Only two things sounded louder than that of the great honey bees throughout the longhouse. The voice of a woman, calling out to someone, and that someone in question snoring loud enough to shake the foundations of their wooden home. But not even the tickle of the fuzzy, bird sized bee on her face could awaken the young woman from her deep slumber as she stumbled through the land of dreams.
Her long, messy silver hair drifting behind her in the breeze as she passed through beams of starlight. A sea of life flowing around her in the twilight between the waking world and a true unconscious state. The lights glimmering off of her caramel colored skin, her deep green eyes wide with wonder. This wasn't her first time in this place, and every time she dreamed of these vivid landscapes, a desire to stay fluttered through her mind.
But all good things, must come to an end.
"ANYA!" The door thrown open by a shorter woman, her age clear in the wrinkles on her pale skin and the faded brown hair showing beneath her bonnet, "Get up girl, it's almost noon and your snoring is scaring the goats!"
Her time in that beautiful place coming to an end, the young woman began to sit up in her bed, "Ugh... Right, sorry Mom." She answered, rubbing her eyes and trying to brush away the remaining sleep before she swung her bare legs over the edge and stood up to stretch her toned muscles.
"Don't you sorry Mom me," She scoffed in response, staring up at her daughter, "You know well enough when you should be getting up, now hurry up getting dressed and get to work, we're short on time."
"What about breakfast?" Anya pouted, giving her the puppy-dog eyes.
But they held no power over the experienced woman, "Breakfast was five hours ago, now get to it and maybe I'll make you some lunch."
"Fine..." She sighed in defeat, grabbing her simple brown cloth tunic and pants. After slipping them on over her undergarments and fastening her belt she made her way out and into the main hall of their longhouse. A great hearthfire in center surrounded by various tables with cooking utensils and supplies while the rest of the hall was lined with crates and boxes holding stores of their harvest during the previous months.
"It's gonna be a big haul this year," Mother said, smiling lightly while walking alongside her towering daughter. The height difference was substantial, while the older woman stood at a simple height of five feet, Anya was pushing well over seven, "You may want to hire some guardsmen in Woodburrow when you pass through."
Anya smiled and chuckled, grabbing an apple as she passed by the tables, reaching up and tying back her hair as well, "I'll be fine Mother, no need to waste the money." She assured, taking a bite out of the apple with a mighty crunch showing off her sharp canines. Without waiting for her to argue safety, Anya stepped outside and into the golden sunlight.
Spreading her arms wide and soaking in the warmth, along with a deep breath of the late summer air. Anya was about to finish her apple when a buzzing sounded over her shoulder. Turning her head she smiled as the large, plump fuzzy honey bee landed there. Its eyes no doubt locked onto that juicy apple. Deciding she'd had enough, Anya placed both her fuzzy companion and the half eaten fruit on a nearby fence post before continuing on her way to work. Taking a brief moment to glance at the nearby town of Gilden, wondering what her friends were up to at the moment as she reached the barn and began her chores.
Their longhouse was situated amid a few great open fields. A couple barns and sheds held both their livestock and the great bees they kept for honey to sell. It was a practiced art, but the soft and friendly honey makers were more than happy to produce for those that took care of them in the sweet spring and summer months. It was an art that Mira, Anya's Mother, had mastered over her long life.
And she didn't need any fancy magic to control them like those producing the stuff en mass in the Western Kingdoms. Since moving out here at a young age, away from the hustle and bustle of the great kingdoms and their fancy magic, Mira learned a great many things about communing with nature. Maybe it was the peaceful, and ever jovial elves and halflings sharing their hospitality and secrets in animal raising or maybe it was some natural magic in the land itself that made it so hospitable. She could never be sure, but they were lessons she'd worked hard on passing to Anya.
Take care of this land, and it's inhabitants will take care of you in return...
"That's a good girl," Anya smiled, gently petting the goat before her as she finished milking her, "Sorry I'm late, you know how it is." She chuckled, standing up and carrying away the pales of milk for her mother to prepare. After setting them down beside the house as per usual, she wiped a bit of sweat from her brow and looked around, "Let's see... Finished gathering the ripe crops, filled the troughs, checked the chickens, slipped the bees some sweets and milked the cows and the goats..." Double checking in her head to make sure she hadn't forgotten anything, "Just gotta head into town and get some supplies for the trip." She smiled excitedly, quickly heading back around to the front door and poking her head inside, "Mom! I'm all done, I'm gonna head into town for those supplies, need anything?"
The older woman was already hard at work churning the milk into butter. Holding her hands spread while her eyes faintly glowed blue, the handle on the churn moving faster than it could ever go by hand, "I'm quite alright, take the money on the table to cover it, you can keep whatever is left over." She said calmly, holding her concentration while applying her own magic, "I'll see if I can't get this ready by morning for the trip."
"Alright," Anya nodded, heading to the table and pocketing the satchel of coin, "Don't push yourself too hard." She chuckled, heading back to the door.
"Hmph, I've got more than enough mana in these old bones to churn butter." She huffed, brushing her off.
Anya rolled her eyes, the old crone was stubborn but she coudn't blame her, "If I was able to do magic I'd probably use it all the time too." Anya thought to herself as she made her way to the road leading to town.
Magic flowed through most living creatures, but not all could harness the power. Even with training, using that power to manipulate the world around them was often impossible without some natural affinity. Mana itself was a measure of a beings ability to create things or reshape the world around them. And though there were ways to increase the amount of Mana a being has, their power often decays with age.
Great Arch-Mages in the Western Kingdoms could create elements from thin air, bend metal, shape stone. While those of lesser Mana reserves focused on smaller feats like crafting, mending flesh as healers, or completing mundane tasks with ease. And then, there were those with no magical affinity, like Anya herself.
Of course, that was far away in the Western Kingdoms. Most people out here had little training or affinity with the art, and preferred hard work over flashy tricks. Even the fanciful Elves of Gilden took to their nurturing, tender methods despite their magic being some of the most potent in the entire land. A level of modesty taught through their long and cryptic history to be sure.
"Anya!" Her eyes darted towards the familiar deep voice, spotting a few big green-skinned brutes. Three in total, clad in a variety of leather-backed fur armor, and carrying axes on their belts. They each stood over six feet tall, broad chested while what bits of their skin that did show were rippling with hard earned muscle, "The boys and I were afraid you'd already left!" Each one of them wearing a jolly grin, mouths flanked by two inch long, boar-like tusks. The one in the lead sporting a few scars on his face as well.
The tall woman laughed as she approached with a friendly smile, "Not until tomorrow, guess you got lucky catching me this year eh Grom?"
"Tomorrow?" The lead Orc repeated, grin brightening, "Well then maybe we can do business, come on lets talk about it over drinks!"
Anya waved him off with a chuckle, "I'll join you in a bit, sun's getting low and I've still got some supplies to pick up, but save me a seat!" She added, quickly heading off on her own way deeper into the town.
Gilden itself was heavily influenced by Elven Culture, many great and colorful flora lining the simple stone paths weaving between their buildings. The homes and businesses that filled the area were both of smaller Halfling make and great tree homes woven by Elven craft. As the sun lowered steadily on the Western Horizon and Anya's business slowly came to a close, fireflies filled the air around these great tree homes while the streets themselves filled with those who were heading home after days of work and socializing.
The smell of cooking was heavy in the air, dinners primed and ready for hungry mouths eager for a homemade meal. The scents and moods of the town were nearly intoxicating, Anya loved it. Urging her to finish her shopping quickly so she might join those in the tavern, and find out what her Orc friends were talking about.
They'd likely come to town to sell furs and other mountain supplies like iron and cut stone. The Orc tribes in the mountains North of here had always been on good terms with the elves, acting as hunters and guards against any threat that came from the frozen seas on the far north coast. Famed in old times as great monster hunters and slayers of beasts. They appreciated strength, and took great pride in the peace their land had earned through a hard fought past.
"Good evening Anya," The slender Elf greeted as the tall girl ducked through his doorway. He had raven black hair, pointed ears and fare skin to go along with piercing blue eyes. He was dressed in clean white cloth with a smithing apron over his torso, the shelves around him lined with a few arms and armor he'd crafted over years of work. "Come for your new blade?" His name was Thelio, the local blacksmith.
She nodded her head eagerly, setting her large backpack aside by the door and approaching the counter, "That's right, is it ready?"
"I finished it just this morning," He replied while reaching down beneath the counter. He pulled out a sheathed blade, a bit larger than the average blade a man might wield and weighted to better fit her size and physical strength. "I hope you don't mind me taking some liberties in the design, I hardly ever get to make blades anymore." Thelio chuckled, pulling it from the sheath.
It was a bastard sword, handle long enough to be held by two hands if necessary but the blade itself fit for single handed use. Anya reached out and took it as he offered, gently holding the blade while her eyes scanned over its beautiful silver form. The blade was straight, with a slight ridge at the center before straightening to its sharpened point. A few elvish words etched into the blade itself, while the handle's woodwork was beautifully carved and wrapped in engraved black leather.
"It's beautiful," She muttered in silent awe, handing it back carefully as if it were a precious and easily breakable piece of art, "Here, I hope this is enough to cover it." She said, handing him all that remained of her money with a smile on her face.
Thelio quirked an eyebrow, taking the coin purse and jingling it around a few times. He opened it up and inspected her money with a sharp eye, "Hmm... No, no this just won't do." He sighed shaking his head, earning a surprised look from Anya. Before he fished out a handful of copper pieces, "This is far too much money, you'll hardly have any for your trip!" Thelio laughed suddenly, picking a meager ten copper out before handing the satchel back to her.
"B-But this sword is-" She was silenced when he held up the blade.
"A gift," He said simply, sheathing it and handing it to her, "You've a long trip ahead of you, and this will be your first time going alone... Take this as a token of home, and repay me by protecting yourself from harm with it."
Her worry faded away, and she was soon smiling in return, "Thank you Thelio," Gripping the blades sheath she attached it to her belt, "I'll bring you back something nice." Anya added, before suddenly pulling him into a hug over the counter, "See you in a few months."
When she pulled away, Anya couldn't help but be amused by the pink tint that had taken over the elf's fare cheeks, "Ahem, right well... Yes, good luck!" He answered in a rather flustered manner, readjusting his clothes quickly.
After leaving the Blacksmith, Anya made her way to the tavern. The Gilded Mug, a large establishment run by halflings near the town center. Famed by other towns in the region for their Honey Mead and Spiced Ales, they often had a packed house depending on the day. As she stepped through the doors, Anya was assaulted by a wall of sound. Laughter and shouting filled the air, the smell of freshly cooked food was heavy in the air. Tables filled with Elves, Halflings, Humans and one in the back seating a group of Orcs.
As their conversations continued, Anya made her way the orcs near the back. Making sure not to get in the way of the many Halfling women rushing between tables. They were a small people, none ever standing higher than four feet. Skin often tinted shades of green or grey but their faces were very much human in structure. Often with hair colors ranging from black to red, but the biggest oddity were their ears. Pointed like the Elf's, but reaching three to four inches long! One of her best friends was a halfling in fact, Anya was sure she was around here somewhere waiting tables.
"There she is!" Grom greeted with a toothy grin, setting down his large tankard as Anya arrived, "Come on we saved you a seat!"
"Thank you," She chuckled, looking to his companions one of whom was asleep face down on the table and the other was shoveling food into his gullet, she could tell they'd been at this for awhile. "So what's this business you were talking about?"
"Right right, straight to it," He chuckled wiping a bit of ale that hadn't reached his lips away from his mouth. The big Orc took a moment to gather his senses, before shaking his head and looking back to Anya, "You're gonna be passing through Belok on your trip right?"
Anya nodded her head, "The old Dwarven city, its just about a weeks travel after Woodburrow on the Western Road." She explained, "Did you have something you wanted me to deliver?" It certainly wouldn't be the first time she'd taken something extra along on a trip. Mira had often offered to deliver packages or supplies in return for pay or supplies from the other townsfolk on their previous trips over the years. But to come from the Orcs? That was certainly something new...
"That's right," Grom nodded, eyes drifting around the room warily before returning to her, "We found something, one of the tribes came across it while mining silver in the Great Mountain to the North, a strange gemstone." He explained in a more hushed tone, "Since then, it's been passed between tribes, Chiefs and Shamans trying to figure out exactly what it is."
"What do you mean?" Anya asked confused, "It's just a gem right?" Taking the hint from his own shift in tone she spoke quieter as well.
"Not any that we've ever seen," Grom answered with a shake of his head, "The Shamans have only been able to determine on thing, that this gem holds some strange form of Mana inside of it... Unlike that which flows through our own veins, something... Primitive, they say."
"So you want to see if the Dwarves can figure it out..." Anya muttered, putting the pieces together easily enough. The bearded men of the Underground were experts in appraising magical items or enchanted objects and often worked with Orcs on deep tunneling expeditions.
"Not just any Dwarf," Grom said with a short chuckle, "Last thing we need is an entire mining expedition prodding at our territory... No, we've got a man who's already said he'd appraise it in secret for us, but a group of Orcs from so far away traveling to a Dwarven city will rouse much suspicion so we'd like it if you could take it to him for us."
Anya digested what they were saying, brow furrowing, "I'm... Not sure." There was something about this, a strange sense of foreboding.
"We're willing to pay you for the trip," Grom added, fishing out a large sack of coins and tossing it onto the table.
The top opened enough to see inside and it made Anya's eyes widen. No copper in the bag, just silver and even a few gold pieces amid the glimmering tide, "This is..."
"One Hundred Silver pieces, and Five Gold pieces." Grom answered with a nod, "And if it turns out to be worth even more, we'll pay you extra."
This was a lot of money, nearly as much as she'd make for the trip itself! If she could bring this home they could improve the farm, maybe hire a few more hands and take some of the work load off her old Mother's hands. Anya bit her lip, mulling it over briefly before finally relenting, "Alright, I'll do it..."
Grom released a heavy sigh of relief, "Thank you Anya, I knew we could count on you."
"Yeah well..." She didn't want to think on it too much lest she change her mind, "What was your back up if I was already gone or you missed me?" She questioned curiously, leaning back in her seat.
"Head to Woodburrow and hope to catch you," Grom chuckled in response, finishing off his tankard, "Or hire some witless humans to deliver it for us, I'm glad this is how it turned out."
"I guess..." Anya replied, thoughts plagued by uncertainty. Before she sighed and stood up, "Anyways, I assume you'll meet me at my home with it tomorrow?" She questioned.
"We'll be by in the morning to give it to you," Grom nodded, releasing a hefty belch before he stood up as well. His still conscious companion giving the passed out member of their party a shake to rouse him, "Gotta go get it from our camp outside of town."
"Then if there is nothing else, I'm going to head home." Anya replied, waving them off and making her way to the door with her pack, "See you in the morning!" She called back, stepping out into the darkness of the empty streets. It was night now, sun gone beyond the horizon and nothing but a few dimly lit torches guiding the way down main street. Turning right, she began making her way down the trail leading out of town and back to her house.
"Heeey wait up!" A faint smile crossed her lips upon hearing Her voice.
Turning around, Anya looked down upon her closest friend, Lydia. She was a Halfling, standing only a few inches over three feet. Her skin was light green in color, with bright orange hair bound back into a messy bun. Her eyes a deep blue, with beautifully feminine facial features. She wore a frilled white cloth shirt bound by a leather corset designed clearly to accentuate her cleavage for bar patrons. Feet covered in black leather shoes at the end of her brown cloth pants.
"Good evening Lydia, I didn't see you at the tavern tonight." Anya pointed out, crossing her arms while looking down at her curiously.
To which she rolled her eyes, "Susan was busy so I got put on dish duty," She huffed, adjusting her corset a bit and trying to loosen it, "Do you have any idea how annoying it is to do dishes in a corset? A lot, its a lot annoying!"
Earning an amused laugh from Anya at both her exaggerated plight and terrible grammar, "You poor thing, I'd offer to carry you home but I've already got luggage strapped to my back." She shrugged.
"A tragedy indeed," Lydia smirked in amusement, "So what were you doing hanging around Grom and his boys?" She asked, quirking a suspicious brow, "Suddenly taking an interest in gross sweaty green men?"
"Just saying hello," Anya lied, smart enough to know her dear friend wasn't great at keeping secrets, "I rarely get to see them when they're in town, and sweating isn't so bad, I sweat too you know?" She reminded with a chuckle, the two walking along the road towards the edge of town.
"Yeah but when you do it it's ho- HOW about those stars tonight!?" Anya nearly jumped when Lydia raised her voice so suddenly. The Halfling doing her best to keep her head down so Anya couldn't see her flushed cheeks, "Yes, very smooth, now stop thinking about her sweating muscles and stop blushing!" She mentally kicked herself, quickly trying to change the subject, "B-But uh, come on they must have wanted something, you can tell me right? Your best, most adorable little friend~?" She asked, batting her eyelashes.
Now it was Anya's turn to roll her eyes, "It's nothing major, they just want me to drop off a package at Belok and are paying quite a bit for it."
"Is that all?" Lydia questioned, before sighing and crossing her own arms, "Ugh, that's hardly gossip worthy... But since when are you interested in extra money?" She added curiously.
"Not for me, for Mother," Anya explained with a small smile, "If this goes over well, I'll have more than enough to hire a few elves to help tend to the farm next season... Meaning more free time for me."
"Ha! And what would you do with free time?" Lydia asked with a mocking laugh, knowing well enough how Anya spent most of her spare time, "You'll have to get tired of dreaming eventually."
"Hey I could find more things to do if I wanted!" Anya huffed turning up her nose at the Halfling, "Once I have the free time I could learn to sword fight better, maybe take up reading, or we could spend more time together even." Of course, Anya knew exactly how to push Lydia's buttons and had to stifle a laugh as the Halfling's big ears involuntarily fluttered at that last part.
"Hmph, yes well... I certainly wouldn't complain." Trying to play it off so casual, "Anyways... I suppose I'll be by tomorrow morning to see you off."
They had reached the edge of town, no reason for her to go any further lest Lydia be forced to walk home alone in the dark. Anya turned to face her and nodded, "I'll see you then."
As they parted ways, Lydia couldn't help but feel something was amiss. Maybe she was overthinking it, but it felt like Anya was holding something back. But she trusted Anya more than anyone, whatever it was couldn't be anything bad right?
Just a simple delivery...