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Housecleaning was a bit of a chore. Besides being a total mess and bereft of any useable furnishings, there were some hill goblins holed up there like rats, along with rats, spiders and other nasty surprises. However, the did find some platinum candlestick holders, coins and gems that had been scavenged and collected by the pack-rat like goblins. They would go a long way towards repairing the castle.

After that was taken care of, there was some discussion as to what they were going to do next. This was no time to establish a mandate for a future monarchy, but they agreed some simple principles had to be established from the start.

First of all, equality. If Sephilith and those orcs who backed Lord Valious proved anything, it was that people can change. Perhaps they had never changed, perhaps their culture simply hadn't been understood. Regardless, it was clear whatever they decided to do, equality for ALL the free thinking races would play a part. To that end, they decided to bring people from every race to work in the castle.

Perah-Perah decided to go back to Scry. Not only did she need to dip into her savings, but she wanted to bring her brother back with her and a friend or two with her if possible. Rosileen wanted to come along as well, her village was not too far from Scry, and she hoped to bring some of the "bloody adventuring types" of halflings back with her.

A messenger was sent to Rechmond, to find any dwarves that might want to come.

Sephilith returned to her village, and promised to come back with some of her people to act as soldiers and labourers.

And as for Soo... one night she disappeared without a trace.

Perah-Perah waited in the dark alley. There was a full moon overhead. It should be any moment now...

"Are you sure he's coming?"

"Shhh! If he hears you he'll think we're here because he owes us money and bolt."


Another minute passed, and a lanky figure peeked into the alleyway, then made his way underneath a window. He yanked an almost invisibly thin cord and a coiled up rope ladder dropped down.

He had gone up two rungs when Perah-Perah cried out, "Hey there, bro. Up to your old tricks?"

Her brother almost fell down from shock, "Ra, is that you? Dang, you gave me a heart attack."

"Who was it this time? One of Dassenti's daughters?"

"Which one?"

"Take your pick."

"Thanks, I did."

"You know you're going to get in a lot of trouble if you stay here."

"You know you already ARE in a lot of trouble with dad! You ruined two years of planning, and you know how he likes his plans to go smoothly."

Perah-Perah didn't want this to turn into a debate about ethics, but couldn't let that comment go by unchallenged, "Well, he was wrong, and that's all there is to it. Someday I'll tell him that. But not today. I want to know if you want to come back to Halffarthing with me. Lots of opportunities for scams, lots of women to love and leave. Your kind of place, you just have to play your lute once in a while and pretend to be our minstrel."

Her brother was impressed with the offer, "You always did have a way with words, sis. Sounds good. Besides, the heat is a little high right now. Somebody informed several fathers of my recent romantic involvements.

Perah-Perah put on a better performance than back at Dogford, "Who could have done that?"

On the way back to Halffarthing they stopped in Valleyville. Rosileen started by asking random people the following question:

"Do you think Valleyville is a stupid name?"

Those who said 'yes' were invited to a speech Rosileen gave in the town square, where she told of their adventures by reading from Victoria's ballad. She was able to convince five halflings to return with her, four more than she thought was possible.

While riding back to the castle in Halffarthing, Perah-Perah's brother looked pensive.

"What's wrong?" asked Rosileen.

"That poem you read. Is it true?"

"More or less."

"Hmmm... I didn't know my sisters had it in them. You know, the heroic stuff."

Rosileen shrugged, "It was more like it was forced upon us. One thing lead to another, you know?"

"All too well, but in a totally different way. The poem itself is very good. Does it have music written for it yet?"

Rosileen shook her head, "Not yet, but before you take that job upon yourself, I think I should tell you some things about the woman who wrote it..."

The gag and blindfold were removed, but Soo remained tied at the legs and arms. She remembered drinking her evening tea back at the castle, then realizing too late the funny aftertaste it had. She had woken up only an hour ago.

"It's about time!" she blurted, "What do you want? What's the big idea with... oh."

She was back home. Wherever home had moved to since she left. Her parents were standing in front of her, glaring at her most crossly. Behind them both, on his wicker chair, sat the Elder. The founder of the Rangers himself, and the oldest elf alive on Gassenti. Wardren. An ancient elf, with long white hair, steel grey eyes, and a stern wizened face. Yet he was still in good enough shape to teach Soo a thing or three.

"Oh... crap."

Sephilith had been exiled from her clan years before, and that was usually permanent. She had missed her mother's death, her brother abducting his first wife, and their the birth of their first child. All because she spoke her mind, because she spoke against her father. She didn't need them, she had proven that time and time again, but her new friends did, and perhaps so did her entire people.

Returning to her clan could result in death, so she waited a good week to make sure news had reached them before risking the trip. It had, but that didn't stop a few rocks from being thrown at her by the older and less wise among them. Only a few actually hit, but she didn't give them the satisfaction of a reaction. Soon everyone quieted down and parted the way for one of them.

Her father, the village chieftain, who had personally exiled her, came forward. He was dressed like most chieftains, garishly. But he was so garish the other chieftains just shook their heads. Large feathers, war paint, over sized necklaces and pendants, beads and ribbon. If it wasn't for his superb ability as a fighter and leader, he would never have lasted this long.

Someday she would find out she had something else in common with Perah-Perah.

"Sephilith, whose last name I cannot utter. Why are you here? Why shouldn't we drive you out?"

Sephilith rubbed a bruise one of the rocks left on her head, "I'm not exactly sure anymore. You don't seem willing to listen."

The chieftain eyed her carefully, "That depends on what you come here for. You know I cannot allow you back into the clan, only they can," he gestured towards the crowd, indicating it had to be a unanimous decision.

"I'm not here for that. I come here to make an offer to the men and women here. One that might ensure our people will have a place in Gassenti forever..."

Asyra spent the week redecorating and coordinating the restoration efforts with the villagers of Merrick. By the time Perah-Perah and Rosileen came back with family and followers, it was livable. By the time Sephilith returned with a dozen orcs, it was finished. Which left only one question, which Perah-Perah had asked upon her return.

"What happened to Soo?"

Soo hadn't been seen for a week, by which time everyone gave up hope of finding her at all. People thought she had run away on another adventure, or perhaps met a tragic and unforseen end in the surrounding woods. When Sephilith returned, the popular theory was she had died.

So when she showed up at the front gate a day later with a dozen Rangers, nobody was expecting it. Mostly because only the Orcs believed the Rangers were real.

Wardren lead them, and bowed low to the gate guard, who was fortunately human, lest bad first impressions be made.

"I seek an audience with her Royal Highness."

In the Great Hall, everyone gathered. Soo was not allowed to speak, apparently, but she smiled to her friends nonetheless. Perah-Perah and the others sat around Asyra, who sat across an oak table from Wardren.

Asyra sat on an ordinary chair, she insisted it was far too premature for any semblance of throne be made at this time, if ever, and mulled over what had been said.

"So let me get this straight. You're Wardren?"

"Indeed, your Highness."

"Please, don't call me that. You mean THE Wardren? The founder of the Rangers? Wife to Dunlea the Aged?" The fact was she had instantly recognized him from the Crown's memories, but it still didn't make sense.

"She wasn't always called 'the Aged', and yes."

"But you've been dead for three hundred years!"

"Presumed dead. The better to keep our activities secret after the fall of the Monarchy."

"I don't even know what I'm doing, so what do you plan to do? Serve me?"

"Not exactly 'serve' you. You believe your title of Queen is premature, and I wholeheartedly agree. We will help protect you, however. My men will be stationed in the woods in these parts, though you won't know exactly where, and we tend to move."

Asyra nodded, "Thank you. I may not be ready to be Queen, but I do have to ask something of you. Sephilith has told us of what the Rangers do, and while I am sure much of it is tainted with prejudice, just as your side of the story would be against them, I ask that you do not harm the orcs of Halffarthing. Without them, Gassenti would have entered a new Dark Age."

Wardren nodded, "Of course. That is in part why we are here. The Rangers were there in Dogford, though you did not see us, and we did our part. We also know what the Halffarthing orcs did. Now that we've come out in the open again, we will have to rethink our actions. Times are changing, and those of you who are in this room are part of the reason."

Asyra nodded her head, "I thank you again, but I still have some questions, Wardren. How will we contact you if we need to, if you are always moving?"

"Your friend will know how to find us."

"Which brings me to my next question. What did you do to Soo?"

Wardren's face lost a little of its warmth, "We got answers. She is an impetuous child who has no respect for authority. When we asked for an explanation, she insisted that you had kidnaped her because she reminded you of a long lost sister. When she knew we didn't believe her, she pretended to have amnesia and had just suddenly came out of it. Eventually we got the truth, but it took some persuasion and trickery to do so.

"She has defied her parents, even rendering them unconscious in order to escape. She has defied the will of her people, and ignored all reason. The penalties are severe."

Asyra was about to speak up in her defense when Wardren raised his hand in silence.

"Unfortunately, she also helped save Gassenti from invasion, above and beyond the call of duty. We had no choice to promote her to full Ranger."

Asyra smiled, "Thank you."

Wardren shook his head, "Don't thank me, I've assigned her to be your permanent liaison. In other words, she's your problem now," behind Wardren, Soo smiled like a maniac.

In the back, Rosileen rolled her eyes, "It seems like she always has been."

It was nearly a month since they had cleared out the old castle, and already it was running smoothly, if largely understaffed. Asyra met with Lord Valious, who agreed with Asyra's "wait and see" approach. He also pledged his assistance should anyone attempt to take her or her people by force.

Though everyone did their best to show their confidence in her, Asyra felt little of it herself. She and her sister would talk for hours about what to do next. It was suggested a meeting be held with the Barons in northern Gassenti, since they had all been left out of Dassenti's plans, but for the time being, that would have to wait.

Late at night, Asyra would put on the Crown, and probe its memories for the secrets of the past, in hopes of finding answers to the future.

In time, people settled into their new lives.

Sephilith was made Captain of the Guard, and included members of every race in her ranks. The soldiers looked up to her, even if she had a tendency to resolve disputes with broken teeth on both sides. It kept Rosileen in practice, at least.

Rosileen was now the official cleric for Merrick. Though she still technically had ten months left of Public Clerical Assistance, she was allowed to be stationed at the church in Merrick, supervise its reconstruction, and travel to the surrounding areas from there. Her first trip was to Brun's tavern in the swamps of Southerpost to retrieve her beloved mule, Ben.

Soo acted pretty much as she always had, like a big kid. Though she was officially the "liaison" to the Rangers, she also acted as Asyra's personal bodyguard.

Perah-Perah's brother, when he wasn't hitting on anything female, including Sephilith, added a poignant tune to Victoria's ballad. In due time it would become the most remembered song of this age of Gassenti, and eventually the Vanguard became little more than a popular footnote.

As for Perah-Perah...

The sky was gray and overcast. Perah-Perah was standing on the rampart, looking over the village of Merrick and the surrounding countryside.

Nari rubbed up against her, and Perah-Perah scratched him behind the ears. Everyone seemed to be happy, and for the time being, things were going well. There was just one problem.

There was nothing for her here.

Certainly Asyra needed her, the two had always been one anothers closest confidants, and she always asked for Perah-Perah's opinion on issues. But she had never intended to save Gassenti, she wanted to earn her father's respect. In saving Gassenti she may have lost that forever. And right now, if her sister was going to survive whatever rough seas might lay ahead, they would need the Syndicate's support.

Perah-Perah sighed. She could rationalize it all she wanted, but the regret was much more personal than that. The bottom line was, she didn't belong here. This wasn't what she wanted.

In the distance, she noticed some hooded men on horseback riding towards the castle. Three of them, wearing grey cloaks and riding chestnut brown horses. Two clearly shorter than the third, and one of with a long beard.

The Three.

Perah-Perah rushed down to front gate just as they arrived. The sky threatened rain and occasionally rumbled with distant thunder.

Lomas came to the gate, the others stayed behind.

Through the gate, Perah-Perah couldn't help but smile, "Hello, Lomas."

Lomas bowed his head, but did not return the smile. He handed her an envelope without saying a word. Perah-Perah opened it. The message had only two words in her father's handwriting.

Come Home.

Perah-Perah could read a dozen different meanings into those two simple little words, most of them bad. It was as frustrating as it was ambiguous.

"What does this mean? Is it offering forgiveness or demanding I accept punishment?

Lomas lowered his head in sympathy, "I'm sorry I cannot tell you more. He said only to bring this to you. His manners are the same as I am presenting to you now, and I could read no more into them than you. I'm afraid I must insist that we hurry, before it gets dark." Perah-Perah nodded, "You make it sound like I don't have a choice."

"I am only conveying your father's wishes."

"I understand. Let me get my horse."

The sky grew even greyer as she mounted her horse, and a low rumble rode over the hills. She considered telling Asyra in person, but knew it would be too hard. She would only try to convince her to stay, and that couldn't happen. Instead, she left a short message, and gave it to the guard at the gate.

She didn't know if forgiveness or damnation waited for her at the Syndicate, and there was always a chance of not making it back at all, if the reports of Dassenti's or Lassailia's people being on the lookout for her were true. She only knew that if she had a destiny like her sister seemed to, it didn't lay here, it laid back home.

Perah-Perah fastened her cloak and pulled the hood over her head. Lomas, Samol and Maslo waited for her command.

"Let's ride."

Asyra was in her room in the west tower when the message arrived.

I must hurry. The Three have come for me.

I'm going home. It's something I have to do.

I'm sorry. I love you, sis.


Asyra's eyes went wide in shock. She ran to the tower window and looked over the landscape. In the distance, she saw a wolf and four mounted figures riding off towards the main highway.

And from her horse, looking back, Perah-Perah thought she could see Asyra looking at her from the tower window.