“I’m sorry, Yillmara,” the young elf maid said as she wept. “The child does not live.” She held the tiny bundle toward his mother, who slowly took him from the maid’s arms. Yillmara looked upon the lifeless face of her tiny son and wept softly. She closed her eyes and pressed him to her breast. After a moment, though still exhausted from the birth, she rose from her bed with her son in her arms.
“You mustn’t, my lady! You need to rest!” The maid pleaded with her and touched her arm as if to stop her, but Yillmara continued walking. She made her way from her rooms and stepped out into the light of the dawn. It was a cool spring morning, and the sound of the river danced throughout the forest that was home to Yillmara’s people, the Westerling Elves.
Yillmara approached the river slowly, earnestly. She trod lightly so not to offend the Spirit of the river. With her son still in her arms, she walked into the water and fell to her knees, begging for the life of her child. “River Spirit, hear my plea and grant my son his life. He deserves the chance to live, to grow, and to know the beauty of this forest. He should be given the chance to hear the music of the river.”
Slowly, she placed the lifeless body of her son into the water. Hoping for an answer from the River Spirit was foolish, she knew, but what matter was that compared to the life of her child. She covered her eyes and wept. As her tears hit the water, she heard a soft voice around her. It caressed her and consoled her grief. The River Spirit had come. The young mother’s weeping ceased, and she felt pure serenity. “I will gladly trade my life for his,” she said with all the strength of her heart.
With that assurance, the Spirit granted her request. The mother slid gently down into the river, and the child opened his sapphire eyes. The young maid came running to the river’s edge along with Yillmara’s life mate. The maid took the child from the river and rushed him inside to get him warm.
Though he knew his love’s body would fade into the river, Ryllak waded into the water to be near her. He could see her lying serenely in the water, her face peaceful as if sleeping. Reaching his arms out for her came naturally, but it was no use. He could no longer touch his beautiful Yillmara. She was gone forever.
The river had granted the child his life, and in time, the river would reclaim him.
“Far you must travel to a land of spring and bring back the River who dwells there.” The bent old man’s voice was raspy and strained but his resolve was strong. He had held the gift of prophecy for many long years and had served the kings of Na’zora his entire life. He had always been cryptic, but he was never wrong. If King Aelryk was to survive this new threat and save his people from a life of servitude, he would have to figure out how to bring a river from a distant land.
King Aelryk’s face was contemplative. He may as well have been asked to move a mountain. For months now, dark creatures had been leaving the Wildlands and attacking Na’zora. Villages near the border were being raided, and citizens were being taken. Aelryk feared a dark force had arisen and bound these creatures to an evil purpose. His armies would arrive either too late or in time to be slaughtered themselves. This was no simple foe he was facing. His own mages had confirmed there were incredibly strong enchantments at work here.
Aelryk stood, immediately followed by his mages. He was taller than all of them, dark-haired, and muscular. He was an expert swordsman and a brave war leader. During his father’s reign, he had secured peace with some of the clans who inhabit the Wildlands. The Wild Elves fought savagely, but in the end Aelryk’s forces were victorious. The vicious attacks stopped, and the Wild Elves were driven off to their forests. Orzi the prophet had come through in his father’s time of need, and if Aelryk could manage to complete this seemingly impossible task, he may be able to save his people.
“Does anyone know of a land of spring?” Aelryk asked. His dark eyes looked at his mages, who each lowered their head in turn. No one knew. “Repeat this prophecy to my historians. Tell them not to stop searching until they’ve figured out where it is I must go.” A young page dashed from the room to carry out the king’s command. “Orzi, is it imperative that I go myself? It seems so dangerous to leave my people in this time of need. I would much rather move closer to the border and deal with these creatures myself.”
Orzi had sunk into his chair, exhausted from the mental strain his gift of prophecy caused him. Slowly, he began to speak. “Yes, your majesty. Only you will be able to bring back this river. If you do not go yourself, your kingdom will fall to darkness.”
The matter was settled. Aelryk would leave his kingdom in the hands of his most trusted advisors and generals. With his whole heart he was determined to protect his people, even if it meant leaving them.
As he walked the stone floor of his palace his mind wandered to the memory of the mutilated bodies that had been brought back for him to see. Many of them were torn into several pieces. These creatures had attacked with such savagery that it was impossible to believe it could have been any beast known to man. These were dark creatures controlled by some evil force. The few who managed to survive were incredibly lucky. In their accounts, they had run but had not been pursued. They had witnessed many citizens being cut down with vicious claws while others were dragged away completely unharmed. For what purpose could these monsters take the living? Why were they murdering with such ferocity? Where had they come from and who were they serving?
The witnesses had described them as standing a head and shoulders taller than any man, dark blue-black skin, patches of wiry dark fur, huge fangs, and long scythe-like claws. Their eyes were golden and glowing, and their snouts were short and flat with wide nostrils. Small pointed ears sat atop their heads. In all his years, Aelryk had never heard of such creatures. His historians were at a loss to find any record of such a creature ever being described.
As he reached his council chambers, he could already hear the mixed voices of his twelve advisors coming from within. He stepped inside, and immediately his men quieted. They moved to stand behind their chairs and bowed their heads until Aelryk was seated at the head of the table and motioned for them to sit as well. “The Prophet Orzi has given me hope. He knows how I am to defeat these vicious creatures who have been attacking my people. Unfortunately, I know not exactly what is to be done, but with help from my historians I’m sure this mystery will be solved soon. Is there any news from the outlying villages?”
“No attacks have been reported for three days now.” General Morek’s voice sounded relieved. “The remains of one creature have arrived and are awaiting inspection by the mages.”
Aelryk turned to his mages. “I will leave you to your work, then. You are dismissed.” The three mages stood, bowed, and left the room without a word. A grave task lay before them.
“I won’t do it. They’re murderers. They’re not to be trusted!” Mel didn’t care that he was raising his voice at the clan overseer. He detested the men of Na’zora, and he would never forgive their crimes against his people.
“Yes you will. You will go without a doubt,” the overseer said with a smug sense of satisfaction. “Thinal is going.”
Mel glanced over at Thinal. Her dark eyes turned to Mel and danced with playfulness as her mouth turned up into a mischievous grin. Mel was speechless with frustration. He stormed from the overseer’s hut.
“Mel, wait!” Thinal had followed him from the hut. “You’re not really mad are you?”
Mel sighed and looked up at his mate. “You know I could never really be mad at you, but this is dangerous. These men can’t be trusted. The best we can hope for is an easy chance to kill them all.”
“Oh, Mel. Where’s your sense of adventure?” She took his hands in hers and laughed playfully. “There has been peace for many years now. They have tried to make amends, and they’ve been fair with us. I’m not defending the past, but I don’t see any reason to fear them now.”
“I’m not afraid!” he shouted. Lowering his voice, he added, “I just don’t trust them. We’re expendable to them. We can’t expect their help if trouble finds us in the Wildlands.”
“You mean when it finds us.” She smiled and drew her sword from her back. “Don’t worry, love. I’ll protect you.”
Mel laughed and threw an arm around her waist, drawing her towards him. He kissed her passionately, and all his reservations about the upcoming journey fell away. His love for Thinal was much stronger than any emotion he had felt. She was impulsive and adventurous, his exact opposite, but he loved her. If she was going, he would always follow.
“So,” she said. “Should we get back in there and start planning for our trip?”
“They can wait an hour or two.” He grinned and led her towards their hut. Making love with Thinal was far more important than planning a trip with a couple of human emissaries.
The men had come seeking aid from the Wild Elves. They needed scouts who could track and locate the monsters now inhabiting the Wildlands. There was no better scout than Mel.
* * * * *
Afternoon came as Mel and Thinal lay in each other’s arms. Thinal awoke and kissed Mel on the nose. He stirred and rolled onto his back. “Wake up, sleepy!” She slapped him on the chest. He startled awake and sat straight up. Thinal got out of the bed and began to dress. “Come on now,” she said. “We have a journey to prepare for.”
Mel slowly left the bed and began to dress. “Maybe they’ll decide they don’t trust us and they’ll piss off back home.” He knew they wouldn’t. All Wild Elves were experts on the forests and the creatures that dwell within it. New creatures, evil ones, had begun appearing. So far they had left the Wild Elves in peace, but traders at the borderlands had sent word of the beasts attacking the outlying villages of Na’zora. With his own eyes, Mel had seen these beasts passing north of the Elven border. They were surely driven by some unnatural force. Not once did he see them stop to take food or drink. They ran on towards Na’zora, and if the rumors could be believed, slaughtered the humans relentlessly and dragged others away.
Together they walked out of their hut and saw preparations being made for the evening feast. The emissaries from Na’zora were being treated as honored guests. Mel was disgusted. Here were representatives from a kingdom that had slaughtered his kind in the past. Now they pretended to be friends. They brought fine gifts with them including some jewels and fancy metal dishes. He wondered what good such things could possibly do for his people. Such gifts were entirely useless to them. Everything the Silver Birch Clan needed was supplied by its members. Food, shelter, clothing, weapons, and tools were all they needed. Spice and sugar gifts would have been acceptable. But these items he could get trading furs at the borderland markets. He didn’t need emissaries to bring them.
The Overseer was sitting on a woven chair outside his hut. He beckoned with his hand for Mel and Thinal to come over. Mel contemplated stabbing himself in the thigh to avoid the upcoming conversation. Just suck it up, he thought. Thinal was excited about the chance for adventure, and as usual, Mel would indulge her. He could never refuse his love anything.
“Mel, I’d like you to meet the emissaries from Na’zora.” He gestured to the two men seated on a low log bench to his right. “This is Loren and that is Mi’tal. You will be helping them track the unfamiliar beasts in hopes of finding their kidnapped citizens.”
“Surely there are others coming as well,” Mi’tal said.
“No, just Mel and his mate Thinal. Mel is an excellent tracker and Thinal is our finest sword maiden. You may consider her help a bonus.” The Overseer smiled smugly at the men.
Mi’tal looked back at Loren, and they both seemed disappointed. One scout, even a very clever one, to cover all the Wildlands wasn’t going to be a speedy process.
“Don’t look so disappointed,” Mel said. “I already know where your citizens have been taken. I’ve seen the creatures heading in and out of Al’marr.”
Loren rose to his feet, his temper flaring. “You’ve seen this and made no attempt to stop it?” he shouted. “Coward!” The two guards who had been standing around observing the other elves’ activities took notice of Loren’s tone and came to his side. Their hands rested on their swords in preparation for a fight.
Mel drew his knives from his belt as the Overseer stood and said, “Please, let’s be reasonable here. My Lord Loren, you can’t expect one elf to fight an entire pack of ferocious beasts. A few of our clansmen have seen these creatures, but all of them were alone at the time. We hunt using stealth, but once an arrow is loosed, all hope for secrecy is gone. Then one must face whatever threat is in front of him. You cannot expect a solitary hunter to carry out a rescue attempt.”
“Forgive me.” Loren looked down at the ground and then back to Mel. “I understand, and I apologize for my behavior.” The guards became visibly more relaxed as their hands moved away from their swords and hung casually at their sides.
Slowly, Mel sheathed his knives. “The bigger question is, what do you expect me to do?”
Mi’tal spoke this time. “We need to get a basic idea of these creatures. We need to know their movements, their behavior, and where exactly they are hiding our citizens. Most importantly, we must learn if the kidnapped citizens are being kept alive somewhere that we might rescue them.”
“Seriously? You’ve come all this way for that? I find it difficult to believe you have no scouts among men who are capable.” Mel was more than a little annoyed.
“There are no men in Na’zora with such an in-depth knowledge of the Wildlands. We patrol near our borders, but we very rarely venture far beyond that. Your people are knowledgeable of the area and highly skilled in tracking, so we’ve come to you. I can promise you that King Aelryk will reward you greatly for your help.”
The Overseer, who had been sitting quietly, finally spoke up. “We ask for no other reward than the continuation of peace with your kingdom.”
“No,” Mel said. “If I’m the one going, I ask for the reward of settlements for my people anywhere within the Wildlands. You have restricted us here in these forests and declared the rest of the Wildlands as off limits except for hunting. Our numbers are growing since the wars have stopped, and we need more land to settle. If I provide this service and help you to save the lives of your people, I will expect your king to consider my request.”
“You have my oath, Mel,” Mi’tal said. “You will have an audience with my king as soon as this matter is settled.” His blue eyes seemed sincere, and he extended his hand towards Mel. Mel nodded and shook Mi’tal’s hand. He did not trust men, but he was willing to give this one a chance. There was no way to talk Thinal out of going on this journey, so he may as well try to make the best of it.
As she did every morning, Lenora stood at the riverbank and watched her life mate perform his morning ritual. He stood naked in waist-deep water at the base of a small waterfall. Despite watching this ritual for over eight hundred years, she still could not help but worry. His life was a gift from the river, and each day he offered it back. She knew that one day the river would claim him.
His long brown hair flowed carelessly at the water’s surface. Though his back was facing her, Lenora could see that River had completed his offering and was conversing with the water’s Spirit. Many times the Spirit had granted him visions to aid their people. They knew when danger was drawing near and also when the rains would come. The Westerling Vale was a beautiful and magical place, thanks to the Spirit’s presence.
River turned and smiled at Lenora. Coming up from the water, he touched her chin and kissed her softly on her lips. She welcomed the kiss and enjoyed the warmth of his lips. After helping him on with his robe and placing a silver ring with a sapphire stone on his left hand, she put her arm in his and said, “Did the Spirit give you good news?”
“Today’s news is somewhat troubling,” he began. “I am not exactly sure what to make of it. It would be best if I called a meeting of the Elders and discussed it with them. Perhaps one of them can identify the creatures I saw.” He paused for a second and then asked, “Have you ever heard of a dark man-like creature with long curving claws? They seem very unfriendly but have so far avoided entering or crossing the river.”
Lenora thought about it as they continued walking towards the village. “I don’t believe I ever studied such a thing. I hope they aren’t a threat to us.”
River stopped and looked into her pale eyes but said nothing. “You seem troubled,” she said, breaking the silence. “What is it?”
“It’s just a feeling. Something is wrong, but I don’t know what it is yet.” He took both of her hands and kissed her cheek. “Do not worry, my love. The Elders will know what to do. I’ll speak with them immediately.”
River was highly respected among the Council of Elders. He frequently joined them in their meetings to share his visions and assist in any way possible to better the lives of his people. He had been feared by many of them as a child. His life essence had been granted by the river Spirit, imbuing him with great powers. No one knew his exact purpose, not even River himself. But their fears had all been for naught. The Spirit of the river was kind by nature and had no malevolence within it.
River headed towards the council house. It was a huge tree with silver leaves that stood at the center of the village. Two intricately carved doors opened to the hollowed area inside. The magic of the forest made the interior much larger than the tree outside would suggest. Most of the Elders had already gathered inside to discuss daily matters of life in the Vale.
“River, my friend.” Brandor, a tall fair-haired elf, strode forward to greet him. “Welcome this fine morning,” he said. “How are you?”
“I am well, Brandor, thank you. I have some news I wish to discuss with the council.”
“You are always most welcome here, River, of course. Please be seated while I gather the others.”
River sat at the oval-shaped table and waited. His mind swam with the images he had seen in the water. A heaviness weighed on the back of his mind, and he knew some work of evil was at hand.
The Elders each took their seats. “Good morning, gentle elves,” Brandor said. “This morning we are joined by Lord River, who has come bearing some news for us.” He gestured to River. “Go ahead, my friend.”
“My lords, I have had a vision that troubles me greatly. I have seen savage creatures roaming in the Wildlands. They are unknown to me, and they have a sense of evil about them. They have not, as yet, attempted to cross the river, but I sense that they do not fear the magical barrier. I believe they are powered by some unknown magic of a very dark nature. I cannot see where they are from or where they have been, but I do feel strongly that they are a threat to us. I believe it’s only a matter of time before they enter our lands.” River’s sapphire eyes were somber, his expression grave.
Silence filled the room with a heavy foreboding. The Vale had enjoyed many centuries of peace, and the thought of evil at its doorstep was difficult to digest. After a few moments, the Elders looked at one another. Finally, Rundil spoke. “My Lord River, will your magic be enough to protect our people from this menace?”
“For a while, I believe,” River answered. “But some unknown source is giving power to these creatures. I might be able to determine what they are if I could see them up close. I’m not completely sure whether they aren’t able to penetrate our magic or are choosing not to at this time. All I know is that the matter is most pressing. We must determine what this threat truly is.”
The Elders began chattering amongst themselves just as the doors to the chamber flew open. “My Lords!” cried Rogin. “There is evil at work in our lands. A dryad was found badly beaten. She’s been taken to my mother for healing.”
Brandor spoke first. “This is indeed distressing news. A peaceful magical creature attacked near our very borders!” The room sounded with agreement and the anxious voices of the Elders.
“I must go to her,” River said as he stood. “If these were the same creatures I saw in my vision, perhaps I can glean some evidence from her.”
“I’ll go with you, Father,” Rogin said. River placed a hand on his shoulder and together they walked to the House of Medicine.
Inside, Lenora was ordering her maids to bring herbs to halt the bleeding. She was a highly skilled healer, but the dryad was severely wounded and near death. She looked up as River and her son entered. “I don’t know if I can be of much help to her,” she began. “This is savagery I have never seen. I fear her injuries will prove fatal. All I can do is try to make her passing as gentle as possible.” Tears filled her eyes as she looked down at the beautiful creature lying before her. This was a peaceful fae of the forest. Harming a soul such as this was truly a most vile act.
River took her in his arms to comfort her, and she sobbed onto his shoulder. Dryads were indeed peaceful creatures who often assisted those who had lost their way in the forest. They were playful and good-natured and had no natural enemies.
Lenora wiped her eyes and stood back over the dryad. She laid her hands upon the dryad’s heart and whispered words of comfort. White magic flowed through her fingertips and into the suffering form of the fae. Her face, formerly twisted in pain, changed to an expression of peace. She let out one final breath. Lenora whispered a prayer to the Goddess of the forest.
River knelt beside the lifeless dryad and laid his hand upon her forehead. He closed his eyes as blue magic spread over the dryad. Within seconds, her body disappeared. “She is at rest now,” he said. “Her spirit is free. I have seen the creature who did this to her. I know now what it is we are facing.” He looked into his life mate’s eyes. “It is far worse than we could have imagined.”
End of Sample