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Into the Forest
1994 by Matthew J. Drollinger
http://members.xoom.com/MidiMatt/midi/momp.htm

1. Sylverwraithe

Lord Halla, no doubt with Shinobi's help, wasted no time making good on his promises. By noon the next day, the Ladies in Waiting were gone and Valeria was alone. None of them had even bothered to find her and say goodbye.

As the initial shock of what she perceived as her impending banishment wore off, Valeria became moody and even more unpleasant than usual. The palace staff quickly learned to give her wide berth. It didn't take long for word to spread into the town that it was safest to treat the daughter of Lord Halla gingerly, if at all. Valeria went out of her way to avoid Shinobi, and she refused to speak to her father at all.

Caravan came into town the following day. When it left a week later, Valeria left with it. "Come to gloat, eh?" she had said when Shinobi came to see her off.

"Of course not, this is for your own good."

"Sure it is, Shinobi. You just want to be rid of me, just like everyone else."

"That's true," admitted the Chamberlain. "But it's also true that I look forward to serving under you upon your return."

"I'll bet."

"You will learn much from the Sisters of the Sightless Eye. Try to see this as a privilege, not a punishment. Your father has your best interests at heart."

"Speaking of my father, why isn't he here?"

"You made your feelings pretty clear that you did not wish to see him," replied Shinobi. "He was deeply hurt, but respects your wishes."

"Good," she said. "Then why are you here?"

"Because, unlike your father, if you wish me to respect your wishes -- or anything about you -- you'll have to earn that respect. You have a very long journey ahead of you, young Lady Halla." Shinobi turned to go. "I wish you a pleasant and enlightening voyage."

It was really too bad that he hadn't waited around to hear Valeria's stinging comeback, because it was a good one.

Eleven big barges carried Caravan and its merchants, performers and their belongings down the Trinhara River and out of Riparia. Throughout the year, Caravan traveled from the west coast to the east and back again. By river when possible, by wagon train when necessary. Vast expanses of wilderness separated the cities, and the hazards to merchants who wished to trade between them were legion. There were bandits, barbarians, wild animals, monsters, and the elements themselves. There were stretches of wilderness that only an army could have traversed safely, and so the groups of merchants who banded together for safety became a virtual army. When Caravan pulled into town, it was equal parts farmers market, traveling circus, museum and carnival.

Somewhere to the east, the Battle for the Temple of Baal had taken place, and ended with the casting of the Armageddon spell. It was said that on certain nights, residual magical energy from that spell reflected off the clouds creating a spectacular light show.

It wasn't until Caravan was well outside of the glacier-carved valley of Riparia and into the high desert Badlands that Valeria admitted to herself that it might be good to get out of Riparia for awhile after all. Her cabin was actually a cargo bin that had been reserved for a shipment of star melons. As long as the House of Halla had had to pay for it, Shinobi decided against letting it go to waste. If he had intended it as a further punishment for Valeria, though, it fell short. In addition to being twice the size of the largest passenger cabin, it was also one of the coolest compartments on the barge and, with a bunk and a couple of other creature comforts thrown in, it was more than comfortable. Having seen the potential, the captain of the barge actually considered converting more of his cargo holds for the off-season.

The only thing Valeria's quarters lacked was decent light. That was fine for her while she was finishing up her sulk, but once she started thinking of her trip as a vacation rather than an exile, she started spending more time on deck.

The Trinhara River was a tributary of the Talsande. Its origin lay at the northwest end of Riparia where the Tears-of-the-Mountain, giant waterfalls created by glacial runoff, fed the valley with clear near-freezing water. At the opposite end of the Riparian Valley, the river spilled out onto a high desert plateau known simply as The Badlands. The Badlands gave way to grassy plains and forests of Westmarch and Khanduras to the south, and the Great Desert to the east.

Standing on the deck of the barge, Valeria looked out over the Badlands. She had grown up hearing the legends about these mountainous desert lands. Somewhere to the east, the Battle for the Temple of Baal had taken place, and ended with the casting of the Armageddon spell. It was said that on certain nights, residual magical energy from that spell reflected off the clouds creating a spectacular light show. Unfortunately, for the duration of Valeria's visit, the nights were cloudless. Still it wasn't a total loss; the cool dry air of the Badlands was a perfect canvass for starscapes of the likes Valeria had never seen in Riparia.

Caravan made several short stops at small ports in the Badlands and in the plains, but the next major stop scheduled was the city of Tristram. It wasn't until they were only hours outside of Tristram that Valeria noticed the tall woman with the bow slung over her shoulder. She hadn't seen the woman before and figured that she must have boarded at the last port.

Valeria hadn't made any effort to talk to or get to know any of her fellow travelers. Frankly, they all seemed like commoners and didn't appear to be very interesting. There was a troupe of acrobats onboard who were talented and very entertaining performers. Valeria had watched them practice a few times and clapped politely when they stepped forward to take their bows. There was also a Bard who knew dozens of "Lord Cool & Stupidhead" stories, including several that Valeria had never heard before. As far as she was concerned, however, "Lord Cool & Stupidhead" was pretty lowbrow humor. The fact that she and the Ladies in Waiting had spent their early adolescence sneaking into taverns to hear them told was irrelevant.

The woman's bow was a long battle bow inlaid with what looked like platinum. Even from where she was, Valeria could see intricate depictions of angels, and runes of some sort, that ran up and down the length of the weapon.

The woman stood at the front of the barge, looking out at the Talsande. She was nearly six feet tall with long black hair and wore a weathered cloak over a suit of light mail. Valeria guessed that the armor was enchanted in some way so as to make it weightless and comfortable since few warriors chose to walk around in bulky armor when there was no need for it. Besides, a river was no place to be wearing forty pounds of armor.

What really interested Valeria was the bow slung over the woman's shoulder. Her own bow was a short bow carved from oak. It didn't pack very much power but it was an ideal weapon for horseback riding. It was also the weapon with which she'd shot down the wyvern. She rarely went anywhere without it.

By contrast, the woman's bow was a long battle bow inlaid with what looked like platinum. Even from where she was, Valeria could see intricate depictions of angels, and runes of some sort, that ran up and down the length of the weapon. She had to get a closer look at it.

"That's a nice bow you've got there," said Valeria, moving up to stand next to the woman.

"It is," she agreed, not bothering to look at Valeria.

"Can I see it?"

"You're seeing it now."

"No, I mean, I'm quite skilled with a bow-and-arrow myself," she said. "Watch this." Valeria slipped her own bow off her shoulder and drew an arrow. She let it fly and it struck a brass bell on the roof of the barge ahead of them.

The tall woman did not react in any way.

"Do you mind if I try your bow?" pressed Valeria.

"Yes."

"Oh come on." She noticed that the quiver on the woman's back was empty. "I'll give you some of my arrows if you'll let me shoot."

"I don't need arrows."

"I just want to take a look at it." With that, Valeria reached for the bow.

The woman caught her wrist and squeezed until Valeria thought she could feel the bones in her wrist grinding against one another. "I said, no," insisted the woman coldly.

"I am Valeria Desdemona Sapphire Stars-in-the-Heavens-over-Riparia of the House of Halla and you would do well to release me," ordered Valeria.

"I am Sylverwraithe," said the woman. "Sister Sylverwraithe, and you would do well to shut up." She let go of Valeria's wrist.

"Sister?" questioned Valeria, massaging her wrist and wiggling her fingers to restore the feeling. "Oohh, you're a Rogue!"

Never call a Sister a Rogue, her father had warned her. A lightning-quick fist connected with Valeria's chin. She barely had time to register the impact before she hit the cold, muddy water of the Talsande.

Originally published to alt.games.diablo July 14, 1999.

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