A/N: I wrote this piece last year during NaNoWriMo as a potential 'extra story' for the larger work, Assemble at the Gates. Any who read AatG when it was still posted may remember Annag, the human conduit in the first Orc clan encountered by our heroes. While Rhonda's role as conduit was condemned, Annag was clearly a respected member of the clan. When asked why that was so, she explained that she had endured the trial, and so was welcomed. Aengus confirmed that this was an acceptable, and common, practice. However, what happens during a trial of this nature is not discussed. So for anyone curious about what Annag had to do to prove herself to Gorak and his people, read on...

Annag's eyes slowly opened, and beheld darkness. The small fire had burned down to glowing coals, casting little light in the small hut she shared with Norick. The elderly conduit snuffed and grunted in his sleep; the woman quietly eased the fur covers of her bedding aside.

More than a week had passed since the Pooka attack, but was not so long ago that Annag didn't still hear the pleading of the old and weak as they were given to the ravenous creatures. The sacrifice bought the village relief, but for how long? Now the Pooka knew meat could be found here.

Annag sat up, swinging her legs off the bed. She hesitated, listening for signs that Norick's slumber was disturbed. Hearing nothing, she rose. The dirt floor of the hut was cold and hard beneath her bare feet. For a moment, she stood still, plagued with uncertainty. She searched her thoughts, parting the wisps of memory that crowded her mind with weeping and begging, until she found her Nanna. Not Nanna from a week ago, struggling against the headman's firm grip. Not Nanna as she was lifted by Norick's powers, and sent over the wall. She found Nanna's voice, soothing her sorrows when she found that Norick was not as driven toward healing as Annag was. Not all who use power, do so kindly, she'd told Annag years ago. Kindness to others does not need diany power to make it so. You may show kindness without it. Seek forest children when other path calls you.

Two days ago, a watcher on the wall saw the movement of many forest children in the distance. Annag knew when Nanna was lost to her, that she must choose another path lest she follow Norick's example one day. With the forest children so near at such a critical time, it seemed the other path had called.

She approached the entrance to the hut on soft feet, and slowly pushed aside the hide flap. Norick's dreamy muttering made her pause and hold her breath, but he did not waken. Nevertheless, she waited a full minute before slipping outside.

The cold wind struck her sharply, and Annag shivered in her hides. She hadn't been idle these past two days; hidden just outside the walls was a pack she'd prepared with meat and drink, and a warm fur drape. It was the promise of this last that spurred her onward.

Booted feet crunching on the frost-covered dirt of the village commons, she hastened toward the gate. It was closed, as she'd expected. Also, as expected, the guard on duty was slumped over in his chair, a clay bowl of broth she'd brought him at sunset fallen from his hands to spill on the ground. The effects weren't likely to wear off until the dawning.

Forest children do not like conduits, Nanna had said. If you go to them, you must be prepared to leave diany power behind. Annag was more than ready. Though still young, she was no longer as trusting or naive as she once was. Her eyes had opened wide and could not be fooled again. A conduit, she'd come to realize, was a slave to the power. Its enticements were misleading, its promises false. Use me more and more, the power insisted, and you shall be rewarded.

It began with pleasurable sensations. The more power, the greater the pleasure. Norick had many tales of great workings he'd done, tales which captivated her as a child. To wield such power was to be above all others, to be looked upon with respect. The headman deferred to Norick's wisdom; all the folk, from the meanest beggars to the most affluent tradesmen, bowed to the conduit of the village. Annag believed their respect equated love for the old man. A week ago, she learned it was fear.

Then came the lust. To feel the pleasure in greater amounts. To strive always for another way to use it, even when no need had risen. Norick often dallied with the power, inventing purposes that served no one. I serve village most of time; am I not allowed private indulgences? Yet his 'private indulgences' were often disturbing.

In her youth, Annag dismissed the old man's eccentricities as harmless, regardless that more often than not, harm was done to some small creature. Mice were the principle focus of his experiments; Annag remembered as a child, just beginning to grasp the most rudimentary uses of the power, finding a mouse turned inside out on his workbench. She'd screamed and run away. Norick told her he was merely curious about what a mouse's insides looked like. He assured her it was dead before he put it to use. She would learn in the years to come that very few of his 'experiments' involved creatures already dead.

The gate made a low grinding noise as she pulled it open just enough for her slim form to pass through. She then closed it firmly, and rested a hand on the wood for a moment. She'd never set foot outside the walls until this day; she'd used the power one last time to send her pack over the wall and hide it. Watch over me, Nanna, she thought.

Trembling in the cold, Annag hastened to the brush-covered hollow she'd dug by feel from inside the village, and retrieved her pack. She wrapped the drape about her shoulders warmly. Fixing her eyes in the direction the forest children had taken, she began to walk.

Annag did not have to go far. A few hours past sunrise, a dark green-skinned figure dropped from the tree in front of her and eyed her warily. She halted and stared at the man in shock, for he was unclothed. His black hair was ragged and unruly; large, sharply pointed ears knifed through the tangled mass on either side of his head. Protruding from his mouth were twin tusks, standing at least a fingertip's height over his lower lip. He remained crouched, as though ready to spring at a moment's notice, but whether to evade or attack wasn't clear.

"What do you want?" he growled. Annag started at the bestial timbre of his voice, and swallowed nervously.

"I am Annag," she rasped hoarsely. Straightening with cobbled-together dignity, she cleared her throat and added, "I seek forest children."

His eyes narrowed. "What is 'forest children'?"

Wrongfooted, for surely the man knew what he was called, she pointed at him with a trembling hand. He snorted, clearly amused.

"You have found one, then. What do you want with us?"

"I... I want to... to live a-among you," she stammered. Her eyes, seeking respite from the glittering intensity of his, found his clawed hands. One was on the ground, keeping him steady. The claws were curved, and sharp as eagle talons.


She drew a shuddering breath. "I cannot live among my own any longer," she explained. "I was told to seek your kind."

"Are you banished?" he asked suspiciously.

"No, not at all," she assured him. "I cannot be conduit another day. Things they ask of me, expect of me... Is not right. Is not... What are you...?"

The forest child had risen to his full height and unhooked a club from the leather thong about his waist. Without a word, he drew back his arm and struck. Darkness engulfed her, and she knew no more.