Anarelle entered the room where she had lived for much of the last ten years and sighed. Packing and moving was always so difficult. There were so many items to make sure were carefully protected so they wouldn't be broken in the transport. Still, it would be good to get out of a rented room and into one that was truly hers. Well, hers and Arak's. And it was finally complete: the Sentinels of Laíredaíle guildhall was finished and just waiting for the guild members to move in.
She smiled remembering the night Arak had made her cover her eyes and had helped her over and through the logs and stones of the construction area, climbing towards the top of the unfinished structure before finally halting her. He'd told her to open her eyes and when she had she'd laughed in delight at the sight of the double pallet on the floor and the makeshift 'furniture' he'd cobbled together inside the area that had been designated for their bedroom. What a wonderful night that had been for the two of them!
Well, standing around in reminiscence wasn't filling the bags and crates that Arak had fetched for her so with a second sigh she moved the first crate over by the bed and began to fill it, carefully wrapping the cherished mementos of her family in blankets and clothing to protect them.
She picked up the chiaroscuro drawing of her parents, which showed the two of them in a typical pose that she could remember seeing them in many times over the years, his head inclined towards hers with a smile on his face and an arm around her shoulders and her face laughing up at his as she leaned against him. The artist had truly captured the personality of both her parents as well as the love they shared. She had always felt warmed by the obvious love between the two of them. They had been together for almost 1500 years when she was born and she knew that their love was as strong now as it had been when they first met. A wave of sorrow filled her heart and a veil of tears misted her eyes as she carefully packed the framed drawing away. She still missed them both terribly.
It had been almost twenty years since the two of them had left for the West following the accident that had left her mother lame - her gentle mother who was always on the move, always running from one place to another because she had so many things she wanted to accomplish. It had hurt both her and her father to see her mother in so much pain after breaking her back falling down a steep hill when a rocky outcropping broke under her during a raid on Meadowhaven. The healers had tried, but there was damage to the bones and tissues that could not be repaired, even by the prayers of the most devout of the priesthood. A year after her injury, her parents had decided to make the trip west to Númenyelle and she knew that it was the best thing for them. Her mother could not live with the pain and her father could not live without her mother.
It left Anarelle alone at a young age, but she was well equipped to fend for herself thanks to her training in the disciplines of the reclusive and small brotherhood of monks in a hidden valley deep in the Hísie Range. The decade she had spent with them had taught her well, as it had others who were lucky enough - or determined enough - to find them and persuade them to pass on their knowledge. Whatever other training she received, she would always remember their teachings and apply them to her life.
She rubbed her left shoulder, the small ache that she felt there during rainy weather a reminder of the arrow she had taken through it during her final testing almost 60 years before. It had been the only arrow out of 200 shot at her that she had failed to deflect or dodge and it had almost crippled her shoulder. She still had to do extra exercises on that arm to make sure that it retained its full strength.
As she lifted one book to place it in the bottom of the second crate it fell partially open and something slipped from between its covers. Stooping, she carefully picked up the tissue-protected fragile petals of a sunflower pressed long ago between the pages of the book. The volume was a thin book of Sindarin poetry, one given to her on her twenty-fifth birthday by Arak. She carefully returned the flower to its rightful place in the front of the book, stopping for a moment to reread the lines inscribed inside the front cover:
Just as a sunflower always turns its face to the sun,
So will my heart always turn towards you, where ever we both may be.
No matter how far apart our current paths may take us,
Like the sunflower finds the sun we will always return to each other.
It had been so hard on her when he left. He had been her best friend and childhood companion most of her short life. She was just beginning to understand what love was in an adult world when he had left her to seek out his destiny. It wasn't until years later that she truly understood the full meaning of his words — he had known so much better than she what their relationship was to become when they met again. Perhaps that was because his blood was not fully of the elven race. Yet his words had proved prophetic — though elven youths had courted her over the years, she was never able to find the emotions for them that even the memory of Arak evoked in her heart. But it had been almost a century before they met again.
Lost in her memories, Anarelle continued with her packing mechanically, her body going about the task almost unguided while her mind wandered back through the years, reliving the past.
She still recalled that day — could it really be more than a dozen years ago now? — when they had seen each other again. She hadn't even recognized him because he had changed so much. His face, his voice, were so different now from the youth she remembered. But the love in his eyes hadn't changed except to grow stronger. That and the touch of his hands on hers told her that she wasn't dreaming and that he really had returned to her. Changed he was, scarred in his soul in some ways and tempered by fire in others, but what was at his core — his essential being — remained the same and the physical evidence of his draconic heritage would never be able change that. They had been together since that day, apart from the rare times when they both sought solitude to renew their minds and bodies to prepare them to continue in their chosen paths.
She recalled how appalled he had been at the way Laíendaíle, called Meadowhaven in the Osthian language of Men, had changed during the century he had been gone. So many elves had chosen to go West, others had been lost in the defenses of the Daíle as the minions of the Dark strove to find their way past its defenses. As the two of them walked through the Daíle and he pointed out the weaknesses in its defenses, she came to see them too and agreed with him when he proposed they approach Lord Ayen.
His proposal had been a startling one: that a group of warriors be gathered, specially trained, and charged with but one task — the protection of the valley and its inhabitants and the treasures that all that lived in the valley were sworn to protect for the prophesied heirs of Uandor. Lord Ayen listened to their initial presentation and agreed to give them a fair hearing at a later date, provided they found others who held similar views and dedication.
And so had they embarked upon their decade-long quest for dedicated warriors of the Allied Folk who would be interested in joining them in their chosen duty. The task had been long and arduous, culling through applicants and speaking with friends and associates who felt the same pull towards the goal as they did.
Slowly they began to pull their people together. The first had been the man still known to her only as 'D.D.' who was a holy warrior and a steadfast companion in battle. Next had come the cleric Tack, who was also a doughty warrior who felt guided by his Lord to join them. Others had followed: Rurika, another cleric who had only recently returned from a long and arduous journey to renew her faith; Deshmene Inthria, a paladin of strong conviction and personality who had been untiring in her efforts to assist the forming guild. She had brought them Aleon Jarrino, another cleric who had agreed to join their ranks and keep both their souls and bodies healed and who was also an inspiration to them all. The next to join was an old friend and yet another cleric, Terenith Snydurthur, who had been welcomed for the insight and wisdom he would bring them even as he sought aid for a personal crisis of his own. With the joining of Maril Swift, a bard and rogue who felt drawn to dedicate himself to their cause, their ranks were now full enough to re-approach Lord Ayen.
And so they had. Standing before them with their fellow warriors gathered around, she and Arak had spoken at length and had walked the valley with Lord Ayen to show him places where defense was weak and suggesting alternatives. Ultimately he had agreed and had implemented many of their ideas. He had also given his approval to allow their guild to provide protection to the Daíle and had agreed to allow them to build their guildhall in the valley.
Months were spent talking with elven and dwarven builders to determine the best configuration and defensive capabilities for their guildhall before construction had finally begun. The original drawings that she and Arak had spent many hours poring over and making changes on were lying now on the table across the room where she had been looking them over last night one more time, trying to ensure that everything was included that needed to be.
Once building had begun, Arak's focus had shifted. Now he was content to let her make sure the construction went the way it was supposed to while he focused on the armor. A former Ranger had come to them — an accomplished weaponsmith and armorer who wanted to do something to help but was no longer physically capable of the strenuous activities that being a Ranger required. He and Arak spent weeks going over possibilities before ultimately determining the best configurations for their guild needs.
Anarelle caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror across the room and stopped to admire the new guild armor she had received only a week ago. As one not trained in using heavy armor, she herself wore what Arak called a 'battle outfit' but she had to admit it was striking on her. In fact, with her wings one might even say awe-inspiring.
She frowned as she looked at her wings. Although she had never asked for them, she had accepted the gift of her chosen deity Omirë with gratitude and humbleness when he had granted them to her. But in her eyes they had proven to be a less of a blessing and more of a curse. Perhaps that was His intent in giving them to her — to teach her a lesson. What she had discovered was that it caused some people to fear her and others to hate her, even among the Allied Folk.
Just as Arak had faced discrimination and hatred based solely upon his draconic heritage, so she had been treated when given her wings. And then there was the other side of the coin — those who wanted to worship her because she had been fortunate enough to have been blessed by the gods — the ones who wanted to treat her as a higher being. Indeed, she had even encountered two others who had also been granted the gift of wings or other forms and had promptly assumed that they were higher beings. She shook her head in disgust at the memory of their pride and arrogance. In her mind, all were equal in the eyes of the gods and the fact that some had been granted gifts was not an indication they were to consider themselves to be better, but to consider it a charge to be fulfilled — an indication they had been found worthy of taking on a more difficult set of duties.
Indeed, she had found herself laying aside more of her own duties as a priest and becoming more of a warrior of late, especially as the guildhall neared completion. And now, with both her duties to the guild as well as her duties to Omirë, she had been forced set them aside entirely to focus on the arts of war. Her monkish training had come in quite handy there — enabling her to draw forth the extra power of the blade in her hand to hit the vulnerable points on her opponents and do more damage to them. With the dark shadow creeping across the face of the land, Omirë and the other gods had more need of her monkly skills as a warrior on the battlefield, especially with the other four clerics their guild had inducted.
A movement in the mirror brought her attention back to her wings again and she frowned. If only they were gone! She had found that they still threw off her balance in a battle after all these months of sporting them and she still had not enough control over them to enable her to fly or even to allow her to use them to buffet her enemies. They also took up so much room and she still found it awkward to carry a shield and to have them. It would be so much easier without them. Then and there she decided to pray about it and to petition Omirë to take back his gift — to allow her to be a warrior in his service without the outward markings that denoted his favor.
But enough dilly-dallying! Standing around admiring her reflection was not getting the packing done. She closed the lid on the full crate she had been standing over for ten minutes and moved on to the next one, the one to be filled with items she and Arak had collected over the years — the boots and jewelry and other odds and ends that they had found too valuable to part with but which neither of them used. She had hopes that she'd be able to give some of it to other guildmembers rather than see it continue to go to waste.
More memories crowded back as she packed the crate. The memory of the four-hour-long fight to destroy the spider-woman of Florenwood and the boots she had carried triumphantly from the battle. The kukri she had taken off a warrior in Ugya after he'd attacked her when she entered the city's gates. The odd little short sword she had found on a dead adventurer in Antilini — though not very powerful, it seemed to have the ability to detect goblins as it would glow when they were near. The large luxurious bearskin they had taken from a huge bear near Ursuras that currently graced their bed and was a much welcomed warmth in the winter months.
Pushing aside the wash of memories which threatened to slow her progress again, Ana concentrated on getting the last of the packing accomplished, the last items stowed away being the drawings from the table. Finally she was done and she straightened with a groan, arching her back to ease the strain of the muscles stressed from all the bending and lifting.
With a smile, she heard a familiar step quickly approaching their room. She had known that Arak would stay away until she was done before coming near their room. But that was all right with her because now he could be the one who carried them out and loaded them on the wagon that they were taking to Laíredaíle.
Two weeks had passed since they had departed the Inn and finally they were in Laíredaíle and all the unloading was done. Arak and she had spent several hours cheerfully arguing about where all of their belongings should be placed in their bedroom, always aware of the fact that it was their bedroom and not a rented room. Through the open door they had heard the chatter of their fellow guildmembers as they also unpacked and rearranged and did all of the thousand things that are so necessary when moving in to a new building.
She whispered something in Arak's ear as they stood in the doorway and watched Rurika and Deshmene and Aleon and the others rushing back and forth with clothes and crates and bags in their hands. He nodded and waited while she slipped quietly down the stairs to check on something. When he saw her come back and give him an affirmative signal, he whistled shrilly to get everyone's attention. DD and Terenith poked their heads out of their rooms. Tack and Maril came into view at the far end of the hall as everyone looked towards the two standing outside their bedroom.
"Why don't we all take a break and go downstairs for our first official meal within our guildhall?" Arak suggested. "From what Ana tells me, the cook she hired is first-rate and I'm sure he has prepared a feast for us."
With an enthusiastic murmur of assent, everyone agreed. They trooped down the stairs and back towards the area that had been designated as their lounge. As they entered the room, they found the tables there practically groaning under the weight of all the food Gard had prepared. Sitting down at the table, the nine founding members of the Sentinels of Laíredaíle feasted.
There was much laughter and singing and talking as they all took this opportunity to gather together in joy on an occasion unmarred by any tragedy or sorrow. It was likely to be a rare occurrence, given the dangerous tasks before them. More and more of the servants of the Dark were crossing over the Hísie Range or slinking through Brundunum's dark tunnels to find their way into the North and West and part of the duties of the guild would be to turn them back and not let them establish a foothold in the North.
That evening as they lay in bed, her body curled close beside Arak's, she spoke to him in the darkness.
"I need to go away for a few days now that we're unpacked and moved in. It's Time."
"So soon?" he asked her, pulling her closer to him. "I thought it would be a few more weeks. We were apart for a week, you know."
"No, it is Time now. I have felt the need for days but suppressed it until we could get everything moved in and make sure everyone was settled."
He leaned up on one elbow and frowned down at her.
"It is never good to ignore such warning signs, dearest. You know that and that it takes much longer when you wait. It is why I sought seclusion last week on our way here as soon as I felt the pull," he chided her.
She sat up as well and clasped her hands around her knees.
"I know, but there was so much to do and I couldn't just abandon all my responsibilities with you also being gone, my love. That is why I waited until your return and until we had settled in here."
He reached out and turned her head towards him with a gentle finger on her chin, "I understand, dear. But you know that is going to make it more painful and harder for you to find your center. You will be very weak."
She nodded, her eyes clouding over in remembered pain, "Yes, I know, but it couldn't be helped, my love. Besides, no matter how soon or how late I make this particular plea I fully expect it to be extremely painful."
He pulled her close to him, resting her head against his chest, silently comforting her and offering her his strength to protect her from her memories.
It was several minutes before he broke the silence again, "Then you are set upon your decision? You haven't changed your mind?"
She shook her head, her blonde hair rubbing against his chest, "I know you adore your wings, beloved, for they are one of the visible manifestations of your heritage — the one most easily seen. But I am not comfortable with having people stare at me. I do love my wings and I am most grateful to Omirë for blessing me with them but they have proven to be a distraction from my mission."
His arms tightened around her, "I understand, darling. You do what you have to do. I'll be waiting when you return, just like you have always been there for me when I come back from my own pilgrimages."
She smiled up at him and returned his embrace as he lay back down, carrying her with him. "I'm sure you will welcome me in exactly the same way, too." He laughed huskily as he nuzzled her neck.
Just before their lips met, she whispered to him, "One thing I am definitely not going to miss about the wings is the inability to sleep on my back, beloved." She pulled his face close and their talking dwindled off into loving murmurs...
Early the next morning she walked out of the guildhall, took a deep breath of fresh air, and set off across the glen the guildhall nestled in towards the rocky mountains that thrust their pinnacles upwards towards the clouds.
She paused for a moment near the grave of her love's sire to pay her respects, belatedly noticing the silent figure standing near it under the trees. Even after a a quarter of a century Li'Andra still mourned the loss of her beloved husband.
Sometimes Ana wondered why Li'Andra didn't go West like her own father had done with her mother, but she had never had enough temerity to ask the question. She was sure that Li'Andra had her reasons and that they were good ones. She nodded silently to the mourning figure as she moved quietly away from the grave and received a rare smile in return.
She passed through the trees on the edge of the glen and began to scale the side of the mountain, furling her wings as closely as she could in order to keep the capricious wind currents from catching them and throwing her off-balance. One of the other winged servants of the gods claimed they could actually fly but she had yet to see any of those with wings who could do so and had been unable to get herself airborne in spite of many attempts and multiple bruisings.
She climbed for hours, her muscles aching and her hands cut and bruised from the rocks, her mind emptied of all thought. Several times she slipped and slithered partially back down the mountain, her hair catching and tearing in the bushes as she slid past them. Each time she picked herself up and resumed her climb, continuing to focus her mind on her goal of reaching the summit.
It was nearing dusk when she finally crested the mountaintop. She stood there for a while watching the sun set across the peaks, her chest heaving with the exertion of her climb. Only once the sky had turned dark and the stars had begun to appear did she settle herself on the ground in the comfortable position taught her by the monks so long ago and begin her vigil.
For all that night she stared at the light of the North Star, the Asonian jewel that shown upon the brow of Tymnor as he wended his way across the skies in his sky-sailing ship. She strove to keep her mind as clear and empty of thought as possible so that she would be able to hear the voice of Omirë if he chose to speak to her.
For seven days and nights she sat, not eating, not drinking, not sleeping. Focusing just on Omirë and her devotion to him. Finally, weakened in body but strong in spirit, she felt the time was finally right — that she had purged her body of all the poisons of living and was finally purified. Throwing her voice into the wind, she prayed to Omirë. For hours her voice soared above the mountains, chanting prayers and worshipping Omirë.
With no warning she suddenly felt a rushing swirl of winds and then the presence of Omirë was with her, surrounding her, embracing her with his power. Falling upon her face in supplication, she poured her heart out to Him, explaining that she felt unworthy to bear the mark of the gods' favor, that it brought too much attention to her at the wrong times and actually caused fear in some of the very people she was supposed to be helping.
She explained about the other winged beings in the land who considered themselves to be better than the rest of the inhabitants because they had found a god's favor and how she didn't want to become like them. She had never wanted to be anything but a humble servant of Omirë and the other gods and the notoriety she had gained from the wings was very uncomfortable to her. She thanked him for the gift and told him of the lessons she had learned from having them but begged him to take them from her until she felt worthy to bear them.
She had no way of knowing how he was responding to her pleas but made her request and quietly awaited his response, having assured him that there would be no bitterness in her heart if he should refuse her request. And even though she had told herself she was prepared for the pain and had certainly experienced it once before when the wings had grown in, she found herself screaming in excruciating agony at the wrenching torture she felt. It seemed to go on for hours and it was with a sense of relief and gratitude that she felt Omirë's hand upon her brow lulling her into unconsciousness.
When she awakened, it was dark, though the presence of Omirë had come to her in the early morning. She struggled to sit up, her long ordeal followed by the pain having sapped her strength. Finally she made it and sat panting, her chest heaving harder than it had after her climb to the mountain summit. Turning her head, she looked over her shoulder and saw no sign of the wings she had borne for so many months. The only sign of them were the large snowy white feathers that lay strewn about her body.
She picked one of them up and smoothed it through her fingers, silently asking herself if she had done the right thing. Well, it was too late now. Perhaps someday she would have the wings again and would feel that she was worthy of them. For now, all she would have were a few feathers to remember them by. She struggled towards the pack she had placed at the edge of the clearing so many days ago. In it was a sealed container of water and some food that Gard had pressed upon her as she was leaving. She ate it slowly and sipped sparingly, trying to recover her strength.
Long before she would have thought possible, she felt much stronger, no longer weak from her ordeal. She looked at the remains of the pouch and decided to speak to Gard about providing more of such wonderful food for the guildmembers if it could all help them as it had her. Feeling stronger with each passing moment, she stood and made her way back to where she had kept her vigil and bent to gather the feathers that remained there.
Stowing them safely in her pouch and slinging it in its accustomed spot between her shoulders, she looked down the mountain at the way she must return and then up at the sky and the stars that shown overhead. Shouting out a prayer of thanks to Omirë, she began her long trek home under the light of the moon.