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The Years Before


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Part 1



Neri roamed the forests and mountains of the Shield for nearly two years. After her banishment, she was alone, struggling to survive and nearing a painful end. As the sun set, she settled into the driest spot she could find and slowly drifted into an uneasy sleep.

A few hours had passed and through bleary eyes Neri could make out a crackling fire she did not start and a figure, much larger than her, sitting on the other side. The Orcish woman was intimidating enough without speaking, turning some animal over the spit she had constructed. When she finally did speak, it was in a language Neri did not understand. She grew up speaking almost exclusively Common other than the Primordial their father insisted she and Nahla learn. 

Neri's face must have reflected the confusion she felt because the woman abandoned the foreign tongue and spoke again. 

"Why are you alone, child?" The woman asked. 

"I did a really bad thing. Not really something I'd like to discuss with a stranger." Neri learned to be tough around people she met in her travels. She also didn't expect anyone to find her here.

The woman handed over a piece of meat. "You should eat."

"And why should I take anything from you?"

"Because these old eyes can tell when someone is suffering. Eat."

Neri wanted nothing more than to fight back, but whatever it was she was being offered smelled too delicious to resist. It had been days since she had last eaten anything with substance. It took maybe 20 minutes for her to eat the entirety of whatever poor animal this woman had caught, and when she was done, the woman spoke once more. 

"Well, it doesn't look like you'll last much longer on your own. Best come with me for now."

The woman introduced herself as Skarsnaga. She had been drifting through the Shield Mountains for years and, for a time, had settled not far from where Neri had fallen asleep that night. After putting out the fire and making sure there was no trace of them left, they set out on the half hour walk to the camp. It was small, nothing but what one old woman would need to keep going. The tent was warm and cozy, and while Skarsnaga made space and laid a bedroll on the floor in the corner, Neri stood awkwardly, trying not to get in her way. 

"Rest for now," Skarsnaga said, almost smiling, "we can discuss things in the morning."

Neri didn't argue. She couldn't remember the last time she had something to sleep on, or under for that matter. She curled herself into a ball and, for the first time in what felt like forever, it seemed she might get a peaceful night's sleep. Just before she drifted off for the second time that night, she could hear the woman murmur something in that unfamiliar language once again, and before she knew it, her eyes flicked open again. 



Edited by Kelsey
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Part 2



The sun had been up for a good while when Neri awoke and it had warmed the tent almost too much. Stumbling out, she found Skarsnaga, sitting by the fire that was barely burning, reading a book.

“It is a few hours past midday. You will need to wake a bit earlier from now on.” Skarsnaga stated without even looking up.

 “I’m sorry?”

No one had ever been so direct with Neri. Even when she was in trouble, her mother’s tone was always kind and loving.

“You will also start lessons with me later. We will need to be able to communicate and Common is not my first language. You are young and you seem smart enough, you should be able to pick it up quickly.” Skarsnaga, still keeping her eyes on the pages, “Go on now, find some wood for this fire. It will get dark sooner than you think.”

Neri started to argue, but thought better of it. This woman fed her, gave her a place to sleep. The least Neri could do was to keep her fire burning. But lessons? There was no way she would stick around for lessons. Who does this lady think she is? She grabbed a few twigs. She doesn’t know me! What I’ve been through! A few bits of a branch that had fallen. I am more than capable of being on my own! 

With that thought, a twig snapped under Neri’s boot, a rope wrapped around her ankle and she was yanked into the air. The wood she collected scattered, and when the swinging slowed, Neri spotted Skarsnaga. After chuckling to herself and saying a few words to herself in what Neri now knew to be Orc, the woman spoke. 

“Child, you must pay more attention. That trap was meant to catch food for us, not some silly girl.”

“Silly!?” Neri exclaimed. “Listen, lady, you really don’t want to mess with me!” 

“If you are trying to intimidate me, I think silly is a worthy description. Give it a few years, maybe then you can scare someone like me.” Skarsnaga moved to the tree and cut the rope, letting Neri fall. “Now, gather up this wood and meet me back at camp, child. We have work to do.”

Picking herself up, Neri shouted, “I am not a child!”

“Could have fooled me,” Skarsnaga shouted back, keeping her back turned and continuing her walk back to camp.
Neri sat on the ground. She cradled her ankle for a bit and thought about crying, but decided it would be a waste. She was too angry, too frustrated to even scream. She sat there for  a while, and when the sun started to dip below the trees, her anger faded enough for her to rise and collect the wood she dropped.

“Fine,” she said to herself, “I’ll play this game for a while.” And with that she walked back into camp.

Skarsnaga had the fire roaring and was roasting what looked to be two rabbits. 

“Why did you even send me out if you had enough wood for this?” Neri shouted, her anger starting to creep back in. 

“You needed a walk. Time to yourself. I can tell that about you. Come sit. Dinner is ready.” The woman motioned toward a rock she had dragged over. Neri was almost sick of fighting. Even though this woman lacked social skills, Neri could tell she was trying her best. And she was right, Neri did need that time alone. It reminded her that she didn’t necessarily want to be.

While they were eating, Skarsnaga spoke only in Orc. Neri just sat and listened. She seemed to be far more eloquent when she spoke like this. Every so often, she would say a word, gesture toward something and then repeat the word. After a while, Neri started to understand words here and there, repeating them in her head to herself. An hour or so passed, and Skarsnaga gestured toward the tent and then to Neri, spoke a few words, and gestured again. Neri figured that meant it was time for her to go inside to sleep. As she was halfway into the tent, Neri heard Skarsnaga speak the same phrase she heard the night before. 

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Part 3



Days bled into weeks, and then months, all of them more or less the same. Neri slowly started to understand Skarnaga more and more, even started to speak a little Orc herself and was corrected more than most of the time. After a few more weeks, she was fluent, and they spoke almost exclusively in Orc and in silent gestures. At some point, Skarsnaga got tired of Neri’s wild hair and spent three days weaving it into locks. It was then the real lessons started. Tracking came to Neri as easy as rain. She got stronger, smarter. She started to feel like this was where she was meant to be. This mountain, Skarsnaga and their little camp. This was her home, her life from now on. 

At dinner, Skarsnaga presented a new subject for Neri to study. 

“This is for you. It isn’t much and there are better weapons out there in this world, but it should suit you fine.” Skarsnaga reached behind her and pulled out a handmade bow and a quiver of arrows.

This was a foreign concept altogether for Neri. Her only experience with a weapon was the dagger she had taken from her father when she left home, but she rarely used it even when she needed to. A bow, made just for her. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts she had ever received. 

“Thank you, Naga, but I wouldn’t even know-” She was cut off mid sentence.

“Long ago, when I was about your age, I could shoot a bumble bee from 100ft. I will teach you and with time, you could be better. ”

Neri took the bow, stood and tried to pull back, but she could barely move it past the tip of her nose. 

“You will get stronger. For now, it is time for you to rest. Sleep well, child.”

She smiled and turned toward the tent, and as she was heading in, for the first time, she completely understood the phrase Skarsnaga spoke every night before she lost sight of her, “I will protect you.” It should have settled her mind, made sleep come easy, but the only thing Neri could think of was her family, how her actions led to their fate, and how she was too weak to protect them. If I were who I am now, none of it would have happened. If I had just listened. She tried her hardest to fall asleep, but her hands kept finding the scars. The scars Nahla had left on her arms. The scars left by the elders on her face. When she finally did drift off, the nightmares turned on.

The horrors of the day her village was attacked came to her as vivid and terrifying as they were before. She felt everything as if she were right there back under the house with her sister. The screams all around her echoed in her mind, almost deafening, drowning out the words repeated by Nahla and herself. She felt the nails ripping her skin as her sister was dragged away, the blood dripping on her shoulder from above. 

Then in a flash, Neri was back in the tent on solid ground. Her cheeks were wet with tears. She peered through the darkness and found Skarsnaga just a few feet from her, just watching. 

 “Come, child.” She held out her arms, and Neri fell into them. She sobbed and through the tears, she told Skarsnaga the story she hoped she would never have to tell. When she was finished, Skarsnaga tilted Neri’s face up and wiped her eyes. 

“The past will haunt you all your days, but you must decide whether you let it possess you, or if you let it strengthen you. Try to sleep now, child.” 

Neri didn’t know if it was Skarsnaga’s words, her warmth, or if she had just tired herself out, but she fell asleep almost instantly. 

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Part 4



It had been almost 2 years since Neri and Skarsnaga found each other.  Neri was more capable than she had ever been. Skarsnaga was pleased with her progress, but Neri could tell she was getting restless. 

“It will be time to move on soon,” Skarsnaga would say.

“Wherever you go, I will follow,” Neri replied, “Where else would I go?”

Neri was convinced the two of them would be together from now on. She saw Skarsnaga almost as a mother, though no one would ever replace the mother she had lost. That day, Skarsnaga joined Neri on her hunt, which was odd, but Neri didn’t mind the company. She could show off how well she was handling herself in the wild. It was quiet for the most part, corrections and suggestions from Skarsnaga broke the silence only a few times. It wasn’t long before the sun was beginning to set and they were carrying their spoils back into camp.

They ate dinner quietly, a few words here and there, but mostly quietly. It was strange as they always had so much to say to each other. Neri chalked it up to the fact they had spent the whole day together and left it at that. As the night grew darker, Skarsnaga spoke. 

“It is time for rest now, child.”

Neri rose, but as she turned, Skarsnaga grabbed her hand. 

“Neri, you have done well. You must know how much pride I feel.”

“I know, Naga. You don’t have to tell me.”

“I feel the need to now,” Skarsnaga replied, and Neri could hear her voice break ever so slightly.  “Sleep well, child.” And Skarsnaga turned back to the fire.

Neri made her way to the tent, placed a foot inside and heard the words she now couldn’t sleep without hearing, “I will protect you.” With that, she stepped all the way inside, curled up and went to sleep.

When Neri awoke, she didn’t have to open her eyes to realize something was off. She could feel the mountain breeze on her skin which was wet from dew that had collected. When she did open her eyes, she did not see the familiar canvas ceiling that brought her so much comfort. Instead, she saw nothing but sky and clouds. 

She jumped to her feet. The only thing that remained of the camp was the bedroll she slept on, her pack and her bow. She turned around and searched desperately, her hands trembling, her breathing heavy. 

“Naga!” Neri shouted, her voice still weak with sleep, but there was no answer. She grabbed her bow and rushed into the trees looking for any sign of Skarsnaga, but there was none. Neri thought back to the first night she met Skarsnaga, how she cleared that small space of any trace of life and how quickly she did so. She came back to where their camp once stood, sat back on her bedroll hugging her knees, and in an instant, she felt the same she had under that house. What did I do wrong? Neri didn’t think anything would be worse than being cast away from the only home she knew, but being abandoned, that was worse. 

She stayed in place for a day or two, hoping Skarsnaga was just testing her and would return to take her to the new camp, but she did not. Neri finally rose, gathering her things and started making her way south. For 6 months, she would slowly make her way, hunting when she was hungry, sleeping when she was tired, only surviving. Surviving alone, though, was not what Neri considered to be living, and eventually, she gave up trying. She found a tree with a hollow base, crawled inside and curled up, hugging her bow close. It was all she had left of Skarsnaga, the only proof she was real. 

Neri lay motionless for almost 2 weeks. She wanted nothing more than to just drift away. It was close to midday, and the light from the opening in the tree was suddenly blocked. A figure gazing inward.

“Naga?” Her voice was hoarse with the lack of water. But it wasn’t Skarsnaga that responded. A deep, masculine voice filled her ears, cursing in Orc before continuing in Common.

“You’re going to be okay.” A hand wrapped around her ankle and the man pulled her towards him. He scooped her up and started walking. Another voice rang out from not too far away. 

“Mason? What did you find?”

“A young woman. No telling how long she’s been out here. Take this.” Neri assumed her bow and pack were being handed off to whoever the man was speaking to. “We should make our way back. There’s nothing else out here.”

Edited by Kelsey
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