Chapter 2: Welcome to Tarnath
Hallsassring made progress as the sun rose. She was slowly descending into a wide valley spanning the forest to the west and another set of mountains far to the east. Occasional rises broke the broad lands. To the north the lands smoothed into a plain that extended to the horizon; to the south foothills of the eastern mountains gave way to what looked to be a large bay with many docks and ships.
The openness was strange to her, so different from the valleys of the Rimmel Mountains where she was always enclosed and protected by the mountain’s tall arms. Here she felt exposed and vulnerable.
In spite of her unease, she could see that these lands had their own kind of beauty. The earth was not the rich brown soil of the Nossring Nation, but it was a healthy place where growing things were well tended and flourished happily. The fields were filled with grains and other crops she did not recognize. They added soft browns and greens to the landscape, and — she inhaled deeply — an earthy fragrance. When she listened closely, she could hear the tall grasses softly brushing each other whenever the wind gusted.
“Surely, I will find Alliss in this place,” she told herself, trying to bolster her confidence.
Without warning the low country noises were interrupted by another, unexpected, sound. A voice called out to her.
“Greetings!” It came from somewhere to her right. Looking in that direction she saw a small woods. She scrutinized the area to find the source of the voice, but saw nothing. A short tree near the front of the wood shook, and then started moving toward her. Shocked, she jumped back, crouching with her fists in front of her.
“Oh, my goodness. I am so sorry to startle you, stranger,” came words from the same voice.
Hallsassring did not move, and the tree-ish thing also stopped. She waited to see what or who it was.
The tree raised its branches — arms? — in a sign of peaceful intent.
To all appearances, it was no more than a small tree about the same height as Hallsassring herself. However, it had moved the way folk would. Looking closer, she saw two burly legs with long roots for feet that seemed to extend from the thick trunk. The two limbs that it held in the air looked as much like arms as branches, and its head was crowned with a bramble of thin hairlike stems and small leaves. She thought she saw a pair of eyes where a face might be.
Then she remembered. Her instructors had taught her about the Ten Races, ten types of sentient creatures that dominated the Tamarran Continent. One of them was a race of tree-like beings who called themselves Kamari. Hallsassring’s realization eased her concern, and she relaxed her stance somewhat, gazing more closely at this extraordinary being. In every way it looked to be a tree, and yet it moved as nimbly as any of her Nossring kin.
Her face must have given away her astonishment. Seeing this, and her relaxed posture, the creature smiled and gave a good-natured laugh.
Hallsassring rose to her full height. “Greetings,” she said, using the same language that had hailed her; Sessym, the common language of the northern half of the Tamarran Continent. She extended her arms with her hands open in customary greeting and looked to see what reaction she would receive.
The creature seemed pleased at Hallsassring’s courtesy. “Yes, greetings and welcome, stranger,” it replied, giving a polite bow in return. “Please allow me to introduce myself.”
When Hallsassring said nothing, the being continued, “My name is Belltros, and I am, as you can see” — he held out his arms and spoke with great pride — “a Kamari, though I have no tribe other than my family.”
Hallsassring was heartened to know she had guessed correctly, and that her long lessons had been helpful. However, her teachers had told her that Kamari were fiercely proud of their tribe, and it was highly unusual not to be a member of one. Yet Belltros said that he belonged to no tribe. Curious, she thought to herself, but quickly placed that aside and responded, “I am honored to meet you, Belltros.” She hesitated as she wanted to offer more than this, but the warning from her elders sounded in her head; “We Nossring are not always well-received in the world outside our lands,” and she said no more.
Belltros seemed satisfied with Hallsassring’s answer and continued, “You look to be a traveler, perhaps one from far away.” Belltros paused. Pointing to the east, he asked, “If I may be so bold, are you going to the city, to Tarnath?”
“Yes. Yes, I am,” Hallsassring answered. She was not used to such a direct question from such a strange creature.
Belltros responded amiably, “Speaking for myself, I’m not much for Tarnath. Too busy, and not enough grass or trees or fresh air.” He looked toward the land on either side and kept his gaze there, away from Hallsassring, trying to put her at ease.
After a few moments he turned back and said, “Well, I shouldn’t keep you if you have traveling ahead of you. I will wish you …”
“Hallsassring,” she blurted out, momentarily embarrassed by her awkwardness, and hoping she had not been rude. “That is my name.” She bowed her head slightly and added, “I come from the Nossring Nation far to the west.”
She was relieved to see that Belltros was smiling and had taken no offense.
“It is my honor to meet you, Hallsassring,” Belltros said graciously and with a gentleness that took Hallsassring by surprise. “It has been many years since one of the noble folk of the Nossring Nation has crossed my lands, and you are welcome here.”
Hallsassing wasn’t sure what to do. Not only had she revealed her name far too casually to a complete stranger — names are an intimacy that should only be shared when trust has been demonstrated beyond all doubt — but it seemed that this stranger already knew something about her, or at least about her folk.
Belltros could see Hallsassring’s discomfort. “You have shared generously with me, Hallsassring. If you would allow it, I will endeavor to return the favor, at least in part.”
Before Hallsassing could respond, Belltros continued, “It looks as if you have been traveling for some time and are perhaps hungry? You are welcome to share food with me.” He pointed to a table nestled just inside the woods. “It is only bread, berries, and a small cheese, oh, and a bit of fresh honey. Oh, yes, and I think there is some cream. In any case, I was about to sit down for my mid-day meal when I saw you.” Pointing again at the table, he added, “I assure you there is enough for all.”
“All?” Hallsassring posed the question to herself, wondering at the unusual turn of phrase, but quickly dismissed it. She calculated that it would be imprudent to refuse this offer, and yet it would be incautious to accept it. However, she had already disregarded caution, and, more importantly, if she were to accomplish her mission, she must take chances and find allies. The final piece of internal math that led her to a decision was her realization that she was very hungry and the food looked particularly delicious.
“I thank you for your generosity, Belltros, and will gladly share your food and perhaps some conversation.”
“Excellent!” Belltros said, clearly pleased that Hallsassring had accepted his offer. He led her to the table, chatting about where each of the foods had come from — most from his own farm.
As the two sat down at the table, Hallsassring realized that Belltros had been far too humble about the meal. There was indeed plenty for them both and for several more besides. Belltros handed her a wooden plate inviting her to help herself, and she eagerly obliged.