She staggered onward, feet dragging through the white-hot sand that slowed her movements. Tiny particles of uncompromising grit rubbed against her flesh; beneath her breeches, inside the crevices of her armor, rubbing raw what was not already calloused or scabbed over from sun blisters. Her lips were parched and cracked; they had ceased to bleed a day ago. Her hair, once dark and voluminous, was sun bleached, and coated in the white dust of the uncaring desert.
The metal of her armor had proven to be merciless in its punishment of her. She had removed what she could, and shoved as much as was possible into her pack. Now she wore only her hardened leather cuisses and vambraces. Arms and legs protected as best as she could, the rest of her formerly pale skin, which pants and gambeson could not cover, was now a ragged ruin.
She turned her green eyes skyward and then toward the horizon in an attempt to gain her bearings. Her right hand, wrapped in torn fabric, clutched at a small, broken compass that hung around her neck from a leather cord. The beast had said it was this way, the direction of her destination; but that had been hours ago. She released the compass, and raised her hand to shelter her eyes, in an attempt to look for something across the vast, white, wasteland. The sands shimmered with the false hope of water and relief. She shook her head and braced herself. The love of her God would keep her going for a few hours more, surely; but without water, this could well be where her Quest ended.
One foot pulled free from the sand and placed before the other, by strength of will alone, she continued her pained trudging. She crested the top of the dune, shaded her eyes and looked outward once more. A shadow in the distance beckoned to her. A shape that did not quite blend in with its smooth surroundings. Could it be? The Temple? Her pace quickened with the light of Hope once more. She stepped forward.
The sand shifted beneath her, her right leg sinking more deeply than she anticipated. Her arms went wide in an attempt to regain her balance. The pack flew off of her shoulders, upsetting her weight ratio. She flailed, helpless in the sand, as her body tipped forward, out of her control. Her head hit the hot sand, filling her nose and mouth with grit and dry. She tumbled.
And then it was nothing but darkness.
He was uncomfortable.
The room was adorned with both polished gold and brass. Each bearing a depiction of his devotion. The images told the story of The Radiant Lord and his trek to Sanctum to bring the light to the darkness of the world. Each wall and ceiling piece told a different tale of the god and His exploits. Each was kept pristine so that the light caught from above was always bounced and reflected. The room was used when one needed to commune with The Radiant Lord.
As a child, Tulok observed many of the priests sit in this room, cross-legged and head turned up toward the solar window above. This was his time - he was no longer an Acolyte, but a full member of the priesthood. While he wasn't the first of his kind, he was the most recent Orc inducted into this local temple. The Solarium, in which he currently sat - was constructed with humans and dwarves in mind - not the massive frame that he presented. It was one thing getting into the door, it was another to try to sit cross legged in a very small room.
"The Radiant Lord never backed down from a challenge…" he said to no one.
Tulok closed his eyes and tried to settle in. Relaxing his shoulders, he breathed in deeply and raised his head up. The bright rays of the sun fell from the sky upon his upturned face and he could feel the warmth of god throughout his body. The room no longer felt small - but rather HE did as he let his body finally settle into place and reached out with his senses to the world around him. For a moment, he caught a flash of the Temple and the small village around it. He could sense every person that The Radiant Lord's light touched. He fell into the sensation even more - hoping that it would expand his vision of the world around him. He sensed the sand, the air, and…
There was a hideous howling noise of an animal - a cat?
He opened his eyes and looked around the room. There was no one there and nothing else in the room. He listened and there was no repeat of the wailing howl. There was nothing but the quiet sounds of the village and a few voices speaking down the hall. Slowly, he tried to get to his feet, but only managed to catch himself under his own robe which promptly tore. Tulok sighed and sat back down. He thought of how he got in the room and sat and slowly tried to reverse the process. In an almost comical fashion, he slowly divorced himself from the room and its doorway.
Stepping out into the light, he stretched his arms out to the sky in an effort to put his body back in place. It was then that he felt a tug on the waistline of his robe.
Laith was no more than 10 years old. Still a child, but mature enough to do chores and his duty to the Temple. The young boy stared up at the massive seven foot being who seemed even taller with his arms raised in the air, "Father - there's' a lady."
Seeing the boy, Tulok lowered himself down to a knee and smiled at the boy. The Orc was never sure how others took his smile, as it was accented by a pair of tusks that protruded from his lower jaw. "A lady Laith? Does someone in the village nee…"
"No Father, I saw her fall from the dune," the boy said, but quietly added, " I think she’s dead," the boy said wide eyed.
Tulok pursed his lips together and stood up, "Show me."
She could feel the dampness of cloth on her body. It was dark and she could sense wet fabric on her face. Drops of moisture on her lips and on her parched mouth - water. She wanted more, and weakly tried to move. She felt someone or something hold her down.
A deep, but calm voice spoke to her in a strange tongue. She shook her head - her exhausted mind raced, trying to remember something of Reynard’s lessons. The words repeated again, but then paused, "You need to take it slow," the voice said in the Trader's Tongue. "Too much water and you will get sick and feel even worse than you do now." She felt something lift up her head and water was slowly poured into her mouth. The body's greed overrode her common sense as she tried to take a normal drink. She coughed and almost gagged as her body was unprepared.
"I warned you…" the voice cautioned. Her head was lowered back on the bed. "Any more will not be good for you so you need to rest. Leave the wet wraps on your body, there are ointments mixed with the water that will help your skin heal," the voice said.
There was a pause. A slight hint of amusement flavored the voice, "Also...don't suck on the wraps, the ointment tastes worse."
She closed her eyes under the wraps and darkness came again.
She alternated between shivering and sweats; dreams filled with memories of ice-cold lakes and the unforgiving sun of the desert. There was pain. She cried out from her unconscious and bedridden state. Each time, just as she felt the crescendo of pain return to her wrecked form, there was a gentle hand and a soothing voice in the darkness. Deep and calming. It settled the healing nerves from their white-hot fury. She had no idea how long she remained in this state of semi-lucid trial; how many hours… or days...passed. In time both the darkness and heat hallucinations slowly lessened and her sleep became more restful.
She remembered reaching for the cloths that covered her eyes, only to hear that same deep, soothing voice speak out,
"No. You need to leave those on a little longer. Your eyes are sun damaged; they need time to heal, or you will be blind," the familiar voice said.
The prospect of perpetual darkness gave her pause. Such a state would invalidate her place and her path. How could she bear witness to the world, with no eyes to see? She nodded slowly in comprehension of the gravity of the situation.
"I… understand," her voice croaked and cracked. She wheezed and then coughed, clearing her throat. "How...how long?" she asked quietly.
"Resting? Almost a week's time," she felt one of the wraps being lifted slightly, "A few more days and you'll be able to wear your lighter armor without pain."
There was a shift under her head as she felt it lightly raise, "This is warm and tastes even worse than the ointments- but it will help your mouth and throat. The last of sickness will pass after this." She felt something at her lips and she prepared herself to take a sip.
When she was a child, she remembered accidentally drinking stagnant lake water and being sick for days. At this particular moment, she wished for another taste of the lake water compared to what she was being given. She almost wretched. Will, coupled with the potential for embarrassment kept her drinking. She coughed slightly after the last sip had been taken and she felt a pleasant warmness in her mouth and throat. She felt her head lowered back down,
"Rest a bit more and we'll have you back up soon."
Heavy steps walked away and were lost in the far-off sounds of chanting/singing, children playing, and other signs of village life. Wherever she was - her god ensured that she was alive.
She took a deep breath, inhaling and smelling the scents that surrounded her. She could not see her environment, but even now, in the state that she was presently in, she could bear witness.
Songs, unknown to her ears, but clearly reverent, echoed in the distance, sung in a key that she was not familiar with. She strained to listen, but could only make out bits and pieces here and there. Tones, repeated in cadence and unity. Prayer hymns? The scent from the liniment-soaked fabric filled her nostrils, making it more challenging to sort out anything else; but there was ...something… dark, musty, she could almost taste the thickness of it...incense…
She nodded, and relaxed into the bed. The last of her weariness finally released as she accepted where she must be.
One step closed to her destination.
She closed her eyes and for the first time in months, relaxed into an unguarded sleep.
She was awakened by the sound of someone quietly whispering. Their voices were speaking in the same desert tongue. All she could do was listen.
"He says she's not from here..." one hushed voice issued.
"I could have told you that," another voice returned, "Nobody walks the dunes wearing what she was wearing."
They sounded young. She lay there, silent and still, and allowed them to continue.
"Where do you think she's from?" the first voice asked.
"Somewhere with water and trees, I'd guess."
"Like one of the Oasis?"
"Nah, even the merchants know what to wear and to travel at night and not midday".
The second voice sounded older than the first, but both were clearly young.
"Shhh!" the older voice chided. "You'll wake her up, and then we'll both be in trouble!"
"I'm sorry, Laith" the younger voice apologized.
It was difficult to say whether it was day or night, but she could see the weave of the cloth over her eyes.
She could see!
With cautious movements, she slowly started to move her right arm. There was soreness but no burning sensation on her skin. She felt the dampness of the healing wraps all over her skin. Reaching up, she lifted the bandage from over her eyes and slowly blinked. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the candle light and darkness. Slowly moving, she turned her body to the side to look around. There were two other beds and a few chairs. A few shelves held what she assumed were more medicinals. Looking down at herself, she saw that her entire body was bandaged. There were stories that the desert people wrapped up their dead before burial or setting on the pyre. Was she that bad off when they found her that they pre-wrapped her? A question better left unanswered.
With a firm will, she began moving each of her limbs and cooed lightly as the soreness came in flashes as the muscles ached. She forced herself to sit up and turn her body off the bed. Planting two feet on the cold ground, she felt a sense of assurance. Seeing a pitcher on a table across the room, her mouth suddenly ached.
"You can do this...stand up, and walk four steps...take a drink. Simple, " she said to herself.
She stood and felt a wave a vertigo force her back down on the bed, "Okay, maybe not as simple." It was then that she heard the familiar heavy steps outside the room - the Healer! She turned toward the doorway.
Through the doorway came not a man, but the hulking frame of an, "ORC!!" she shouted hoarsely. Her muscle memory caused her to leap from the bed into a fighting stance. Her hands balled up, ready for a fight.
The orc blushed and immediately looked down.
She paused and stared at the creature. He raised a hand and stuck out a finger at her, moving it up and down.
She relaxed her stance and looked down.
With the exception of her bandages, she was naked.
Slowly raising his hands in the air, he took a few steps toward the wall. He pulled a bundle off a shelf. Letting the bundle unfurl, it revealed a robe.
The orc held it aloft as he took a few cautious steps toward her, his gaze firmly fixed on her face. "I see you're feeling better," spoke the same calm deep voice.
There was both confusion and recognition in that voice. She furrowed her brow and narrowed her eyes, suspiciously. She broke eye contact briefly to glance at the table with the water pitcher. How far away was it? Could she reach it for a makeshift weapon if needed?
The burly orc's eyes followed her quick gaze. A familiar recognition of response came upon him, born of decades of mistrust and hatred from others. He sighed deeply, and waived the cloth robe in his massive hand once more, then cleared his throat, politely. "If not for your own modesty, then for mine?" he offered. Once again, the timbre and tone of familiar, and friendly actions washed over her ears, as her mind struggled with the scenario.
With a cautious and deft hand, she reached to snatch the unassuming cloth from his hand and quickly wrapped her agile figure in its comforting embrace.
"You're..." she began, her voice trailing off.
"Tulok," he paused and his posture straightened though not so much for authority, but for recitation. "I am Father Tulok, Devout of The Radiant Lord - Lord of the Skies, and Bringer of Light to the Ever Burning Sands." He relaxed and looked at her, "...and resident Healer of this temple."
Giving her space, he walked around her to the table with the pitcher. Picking it up slowly he poured water into a cup. With his forefinger and thumb, he picked up the small cup and held it toward her, "Thirsty?"
Looking at the Orc, she realized he was dressed in priestly vestments; an ornate sun medallion hung from his neck, etched with the symbol of The Radiant Lord - the All-Seeing Eye. He looked young - or at least what she considered young as he was clean shaven. Could orcs grow facial hair? His head was shaved as well. Was this a priest thing? He was her healer? He was taller than any man and he held the cup with two fingers.
Slowly he moved the cup toward her, "It is still cool, but you should drink it slowly for now."
Her face was a mask of both confusion and curiosity as she slowly reached for the proffered beverage.
"Thank you?" she replied, not certain herself if it were a statement or a question. She carefully accepted the cup and then raised it to her still parched lips.
This is new - a voice whispered somewhere in the maze of her mind as the coolness of the water broke the barrier of the dry that surrounded them.
Her eyebrows rose toward her hairline and her eyes widened with sudden and new insight to the situation before her. She coughed and sputtered a little on the water.
"Oh, sweet Wanderer's beard...I am so rude!" she exclaimed, suddenly flustered and awash with her own embarrassment. "You... you saved my life...and I... here I am..." she began to speak, quickly and with flustered tones, "I'm just being so... I mean... I'm such an asshole...I mean..." her eyes looked skyward, "Oh please don't be too mad at me.." she looked back at the big orc before her, "Avalon is very sheltered... you know...is why.." she gestured at herself and opened her mouth to continue, then stopped suddenly. She inhaled sharply. "Ohhhhh...guest right...hospitality...I've gone and made a mess of things...oh...I'm so sorry, I'm such an idiot...I mean...oh gosh...uh.."she shook her head in self disappointment and looked back at the healer.
"Hi, I am Isolde." She smiled brightly, hope filling her green eyes as she held out her left hand. She blinked, "Oh, sorry!" She took the cup out of her right hand with her left and extended her right hand in greeting. "Isolde duAvalonne, Knight Wanderer... um... hi." She blushed.
In another light, his half smile could have also looked like a snarl, but his red eyes said otherwise. She noted it was the first time she had seen 'kind' red eyes. Most creatures with red eyes tended to be the enemy, but this was different. He reached toward her extended hand and lightly grasped her forearm instead in an accepted greeting.
"You should probably have a seat," he said as he released her arm and pointed toward her bed. He reached out for a sturdy-looking chair against the wall and sat down. "So tell me Lady Isolde," he said acknowledging her title with a light sense of formality, "Were you lost or exiled to wander the desert?"
"Huh? Oh. Right." Isolde replied and took a step back to the bed. She sat down in an unceremonious 'flomp', seated in a wide stance as one familiar with riding horses. She winced slightly and drank from the cup, swishing its contents around in her mouth.
Tulok's eyes found a cross beam on the ceiling to stare at. He cleared his throat politely once more.
She frowned at his response and then took assessment of herself. "Oh!" she nodded and readjusted accordingly, fighting with the cloth robe for a few seconds. It was clearly not a garment that she was accustomed to wearing. "How do you..." she muttered. "Ok... there!" she smiled at her simple victory and looked back over at Tulok. "Not exiled, oh my gosh no... though...I mean..I could see how someone might think that. I certainly don't belong here," she gestured wide. She paused, and considered her words, drinking from the cup once more and clearing her throat. "I mean...that's not..." she stumbled over her words, her voice cracking, as she realized that she may have given insult again.
She blinked quickly, assessing her words. Looking over at Tulok she replied more formally,
"I'm sure this is a very lovely region of the world for the people who have made it a home." She smiled and nodded, content with her assessment. She paused, for a few beats of a human heart.
Her shoulders slumped, she set the cup aside, and she leaned forward and placed her head in her hands, as she rested her elbows on her knees, "I'm sorry, Reynard, I'm messing this all up." she said to some unknown personage.
The priest ran his hand over the top of his head as one would combing through their hair. He let his shoulders drop and he cocked his head slightly to the side, "Let's try this again. We are two people in the infirmary on this very lovely evening. I am Tulok, your healer, not your host. You are Isolde, my patient who literally almost died, but by the Grace of our gods was found and brought to me. You are exhausted, tired, and probably hungry. However, you are alive and that is the most important thing to me."
He reached out and gently patted her knee, "Now, how did you end up in full armor while walking the desert? Is this a wandering knight thing?"
She slowly lifted her head from her hands at the kindness in the big man's words. Their eyes met for a moment. His were filled with patience and compassion, and hers were filled with thanks and hope, though red rimmed from her own frustration.
In that moment, she seemed nothing more than a young woman, lost and alone in the world. The fact that she had been found in a warrior's garments seemed completely out of place and contrary to the visual evidence before him. She sniffed, and nodded, and sat up straight, regaining her composure.
"Undead." She replied simply.