There was always a certain pattern to things. As every day passed, tasks were completed, news was received and passed on, and the sun rose and set as it had the day before. On some days plans would change, but today was another just like the one before it.
In a usually serene area, a particularly large tree stood gallantly, reaching upward above its more subtle neighbors. The bark was smooth, except for thin indentations and holes where it seemed to have been used as a target. Within moments, all birdsong was stopped as a knife’s blade scuffed against the trunk, skipped, and landed on the ground with a soft thud.
“Damn!” A male voice broke the air.
His heavy steps indicated his mood, and if anyone were around to see his glaring brown eyes and frowning lips, they would have gladly given him a wide berth. He picked up the knife with a quick motion and slid the short blade into the sheath on his belt. Lifting both arms, the male slid his hands over either side of his head and back down over the short ponytail at the back. It was a futile motion, since it did not do a very good job of keeping his wispy, sand-colored hair out of his eyes.
The saddled black stallion he had tied to a nearby tree lifted his head when he saw his rider approaching. Muscles in the steed’s legs tensed as he prepared himself for the rider’s easy mount, and swift kick. The stallion seemed very used to the frustrated mood his rider was in. He did as he was trained, accepting and carrying out the commands as they were given, even when he found himself galloping far beyond the reaches of the warm stable he called his home.
When the rider finally pulled him to a slow stop, the stallion could also see why.
“What are they doing this far out?” the male whispered as he dismounted, and pulled the stallion off to a small copse of trees.
Once well hidden, he peered through the leaves at a group of five men on horseback, all wearing the badge of his lands. They were riding in a line, using telescopes, and looking as if they were on business. The male stood up taller and finally saw why. He had not realized how far he had ridden in his own frustration. They were on the very edge of his home’s territory, and the group of men on horseback were clearly eyeing up the fabled forest of Tarragon. It certainly did not look to be a fable from where he stood.
“Tarragon Forest huh?” he spoke directly to the stallion, though keeping his eyes on the forest.
The trees were as large and ancient as the stories had told, and there seemed to be no way into the forest through the thick underbrush. It was as though the tangled branches and bushes had been planted exactly along the border, for they strayed no further than the territory’s edge. The hills turned to mountains further down the forest’s line, which made it nearly impossible to enter anywhere other than this serene place.
“Do you think there are faires in there as the stories say?” the male smiled and shook his head.
“Master Vance, your father will have your head when he hears you’ve taken Dancer out this far.”
The male, Vance, jumped and spun quickly on his heel. He cursed mentally when he realized that he should have checked for a flagbearer. They always came with a group of riders on business.
Vance settled into an annoyed calm now that he knew who he was dealing with. Nodding, he offered the man in uniform a sardonic smile, and lifted his brows under the stray hair that was likely framing his face.
“How is it that I am to meet with one of you wherever I go? Even at the very edges of our land, I’m hunted like a fox.”
Vance mounted the tall horse and watched with silent amusement as the flagbearer grit his teeth and frowned. The horse was one of his father’s prized performers, and though he often rode him, this was only the third time he had been caught.
“That horse is meant for an arena, not as a toy for a prince.”
Vance scowled again (it seemed to be a perpetual look on his face), and spun Dancer with a slight tug on the reigns.
“This horse is far from a play thing. There is a hardly a need for reins when one rides him, and he’d be perfect for a battlefield as much as an arena,” Vance shot back. “And I am no prince worth speaking of. Why do you not stalk Ferin? He’s the golden child.” he said, waving his hands animatedly as Dancer walked slowly around the flagbearer’s smaller horse.
“You father does not permit either of his sons this far out -”
“Yes, yes! I know! However, what you do not seem to understand is that he will not notice! If you were to storm straight up to him and tell him exactly what is happening right now, he’ll nod, thank you, and turn away,” Vance hissed. It was turning into a very good way to release his anger. “You seem to forget whom you are dealing with! I am the second son, not the first. I do not take the throne when father-” he stopped when he heard several galloping hoofs coming in fast from behind him.
Dancer spun around at about that time.
“-and what are you all doing so far out? Have you discovered fairies in the forest?” Vance yelled, not even giving the other riders a chance to question him.
One stumbled over his words before finally coming to explain.
“We’re scouting. Our border lies on the edge of this forest, and we are to mark any areas worth expanding, and check for unauthorized inhabitants.”
Vance rolled his eyes and turned Dancer about. The stallions shaggy feet lifted high in the air as he did so, giving meaning to his name.
“Oh, and I suppose we’re to burn the nests of any stray birds who aren’t paying their taxes.”
“Young master! You are not to speak in such jest of your father’s law!” one of the riders yelled, while the others seemed outright disgusted.
“I’m sure you all have business to attend to.” Vance said softly, looking down to prevent any of them from seeing the look on his face. “When you’re done telling tales of my horrible treason, please let my father know that I will keep perimeter guard this night.”
Vance looked up and nodded to them all with a serious look on his face.
“I will report any sign of treasonous birds or fairies.”
“Master Vance, forgive me for saying so, but you must learn proper etiquette,” the flagbearer said with as much dignity as he possibly could, turning his horse and kicking it into a canter.
The other riders followed suit after a moment’s hesitation.
Vance gave a false salute to all of their backs, and slumped in his saddle. He truly was apprehensive about returning now. Though most of his words were true, he knew he would receive a serious talking-to when he returned home. It was one thing to be confined within the kingdom, but to be barred inside was pure hell.
The sun was casting an orange glow on the area as he dismounted and began to untack Dancer. He made a small bed from the saddle pad and blanket, and pulled the only food he had thought to pack out of the saddle bag; a single apple. The knife’s blade split the apple in two, and by the time the sun set, both horse and rider were feasting on their meager supper.
An hour or so after sunset, Vance was left wishing he had thought to start a fire. There would surely be a frost by morning, and he was shivering with cold. He was miserable as always, even in his own rebellion. The young man was rocking slightly to relieve the cold when he saw the first light in the forest.
His light brown eyes widened and he stopped rocking, thinking it was his own imagination. Moments later, another light began fading in and out. It was far too cold for fireflies, but even so, the human knew fireflies did not make light so brilliantly. The show went on for another hour, and Vance kept watch, keeping his eyes on the fluctuating light and wondering if it was his imagination playing tricks on him. Deep down, he know that it was not.
By the time sleep claimed him,Vance was beginning to wonder if he actually would need to report this to his father. Moreover, he wondered if he really wanted to.
- - - - - - - - -
It was the only place she would ever let another being hear her voice in song. The atmosphere seemed to tame her inhibitions, and she hummed and sang wordlessly along with the beings around her.
Rowena’s hair was again braided and twisted and adorned with flowers. She still felt the soft pull from the back of her head, meaning that the fairies were still at work.
There were nights upon nights like this one. Rowena knew it was looked down upon, and even considered dangerous to mingle with the fairy-folk. It was said that their songs could intoxicate, and that their demeanors could turn vicious at any time. They weren’t to be trusted. Rowena had chosen to find out for herself, and had only been welcomed.
In elven gatherings, she would be eyed up and mostly avoided (though she did love to attend them). The music was wonderful, and the lights and decorations mesmerized her as they always had. However, even when she had Silna to talk to, she felt alone. She would not sing or play an instrument, or join in a dance of any sort. There was a place for her in their society, and it was not with the musicians.
With the fairies, Rowena felt special. They thought her exotic and fascinating, and she thought the same of them. The small beings glowed with life; their tiny wings came in all different colors and shapes, and many had brightly colored hair to match. Their songs were as melodic and entrancing as the elvish ones, enough to make her sing along! Almost nightly she would sit amongst them, huge compared to their sizes. Some would sit in trees and on rocks, while others sang and flew and danced by her. Many tried to show off their skills in flight or on instruments, while a few more took up the task of putting ornate designs in her hair. Their wings tickled when they touched her, and their voices were accepting and always happy.
To Rowena, this place was pure therapy.
This night, she was stretched out with a large blanket of fur in her hands. She stitched slowly, making what would be a white winter shawl for herself. Her voice carried along with the fairies as they sang and danced and played. When she looked up, she was often distracted by the sights. The colors of their wings left trails when they flew fast, and she could almost see the looks on their faces as couples danced together. Her brown eyes would quickly return to her work when she caught sight of specific movements. Fairies were not modest when it came to their love-making.
“Lady, the moon is nearly to its peak!” spoke a tiny voice from her side.
She recognized the red, scruffy hair of Wylden. He was one of the many who held conversations with her on a normal basis. Though their cultures differed immensely, they had somehow managed to learn a good deal of elvish.
“I’ll stay just a bit longer then,” Rowena smiled, pulling a thread tight on the fur.
She sighed as they resumed their work on her hair, lamenting that it would never be seen. Only Silna, Dolen, and her mother and father had even seen her after the fairies had finished, and they were never happy to know where she had been.
“Oh, you’ll upset your family then, Lady. They do not care for us, those folks,” Wylden said again, dancing around in front of her. They never seemed to stop moving.
“They’ll not know. They are all day walkers.”
“You walk both the day and the night, Lady!” he said in a higher voice, grinning from ear to ear.
He had a handsome face. In fact, all of them did. It was another trait they shared with the elves.
“I cannot walk the night for long without tiring, but I will stay a bit longer,” she replied, leaning back and taking a deep breath.
Even the air seemed clearer in the grove. The lights of fairies high above her swirled in her vision, and the canopy of the huge trees seemed to get further and further away. She was so very relaxed. The fur kept her warm, and the soft voices seemed to calm her muscles.
“Human girl, you’ll never learn to fit in if you continue to rebel.”
Rowena sat up with a short intake of breath. Looking all around, she realized that she was alone, and it was very, very cold out. Her eyes focused in the soft light of the coming dawn, and a white form above her made her understand what had happened. The words had come from within her own mind, and if Spirit was there, it meant...
“No! I fell asleep!” she gasped as she got up slowly, trying to keep her balance in a sleepy haze.
“Indeed. And you are needed in the paddock.”
“Oh no,” Rowena whined, sniffling a bit and running a hand over her hair. “Ohhh no. Why is it that they only ask for me when I am in the worst conditions?” she began walking back down the tiny path she used the night before, Spirit following behind.
“You are far to worried about your own appearance. Luckily, your current client is a similarly rebellious individual,” Spirit said in almost an amused tone. “Let me give you a ride, it will be faster.”
Rowena’s brows drew together as she deftly mounted Spirit and smoothed out her clothing. She was glad she had at least finished the white fur shawl the night before. It was still warm as she pulled it on over her head, pulling her long black tresses from beneath it. “What client? Who?” the girl was apparently so tired that she was replying both mentally and outloud.
“The watcher, Dolen,” Spirit replied as she set a fast walking pace. “He is in need of a mount for his latest assignment. Apparently he is as adept in understanding horses as he is to his fellow elves.”
Rowena scoffed and roller her eyes. “There is nothing wrong with him! He just doesn’t have very many friends. His work keeps him from being as social as the rest.”
Spirit made a sound in her mind and sped up into a trot when they reached a wider trail. Rowena found to her dismay that it was not only Dolen who was waiting in the paddock. Three other elves, one she recognized as a swordsman friend of Silna’s, were in the midst of putting saddles on their mounts.
She slid down from Spirit’s back and thanked the white mare mentally. All thoughts of herself were washed from her mind as she saw the absolute annoyance on Dolen’s face. Not only was he the only one without a mount thus far, but she could see the white roots of his hair growing in.
It would only take a week or so, but it was about as embarrassing as rolling out of bed without grooming. With the change from summer to winter, many elves grew in white hair (which was actually a shell-like growth that thickened the hair and helped it blend in with snow). The white overlay would molt off during the spring, which was nearly as uncomfortable as the growth cycle for them. The change was most obvious in those elves who had darker, or dyed hair (as Dolen did).
“Why are you in need of a horse?” she asked in a soft voice, already seeing a twinge of embarrassment on his face.
“I’m to patrol the boundary, and they’ve given me a large area to cover,” Dolen replied in the same soft tone, his bright green eyes focused on a random spot within the trees. “They are sure that humans will try the bounds within the week.”
Rowena’s brows lifted high, but she squelched any urge she had to question him. Her eyes traveled over the other three riders as she remembered that this was her ‘job’. Her brown gaze moved slowly over the paddock, which was no more than a slight clearing in the huge wooded area. Several mares and stallions grazed and stood within the area. Many had very strong minds, making it easy for her to communicate, but a few took more work. The nearest stallion, a tall bay with light brown eyes, was Dolen’s usual mount, Talon.
“He reared before I even got the saddle on his back.” Dolen admitted, obviously watching where her gaze had gone.
Rowena nodded and put a hand on either hip, walking slowly towards the stallion.
It took her a moment, but she stopped and nodded a few times as soon as she realized it.
“He’s taken a colic.” she said, turning on her heel to face Dolen. “I’ll make sure he gets the right care while you’re gone, but I’m afraid you will have to take another.”
As always, Dolen didn’t say a thing, merely nodded and looked back out into the paddock. She could tell by his stance alone that he was in a more morose mood than usual. Rowena let out a soft breath as she watched the other three riders leave the area.
“You didn’t have to ask for me,” she said as she searched the paddock with her eyes. “I know for a fact that Kendred has a gift for mindspeak.”
Dolen’s jaw twitched, but he didn’t speak for a time.
“In fact, I don’t know why they insist on making this seem like it’s my job,” Rowena said, looking back at him as her mind raced. “Any five out of ten can do such a thing as read an animal’s feelings. It’s nothing special.”
“Spoken from one who has the gift,” he quipped in a low tone. It was a rare, almost angry sound coming from his throat.
Rowena paced, looking in all directions as her thoughts were suddenly racing. “Really Dolen! Is it just to help me fit in? Because I am not doing an especially good job of that to begin with. I could be doing much more for this forest than making sure a colic is cured. “
“You are not in a position to do much more,” he replied, green eyes still focused on the horses.
“Of course not!” she outright yelled, not even wondering where all of these emotions were coming from. “I can barely see in the dark, my hearing is far less superior, and in the winter I’m an eyesore!”
Of course, many outland elves were known to keep their dark hair in the winter, but she was not going to bring that up. Not while her temper was flaring. In these lands, she was an eyesore. Kendred glanced in their direction, and Rowena almost allowed herself to glare back, but she turned away before she could. This was not his fault. It wasn’t Dolen’s fault either, but she was just so angry all of a sudden!
“I have heard these arguments before Rowena, but you cannot change any of that,” he said, turning to face her and raising his voice a bit. “Regardless, you are a part of this world. You always will be.”
Dolen was looking her in the eye, an intense spark lighting them more then usual. It had the desired effect of stopping her in her tracks. So rarely did Dolen speak or hold a conversation, much less get upset, that Rowena was caught unawares.
“I asked for you because no matter how many decades I live, I cannot seem to be the social being everyone expects me to be. You are one of few I’m comfortable speaking with,” he looked away again after a moment, his jaw twitching slightly. “How that came to be is beyond me. Now, will you please let me know who will have me? I need to be at the boundaries before the sun begins to wane.”
Rowena focused quickly on the rest of the paddock, sending out a small mental inquiry to several. Finally, she found one roan mare who seemed more than ready for an adventure.
“Quickfoot will have you,” Rowena said simply, turning and moving toward the entrance of the paddock in a haze of mixed emotions. “She’ll need guidance on the trail, but she’ll go as fast as you need.”
When he didn’t reply, she set her jaw and made one final turn to look at him. He was already lifting the saddle pad onto Quickfoot’s back.
“I supposed I will see you in however many weeks it takes you to return!” she called over her shoulder and continued walking back towards her home.
It didn’t surprise her much when he remained silent.