"That's it, that's the final straw," she thought to herself. "I am a liberated woman and I don't have to take this!" Grumbling to herself, she packed her bags in the dark. Hard tack, a few gems, her brother's riding clothes, and some men's trousers. "Me? Marry? That thing? He looks like a... a... "
She stopped and sat down on the bed, head in her hands. "He looks like a dream boat." He was a looker, too, with those perfect blue eyes and the soft brown hair that her hands seemed to get lost in. And his smile-
Never would she submit to that sort of thing. It wasn't that she didn't want love or marriage, just not the variety he wanted. She stomped off, toward the stables and her horse. At least Baron understood her, if no one else. He whickered at her approach. She reached up to pat his neck, and then moved toward her tack.
As she saddled him, footsteps crunched in the snow outside. Her fingers flew, tightening the girth and securing her pack to the cantle.
His shadow darkened the stable door, but she refused to look up...
Ignoring the shadow, she sped off, galloping and growling away any second thoughts. She had made up her mind; there was no turning back. Baron ran swift and smooth, the finest horse of the land, some would argue. The woman could feel the wind blowing through her hair, the sun shining warmly on her fair face. This was freedom, she thought as she began to relax in the saddle. The call of her name made her tense again...
She felt the blood drain from her face. Not now! There was no time for this now. She clenched her teeth and grumbled to herself as she tugged slightly on Baron's reigns, effectively slowing the horse to an anxious, stomping stop.
"Eliza!" The shrill voice called again as a small form hurried through the snow-covered field toward her..."Eliza! Where are you going? You forgot your...your..."
"Spit it out, Charles!" Eliza snapped irritably as she watched the spindly, raggedy teenager approach, his face red from the effort of the long run.
"You...You forgot me!"...
"Hardly, but I was trying," Eliza replied in annoyance.
Charles looked crestfallen at her harsh words, but still moved to grab hold of the bridle when Eliza started to urge her steed onward once more.
"Take me with you!" he cried in a wheedling falsetto. "Please?"
"No! Shouldn't you be shoveling the sheds, or catching frogs, or something?"
Charles gave a noncommittal shrug and smiled up at her with those big and brown, puppy-dog eyes of his. "Please," he implored her again.
Eliza shook her head in angry frustration, then decided...
"Fine, then, just quite your incessant whining!" She reached down and grasped Charles by the front of his shirt, literally pulling him off his feet and onto the back of her horse. "Just hold on and..."
Harsh screeching from the skies above them cut short Eliza's stern words. She whipped around in the saddle, shielding her eyes from the light of the sun and tried to find the source of the noise, although she had the ominous feeling she already knew. Her heart sank as her suspicions were confirmed.
The foreboding shapes of great, black birds of prey littered the horizon to the west, sweeping down out of the low clouds to glide at treetop level. Armed riders sat astride the beasts, their legs strapped to specialized saddles that allowed for unrestricted movement of their upper bodies. Eliza could see sunlight reflecting off of drawn steel. Charles clutched the back of her riding cloak in terror, urging her to ride.
Erik had come for her, as he had promised.
She whipped her head to and fro, searching for something, anything. At a good distance away lay the edge of the Darkening Forest. She would never make before her pursuers spotted them. Their only hope was to get there before being caught.
Eliza put her head down and kicked the horses flanks. "Hold on!" she growled to Charles.
Sensing her mistresss urgency, Baron put his own head down and took off like he had been fired from a heavy crossbow.
Charles let out a yelp and wrapped his arms around Eliza's waist as if his life depended on it - which it probably did. Erik had always been the jealous type. The waif-like boy pressed his face into Eliza's back, her wheat colored ringlets blocking his view of the oncoming danger from the sky.
Eliza pushed Baron on, the animal's hooves hammering the soft spring ground. The tree line was close, a hundred meters at most, but a dark shadow from above closed with every second. She snapped the reins again, her palms moist with fear.
"Don't worry! Well make it!" Charles shouted as Baron closed the distance between them and the trees. "All four of us!"
Eliza looked back at the boy as if he were daft, and then posed her query, "Four?"
Charles gave her a sheepishly guilty grin then, before nodding a reluctant affirmative.
"I brought Stretch with me!" he confided at last, though he the flapping of wings from behind them distracted him a bit. Baron stumbled over a rock, half-hidden by the melting snow, then recovered and continued on again.
"Who the devil is Stretch?" Eliza called back at the lad, thoroughly befuddled.
Charles reached into the pocket of his loose-fitting breeches then, and pulled forth a stark-white snow frog. He showed the creature to Eliza, who turned away in disgust, revolted by the creature. The trees cover stood but a few feet from them, but the wind-riders also drew nearer.
Eliza leaned over Baron's neck, pulling Charles with her. The dark forest's cover crept closer until they managed to duck beneath its canopy. A great blast of wind swirled around the horse's hooves, accompanied by the frustrated screeches of Erik's raptor-hunters.
Her heart hammered with the close call, but the most uncomfortable thing remained the strangle hold Charles had around her waist.
"You can let me go a bit or you'll find yourself on your own," she threatened as she moved Baron into a trot. "I don't know why I even stopped for you."
"Aw, Eliza. Wouldn't be fair if you went off on an adventure without me," he complained, his words jerking with the horse's movement.
"Twit. I'm not going on an adventure; I'm trying to get away from Erik and Liam. You think I want to be shackled to someone who wants to control me completely?" She snorted and turned her attention to the faint path through the trees.
They couldn't afford to rest until many miles had passed under Baron's feet. She could hear Erik's birds screeches echoing far above them and knew she'd not escape so easily. Instead of seeking shelter with the local folk, she and Charles would have to make do with what they could scavenge from the woods. Now, if only Erik would leave his wolves behind... But that, she knew, posited a futile hope.
Eliza strained to listen for other signs of pursuit behind her. She remembered the dark riders who had waited on the horizon and worried they would follow her into the forest.
Baron's heavy breathing sounded harsh in the mist, masking any stealthy sounds that might come behind them.
"Wha--" Charles began, his voice far too loud for Eliza's taste.
She elbowed him hard and growled, "Quiet, fool. Do you want to draw every hunter after us?"
He didn't answer in words, merely hugged her tighter again. Eliza urged Baron back onto the trail, pausing occasionally to seek for any sign of the hunters. For she knew they must follow and feared they'd not shake them until they passed beyond the wood's farthest border.
The morning sun's light barely reached them in the thick trees, yet Eliza could sense its movement into afternoon. Baron's hide bore the traces of the flight, foam flecking his neck where she could see. Regret that she must push him so nagged at her and at the next creek she pulled him up.
"Why are we stopping?" Charles whispered.
"We must rest Baron or be afoot the remainder of the way," she told him irritably. Did he remember nothing of creatures? She peered up at the trees' canopy, trying to ascertain if the raptors still flew above, looking for a way in. Fleet shadows passed overhead, indicating Erik had not called off his airborne surveillance.
"Come on. Let's walk a bit," she told Charles and waited for his complaint. He didn't disappoint her.
"But how long must we tramp along like this? Where are we going?" he continued on, his voice still hushed in obvious memory of her earlier caution.
They walked on for at least an hour's span, coming to an open glade. Eliza paused before entering it; aware they would become exposed to whatever eyes might be on the lookout for them. Perhaps a longer, but more covered route might be better.
Crashing in the underbrush opposite their position took the decision from her. She remounted and pulled Charles up behind her, turned away from the inviting meadow and fled deeper into the forest. Behind them, the sound of crashing grew louder and more frantic. Eliza risked a glance back in time to see a group of deer burst from the underbrush and rush across the meadow, apparently startled by some unseen force.
She pulled back on the reins and turned Baron aside, positioning her horse behind a large oak tree. Silencing Charles with a stern glance and a wave of her hand, Eliza heard once again the raucous screeching of one of the great birds of prey. The low-flying beast must have terrified the deer, which had entered the forest opposite where they had charged out of as a dark shadow appeared on the edge of the meadow grass.
Believing that Baron, along with Charles and his frog, remained well hidden from any aerial scouts, Eliza pulled her bow from the saddle and strapped on her quiver. She stood on the cantle to boost herself up and grasped one of the lower branches of the oak. Strong and agile, Eliza reached the upper higher branches of the tree in no time, and then positioned herself to take a quick look around to assess the situation.
A shadow passed over her face - the rider had circled back around for another view of the meadow. Glancing around her, Eliza saw no other sign of her pursuers in any direction. It seemed a single bird and its rider threatened to find them. Erik must have sent his men off in every direction to cover more ground. Smirking slightly, Eliza braced herself between the trunk and one of the larger branches. She readied an arrow, angling the bow somewhat sideways to avoid other branches above her head. Below her, Charles sneezed. Eliza grimaced, praying the rider had been too far away to hear it.
The rider passed the meadow and turned his mount again, reversing direction for the third time, apparently searching for the source of the noise. As they drew closer, Eliza steadied herself, cursing Erik beneath her breath as she let the arrow fly. The shaft whistled through the air, streaking towards her target with pinpoint accuracy.
Instinct told the bird that something was amiss, but by then it was too late. Eliza's arrow tore through the sky and buried itself straight into the beast's dark head, piercing its brain and killing it instantly. The rider felt his mount tilt, and knew immediately that it was dead. Quickly unhooking his legs from their straps, the man pulled off whatever heavy items he could from his body, anticipating a rough fall into the trees.
He pushed off the back of the bird, kicking out and away as he fell through the treetops and crashed onto the forest floor. The giant beast of prey went into a slight spin, shooting across the meadow in its final flight of death, then smashed headfirst into a mass of tree trunks, creating a bloody cloud of green leaves and black feathers. Eliza scrambled down to the forest floor, and sprinted across the clearing in search of the fallen rider.
She found him sprawled face down and lifeless. Eliza had never killed anyone before and the feeling was not pleasant. She looked above for more riders, but the sky had suddenly become very calm, the silence deafening. A sense of wrongness almost overwhelmed her, forcing her back toward Baron and Charles.
We need to leave, she told her companion as she checked the girth strap.
"We should head into that meadow," Charles said after a few moments. "It would be a nice place for your horse to graze."
"No," she replied, barely paying attention to the comment. "That would give Eric easier access to us. Were safer in here." Her voice held little conviction for she did not feel safe at all. She put her bow back on her saddle and walked around her horse to get a good look at the trail ahead.
"No, you don't understand. We should to into that clearing." A sudden edge to his voice seemed very out of place.
Eliza turned at his tone, wondering what he meant. Charles held her short sword, the shiny metal reflecting sunlight into his face, making his evil smirk look all the more menacing.
"Now we'll have to do it the hard way."
"What are you talking about?" Eliza tried to chuckle, hoping his actions merely indicated some ill-conceived joke. "Put that away. We have to get moving."
"Eric thought you might run away," Charles told her as he approached. "But he knew you trusted me."
Eliza figured out the game quick enough, and she no longer attempted laughter. She glanced at his sword again, then at her bow, still strapped to her saddle. Charles stood between her and the horse. She pulled an arrow from her quiver, but it hardly would prove an adequate weapon without her bow.
"If you're supposed to bring me to Eric, he won't appreciate it if you cut me up."
Charles laughed. "Oh, wounds can be healed." His expression grew grim. "At least physical wounds can. Do you know what it is like to be rejected by the only person you ever loved? Do you?"
"Please, Charles," Eliza said, backing up slowly. "You're six years younger than me. I helped look after you in your parents' absence. I've never seen you that way."
"How do I look to you now?" He asked, an evil grin sending shivers down her spine. "It's payback time." He rushed her.
Charles ran at Eliza with every ounce of strength his frail form could muster, the short sword held awkwardly in his inexperienced hands. The boy emitted a feral cry as he neared.
Eliza stood dumbstruck. Charles? Silly, scrawny, loveable Charles? Yet there it was, plain as day... loveable Charles charging her with intent to maim. She would have to desperately reevaluate her character judgment in the future.
"Charles, stop it!" she cried, although she felt certain he would not listen. As Charles drew closer, Eliza decided that the time had come for action, not words. She managed to evade him, rushing to Baron to grab her bow, and with all her strength swung it like a club at Charles's head.
The bow arced at the boy quite gracelessly, barely grazing his head. With the same lack of grace, borne of lanky adolescent limbs rather than the girl's desperation, Charles stumbled past where Eliza had been. Thinking quickly, Eliza used the momentum of the swing to dive towards the corpse of the Wind Rider. She fumbled with the leg sheath on the body, finally managing to pull the knife from its tight leather case.
Eliza jumped to her feet; fearful the boy would have had ample time to attack her while she struggled with the knife. Oddly, he just stared at her in confusion, sword lowered. They stood unmoving for a few seconds as if unsure of what had transpired. Confusion filled Charles eyes for a moment, then the evil gleam returned.
A geas spell? Eliza wondered, as the boy rushed her again...
Her back faced Baron now, but she had no time to grab her other sword. Instead, she met Charles charge with the dagger. He looked momentarily surprised at her defense with a smaller weapon, and that hesitation allowed Eliza to side step at the last moment, kicking the youth in the seat of his pants.
"Baron, kick, kick!" she called out suddenly. She had taught her horse a few tricks, never thinking of using them for anything more than showing off to her friends. However, as Charles stumbled behind Baron, she thanked her foresight in training her horse for such things.
One of Baron's hooves stuck Charles in the shoulder. A glancing blow, it numbed his arm, causing him to drop the sword and sink to the ground. Eliza winced, hoping he had no broken bones, but Charles seemed to not notice as he crawled toward his weapon.
She hurried past him and kicked the sword from his grasp. He tried to rise, but his injured shoulder refused to support him and he fell over. Eliza pushed him on his back, and then straddled his waist, her dagger held at his throat. His cold smile once again sent shivers down her spine.
"Do you have any idea how long I've been trying to get you on top of me?" he asked in an odd voice.
Although Eliza did not want to hurt him, her empty left fist lashed out at him instinctively at the lewd comment. Charles' head jerked to the side under the blow. When he looked at her again, blood seeped from his lip, but his grin remained unchanged.
"Why are you doing this?" she cried. "What did Eric do to you?"
"Do you even know how powerful he is?" Charles responded. "You cannot escape him."
While still under cover from the trees, enough light streamed between the leaves to let her see the shadows passing over them again. The riders had returned. Eliza thought it odd that they had disappeared at the time Charles had started his attack and had come back again after he failed. She pulled open his vest, ripping off two buttons in the process. Ignored his sick comments of how he liked it rough, she paid more attention to the odd broach pinned to his shirt. She detached the pin from the cloth with an immediate change in her attacker.
"Eliza, where am I?" Charles looked very confused. "What's going on? He tried to move and winced. "And why does my shoulder hurt so much?"
Eliza got off him and helped him to his feet. "Do you know how to get back to town?" she asked.
He looked around for a while, recognizing the forest. "Yes. What are we doing out here?"
"Eric's after me," she replied.
A curious expression crossed his face. Dim memories surfaced of Eric coming to him that morning. He told Eliza about it, explaining that the magelord had chanted some weird words and then done something to his shirt. That had been his last memory until now.
"He's only after me. You should be able to get safely back to town," she told him.
Charles nodded, too stunned to do anything else. Eliza mounted Baron before Charles could ask any questions.
"I'll be back in a few days," she lied, then kicked Baron into a trot. In one hand she clutched the reins, in the other the magical broach. If it linked to Eric somehow, she might be able to use it against him. Only time would tell.
She had seen three riders scouting in her area and wondered if she could make it through. They seemed to spot her and flew low over the trees.
Charles stood still in the quiet, snow-blanketed glade as the sounds of hoof and wing became fainter and fainter with each passing moment. When Eliza and Baron were finally out of sight, Charles despondently put his hands into his pockets, still wishing he could go along. Then he felt something cold and clammy brush against his hand.
"Gahhhh...!" he yelped with fright. He turned his pocket inside out, dumping a small blubbery snow frog out into the snow.
The boy began breathing again. He picked it up tentatively with both hands. "Hey there, lil' fella, how'd you get in my pocket?"
That's when it happened... Stretch made good on his name. The snow frog began to shift and grow in shape and proportion. Charles gaped in awe as the frog transformed before his very eyes. He flung the thing away into the snow as if it had burned him.
It grew to nearly twenty-four hands in height, with powerful-looking tree-trunk arms, eyes black as pitch, and a chilling aura of cold emanating from its pale rubbery skin. A magic-spawned white slaad crouched before the quavering youth.
Charles tried to scream, but no sounds came forth. The slaad leapt forward and slammed a heavy, bone-studded fist into the lad's head, knocking him instantly unconscious. The unholy terror slung the slim boy across its shoulder and loped after the fleeing rider.
The slaad hopped through the forest, singing loudly in its own guttural language.
"I don't mean to cause ha-a-arm! I just get hun-ger-y!" It crashed through the brush, sending squirrels and other small woodland animals skittering away. "Mmm-mmm--I smell woman-flesh."
Eliza stopped Baron in his tracks, listening to the horrid sounds emanating from the woods. Something approached something big.
She angled off her course and kicked the horse into a run, heedless of the rocks and fallen branches that littered the forest floor. Breathing hard and spurring the steed on with a slap on the flank, Eliza didn't see the ravine loom up until it was too late. Baron tried to skid to a halt, but lost his footing and plunged over, sending Eliza hurtling over his head and into the dirt. The horse rolled down the embankment, legs flailing wildly, barely missing the girl's tumbling form. After a moment she picked herself up, experimentally moving her limbs. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Baron, however, had not been so lucky. Eliza could see that he'd broken his foreleg in the fall. Tears welled in her eyes. She knew she had no choice but to leave him, yet it pained her to leave the animal to suffer. With regret, she took her bow and swords from the saddle and strapped them on.
Before she could pull her sword to dispatch Baron, an enormous, toad-faced creature came hopping towards her, looming over the edge of the ravine and staring at the fallen girl with its impossibly large, glassy black eyes. Eliza screamed. At the sound, Charles woke, his eyes flickered open and he turned his head toward his captor.
"Wha--what?" he yelped. Then he started screaming too.
The slaad hopped down and slung Eliza over its shoulder. She was too terrified to notice the broach clutched in her hand glowing with a strange amber light.
Erik stroked his goatee and grinned evilly. "I can taste your fear, my girl," he whispered, fondling a similar object as the broach she held with a secret satisfaction. "And it is delicious." The sorcerer held the broach up to his lips and kissed it. He believed one of his lieutenants or that pathetic boy had finally snared the girl and sent a telepathic demand to the holder of the other brooch to deliver her to him as soon as possible.
Eliza and Charles had both passed out from fear, but with the brooch in Elizas hand pressed against its flesh the slaad heard the call clearly. The monstrous frog-creature hopped happily off, both would-be snacks bouncing over its shoulder.
The world slowly swam back to Eliza, its horizon bouncing as her mind registered her location and how she had come her current situation. She shook Charles, but he remained unconscious. Determined to get out of this, she felt she would rather spend eternity in any hell then to surrender to that slime-ridden magelord. Unable to reach her sword or bow, she looked around for a weapon, any weapon, then realized she still held the broach she had taken off Charles in her left hand. What the hell, she thought, and then she slammed it hard into the huge, white frogs eye. A blinding light engulfed the area.
The slaad screamed and dropped its captives, clutching its injured eye. Eliza quickly regained her feet, but Charles wasn't as lucky. He fell face first into a snow pile and nearly got kicked by the blindly stomping slaad. For an instant, Eliza thought of leaving him. Then a small voice in the back of her mind reminded her how far Charles had already been dragged, just because of her.
Cursing, Eliza grabbed Charles shirt collar, pulling him up. The boy coughed snow as they ran, the furious slaad at their heels. It didn't take long for Charles to fall behind, his shivering voice calling Eliza to help.
Then he stumbled.
To Charles' surprise, the slaad didn't stop to get him. It simply trampled over him. Again, Charles felt cold snow filling his mouth as the monster's foot pressed him down. The slaad reached out for Eliza. She could feel its sickly breath on her neck and hear its laugh. She took a few more running steps, knowing that the game would soon be over. Snow fell away under Eliza. The frog beast's enraged howl became the last thing she heard, as its prey slipped away from it again.
Charles shook off the snow and ran after her, past the monster and over the edge of the cliff. As he and Eliza tumbled down the short incline, the slaad bowled the two over and kept going, the magical broach still calling to its mind. Singing merrily in a sonorous array of burps and burbles, it tramped through the snow at the bottom.
"Slaadi King hun-ger-y! Slaadi King hun-ger-y! Squelch! Squelch!" It stomped off in a straight line towards Erik's tower, heedless of the trees and other obstacles in its way, looking for its next meal.
Eliza pulled Charles up with her. As the slaad's head swung toward her for a moment she could see the broach, embedded in its left eye. The jewel still glowed, but with a quiet ambience, reflecting her relief at their narrow escape.
Charles had started to cry quietly, though he was doing an admirable job of trying to hide it.
"Oh, Charles, I'm sorry. I should have refused to take you with me," Eliza said. "I had no idea the forest would prove such a dangerous place." And now they'd lost Baron. Whatever would they do? Eliza took a deep breath and tried to maintain a brave front for the boy's sake. "Do you think you can get back to town on your own?"
"I--I think so," Charles stuttered.
"Take the knife," Eliza said, handing it to him. "And be careful."
She bid the boy good-bye as he moved off toward the trees and felt even more miserable than before. Completely alone without even a horse for company, she found her bow in one of the drifts, then set off in the other direction.
Suddenly, she heard a bird cry from above. Looking up, she saw two of Erik's riders wheeling in the sky above her. Eliza nocked an arrow as the two raptors dived down. Her arrow hit one of the birds, interrupting its flight, but the rider recovered. He brought his mount under control and landed a bit gracelessly a few paces away.
The rider of the unwounded raptor swung a mancatcher at her. Eliza dove to the side, avoiding the snare, and drew her short sword. The man laughed at her and urged the raptor on. The bird pounced and fell over her like a shadow of death, buffeting her with its wings and trapping her as the man dismounted. Eliza stabbed out wildly with her short sword, scoring a gash on the monster's belly, but the creature shrugged it off. Suddenly, she felt herself being dragged by the feet - the rider had her by the ankles. The other man had recovered from his crash landing and held a sword to her vulnerable neck.
"Still feel like fighting?" said the one pressing the sword to her throat, sneering at her. He stomped on her hand, breaking fingers and loosening her grip on her sword, which he promptly kicked away.
Eliza lay helplessly in the snow, her mind reeling from the pain. She knew these men wouldn't kill her except as a last resort, but that wouldn't stop them from hurting her badly. Before she could act, however, the sound of hoof beats came from behind her, and a familiar voice rang through the trees.
"Face your doom, villains!" came the predictably cheesy battle cry as a throwing axe slammed into the sword-wielder's skull, killing him instantly.
Charles heard the ruckus, and despite his own fear, ran back toward Eliza. He found her already in trouble and though he doubted he could save her, he headed toward them. Unfortunately, he failed to notice the third raptor rider until it was too late and the great bird bore down upon him.
"Hey! What? No!" the boy yelled as a net descended on him, pinning him so that he could not even reach his knife.
"Perhaps you shall ensure the girl's cooperation," said the rider before clubbing him unconscious.
Liam paced back and forth in his house, worrying about Eliza. He'd never meant to drive her away... Never meant to hold her in such a stranglehold that she'd rather flee into danger's clutches than stay.
He pounded the windowsill and stared out at the gray sky. Somehow, he knew she had fallen into serious trouble. The magelord Erik had frequently made forays into Esterhaven, looking for her. She'd always managed to avoid him until the last year. At that point, Liam had witnessed the confrontations between them and vowed he'd keep her safe from the madman living in the tower.
Well, he couldn't just leave her to go off and end up in Erik's power. A grim expression crossed his face. If he managed to keep her from such a fate, he'd promise her he'd not try to restrict her as other men did their wives.
He loved her, truly loved her, more than any other person in his life. And he knew what she thought of him and for the most part, he had to admit he had lived up to her view of him. With an oath, he flung away to make up a pack. He sought out his friend, Odie, and told him to make haste to find Eliza. Liam trusted the dwarf's tracking abilities, despite his rather odd way of going about things and knew Odie had a better chance of finding Eliza before he did.
Ignoring those who tried to hail him, Liam stalked into the stable and winced at Baron's absence. The vacant stall brought home just how much he missed Eliza and her quirks. He quickly saddled Job, his hunting horse, and set off in the direction he'd seen Eliza take off in.
Outside the village he picked up another set of tracks besides Odie's and Eliza's... Someone had followed her on foot and she'd taken that someone up on Baron. Liam rolled his eyes. It had to have been Charles. The youngster followed her around like a puppy. Liam kicked Job into a canter, following the trail in the snow, then pulled up abruptly. In the distance he could see dark forms circling the forest, then swoop into the trees.
Liam's heart sank. He knew those riders came from Erik and it spelled no good for Eliza. He kneed Job again and sped off toward the activity. Once he reached the woods, he picked his way through the underbrush, following the broken branches that pointed toward Eliza's path.
The sun began to sink beneath the horizon and the way became too dark to see. Liam began to despair of finding Eliza. And then he found Baron. The poor thing had managed to stand, but from the awkward angle of the horse's right front leg, Liam knew the animal had broken its leg. He drew his crossbow and prepared to put Baron out of his misery.
As he set the bolt, a strange tingling crawled up his arms. Golden light trickled from the trees to his right and within moments, five tall forms emerged from between them.
"Hold human, you have no need for this action. Allow us to heal this creature," the foremost male told him.
Liam backed off, uncertain if he should trust these... these... elves. Usually, these beings avoided any contact with humans like himself and Liam had little liking for those who used magic. As if they sensed his dislike of their kind, the leader, or so Liam believed, nodded at the others, who retreated a ways into the deepening shadows.
"Your mistrust is unwarranted, human," the leader said, and then turned to the obviously hurting horse.
The elf knelt beside Baron, placing his hands over the injured limb and chanting in some strange language. His hands began to glow and before Liam's eyes the awkward angle of the limb straightened until Baron could place his weight fully on it. Once Baron's leg had knit, the elf rose and laid a hand on the trembling horse's neck. Baron calmed and nuzzled the elf's arm.
"I am called Ulendil. My people do not wish to allow Erik access to one as powerful as Eliza. Baron will lead you to her. Though we will not become directly involved in this conflict, I have asked them to aid you in this."
Before Liam could reply, the elf... Ulendil, if he remembered correctly, melted back into the forest, leaving Liam staring after them and wondering if he'd been in the woods too long. He shrugged and turned his attention back to the horse he'd been prepared to dispatch.
"Well, old boy, it looks like you'll be my guide in this."
Baron gave him a disgusted look, threw his head up and moved off. Liam cursed under his breath and remounted Job. First, he had a runaway bride, then dealing with the likes of elves, and now he had to contend with a condescending horse. In the deepening gloom, he managed to keep Baron's rump in sight, more through Job's following the other horse than any talent of Liam's. Still, he didn't know how much longer they could keep going...
"Bully, Bully, BULLY!" Odikin Orecrusher shouted with glee.
A short barrel-chested dwarf came caroming onto the scene, mounted on Splay - his short, heavy war pony.
He vaulted from his barebacked charger and hit the snow running, his belt and harness veritably bristling with stout, razor-sharp throwing axes. With but a few running strides he'd clambered up a wind-fallen tree-trunk and leapt up behind the mounted Wind Rider.
Odie whipped an axe from his belt and brought it down with every ounce of strength he possessed, stabbing the butt of the axe-handle between the man's shoulder blades. The bird-beast shrieked in outrage and reared up, wings fluttering wildly in agitation... sending the crazed dwarf down into the slush.
The subdued rider slipped off the winged mount's other side, landing in a heap, but the bird paid him no mind; it began cocking and bobbing its head up-and-down in eager anticipation as it began stalking the nervously-whickering war pony.
Eliza was at a loss. Finally she came to her senses and snatched up the cloven-helmed sword-wielder's blade. She stumbled to her feet again, and tried to catch her breath. By then, Odie was scurrying about, whooping and whirling, jouncing and jumping around like a complete fool.
The lass watched in disbelief as the "mad dwarf" started to strut, skip, and caper around her in a circle... spouting out a merry song:
"Odie likes cheese...!
Odie likes bread... !
Odie wants venison pie, INSTEAD... !" (over-and-over-and-over-again).
Then he came to an abrupt halt right before Eliza, looked up at her expectantly, and hooted out, "Face your doom, villains!" It was one of the few lines Liam had taught him. The simpleton dwarf took up his merry dance once more, but the stricken scream of the war pony brought him up short once more.
Liam sighed in dismay as Job rounded yet another wall of brush only to see Baron trotting off down another overgrown path. At this rate, Eliza would be an old woman by the time they found her! Liam sat bolt upright as he heard a familiar clamor in the distance. A smile made its way across his face.
"Odie!" he yelled, deciding that if this was a journey he must undertake, he might as well have some company - or at least some entertainment... Liam spurred Job onward, although Baron had already cantered in that general direction. The two horses headed through a thicket down a hill into a pine grove...
Eliza gasped as she heard hoof beats. The dwarf pony stomped anxiously, which only served to agitate the crazy dwarf standing before her. Had Erik sent yet another entourage to capture her? She pushed to her feet... resolving that it would most certainly not be in her best interests to be captured by the sorcerer, for whatever purpose he had in store for her could not possibly be inviting. She picked up her short sword and stood ready as a horse burst through the pines.
Eliza could only stand there, shocked to see her horse... her friend she'd been certain would die. He appeared sound and with his arrival, had distracted the raptor from contemplating the crazy dwarf's horse as a meal.
A few moments later, more crashing sounded through the underbrush and another horse's head pushed through, revealing a disheveled Liam, sword drawn and almost as insane a light in his eyes as the madman on the pony. She shook her head, not certain this would prove any better than surrendering to Erik.
Before she could call to him, Liam attacked the raptor, beating at its head with his sword until it backed away and sprung into the air. With an angry screech, it flapped away, the backwash of its wings throwing dirt and gravel over those on the ground.
Baron nuzzled Eliza's arm as she coughed and tried to wipe the tears from her eyes.
"No need to weep, Eliza. We've time to get away from that beast," Liam began.
"Fool!" she spat at him. "I'm not weeping. That thing threw up so much grit, it got in my eyes." She turned her shoulder against him and began cooing over Baron.
Liam made a disgusted noise, and then sighed. "Sorry. Any way, I suggest we not dally here least Erik's minions decide to attack again. I can't guarantee my friend there and I could hold more than one off."
Eliza grimaced and reluctantly admitted he was right. "Oh, very well. And where do you suggest we go?"
"Best to head for Maywood. We should be able to reach it by daylight." He peered up at the moonlit sky. "Besides, I understand we have an escort that will assist us."
Eliza frowned at him and glanced around the dark woods. "Escort?"
He didn't answer her except with a smug expression and a shrug.
She wanted to growl at him, but instead asked, "So, expert, just which way to Maywood?"
A blank look crossed his face. "Umm..."
Before she could blast him for his arrogance and stupidity, a faint glow moved from her right and a whisper echoed in her mind.
To the north, milady. Follow the faerie lights.
And with that, a tiny sparkle appeared beside her and darted off a small distance, bouncing and bobbing in impatience at her lagging behind.
"Remember I told you about the escort?"
Eliza's frown deepened. "Just who or what did you make a pact with this time?"
Despite the pale silvery moonlight, she could tell he grew flushed. "I can't tell you right now. Maybe later. I made a promise. Unless they want you to know, I can't say."
With an irritated sound, Eliza mounted Baron, held her hand out to a very subdued Charles for him to ride behind her, and moved off toward the tiny light in the distance. Behind her, Liam grumbled, but followed her without any protest. Odie climbed aboard his pony and both shambled along behind the others.
In the darkness, Eliza allowed herself to grin. She patted Charles hands around her waist, glad whatever terrible geas had gripped him earlier no longer held him in its power. He'd always seemed more a younger brother than anything else.
Now, if she could just escape that crazy sorcerer she might make a decent life for herself. That would be if she didn't mind sharing it with a would-be hero, his deranged dwarf sidekick, and one puppy-like youngster who insisted on following her.
The night grew dark for Eliza. The moon overhead seemed bright and bloated and it laughed at her, mocked her. All her hopes and dreams would never come true. All she wanted to do was sing!
The dwarf's grumbling sounded louder then any thunderstorm. Even Liam mumbled a couple times. Eliza sighed in frustration as she tried to find a comfortable spot in the saddle. Liam had made it totally clear they must reach Maywood rather than making camp. She found herself slumping, then jerking upright to scan the inky black forest for signs of trouble. Still, she knew sleep would eventually catch up to her, no matter how alert she tried to be.
A shrill cry sounded in the distance, bringing Eliza to full attention. She didn't know how long she had drifted off, but her fatigue vanished in a rush of adrenaline. Those cries had come from the winged riders raptors. Quickly, she searched the area, noting the magical lights had disappeared. To her right, the dim moonlight shone on a large group of dark figures.
Shidamae stood off at the edge of the elves' encampment, scanning the forest with her night eyes. Beside her, her brother Sansorin was doing the same, his hands clenched around the hilt of his sword.
Shidamae took note of his stance and was not reassured. She couldn't explain it rationally, but she sensed a malevolent presence in the forest tonight that even her elven eyes could not see.
"Why do you think Ulendil sent us?" she asked softly, still remaining on the alert.
Sansorin's gaze remained outward, but he arched one brow and responded, "No doubt Ulendil, in his great wisdom, has good reason for guiding this human. It is not our place to question his decision."
Shidamae smiled despite her nervousness. Sansorin always had the proper response to everything. Proud and reliable, Sansorin would never allow curiosity to get the better of him and cause him to do anything foolish.
"The human woman is not a mage, or even a trained warrior," she continued, reasoning aloud. "Perhaps she is one of those rare individuals whose power is a circumstance of birth..." Shidamae's voice trailed off as a shiver coursed up her spine. She drew her sword in a lighting-quick motion and whirled around, sensing a presence at her back. Sansorin had done the same, the two standing on guard facing towards the elven camp.
Out of the darkness came an elf maid running on silent feet, her eyes wide and black with fear. So pale was her face that it seemed a ghost had lit through it, glowing in the moonlight with a haunting radiance.
"Aurilea?" Shidamae whispered, dread draining the strength from her voice.
"It's Ulendil," sobbed Aurilea. "He was murdered in the midst of the encampment!"
Sansorin's eyes were set like stones. "Go, Shida. I will remain here."
Shidamae nodded and followed Aurilea back to the camp. The elves were on guard, weapons drawn, while a small knot was gathered around the base of a mighty oak. The two elves slipped through the crowd and came to the side of the fallen Ulendil. He was lying on the ground at the base of the tree, staring blankly at the faces above him.
Amid the weeping, a healer knelt at Ulendil's side, looking him over for the wound that had caused his death.
"There are no marks," she said, confusion twisting her fair features. "Not even those of a dart."
"How could this happen?" Shidamae said finally. "Did none of you see his killer?" She bent down and touched the dead elf's face. It was wide and staring, mouth twisted in horror and anguish. There was no doubt that Ulendil had been killed suddenly and painfully.
The healer shook her head. "Do not cast blame, young Shidamae. Ulendil was not murdered by any conventional means."
Shidamae had reached the same conclusion, but still she could not believe that their leader could be assassinated so cleanly, without his killer leaving any evidence behind. Pacing out into the trees, she began searching for clues...
Something caught her eye, and she stopped in her tracks.
Elves. Thank the gods, they were elves; a dozen at the least.
Liam relaxed once more as the bird's distant cry echoed a second time - as the Wind Riders continued their relentless search for the young woman.
The man moved out to intercept them, but they practically ignored him, gazing instead at Eliza with their intense, unfathomable orbs. They had reached the Maywood.
The group set up camp in a copse of trees whose branches intertwined, forming a natural windbreak and canopy which looked promising enough to offer shelter against the gales and snowfall.
Liam had gathered the components to build a fire and was attempting to bring it to life, the boy and dwarf were busy tending to the mounts, and Eliza was nearby inspecting her once-injured fingers.
At last, the fire blazed up; a glimmer of budding warmth began to spread out over the small, wooded copse.
"I don't know why you thought you had to bring that odious dwarf along," Eliza complained in irritation of the continuing noise that always seemed to accompany the unpredictable dwarf.
"I did not," Liam proclaimed his innocence. "You heard his song as well as I; he was `hunting' venison pie." Eliza ignored the bad rhyme.
Liam was smiling, as he always did whenever Odie was about. And with Charles thrown into the mix... well, it would be an understatement to say that "true chaos" was brewing within the group.
Behind them, they heard Charles take up the title Eliza had just bestowed upon the crazed dwarf... as he began chanting out "Odie the Odious" repeatedly. They both looked up to see what effect those words would have on the dwarf. Indifference, or was it pleasure?
Charles and Odie had locked wrists and were spinning exuberantly about chanting the mantra cheerfully. Charles was certainly no help, either, taking the lead in the song as his thin voice trilled out in the night.
"He's Odie the Odious...!
he sounds so melodious...!
he's brash and he's bold...!
and woefully toadiless...!"
While the dwarf simply chanted out:
Eliza shook her head in disgust and stomped off in a huff. Liam hurried after her, refusing to let this pass. He caught up to her and put his hand on her shoulder; she flinched in pain and whirled about glaring. The man held his hands up in mute surrender.
"What is this about?" he asked in his serious voice. "And don't make any excuses concerning the dwarf; whatever it is, it has nothing to do with him. Besides, I would think you might be a bit more grateful for his aid."
"I am, but..."
"I just don't know what to do," she finished softly.
"Your power is growing... and it scares you, doesn't it?" Liam consoled the young woman. He wrapped his arms around her waist and held her close. He felt rather than saw her quiet nod of affirmation. "It has even grown large enough to attract the notice of the 'good' sorcerer."
"That is why you have been refusing to use it," Liam stated, knowing it to be the truth. Again only silent acquiescence. They stood there listening to the sounds of the night, until the mood was finally broken by the beginnings of a new song.
"Odie likes beer... !
Odie likes ale... !
Odie wants to drink it right from the PAIL!"
Charles' gurgling laughter chased the droll song's melody.
Eliza could almost feel the angry eyes of the elves glaring down at them from the surrounding trees as the boisterous clamor peeled across the glen. But then, as long as the fair folk refused to be a bit more forthcoming concerning the strange circumstances surrounding them all... the exhausted lass didn't really care about `their' wants.
The young woman felt a stab of guilt as the unchivalrous thought popped into her head. After all-- they had healed her fingers, or rather, that elven cleric had; what had her name been? Auril? Aurilea? ... something like that.
Liam and Eliza went back to the moderate warmth of the fire and settled down to take their rest-- and to await whatever the fates had in store for them on the morrow.
The next morning, camp broke early, much to Charles' chagrin, who had to be dragged onto his feet by Odie and dangled headfirst into the stew pot to be woken. This caused a ruckus that only a dozen armed and humorless elves could effectively quell, and added to Eliza's growing discomfort.
She had started feeling sick shortly after waking, and could not keep her breakfast down. Her short sojourn into the bushes had evoked concerned looks from Liam, but she merely scowled at him and told him she was still stressed from the events of the day before. He was acting like a dutiful husband fussing over a pregnant wife, Eliza thought, not liking the comparison at all.
The elves politely made themselves scarce (as only elves can do) until Eliza's coloring had returned to normal and she was laughing at Odie and the boy's ridiculous antics. The camp quieted suddenly as an uncommonly tall elven male, slender as a silver birch, stepped out of the trees.
"I am called Sansorin," he said, his eyes finding each of them in turn and holding their gaze with a look of otherworldly comprehension. "I am the effective leader of this group. As you may know, we have pressing matters to attend to and thus cannot accompany you on your journey. As it is, I can tell you little about why you are important to the People, but I do know that Ulendil's last instructions were to deliver you to the Forest of Andalast. There you will be accepted by Queen Estaria, most highborn Daughter of the People." His dark eyes snapped to Odie, who was sprawled casually on the ground, stuffing grass in his mouth to make his cheeks puff out and making faces at the elven warrior. "Some of you, perhaps," the elf amended coolly.
"But how will we find the Forest of Andalast?" Eliza asked meekly, enthralled by this strange creature standing before her.
Sansorin produced a parchment from under his fine cloak and handed it to her. Eliza unrolled the scroll and found it to be a detailed map of the region, spanning hundreds of miles. The Forest of Andalast was marked as a dark blot somewhere to the west. "Take a good look at it, then cast it into the flames," Sansorin told her. "We will try to guide you when we are able." Without another word, he melted into the forest.
When he had gone, Eliza silently went to Baron and began tacking him. The horse nickered softly as she threw her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. "Baron, I don't know what to do," she whispered. "When we left town, I had no idea where I would go, as long as it was far away. Now I'm supposed to go see the Queen of the Elves. The Queen of the Elves!"
She felt a gentle pressure on her back. Liam stood next to her, stroking her hair. She turned to face him.
"Do you think this is insane?" she asked him, laughing shortly. "Why in the world would the elves have an interest in me, of all people?"
"I don't know the answer to that, Eliza," Liam said. He spoke gently, but to her he seemed distracted by some disturbing thought.
"What is it?" she asked him.
"Nothing," Liam replied unconvincingly. "Come on, we'd better go make sure Odie and Charles aren't getting into trouble."
Erik vin Drako opened the heavy door to his summoning chamber with a sharp command and calmly walked to the dais, his boots clicking on the polished stone floor. There the sacrifice had been bound and drugged, as he had instructed his apprentices.
"Still awake?" he murmured, bending down to plant a soft kiss on the girl's cheek and brushing her face with his long, straight dark hair.
She wore a thin white gown of gossamer threads, one that did little for her modesty but nevertheless made her look deliciously innocent. It was really unfortunate that so many rituals required virgin blood, Erik thought salaciously.
The girl stared at him with empty eyes as he raised a ceremonial dagger and began chanting in a strange tongue. The dagger began to glow, shedding a greenish light. Magical energy began to dance about Erik's fingertips, seeking release.
"Abrek dus vili kharist arys dal!" he intoned as the spell came to a climax. He plunged the dagger into the girl's heart and drew it out, still beating. She gave a brief spasm and then lay quiet, her life force ebbing away.
Erik sat on his obsidian throne and ate the heart with a glass of fine Elvish wine, consuming the blood spiced with his alchemical brew. Soon he began to feel the lightheadedness that often accompanied a summoning. Experienced at this sort of work, he fought off his mental inertia and focused on the doors of the spirit realm, which were fast parting in his chamber.
A moment later, the magical veil invisible to all but the most skilled practitioners of the Art fell away to reveal an otherworldly creature with the face of a tiger and dressed in fine silks.
"You requested my presence, Your Malificence?" said the rakshasa in a bored, sarcastic tone, flicking out a golden pick and expertly cleaning its long nails.
"You performed your task with the usual excellence, Rajah," Erik said, staring down at the dangerous creature. "The elves will be too busy puzzling over their pathetic leader's death to be of much use to Eliza. It may be some time before her party finds its way to Andalast--giving you ample opportunity for the next phase of your mission."
The rakshasa narrowed its catlike eyes. "Must I remind you that I am no simple assassin to be ordered about?" the creature said haughtily. "I have worked for greater magelords than you, vin Drako, and do not forget that I possess sorcerous talents even beyond the norm of my kind."
Erik did not give the malevolent spirit the satisfaction of looking worried. He knew the Rajah was protected from the common vulnerabilities of his race and possessed a native resistance to lesser magic, but Erik was no lesser mageling.
Still, it would not do to antagonize this powerful and useful creature.
"I think you will find it much to your benefit to do what I am about to ask of you," Erik said calmly.
"And what exactly would that be?" asked the rakshasa, showing a flicker of interest.
"Capture one of Eliza's party--the boy, perhaps--and deliver him to me when I summon you again. You shall impersonate him and find out everything you can about Eliza. What she knows about herself, what other allies and connections she might have, even her relationship with her companions."
"The girl is heading for Queen Estaria's court," the rakshasa said disdainfully. "I could not even enter the place."
"You will make your move to capture Eliza before the companions reach the Forest of Andalast," Erik clarified.
"And the others?" "Kill them," the sorcerer said coldly.
To be continued...