Cool air blew through the tiny room, tousling Aeris’ hair and tickling her face. Opening her green bleary eyes, she looked towards her open bedroom window and gazed out at the dusky sky. She slowly sat up in bed and yawned, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. She looked at the warm spot on the bed next to her and smiled as Inali, her winged fox, yawned as well. Her sharp white teeth clacked together as her mouth closed and she licked her nose.
“If we leave now we can get some hunting in before everyone else wakes up and puts us to work.” Aeris said, her voice sounding loud in the early morning silence. Inali hopped off the bed and shook off the sleep, stretching her muscles. Aeris followed and shivered as the crisp morning air blew through the window onto her bare, ashen skin. Running on tip toe she went and fastened the window closed before hurrying to dress. Once outfitted in her usual blue leather jerkin and pants, she quickly threw her dark hair into a long braid down her back, mildly annoyed as some of the shorter, midnight blue strands fell free. She fetched her bow and quiver from next to the head of her bed and set off, sneaking on bare feet through the little cottage so she would not wake Leda or her husband.
Once outside, she pulled up her hood and ran silently towards the lush forest bordering their town, Inali close at her heels. They ran together, the soft thump of her feet on the forest floor the only sound this early in the morning. Dawn was her favorite time of day, when no one was awake and she didn’t have to perform the tedious task of tending the mill that supplied flour for the whole of the town. She loathed the job, but understood why she was assigned to do such.
Leda, the kind woman who had raised her, ran the mill. She was a weak minded, simple woman, but she had always been kind to her. Aeris was different from the rest of the Elder Dryads, and was treated as such. They used magic; beautiful, sparkling, magic. Their very skin shone with it, in shades of green and gold. But not Aeris. Her skin, though it had the shine the others had, was the color of cold steel, and she could barely manage the most basic magic. She was physically stronger; and noticeably tall for a Dryad, and had acquired the nickname ‘Goliath’ for her features that resembled the brutish race that dominated most of Vordon. She had never met a Primordial Goliath, but was raised to fear and hate them. They were, she was taught, the reason for the fall of the Elder Dryads. What was left of her delicate race was here in this small city, Drai Sonner in the Hafen forest, or were wandering the land. She longed to be out of this forest, traveling the world and discovering what wonders it held. Aeris planned on one day leaving with a visiting nomadic tribe and seeing the world, but one hadn’t come through here in the last decade.
Inali ran slightly ahead and perked her ears, nose lowering to the forest floor. Aeris slowed and they came to a stop as Inali sniffed in a figure eight pattern for a moment. She knelt down and placed her hand delicately on the ground, wiping away the pine needles and finding a small cloven print in the soft loam. She scanned for more prints until Inali chuffed and took off, having caught the scent again. Aeris struggled to catch up to the darting black and white figure, as Inali wove her way effortlessly through the underbrush. They ran nearly silent through the forest as the sun continued to climb its way over the mountain range to the north. Tendrils of soft morning rays began to break through the canopy of leaves.
This continued for what felt like an hour, Inali having lost and found the trail three times, before they heard a twig snap. They crouched, heads swiveling towards the sound. She crept forward, pulling an arrow out of the quiver strapped to her back and notched it onto the bow. Rounding a great oak tree, she saw the prey they had been tracking.
A silver hoofed stag grazed a few yards ahead of where she hid, its velvety antlers glistening with dew. She sucked in a breath and drew back the string, aiming at its green chest. A branch snapped loudly off to her right and the stags head shot up, it’s three brown eyes wide. Mentally cursing, she loosed the arrow which flew harmlessly through open space as the stag dashed off. Muttering curses, she went to retrieve her arrow before glowering in the direction of the noise. She heard more snaps and began to wonder what could be making such a racket. Inali padded up to her and whined softly. She jogged towards the sound and soon was in sight of a… Goliath?
Aeris crouched low in the brush and gazed out at the figure, her heart racing. There was a man, skin the color of a storm cloud, with black hair trailing along the tops of his shoulders. He was sitting in a hot spring, the warm fog covering most of his body from view. His clothes lay in a heap a few feet away from him on a rock; a sword as long as her arm on top. Inali growled next to her and she put a hand on her for comfort. Her heart began to slow its frantic beat as she gazed at him. He looked so peaceful and harmless as he laid his head back in the water, eyes shut, his dark hair floating around him like snakes. The corners of his mouth twitched up, and he spoke.
“I know you’re there.” His voice was deep and languid. Aeris stopped breathing. His eyes lazily opened, and piercing yellow eyes found her. She walked into the open and glared at him.
“How did you know,” She asked with a quiet voice. He sat up and took in the site of her.
“I could feel your eyes oggling me from the brush. Like what you see?” he questioned and flashed a cocky smile. Heat rushed to her cheeks.
“I was not oggling you. I’ve just never seen one of you in the flesh before and was curious. Plus, you scared away the stag I was hunting, stomping around like a newborn.” she folded her arms and looked off in the direction she had come.
She heard sloshing and water droplets falling back into the spring and looked back, alarmed. He was walking out of the water, completely naked. Gray skin shiny like a well polished sword, his dark hair sticking to his face, framing his yellow eyes and strong jaw. Scars decorated his body, especially his arms. Her eyes involuntarily followed the length of his body and grew wide. She spun around with an exasperated noise, feeling hot all over, and took her hood down to try and cool herself. She heard him chuckle behind her.
“I’m glad you find yourself so amusing,” she lifted her foot to take a step forward, “I have to go before my people start to wonder where I am.”
Warm breath on her neck.
She froze; water dripped onto her shoulder and a shiver ran up her spine.
“So soon?” he whispered into her hair, his voice like soft fur sliding along bare skin. “I haven’t even learned your name.” She swallowed and turned cautiously around. He was tall; over seven feet tall, gazing down at her with a stupidly adorable smirk on his face. Heat radiated off of his bare skin and she fought not to look down again. It took her a few breaths to find her voice.
“My name is Aeris.”
“Vindar,” he bowed deep, “so very nice to meet you.” he lifted just his head to flash a charming smile at her. She averted her eyes and he finally took the hint. When she heard cloth sliding over skin, she looked back at him. She couldn’t help but admire how his muscled body moved as he did something as basic as dressing and had to shake her head to clear it of such thoughts. He was the enemy, wasn’t he? Gathering herself she asked,
“What are you doing here? I’ve never seen a Primordial Goliath get this far into the forest before. Are you lost?”
He looked over his shoulder at her as he finished lacing up his boots and then fastened the sword onto his belt.
“No, we are not lost.” He said with a serious tone. She frowned. There are others with him. As if in answer to her thoughts, she heard a whistle. His jaw clenched. “I think it would be best for you to leave.”
She backed away as she began to hear footsteps from the direction of the whistle; sparing one more glance at Vindar, who nodded to her, and then she ran, Inali close at her heels.
Sweat beaded her forehead as Aeris neared her village and she breathed a heavy sigh of relief. She had to tell Kismett, never before had a Goliath been this close to the village and it did not bode well.
“Off on another morning hunt?” She jumped as a voice startled her out of her thoughts. She looked towards the voice and found her friend, Merle, leaning up against a tree. He had twigs in his hand that he was weaving into a crown. He looked up from his work to take in her disheveled appearance. “Did you wrestle with a boar? I wish you didn’t have to hunt those poor creatures.”
“Hey Merle.” She sighed out and heavily sat down next to him. “I almost got a stag, but it got spooked.” He finished his weaving and then traced his work with one hand, almost, but not quite touching the surface. His green skin shone softly. On the third time around, little pink flowers began to sprout from various spots along the woven crown; her mouth curved into a smile. He placed it upon her head. “And you know I wish I could survive off plants like the rest of you, but I’m just not built like that. I get sick if I don’t get a lot of protein.” She replied.
“I know, you just had to be born a halfbreed.” He teased. “And who was the culprit for spooking your potential meal?” He inquired.
“A Goliath...” She replied slowly.
“A what?!” He pushed himself off the tree and looked down at her as if she had suddenly sprouted a tail.
“I saw a Goliath in the hot spring past the great oak off the northern trail.” She looked down at the lush grass between her boots.
“You must tell the elder. How many are there? Were you hurt?” He began to anxiously pace and scan the forest behind her. She stood up and brushed the dirt from her pants.
“I’m fine, he didn’t touch me. He was quite charming really.” She shook her head to keep from straying to thoughts of his muscled body. “There were others, I could hear some approaching, but I didn’t see how many before I ran. Why do you think they would come this far? Do you think they’re going to attack and wipe us out for good?” Concern gnawed at her stomach.
“Probably. That’s all those damned brutes are good at. Conquering and destroying.” He spit on the ground behind him. Inali whined besides her. Aeris rubbed under her chin before telling her,
“You should at least get something to eat. Go hunt and find me later.” Inali flapped her white tipped wings once, twice, then jumped into the air, catching a draft that carried her towards one of the wheat fields where she was likely to find mice. She took the crown off her head and held it out for Merle to take back. He shook his head.
“I made it for you Aer, keep it. You look good with a crown.” He winked at her and then they parted ways.
Changing out of sweaty clothes before meeting with Kismett, the village elder, seemed like a good idea. The Elder Dryads considered, for the most part, all of them to be equal to one another, therefore not technically having a leader. But, Kismett was the oldest and wisest amongst them and was held in high regard. She lived in the great manor at the top of the 3 pools they built their town around. The manor was more library than house, where they stored all the knowledge they had saved after the war that nearly pushed them to extinction.
As she threw open the door to the cottage, she heard Leda in the kitchen, singing a happy little tune with a voice that reminded her of warm summer air and fields of flowers. She smiled and went to hug her from behind as she mixed something in a bowl.
“Morning, Leda.” She said and kissed her lightly on the cheek. She jumped slightly and gave a little ‘Oh!’ of surprise, before giggling.
“Good morning dear! I’m making banana bread with blueberries this morning, your favorite.” She beamed. Leda was the type of person you just couldn’t help but be happy around. She radiated joy.
“Sounds lovely Leda, thank you. I’m off see Kismett though, I’ll be back as soon as I can, to help with the chores.” She headed towards her bedroom. The stirring stopped.
“The elder? Why? What’s happened?” Worry aged her face. Aeris looked at the floor.
“I’ll tell you later, it might be nothing to worry about.” With that, she shut her bedroom door and searched for finer clothes. She slid into a pair of brown loose pants that looked like the skirt of a dress when she stood still, as well as a green blouse woven from the large leaves of the empress tree; two slits lined the back of it, for wings she would never have. Slipping into a pair of purple flats, barely visible under her flowing pants, she set off once more, waving at Leda on her way out.
The sun was fully visible over the tall trees now, and the valley seemed to come to life. She ran her hand over the tops of the many colorful flowers grown along the paths as she walked towards the 3 pools. Her gray skin seemed so out of place among the vibrant colors, and she pulled her hand back to her side. Quickening her pace, she reached the first pool in no more than five minutes and had to shield her eyes while they got used to the glare of the water. They called this place Drai Sonner; three suns, because of the 3 pools coming down the hill. During mid day, they reflected the sun with such brilliance, they looked like suns, flowing one into the another, like liquid fire. Stone steps lead the way up the steep hillside to the manor where she would find Kismett.
She stopped to catch her breath as she conquered the last step, hands on her hips. She looked up to see 3 villagers talking amongst each other near columns wrapped in ivy. Having caught her breath, she began to try and get past them.
“Excuse me.” Aeris muttered.
They turned to look at her, and the smiles fell from their faces. One of them, a golden woman with bright green eyes composed herself first. Her three vertical pupils dilated to different sizes as she began to lie.
“Aeris, what a pleasure. What brings you here at this hour? Shouldn’t you be tending the mill with those strong arms of yours?” Her smile reminded her of when Inali was caught on the counter stealing dinner. The two next to her, a boy younger than her, and a girl about the same age as Aeris, snickered.
“So good to see you too Trinity, I need to see the elder, it’s important, if you wouldn’t mind?” She began to walk forward, and they scrambled unnecessarily far out of the way so as not to be touched by her. Clenching her teeth, she strode inside past the large open doors.
A cloud passed over the sun then, causing the great hall to seem grim and desolate through the stained glass windows. At this time of morning, the elder was likely to be in the library teaching the young ones. Her flats made a soft tap, tap, tap, as she walked down the tiled hallway, great columns that were once trees, on either side. As she drew near the wooden door to the library, she heard gasps of delight, followed by laughter from the students. She came to a stop at the door and slowly pushed it open, trying not to disturb them. Kismett sat cross legged in the alcove to the biggest window in the library, her golden skin glowing brilliantly as if she were taking the sun’s rays into herself. The seven kids, ranging between ages 8 and 18, knelt below her, pointing and smiling as Kismett made a scene play out before them with her magic. It showed the history of when the Dryads found this place, portraying the hope that they finally found a place safe from the other races. A place where they could live in peace, far from the turbulence of the chaotic outer world. The magic showed everything in dusty gold particles, melded by Kismetts magic.
Aeris’ attention went back to the elders face, seeing that she was looking straight at her, smile never wavering. Aeris placed three fingers between her brows and closed her eyes, a sign of respect. When she opened them, everyone in the room was looking at her.
“Here for a refresher on your history Aeris?” Kismett asked in a gentle voice.
“No, elder. I remember it all well, I had the best teacher after all.”
Kismett flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture, the magic scene dissipating like mist.
“Well then students, how about we take a short break? Help yourself to the dining hall,” She clasped her hands together and stood. “I will come get you when we are done speaking.”
Conversation broke out as they all trickled out of the room, glancing at Aeris and muttering amongst themselves like a flock of chickens. Aeris pushed the heavy wooden door shut until she heard the latch click home, then turned to Kismett who was gazing out the great window.
“It looks like it’s going to rain soon.” She said so softly Aeris strained to hear her. She joined her at the window and took a deep breath. Three crows were perched on a tree below the window, their black feathers gleaming in the sun.
“There are Primordial Goliaths in our territory. I don’t know how many, or why, but there’s more than one, a couple miles north.” Aeris rushed to get it all out and the room was silent as she finished. Kismett closed her eyes and her brows came together, her lips pursed. When she opened her eyes again, the heat in them startled Aeris back a step.
“Nothing concerning those people is ever good. We need to run them from our territory. We have had a century of peace here, I don’t want the wrath of their king coming down upon us if they were to get hurt.” She began to pace, staring intently at the floor as she tried to come up with plans.
“Maybe they’re just travelers?” Aeris offered. Kismett scoffed.
“Where one goes, there are always more to follow. They’ll come offering peace, and then stab you in the back and take everything you have.” She growled. Stopping suddenly, she took a deep breath to calm herself. “I’ll send scouts to gather more information, find out how many there are.” She closed her eyes for a moment and the golden glow of her skin grew brighter, a sign she was using magic. Aeris knew she would be using telepathy to tell her chosen people their task.
“I could lead them to where I last saw them.” she offered.
“No, you’ve done enough. Now if there’s nothing else, shouldn’t you start your duties?”
Aeris bristled. Like she could just go about her day like nothing was going on.
“But-“ the look on her face cut her short. She bowed her head- “yes elder.” and headed for the door.
As she stepped out onto the stairs, she took a deep breath, trying to calm her racing thoughts. The sun was warm on her face, but a crisp breeze cooled her skin. Dark clouds were gathering in the distance; it would rain before the day was over. She thought of her options; go work the mill, or run off searching for outsiders like a crazy person. She smirked, the latter sounding much more fun than working the dusty mill. But, imagining the look of disappointment that would be on Ledas face, gave her pause.
With a growl, she set off towards the mill, shoving her hands into her pockets as she trotted heavily down the steps. The flour mill was on the other side of the second pool. She would have to walk all the way down, to circle around and head up the western side. The village was fully alive now, bustling with activity. Dryads flew to and fro on nearly translucent wings, their sparkling skin in shades of green and yellow, fueled by the morning sun. She saw Merle under a pear tree, doing his part to coax them to grow bigger, sweeter, more nutrient rich. Glittering magic was everywhere, like a mist in the air as her people worked.
A giggling child raced in front of her path, quickly followed by two others. The last one tripped, skidding in the dirt with a grunt. Aeris reached her hand out to help, but the kid jumped up and kept running like it never happened. She breathed a laugh and reminisced on being young and carefree; having friends to run around with. Before her skin got darker, and her lack of magic ability made her stand apart from the rest.
The smell of warm bread and blueberries hit her nose as soon as she entered the mill. There, sitting on a stone slab, was a wrapped bundle. Leda must have dropped off some of the blueberry banana bread she was making this morning. Aeris leaned against the wall and smiled as she dug into the still warm bread. Her heart swelled with love for the woman, no luck with children of her own, she was kind enough to take her in and accept her for the odd being she was.
She got to work, and around midday, heard a commotion outside. Wiping the sweat and dirt from her eyes, she stepped outside to look around. She saw people talking and pointing towards Kismetts manor. Just then, a slight pressure enveloped her head and she shrunk back.
“Aeris-” Kismetts voice, “-clean up and come to the great hall.”
Then the pressure subsided. She massaged her temples. “I hate it when she does that.” Happy to have an excuse to stop working, she jogged down the hill towards her house. She quickly undressed and walked into the wooded shower. The water in the tub was way too cold. She filled a bucket, placed her hands into it and focused with all her might. Remembering what Kismett had taught her, she felt the sun on her skin, and imagined it flowing into her hands, vibrating the water molecules. Her hands grew warm and she let out the breath she had been holding, greatly pleased with herself. Warming water was childs play to most, but for Aeris, it was one of the few things she could do.
Hurrying up the steps for the second time that day, her thighs burning, she slowed to a halt at the site before her. Huge beasts, the likes of which she had never seen before, rummaged in the grass near the manor. Leather saddles sat atop grey skinned mounts, their noses curling up into a large horn. Three dark skinned Goliaths stood at attention, waiting near the beasts, their thick armor dusty from travel. Closest to the manor, a beast different from the rest, fidgeted, pacing back and forth, testing the ropes that kept it tied in place.
Aeris cautiously walked closer, gazing up at the magnificent creature. It had large black hooves, with long feathers of hair covering them. A thick black tail twitched back and forth with impatience. It looked at her as she got close, shaking its large head, causing its mane to tangle in the long serrated horn protruding from the middle of its forehead.
“Wow,” Aeris breathed, “what a magnificent creature you are.”
A man cleared his throat and she took a step back. Tucking her hair behind her pointed ear, she hurried past what looked to be guards, to the great hall. Reaching for the door, she could hear bickering from the other side. She heard a deep voice she didn’t recognize, followed by Kismett. As the door opened, everyone stopped to look at her. Her eyes met with the man closest to Kismett. He smoothed a white hair back into place, his cold blue eyes a startling contrast to his dark skin. Tall, dark and handsome came to mind as she pondered him. His gaze studied her like a strange beast in a cage, and heat spread up her face. She looked, eyes wide, at Kismett who beckoned her over, before pacing the raised floor she stood on. She scanned the people before her, two guards at either side of the white haired one, and behind them, casually leaning against a column, stood yellow eyed, Vindar. Aeris narrowed her eyes at him and he flashed teeth, toying with the hilt of a dagger in his belt.
“Nothing like this has ever been done before. I just, I don’t know,” Kismett said.
“Yes, but I’m offering peace. A union between our people would benefit us both. We are in need of your resources, and I’m sure you could use ours. We could supply technology your kind has never seen, build real towns.” Tall, dark and handsome said calmly.
“We have been just fine for decades. We don’t need your help.”
Typical way for an elder to think, Aeris thought. She would love to have some change around here. Nothing ever changed in this town.
“Things are slipping out of the Pit. A war may be coming and we have no way of knowing how soon. If you just sit here in your old ways like always, you may be wiped out of existence. We all may be. Help us, and we will help you. We need to prepare for the worst if we are to survive the storm. Our people have fought together before, we can do it again.”
Color drained from Kismetts face and she stopped pacing. “Your people have done nothing but brutalize ours for a hundred years; drove us into hiding. Our numbers are few and I will not risk my entire race for a possible war they may all die in.”
“I’m not asking you to sacrifice your people, you don’t even have to fight if you don’t want to. Let our scholars study in your library, learn what they can from your people, so that we can better create weapons to fight with.”
Kismett scoffed, “You and your weapons,” a look of distaste spread across her face, “If you can promise the protection of my people,” she faltered, unsure of her decision, “we will help you in whatever way we can.” Aeris’ brows shot up in surprise.
“We will have some of the guard take residence here to help defend against attack. If you would allow them to cut down some of the surrounding forest, they can build a guard tower as well.”
Kismett brought her clasped hands to her mouth before standing up straight. She put on an air of authority as she looked him in the eye. “I will agree to an alliance, on one condition.” She said. His face remained neutral. “Marriage.”
A shadow of disgust crossed his face, but he quickly hid it. “I don’t think that would be beneficial to either of us, for many reasons.”
“Having one of my people on the inside would help me be able to trust your intentions. Kingdoms often marry to form alliances, and I didn’t mean to me.” The corner of her mouth twitched into a smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. She turned her head to look at Aeris and held out a hand. “We believe she is a mix of our races, and is much stronger than us, physically. She should be able to withstand living with your people, unlike most of us.”
Aeris’ jaw dropped to the floor. Marriage?! She must have lost her mind.
The man adjusted his collared black shirt and met Kismetts eyes. “It may be easier to get through to my people that we have joined forces, and not to harm your race, if one became the wife of the king. Also, she will be able to tell us valuable information about your kind, and is free to report back to you while living there.” His eyes flicked to Aeris.
Aeris thought about leaving her life here, stepping foot out of the woods for the first time, and seeing the world. Excitement began to trickle through her and she looked at Kismett, who looked back with worry clear on her face. She sighed and turned to face him.
“Well, King Gunnr,” Kismett began, “I can send her to pack while you and I figure out details if you would like.”
Aeris was rolling around in her head the fact that mister tall dark and handsome was the king, he looked so young. She looked up and met his scrutinizing gaze. Her brows came together in confusion; no one ever wanted anything to do with her, a king surely wouldn’t.
“Me?” she asked, her voice not betraying her frantic heart.
Vindar behind him, pushed off the column, his face laced with concern. Aeris opened her mouth to argue, and was shut down by the unwavering stare of Kismett.
She took a deep breath and stepped toward the King, awkwardly swooping into a bow, “Names Aeris. When do we leave?”