After glancing over his shoulder toward the city to make sure Raine was no longer looking at him, Genis quickly discarded the food she'd made for him in a nearby bush. That was his whole reason for saying that he was going to look around the forest while she checked into the inn, but he'd still have to do some wandering around to make it believable.
"Hey! Hurry up! We're gonna miss it!" a child's voice shouted from behind. Five younger children dashed past him down the trail and disappeared into the forest, their giggles echoing after them.
Genis sighed and smiled, for two of the children were half-elves. It was good to see what difference he and his sister had made in the last two years since the worlds were reunited. Curious as to what the children were going to see, he hurried after them.
He came to a clearing with fifteen human and half-elven children sitting around a tree stump on which an older half-elf girl sat. She had long red-brown hair which was cut straight across her forehead but hung long in the back. Her beige and red lace-trimmed dress would've looked more appropriate at a nobles' dinner party in Meltokio than in the middle of a forest--except that it was wrinkled, tattered, and a little dirty.
The moment he laid eyes on her, Genis sensed there was something unusual about her.
"... then the demon leader ordered his legions to halt so that he could speak to the king," the girl was saying to the attentive children. "'Look at all these,' uh, 'people,' he said, pointing out the kingdom's fallen army. 'We have proven how weak you... mortals... are. You are worthless; you don't deserve to live in this world. I shall give you one last chance to surrender.' The king knew that his people could not survive the next attack, but he also knew that if he surrendered, the demons would line them up and hang them. If they were going to die, it was better to die bravely on the battlefield. So the king stood straight and tall and said, 'If you wish us to die, you must kill us in a contest of arms. My people fall because we are lesser in number, but we shall come back and haunt your weak souls for all eternity because we are greater in spirit!' The demon leader ordered his army to stay back and sent his second-in-command forth alone. The king raised his sword, waited for the demon soldier to approach, and...!"
The children gasped. They sat silently in anticipation, but when the storyteller didn't continue right away, a few frowned in confusion.
"...and he died as heroes die," the girl finished softly, as if she hadn't expected the sentence to end that way when she began it. She rearranged her position on the tree stump before she continued with the story. "The second-in-command returned to the demon leader's side, and all the demons shared a good laugh. Now that the king was dead, the kingdom of Frideswide was done for." She spoke bitterly. She often raised and lowered her voice, made hand motions, sat up straight, or slumped throughout the story. She was a good storyteller; it was as if the story were part of her.
"The people of the kingdom were saddened, heartbroken, furious," she continued sadly, then yelled, "but none as much as the princess! She would avenge her family! She would slay the huma--er, demon leader herself! She ran forth, knelt by her father's side, grasped the hilt of his sword, and...." She stopped again. Her hands were at her side as if trying to lift something next to her. "...couldn't... even... lift it."
She squeezed her eyes shut a moment, rearranged herself on the stump again. "As you recall, the princess was just a little girl. She couldn't lift a sword, much less fight. The demon leader laughed again, called the princess pathetic, told her she would die by his hand. He looked over his shoulder, and right before he gave his army the word to move forward... right before the princess lost all hope... she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up and saw the kind face of the young man she'd met earlier."
Genis and all the children marveled at the look on her face. The girl's eyes were not seeing a group of children sitting in the forest; they were seeing something far away and long ago.
"He wasn't just any young man; he was a, a, a prince! A-and he wasn't just any prince; he was the prince of the angels!"
The children ooohed with delight.
"At his side were two angel warriors with feathered wings, but the prince himself had bright, shining wings..." The girl stretched her arms out as if to soar with them. "...that glittered with every color of the rainbow! He stepped around the princess and the king and said to the demon leader, 'You filthy creatures who come here to feast on blood, if you think yourselves to be powerful, come! Try to slay me!' And a shining sword appeared in his hand.
"The prince ordered his two warriors to help the people of the kingdom while he stood against the demon army alone! One of the angel warriors asked me if I was alright, but I--er, I mean the princess. He asked the princess if she was alright, but she couldn't answer, because she was busy watching the prince swing his shining sword into demon flesh and call down the light of the heavens to burn the vile things where the stood!" She swung her arms as if swinging a sword. "The demons fell in countless numbers! And when it was all over, the prince came to the princess and said, 'Come with me to my kingdom, and from there we shall create a world where everyone can live in peace together as one people, where the demons can do us no harm.' She accepted, and the prince carried all the survivors into his city in the sky."
"Did they get married?"
"Er, what?" the storyteller asked, her trance broken.
"The prince and the princess," the boy specified. "Did they get married or what?"
"Um, they actually didn't...."
The children groaned in disappointment.
"B-but the princess didn't really want to marry him!" the storyteller said frantically, her face turning an impressive shade of red. "She only wanted to become a swordswoman and be one of the angels standing at the prince's side when he went to save someone!"
"Oh... did she get to do that at least?"
"Well, she became a swordswoman..." the girl said, pouting. She hurriedly changed the subject. "Um, this is a true story, you know. Really! I, I just can't remember when it happened. It was so long ago... er, that I heard it, I mean. I don't remember anymore."
"Was it before the Ancient War?" one child asked.
"N-no. It was after that. I'll try looking it up in a Tethe'alla history book, but I don't know if I'll find it. So, um, yeah, 'the end.'"
"That was a great story!"
"Yeah! All your stories are great, but this one was way better than all the others!"
"Yeah, yeah! Tell us another one! Pleeeaase!"
"No, no," the girl said to the pleading children. "It's getting late. Your parents will be mad if I keep you any longer."
"Will you tell us some more tomorrow?"
"No..." the girl said with a gentle smile. "It's time for me to move on." She took her walking stick in hand for emphasis. As the lace of her sleeve slid down, Genis spotted a Key Crest bracelet, much like his own except that it looked more like the ones Altessa made rather than Dirk's. Since not every former human ranch prisoner was able to get a Key Crest before the worlds were reunited, both dwarves had worked diligently to provide one for everybody in need.
That's why I sensed something strange about her, Genis realized. She has an Exsphere.
"Awwww," all the children moaned sadly.
"Maybe I'll come back someday," the storyteller said as the children stood back up and headed back toward the city. Genis remained where he was, leaning against a tree, until all the children were past him. He looked back at the storyteller and saw her gathering her few belongings. She glanced up at him and made a point of looking away. He couldn't help but think that she looked a little afraid of him.
"Is... that really a true story?" he asked, trying to stall her departure long enough to finish wondering where she could have gotten an Exsphere. She was about his age, too young to be a former Desian. If she had been a ranch prisoner (unlikely, seeing as she was a half-elf), her Exsphere would be on the back of her hand, but it wasn't visible.
"Y-yes," she said softly, avoiding eye contact. She forced a quick wry grin. "You'll be hard pressed to find it in most history books though. But maybe if you looked hard enough, you could find it somewhere." She stood, leaning heavily on her staff.
"W-where are you going?" Genis asked quickly. "Do you live around here?"
"I don't live anywhere; I travel."
"Oh. B-but you must still have a home somewhere right? Even I do...." Genis lowered his voice. "...and I though I never would."
She looked at the darkening sky with a look of longing in her gold eyes. "I had a home. I still do actually. It'll always be my home..." She looked back down at him. "...even though I can't go back there. I think most people would say it was too quiet, and it was rather... cold..." She smiled as tears filled her eyes. "...but when you spend your life surrounded by fire, what better place to call home?" She let out a cross between a giggle and a sob. "Nice place. You--I bet you've been there."
He had a feeling she didn't want to talk to him anymore, so he didn't say anything else. She turned and limped off in the other direction with the relative ease of someone used to only having full use of one leg. The two short swords that hung in sheathes from her waist batted her ruffled skirt around.
A breeze pushed her hair away from her back and revealed a symmetrical pair of scars on her shoulder blades. Genis winced, thinking of how it looked like the skin and a good chunk of muscle had been ripped off of her.
He turned around to head back, nearly collided with Raine.
"Ugh, here you are!" she said with annoyance. She glanced up and saw the storyteller disappearing from view. "Oh, who was that?"
"Um, I didn't catch her name, but I guess she tells a lot of stories for little kids," Genis said.
"Oh, I heard about her in town," Raine said as the two of them started walking back. "Someone said her legs were injured by falling debris from the Tower of Salvation, but they healed badly on their own, and now healing magic can't return them to normal."
"Hmm," Genis mumbled. "Hey, you know a lot about Tethe'alla history, right? Do you know anything about a Kingdom of Frideswide?"
"Kingdom?" Raine questioned. "Since long before the Ancient War, Tethe'alla has been just a single country. I do remember something else called Frideswide though."
"Mmm-hmm. It's not of much historical significance. I've only seen it mentioned once, and I only remember it because I was mad at the author of the book." She sighed. "Anyway, Frideswide was a nomadic village of half-elves which remained on the move in attempt to avoid conflicts with humans. They weren't very successful though, and eventually a local duke sent a squadron of soldiers to kill them all as they passed through his lands. Fifty well-armed men against a bit smaller group of villagers. Most of the villagers died, though the rest apparently just disappeared without a trace." Raine rolled her eyes. "The author acted like the most important problem was the unexplained demise of the fifty human soldiers."
"The soldiers died?" Genis asked.
"Yes." Raine was clearly trying to hide a smile of satisfaction, but she wasn't quite succeeding. "All cut up or stabbed, as if by a sword... except that their bones and their metal armor were cut up as well. Anyway, this all happened...." Raine frowned. "Ugh, I've forgotten when. It was several hundred years ago though. I believe it was during a period of decline for Tethe'alla. Well, there's a room at the inn waiting for us." She quickened her pace.
"Y-yeah..." Genis mumbled. He slowed down and looked behind him, just in case he might be able to catch a glimpse of that girl again. Then he sighed and hurried after his sister.