The elven garments of brown and green motley fit Fara snug from jawline, to wrist, to ankle, and every hands-breadth of her in between. At first, it had felt more constricting and revealing of her figure than even her presentation dress, but she could move through the thick, wet forest of Thurvan without snagging. Soft, doe-skin boots and gloves completed her wilderness attire.
Her companions were dressed the same and they each carried a bow and a quiver of arrows, all of elven crafting, while she bore only her father’s blue leather satchel. It had originally carried his godstone that later became Sakke Vrang, and now it carried their food and supplies, her hoop, and any other extra gear she could think to bring.
The elven master huntsman, Dederon, led the way. He had been their trainer in wilderness lore for the past few weeks of their preparation. His gift of stealth was truly uncanny as the undergrowth made not a sound at his step and heavy leaves laden with moisture from the almost constant rain did not drip upon him. Micah had some luck staying dry, but his broad shoulders invariably brushed vines and branches where Dederon’s slender form wove between all obstacles.
Fara however, was thoroughly drenched, every stumble or misstep led to a downpour of steamy water dumped from shaken leaves, and the noise of her passing was like a blind bear bumbling through a bristle thicket.
“Definitely a blind bear with a limp,” whispered Taldaan from behind her with a snide lilt to his voice.
Her auburn hair, plastered to her back, and high neckline of the elven garb hid the red that crept up to her ears at each of his comments.
Since the evening of her presentation their easy friendship had disappeared, replaced by her silence and Taldaan’s stinging commentary. Now it filled her head, when she should be focusing on the strange and marvelous life within this forest of every shade of green.
During their time training under Dederon, her mother’s work on her tower had redoubled. At the insistence of her father, wilderness training had filled her days. Studying Thurvan’s surface through her map, seeking signs of the life that Hethal had assured her existed among its dense forests and high peaked mountains, filled much of any other time that remained her own.
When she could, her mother had her filling rooms and chambers within the tower with space. The initial light chamber, built to house two of the godstone glyphs, remained unchanged, but another, far larger chamber was under construction to house the remaining two glyphs. All with a purpose, neither her mother nor Hethal, ever at her side now, would explain.
A raised hand form Dederon halted them and silenced any other commentary from Taldaan. The elf lowered his hand slowly and they crouched low.
Fara checked her balance to insure she would not fall into any brush then sent out her sight. She advanced her awareness through the dense greenery until the forest opened up into a large shade-dappled clearing.
A white horse-like creature, tall and slender of leg, stood motionless as a statue staring back in their direction. The being’s enormous eyes were ice-blue and shined with intelligence and femininity. She tossed her head with a start, throwing sparkling droplets of water from the great mass of her flowing white mane. From her forehead grew a single spiral horn, straight as a sword and the length of Fara’s arm. She lashed a long, serpentine tail in her uneasiness that bore a tuft of white hair at its tip.
Fara gave a slow nod to her companions, confirming that they had again found the creature they sought. It had been an elusive quarry, leaving barely any spore in the brush and tangle of the forest for Dederon to follow, and three times now Fara had found her with her sight and then mysteriously lost her when they had drawn near. Nothing had ever been able to hide from her sight before, but somehow this creature could; when she fled, she vanished, leaving no trace.
Now they dare not even whisper to one another, lest the creature take flight again. If Micah could only see the bright-eyed mare, he would be able to transport to her with the hoop wide open and drop it over her. They had formed a plan after the last disappearance of the creature and now Fara chose to enact it.
She reached into the extended space of her satchel and used her sight to find the shrunken hoop. She passed it to Micah just as the warm rain began to fall again.
Now Dederon continued silently forward, using every aspect of his gift of stealth. To Fara’s eyes, he appeared to fall into the dapple of shadows and vanish. She followed him with her sight as he closed on the clearing ahead like a mist drifting between the twisting trees and fern-like growths.
Fara extended her awareness until she could see the white mare again, now with her head lowered and grazing among the lush green brush, dotted with red and indigo flowers.
Micah stretched out the hoop and waited. When she saw the dim image of Dederon at the edge of the clearing, Fara tapped his broad back.
Micah vanished with a soft pop of sound as air snapped into the space where he had crouched. Fara saw him reappear in the same instant beside Dederon. The mare’s head snapped up and she whirled about like a dancer at the sudden whisper of sound his transportation had created. Fara marveled at how her tail and mane flowing with her movement despite the sodden rain.
The mare’s nostrils flared and her ears laid back into her shock of white main as she detected Micah’s presence. Her horn dipped down and she froze, body tensed and ready to flee or fight. Fara barely breathed as Micah stood in a smooth motion, hoop held up before him, showing himself to the mare.
Having seen her, he would now be able to transport himself to her if she fled and if she charged him, she would pass through the hoop into the storage room until Micah released her on Vorallon. This was Fara’s plan and it had worked so far, but now she felt only dread with the mare’s long horn lowered like a lance toward Micah’s breast.
Micah stretched the hoop even wider before him until it was at the limit of his reach.
“Be calm, girl,” he crooned the words to the mare in a voice that would have made Fara melt if he had but said them to her. “I am here to help you, take you someplace safe.”
He took a slow step forward into the clearing while the mare stood tensed and motionless.
Taldaan whispered, startling her from the scene she was witnessing with her sight. “What is happening?”
“Micah is approaching her,” she breathed, hoping the patter of rainfall would mask their whispers from the mare.
“How do you know it’s a ‘her’?”
Despite Taldaan’s low whisper, she could hear the smirk in his voice. Fara turned to him with a retort on her lips when there sounded a sharp crack in the underbrush. Either Dederon had moved and trod on a twig or there was another creature in the heavy woods nearby.
Fara froze as the mare leaped with a start, her lance-like horn plunging toward Micah. Half of the horn thrust through the hoop, vanishing into a storage room on the other side of the galaxy instead of transfixing Micah through the heart. The mare braked with all four hooves before the tip of her nose could pass the threshold and yanked her head up and back. Her horn struck the rim of the hoop with a ringing clang to rip it from Micah’s grip and toss it across the clearing.
More rustles of movement sounded from the steaming forest surrounding them, but Fara’s focus was entirely on what transpired in the clearing ahead.
“No!” She cried as the mare lowered her horn toward Micah again and lunged forward like a master swordsman.
At her cry, the underbrush erupted all around her and Taldaan. She glimpsed dozens of small, man-like forms springing at her, even as she saw Micah vanish to appear the next instant astride the mare.
The mare gave a scream that sounded almost human, piercing deep into the woods. Then the mare, and Micah along with her, vanished in a flash of white light.
“Lady’s tangled web!” Taldaan cursed as unkind hands gripped them both, forcing Fara to release her sight and struggled against the sudden threat clutching at her. Several held her arms while she kicked out with her feet, aiming for the yellow-eyed faces of the additional creatures trying to grab her with their large, black-nailed hands. They looked like sickly, knobby men with mottled skin the color of old bruises. None of them came up past the level of her waist, but their bodies were powerful and sturdy.
The ones she kicked hissed at her, showing pointed teeth and black tongues. They did not strike back with their crude bronze-tipped spears and cudgels instead they seemed bent on only capturing them.
Taldaan struggled in their grip for only a moment before he stood and flung them away. He tossed them bodily while his lips twisted in a cold grin. They struck trees with sickening crunches or screamed as his hands closed with crushing strength on the bones of their arms. He was unleashing his gift of strength, making himself stronger than an ogre—an incongruous amount of power coming from his tall and gangly body.
“Taldaan, no!” Fara shouted. “You are killing them!”
“What do you think they mean to do to us?” He retorted as another mass of the hideous little men jumped for his legs to tackle him to the ground and swarm over him.
One of them raised a cudgel up high over his head. She tried to scream a warning, but a big hand clamped over her mouth. The club came down and Taldaan fell limp, a trickle of blood running down his forehead.
Her eyes rolled wide in her head. What had happened to Micah? Where was Dederon? She tried to use her sight to seek them out but her captors yanked her about roughly, tying her hands and feet with sturdy rope. She writhed against her bonds as they replaced the hand over her mouth with a filthy cloth rag tied about her head. One raised a cudgel up with a gesture toward her head and she ceased her struggles.
Several of the men lifted her to their boney shoulders while two others argued in gibbers and squawks over her blue leather satchel. They were a brutal people who did nothing for their fallen and those left injured by Taldaan. The fight over her satchel eventually came to viscous blows and clamping teeth, she had to look away. Then she could see no more as the repulsive men carried her into the brush.
Fara fought down panic and just focused on blowing air in and out through her nose. The many layers of green canopy passed overhead, brilliantly decorated with flowers and colorful birds. They carried her face up and every drop of rain to drip down seemed to strike her in one eye or the other. When she grew calm enough, she closed her eyes against the water and reached out with her sight.
She sighed with relief to find Taldaan carried just ahead of her, wrapped round and round with rope, like a bug ready for a spider’s feast. From the limp dangle of his tousled head, she knew he was still unconscious. She sought for Micah, but he had vanished like the mare. Try as she might, she could not focus her sight on him anywhere, he was hidden somehow.
Fara gave an inward groan and sought out Dederon. Her sight found the elf; he was indistinct and dappled in shadow with his gift in full use. In one hand, he held the hoop, shrunken down once more. She could hear the tread of her captors through the brush from where he stalked them. Pulling her awareness out from the elf’s position showed the line of knobby little men making their way through the woods with her and Taldaan near the head of the column.
She breathed a little easier knowing the elf was out there, her hidden guardian. Taldaan was bound, but not dead. When he revived, his gift would free him from his bonds quickly. Their final fates rested with Micah, only he could return them home.
The forest began to darken as Thurvan’s sun dipped down. The course of her captors now led uphill into terrain where the trees of the woods clung to moss covered boulders.
The knobby men spoke with one another in guttural tones, a language of throaty rattles and hisses. Her mother had devised a spell for learning tongues, she had used it to facilitate the learning of the elven and dwarven languages, but with her mouth gagged she could not cast it. She had not had the opportunity since their arrival this morning to attempt the casting of any sorcery here on a still slumbering world a galaxy away from the magic of Vorallon.
Their gifts were bound to their spirits and went with them everywhere, the enchantment on the hoop was likewise bound to the adamantite of its construction, but to cast a spell she would have to reach out to find magic and guide it to her to be harnessed.
The forest got darker as they climbed, but the last of the light vanished suddenly as they entered a deep cleft between two mossy rocks. Now their path led down sharply. Distant echoes rose to her ears of dripping water and the slapping footsteps of their captors. She was in a cave, not just a cleft between rocks.
Fara explored with her sight, seeing their path clearly despite the inky darkness. She watched the last of the long line of knobby men enter the cave and gave a twitch when a handful of the little beasts took up a guard position just within the entrance. Filthy claws pressed into the flesh beneath her elven garb when she twitched. She winced and groaned but held still afterwards.
Dederon was still fully hidden by his gift, but there was no way to know if the senses of these creatures would not sense him if he chose to pass within a hands-breadth of the sentries. Fara had to put her faith in the elf, his bow and the hoop he carried as she watched his figure, almost invisible even to her sight, approach the darkness of the cave mouth. He paused outside the cave for what seemed an eternity before he moved again, to stand beside the narrow opening.
She watched breathless as he extended the hoop to the limit of his reach then swung it carefully around so that it covered the mouth of the cave, then he gave a low call that sounded like a distant whinny of the horned mare they had pursued through the day. The effect on the sentries was immediate, they crouched low and slunk to the entrance of the cave. In their haste to catch sight of the mare, they passed through the threshold of the hoop in one mass to vanish from the face of Thurvan.
Dederon collapsed the hoop back down and slipped into the cave, those knobby men were now trapped in a large storage room and would remain there until they were released. His progress would be slow in the pitch darkness of the cave, but she was confident he would not lose their trail.
Fara willed her sight to Micah once more, to be rewarded by a brief flash of motion as the mare raced with Micah clinging tight to her mane, in a flicker of light they vanished again. The mare was transporting Micah. Micah’s disappearances were accompanied by a pop of rushing air. The flicker of light was none of his doing. He would ride the mare until she exhausted herself, or she could succeed in throwing him. Micah had no idea that she or his other companions were in any danger. She gave a slight moan but did not move in her captors grip.
Their path wound ever down, past drop offs and narrow defiles. Slime and mold slicked the cave walls and floor, though the broad bare feet of her captors did not slip. The men shifted their hold on her and Taldaan to support them by their shoulders and feet, when they came to a descent of narrow stairs cut into the dark stone. Taldaan still showed no sign of consciousness. If he were to awake now, while on these stairs his strength could doubtless hold the passage from an army of these knobby men. She struck the thought from her mind. In this darkness, Taldaan would be blind.
Her satchel had stones with light enchantments cast upon them, a last minute addition she had made, though this, their first foray to Thurvan was supposed to end before the day was out. The Lady’s cloth had not shown her what lived beneath the great forest canopy that covered much of the land. They only knew that thinking, feeling life lived here. She groaned inside for not putting the question to Hethal—what will we find within the forest?
She could only blame herself for not asking. The task of saving Thurvan’s spirit completely consumed the man. Too much to spare a glance at what her and her exploratory crew would discover. She also blamed her resentment of the man—she could have asked him, it would have taken but a moment of his time.
There was only one other source she could call to for aid, and he had told her she was on her own. She doubted that she could call to her father while bound and gagged, let alone jostled and bumped along by cruel, hideous men. She relaxed as much as she felt able, breathing deeply through her nose and trying to ignore the taste of the filthy rag in her mouth.
Father! she called in her mind. Nothing came to her, no warm smile or loving embrace.
She reached out with her sight, hoping to find him within the hall of the Order of the Lady. She would even be satisfied at this point to find him within the dark areas of Nefryt in the guise of his other aspect. Her heart began to pound heavily in her chest as she could not find him. There had been times when he hid from her, times when he hid from even her mother. They did not like thinking about those times, her and her mother both knew that some of his tasks pained him greatly. They also knew that somewhere on Vorallon was his priest, a man or being who knew him and worshiped him only as Chreen.
When he was with this man, he was completely inaccessible to them, not sharing even a thread of his essence with them.
She had to tell someone of the danger they were in. She took a deep breath again and relaxed.
Jorune! She called.
She found herself ringed by great trees, once more within the steamy forest above. The hands of her captors and their jolting descent could still be felt but her awareness was now bound in prayer.
Stepping out from the ring of trees pranced a tall white stallion, tossing his mane with a joyful whicker.
“Bright-star!” the stallion exclaimed and then his form melted and shifted into the boy she was familiar with.
“Jorune! I am in trouble!” she blurted out, her mouth ungagged in her prayer.
“I can see that,” he said, embracing her and filling her with his golden light, healing her aches and pains and renewing the strength of her limbs. “You found yourself some goblins.”
“Taldaan is hurt badly and we are being carried deep underground.”
“I know, and Micah is trapped on Altea’s back,” Jorune said with a toss of the white lock at his brow. “I am trying to calm her, but she is still too panicked to hear my call. Micah is in for the ride of his life.”
“I cannot find father.”
“He is behind the stars, to return soon with aid that Vorallon and Thurvan need,” Jorune shook his head. “Bright-star, there is nothing more I can do. You are among Chreen’s creatures now.”
“What will these goblins do with us?”
“I am sure they will take you to their masters without harming you further. You must rely on Taldaan, Dederon, and your own considerable abilities.”
“We are on our own?”
“There is nothing more I can do,” Jorune gave her a wink. “Bartalus, however, is setting events in motion that will provide you opportunities—be ever alert for his subtleties.”