Chapter 3

The silvery glow in Niamh’s eyes faded as the last of the outsiders fell. She turned her gaze to the sky, a silent plea floating up from her into the atmosphere. Looking back down, she turned slightly. Some of the villagers lay dead, and some injured. All of the outsiders lay dead, mostly due to Niamh’s magic. A few young boys stared at the elder mage from doorways, eyes wide, never having seen such a show of magical power before, and used for such dire purposes.

Niamh turned to Kirkly, who sat on the ground nearby, breathing heavily but not fatally harmed.

“Kirkly, get the women to do the healing. Keep up your guard for any more of the strangers, or barricade yourselves somewhere… just get everyone together, and get them safe. You are the closest thing to a leader; act as one.”

Kirkly glanced up at Niamh, looking old and haggard, but gaze still strong.

“Yes, I will.”

Niamh nodded, and strode off in the direction of the forest. She hoped that no more of the outsiders were around and would return to the village, though there were enough strong men remaining there to defend it if necessary and the majority of the strangers already lay dead. Niamh’s concern was now Edana; she hadn’t a clue where the girl had ended up, and if she was safe or if they’d gotten her…

The silver glow came over Niamh, even as she walked, and after the blinding flash the white wolf ran through the woods, searching but on guard. Nose to the ground, Niamh used anything she could think of to try and find Edana. Smell, magical tracking, contact with the animals… all of her talents were put to use.

Unfortunately, most of the animals had fled from the men, safely hiding in their burrows and dens. Tracking was producing no results; Niamh simply couldn’t get any shred of Edana’s being. Finally, it was the simple gift of amplified scent that put the mage on the trail of her student.

Niamh could smell the men, and their trail followed Edana’s. She followed the double trails until she reached a small, rocky, ravine; from there Edana’s scent stopped, though that of the men continued on. Her wolf-ears drooped; the men must have picked up the girl, hence, her faint scent hadn’t attached itself to the ground…

Niamh sniffed once more though, as the wind blew slightly, mixing up the smells around her. Carefully, the white wolf descended into the small ravine, following Edana’s trail to the end, but seeing no sign of the girl… however, the scent-trail of the men didn’t reach this far. Puzzled, Niamh sat, tail twitching slightly. Her ears flicked, straining for any sounds, as she looked around her, gaze finally focusing on the boulder to the right.

The boulder was strangly shaped; a tiny bit longer than it was tall, and gray, speckled with tan and white. It didn’t really match the other rocks in the area, and Niamh’s canine head cocked to the side as she regarded it. She closed her physical eyes, opening her mental ones, and she turned that gaze to the large stone beside her. As she did so, she wasn’t completely surprised to find that the rock wasn’t simply a rock; there was some sentient scrap of a soul attached to it. Niamh easily recognized it as Edana’s essence.

How did she manage to become a rock? They had no mage with them; they couldn’t have petrified her, unless… no, no, they couldn’t have done it to her. Realization slowly dawned on Niamh. She can’t shape-shift into an animal, but she must be able to do stone. I’ve never heard of anyone with that ability… but can she turn back?

Niamh let the light once again surround her, and, back in human form, turned to the rock, knocking on it slightly.

“Edana, switch back. Same way as you became the rock, become yourself, in human form.”

She waited, staring at the stone, but nothing happened, and there was no shift or difference in the slight essence attached to the rock.

“Curses. I’m going to have to drag her out.” Niamh rearranged herself next to the large boulder, and reached her hands over it. Closing her eyes halfway, she took the power flowing around her and focused it, directing the streams of magic at the rock, gently but forcefully. As the power was absorbed, she began to pull it back, taking it just as she’d put it into the rock, sucking it out of the boulder before directing it back in, a cycle, a flow of continuous energy.

As Niamh continued, gathering more energy to send through the rock, the mage finally felt something within the stone awaken. Slowly, Edana’s essence became more noticeable, more visible for Niamh’s mental eye, and she didn’t pull as much of the magic back out, instead letting some remaining within the rock, in an attempt to strengthen Edana’s consciousness and awaken the girl from her stone-state.

Finally, the rock began to glow, and Niamh lessened the flow of energy to the point where it wouldn’t disturb anything Edana was doing, which, Niamh hoped, was shifting back into her original, humanoid shape. The glow increased gradually, and finally, Niamh pulled back, stopping the cycle of energy, and shielding her eyes from the bright flash that inevitably came.

Niamh opened her eyes, and was pleased to see that Edana now sat in place of the strange rock, looking dazed but unharmed. Niamh sat silently, waiting for the girl to break out of her trance. Niamh could sense a new sort of tranquility in the girl, a sort of rested quality. As Edana’s eyes finally focused, that quality remained.

“Niamh, what exactly happened?”

Niamh brought her eyes up, silver gaze meeting Edana’s gold. “Evidently, you can shift into rock. However, it appears you can’t shift back without someone else awakening you. Never before have I known of such a magic.”

Edana stared blankly for a second, before taking on a more thoughtful look. “How did I manage to do that? Hmm. It was just like drifting off to sleep; I felt more and more tired, and finally I could do nothing else but let myself go, and the next thing I remember is being awakened by your magic.”

“Like I’ve said,” Niamh replied, “Magic is a very fickle thing. Though I’ve never heard of such an ability before, it doesn’t surprise me to learn of it now.” She paused, a sterner look coming over her face. “However, I do suggest that you refrain from using it, unless you’re in another situation like the one you found yourself in today. I’m not going to always be around to awaken you if you turn to stone, and I doubt any other mage happening to come around would see anything else besides an unusual rock. I only knew it was you because I was specifically seeking out your essence, and I finally caught a shred of it in the rock.”

“Aye, I do not feel I will be shifting into rock anytime soon,” Edana said. “While I feel more rested now than I ever have before, the whole ordeal was slightly disturbing. I’m not sure it’s a process I’d like to repeat; the idea of being a rock, and slipping completely into deep slumber doesn’t really appeal. In fact, I don’t think I like the thought of that much at all.” Edana shivered a little, staring at the pebbly ground as she though back on what had just happened.

“Yes, I could imagine.” Niamh paused to look Edana over critically, but found that the girl had more than enough energy. “Come, we are not safe here. We will go back to the village to gather any last things that we need, but we cannot stay. I fear I have angered the strangers, and their wrath is on us as mages.”

Edana’s eyes widened. “What happened in the village? Was anyone hurt?”

Niamh’s eyes showed a hint of sadness. “Yes, some of the villagers were killed by the outsiders, and others are injured. The strangers attacked us, and a small battle was fought. Some of the village men were lucky enough to have weapons around, and each of the outsiders was armed… most were killed by my magic.”

Edana nodded, slightly shocked at the news. “What is it they wanted so badly?”

“As we thought, they were not all that they seemed. And what I believe they were truly doing was gathering people, in order to sell them into slavery. The outside world is dangerous, Edana, and not everyone cares about others. Many focus their lives on pushing down others in… various… ways.” Niamh’s silver eyes were clouded, and stared off into the trees beyond the ravine. “The thought of a young, mostly untrained mage was quite alluring to them, as if they’d managed to get you back to a more powerful mage; and I’m sure they have one back wherever they come from; they could have overridden any of your power, forcing you to do their bidding, whatever that would end up being.”

Edana’s mouth was slightly open, and she had no response. Niamh had told her before that the world beyond the village was often a terrible place, but never before had she, herself, been threatened by it. It was quite an awakening to know that she wasn’t invulnerable.

“And so,” Niamh said, continuing, “We must leave the village. I can’t bear to have the people suffer for our sake, and the sooner we leave, the sooner the men will follow us, and leave the villagers the rebuild from that small shattering they’ve had to endure today.”

“The men will follow… us? Why will they continue to follow? Why won’t they leave us be? Can’t you do something?” Edana didn’t want to sound selfish or whiny, but she couldn’t help but think it would be better if Niamh could just kill off the rest of the men, since they were, apparently, evil anyway. Edana was scared, she hadn’t known the severity of the situation when she’d started running from the outsiders, and more than ever, she did not want to chance being caught by them. She wasn’t stupid, and she knew that with the death of many of their own, they would be especially bent on revenge against the mages.

“I have taken enough lives. To try and take the rest of them would be asking for too much from myself, and from the magic.” Niamh’s words were gentle, and she felt a tinge of sorrow as she took note of Edana’s large eyes and slight tremble. “Come, though. We will be fine. After all, we are mages, and they will not be able to keep track of us for long. Soon enough, we will be too far for them to ever find.”

Edana rose, and followed Niamh as she climbed out of the ravine and started cautiously back towards the village. Edana noted that she seemed to have a renewed strength, as she didn’t feel the least bit tired, even as she pulled herself out of the steep ravine.

::I suspect shifting into a stone for a bit lent you a new sense of power and renewal; attributes of a sleeping mountain. It does not surprise me to see that even after being chased all over this forest, you have twice the energy as I.::

Edana smiled slightly, glad that her period of time spent at a rock had benefits, beyond simply letting her escape the notice of the men who were so bent on taking her. She was still slightly bothered by the fact that she’d been, pretty much, trapped in stone. That was one bit of magic she didn’t plan on repeating…

Belongings were quickly gathered, and Edana and Niamh were gone before any of the villagers had even noticed they’d come back. Everyone was preoccupied; there was a distinct mix of panic and order as people scurried around, some not knowing what to do, while others dutifully and calmly dealt with the disorder caused by the fight. Niamh hurried her student along, out of the village through a path Edana had never been on, and into the deep shadows of part of the forest the younger mage had never before ventured into.

The pair flashed through the trees, each of them glancing back periodically to make certain that they were not being followed. Edana’s heart raced; the thought had never even occurred to her that she would ever leave her village, let alone leave it as a fugitive. She fleetingly wondered where her and Niamh would end up, and if the elder mage even had someplace in mind. As the forest grew thicker around them, though, she turned her attention to the roots and branches in front of her. She was glad of new newly-gained strength, it was easier to keep on running now, and Niamh showed no signs of stopping.

Niamh, in fact, did not even pause until quite a bit of time had elapsed, and Edana was quite sure they must have been a great distance from the village. Niamh slowed, leading Edana into a grove of trees, where both of the mages sunk to the mossy ground to rest.

“Apologies for pushing forward so hard, but I’m impatient to be out of reach of the men,” Niamh spoke, closing her eyes for a minute.

“Would they still be able to find us here? We’ve gone so far, they couldn’t possibly catch up…” Edana’s voice trembled a bit as she trailed off, weariness and fear catching up with her.

Niamh opened her eyes, regarding Edana. “They will get this far before we have moved on. Fear not, magelet.”

Edana nodded, as Niamh once again closed her eyes. The young mage stayed quiet, keeping to her thoughts, and cautiously attempting to track any of the men that hunted the two of them. Finding no shred of any of the men’s essences, Edana was content enough to know that they were out of range, and therefore nowhere close.

Edana, however, was still worried about the hazy future. She knew next to nothing about the outside world, except the little bits and pieces of information that Niamh had told her. She knew that not all of the world was covered in trees and plants, she knew that there was a great deal more water than she’d ever seen before, she knew that somewhere, there were plains and grasslands and desert… but Edana had never seen any of these with her own eyes, and her mind couldn’t help but harbor a slight fear of these foreign, forest-less lands.

Niamh stood, catching Edana’s attention. “Come. We will reach a safe point before the fall of night, if we hurry.” With that, the woman turned to the invisible path she seemed to be following, and Edana had no choice but to follow.

Night! The pace of Edana’s thoughts picked up, though she refused to let panic overtake them. How could I have forgotten that night will soon be growing near? Where does Niamh intend for us to stay? What if the men come in the night, or if some other danger approaches us? Edana calmed herself, carefully but swiftly continuing to pick out a safe path as she darted after her teacher. Niamh is powerful, she will let no harm come to me. She would not have us sleeping somewhere unsafe.

For another long stretch of time, the two mages dashed through the trees. Niamh paused occasionally, sometimes closing her eyes to work some small magic, other times seeming to converse with a nearby bird or squirrel. As she resumed traveling after each stop, Edana was slightly comforted to notice that Niamh’s face help a slight satisfaction of sorts. Whatever the current situation, it was, apparently, in their favor, and Edana was grateful for that.

As Niamh stopped once more, staring intently at a woodlark on a nearby branch, Edana glanced up at the sky. The moon was faintly visible through the trees, and the sky was quickly darkening. Turning back to Niamh, Edana bit her lip, refraining from saying anything, as the elder mage still seemed to be conversing deeply with the lark. Edana could hear nothing of the conversation; of course, as it was telepathic, but she desperately hoped that it had something to do with wherever they would be stopping for the night.

Abruptly, the woodlark took off, wings frantically propelling it away, through the trees, and out of sight. “Come!” Niamh took off in the general direction the lark had vanished in. Edana was hard-pressed to keep up, but had no complaints with that. Niamh, evidently, was just as eager to find the safe-point as Edana was.

Quite suddenly, the trees dropped off as Niamh sprinted into a small, rocky field, headed towards a grassy, but pebbly, incline on the other side. Edana had almost no time to register the change; she dashed after her tutor, desperate not to fall too far behind.

Where has Niamh gotten such energy all of a sudden? Edana panted slightly as she scrambled up the incline, careful not to slip on the loose rock and pebbles that littered the grass. And where exactly are we going? Glancing up from the ground in front of her, Edana realized that this was no hill that the two of them were climbing. Indeed, it looked to be the start of a mountain, and in the dimming light, Edana could see that farther up, the grass faded into gray rock. Perhaps there is some cave she intends for us to sleep in? If it is, I really hope it doesn’t have any other inhabitants. Edana turned her thoughts away from the possible snakebites and such though, as the ground was getting progressively harder to see, and more treacherous to travel over.

“Stay alert, young one,” Niamh called down from a distance ahead of Edana. “Follow my path, the rocks are less unsteady. It would not due to have to fall and injure yourself, we haven’t the time for healing.”

Edana was about to ask how she was supposed to see Niamh’s path, when the mage was far ahead of her already. Thankfully, a bit of magic light appeared, zigzagging where Niamh had already been, and showing Edana where it was safe to place her feet.

Finally, Niamh stopped to wait for her student, breathing hard as she sat upon a flat rock on a more level area of the incline. As Edana reached the level area and took a seat on a rock near Niamh’s, she noticed that though her mentor looked rather tired, Niamh also had a certain excited sparkle in her eyes.

The mage motioned for Edana to take a sip of water from her canteen. “Get a bit of your strength back while we’re resting; eat a few crackers if you need to as well.” Edana complied, and Niamh did the same, getting some of the dark, thin crackers from one of her own pouches.

“We have to wait here, for now,” Niamh said between bites, her back to the mountain and eyes scanning ahead of her in the dim light, and occasionally flicking upwards as well. Edana took the chance to really look around as well; she noted that the illuminated path Niamh had cast for her had faded to nothing, and in the ever-coming darkness, she couldn’t see much around her.

“Wait?” Edana swallowed the piece of cracker she had been chewing. “Why do we need to wait? I thought you wanted to get to the safe place before dark… is someone else going to take us there?”

“We are safe enough where we are, for now,” Niamh responded, a pleasant mood showing through in her voice, despite the situation and the slight urgency that had been in Edana’s questions. “We can go no farther until we have permission.” Edana’s brow furrowed, but Niamh continued before the young girl could further question her mentor. “Besides, we will need the rest. Once we do continue, the climb grows steeper and we will need all the energy and concentration that we can muster up.”

Edana dutifully took another bite of her cracker before once again questioning Niamh. “But who are we waiting for? Who do we need to get permission from?”

“You’ll see,” Niamh said simply, and stood as the woodlark came swooping down from somewhere above. Eyes peering through the semi-darkness, Edana watched as the lark perched on Niamh’s hand and chirped. Niamh frowned slightly, before casting the lark back into the air, and it fluttered into the dark once more.

“We must wait a bit longer,” Niamh said with a shrug, glancing at Edana before settling back down onto her rock. Her eyes continued to scan the air, and Edana couldn’t help but let out a small sigh. She did not like having this uncertainty, this unknowing of what was to happen hovering over her, and she wished that they could just go wherever they were going and be done with it. More than that, she wished she could go back to her village, go back to that place where everything was familiar and seemed so much safer than where she currently was. Edana trusted Niamh’s judgment, though, and voiced none of her complaints out loud.

A bit more time passed, and finally, the woodlark once again returned to perch on Niamh. This time, it seemed rather excited, and fluttered its wings and tail while chirping at the mage. Niamh smiled slightly, and when she cast the bird into the air once more, her eyes were bright.

“Come, Edana. We have permission.”

Edana followed Niamh up. “The woodlark gave us permission?” Edana’s voice held confusion, and a touch of incredulity.

“No, no!” Niamh laughed quietly. “She got permission from the Lady of the Mountain for us. It’s much easier for something with wings to track the Lady; who knows where she’d be on an evening this clear…” Niamh trailed off, and Edana did not bother to ask any more questions, as the path grew more challenging and seemed to go straight up the side of the now-very-steep mountain.

Edana noticed that the path seemed to be carved into the rock, and on either sides of it, the granite reached up to Edana’s hips. It was narrow, but that was more of a comfort than an annoyance; the closeness of rock on either side of Edana would prohibit her from falling out of the carved channel. Niamh climbed slowly, keeping Edana close behind her, and looking back now and again to make sure her pupil was near. Most of the time, however, Niamh seemed to be looking every which way ahead and above herself, and Edana wondered briefly is she was expecting the lark to return with yet another message.

The sky was completely black when the path opened up a trifle, and Niamh created two small, glowing triangles of mage-light to help herself and Edana see the way. After wards, Niamh turned to face Edana, and mumbled some words, and Edana felt her head tingle slightly. Looking up confusedly at the mage, the young girl wondered what Niamh had just done.

“Just a simple spell to keep the dizziness and headaches at bay,” Niamh explained, turning to continue up the mountain. “We are venturing up quite high, and neither of us are used to the air at this level. The spell acclimates us to it more quickly.” Niamh started forward again, but paused once more. “Keep your mage-light down, in the channel of rock and not above it.”

Edana nodded, though she doubted Niamh could see the motion, and directed her small triangle of light down into the rocky channel. Though she wouldn’t have been able to keep the little light both glowing and floating on her own, Niamh’s magic was strong enough to do so, and Edana only had to keep it down with a slight push of her mind. It naturally followed Niamh, as she had created the small light, and magic was wont to stay near whomever it originated from.

As they walked on, Edana’s legs felt heavier and heavier, and all the strength she’d originally gained from her escapade as a rock had been spent. The girl had enough, however, to keep her mind off of her growing tiredness.

Lady of the Mountain? I wonder who she is, Edana’s mind questioned. I wouldn’t think any person would want to live on the top of a cliff like this, especially when the comfort of the trees and forest is so very near. Edana glanced up, but unable to see anything, returned her gaze to the ground in front of her. Whoever she is, she can talk to birds, so she must be another mage. The girl wondered if the Lady would be anything like Niamh; not having met any others, she hadn’t the slightest idea of what another mage would be like. I know that not all mages are good and kind, Niamh has certainly told me that enough. But if Niamh trusts our safety with this Lady, she must be good. Thoughts swirling, Edana was thankful that the only wind on the mountain was light, as even with that spell, the girl felt a wee bit dizzy. Well, hopefully this Lady of the Mountain has warm beds to sleep in. I guess she must live in a cave, I doubt there’s any way one could build a house on such a mountain as this…

Edana stumbled a bit, and Niamh paused to look back. “Tired?” she questioned.

“A little,” Edana replied. “But still awake,” she said, with a slight smile.

“Good.” Niamh gave a slight smile in return, and then resumed climbing the slope. Edana watched the path a bit more closely, not wanting to trip, and hoping that their destination was near. She wasn’t sure quite how much longer she could keep up; the winding path seemed to have been going on forever. Edana wished it was daylight. At least then I’d be able to see if it ends somewhere, she thought. Though, I guess if it were daylight, it would be much easier for anyone below to see us climbing, so darkness is probably better, but still… Edana repressed a sigh, keeping her eyes on the spot illuminated by the mage-light.

As they continued up, a thought occurred to Edana. We can’t be that far away from the village. We’re far, but it didn’t take us over a day to get here. Just around half a day, I’d guess… if we’re that close, why have I never met this mage before? And why hasn’t Niamh even mentioned her at all to me?

Quite suddenly, Niamh sped ahead and disappeared around a bend in the path. Edana, nearly panicking as her mentor disappeared from view, willed her legs to go faster. Her heart slowed as she, too, rounded the bend, and found Niamh standing on flat, level ground, staring at the yawning mouth of a large cave. Across from where the path had come up was open air, a cliff. Between the path and the cliff was what looked to be a shield of rock, which blocked the mouth of the cave from anyone that would be looking at the mountain straight-on.

Niamh turned away from the mouth of the cave, but not towards Edana. Instead, she paced cautiously towards the cliff, careful to stay near the shield wall, and motioning for Edana to stay back.

“Not here yet,” Niamh mumbled, and Edana could just barely pick out the words. “Must be doing something important, the lark said she wasn’t too far off,” Niamh said to herself, backing away from the cliff and turning to Edana. “Looks as though we shall be doing a bit more waiting.”

With that, she sunk onto the rocky ground, and Edana did likewise, picking a spot fairly clear of rubble. With her back against the strange wall between the cliff and path, her eyes were immediately drawn to the gaping hole opposite her. Though she assumed that there was nothing harmful inside, the darkness within was no comfort, and she found herself hoping fervently that the Lady of the Mountain would arrive soon.

Looking around, however, Edana grew puzzled. Where would the Lady would be coming from? The only path was the one she’d come from, and the cliff… well, how would a person manage to get up there? Edana’s eyes flickered to her surroundings before once again focusing on the cave. Unless the Lady was already inside the cave, and Niamh was waiting for her to come out. Though that was the most logical thing Edana could think of, she somehow didn’t feel that the assumption was correct.

“Niamh,” Edana began quietly, “where is this Lady of the Mountain?”

“Worry not,” the woman replied, eyes scanning the surroundings. “She will come in good time.” Niamh took a moment to look over at Edana. “Are you cold?”

“No,” Edana replied with a shake of her head. “Rather weary, though, and eager to be somewhere I can feel a bit more safe.”

Niamh smiled reassuringly. “Worry not, young one. The Lady will come soon, and then you may rest as much as you like.”

Edana looked back to the mouth of the cave, and then to a group of pebbles on the ground before her. “And, Niamh,” she started once more, eyes glancing up from the pebbles to find her teacher once again watching the skies, “will we need to leave right away tomorrow? Is there any way the men will be able to find us here?”

“No,” the elder mage replied, a bit absentmindedly as she squinted out into the dark air beyond the edge of the cliff. “Even if they dared to climb the mountain, they would not get far enough to find us and take you. We will be able to rest for as long as you need.” She took a sip from her canteen, before replacing it on the belt slung around her waist. “We will, however, eventually need to move on. At most, I would stay five days. After that, I would not press the hospitality and protection of the Lady.” Niamh’s voice trailed off, and, as if talking to herself, she added, “She needs no further burdens besides those the wind already bear to her…”

A few moments of silence passed, before a call whipped through the air. Edana started, fearfully looking up at the direction from where she thought it had come from. Niamh, standing against the wall, was looking around as well, though she did not look fearful at all.

“Niamh,” Edana whispered, “what was that?”

Niamh made no reply, seeming almost not to even hear her pupil. Instead, she moved into the middle of the flat area, and stared straight up. Edana’s gaze rose as well, and though she even tried to magically enhance her vision, she could see nothing where Niamh was staring.

Frightened, Edana stood against the wall, arms wrapped around herself. Though the night was fairly warm, Edana could do nothing to stop the spread of goose bumps, and she tried her hardest to stay invisible in the shadow of the wall.

Staring at Niamh, Edana’s eyes widened and locked on her mentor’s form as a shadow passed over, and a whoosh of air was heard. Edana dared not look up, but instead kept her terrified gaze on Niamh. The only thing keeping the young mage from panicking was the older mage, whose expression held, once again, no fear, but instead vague excitement and pleasure as she looked upwards.

The whoosh sounded again, and Edana slowly drew her eyes towards movement on the edge of the cliff. Pupils widening even more, Edana beheld huge, feathered wings that beat the air above the edge of the ground. The wings propelled forward a magnificent, but formidably frightening form; excluding the wings, it was about the size of a large pony. An ebony beak sparkled, its shine matched only by ebony talons at the end of glossy, feathered front limbs. As those talons touched the ground and the pace of the wings slowed, Edana used all of her willpower to draw her eyes back up and past the sharp beak. A silvery-blue gaze met her own, and Edana’s heart nearly stopped. She felt frozen, and more terrified than she had been even when the men had been chasing her through the forest. She was lost in the eyes of the creature, held against her will. That terror, though, faded quickly as the bright gaze slipped off of her and onto Niamh. Edana nearly sunk to the ground as the winged one released her from its gaze.

Niamh beheld the creature with relief and a bit of unrestrained awe, and as the Winged Lady looked away from Edana and to her, Niamh’s smile widened. The mage stepped forward, bowing slightly.

::Uncountable thanks, Lady, for taking us in. I fear my debt to you shall never be fully repaid, not in an infinite number of lifetimes.::

A slight trill of laughter entered Niamh’s mind in response. ::You are always welcome to the mountain, you know that.:: The Lady shifted her weight, but refrained from looking over at Edana. ::Your student, I assume?:: As Niamh nodded, she continued. ::She is rather afraid of me. Even if she were not being so obvious on the outside, her essence is emitting such waves of fear… she has never been out of the village?::

::This is her first time being this far from it in all of her memory. The woodlark, I’m sure, has informed you of the reason… I think that seeing you may have been the last straw for her today; even before this she was shaky from being uprooted in such a chaotic, unplanned manner.:: Niamh looked over at Edana. ::I probably should have warned her first,:: she said, her mind-voice a bit rueful.

::No matter now,:: the Lady replied.

“Edana,” Niamh spoke, “be not afraid. This is the Lady of the Mountain, our hostess.”

Edana, found herself sucked back into the Lady’s gaze, but this time, it was much less frightening and gentler. “H-h-hello,” she stammered, with as much politeness as she could muster.

::Greetings, and welcome,:: the Lady replied, startling Edana slightly as the voice sounded through her mind. ::Come, I know you are tired. Though I have no beds, I’m sure you shall be comfortable enough.:: The last part was spoken to both Edana and Niamh, and the winged one headed towards the cave.

As she passed by, and the moonlight struck her, Edana got another eyeful. The creature’s wings, head, and forelimbs were feathered, with a bird’s claws. In the middle of her body, the silver feathers disappeared into shimmery, short, dark grayish and black striped fur. The tail was long, tipped in bright white, and also striped, and the hind legs ended in paws, of which the claws were not visible. Edana rightfully assumed that they were retractable. She repressed a shiver as the creature passed her; no doubt a human could easily be killed by this Lady of the Mountain.

Niamh followed as the Lady walked into the cave, and once again conjured and directed mage-lights so that she and Edana could see.

::Apologies,” came the exotic voice in the minds of Niamh and her student. ::It isn’t often humans share my den, and I forget that your eyes are not as adapted to darkness as my own.::

::Perfectly fine,:: Niamh responded, while Edana kept quiet. She could just make out the Lady’s hind end in front of Niamh, and her eyes watched the tail flick back and forth as the feet padded on.

The ground was easy enough to walk on, packed down and level. Edana could not see the walls on either side of her, and so she knew not if the tunnel ever opened up. Only a short time passed, though to the girl it felt much longer, and they were soon stopped.

::Feel free to conjure as many lights as you wish,:: the Lady said to Niamh as she turned to face the two humans. Niamh immediately acted, and soon, small triangles of light were flying up into the ceiling of what Edana soon saw was a large, circular chamber, with many paths branching off out of it.

::I will let you rest,:: the Lady once more spoke, more to Edana than to Niamh. ::I assume you have enough food?::

::Enough for the time being,:: Niamh replied.

::Good. Tomorrow, you can gather more, and I will also go hunting.:: The Lady’s eyes reflected the light from the triangles eerily, and Edana, at the mention of hunting, was reminded of watching one of the village cats hunt field mice by the light of the moon. The eyes had that same feline glint, and though Edana could sense the wisdom and intelligence behind those eyes, she could also see the gaze of a fierce predator within them.

“Come,” Niamh spoke to Edana, leading her towards one of the other passageways, as the Lady took another route. Niamh had obviously been here before, Edana noted, as she knew where she was going. A trail of mage-lights were left behind in the pathway as they walked, and Edana was quite thankful for the light both ahead of her and behind her. Niamh led her student into a room filled with what Edana first thought were very odd, silvery rocks, before realizing that they were piles of feathers, evidently from the wings of the Lady of the Mountain.

“They are extremely comfortable to sleep on,” Niamh said with a smile, and Edana cautiously sank down into one of the larger piles at her teacher’s advice. Indeed, it was soft and warm, and made for the perfect bedding material.

Niamh turned to leave once more as soon as she saw Edana was comfortable, but the girl sat up. “Wait!”

Niamh turned back with a reassuring smile. “What is it?”

“Where are you going?,” Edana questioned.

“To speak with the Lady,” Niamh replied. “I have much I need to discuss with her.”

“And,” Edana started, carefully and quietly, “what exactly is she?”

Niamh walked over to Edana and ran a hand over the girl’s hair. “My dear, you have just met your first gryphon.” The mage smiled down at Edana. “Now, get some rest. I know you must be exhausted.”

Edana pushed her packs away and sunk back down onto the feathers as Niamh once again started walking away. As Niamh vanished out of sight down the passageway, Edana worriedly cast another look around the room. She intended to stay awake, still a bit fearful at being in such a new, unfamiliar and foreign place, but it wasn’t long before exhaustion finally pulled Edana into the realm of sleep.

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