Banner art by JackOfClubs (jack_spire on livejournal).
You can find the whole cover art here- JoC did a great job on it!
There's also a great mix/soundtrack that goes with this story- you can find that here.
(Prologue, Part 2)
"Meer, snap out of it."
The young wood elf looked down from her vantage point in the lowest branch of a mulberry tree to see her scouting partner giving her an exasperated look, an expression she was all too used to seeing on his tan face. He stood with his hands on his hips... flank... whatever it was called. Even after years of being his constant companion, she was still not sure which terms to use regarding her brother. She had, however, learned that he very much disliked the nickname "horsebutt," so of course she used it whenever possible. He wasn't her sibling by blood, which would be even stranger than her actual heritage, but sometimes life hands you family you wouldn't predict, and she certainly hadn't expected to find a colt in her tribe's storage tent a decade ago, asleep on a large bag of grain.
Meren made a face down at the centaur. "We're on guard. I'm keeping watch. What's the problem?"
"The problem is that you have been on that branch most of the morning and you have traps to check, which I am fairly certain you cannot do from a tree."
The wood elf briefly wondered if this would in fact be possible to do by traveling from branch to branch and tree to tree, but realized he unfortunately did have a point, irritating though it was. "Alright. I'll go." She paused, then admitted sheepishly, nodding towards the north, "I'm just wondering about the town out there."
Kryro looked puzzled and tilted his head to the side. "Why? What about an abandoned human village draws the attention of an elf away from what she should be doing?"
The wood elf chuckled wryly. "Oh, come on, 'Ro. You know we were sent to this border because nothing ever happens here." When she saw that he was about to speak again, she added, "And I don't know, okay? It just has me curious."
She swung down from the branch and joined her much taller companion on the ground, hardly making a sound as she landed in last season's debris.
"If you're so keen on checking them, let's-" she was interrupted by an abrupt "snap" to the east, followed by a muffled shout of some kind.
Kryro gave her an "I told you so" look. Spirits, did she hate it when he did that! He said, "Sounds like snare number three may have caught something interesting."
Meren shrugged, still not wanting to admit that he had been right. "We'll see about 'interesting'. Likely it's just a squirrel or a goblin or something," she said, thinking nothing was strange about listing small woodland animals and humanoid monsters in the same category of nuisance.
The two snuck quietly towards the trap, or as quietly as someone with hooves was able to be, and the elf continued ahead, being far more light on her feet. Well, that's certainly not an orc, she thought to herself as she eyed their visitor. What they'd caught wasn't the monster (or fuzzy thing) she'd been expecting; dangling by his ankles from the rope snare was what appeared to be a human, a young man who would probably have been rather attractive if not upside down with his face turning red, flailing at his black and silver robe to get it out of the way. To Meren's surprise, though, the man seemed to be able to wiggle like a fish. Within moments he'd writhed out of that robe, dropping it to the ground below his trailing dark hair, and had produced a dagger from... somewhere. Seemingly with little effort, he'd swung himself up and was reaching for the rope caught around his legs.
Meren had been so surprised by the fact that someone not appearing to be of elf-kind could move that way that she almost forgot her job. Mentally cursing herself for being so distracted, she moved to grab her blowgun from off her belt. She quickly stuck a dart inside and fired it off. A lucky shot- the barb stuck in the young man's hand. He gave a startled exclamation that could only be a curse and dropped the dagger, which landed point-down in his discarded robe. Surely not able to know where it came from, because she knew her green tattoos and forest-colored leathers and clothing blended her into the woods flawlessly, he still glared off in her general direction as he swung loosely back down, stretching to try to snatch up the hilt just beyond his fingertips.
Afraid that he just might be able to contort enough to reach, Meren called out, "Do not move or I'll fire something worse."
The man froze, but from the look on his inverted face, it was more out of confusion than fright. He said something again that Meren didn't understand. Now she was regretting leaving her brother behind as he was far better at languages than she. Trying one of the few phrases he'd taught her in the human tongue, she tried again. "Do not move. Trespassing you be."
Here he said something again, once again not anything the elf understood. Very much wishing she'd had her sleeping potion-filled darts on her rather than the plain barbs so she and Kryro could just do their usual "knock out and drag from the forest" act, she drew her bow and silently strung it. She was not keen on firing at someone trapped, but perhaps she could frighten him? Nocking an arrow, she stepped out towards the human.
She wasn't sure what she had been expecting, but the man crossing his arms across his chest and saying rather confidently in the language of the smaller forest folk, "Aren't you awfully tall for a halfling?" certainly wasn't it.
How had he known? Only other elves had ever been able to pick up on the fact that she was a half-breed. She looked down, but no, her feet were hidden away in boots. This young man was most certainly strange- a dexterous human who spoke Halfling and could pinpoint a hidden race? Although if he knew halflings, that could partially explain his level of coordination...
Breaking off her stream of thought, she answered in the same language. "I am an elf. You're trespassing on our land."
The human shrugged, which must have been difficult to do while upside down because his shirt got tangled on his shoulders for a moment. "And how was I to know? There were no signs, no warnings."
"This is the warning. You have crossed our border."
Now the black haired man looked rather less confident. "This is a warning? I'd hate to see the threat."
Meren raised an eyebrow, causing the green tattoos on her face to shift, and lowered her bow. "You wouldn't, believe me. Most of my kin don't even give warnings." Why had she told him that? Wood elves weren't supposed to share information with outsiders, but there was something about this man that caused Meren not to follow protocol.
Kryro, on the other hand, wasn't so kind. His large club raised in what Meren considered a rather threatening manner, he came forward. Nothing like a seven and a half foot tall horse-man to inspire fright where a small elf could not. The human gulped. "Look, I'm sorry. Can you let me down? I'll leave."
Meren frowned, then gave a small shrug. "Alright." She nodded to Kryro and he reached up to unknot the rope, not looking overly pleased to do so.
The man fell, but was able to turn the drop into a kind of cartwheel. Kryro rolled his eyes, clearly not amused by this show of acrobatics. Tugging on his robe, now containing a rip in the right sleeve from the dropped dagger, the human said shortly in Halfling, "Watch it, horse."
Now Kryro's annoyance turned into a glare. As the centaur reset the snare, he replied coolly in the same language, "And you should watch what you say, two-legger." The human's dark eyes widened and Meren stifled a snicker.
The man held his hands up in a complaisant manner. "Sorry sorry. Chalk it up to a bad day. I meant nothing by it."
Meren had to choke back another laugh at the snort of contempt her brother made. Yes, this was rather interesting. "You must leave the forest, but... how did you know I wasn't fully elven?" she couldn't help asking the newcomer.
He smiled sheepishly. "I used to know some halflings when I was young. Something about you reminded me of them."
'Young'. Meren knew enough about humans to know that this one couldn't have been any more than twenty, meaning this was recently. Or "recently," coming from a half-elf, anyway. She wondered if those were ones she was related to, but before she could ask, Kryro cleared his throat. "Yes, yes, how convenient that you speak her language. Meren, let him go." Switching to Elvish, he told her, "You know quite well that you are not supposed to be friendly towards intruders."
Which she did know, quite clearly, but... she'd always had a problem being as reticent as the rest of her kin. And this human intrigued her. Still, she did have a border to protect. "I must lead you to the edge of the forest, mysterious Halfling-speaking person. There's an old human village that way," she gestured vaguely north, "where you could possibly get your bearings from."
The man shrugged, as if the prospect of getting lost didn't bother him, but was it her imagination or did he startle when she mentioned the village? He looked over at the centaur distrustfully and whispered to the elf with a small smile, "Thank you. Sorry to have caused a problem."
Now it was Meren's turn to shrug as she tried to hide her embarrassment. As they led him through the woods, Kryro stayed a pace behind, acting far too much like he was guarding her for her liking. Surely this man wasn't a threat? He seemed rather nice. And someone who was sneaking around the forest with no apparent reason to do so, a logical voice inside her chimed in. Giving a mental shrug, she drowned out that voice with the thought, No matter. He's leaving now and won't return. So far no one she or her brother had sent away had ever returned, although little did she realize it was more because of where they had guard duty than any specific skill they possessed.
Kryro watched to be sure the man had left the treeline and had vanished around the wall of that old town, then turned to Meren. "Do not do that again. How do you know you can trust him?"
Meren's forehead wrinkled in confusion. Why was her brother chastising her? "Trust who? What did I do?"
Now it was the centaur's turn to express confusion. "There was a human... was there not? We caught... no. We were on border guard, keeping an eye out for orcs." He didn't sound so sure of himself, however.
Meren glared back in the direction of the wood elf camp. "Like always. I really think those are a story made up by my father to keep us occupied."
Kryro looked skeptical, but nodded. "Possibly, but we are still guards. We should go check our traps."
"But we just did." Hadn't they?
"Right. However something tells me we should again."
The elf shrugged her heavily tattooed shoulders. Her partner's attention to detail was rather obsessive at times, but she was used to that.
Still, for some reason before slipping back into the dense forest, she glanced back at the high stone wall in the distance, all that could be seen of the village.
Part 2 can be found here.