She ran blindly through the woods, tears blurring her vision as she slapped branches out of her way. She ran until her legs, pushed beyond their limit, gave way beneath her and sent her sprawling along the forest floor. Gasping and sniffling, she took a moment to regain her wind before making a shaken attempt to stand. Spotting a fallen tree nearby, she stumbled over and gratefully sat down on top of it as she took stock of herself and her surroundings. Aside from a few scrapes from her fall, she was unharmed and looking around her she found this part of the woods was unfamiliar. In her flight she had gone further than her previous forays around the lands her tribe called home. She held no fear however, for she knew no matter how far she had come she would find her way back again.

    The girl closed her eyes and breathed deeply as her heart rate slowed. She always felt more comfortable out in the wild than among the encampment of her people. A trait she attributed more to her unknown elf father than her human mother.

    She lost track of time as she sat there, eyes closed, soaking in the sounds and smells of the forest, until a twig snapped behind her and a chuff of hot fetid air blew across the back of her neck. Her shoulders slumped as the creature moved up next to her and reached for her face.

    “Not now Shadow,” she muttered as she gently pushed the muzzle away. Another chuff and the girl turned her head to watch the dire tiger step over the fallen tree and lay across her feet, rolling over and exposing his belly for a rub which she obliged with a small smile, scratching through the soft fur to the accompaniment to the giant cat’s contented rumbles. A rustling in the bush alerted the girl to the presence of the great predator’s companion.

    She looked over her shoulder, unsurprised at the huge barbarian woman standing behind her, a great axe resting on one shoulder and a bow peeking out over the other. To the girl’s tribe the woman was Chief, to her enemies she was The Serpentbane, to her friends she was Elga Greyskull, but the girl simply knew her as mother.

    “Hullo mata,” the girl greeted her mother, her voice flat and dull as she turned her attention back to the tiger. But the great cat only had eyes for his mistress now as he arched his back and reached out a paw big as a serving platter towards her, claws flexed out. Elga chuckled, stepping over the log and taking the tiger’s paw in her hand, avoiding the claws even as they retracted.

    “Good job Shadow mine,” she crooned as she sat next to her daughter. Shadow rolled to his feet as Elga set her axe down and reached out to scratch him behind his ears. “Good boy finding Aurina cub, yes good boy.”

Aurina rolled her eyes as her mother continued to talk to her animal companion like it was a baby, and in some ways it was since she had raised the dire tiger from a cub. This tale among others was well known among her people. Elga had traveled far with her adventuring band the Bloody Misfits in her youth, and on her journey they rescued a litter of dire tiger cubs for a tribe of tiger people called Rakastas. In payment for their efforts and at Elga’s request they bequeathed her one to raise and train as a companion mount. Elga named the cat Shadow Stalker, but rarely had his real name been used as his mistress found it highly amusing to give him the nickname of ‘Fluffy’ as they adventured, and now since retirement she simply referred to him as her Shadow.

    “Go lie down Shadow,” Elga bade the tiger, who obediently walked off a few paces before curling up in a great snoring heap. Mother and daughter sat quietly for a few moments before Elga turned to her child.

    “This is the third time in as many weeks you have run out of camp like a dragon was on your tail child,” Aurina hunched her shoulders at her mother’s bluntness and chiding tone. “What ails you my daughter?”

“Nothing mata,” the girl muttered, staring at her toes.  Elga sighed.  In so many ways were she and Aurina similar, but in this they were different.  Getting the child to speak a word she did not wish was like pulling teeth from a gibbering mouther.  Thankfully they were alike in that the girl never truly lied, but like all children she was partial to half truths to avoid trouble or answering difficult questions.  Elga tried again.

    “Aurina, daughter mine, you know you can speak truth to me and I will not hold it against you. Speak truth to me now. What troubles you?”

This time, Elga refused to break the silence before her daughter, and they sat in silence for a long while, the quiet forest noised broken only by the rumbling snores of the dozing tiger.

    “They want me to be like you,” Aurina finally murmured.  “I hear them talking when they think I can’t hear them, and the way they look at me sometimes. They think I’m going to be a great warrior like you. And I am trying mata!” she looked at her mother, a hint of desperation in her eyes. “I’m trying so hard, but I can’t do it. I’m not big or strong or brave, I’m not even human! And I don’t want to let them down. I…I don’t want to let you down.”

    Elga laid her arm across Aurina’s young shoulders, drawing the girl closer as she looked off into the woods, gathering her thoughts before speaking again.

    “I know what our people expect of you,” she began. “They honor the ways of axe and arm, sword and shield. Your grandfather was a great warrior and hero of his tribe, your mother is a chieftain, a famed warrior in her own right, a hero of the Realms. You and your brother both are under constant scrutiny, expected to follow me and become the next in a line of warriors, chiefs, and heroes.”

    She turned to her daughter and her voice grew grave. “But the ways of our people are not always my ways Aurina. And they do not have to be yours. If your heart is telling you to walk a different path then you must heed it. To the hells with what I or anyone else thinks or expects of you. What is important is what you think of and expect from yourself. What is it that you wish to become my child? How do you want the world to know Aurina Bearskull?”

    Aurina frowned and thought for a long moment on her mother’s words. “I…I want to become a ranger, a watcher of the woods like you mata,” she whispered at last, eyes downcast. Her mother made a rude noise at that.

    “I am a warrior, a killer more than a caretaker child, this you well know. Be honest in where your desire comes from.”

    Aurina refused to meet her mother’s gaze for a long time, watching an ant make slow progress across the fallen log where they both sat, before she dared look up again. Her mother’s face was stern but not angry, expecting only truth in the next words, not caring what those words might be and that in itself gave the girl courage.

    “I want to be a ranger, like Lord Berriam. The thought of being able to take down my enemies and protect my friends before danger can reach us, and to be able to slide along the shadows, silent and untouchable.” She grinned at her mother. “I want to be a ranger!”

    Elga returned her daughter’s grin and laughed her great booming laugh, the woods echoing with it. “Then a ranger you shall be my daughter!”

    Aurina squealed and threw her arms around her mother almost knocking them both over. “Thank you mata!” Elga chuckled and hugged her daughter back, unsurprised. Tales of her old band, The Bloody Misfits were favorite fireside and bedtime tales among her tribe. But for little Aurina, the tales of Berriam Elf Brother, Breaker of Hordes were the most cherished. It was not surprising to her that the child would choose her hero’s path. But Elga’s cheer quickly faded as she realized that the time had come to tell her daughter the truth of her parentage.

    “And since you want to be a ranger like your hero,” she whispered, voice hoarse and heart breaking. “Who better than your hero father to teach you?” The girl stilled before pulling away and staring at her mother in confusion.

    “Yes my child, it is time you knew. Lord Berriam is your blood-father.” Elga reiterated softly, giving the girl a moment to absorb this new information that would change her world. Aurina blinked at her mother. Elga had never hidden the circumstances of Aurina’s conception, but neither had she revealed the identity of her father, saying only that it would be known in time. She already knew that ten years ago her mother and the rest of the Bloody Misfits retired from their adventuring lives. And that on their last night together as comrades in arms Lord Berriam hosted a great feast for them in Beriath’s Valley where her mother lay with her father and unknown to both of them, left pregnant.

    “You know most of the story already,” Elga unwittingly echoed her daughter’s thoughts. “What you don’t know is that Berriam is the male I spent the night with. We had always flirted with each other, and I had always drawn a line between us. But the night of the feast that line…no longer existed. We would no longer be traveling together, your hearth-father and I were wed in name only, so what was the harm?” She looked off into the forest, her memories going back through the years as her child watched.

    “I remember what happened during that long night,” she continued quietly. “And when morning found us in each other’s arms, we acknowledged what we did and moved on with our lives. We both knew it was a one night affair. Yes we felt for each other, it is hard to avoid forming such bonds among comrades who have lived as closely together for as long as we did, but we did not love each other. He needed to take a wife, and in the eyes of our people I had a husband. We parted ways and as you know have remained close friends ever since.”

    Mother and daughter sat together in silence for a time. Aurina’s mind ran through all the tales of her hero –no, her blood-father– that she had heard through the years. She knew that he had come to visit her mother and people once or twice since that night, the last being just a few years ago. She remembered being so excited and nervous when she was introduced to him, and her mind poured over every look, every word he sent her way, and it was then she realized the depth of her mother’s deception. She looked over at Elga.

    “He doesn’t know about me, does he? He never acted like he does.” Elga shook her head, knowing exactly what she was referring to.

    “I never told either of you about the other,” she explained. “By the time I learned I was with child I had returned to our tribe and my mated bed. It was not until after you were born that I knew your true parentage and by that time Berriam had already taken in one half breed child. I saw no reason to bring such drama upon his house, and I feared exposing you to more risk.”

    “More risk?” Aruina yelled, jumping to her feet and facing her mother with balled fists. This was almost too much for the girl, learning her mysterious sire is the hero she has adored for so long, and that her mother intentionally kept them ignorant of each other! Her eyes filled anew with tears born from anger. “What kind of risk could there possibly be in telling my blood-father I exist!”

    “Oh daughter mine,” Elga sadly shook her head. “You forget who your mata is? Who your parents are?” Aurina scoffed and made to turn away from her but Elga grabbed hold of her arm and made her daughter face her.

    “I am The Serpentbane, chieftain of the Bearskulls,” she said sternly. “Your father is Berriam Thornburst, Lord of Beriath’s Valley. We are both Bloody Misfits and lauded heroes of the Realms. Do you know how many enemies we have made in our travels? How many would gladly see us or those we care for dead in an effort to hurt us? And what of the enemies of our tribe, the orcs and giants who would love to get their hands on the chieftain’s daughter? Or the enemies of the valley? Oh the daughter of Lord Berriam would make a lovely prize for profit or vengeance!” Elga realized she was almost yelling and shut her mouth with an audible click of her teeth. Taking a deep breath, she continued more calmly. Kneeling before her first born so they were eye to eye, she released Aurina’s arm and clasped her soft, tiny hands within her own large, battle scarred ones.

    “You and your brother are in danger enough by being my children. Add to that you being the child of an elf lord and a second member of the Misfits? No.” She shook her head. “I would not do that. I swore I would not tell either of you until you came of age, or until such events happened that I deemed it more prudent to tell you beforehand. It may have been wrong of me to do so, but you are my child. My daughter, blooded and first born. I was and am willing to do whatever is necessary to keep you safe.”

    Aurina chewed her lip as she listened to her mother, held immobile by indecision. She wanted so much to scream and flail her fists at the women kneeling before her, a woman whose face begged for forgiveness or understanding. She felt like running all the way to Beriath’s Valley and up to her father and make herself known to him, or falling into the comfort of her mother’s arms and cry out all her frustration.

    “Does tata know?” she asked finally, using her nickname for the man who raised her as his own.

    Elga let out a breath she did not realize she had been holding. “Yes, tata knows. He knew of my night with Berriam before you were born and so realized your parentage the same time as I. And you should know that it doesn’t matter to him who your blood-father is. He may be your hearth-father, but he loves you for who you are. He has loved you since the day you were born and I laid you in his arms. Do you know what he said to me that day?” Aurina shook her head, eyes wide and no less tear filled. Elga smiled at her.

    “‘My daughter’, he said. ‘And damn any man who says differently.’”

    Aurina’s lip quivered as she fought back her tears, a battle she ultimately lost as they began rolling freely down her face and she began to sob. Egla wrapped her daughter in a fierce embrace and held her. Although most of her people seemed to accept and love her, Aurina knew there were pretenders among them. A look, a word, turning towards her too slowly or away from her too quickly showed her who those pretenders were. And her greatest fear was that among the better actors was her hearth-father, pretending to care for his mate’s half breed daughter to avoid Elga’s wrath. It was this fear that prompted her to try to appear more human, braiding her hair over her ears, wearing bulky clothes to hide her slim form, trying to speak like the others around her.

But now her mother had laid those fears to rest, and the girl felt a weight lift off her shoulders, for she knew her mother never lied to anyone about anything. Nothing of what Tanta showed to Aurina had been an act. He truly loved and cared for her as his blooded daughter, and a hope lit in her heart that perhaps if he felt that way then maybe there weren’t as many pretenders within the tribe as she had feared.

    Tears spent, Aurina allowed herself to be held a few moments longer before pulling out of her mother’s embrace. Wiping her face dry, she looked around and noticed the afternoon sun was giving away to evening.     “We should get back,” she said as she glanced back at her mother. “But…what do we do now?” Elga stood and dusted forest debris from her knees. Sweeping up her axe, she motioned to her Shadow before answering.

“Now, we continue on as before. I ask that you keep your blood-father’s identity to yourself for now, I don’t care for the thought of the world knowing of his daughter before him.” Aurina grudgingly nodded, seeing the truth behind her mother’s words.

    “Second, you continue your training as a warrior,” she held up a hand to calm her daughter’s objection. “I will teach you what little I know of the ranger ways, but you will continue to train. No knowledge gained is ever wasted Aurina mine, remember that.”

    “And finally,” Elga looked at her child with a mix of pride and sadness. “If you wish to seek out your blood-father when you come of age, I will not stop you. I will even go with you. Berriam is a good male, but it might take more than your word to convince him to see the truth.”

    Motioning for Shadow to scout ahead, mother and daughter walked in comfortable silence until they reached the end of the forest, where Aurina laid a soft hand on her mother’s muscular arm, halting the large woman who looked back at her in puzzlement.

    “What if I don’t want you to come?” she asked softly. “What if I want him to accept me as…well…me? As Aurina Bearskull?” Her mother smiled.

“Then I will write a letter and bid you swift journey. Your life is your path to walk daughter mine, let none sway you form what you feel is right in your heart.”

    ruina smiled at her mother before turning at Shadow’s call and running ahead, her feet as light as her young heart, now suddenly full of hope.

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