An ashen faced and trembling Norm kissed the ground outside Narsis’ shop. Mira tugged at her ear as she opened and closed her mouth to pop it. It was going to be a while before she’d be able to hear normally thanks to all his screaming. She made a mental note to warn their earthbound colleague before scooping him up to fly next time.
The old gnome’s initial delight at their swift return was stripped at the sight of their stern faces. He hurried to make tea, and waited patiently for them to explain what happened.
They stuck to a loose explanation of encountering the first four wolves and tracking the wounded one back to the den. It was clear by his furrowed brow he didn’t understand why they were so concerned. Not until they got to explaining smoking the pack out anyway.
“Goblins!” Narsis balked as the word “warg” came from Norm’s lips. “There were goblins!?”
“Not goblins,” said Norm, the color not quite back in his face yet. “A warg.”
“Yes, yes, I got that,” he huffed. “The point is—.”
“Where there are wargs, there are goblins,” Echo completed his thought. “Yes, we are quite aware.”
His jaw tensed as he studied the duchess. “Have you any idea what trouble this means? Not just for us but the whole bloody kingdom?”
Echo’s face twisted with skepticism. “Forgive me, master. I mean no offense, but it’s just a little thorp. I can’t imagine it’s of much importance before the whole of Welmin.”
“Can’t imagine…” Narsis shook his head in disbelief. “This little thorp is the only stable crossing over the Dolmnas River for over a hundred leagues. Caravans depend on it for trade. There are dozens of them traveling through here right now. Far more will soon follow.”
“But if goblins start attacking…” Echo’s eyes flashed with understanding.
“Exactly.” Narsis nodded firmly. “The caravans will go elsewhere. Taking millions in trade and coin with them.”
“Welmin’s economy will collapse,” she muttered more to herself. “Thousands could—.”
The front door practically exploded off its hinges as a farmer hurried inside, and with him came a horrible commotion. Screaming. Pounding feet. Whatever silencing spell kept the shop quiet was dispelled, allowing the cacophony in.
“Dame knight!” he cried over the din. “My lady, help!”
Mira leapt from her stool. “What is it?” she sputtered, choking on her tea. “What’s wrong?”
“Night elf!” he blurted. “There’s a night elf approaching the village!”
No further words were spoken. Without as much as a backwards glance, Mira barreled into the street.
Panicked screams and thundering feet stampeded about her. She alone raced against the tide. Fear-struck eyes turned at the sight of the blue and silver of her tabard as she charged towards danger. Her wings snapped open, and with a single flap, she was up.
The emblem of the great Dragon of Sitri emblazed on Mira’s breast soaring overhead drew a collective cheer. Her pulse thundered in her ears as she reached for her sword.
Night elf? she mentally whimpered. Here!? During the day? Myria’s feathers. Could that warg’ve been his? Gods help us! What if he’s a scout!? Or… Or working with the goblins. Goblins and night elves? Captain, what did you send me into?
Climbing over the tops of the buildings, she spotted him. Stone gray leather armor and cloak, snow white hair held in a loose topknot, and skin dark as night. On his hip sat an arming sword and parrying dagger, coupled with a row of throwing knives. He certainly looked like a scout.
Eyes locked on target, her fierce wingbeats rocketed her to top speed. A surprised yip called from behind. She glanced back to find Echo caught in her turbulence, but for the moment, she had to forget her charge. Cawold needed a knight. Mira tucked her wings into a power dive and screamed towards the earth.
Steel shrieked from her scabbard. She had the perfect angle for his neck. She’d end him with a single stroke.
“Hold!” a gentle voice was forced to shout.
To Mira’s horror, the priest from the road, Brother Luke, threw himself between her and the night elf. No time to stop. There was hardly any airspace between them. She banked for all she was worth.
Needle sharp prickles tore at her exposed face. She’d avoided colliding with anyone, but she couldn’t avoid the hay cart. Her hand flew to her mouth to dig the feed away to breathe. Heat washed her face at crashing, but the embarrassment was short lived as her mind went back to the night elf that was, likely at that very moment, bearing down on her.
Every thought turned to freeing herself from the hay, but it was no good. The weight of the fodder pinned her wings. No matter how she thrashed, she couldn’t escape.
Dull thuds echoed through the cart. Mira gasped as she felt someone moving around her. Rustling and scratching found her ears. They were digging her out. In seconds, cool air filled her wings, and then a hand snagged her hauberk.
She sighed inwardly as she was pulled free. Brother Luke must’ve reached her first. A night elf would’ve seized the opportunity to finish the incapacitated knight.
Righting herself, she turned to thank him and gasped. Violet eyes met hers. Confusion and concern etched the night elf’s face.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
A scream unbecoming a knight erupted from Mira. Her wings beat of their own accord, blowing hay everywhere. He shielded his face against the frenzied feathers whipping him and leapt from the cart.
On shaky legs, Mira managed to find her feet. She’d lost her sword in the hay. No time to find it. Snagging the dagger from her boot, she staggered to the cart’s edge.
“Friend, wait!” Brother Luke cried as he hurried towards them. “Look to his belt! His weapons are bound!”
The night elf raised his hands in surrender. “Peace between us, dame knight,” he said calmly. “I desire no conflict.”
There was something odd about the way he spoke. His accent, the way he drew out his syllables made it clear he wasn’t accustomed to speaking the tongues of surface dwellers. Elegant in a way, yes, but wholly off to the zephyra’s ears.
Her eyes flicked to his weapons. As Brother Luke said they were all bound. The knives were securely tied in their sheathes. An elaborate knot held his sword fast. He couldn’t have drawn if he’d wanted.
Wings flaring, her eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“First,” he began, his tone soft and slow, “allow me to apologize. It wasn’t my intent to cause such distress.” Tapping a cupped hand to his chest, he introduced himself. “I am called Zhel. I serve the Moonlit Maiden, Lady Lu’Arien.”
At the sound of the Lady’s name, Brother Luke visibly relaxed. “Sheath your blade, friend,” he said to Mira as he retrieved her sword for her. “He is more threat to his people than us.”
“Only to those who continue to be blinded by the Veiled Queen,” said Zhel.
A warm smile crossed Brother Luke’s face as Echo and Norm caught up. “Most nu-duwar, night elves,” he explained, “serve the Veiled Queen, Ra’cest’Taul, but rumor grows of division in their ranks. A ‘heretical cult’ within their society who serve the Queen’s daughter, the Lady Lu’Arien.”
“We who serve the Maiden,” Zhel began, “dream of returning to the surface. To live in the light of her father, and shun the darkness of her mother.” A dreamy look came upon his features. “A small group of us were chosen by her holiness to find a place for our people. I’ve traveled far, following her will to be here today.”
Mira’s grip retightened on her hilt. “So you are a scout.”
Zhel’s head bobbed side-to-side. “In a sense, but I assure you, dame knight.” He bowed his head to her. “I mean you know harm, and am prepared to do whatever I must to prove my words.”
“Well then.” Norm clapped his hands together. “Talk about timing…” The zephyra knight’s face scrunched at his outburst. “We might have a little problem heading this way. A… goblin problem.”
Eyes shooting open, she snagged his arm.
“Look,” Norm said bluntly. “Any tribe big enough to field wargs is more than the three of us can handle.”
“But… What…” Mira sputtered, struggling to find words. “The caravan guards! I’m sure we can enlist a few of them.”
Shaking his head, Norm rolled his eyes. “Just a bunch of rowdy drunks, and that’s by my standards. Half are so green I’m not sure they know which end of the spear to poke with, and the others should’ve retired ages ago.”
“Well… Well, what about the local garrison?” Mira all but pled.
“What garrison?” Norm snorted with disgust. “The noble prats whose families have enough coin to buy them out of real soldiering? That garrison?”
Mira shot Zhel a sideways glance. “You’d rather trust us to him?”
“I actually am quite experienced fighting goblins, dame knight,” Zhel interjected.
There was a tug at Mira’s elbow. She found Echo looking up at her cautiously. With a surreptitious jerk of her head she sent her knight’s eyes to the gathering crowd. Curiosity had overcome fear.
“Everything is alright!” Brother Luke called to the massing group. “He is an outcast, excommunicated by the vile goddess queen of his people. He seeks only work and peace.”
“Let’s continue this back at Narsis’ shop,” said Norm. “Too many ears. Don’t want to cause another panic today.”
Eyes and murmurs followed them through the streets. Even the strongest looking caravan guards gave way to the night elf. Curious children peered between the sea of adults, none yet capable of understanding the shock of a Sitrian knight walking with a nu-duwar.
Despite Brother Luke’s assurance, Mira couldn’t take her hand off her hilt, nor could she let him walk behind her. She and Echo put Zhel between them and the men. If he had thoughts of a double cross, she’d cut him down before he could look at his blade.
“Ah, Norm,” came Narsis’ voice as the human stepped inside his shop ahead of the others. “I trust the problem has been dealt with?” From the pause, Mira could tell the old gnome had stopped to shake his head. “To think, a night elf, here. And at this time of day? He must’ve had a death wi— What is that thing doing in my shop!?”
“Greetings, master alchemist,” Zhel began respectfully as Mira closed the door behind them. “I understand you’ve trouble? Trouble of the goblin variety? I am here to help.”
“He says he serves some ‘Moonlight Maid,’” said Norm. “Considering what we’re up against, I say we could use whatever help we can get.”
“Moonlit Maiden,” Zhel calmly corrected him. “But yes. Your friends were scarce on details, but if goblins are about, I am happy to lend my blades. They are no friends of my mistress.”
Narsis didn’t look at him, in fact, it didn’t seem like he even heard him. “And you trust him?” the gnome sputtered.
“Priest-y says we can.” Norm nodded towards Brother Luke. “You ever known a monk of Korik to lie?”
“You’ve a point,” Narsis muttered. His eyes snapped to Zhel. “So does the knife that gets sunk in your back.”
Zhel raised both hands, showing he held no weapon to the gnome. “Your concern isn’t unfounded, master,” he admitted. “Too long have we nu-duwar been blinded by the Veiled Queen. I wish only the opportunity to prove myself respectable, in the name of my Lady.”
The gnome’s jaw clenched and released several times. “Well, dame knight, what say you? You are technically the one in charge here.”
The young knight’s wings froze half-flared at the revelation. Echo may have been the ranking noble, not that they knew it, but in martial matters she was the expert. At least, she was supposed to be.
She winced against the memory of her first deployment as a squire. All those years ago. Still just a girl. The blood. The fire. Smoke—.
With a hard jerk of the head, she forced her mind back to the present. When her eyes readjusted to reality she found the concerned face of the priest looking at her and with it, her answer.
“Brother Luke says we can trust him,” she said with finality. “We at least owe him a chance to prove what he says.” Myria’s feathers. She turned so they couldn’t see her gulp at her decision. I hope he’s right.
“In that case,” Echo began as she grabbed a stool and sat it at one of the empty tables. “We need a plan. Has anyone a map?” Narsis dug one out and handed it to her. “Our first order will be locating them.”
Norm raised a curious eyebrow. “And how are you planning on doing that?”
Echo rustled her wings. “Dame Mira and I can do a high altitude flyover. There’s little cover for miles. Should be easy to spot their camp.”
“An excellent idea.” Zhel nodded thoughtfully. “The ground is still too damp to tunnel. If they’re near, you should be able to spot them.”
“I’m still praying it was just a chance encounter.” Echo sighed. “Hoping we simply ran into their pet en passant.”
“I’m here,” Norm grunted. “If my luck has anything to say, we’ll be dealing with a damned orcish war band back from extinction.”
“Oh come now. I’ve seen that wife and daughter of yours.” Naris chuckled. “Your luck.”
“Good point. Better make that an orcish war band back from extinction riding dragons.”
Echo paid him no attention as she continued. “Mira and I’ll take off in opposite directions, climb to our ceilings and circle back sunwise. If they’re within a hundred miles, we’ll know within the hour.”
She reached into her dress and pulled out the tiniest book. It was leather bound and very obviously a spell book given the strange runes and glyphs adorning it, but the whole thing fit in the palm of her hand.
Skeptical glances were cast at her.
“What?” she said at a loss.
“No offense, my lady, but aren’t spell books supposed to be,” Mira’s lips screwed up, “bigger?”
Echo looked at her from under her brow and huffed. She pressed a series of glyphs on the cover. Energized humming emanated from the miniscule book. Then she tossed it in the air and reached out to catch the massive tome that fell into her arms.
“It’s a grower,” Echo snipped. She muttered to herself as she flipped through the pages before settling on something. “Here we are.”
Without asking permission, she snagged thee necklaces off a display rack. Waving her hand over them, she encanted bizarre words that hummed with power. Light danced across the jewelry. Electricity arced between them.
The final word spoken, the light faded. Echo slipped one around her neck, and handed the others to Mira and Norm.
“A minor enchantment,” she explained, “but excellent for simple communication. If you spot the camp, tap the pendant twice and they’ll all begin flashing. Blue for me, green for Mira, and red for Norm. Hopefully,” she sighed, “we won’t need them, but if we do, make directly for the shop. Do not engage, my knight. We’ll come up with a strategy from there.”
Zhel looked outside and huffed. “Time is against us.” He turned back to them, face hardened. “You should hurry.”
Mira shrugged off her armor— it was too difficult to soar at her maximum altitude in it —and joined Echo outside.
“Remember,” Echo said as they climbed high into the sky. “This is reconnaissance. Do not try to fight them on your own.”
The knight laughed softly. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
In little time, the air grew thin and cold. Cloudless and devoid of turbulence, it was the perfect sort of weather for soaring. The zephyra knight breathed deeply, she, like her noble companion, was built for these conditions. Not that she got much time to soar at the garrison.
She flew alone for some time. Luck seemed to have found them. There was nothing more than the specks of animals and caravans pitching camp below. But as she approached the tip of her orbit, she felt something buzz around her neck. Blue flashes reflected off her hand as she reached for the medallion.
Echo had found them.
Continue to Chapter Five on December 21, 2023.
About the Author
A. S. Raithe is a fantasy author living near Pittsburgh with his wife and children. Always the creative type, it wasn’t until high school and being introduced to a local bestselling author that he found his passion for writing. He took time away from writing to attend college before being convinced by his wife to pick it up again shortly after their wedding. Outside of writing he enjoys exercise, baking, gardening, folklore, music, and hiking.