Kindle looked down at her black dress and smiled. Through some kind of domestic magic ( and the fact that a tailor had visited them mysteriously earlier that day ) it fit perfectly. It even had a low back that allowed Kindle freedom to fly without the dress catching on her wings. She turned and gave both Trixie ( to her ) and Julia who were both equally as satisfied with their formal dresses.
“Should we even be doing this? What about Rath?”
Julia had fretted earlier when they had received the invitations. But even reticent Rein conceded that one does not turn down an invitation from the Queen of the Elves.
“Braigeth is no fool. She sent for us not only to find a way to heal her, but she said she had news about Rath. We should go along with this.”
He tossed his package into a nearby trash can.
“However, I draw the line at - dressing up.”
Julia was embarrassed at her own dress. She had never worn something so beautiful and elaborate before. She was used to the plain brown dresses that herbalists wore while out in the forest collecting samples of Hogroot or Spindleleaf. Instead she was wearing a flowing dress in shades of brown and that suggested trees, moss, and grass. Little details around her collar and hem were stitched with leaves, various herbs and flowers. In a word, Julia was enchanted by it. It was as if it were made for her. She even wore the amber necklace on the outside, and it seemed to glow slightly - pleased.
“I’ve never even seen clothing like this.”
Julia said as she spun in place in front of Trixen and Kindle in their room at the Inn.
“The Elves are known not only for their great magic, but for their ability to express themselves through things created by hand, such at clothing, and … weapons.” Kindle said, glancing down at her sword.
Cirrus beamed unabashedly in her thoughts.
Trixen was perhaps the most stunning of them all. Her dress was like the forest in winter, all in white like fresh fallen snow at night, with dark lines of trees that started at waist level and traveled up her midriff. The white of the dress had subtle gems that sparkled in the light and suggested a moon shining on fresh snow in a deep forest.
With her new silver hair and deep violet eyes, she seemed not only otherworldly, but suggested all the mystery of the forest at night. She seemed quite pleased with herself.
“I’ve never worn something so beautiful, and yet so impractical. I love it!”
“What does Cur think?” Julia offered.
Trixen made a mock frowny face. “He took one look at me and said ‘If you wanted to see the forest, why are we going to the castle?’”
“Any luck getting that collar on him?” Kindle said, laughing.
“After threatening to eat anyone that dared try to put it on him, and complaining that he was no one’s pet, I finally managed to convince him that not only did it make him look handsome, but it was perfect for me to hold onto instead of his fur when I rode him.”
Julia exchanged glances with Kindle, somehow conveying the wonder that Trixie would now seem to think it was commonplace to ride a giant wolf.
Trixen caught them in mid glance. “What?”
Julia said, “You. Riding a giant wolf. Kinda a new thing for you.”
“This coming from the girl who could make an army out of rose bushes, and you too, Dragon girl” she glanced over at a chuckling Kindle, who buzzed around them smiling.
Julia marvelled at the friendships she had forged in such a short time with these two girls. They were all being transformed by magical forces beyond anything they knew, and yet they could still banter back and forth over clothing, and … guys?
There was a knock at the door of their room. Kael’s muffled voice called “Ok girls, the carriage is ready outside. Unless you want to walk to the castle and get your dresses all muddy.”
Kindle flew to the door and cracked it open. “Be right there, mister impatient.” she answered.
As she closed the door and turned around Julia said, “You know, he seems to like you.”
Kindle looked stricken for a moment. “Who?”
Trixen sidled up to Kindle, her arms behind her back, smiling coyly. “Who do you think? Kael. Dashing, roguish, lady’s man. What’s not to like?”
Kindle blushed. “Lady’s man. Yeah. I don’t think I’m his type. “ She quickly opened the door and flew out while Trixen and Julia glanced at one another, eyebrows raised.
The castle was buzzing with excitement. While the group thought they would stand out with their elaborate clothing, they soon discovered that they were merely singular wonders in a sea of wonders. Every Elf of any royal standing was attending, and it appeared that each one was striving to outdo the others in the lengths they would go for the most beautiful, elaborate, or clever suits and dresses.
Julia marvelled at the scene as they walked along the grand corridors of the castle to the main ballroom. The high curved walls and well-lit hallways - filled with windows, lamps, and clever mirrors that gave everything a vivid, bright color that overwhelmed her senses.
The men of the group were much less in awe of the proceedings. Rein could barely contain his disdain for the whole scene, and walked purposefully to the main ballroom. He was like a dark fish swimming upstream, as barons and duchesses would part just before him with raised eyebrows and heavy lidded displeasure at his lack of decorum. Kyte was dressed in a grey suit that suggested metal - almost as if someone had taken a suit of armor as inspiration for a dress suit. He even had gloves that at first seemed to be gauntlets, but in reality were only fabric cleverly colored to appear metallic. Kyte kept trying to catch Julia’s eye, or to strike up a conversation as they walked. But Julia felt too shy and overwhelmed to respond, and found a way to keep the surly Rein between her and her Mage companion.
Another member of their group also garnered a lot of attention as well as a wide girth. Trixen rode atop Currick (side-saddle for the sake of her dress) as he padded down the hallway. Within the many sounds of conversation in the hallways were gasps and yelps as the huge wolf passed them by. The Elven guards stationed periodically down the corridors gaped and held tightly to their spears as Currick returned their stares with unsettling violet eyes.
“You must be like a kid in a candy store” Kindle said to Kael as they travelled.
Kael had stopped several times to greet some dignitary or minor official that he happened to know, renewing some relationship or laughing at an in-joke between them. He was dressed in a high collar, thick belt, and high boots of a sea-faring pirate. He had a larger than life hat that rested atop his head at a jaunty angle that had the suggestion of a ship on turbulent waters.
“This is my element, Kindle. A word here, and a gesture there might make the difference between life and death for the Knights Guild.” He winked, further unsettling her.
Kindle was troubled. She had faced War Bears, Knife Respers, and Rath-possessed demons, and somehow she was more nervous around Kael than any of them combined.
Trixen slid down deftly from Currick and stared about her in awe. Not only was the huge ballroom decorated with all kinds of natural wonders - a miniature forest here, a mock ocean there - but there must be hundreds of people all talking, eating, and waiting patiently for the Queen to arrive. Suddenly there was a hush that flowed through the crowd, and all eyes turned to the raised dais at the far end of the ballroom.
Trixen gasped. The Queen was wearing the midnight black dress from her memory from Thalon. She wished she could somehow tell Thalon just how much he had changed her life. And that he had succeeded in his mission. A tear ran down her cheek.
“He would have made a fine wolf, morsel.” Currick rumbled next to her.
She scratched the back of his ear and gave him a small hug - to the dismay of the Elves closest to her.
“Thank you. Now please don’t eat anyone tonight.” she whispered.
“No promises” he replied, his ear twitching. “Something is going on here. More than just a gathering of these Elf - folk. I can smell the treachery in the air.”
Trixen cast her eyes around the room. She spotted Findar nearby and gestured for him to come closer. He was dressed in bright yellows and golds - suggesting a sunrise, or a bonfire. Anywhere else he might have stuck out like a gaudy street performer, but here he was just another point of color in a mad rainbow of reds, blues, violets, and greens.
“Findar, Cur -” she was careful to keep their new names a secret, even to Findar - “ says there’s something wrong here. He can sense it.”
Findar blew air out of his beard. “Well, while this is not a pack of wolves, nor a flock of deer, we’d be foolish not to keep our eyes open. I’ll tell the others.” He disappeared into the crowd with a dexterity Trixen found remarkable for a man of his age.
Kindle flew up to the Queen of the Elves, Braigeth, and bowed deeply. Braigeth was stunning in her midnight black dress with light blue collar, and her golden hair seemed to capture the light around her and enhance her delicate beauty.
She smiled at Kindle and said, “Welcome, FairyKnight. May I see your sword? I have heard that it is of Elven origin.”
Slightly surprised, Kindle drew her sword carefully and held it before the Queen. Braigeth made a show of looking over it carefully, and then handed it back to Kindle. Kindle bowed again and moved back to allow for another dignitary to make their greetings.
*Kindle! The Queen has given me a message for you! We all are in great danger. The Queen suspects that there are several members of her court that are Rath sympathizers. They know you have travelled here to seek to foil his plans, and they plan to capture all of us in the morning! The Queen staged this celebration to get all of us here in a place where the Rath sympathizers could not get to us without tipping their hand. You must tell everyone that after the first dance, to make their way to the south exit - one at a time.* Cirrus spoke in Kindle’s mind urgently.
Kindle kept her face placid as she drifted toward Kael, but inwardly her heart sank and fear made her feel cold.
*There’s more! It’s dire news, Kindle. Rath has been gathering an army of Goblins at RavenBlight castle. The Queen has been in touch with the ArchKnight who’s just sent word that he has rallied the Knights of the Guild. They are racing to the base of the mountain below RavenBlight to face the Goblin army before it marches on the human lands. It’s going to be a full scale war!*
Kindle dropped to the ground, stunned. Kael caught her stricken look and quickly made his way to her. Somewhat self-consciously, Kindle rose to the air once again - mainly to avoid being trampled by the crowd of semi-royal elves- and landed lightly on his shoulder.
“I know you are about to tell me some bad news, Kindle. I’ve been hearing rumors all night. But I have to say before you do, since it may spoil this pleasant evening, that you look stunning in that dress.” Kael smiled.
Kindle had more than a moment of trouble finding her voice. “You never stop, do you Kael? I’m not one of your contacts, and I’m definitely not one of your conquests. I have dire news.”
Quickly she conveyed to Kael all that she had heard from Cirrus. Kael’s smile faded and his jaw set hard. “I never play games with you Kindle. We need to let the rest know what to do. Stay with me.”
The way Kael went from foppish rogue to stern, commanding, and decisive made Kindle finally realize why the ArchKnight had put so much trust in him. She clung lightly to his pirate hat and directed him to the easiest of their group to spot in the room: the giant wolf Cur.
The music began and everyone began to assemble for the first dance. Between Kael and Kindle, everyone in their group was quickly made aware of the dire nature of their situation. Julia was wide-eyed and found herself standing closer to Kyte when Kindle brought them close with the dire news.
“Don’t worry, Julia. I’ll protect you.” Kyte said.
“You have to act natural right now, “ Kindle warned. If the Rath sympathizers suspect we know, they might attack now, and endanger all of the people here.
“Well then,” Kyte offered a hand to Julia. “May I have this dance?”
Nervously, Julia took his hand and they slowly made their way to the south entrance. Julia never thought her first dance with a boy would in all likelihood be her last.
“I knew it!” Rein whispered loudly as they ran along a dark, empty street only a block now away from the Castle.
They could still hear the music playing from the grand ballroom in the distance. The Elf warriors that escorted them were silent but insistent - constantly turning back as they ran and gestured for the group to hurry faster. They were making their way to a large river that ran through the Elven Kingdom - there was a ship waiting there that was heading to meet the army that the ArchKnight was assembling.
“Don’t be so smug, Rein. We missed out on a great party.” Kael whispered back.
“Yes, Kael, we sure know where your priorities are. We’ll be fighting for our lives, while you take a break for a drink at the local Inn.” Rein retorted as they ran.
They were almost to the waterfront, and as they turned a corner around a large building they could see the ship outlined in the moonlight. Unfortunately, they also saw what must have been the largest Goblin any of them had ever encountered. It was 10 feet tall, and was standing with a huge club over a circle of now dead Elven guards. It turned to see the large white wolf and the rest of the group as they rounded the building. It roared, lifted it’s bloodsoaked club, and began to lumber toward them with surprising speed.
“I could use that drink right about now.” Kael quipped as he gestured with his hands.
Lightning began to play about his palms. Currick howled and leapt into the fray.
This was going to be a long night.