Sometime in the late afternoon they found their way, or were led by Ulua was the more accurate depiction, out of the swamp. Of course, the warrior princess called it “the muddy waters,” instead of a swamp. Areia began to think that Ulua’s names for things actually made more sense than her own. Thrak wanted to call it the “waters where plants full of bloated dead people who were actually still alive in an evil way tried to kill you,” but everyone agreed that this would be too long to write on their map.
The sun was much farther along then “standing up sun” when they began to cross an emptier stretch of terrain with minimal cover from trees and bushes. More and more grasses grew in wider areas and although their was involuntary joy of leaving the suffocation of the swamp, this was coupled with a dread of being in the open.
“We are very near the great grass tables,” Ulua began. “We do not walk the tables during the day.”
“Why not?” Asked Haryk, who definitely had a few opinions of his own why it would not be a good idea. He thought he’d hear what she had to say on the subject at the present moment though, an old habit from his scouting missions. “Guides are just as their name implies,” a commanding officer once told him, “Let them lead without thinking for yourself, and they will guide you to your death.” Haryk never forgot the words.
“The Ata are not the only hunters on the island,” is all she would say.
They moved quietly after that, and when the grass fields did open up to what Ulua referred to as the great tables, they understood. Again, to Areia the name fit well. Before them were huge swaths of meadows, completely open without a tree or bush for distances too far to accurately measure. The land looked as though great tables of earth had been stacked on one another, all coated with a green paint that shimmered in the sunlight. Daytime would leave anyone or thing in those grass fields exposed to anyone or thing lurking within the treeline. They could be followed, tracked, and not even know it was happening. Andril remembered a day aboard Galline’s Pride. There was little wind and most aboard not in service were on the deck. Several pairs of shadowy wings flew overhead which scattered the men, some overboard for fear of their lives. Whatever creatures this had been cast shadows too big to ever forget. Luckily, that day, they had not found out what belonged to those wings. He imagined this would be a great place for something with wings like those to hunt.
Ulua led them along the treeline for a few hours until day turned into sunset and eventually night. She was careful to follow animal paths inside so that they could see into the trees bordering the grassland as well as outside of it. They came across no living animal, which again made them all uneasy. Once the light dimmed so much that they would have needed a light to navigate, she stopped them once more.
“Nightime is when my people use the great grass tables to make good time on a long journey. It is still dangerous but far less than other portions of the isle, even in the day. We can navigate by stars, and there are little of the moons to reveal us.”
Zy’an and Marcus seemed only too happy to oblige her, and both set out quickly into the field, followed by Andril, Haryk and Thrak. Frank and Areia took up the rear position and signaled the others. Instincively, they walked into the openness in a crouch, but began to straighten their backs after a few leagues.
Marcus spoke in a whisper,stepping around clumps of long grasses. “Do you remember much of your imprisonment in the hag’s lair, friend?” he asked the Monk. A shiver ran up his back simply mentioning it, but he felt the urge to know what another had gone through in that nightmare.
“I do not,” replied the monk. “You, Marcus?”
“Not much, but what I do remember concerns me,” answered Marcus. “I do however retain my memories of how I came to be there.”
“Look!” whispered the monk quickly interrupting, “Ulua has stopped near that ridge.” They signaled the others marching behind them and came to where Ulua was crouching low to the ground.
“We should camp here, we have protection from the wind, and a vantage point to anything that may decide to follow our path here,” she said.
“I agree,” said Lord Haryk. He glanced at the mage. “Got anything in that spellbook of yours that can give us proper shelter, wizard?”
Andril nodded, “Oh I doubt you’d be interested. Just a little hut is all. But any are welcome to join if they wish.” Andril stood up and stretched forth his hands. From the dirt of the field, twigs and grasses collected and rose, bundling themselves into tissues that created, just as he said it would, a tiny little hut.”
“It’s Leomund’s hut,” said Andril. “Whoever he was. I imagine someone quite powerful in the age of Kasil.”
“Powerful? It’s nothing more than a hut, mage!” laughed Areia. “I didn’t realize you liked Squeaks so much.” She held her pocket open and spoke into it. “Look squeaks, the wizard made you a little place to sleep tonight.”
They all laughed a bit. Although, Frank who had grown increasingly powerful with casting spells even if they were granted to him through the Flame’s might, figured there was more here than meets the eye. Frank was about to invite himself in, when they heard the drums.
Ulua froze. Her eyes wide, her mouth hung open.
“It is the drums, of my people.” She said simply, her throat was so dry she could barely speak the words. “My people are still alive! I must go to them!” She began to walk towards the sounds, climbing the ridge they were settling next to.
“No Ulua!” called Haryk, “You must not give away our position!”
“My people,” Ulua kept calling out. “My people await me!”
“Hold her back!” called Andril. “For her own sake Celns, hold the princess back until we know what in the Ketian night is going on here!”
Frank took Ulua’s hand and Thrak did the same with the other, “Hang on there princesssss,” said Thrak in his imitation of nice human. “Hang on a minute pleasssse….”
Andril once more opened his tome, and read an incantation. He came to stand next to Ulua, and placed one hand over her ear, and one over his own. Ulua could barely stay still, but the others had persuaded her with gentler words than Thrak could muster. As the drums beat rythmically, they listened. Finally, Andril spoke. “Princess, which of your tribal drums is being played?”
Ulua answered as if in a trance, “I do not know.”
“Princess, which member of your tribe plays the drums tonight?” Andril knew that to a member of the Ata’ , the signature sounds of a member of the tribe playing was like looking at someone’s face.
Again, she answered, “I do not know.”
“Princess,” said Andril, “For what purpose is the drum played?”
Ulua’s face, full of worry, full of fear, relaxed. Tears, sparkling in the moons’ light welled in her eyes, and a smile, of pure happiness began to spread outwards on her dirty, her tired, her elegant face. A look of longing grew there, so pronounced, that for the first time it looked like Ulua’s face belonged to her. At last.
“Come….” she said. “Come….”
Later, Thrak would say it was like lightning striking, for the princess was so fast, so agile, that none could have grabbed her as she whisked out from their arms and took off and over the ridge. He knew though, that it wasn’t just that, that Ulua had gotten lucky. She had avoided hand after hand trying to hold her back.
Sometimes, a moment in time like that is not just a memory.
Sometimes, the shape of destiny is not something one can wrap their hands around.