooting around in circles until they get going super fast and smash into each other. The results of the collision is supposed to throw out all these different atomic particles.”
         “String theory?” Moira shook her head and groaned. “And energy collisions. Yes, that sounds like trouble all right.”
         “Then I guess we’re doomed.” Pearl said cheerfully and began folding up her map. “You should probably just go home as soon as possible and do what you can to stop us from causing Ygdrassil any more damage.”
         “What?” They stared at her.
         “Yep, you don’t want to waste any more time worrying about us.” Pearl tucked her books back into her bag.
         “Pearl!” Moira turned to Gorat, “Are you sure you gave her the right drink?” She demanded.
         “Yes Princess. But it may not be working exactly right in this world.”
         “Drink? What do you mean, ‘The right drink’?”
         Moira turned around guiltily, “Ah, well, you were so overwhelmed with panic that we were concerned for your mental health.”
         “I was concerned.” Gorat said firmly, “I made the decision to give you the Lion’s Heart powder. I mixed it into the tea we gave to you. It’s only a courage potion. Not any kind of mind control.” he finished hastily. Pearl was frowning, but then she shrugged and slung her backpack over her shoulder.
         “Ok. Whatever.”
         “Ok?” Gorat’s eyes narrowed. He was getting strange sensations off of Pearl. First she had been frightened, then calm and now she was actually happy.
         “I don’t understand Pearl. We just told you your world is dying.” He said.
         “Yes, you did. You know what? It’s oddly freeing.” She headed for the stairs, “I’ll be right down, I just want to put this stuff away.” She bounced up the stairs. Moira and Gorat shared confused looks.
         “Don’t you care, Pearl?” Moira called up.
         “Not anymore.” There were some thumps as Pearl dropped her pack on the floor and quickly reshelved her books. “I can’t do anything about it. Besides, I’ve never really had much use for it anyway. It’s not like the world’s gone and done me any favors.”
         Moira was stunned; she turned back to Gorat and whispered, “Is she serious?”
         Gorat nodded grimly, “She’s had a very difficult life Princess. Her parent’s betrayal left her with those scars. Even though her grandparent’s loved her and took excellent care of her, she’s always been separated from the rest of the world by her scars. Now they’re gone, she has no friends or family to speak of. At least, none that she recognizes. I suspect the people who do check up on her and take care of her needs in town actually do care for her though. She thinks they only look out for her because of the respect and friendship they had for her grandparents. She’s alone as far as she’s concerned. The end of the world would be a release from a long, lonely life.”
         “I feel ill.” Moira groaned and sat on a nearby chair. Gorat looked at her closely.
         “It’s probably the adjustment, Your Highness.” he reminded her, “The longer we stay here, the more we’ll be affected by this world’s energy fields. This is such a low magic world that we’re likely to lose a significant amount of power and experience some physical changes as well.”
         “Oh damn. I’d forgotten about that.”
         “Hey, is the Princess all right?” Pearl asked as she came down the stairs. “She’s looking a little green around the gills. We didn’t feed her something we shouldn’t have, did we?”
         “No. She’ll be all right eventually. It’s just the adjustment to this world.”
         “Oh. Well. If it’s going to end in just a few months, you might as well spare her the nausea and go home.”
         “No. Pearl! I promised you—“
         “To get rid of my scars, regrow my eye and such. I know. It’s pointless though, Your Highness, if its all going to end in two months anyway. I can put up with it for just two more months. I mean, I’ve lived with it for 23 years now anyway. What’s two more months?”
         Moira opened her mouth to protest and slammed it shut again. Pearl had a point. Unless Moira could stop the world from falling apart, Pearl and the rest of her people would die with it. Her stomach churned dangerously. Pearl moved surprisingly fast. From the bottom of the stairs she lunged across the room, scooped up a garbage can and shoved it under Moira’s chin just as the Princess lost control of her stomach. The vomiting went on for several minutes. Pearl held the garbage can steady and patted Moira comfortingly on the shoulder. Gorat was at a loss. After a few awkward moments he disappeared into the kitchen and started more water heating. His own stomach was churning. He didn’t want to lose control of it. One of them throwing up was bad enough. By the time Moira had finished emptying her stomach, Gorat had brewed up a pot of tea. He took a few sips from his cup, which helped settle his stomach, before bringing the tray into the living room.
         Moira was sitting on the edge of the couch looking miserable and embarrassed. Pearl had stepped outside to empty the garbage can. Gorat brought Moira a cup of tea.
         “Here, Princess. It will help settle your stomach and clean out your mouth.” He said gently.
         “Thank you.” She said in a gravelly voice, “What did you put in it?”
         “It’s just a ginger tea with honey for sweetening.” He knelt before her and gently checked her forehead for a temperature. “Pearl is right. As much as we don’t like it, there isn’t anything we can do to change what’s happening here. We should just go back to Ygdrassil. The World Tree is our priority now. If it falls, all the realms will fall.”
         “Can’t we bring her with us?”
         “What?” Gorat blinked in astonishment.
         “Why don’t we bring her with us? I know we can—“
         “No.” Pearl said, shutting the door firmly behind her, “No, thank you Princess. What good would I be? The only human left alive living in a giant tree? Even if you did fix my scars, then what? You’re elves, I’m human, don’t you read the stories? It pretty much never works out happily. I’ll die of old age before you can blink twice anyway. Might as well leave me here, with the rest of idiots who destroyed the planet.”
         “Stop that.” Moira snapped, “You didn’t destroy it. Yes, your race made a lot of stupid mistakes, but you, personally, didn’t do it. You don’t deserve to die with it just because of the rest of the fools here.”
         “Perhaps not, Your Highness, but there are hundreds, even thousands of other people who don’t deserve to be here when it falls apart. But you aren’t planning to save them, are you? You want to save me because you’ve met me and somehow you think that you owe me something.”
         “Well let me tell you something, you don’t. Not anymore, anyway. If you owed me anything at all, Gorat gave it to me with that Lion’s Heart powder of his. I’ve been scared of pretty much everything and everybody for about as long as I can remember. I’m not scared anymore. Even if this drink of yours fades out after a while, I’ll still have a memory of what it’s like not to be afraid and I’ll know I won’t have to live with it for much longer. That means more to me than you can ever know or even understand, I think. When was the last time you lived in fear?”
         “Never.” Moira admitted and sighed.
         “I can leave you more of the powder.” Gorat said slowly, “I’ll show you how to make the drink. If it wears off, you’ll be able to make some more and you can spend your last two months unafraid, at least.”
         “Thank you.” Pearl turned for the kitchen. “I’ll find a good container to put it in.” Moira stood up abruptly, she was breathing hard.
         “I’ll wait for you outside Gorat. I’m sorry Pearl. Goodbye.”
         “Goodbye Princess. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
         Moira nodded and all but ran outside. The sun was high, nearly at the height of noon. She staggered to the middle of the lawn. A wind blew gently through the leafless trees, carrying the smell of impending snow. Blue jays squabbled at the bird feeder near the firewood stacks and a cardinal called from a high pine tree on a slope above the house. Pain lanced through her and she staggered forward, gasping for air. She tried to cry out but could not. There was a crushing pain in her chest, a sharp wrenching behind her eyes and images assaulted her.
         The wooden expanse of Gaia’s court, figures fighting. Blood spraying across faces. Elves and trolls, fighting together, fighting against each other. Her mother, fallen on the floor. Talaystra, Queen of the Trolls standing over her with a bloody dagger. Her mother covered the jewel embedded in her breast with both her hands, speaking something. Moira couldn’t hear the words, just see her lips moving. Talaystra bent down, slashing at her mother’s hands with that wicked dagger.
         A green light blinded Moira, the force of the explosion threw her onto her back. Above her, the sky exploded.
         Pearl and Gorat were thrown to the floor in the kitchen, Pearl clutching the plastic canister of powder to her chest protectively. Gorat, a skilled fighter, caught Pearl up and twisted, taking the fall onto himself. A second explosion rocked the cabin. Debris began to fall from the ceiling. Gorat flipped over quickly and dragged Pearl under the heavy kitchen table. An agonized scream from outside penetrated the roaring din in their ears. On its heels, the grinding roar of collapsing stone. Moira screamed again.
         “Princess!” Gorat and Pearl both scrambled on hands and knees, now on their feet, now falling to the floor again as the cabin shook around them. Heedless of the falling chunks of plaster and wood from the ceiling they struggled their way out of the house. The sky had become a whirling maelstrom of green tinged clouds. Winds tore at them as the clouds above shredded against themselves. The mountain shuddered and roared in protest. Below them, tons of falling stone rushed down the mountain, tearing up trees and crushing wildlife in its path. Moira lay on the ground in the center of the lawn, pinned in place by a brilliant green beam of light. She screamed again, a long heart wrenching wail of agony and despair that reached so high into the upper registers, Pearl couldn’t hear it anymore.
         A third explosion slammed them to the ground. Pearl struggled to get up. Tremendous pressure tried to keep her pinned down, but she managed to raise her head in time to see a shining green something lance down the green beam and bury itself in Moira’s chest with a sickly thump of tearing flesh and breaking bone. Moira’s scream was choked off by a spray of blood fountaining from her lips. She fell back and lay horribly still.
         The earth continued to tremble and roar, the clouds tore each other to pieces and the wind shrieked and wailed away across the land, disappearing into the horizon.  When at last all was still and Pearl could move again, she faced a devastated land. Trees had been uprooted. The road leading down to town was covered in the landslide. Birds had fled. Choking dust filled the air and made the sun appear dim and weak.
         Gorat was cradling Moira’s head in his lap. Tears dripped down his long nose to rain on her forehead. They left muddy streaks as they ran down to the ground. Blood dripped off her chin, but more dribbled from the wound in her chest. Pearl gasped as she scrambled over to Moira’s side.
         “Ohmygodohmygodohmygod. What is that thing?” Moira groaned, blood burbling from her lips. Pearl jumped to her feet and tried to run back to the cabin. She stumbled and fell, but scrambled up and kept going until she disappeared inside. Gorat was helpless, shock, fear and grief ran through him in unending waves. He couldn’t think of what to do. It was shattered! Could Moira survive with only a piece of it?
         “Piece of what?” Pearl ran back out of the house lugging a professional’s first aid bag. “Piece of what, Gorat? What is that thing? What just happened?” She dropped down next to Moira and tore open the bag quickly, “We have to get her stabilized. It’ll take at least twenty minutes for a chopper to get here once I fire a flare and that’s assuming it wasn’t wrecked or disabled during the quake. Even after it gets here it will be a forty-five minute flight to the hospital.”
         “Hospital?” Gorat shook himself out of his shock induced torpor, “No. No hospital. This world cannot heal the wound! What are you doing?” He reached out to pull her hand away from Moira.
         “I’m trying to mop up the blood and look at the injury!” She slapped his hand away. “I’m not going to yank on it, what ever it is. I’m not stupid! She’d bleed out if I tried that. It’s going to take a surgeon to remove it and even then—“
         “NO!” Gorat roared. Pearl and Moira jumped. “No! You cannot! No one can now. For good or ill, it is a part of her now. But there is only a piece of it! It’s been shattered!”
         “WHAT IS IT?” Pearl’s voice was just below a scream. “For God’s Sakes, Gorat, you just keep repeating that it’s shattered. What is IT?”
         Gorat stared at her blankly for a moment. “The Heart! The Heart of The World. The Gaia bears it on her breast and controls its power, keeping all of nature in balance. With out it, the world Tree will—will”
         “Die.” Moira finished with a gasp. “All will fall apart. Entropy will take over, Ygdrassil will succumb to the tearing powers of the Void. When Ygdrassil falls, all worlds will fail.”
         “Princess!” Gorat bent over and caressed her face, “Princess, do you know what has happened?” Pearl dabbed at the wound with damp gauze, trying to clean up the blood and get a good look at the injury. 
         A brilliant green chunk of stone had embedded itself in Moira’s chest. It was about a third of the size of a human heart. The outer edges were smooth and sharp, as was the top, as a properly cut stone would be. But the interior edges were jagged and splintered. Blood seeped around these edges. No longer an arterial fountain, but still a significant leakage. Pearl dug into her kit and pulled out a bottle of coagulation powder. It was made for awkward injuries like these.
         Astraylaya attacked Treehome. My mother is dead.” Moira tried to push herself up as Gorat fell back with a strangled cry.
         “No! My Queen? My Queen has fallen to this madness? How could it have spread to Cavehome so quickly?”
         Pearl caught Moira and lowered her back to the ground gently.
         “You must lie still Princess! You’ll tear yourself up inside if you move.”
         “I’ll be all right Pearl.” Moira smiled at her weakly. “It will heal.”
         “perhaps. But it will heal faster if you lie still. Let me try to stop the bleeding.”
         “All right. “ She sighed and lay still. “you have a point.”
         Gorat staggered away from the pair, clutching at his ears and crying hysterically.
         “My Queen! My people! It will be the Great War all over again! We will be destroyed!”
         Pearl finished sprinkling the coagulant powder over Moira’s chest. Her mind was buzzing strangely. She felt as if she were inside a sturdy clear barrier and that a whirlwind of terror, anguish, grief and other agonies were battering against it. Held at bay, she could think and act in a calm, rational manner. That Lion’s Heart Powder was good stuff, she thought. She left the Princess and rushed over to Gorat. He was wailing and howling incomprehensibly. Must be Trollish. She decided. He was also twisting his ears dangerously hard.
         “Gorat!” Pearl hauled back and slapped him across the face, “get a grip!” Gorat reeled back. His eyes went blank for a moment as he tumbled to the ground. Pearl knelt next to the stunned Troll and grabbed his shoulders. “Listen to me. Something terrible has happened. You’ve got to pull yourself together because Moira is hurt pretty badly and I don’t know how much longer that Tea you gave me is going to last. Ok?” Gorat stared up at her blankly.
         “The Heart is shattered. My Queen is lost to the Dark Infection. The war will rage until the Tree falls to the void. What is there to do?” Pearl sat back and shrugged.
         “Fight back. You’ve got one piece. If it doesn’t kill Moira, maybe you can find the others and put it back together.”
         “No.” Moira’s voice was stronger. “She’s right. I can feel them now. I can hear some of them. They want me to find the others, just as Pearl suggests.” She pushed herself into a sitting position. This time the wound did not start bleeding again.”
         “Can it be” He paused groping for the phrase, “made whole once again?”
         “Yes, I think so Gorat.” Moira smiled at him gently. “And if we can repair it, we can hold Ygdrassil in place. Maybe even find a cure for the Dark Infection.”
         “Um, excuse me. What voices are you hearing?”
         Moira smiled at Pearl. “the spirits of the previous bearers. All the Gaias since the last war have merged their souls with The Heart.”
         “Your Mother?” Her question trailed off too uncertainty.
         Moira shook her head.
         “Gone.” She sighed. “She sacrificed her soul to keep The Heart free from the Infection.” She cocked her head, listening to the silent voices, “She shattered the Heart to keep it from Evil hands.”
         Gorat fell to his knees in front of Moira. Drawing his sword, he offered up on the palms of his hands.
         “Gaia.” His voice broke as he spoke, “My weapon and my life are yours. I swear: In living or dying, through pain and ecstasy, I am your servant to command.” Great tears dripped from his eyes as he bowed his head.
         Moira took the sword. She took it by the blade and offered it back to him hilt first, resting over her arm. “I accept your oath, Gorat of the Trolls. I command you to help me find the remained pieces of Nature’s Heart and return with me to The World Tree to fight the Dark Infection.”
         Gorat took the sword and held it in front of his face. “I will, Gaia.” The emerald embedded in Moira’s heart flashed brightly once and Moira smiled.
         “Have hope, my friend.” She said gently and struggled to her feet. Pearl caught her by one arm, bemused by the impromptu ceremony and helped her stand.
         “So, ah, is Gaia a Queen or more like a High Priestess?”
         Moira sighed, “Technically, both. The God’s consolidated immense power into Nature’s Heart so that they would not have to remain in Ygdrassil’s realm in order to hold the Void at bay. The Gaia is the one who carries the Heart and guides its immense power to Protect the World Tree and the Realms they created. She also commands the races that serve the Gods in their appointed duties to maintain the Health and Balance of Ygdrassil. I am Queen of the Tree Striding Elves. The Trolls have their own Queen. Queen Astralaya, but it seems she has also been affected by this Dark Infection, as Gorat has so aptly named it. She lead an attack on Treehome, which is where my mother and the rest of the court lives in the branches of Ygdrassil itself. They may have been repelled, but Mother is dead and I am trapped here, for the moment, in this realm. I must find the rest of the Heart. But I must at least contact someone at home and tell them there is hope.”
         “Wait a minute. You’re not trapped here.” Pearl protested, then glancing down at the devastated mountainside changed her mind, “Well, ok, we are stuck up here for a bit, but what I mean is, you were ready to go home just a little while ago.  What changed? The Heart’s being broken?”
         “In a manner of speaking. The spirits within this piece tell me that the rest of the Heart actually came to this world. I must find them here before returning to Ygdrassil. If I don’t have them all with me, I risk being overtaken by the Infected Ones and destroyed.”
         “Oh.” Pearl chewed on her lip for a moment, “Look, they’ll be sending a rescue crew to get me out of here. They won’t let us stay in the house unless they think the foundation is still solid and even then, they won’t want us so far from emergency assistance. We’ve got to figure out what to do about you two before they get here and see you. Especially you, Gorat. Those ears of yours just won’t be tucked under a hat, I imagine. AND I’ll have to explain to Sheriff Irons where you two came from to boot.”
         “Sheriff Irons?” Moira turned to look down the mountainside. “Is that a rank?”
         “The Sheriff is the appointed law enforcer of our county. He oversees a small department of Deputy officers. Anyway, if he decides it’s unsafe for us to stay here, we have to leave.”
         “Where will they send you to?” Gorat asked, “Does he have a new place for you to live while they clear the road?”
         “They’ll set up emergency shelters, probably at the schools and churches, for those of us who have to move. That will only last for a little while, then we’ll have to find a more permanent place to stay, like an apartment or rentable house or something like that. If somebody can’t afford that, the government will help. My insurance will cover any damage to the cabin, but other people might not have been as smart when they bought they coverage. They could be in trouble."
         “Where will they send us to stay?” Moira asked, “I know we must search this realm for the shards, but I’m not yet sure where to start. I need a chance to think and to formulate a spell that will guide us on our search.”
         “Not to mention we’ll have to learn to navigate around this world.” Gorat grunted, “It’s going to be difficult. It seems that gnomish inventions are commonplace here and the rule of law could be complicated.” He gestured out over the devastated landscape. A small helicopter was chopping its way noisily into the sky and began swinging towards them.
         “Oh boy. They’re moving really fast.” Pearl turned to them, “You’ve got to hide! Or disguise yourselves. Can’t you use some kind of spell to look human?”
         “Yes.” Moira nodded.
         “Quick! Get inside then and do it! They won’t be expecting you anyway. I can still call you Moira, but I’m going to have to think of a new name for Gorat, ok?”
         “all right.” Gorat nodded. The two of them turned and hurried inside.
         Pearl quickly repacked her First Aid kit and left it on the ground at her feet. She pulled off her red scarf and began waving it at the chopper as it approached. It was  a small helicopter, meant to carry only two people.  It belonged to Sheriff Iron’s son, George. He took one hand off the controls long enough to wave at her before spiraling around to land on her front lawn. Most of it was still bare, though some falling boulders had come perilously close to the back side of the cabin. Once he was safely landed, George threw open the door and leapt onto the grass. He ran over to Pearl, a relieved smile on splitting his broad face.
         George was nearly six feet tall, his hair was deep black and shoulder length and tied back into a single ponytail. His eyes were nearly black and his skin was weathered brown. His family had been close friends with her grandparents and George had always been kind to her. Unlike many of the other children who shied away from her scars, he had been willing to ignore them to play with her. She had never allowed herself to believe that he had truly liked her, but today, for some reason, she could think of him as a true friend.
         “Pearl! Thank God! We were absolutely frantic.” He stopped himself from grabbing her in a bear hug. He knew she didn’t like to be touched.
         “I’m sorry you were worried George. Did you radio in that I’m ok?”
         “Naturally. My mother was sitting there waiting for the call. Now that she knows your all right, she’s gone back to the house to get a room ready for you.”
         “A room? Oh George, no that isn’t necessary!”
         “Nonsense. Even if the cabin is stable, you can’t stay up here. The road was totally destroyed by the rockslide and the power lines are down for miles. It could be days before we get power back to the town. Everyone’s running on generators.”
         “I know George. It’s just…” She floundered for a moment, flushing in embarrassment, “It’s just that I have guests. I can’t impose on your family like that.”
         “Guests?” George reeled back in surprise, “Who? You don’t--.” He stopped and flushed.
         “don’t have any other friends, right?”
         “you don’t go out. You’re a homebody.” He mumbled.
         “I hide from the others.” She said bluntly. George blinked.
         “Well, yes. But…what’s gotten into you Pearl? You’re not acting like you usually do.”
         “I’m fine George. My new friends have gone a long way towards helping me deal with my scars, that’s all. “
         “How did you meet them?”
         “Over the internet.”
         “Online? And you invited them to your house without meeting them first? Pearl! How could you be so reckless?” He roared “How long have they been here?”
         “Couple of days.” She answered calmly, “They’re good people George. They’re from Denmark. We met during my comparative religions course. One of the ones I was taking in the Second Life University. Remember I told you about that last year?”
         “Yes. And I specifically told you not to go meeting people without a friend, like me, around because it wasn’t safe!”
         “I’m sorry George. It was an impulse. We’ve stayed in touch since class and they happened to come to the states on vacation. They’ve been here for two  days now. If you just calm down and come inside you can meet them. I think you’ll like Moira and Hans.”
         “Moira? Isn’t that a Celtic name?”
         “Sure. Her parent’s were deep into Celtic mythology and religions. They were professors at a University there. They liked the name so that’s what they called her.”
         “Professors huh?”
         “Yes, George. And before you ask, yes, I did look them up. They really did teach at the University, ok?"

To be continued...
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