Heljak woke with a start that morning. His night had not been easy. Much as his pride would have liked him to deny it, the night had been cold and he had felt it more keenly because of his exhaustion. To his dismay, his sleep, what little he had of it, was to be interrupted by the noise of the others rousing, packing, and preparing to move out. He knew they would not leave without him of course, but it wasn’t something he wanted to put to the test.
As he readied himself for the journey, he felt the pain in his feet returning. He caught a few sideways glances and smirks from the others, who no doubt had feet made of iron, or something far more durable if they felt nothing of the burn that he did.
All the same, he decided to carry his ineptitude with dignity, smiling back at the soldiers with all the cheer that he could muster. That in itself was exhausting, but he had to earn their respect somehow.
As he looked out across the group, Heljak’s eyes met those of the group’s leader, an imposing woman whose name he had been told was Saril. He had never spoken to her directly, and given the icy stare she gave him, he hoped he never would. If it hadn’t been unpleasant enough there was something uncomfortable about the way her eyes seemed to bore into his skull as though judging him for something.
He turned away and shivered.
‘Watch yourself, friend,’ spoke a tall soldier.
Heljak stopped himself and took a step back.
‘Sorry, I didn’t…’ said Heljak, suddenly realising the irony of his words before they left his mouth, ‘…see you… there.’
‘No worries,’ chuckled the soldier. ‘The new guy, right?’
‘I’m Heljak,’ answered the troll.
He took a moment to look up at the soldier. He really was tall, and bulky too, not quite a giant perhaps, but easily a head taller than himself and with the musculature to match. In spite of it, he had a gentle face, leonine in form, though with a wider jaw and coal black eyes. Heljak didn’t immediately recognise his people. He had never met a nian before, but between the broad mane of hair and the tail that swayed gently behind him, there was no mistaking him for anything else.
‘Paryn-Xi,’ said the nian, ‘but Paryn will do.’
‘I didn’t know there’d be representatives from the Jade Empire,’ said Heljak.
Paryn shifted uncomfortably.
‘There aren’t as far as I know,’ he said. ‘I’m a Jorr. I’m not here as part of the Empire.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Heljak. He suddenly felt very awkward. ‘I didn’t mean any offence.’
The nian smiled warmly.
‘I don’t take offence,’ he said. ‘Never have, probably never will. Just don’t seem to have the energy for it.’
‘If only everyone felt that way,’ he said. ‘It would make my life so much easier. I don’t think the commander likes me.’
‘I don’t think she likes anyone,’ said Paryn. ‘She must be pretty concerned right now though. A scout died last night. I’m surprised you didn’t know. The whole camp’s been talking about it.’
‘That’s terrible,’ said Heljak. Suddenly he felt very weak. ‘What happened to him?’
‘Wolves,’ said the nian. ‘They’re a menace. Smart and cunning. It’s unusual for them to attack so close to camp though, but I suppose it happens.’
‘You seem to know a lot about it,’ said Heljak.
Paryn nodded, his expression turning grim.
‘I should do,’ he said, ‘I found the body.’