Location: Arbola Forest
Timeline: Sixth Age, Year 52, Early Spring
Let’s take a break from Emcorae Azop for a bit, shall we? Sure it was fun for me to relate to you some of the foibles of the goddess Alyssa but I’m tired of talking about the little twit Emcorae. While I’d love to tell you more about how MY plans were turning out, I need to give you an update on my other nemesis – the elfess Nathily. So here goes…
Excellent! The flag is clearly visible in the middle of yonder clearing.
But ‘ware who guards it?
Lo, four sentries in plain view around that small barracks, surely more inside. Too, I espy movement among the trees in that northern quarter; surely then there are guardsmen patrolling the picket lines in the other sectors too.
The young would-be Azora warrior Nathily sat quietly perched amid the prickly pine needles of a tall fir as she continued to survey the ground to the fore. Sticky sap covered her hands and was smeared along her pants and face from her efforts to climb the tree, yet Nathily paid it no mind. She sat silently, ever watching, waiting for her chance to make a move, to creep closer to the clearing, nearer her destination, with the final result – hopefully – of getting her hands on that flag.
She knew that, even were she to attain that goal, getting back safely would be another adventure – and yet, in spite of the fact that she was but a mere pupil in the lifelong Way of the Azora, still Nathily felt confident that she had the means to pull it off her quest with success.
Scanned the setting again, Nathily’s emerald eyes glittering as she looked for the enemy.
Where are they hiding? I must know ‘fore I can move in.
It was still the beginning of the spring in the 52nd year of the Sixth Age of Substance on the Amorosi calendar. The early part of the month had seen Nathily endure a series of ups and downs during her training — for it had been the first time in six years that she was without her partner Emcorae Azop – and the elfess was trying to adjust to life without her friend whilst he was away visiting his family. It was specifically because of her inability to effectively concentrate on her own that had led to Nathily being given this secret solo mission by her mysstro El-Janus, for the latter thought it might do the young amora good to have a specific task to set her mind to instead of her normal workout routine.
It was an assignment that appeared nigh impossible for such an inexperienced Azora – for she was required to first try to locate a hidden enemy outpost, infiltrate its well-guarded boundaries, capture their most prized possession, and finally venture back unscathed to her own base camp. She was tasked with completing this mission all by herself – and with over one hundred Azora’s guarding the ‘enemy’ camp – and nobody back at camp realistically expected Nathily to succeed.
Before she had left, her mysstro had spoken to her. “Nathily, the greater the danger, the greater the mental strength required to achieve success. But understand: no task is hopeless unless YOU let it be so. You are as great as your mind allows you to be. No enemy can defeat you but yourself, and no victory shall be yours but that which your mind leads you to achieve. Go now and find success.”
Having seen only fifty springtimes, Nathily was but a babe compared to most of the Azoras that trained at the Glade of Gazza. She was also the only amora to ever try to devote her life to the Azora warrior code and, although there were initially blockades towards her attempt to become an Azora, those times were past and all that remained was for Nathily to journey along the warrior’s path – yet whether or not she could succeed was still a question.
The task of training the elfess (and the human boy Emcorae Azop) had been assigned to the legendary Azora El-Janus – a hero of Arbola Forest in the Last Great War and many other campaigns. El-Janus was an Azora mysstro – a rank which very few Azoras had ever attained. El-Janus had been walking in the Way of the Azora for more than four centuries and none in Arbola could match his skill. Besides being a master bowman, he was deadly with his dual rapiletti and could deliver whistling death with surgical precision to any who dared oppose him in battle. Even at his advanced age, there was as yet no one who could defeat El-Janus in a training session, for the diminutive elf still retained his lightning fast speed, incredible flexibility, unmatched footwork, and impeccable timing. Yet, more important than any skill with the sword, above all else, El-Janus possessed an indomitable will, and it was often his mental fortitude that allowed him to attain victory time and again regardless of his opponents size. These traits – along with a strict work ethic — were that which he had been attempting to impart to his two pupils Nathily and Emcorae for the past six years of their training at The Glade.
Yet all that was in the past, and on this day Nathily, the amora who was still but a fledgling Azora, continued to wait. With her sunny locks tied in a ponytail with a leaf green cord, Nathily was dressed in a simple leather-armored vest, buckskin breeks, gauntlets, and greaves. Her waist was guarded by a wide cowhide belt that sported a large bronze buckle to cover her midsection and upon the surface of the buckle’s face was engraved the image of a woodland owl – Master Hoobab – her forest friend.
Hanging from her belt at her left was a dark buckskin scabbard that housed her sword – a two and a half foot, saber-like, single-edged falchia – her weapon of choice. The blade widened towards the point with a convex cutting edge, and the hilt, crosspiece and pommel were all made of iron. Its handle was wrapped in weather-treated cordovan leather, molded to her grip, and the crosspiece was studded with amber garnets. The pommel was itself a work of art – gilded in gold it had been masterly fashioned into the shape of a falcon, with wings flaring wide. Yet this was no mere showpiece, for the blade was the true wonder of this weapon – crafted of tempered iron, the cutting edge was coated in a diamond-like substance that never dulled and ever kept its edge razor sharp, so that it could cut through anything – including full plate armor. In spite of its power, the falchia was incredibly light to bear and the elfess could wield it with either hand.
The sword had been gifted to her on the eve of her first training day by her foster mother Fara, yet the latter would not tell Nathily by whom the remarkable blade came to her from. For her part, Nathily had trained under El-Janus for two years before her mysstro ever once let her try to use the falchia – the elfess suspected that El-Janus knew something of the falchia’s great power and perhaps even who forged it, yet her teacher remained steadfastly quiet on both accounts. In the beginning, El-Janus had made her sit for hours each day alone with the falchia — wherein Nathily was not even allowed to remove the sword from its horizontal wooden stand, but instead had to try to mentally visualize herself performing the techniques she was learning with a substitute weapon at the Glade of Gazza. Soon enough the blade filled the visions of her days and nights – for Nathily usually dreamt of using the blade in her sleep too. Eventually then, when Nathily was at last allowed to begin training with her falchia in real life, it was as if she had been born to use the blade.
Nathily called the sword “Falcone” for it helped her evoke the mental image of herself striking with the deadly speed of that bird of prey and given her prowess at using the blade that image was not far from the truth.
In addition to her weapon of choice, the unusually tall elfess also carried a foot-long, double-edged bronze dagger. It was housed in a plain leather scabbard and lashed to her lower left leg – for use in case of emergencies. She also had a small pouch at her back – hidden inside her belt – which held an assortment of seven-tipped, steel throwing stars.
Yet, for this mission, it was neither the dagger, nor the stars, nor the even her beloved falchia that the young Azora planned to utilize. Instead it was the more traditional Amorosi warrior weapon – one that ALL elvish fighters learn to use, and use well – the bow and arrow. Nathily’s was an ash short bow with arrow shafts of that same wood that had bronze tips and were fletched with split eagle feathers. Presently it was slung across her back with a quiver of quills but she knew that soon it would be in her hands, poised for combat.
Nathily’s waiting up in the evergreen tree continued. In order to try to remain unseen, she had her reversible cloak draped over her — with the dun-colored side out — so that she blended into the backdrop of the tree’s trunk and branches. The cape covered her completely, leaving only a small portion of her upper face exposed.
An candlemark passed, yet still Nathily had moved no closer towards her goal. In the meantime she’d nibbled on some wayfares to keep her strength, and washed those down by sipping a bit of green tea from her canteen. For three long days, she’d searched for the whereabouts of ‘enemy’ camp and then, with carefully slow, covert movements she had allowed herself to finally come within sight of her end goal. Up till now she’d felt confident, yet presently she was unable to get herself to move further – for she knew unknown numbers of warders were close at hand, all of them focused on finding her. To risk a premature movement in her current precarious position, would surely lead to capture.
Patience is a virtue that few possess, she reminded herself, yet it is vital for the silent stalker, for without it’s restraint, the foolish go where e’en the gods fear to tread.
Slowly then, the day set.
With her soft pack underneath, Nathily had passed the time sitting upon one of the wider limbs of an evergreen about halfway up the tree’s length. Every so often she had risen slightly and carefully stretched her muscles; always making slow, deliberate movements so as not to rustle the tree or otherwise give away her position.
Nathily vowed to move again when dusk came – planning to take up station inside a clump of bushes about ten feet from the clearing of the opposition’s campsite – most likely the closest position she could hope for nearest her goal. After that, she knew she would have to put the final stage of her plan in motion quickly lest her window of opportunity pass.
One chance. That is all the opportunity I shall have. One attempt must be successful, else I shall be captured.
I will not fail. I will not fail. She coached herself, visualizing success.
Throughout the course of her waiting, her vigilance had paid off, for she finally felt confident that she’d identified each of the warders of this clearing: besides the ones who made a show of patrolling the grounds, the beautiful Azora pupil had also noted not only the partially hidden sentries posted at various locations along the glade’s edge, but also the three who were atop the trees. Those last were set apart in a triangle-like formation as they perched in camouflaged treehouse-like structures upon a trio of the tallest trees overlooking this area — there to secretly watch all movement into and out of this sector of the forest.
And it was those tre forme warders that were the critical ones that Nathily knew she had to successfully locate until she could move again. Although she had not been able to pinpoint their positions before she had ventured this close to the camp they watched over — as she had originally hoped to be able to do — still she surmised that her slow, secret movements in maneuvering to this spot had gone unnoticed by that trio — for had they already discovered her, she would surely have been captured hours ago. Since her capture had not in fact occurred, she guessed correctly that the tre forme warders had indeed not espied her – despite their legendary prowess in guardsmanship. And yet, although they had not seen her, until just a short time ago she too had not been able to locate them.
All day Nathily had been searching for them, for she knew she could not remain unnoticed forever in her current locale, and yet she also knew that to move again could alert them to her presence. Yet, were it not for the lucky fact that one of the tre forme tree-posts was set less than thirty yards away, and too that earlier she had subsequently noticed a faint movement descending along that trunk, then she might have missed this last set of protectors all together! At first she’d been about to disregard the downward shuffling she saw on that tree as merely a squirrel, raccoon or some other woodland inhabitant making for the forest floor, but as she looked closer, she saw that it was much taller figure — slowly climbing down — and at the bottom of the bole, she then espied his waiting counterpart! Both were well-hidden in their dun colored tunics and had almost escaped her watchful eyes. From the bottom of that tree to the top, Nathily’s eyes then searched and searched, but still she saw no more sentries along that tall trunk. Nonetheless, she was eventually able to make out the guard station near the top. This then was the changing of the watch of one of the tre forme positions and it was exactly what she had been looking for!
Upon that fortunate discovery, then did the young Azora pupil silently offer a prayer of thanksgiving to Alyssa for revealing this vision.
From there Nathilly spent much of the rest of the day looking for the other treetop posts that she knew from experience were sure to be around this area. Eventually she noted their locations as well, and when it fit with the standard triangle placements that these types of guards usually kept, she was then fairly confident that she had finally discovered all the sets of eyes that she knew she would need to avoid.
And yet even still she waited. Patience,Nathily, she reminded herself.
Finally, some time later, the gloaming wafted the daylight away and Nathily reasoned that this would be her best chance to make her move.
After switching her cloak inside out to replace the duns in favor of the dusky gray on the alternate side, the elfess carefully climbed down from her perch.
The silent stalker felt good about her chances.
With slow, muted, systematic steps she moved.
And then moved again.
Despite her tender age and the fact that she was naught but a beginner in the The Way, even still, few others could compare to the skills that Nathily already possessed as a silent stalker. With a powerful combination of speed, balance, gracefulness, and an uncanny ability to seemingly melt her body against whatever object she could use for cover, Nathily was practically invisible as she glided towards that clump of bushes she had chosen as her next hiding spot.
Soon enough, she’d placed inside the shrubbery without incident.
None of the warders seemed to note her passing.
Yet, again, she waited.
Finally, about three hours after mid of night — just as the moon had set and only the stars were left to illumine the setting — Nathily painstakingly pulled an arrow from her quiver and silently notched it on the bowstring. Raising her small bow with ever so short movements, she pointed her arrow towards the flag.
If her plan was to work, this was the time.
Sighting down her right arm, one eye closed, one open — Nathily stared down the length of the arrow’s shaft, past the bronze tip, and through to the mark itself. Her mind’s eye saw a successful completion of her task, she pulled back on the bowstring, and with bow taut, all was ready. After a final preparatory breath — Nathily slowly and deliberately expelled that air and committed to her release.
The quill flew true — ripping the small yellow flag apart from the two-foot high wooden pole it had been attached to – and the pinion’s material caught around the arrow’s shaft as it sped across the glade, finally to notch itself into the bole of an oak on the far side.
And, as soon as she had released her arrow, Nathily was up and out of her hiding place, running after her prize, across the clearing, in the open, visible for any and all to see as a misty shadow racing o’er the loam.
At once, shouts were raised and the guards emerged from their posts to see the intruder, but even as the warders raised their own bows — surprised that any could have penetrated this far into their secret glade! — even then it was too late – for as a few hastily flung quills cut the air to her back, Nathily had already crossed the short clearing and was at the oak on the opposite, there to quickly break the shaft of her own arrow, rip the flag away and speed off into the woods — all in one svelte motion.
Her plan had worked!
Patience had shown Nathily the time when the trees directly across from her hiding place in the bushes would be free of passing sentries and that was when she’d made her move. With a smile then, she now raced away — even as the angry warders behind began to mount their chase.
They’ll never catch me. I’ve done it! She thought to herself as she looked back towards the torches on her trail — all hopelessly far behind. Just an Azora? No! The best Azora who ever—
<Smack!> Nathily was thrown to the ground!
“What the—“ Nathily rolled away and in the same breath was up in a flash with her falchia drawn – only to behold her mysstro El-Janus standing in front of her, with his own dual rapiletti drawn, pointed at her throat, and her prized yellow flag hanging from the end of one of the blades!
“El-Janus! I…..How did you–?… But, what about–?…” stammered a flabbergasted Nathily, dropping her sword to her side…even as numerous guardsmen arrived on scene. “Oh, well…” Nathily meekly smiled at her ‘enemy’ comrades, before bowing her head when El-Janus began to speak.
“Azora brothers,” El-Janus began, “I do believe this is yours.” And he flipped the flag off his sword – the torn pennant floated in the air for an instant – carrying with it the fleeting dreams of the elfess — and was then snatched from the wind by one the of warders.
“Thank you, mysstro.” The elvish novitiate bowed, then looped the flag around his belt.
“You must needs keep a better ward than this.” El-Janus admonished the sentries. “In mere days my pupil has penetrated your glade, moving unseen at every turn, only to capture your team’s marker. What say you to that?” All were amazed to hear that Nathily, the amora Azora, had successfully stalked an entire Azora unit alone.
A blonde-haired elf answered, he the one that had accepted the flag, “Mysstro, it’s my fault, for I thought we had our sector patrolled with watchful eyes. We shall correct the problem, I assure you.” Then to Nathily, “Amora, you are the stuff of legends to have traversed our traps and lo e’en our eyes; proudly may you call yourself an Azora and walk upon The Way with us.” And he bowed deeply towards the elfess; as did all the others present.
But El-Janus put a stop to their. “No, my sons. No Azora yet is she, for Nathily has much time left to do before she can lay claim to that title.” And here he looked at the amora, “for starters she must needs learn one of the most basic of tenets of any achiever — be it on the grand field of combat, or in a single silent conquest such as this, or even among the battlefield of your own psyche – NEVER look back to rest upon your laurels, remember them well yes, but always forge resolutely ahead with your next goal firmly in the forefront of your mind’s eye.”
At that El-Janus smiled benignly at Nathily, before proceeding. “Would that you could have remembered that lesson, my pupil, and maybe it would have been more difficult for me to have catch you. Instead I but had to merely step into your path to trip you up without any effort at all.”
For her part Nathily had remained silent, resolving to think deeply upon the matter and remember well this supposed victory that had all too soon been stripped down to a defeat. For although she had labored hard for so long – lo had actually had her goal in hand! – and was even racing to her home base awash in the thrill of victory, still despite all those winning moments up to that point, in the end she had lost. And if this had been a real-life event – instead of just some training exercise — then Nathily knew, as did all the others present, that it would have been more than just her pride that she would have lost, but probably her life as well!
If you are going to make the effort, then you have to make the play!
Even in this brooding moment, as the warders began to return to their base with El-Janus and Nathily in tow, the elfess thought about this mantra — one that her friend Emcorae had taught to her more than five years ago. She now remembered the incident as she walked quietly beside her master.
“Nat,” the boy had explained as they were returning from a physical contest with some of the other young Amorosi in the village, “I always used to tell my friends back home that saying. It means that no matter what you are doing, be it some athletic competition like this endurance race we just did or else even a vicious fight to the death with your worst enemy, if you are going to attempt to do something, if you are going to put forth any energy whatsoever to try to win, well then, you had better achieve your goal successfully, else what is the point of even trying?”
Back then however the young elfess had not agreed with her friend’s reasoning. Neither Emcorae nor she had finished in the top three in the middle distance cross-country race they had run through a pre-set course along various paths within Arbola Forest. Yet, Nathily wasn’t as upset as Emcorae about not having crossed the winning line first, second, or third.
As they walked towards the after-race festivities in the Great Green Hall, she tried to reason with her new friend.
“Emcorae, I believe that you are wrong to feel that way. Always winning is not the only thing that is important. What about the joy you feel just from the thrill of the competition? Or the pride you can take in performing to the best of your own abilities, always a little better than the previous attempt. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Hey, I won’t deny that it’s fun to play the game, Nat. And of course you always want to do better. But, while not everything in life is ‘just a game,’ even still almost all IS some form of a competition.”
“But it doesn’t have to be that way.”
At that comment, the boy stopped their walk and after a slightly frustrated sigh, he looked up towards his taller comrade and said, “whether it HAS to or not, makes no difference, Nathily. In the real world there ARE winners and there ARE losers, and sometimes just a hair’s breadth separates the two — yet that small distance can make all the difference.”
“Now you sound like El-Janus.” The elfess quipped, towering over him by more than a foot in height. “Even still, Em, I don’t see what you’re getting at.”
“Nat, let me be a clear: we are training to be these great warriors, right?”
“Why, Azoras are the finest fighting force on the planet,” Nathily admonished, shocked that the boy would make such a gaff after having trained for over a year already.
“Yeah, yeah, ok,” Emcorae waved that last off with his hand, “maybe in some race like this one it doesn’t matter much who comes in first and who trails after. But ponder on this,” and her the boy stood en-guard and then demonstrated each of the moves he next said, “what if you are fighting to the death against some Myz, and your combat goes back and forth for a long time, and then what if you make this incredible pass with your sword, aiming for his neck to decapitate him in one swoop, only at the last possible moment your aim doesn’t hold quite true,” here he slipped a little to show the error, “and so you only hit his shoulder instead. Yeah sure, the Myz, he’s hurt, but not fatally, right? So then in the next instant HE would still be able to thrust forward with his weapon, piercing you through, leaving you to die at his feet.” And finally he staggered back, as if mortally impaled, before falling to the ground in mock death.
“Oh, Em,” Nathily laughed. “Ever the actor, neh? Perhaps you should join the Arbol Troupe, instead?”
The boy smiled, proud of his theatrical abilities, but then got up and turned serious.
“Hey, don’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? You lost, Nat, because no matter how hard you tried, when it came right down to it — at the moment of truth — you lost your focus — and all your effort was for naught; you didn’t follow through with your single-minded plan to ensure that it was completed. In your mind’s eye as you were making that last swipe you probably thought prematurely that the battle was over. And because you lost your concentration before the actual act was truly made, as a result, my friend, you failed. Only in this example it would have cost you your life!” And, like he had seen Alfranco do on countless story-telling occasions, he raised a finger to admonish, “There is no second place on the battlefield! NOW do you see, Nathily, why I say again: if you’re gonna make the effort, then you gotta make the play!”
Yet even after that explanation, at the time the elfess still hadn’t put complete faith in her partner’s words. Only now – five years removed from that original talk with Emcorae — did she begin to truly see the value they held. For she had spent this last week traversing through Arbola forest — sometimes crawling upon her stomach over the forest floor, pricked by pine needles or bitten by insects; sometimes kneeling motionless behind a low boulder or wide tree trunk for hours, just to ensure that the watchful eyes of sentries wouldn’t espy her; yet always with the ONE goal of reaching her destination, snatching the opposing side’s flag, and then returning gloriously in victory to lay that pinion at her master’s feet.
So much effort had she expended, maintaining her complete concentration solely upon her mission, never relaxing her focus for even an instant, until finally, finally when she had mistakenly surmised that all was complete, only then did she relax and allow herself to savor the accomplishment for just a second.
And yet that was the very moment that all had been taken from her!
With a rueful smile Nathily looked at her mysstro as they made their way back with the other Azoras to the “enemy” outpost she had just robbed of its spiritual standard. The diminutive elf was seemingly lost in his own thoughts as he stared ahead whilst they all walked and clearly wasn’t in the mood to converse.
Looking ahead herself, Nathily thought, As El-Janus says, “verily it is ever our mistakes from which we learn the most.” Oh, how I will remember this feeling. For victories are to be enjoyed, yes, that much is of a certain; yet ONLY when the victory itself is no longer in question!!