Ashlyn reveled in the sound of the rushing stream, the pure light glinting off the water. She had missed this: standing in the cool riverbed as the current gently pushed against her ankles. The pebbles and stones beneath her feet were smooth, softened by moss.
Bending down, she picked up a stone that was to her liking, raw as a precious gem now that the water had chipped away its roughest layers. Not far downstream, her mother, Calda, was doing the same, picking up worthy stones and placing them in a leather satchel.
"We haven't done this in years," Ashlyn commented after a long while. "You're the reason I love rivers and rocks, Mother. We don't have this in Tyron."
"It's about time we got out of the house for a bit," Calda replied, stepping a little further downstream. Tilting her head backward, she checked on Damien where he was sitting along the bank, unsoiled by the water. "Are you sure you don't want to join us?" Calda shouted over to him, her voice echoing along the riverbed.
"I'm fine," Damien answered back. "Thanks for inviting me, though. I usually don't know what to do with myself on days off."
"You do seem like you could use more sunlight," Calda said, picking up another stone. "So pale you are."
Her words caused Ashlyn to giggle. "He is a bit too pale," she agreed. Then she squared herself to Damien. "What do you normally do on your days off?"
Damien shrugged. "Sometimes I go outside and practice my swordplay."
"Ah, but I thought you only made swords not used them."
"It's just a hobby, really."
"Is Kallus training you now?"
"No. He's been training Naelen, though. Trying to get him into the Fighters Academy and all that. Me, I just practice because it's relaxing."
"There is nothing wrong with that," Ashlyn said kindly. "We all need to relax from time to time."
"What is your hobby?" Damien asked.
"Hmm...I suppose I spend the most time reading books. I also like walking, it relaxes me."
"Reading and walking." He folded his arms. "Alright."
"Catch!" Out of nowhere, Ashlyn tossed him a stone and Damien caught it purely on reflex. The rock panged hard against his palm, all mossy and wet.
"Why?" He scrutinized it, growing confused.
"You don't want to leave here with nothing, do you?"
Rolling his eyes, Damien said, "So considerate."
A moving shape caught his gaze, causing him to squint. A dark-feathered bird clashed with the trees where it perched, its beady eyes trained on the people down below. Damien gestured to it. "I never see those out here," he said. "What is it?"
"What?" Ashlyn turned to where he was pointing. When she noticed the raven sitting high above them, she slowed every muscle and spoke softly. "I think it's time for us to go," she said, letting her whispers carry on the water. She waved Calda back over while stepping out of the riverbed.
Damien kept his watch on the raven as Ashlyn moved toward him. "What's wrong?" he asked. "You seem worried."
"I can explain it later," she said. "Come on." She stayed close to him as they left the area, saying little.
Back at the house, Calda and Ashlyn took the time to dry off. Damien waited for them on the couch, worried that leaving on his own would invite some sort of trouble. Once Ashlyn was dry and dressed in proper clothes, she came and sat with Damien. A deep sigh left her lungs as her face fell into a frown.
"Girithane has been watching me ever since I got back," she said.
"And what do they want with you?" he asked. "Who is Girithane?"
"I guess you could say he is the most secluded animal druid in Gumber. His interests are not entirely ill, but they certainly do make me uncomfortable."
"You want me to get rid of him for you?"
"No, I can handle Girithane on my own." Ashlyn shifted her body to face him. "What you can do for me is try to stay inside until I know it is safe."
"And by safe, you mean...?"
"Until I know what he's come for."
"Look, I know I'm not great with weapons but--"
"There is no need for that," she cut him off. "Please just wait for my signal."
"Ugh," Damien groaned, "fine."
Ashlyn strode into a deep part of the forest, keeping track of where she came from. It was rather easy to lose her bearings out here in the wild wood. There were no landmarks to help guide her path, not even a boulder or a fork of the river. The only mark she saw appeared when she finally came to it: an enclosed circle of stones. It was the mark she had been looking for, though it was subtle to a wanderer's eye. The stones were heavily covered with moss, camouflaged by the motif of the woods.
She made her way to the center of the circle and listened. The area was silent as far as she knew, but over the course of several moments there came a draft in the still breeze. Air flapped across her face like the beating of wings, and the ghastly cawing of birds scraped along the tree trunks. Ashlyn shielded her eyes as the raven appeared to her, coursing about in circles before landing inside the stones at her feet.
"Let us be done with this." She looked at the raven with his haunting black eyes. As swiftly as he had come, the raven shifted into his human form. Girithane stepped forth, his thin face worn with age.
"I know your secret, Sorceress," Girithane said.
"I haven't the faintest idea what you speak of," Ashlyn replied. "Why have you come?"
"Such childish games you still play." Girithane glanced at the stones encircling him. "Tell me about the boy. Is he under your protection?"
"As a matter of fact, he is. I demand you stay away from him, he is nothing to you."
"Ah," Girithane smiled. "And yet your thoughts say otherwise. You know why he is of interest to me, do not deny it. Even your own curiosity has gotten the best of you."
"Why have you come?" Ashlyn asked again.
"You ask as if you do not already know. Child, let me do my work on the boy. I have the tools and the means to answer all your questions, and I am most graciously offering my services to you."
"I don't want any of your services," she said. "I don't want you coming near Damien again. Let this be the last time I see you lurking near the village." As she turned to make her exit, Girithane blocked her means for a path.
"I am not subject to your rule, Sorceress. I ask your permission out of chivalry, but do not mistake it for obedience."
Ashlyn moved closer to him, her face ridden with frustration. "Believe me, I won't." She placed her hand on him, letting it become aglow with power. "Do we understand each other?"
Looking down, Girithane stepped out of her grip and smirked. "Impeccably, child."