The Wailing Wind Inn preyed solely upon unfortunate travelers who were unable to make it through the Kings Highway by nightfall. The moderate sleeping lodgings and less-than-moderate ale encouraged travelers to sleep early and leave by the first light of morning.

This was fine with the owner, a thin, wry man named Darren who, against all traditional innkeepers throughout history, actually detested strangers and visitors. He had inherited the inn from his father and maintained it as the inn provided a means of living for him and his family. Travelers were dealt with measured politeness and over-measured room-rates. Darren dreamed of the day he would sell his establishment and take up a job which did not quite involve so many people, like money-counting at the Royal Treasury.

He was in the midst of one of these day-dreams when the door of his inn banged open, flooding the taproom with the cold evening air. A small group of dirt-stained travelers entered the tap room. Darren's well-versed eye picked out his newcomers, a burly warrior and a smaller person in a green cloak. The warrior's eyes shifted across the near-empty tap room before proceeding towards the bar. It was only then when Darren noticed a slender, hooded figure in a brown traveling cloak behind the warrior. The figure followed the warrior slowly, gloved hands gripped on a pale staff. A female, he guessed as he tried to see the third person's face under the hood. Probably the warrior's woman. As he regarded the woman, Darren noticed the Inn's resident dog, a mean-tempered mongrel tastefully named "Bread-and-butter", get up from its place-of-honor next to the fireplace and disappear into the kitchen. He thought he heard old Bread whimper as it slunk away.

The warrior reached the bar where Darren was. "Two rooms for the night, friend innkeeper."

Darren's averted his eyes from the strange, unnerving figure and looked at the warrior. He was middle-aged with a touch of gray in his hair. His armour and sword showed signs of wear and constant maintenance. Battle experience emanated from him; Darren could tell by the way he stood, and the way his eyes gazed intently and caught everything.

"Do you have anything to eat?" the green cloaked man queried, making Darren start in surprise. He did not notice the small man coming up to the bar. He regained his composure. "Yes, we have some roast on the spit. I can prepare three meals in half an hour."

"Thank you, friend innkeeper. Could you show us the rooms?"

"Of course, sir. Will you be sharing your room with your lady friend?"

The hooded figure shifted and Darren sensed irritation. The warrior coughed uneasily. "Um, no. The priestess gets one room and we'll take the other."

A priestess!, thought Darren. It was then he saw the tell-tale red-robe under the traveling cloak and matched it with the bone-white staff. That probably explains why I've got hairs standing at the back of my neck. But if she's a priestess, then where is her troupe of walking bones? "My sincere apologies, sister. Follow me, please." The innkeeper led the trio to a short corridor and pointed at two doors.

As the priestess passed, Darren could not control his curiosity. "Pardon me, sister, but being a priestess, where are your um.. skeleton servants? Only, I thought priestesses always had a few.."

A icy glare from the hooded woman stopped Darren mid-sentence. After a moment, she turned away and proceeded down the corridor to the guest room.

The warrior clapped his hand on the innkeeper's shoulder in a comrade fashion. "Trust me, friend innkeeper, she's definitely a priestess. You just wouldn't want to find out the hard way."

In the guest room, the priestess drew back her hood, revealing her midnight-black hair tied in a tight bun of discipline. She was surprisingly young for a priestess, perhaps no more than eighteen years of age. The priestess laid her staff against the corner and sat on the hard bed, not bothering to light up the dark room, and took a deep breath. Weariness threatened to stoop her posture, but even alone, the priestess kept herself seated upright and rigid. She closed her eyes and let her memories sweep her tired mind to a small wood-cutter's village in the not-so distant past.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"The Laws of Dauros bring order and light to the world, fighting back the darkness of chaos which threaten to consume it."

Sunlight glinted off the upraised long sword of the paladin, making it shine with an almost golden aura. Captivated by the paladin's weapon, the circle of young girls stared in admiration, gasps of awe mingled with whispers and giggles.

"Megan, what does Basille, the city of Dauros look like?" "Is the training hard, Meg?" "When do you get to handle your own sword, Meg?"

Megan slid her sword back into its well-kept scabbard and smiled at her fascinated audience. From the corner of her eye, she noticed Father Duncan nodding in amusement. She grinned at her Teacher before turning back to the girls. "My, that was a barrage of questions!" A burst of laughs and giggles. Megan decided to answer the second question. "I suppose you can say that the training is very tough, and I'm not even fully-trained yet myself! But with the grace of Dauros, and a whole lot of determination, you can get by."

Another flood of excited questions, but Megan was only half-listening. She looked around before finally spotting a lone figure walking away some distance off. Megan pursed her lips thoughtfully before returning to the attentions of her audience.

Lydith sat under the shade of a large oak tree and leaned against the warm bark. All her life, the tree had simply been called the Big Oak by the people in her village. Her father, a seasoned wood-cutter, used to tell her about how truly magnificent the tree was. See the size of the base trunk, he would start. This tree must have stood here even before our enterprising forefathers moved into the surrounding lands. It must have seen hundreds of seasons and witnessed thousands of events that have changed the world as we know it. If only the tree could talk, he would muse, then we all would be a whole lot wiser.

Lydith smiled to herself as she fondly remembered her father's 'tree-talks'. With such admiration for a tree, she would say to him, it is ironic that you work as a wood-cutter. As this he would laugh and reply in a lecturing tone, One should always respect the things one works with, even if it involves chopping them down. He would then give her a goodbye peck on the cheek before moving off to join the other wood-cutters as they began their trek into the forest.

"Thought I'd find you here."

Lydith looked up in surprise. Megan was peering around the oak tree with a warm smile on her face.

Lydith managed to smile back. "Oh, hi Megan." She looked behind the paladin-in-training. There was no sign of the other girls. "Where're the rest?"

Megan laughed. "They're now crowding around Father Duncan who's giving them a droning lecture on the enlightening path of Dauros. With any luck, only a few will survive."

Lydith smiled, genuinely this time. "You're always such a brat, Megan. You've not changed since you left for the city of Dauros."

"Am not! Two seasons is loads of time to change and don't you think I'm now more cultured and refined?"

"No, you're still the same, even after two seasons. The only real difference is that you've now got a sword to poke people who don't think so."

"Why you imprudent little harpy! I'll poke you with this big knife of mine to teach you a lesson!"

The paladin-in-training proceeded to rib a squealing Lydith with the end of her scabbard. Lydith tried to grab the offending weapon holster before she gave up and tried to reach for her attacker's ribs, all the while laughing until she was out of breath. They finally pronounced a cease-fire and lay down side-by-side under the tree.

Lydith stared up to the leaves of the great tree. "I'm glad to see you again, Megan. It's been so boring here without you."

Megan sat up and her eyebrows started to notch together. Lydith recognized the expression. Megan's eyebrows always did that when she wanted to say something serious. "I need to talk to you, Lydith."

"About what?"

"About your future. Father Duncan brought me along with him because he knew that I come from this part of the country and would know the people here. We're looking for new recruits to join us in the city. These recruits will be trained as paladins, like me."

A curious mixed feeling of uneasiness and excitement leapt in Lydith's heart. "So what does this have to do with me?"

Megan smacked Lydith's knee playfully. "You know what I'm talking about! I want you to follow us to Basille and become a paladin! I think that's the only way to convert your harpy ways to become more clean and civilized!"

Lydith laughed. "But Megan, I can't! What about my father? He'll be left all alone here with no one to help him."

"The Sovereign compensates the parents of those who enter His service. Your father can finally retire and live off the monthly pension that His Majesty will provide. Imagine, Lydith! We'll become paladins and travel together and have loads of adventures by ourselves, just like how we always dreamed we would!"

Lydith grinned at her excited friend. A chance to go out into the world and do what she pleased. A chance which she continually dreamed about, even more so after her best friend left the village to join the order of Dauros. She finally nodded. "Alright. But I'll have to talk to father first."

"Yes! I knew you would come! A brainless little harpy like you is no match for the clever manipulation of a student of Dauros!"

The cease-fire ended abruptly at that point.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lydith hurried through the village. Megan had gone to report to Father Duncan and had told her that they would be leaving ThistleWood in a few days. Lydith hoped that her father was in a good mood. She passed the blacksmiths' and took a turn that brought her near the village square.

"Why, if it isn't the ugliest ratling of them all."

Lydith grimaced. She should have taken a longer route along the edge of the forest. Either that or asked to borrow Megan's sword before cutting through the village. She turned to face the speaker.

"Hello Sharielle. I see that you've decided to walk your pets today."

Sharielle tossed her golden curls back. A group of three or four other youths stood near their leader, waiting for the command to lunge and attack. "You're in a rare mood today, Lydith. Seeing Megan must have shed off some of your stodginess."

If anyone had left ThistleWood two seasons ago, Lydith wished it was Sharielle. She was the only daughter of the local tax-collector and lived right in the heart of the village, next to the square. Her father doted on her constantly and gave her whatever her devious little heart desired. Since childhood, she always had an admiring and envious crowd of followers who listened to her every word and became accomplices in her cunning schemes. When Lydith refused to be part of Sharielle's little ring, she became a regular target for the group's amusement.

"Well, Lydith. It seems that Megan has finally changed from an ugly ratling that she used to be. Can't say the same for you, I'm afraid."

Lydith gave an unamused smile. "We'll see. I will be following her to the city of Dauros and when I get back, I'll be able to do more than show off my sword to you."

Sharielle's right eyebrow arched. "Is that so? Since when did the monks of Dauros choose daughters of vile priestesses' to join the holy Order?"

Lydith gritted her teeth. "You will not talk about my mother that way."

Sharielle moved in for the kill. "My father always said that your father was lucky that she never came back. She would have cursed his life and ruined the reputation of the village."

Unable to restrain herself, Lydith swung a slap at Sharielle's face. The tax-collector's daughter was half-expecting this and managed to barely dodge the blow. However, Lydith's fingernails scored a scratch against the lobe of Sharielle's ear, drawing slight blood. Lydith did not have time to gloat as she tore off toward the direction of her home.

Sharielle touched her bleeding ear with a look of shock and outrage. "Get her!" she screeched and the rest of the group ran after the fleeing offender.

Lydith passed the wheat fields with the posse hot on her heels. At this time of the year, the fields had been harvested and clumps of hay mixed with soil littered the ground. Unable to reach her, the members of Sharielle's clique picked up the clumps of hay and threw them after Lydith. Hay cascaded over Lydith's head and got into her hair, but she did not slow down and finally made it to the front gate of her father's residence.

She chanced a backward look and saw that her pursuers had given up and moved off to console their injured leader. Lydith picked the hay out of her hair and dress. One day, she vowed, she would have the opportunity to stuff hay down Sharielle's dress. Preferably ones that had lice in them.