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If you knew the first thing about me, you’d know that I’m not the type to go off investigating strange noises. I’m not. I know that the worst thing you can possibly do is go charging after an unknown sound, in an unknown direction. If my grandmother taught me anything it was… well, no, my grandmother would be telling me to charge straight at it, just so long as I was being safe. But she’s not here.
I hear it getting closer. Do you know what that’s like? When the footsteps crash their way through the bramble, headed straight for you? It’s in those moments when you realize that you really only have three options. Charge at the noise, screaming – making yourself far more terrifying than whatever is coming at you. But that’s not a great option, because what if you’re not more terrifying than whatever is coming at you? What if I’m not more terrifying than whatever is making that noise.
And, to be clear, this isn’t some small sound, like a rabbit hopping through the underbrush. I don’t want to hear anything about how I’m just a scared little girl who can’t look after herself. Because that’s not it. This is the sound of a number of large creatures, moving with purpose. If there’s one thing my grandmother taught me, well – and if we’re being truthful with each other here, she didn’t just teach me one thing. My grandmother taught me a great number of things – but if there’s one thing that she taught it, it was how to recognize the sounds of the forest.
So that first option? It’s no good. Because now I can hear a number of sets of footprints. This isn’t just one creature. There’s at least two. Hold on a second and let me listen.
It’s not one, or two creatures. There’s three of them. Definitely three. So, as I was saying, in a situation like this, there aren’t a lot of options. But – being in a forest surrounded by large sturdy trees there are some. Either I hide, and wait for the creatures to pass, or I climb up to the top of the three and watch as they amble on by.
Now, think about it for a moment – you’re in a dark wood, and you know three unknown things are coming towards you. Sure, maybe they’re friendly. That could be. But just as likely, they’re not there to sing songs and meet new and interesting people. Not even an elfse as delightful as myself. So, what do you do – do you hide behind the tree? That’s quick and easy, but it means you can’t see them as they pass. If you can see them, they can see you. That’s something you should always remember. Seems obvious that you should just climb the tree, right? But that takes time. And what if you slip. They might see you, and then that’s no good either.
Since we’re talking about me, and since you want to know a thing or two about me, I’ll tell you something. When I was just a young little elfse, about six or seven years old, I used to play in these forests every day. Me and Bane, we’d run around playing D’Orves and Elfse from the time the slightest bit of sun peeked through the dense canopy, until we could barely see. We took turns being the D’Orves, the Dole Oruđe Rudar who spend their lives in the dark mines beneath the surface world. When we were Dorven we would hide, and the other, playing Elfse, would search. If there’s one thing I got good at… why do I keep repeating that? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I’m nervous.
And again, I don’t want to hear anything about girls getting scared by themselves, because Bane would have been ten times as scared as I am right now. There’s nothing wrong with being scared. Being scared lets us know that it’s time to act, to do something. It tells us to fight or flight – or somethings to tend and befriend, but that really is something Grandmother taught me. Do not try and befriend anyone who would hurt you. Fight them, or flee from there. It’s hard, because…
Right, the noise. Which is getting closer and closer. Look, what I was going to say was that when I played D’Orves and Elfse I became great and climbing trees.
Clutching the bark, I pull myself to the first branch with ease. One swing, and three silent moments later, and I’m high in the tree, overlooking the stone path that winds it way through the thick brush. The path is the one I was following, which leads straight to Hometree. That’s where we live, the Elfse of Ihlathi forest. Looking towards the clumsy clattering, I can see the things with ease now. Goblins. Three of them, just like I thought.
My hands race to my waist before thoughts tell them to. Each palm finds the hilt of a seven-inch blade. With a quick motion honed by years of training, sharp metal finds its way pulled from soft leather. Keeping balance against the trunk, I wait until the sharp toothed beasts are directly below me. From my position high above them, I could throw each blade into the neck of one of the savages I spent my youth running from. In all my years I’ve only known one – just one – goblin to be anything but trouble.
But, it’s a certain type of person that judges others based on what they are, not who they are. Remembering more of Grandmother’s wisdom, I return the blades to their sheath and call down.
“Hey, you down there!” Not the best opening line, I know. But it got their attention. I just want to learn a thing or two. Even if I do need to drop them where they stand, it’s better to have learned something. Plus, if they moved to attack me, then I’d be able to take them out based on who they were rather than what they were. If that happened, everything would be fine. Nothing to regret later.
The smallest of the three is the first to gather his courage and speak, “We seek aid,” he forces himself to say. “Terrible things happening. Terrible!”
What else is new? Another day. Another problem. Another terrible thing. This forest isn’t like it was when I was younger. There are no children out playing by themselves anymore. Anyone who steps outside their home should be prepared for one terrible thing or another. If things were different, I might have even ignored these three, staying silent in the trees above. By they’re on the path to Hometree. My home. Maybe they’re just a few scared goblins, or maybe they’re a scouting party looking to restart an old rivalry.
Just because nearly one year has past since the last goblin killed an Elfse within these woods doesn’t mean old wounds are forgotten. There must be goblins looking to get even for the five of their own kind whose lives were taken in exchange for the one they took away from us.
“Where are you going?” I shouted out them. Not with menace or malice, but more in a tone of cursory curiosity. As if I couldn’t be bothered to really hear the answer. No sense in letting them know how I really feel.
“We head to Hometree,” the eldest calls up to me. “Elf village. You know it?” The last question sounds more like a demand, but I could never tell if that was from their anger or just words coming out gravelly and strained as they were forced between sharp teeth.
“I know it,” I yell down at them. Of course I know it. And, of course they know I know it. No Elfse would range this deep into the woods unless they were from Hometree. Unless they were a scout sent out to ensure the peace was not broken. I’m no girl playing games with her friends in the forest anymore. I’m tasked to keep watch over dozens of kilometers of Ihlathi forest. If I overhear anything that sounds like the Goblin Peace is at an end, I intervene, report, and take action. In that order. Sometimes intervention comes in the form of a dagger to the throat. Other times it’s just a misdirection that slows them long enough for a rushed return to Hometree, or the closest outpost.
I prefer when the daggers stay where they are, holstered tight against my side, but that’s not always a luxury I’m allowed. I suppose most people understand how much violence is needed to ensure peace, but I hope that a time will come when children are allowed to grow to adults free from that knowledge. After all, if I didn’t want that, I wouldn’t be out here.
“We are going the right way?” The youngest goblin calls out to me. He’s clearly shaken. It could be his mother and father with him. Or just two other adults. I hope it’s his mother and father. If something really has gone so terribly wrong that they need the aid of Hometree then, I just hope he has his family with him.
I nod and start making my way through the trees, recklessly jumping from one branch to the next. I grab branches, swing low, before launching myself higher where the forest’s cover grows closer together. From there I can cover the distance with rapid urgency.
They must have been from the nearest goblin encampment. If they were from deeper in the forest, they wouldn’t be taking the stone path, and they wouldn’t be seeking the aid of the Elfse. As I disregard personal safety, moving at breakneck speeds, my eyes are open for the timber walls, and huts made from tanned skins that make up the encampment. Though there are no marked trails leading to it, I know my range well and…
Something growls beneath me. I should ignore it. I should continue to the encampment. But what if the low guttural snarl is connected to the goblins? I can’t ignore it. As before, I remain perched above. Trouble can find me, there’s no need to seek it out on its terms.
A moment passes, and another. The bushes below are still and silent. I am about to return to my path when the undergrowth springs to life. Sharp teeth, and a narrow snout, burst from within. A wolf throws itself into the tree, looking to free its jaws from the binds of a scrap of crimson fabric.
It’s just a wolf, I tell myself, willing my heart to slow its beating. It’s just an animal. There’s nothing to fear. Taking a moment to look at the beast, I am sure it just needs some help. While I’ve heard rumours from other scouts of the forest animals acting crazed, as if under the influence of the foaming sickness, I’ve seen nothing like that. Just Elfse trying to justify their own actions, and cowardice. Making my way to the lowest branch, I look to lightly jump to the ground.
I release too early. My heart refuses to settle, and my timing is off. Falling, to the ground, my twist my leg out from under me so it doesn’t snap on the hard, earthen floor of the forest. Pain shoots through me. Stupid. I was stupid to try to jump down. All I needed was a few moments to climb, but that’s in the past now and there’s only one way to travel Sudbina’s River.
My mind clears in time to see the wolf lunging towards me. Before it can bring its jaws closed on my ankle, I’ve drawn a dagger and plunged it deep into the beast’s side. Its howl spurs me back to clarity. Its breath fills the air before me with a humid stench and I see that this is no crimson fabric, but rather the remains of a beige tunic stained with blood. The wolf had almost freed itself of the knot around its jaws, but with trained movements I’m able to pull on the fabric, tightening it once more. With one pull I’ve stripped the wolf of its primary offense.
Only then do I notice something attached to the tunic. Something that shines in the limited reach of the setting sun. Now I do the unthinkable. I need the glinting piece of metal, it’s familiar in a way I truly wish it wasn’t. But until it’s in my grasp, I can’t be sure that I know what I am horribly sure I do, in fact, know.
I reach out for the fabric once more, grasping the metallic clasp. Its jagged points dig into my palm, but I do not release. Instead I give a great tug, which pulls the entire fabric from around the wolf’s mouth. Free of its restraint the wolf seems shocked by its fortune, but only for a moment before it turns back to me, jaws snapping viciously. I try to rush for the safety of the treetops, but I move without patience, moving straight ahead. The wolf is no dumb animal. It thinks with logic and tactics. It sees my escape, and before I can pull myself up, its jaws tighten against my already injured ankle.
My blood mixes with that which was already dried on its snout. With my able leg, I kick my ankle free. It is a desperate act, but I have become incredibly desperate. I know the wolf will only be stunned for a moment, but that moment is all I need. Rather than rushing and meeting failure, I take three practiced movements and ascend back into the tree. The beast thinks it knows where I will go next, so I ensure than I leap in the opposite direction. When the wolf makes it to where I was, I have already found safety.
Though it snaps its jaws, and makes a show of anger, free from its bonds it wisely chooses to sulk away into the depths to tend to its new wound. Not enough to kill it, the wound from my dagger will give it pause before it leaps towards its next battle. Timidly prodding my ankle to investigate the extent of my injury, the bolts of electric fire that seem to sharpen in the tips of my teeth let me know that rest and healing is something I need as well.
From a pocket in my pouch belt, I take out a salve made from crushed plants, oaken sap, and honey. I apply it to my wound, though exhaustion from the battle fights to overtake me. With the metallic clasp still tight within my fist, I give in and allow the dark forest to turn to black. Though as I give in to rest, I can’t help but wonder, is that wood smoke I smell, or just a memory of long ago. The voice of a young boy saying, “I’ll treasure it always,” in front of a warmly glowing brazier.
* * *
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking there she goes, getting herself into trouble all of her own accord. It’s her fault. She could have just ignored the sounds, and headed to the goblin encampment to see what the problem was. But now she’s stuck curled up in a tree, who knows how long later, hoping that the next time she looks at her ankle it won’t look like lacerated meat ready to be served up for week’s end dinner.
But I know something you don’t know. At least I think I do. I know what the small piece of metal clasped in my hand is, and if you thought it was what I thought it was, you would have traded all the injuries in the world for it. Because you would have to have known. You wouldn’t have been able to rest until you were sure. Hearing good news is wonderful, and hearing bad news is awful, but waiting to see what type of news you’re about to receive? That’s the worst. And that really is your own fault. Its your mind racing coming up with all the worst-case scenarios. Sometimes you’re lucky and your mind will let you think of the good outcomes, but those are quickly pounded flat by every negative rushing into your mind.
I feel better, too, you know. And if you’ll let me try to spot the sun, there it is, I can tell you that only one hour has passed. I feel better, hardly any time has gone, and I’m ready to continue off towards the goblin encampment.
Catching the scent of the changing air, I’m sure that’s wood smoke. The scent is strong. And it’s coming from the encampment. Trusting that my ankle is better I launch myself forward. Continuing to the home of the three goblins, I hope that they’ve made it safely to Hometree by now. With luck on their side, their story will be believed, and additional aid will be sent out. It will be needed.
As I navigate towards the encampment, I throw myself deeper and deeper into the smoke. Descending to the forest’s floor, I will move slower, but be able to breath beneath he thick cloud above me. My keen ears are met with the sounds of a roaring waterfall, but this far from river I know that such a thing would be an impossibility.
An artificial day has made its home within the artificial night at the heart of the wood. The waterfall is the roaring of flames leaping into the air. If not for the wide clearing the goblins had cut around their high walls, the entire forest would have been engulfed. As it is, only their encampment burns.
The heat is like a wall forcing me backwards. Each step I try to take, I find myself being resisted by an unseen barrier. Though it burns, I’ve been burned before. I hold one hand In front of my eyes, and use the other to wrap my cloak over my face. The slightest protection from the raging fire is better than none. Pushing closer, I tell myself that the fire has burned a long time. I tell myself there is nothing left. There can’t be anything left. But I have to know. I have to be sure.
Flames have collapsed tall beams, and the resulting hole in the fence offers me a glimpse inside. The structures have all collapsed. Most of the timber is ash, as the tanned hides are all but gone. From within nothing moves. Snaps and cracks pop from all directions, but in the village nothing lives except for the fire.
Walking the perimeter is all I can do. I don’t know what I’m hoping to find. Maybe a trail of footprints, or a sign that the goblins escaped. That more than the three she had found earlier survived whatever wrath had befallen their village. And maybe I’m looking for signs that the destruction wasn’t caused by the Elfse. Not all of us live in Hometree. And not all of us were so eager to make peace a year ago. But it had to be done. If this was caused by the Elfse who lived outside of Hometree it would cause old grudges to become new once more.
But, no, that was impossible. Why would the goblins seek Hometree for aid, if it were Elfse that caused this in the first place? Unless they weren’t seeking aid.
You see what I mean about your mind being unable to rest, until you know something one way or the other? Bad news is bad. But at least its news. At least you’re not guessing, questioning, wondering.
Tracks. There, in the ground, there were a number of tracks all leading from the village. All goblin. I clench my fist with a resolve. This is something, at least. Once more I feel pain from the metal object I’m clutching.
Bad news is better than not knowing. Stepping back from the flames, I look at my hand, as I open my fingers one at a time. The object is exactly what I thought it was. A small heart-shaped key, with a small star, and a waxing an waning moon. It’s still attached to the scrap of pink ribbon from so long ago.
Though the fire still burns, all I can see of it is the glinted reflection cast off from the small object in my hand. I swear I can hear his voice. Even through the roar of the fire, I’m sure I hear him. The object and the voice. Memories threaten to overwhelm, but they are taken from me as something slams against my shoulder.
In the instant it takes my body to slam against the forest’s floor my hand closes around the small key and I am sure I still hear his voice. My last thought as the world turns black is of the small object, and the familiar voice. One belongs to a friend turned enemy, and the other an enemy turned friend.
Finally, there is nothing.
Coming Soon – Sammi’s Quest: Dreams of the White Bird: Chapter One