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 1, Part 3)
Seasons passed. It was autumn and Meren and Kryro were now assigned to the south; so far it had been uneventful but they figured it was at least a change of scenery. Assuming they were in for another long, quiet day on watch, Meren climbed up into a tree just off the narrow forest path while the centaur took up position further back, his brown coat and tanned upper half blending him into the surrounding foliage. The wood elf was just getting settled comfortably on her branch when she was startled by heavy footsteps sounding nearby that were approaching at a good speed.
She braced her back against the trunk, bow at the ready, but what she saw was far more enemies than one quiver of arrows could take down: a great rank of orcs. Knowing her bow to be of little use at the moment, she instead tucked it over her shoulder and stretched out flat on the tree limb, trying to get a better look at the monsters as they filed past. She could not tell what they were saying as they hurried along, but they seemed to be driven on by a single orc near the back. This one was garbed differently; instead of leather armor over a ratty tunic and carrying a club, spear or sword as the rest did, this one was wearing an assortment of mismatched leathers and furs and waving around a large staff, from which bones and other nasty looking adornments dangled. Meren wrinkled her nose, although it wasn't from smell; she was too high off the ground for that. Something told her that this one was a shaman, never a type of person to mess with, especially not when surrounded by a vanguard of heavily armed warriors.
Knowing it would be wiser to let them pass rather than make her presence known, Meren remained still, hoping that the centaur would do the same. He was further back, but would have had to be deaf to not hear the racket these green monsters were making, which she knew he was not. Once she judged the orcs to be far enough away, she swung herself down from the tree and darted off to find Kryro. This was too many for a single elf and her partner to deal with; they were going to have to alert her kin. She frowned at this realization and silently chided herself, That's what I get for wishing for some excitement.
As they neared the wood elf encampment, Kryro could not help fidgeting nervously. This was never a place in which he felt particularly comfortable. He knew many of Meren's kin were not overly happy with the fact that she had chosen a non-elf as her scouting partner, but he was a member of her tribe and he was a centaur, not some strange non-woodland race. It was not that odd for wood elves and centaurs to work together, but he supposed it was more than slightly strange for one to be allowed the status of elf.
The tribe leader had approved of him, though... Without paying attention to the fact that he was doing so, he reached across his chest to touch the vine tattoo that trailed from his right shoulder to his collarbone. Mixed in with the green tendrils, hidden to all but those who knew what to look for, was the symbol of this wood elf tribe. Meren, along with the rest of her kin, also possessed this mark somewhere in her much more expansive tattoos. Kryro, however, also had the rune for his adoptive sister's name woven into the design, signifying that there was one elf in particular who vouched for him, or something like that. He had never quite understood what this all meant, but Meren had assured him that this was a great honor.
This reassured him slightly, but the not-particularly-approving looks he received from a few of the elves in camp still left him unnerved. When they reached the command tent, Meren gave him an encouraging smile before stepping in ahead, pulling aside the tent flap so he could duck under. Fortunately, once inside, the high roof- high for an elf, anyway- was above his head so he was able to stand comfortably. Well, comfortably in terms of space; the glares he received from two of the four elves at Eryndir's side did little to make him want to stick around.
Meren took a step into the center of the room, moving a pace ahead of the centaur. She bowed her head and brought her right hand behind her neck, the action for greeting elves higher than one's rank. The fact that a group of seemingly feral and individualized elves actually had some sort of organization had always surprised Kryro. When he had once asked his sister about this particular action, she'd explained that it meant that she was admitting that the other elf was in control; the movement signified drawing an arrow from her quiver and offering it to his or her service. What would happen if the elf doing the bowing were not wearing a quiver at the moment was something the centaur had always been curious about but too embarrassed to ask. Then again, he could count on one hand the number of times he'd seen a wood elf sans archery equipment.
As Meren began talking he wondered idly if some just wore it as an accessory rather than purpose, tuning out the necessary greetings and established words. This was another thing he never really understood about the elves. Why did they take so long to get to the point? Finally he heard his companion say, "Father, Kryro and I discovered what appeared to be a warbard of orcs led by a shaman. They were on the east path heading north."
"You are certain that was a shaman?" asked one of the elves. This was not Eryndir, but the tribe's own shaman, an elf seemingly older than the rest with jagged red hair streaked with a few strands of white. This was not one of Kryro's favorite people, to say the least; in the centaur's opinion, he always showed very little respect towards the young elf.
Frowning at Meren, the shaman continued saying to her, "As I am sure you are aware, orc shamans very rarely go into combat with their troops."
The centaur could tell that Meren really wanted to fire off a rude retort, but was relieved when she answered simply, "Yes, sir. I am positive of what I saw."
The shaman looked over at the leader, a deceptively unremarkable elf with close-cropped brown hair, clearly expecting some support there. Instead, Eryndir nodded. "I trust my daughter's judgment here, as I would hope you would. If she says she saw a shaman-led warband, then there is one heading north."
Meren looked pleased to hear this. Kryro knew that while her father did trust her, he also did not like to speak dismissively to the other tribe elders. Now the centaur just hoped that the news he was about to give would be taken so well.
Kryro stepped forward and mirrored the movement his sister had done in greeting, feeling somewhat foolish because he did lack a quiver. Trying to make his voice sound with a confidence that he did not feel- for all that he was always courageous while out in the forest, no matter the problem, stick him in front of an audience and he always felt like a colt again- he said, "Sir, I have information as well. As they went past, I heard what I assumed to be that shaman telling another, possibly an underling, that they had to hurry because someone else was seeking... something. A kind of magical item from the context, but I will admit that my Orcish is not quite perfect and the one speaking was vague about the subject matter." He was rambling, he knew it. Oh how he hated that habit of babbling when nervous! However, he was not really sure how to explain what he had heard any better than this. He knew at least a handful of languages, but Orcish wasn't one of his more fluent ones.
He glanced down at Meren in time to see her open her mouth then quickly close it, but her green eyes were wide. Had he forgotten to inform her that he knew a spattering of that language? It was not as though that came up in daily conversation... "Hey, Meer, can you guess what horrible monsters I can converse with today?". Reminding himself to apologize for that later, he looked over at the older elves. Most looked at least some level of skeptical, but Eryndir gave a nod and his green eyes, so much like Meren's, looked worried.
One of the elves, a blond female Kryro knew to be the scout leader, was the first to speak. "Eryndir, I have not heard of this and the centaur himself admits that his knowledge of that language is flawed. How would we know if this is the truth?"
I never said that, Kryro grumbled to himself but gained a boost to his rather low ego when Eryndir again surprised him by siding with the young scouts. "Kryro has proven his reliability in the past, as well as his skill with languages. He may admit to not speaking perfect Orcish, but likely he knows it better than he is claiming. We should heed the information he carries."
Kryro could feel himself blush; he could not recall Meren's father ever directing such supportive words towards him. He bowed his head again, half to show gratitude, half to hide his face behind his long hair. The leader's support was not gaining him, or by extension Meren, any friends, however. When the centaur lifted his head again, he saw that now all four of Eryndir's companions were frowning at them. He was relieved when the leader's next words to them were, "Thank you both for relaying the information here with such haste. The elders and I must now discuss how to handle this situation. You two are free to leave."
Meren and Kryro bowed again and it was all the centaur could do not to flee out of the tent, which was fortunate because his hooves likely would have gotten stuck. As it was, he again needed his sister to move the flap for him as they left. The centaur was actually glad to hear the elves bickering behind them since it meant they probably were not paying attention to his fumbling. Hopefully. It is bad enough that a centaur is Meer's protector, but a clumsy one is even worse, he silently berated.
As if sensing his mood, Meren placed a hand on his side as they left the last tent behind them. This action did help and Kryro couldn't help smiling down at her in gratitude. It was not always easy, but having a sibling and a scouting partner he trusted entirely did make all the interracial interactions worth the awkwardness. He worried for a moment if the elves would take a while debating this, then shook his head at his own obtuseness; of course they wouldn't. Wood elves were all about action and any intruders anywhere near their border would be dealt with quickly and efficiently, never knowing what had hit them. Kryro wouldn't be at all surprised if by the next morning an equally large vanguard of elves had been gathered, sent off and halfway to wherever the orcs were heading with the monsters taken care of by nightfall.
And judging by Meren's determined look and the direction of her steps, her goal was to get there first. Ah, there is that independent elven spirit! Kryro thought. Possibly not the best time for it, but it was his job to follow. He could always drag Meren away if there was a problem.
Kryro's assumption had been correct. Without waiting to see what her kin decided, Meren had led them with little pause for rest back to where they had last seen the orcs. From there, picking up the trail had been simple. "Nothing like a troop of heavy-footed monsters to leave their mark on the place," he heard Meren mutter as she took in the blatant disregard they'd had for the forest.
As they had pushed their way through, the centaur's reaction was much the same and he shook his head at a snapped limb on a young sapling as they walked past. "There's a blasted path here!" Meren complained, "Why'd they have to destroy all the plant life around it?"
Kryro raised an eyebrow as though she'd asked the world's dumbest question. "Orcs, Meer. I do not think any orc in existence has ever looked at a tree and thought 'Gee, I should be its friend'. Only you elves voice that ideal."
Apparently choosing to ignore that comment, she continued walking, pausing only to say over her shoulder, "Come on, horsebutt. We have forest-wrecking green things to find."
I really wish she would stop calling me that, Kryro grumbled to himself.
They made good time and by sunset had reached the edge of the forest. The orcs had led them straight to that village, as the two of them could have guessed had their memories of the existence of the place not been horribly fogged.
"Oh, how wonderful," Kryro remarked sarcastically as he took in the high stone wall and the iron gate off in the distance, "Now they are fortified as well as numerous. I very much hope you have a good plan."
Meren shrugged. "I'm going to sneak in and scout ahead. I want to see what they were after."
Kryro rolled his eyes skyward. That was exactly the reaction he feared she'd have. Wood elves were not known for heading towards danger equipped with a plan and always assumed their bows would be all they needed. "I said a good plan. Going in alone is not a good plan, and unless those gates open, I cannot follow."
"We'll see." Meren said simply.
Kryro doubted even orcs would be dumb enough to leave their front door unlocked and sure enough, after circling the wall as stealthily as possible and checking the four gates they passed, no entrance passable by a man with four legs presented itself. One had been locked tightly and one apparently rusted shut; those had been the two most likely candidates. The farthest one had large boulders of fallen masonry blocking the entire entrance and the one they were now standing at had actually been melted into a mess of metal. What had caused this left Kryro more worried than he'd been when they had arrived.
"I'll have to scale the wall," Meren offered, her green eyes bright from the prospect of getting to climb something.
Of course, Kryro thought with a shudder, leave it to an elf to find any opportunity to end up high above the ground. "I was afraid you would say that. Are you certain that you do not want to wait for your kin?" Here was his stupid question of the day; of course she would not.
Meren smiled at him, clearly doing her best to make it seem like this was no big deal, which, to her, probably wasn't. "I'll be fine, 'Ro. I'll just pop in, look around, then climb back over. Alright?"
The centaur sighed, then gestured upwards. The sooner she got this foolhardy plan over with, the sooner they could leave. "Be careful."
Which she'd tried to be. She'd silently tossed a rope over the wall, dexterously climbed it and had landed lightly on the other side. Then she'd quietly snuck around, listening keenly for any sound of approaching footsteps. What she'd failed to do was wisely keep an eye on the ground in front of her. She got halfway across the town when her elven senses failed.
Her back pushed up close to the one remaining wall of a crumbled building, she took a step sideways. The weight of a small elf was too much for a wooden floor that had already met its share of fire, falling timber and clumsy orcs. It gave way, dropping her through the floorboards onto a dirt floor coated in dust. She would have been fine, had that remaining wall not decided to join her. Most of the stone rolled harmlessly but loudly in the other direction, but a few fell into the new hole, much like a large game of pool. As Meren stood on a shaky ankle, one of the smaller but far more enthusiastic stones ricochet off the cellar wall and beamed her on the back of her head. Her last thought as she fell forward was, "Dammit, 'Ro was right." Luckily it was a small rock because those would have been embarrassing last words, but as the world went black, she wished her brother had fewer legs.
Part 3 can be found here.