Rayla almost spit out the meat pie she was chewing. Sheath and Winz looked just as shocked as she felt. The three of them glanced at each other before turning their attention back to Lord Adar who was smiling at them. Behind him, Sith winked at them once more.
'He wouldn't…' Winz said.
'Winston Redcliffe, Sheath Tenebris and Rayla Wright,' Lord Adar announced, raising a hand to gesture at them. The crowd followed his hand and their gazes settled on the three of them.
'He would,' Rayla muttered. 'Should we do something? Wave?' Rayla raised a hand tentatively.
'Put your hand down,' Sheath hissed. Rayla immediately complied. 'Just let him speak. Keep your eyes on him.'
'These three children, despite having resided in Mirran for a mere four to six months, had unhesitatingly volunteered to journey into the depths of the Druscan Woods to help protect their new home. They can no longer be called children as they have shown courage and strength well beyond their years.'
Confused applause followed the statement, as people waited for Lord Adar to explain further.
'Master Winston Redcliffe, witty and clever as he is, acted as a supporting strategist to Master Peri. His counsel helped in the formation and execution of a perfect plan that left the enemy forces in shambles. He was the one responsible for destroying the tunnel that would have led the enemy right into the heart of Mirran.'
The clapping was louder and firmer this time around. Winz bowed slightly in response.
'Master Sheath Tenebris is already quite well known amongst us. However, the courage he showed in the battlefield was not something he could have gained from a bloodline, but instead from his own convictions and desire to protect what he treasures. He protected his comrade while she destroyed the source of the sedation spell.'
The applause was thundering, especially from all the girls who squealed in delight as Sheath too bowed in acknowledgement. As the applause died down, all eyes turned to Rayla and the mood immediately soured a bit. Looks of disdain crossed people's faces as they recognized the one commoner amongst them. Rayla sighed.
What was I expecting?
'Finally and most importantly, Miss Rayla Wright, who was the heart and soul of this entire mission. Even before, she along with a few of her companions fought and slew an otso bear that wandered into Mirran.'
Eyebrows were raised in surprise and whispers were passed as disdain changed to doubt.
'Moreover, Miss Rayla along with Master Sheath and Master Winz were responsible for containing the fire that ravaged through the Druscan Woods. If it weren't for her abilty to communicate with the druscans, the entire forest would have been razed to the ground, leaving Mirran without one of its most valuable protective barriers.'
Doubt changed to curiosity after Lord Adar's statement.
'The three of them were also were responsible for discovering the presence of Venithian scouts within the woods and the sedated state of the druscans. If not for them, we would never have been made aware of the dangers that lurked near us.'
A smattering of applause as people nodded in appreciation and agreement. Rayla felt her heart lift a bit as she saw the change in their perception.
'The mission would have been an absolute failure if it weren't for Miss Rayla's ability to track the sedation spell that had put the druscans to sleep. She was responsible for finding and destroying the sedation charm and waking the Druscan Woods from their slumber before leading them into battle against the enemy. Her part was instrumental in the mission's success. As such, she should be given the proper respect and appreciation for her efforts in keeping this city safe, just the same as the others who partook in this mission, irrespective of the circumstances of her birth.'
A shy and joyful grin split her face as the hall was filled with applause. Winz and Sheath clapped as well, giving her a nod of encouragement as they did. Following their example, she took a bow, trying to convey how glad she was that they had begun to accept her.
Standing in that hall surrounded by applause, five months after she came to Mirran, Rayla no longer felt like an outsider.
'I suppose you weren't completely useless after all,' Professor Qwillow sniffed in contempt.
After Lord Adar's speech, Rayla, Winz and Sheath found themselves surrounded by people, congratulating them on a job well done. All their schoolmates had rushed to their side, eager to listen firsthand what had transpired in the Druscan Woods. While they listened enraptured as Winz recounted their heroic exploits, as he termed it, Rayla was busy shaking hands with people who had until last month looked down on her in contempt. The most surprising one was Professor Qwillow, who grudgingly congratualated her, squeezing Rayla's hand painfully as she did.
'Um, thank you Professor?' Rayla said, unsure whether it was a compliment or not. Seeing as the professor did not try to belittle her in any way, she decided to take it as one.
Rayla noticed her glance over at Sheath, who was surrounded by a swarm of girls, all of them looking at him in wonder. Rayla hid a snort of laughter in a cough as she noted the expression of discomfort grow on his face. She was suddenly tackled from behind by a mass of bushy brown hair. She turned back to meet a pair of green eyes that looked at her in awe. Rayla found herself shrink a bit under the sudden onslaught of admiration.
'Do you know that you are incredible?!' Lucy exclaimed. 'You managed to defeat an army of Venithian soldiers! I knew there was a reason I liked you.'
Rayla chuckled. 'Well, thank you, but I didn't do it alone.'
'Lucy, let the poor girl breathe,' Reggie said, appearing beside the overeager girl and pulling her off Rayla. 'Congratulations Rayla. I would shake your hand, but…' He looked pointedly at Lucy who he was currently restraining.
'You must have nerves of steel.' Adam shook her hand. 'And a penchant for trouble. How else do you get caught up in everything that happens in Mirran?'
'The school is going to be buzzing with your stories. I doubt you will have such a hard time from now on,' Reggie added.
'Yes,' Lucy agreed. 'No one is going to look down on you for being a commoner any more, that's for sure.'
'Well, I wouldn't say no one.' Rayla glanced at Claire, standing in front of the crowd surrounding Sheath. She flashed a look at her before turning her attention back to Sheath, disdain clear in her eyes.
'Ignore her.' Adam slapped her back. 'You protected this city from a massacre. That is more than she can claim. So what do you say hero,' Adam said, lifting two glasses off a passing tray. 'Have a drink with me?'
'As long as you don't call me hero again.' Rayla took the glass from him.
'Ooh, us too, us too,' Lucy said as Reggie had finally released Lucy and they stepped forward glasses in hand. Winz had finished regaling his tales of valor and Sheath had managed to untangle himself from the girls. The both of them joined Rayla and the other three, grabbing drinks as they approached. Six glasses were raised together for a toast.
'To new begininigs…' Adam said.
'…And strange friends,' Rayla added.
Six glasses clinked together as Rayla and her friends toasted to their new lives in Mirran.
A cool breeze brushed through her hair as Rayla stepped out of the ballroom and into the central courtyard. The full moon hung in the night sky, its light filtering through the canopy of the Denaski tree. The mighty oak stood proud and tall, unaffected by the events that had taken place. Once again, serenity washed over her as she stood beneath its protective boughs.
'So you're a druscan too,' she mumbled to herself.
There was no answer.
She leaned back against the huge trunk, sliding down to sit atop one of its giant roots. She could still hear the sounds of the party but it felt quite far away. Her eyes slid closed on their own, the warmth of the tree and the cool night air lulling her to sleep.
I'll be busy again tomorrow… have to get the druscans to wash off that iron powder…hmm…
Her eyelids were heavy as they finally closed.
Once again, she was standing in the small clearing, unable to move. The unmarked tombstone loomed in front of her. The voice was back, whispering softly in her mind.
I'm waiting for you… Come, my child… come find me…
The dream changed.
She was now floating in an endless white void, her body weightless as she tried to reorient herself. Suddenly a golden mass sparked into existence followed by one in black and another in grey. They swirled around her, their forms listless as they broke apart, mixed and fused together. Even though they had no recognizable features, she could sense their eyes on her… and also, something else. The white void itself seemed to be bearing down on her. She felt herself shrink under the intense gazes of the four who were clearly not human… waiting, expectant.
'What do you want?' she managed to squeak out.
Silence answered. The mix of gold, black and grey kept swirling around her, coming closer as they did. A single tendril reached out to her, as if it were trying to communicate. Curious, she stretched out a hand to make contact…
'Rayla! Wake up!'
Rayla snapped her eyes open, her breaths coming out in short gasps. Kneeling in front of her was Sith, her hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. Her breathing evended out as she she realized she was back in the council's courtyard. Above her the Denaski Tree towered, stretching out its strong branches.
'You looked like you were having a nightmare.' Sith helped her to her feet. 'Are you alright?'
'Um, yes I am fine,' she replied. 'I just dozed off.'
'Well the celebration is over. Let's go home as well.'
Rayla let out a deep breath that she didn't realize she was holding. 'Alright.'
Sith and Rayla left the courtyard, with the latter glancing back at the tree one more time before following the gatoben. Outside Peri, Winz and Sheath were waiting, a bit miffed at her for making them wait in the cold. After a half-hearted apology that they didn't accept, they headed back home together.
A quiet raven observed them as they left from its high perch in the Denaski Tree. Flapping its wings, it disappeared silently into the night.