Ten years later
Their footfalls were silent as they ran through the forest. Not even a blade of grass bent nor did a fallen leaf crunch under the pressure. Swift as a flock of birds, the group of leïfaen hunters ran after their allusive prey. Not even their own shadows seemed to be able to keep up with them.
Lenna’s heart stirred with excitement. She learned a lot of her archery skills from Kay—one of the best archers in the entire village—and was more than ready to show that she was just as good with a bow and arrow.
The hunters split into two groups, making a pincer formation in order to surround the entire clearing. Lenna crept alongside Renefaire as Kay did the same with the second group. They all came to a stop, waiting and listening in the silence for any kind of sound.
Renefaire nudged Lenna’s arm and pointed across the clearing. “Looks like they’re enjoying themselves,” she whispered.
Lenna glanced over to see her brother and his friends waving. One of them even blew a confident kiss. “They are just a bunch of show offs.”
“Sounds like they could use a lesson in how great we are at hunting,” Renefaire replied with a chuckle.
A smile formed on Lenna’s face. “Agreed. We just need to be quicker with our arrows.” She stopped to listen to her surroundings.
Waiting was always the worst part. Sometimes it took hours before a target showed up during their hunts, even days before they could find anything worth bringing back to the village.
For a while, everything was quiet, except for the birds in the trees overhead. The leïfae remained still and would remain so until their target arrived.
After waiting for what felt like hours, Lenna thought she could feel the ground rumbling. Just then, a herd of deer charged between the trees, surprising the hunters with their large numbers.
“Here we go!” Renefaire exclaimed, excited that the action had finally started.
Immediately, the leïfae drew their arrows and fit them upon their bowstrings, taking careful aim with their moving targets. By the time the herd moved on, eleven deer had been taken down by a single arrow in each body. Each arrow had found their marks where the animals would not suffer in their final moments. It did not take them long before they returned to their village with their catch in hand. This would certainly make a large meal. The elderly leïfaen men and women immediately took the catch and went to work on preparing it for the feast that everyone was sure to enjoy later on.
“We sure did catch a lot today.” Ciaran, walked up to Renefaire and Lenna with a grin. “I bet we hit more than you,” he said.
“Oh, please!” Renefaire replied. “You know Lenna and I never miss our targets.”
Ciaran simply shrugged and walked off to his hut. “I’m back!” he called out.
Serena—now Ciaran’s wife—stepped outside with a smile. She wrapped her arms around him as he hugged her, saying something Lenna couldn’t hear. It probably had something to do with the fact that her sister’s belly was finally showing signs of her pregnancy.
Lenna was very excited when she found out she was going to become an aunt again. Five years earlier, Kay had married Jïera, and they already had two sons: Jehoïn and Seryn. Jehoïn was about to turn four and Seryn was just a year old. Just six more months and there would be this new addition to the family.
“Lenna!” Serena exclaimed, walking up to her sister. “Your hem has come undone! It’s such a mess.”
Lenna looked down to see her hem was indeed undone. It must have gotten caught sometime during all of the excitement. “Oh.”
Serena sighed. “You’d better let me take care of that right now. It could get in the way later on if you just leave it like that.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Lenna objected. “I can handle it, really.”
Before she had any time to do anything else, Lenna found herself pulled inside her family’s hut. Serena then brought out her mother’s sewing box and began to fix the ruined hem on her sister’s dress.
“Lenna, quit your fidgeting!” Serena exclaimed.
“Sorry, I am just not especially akin to having a needle so close to piercing my skin. I would prefer not to bleed today.”
She chuckled. “You will not bleed so long as you do this one thing for me. Do. Not. Move. I am very skilled with a needle if you can recall.”
Lenna sighed and stood as still as anyone could, even though it was possibly one of the most uncomfortable things she had ever done. “I could have done it myself, you know.”
Another chuckle. “If I had let you do this in the first place, you would have ended up with an extremely crooked hem.”
“A crooked hem means nothing to me.”
“Nothing to you, ha! You are one of the daughters of the chief and chieftess of the entire village. Appearances are important when it comes to the position you were born in. Especially since you are seventeen, now.”
Lenna lifted her chin. “If appearances were everything, then we would all have nothing.”
“If only your needlework was as sharp as your tongue. You could be selling hundreds of dresses every day.”
Lenna absent-mindedly began to rub her thumb over the scar on her right forearm. Almost ten years had passed since she met that boy, Antalos. They had not seen each other since then. Perhaps he was busy working as an apprentice in the castle. He might have been starting training as a knight under the well-known Sir Frederic.
Even so, there was much that had transpired since their meeting. When Lenna turned fifteen, she had reached the age where she would meet her intended; her husband-to-be. However, she never met him, for he did not live in the village for her to meet. This was something that had never happened in all of the leïfaes’ history. But she did know that her intended was out there somewhere. It was only a matter of time before she found him.
Serena noticed Lenna’s movement. “Does it hurt?”
She shook her head. “No, it just gets troublesome at times.”
“Well…I am done!” Serena finished by tying off the thread. “It looks very well done if I do say so myself. Be careful, though. If you keep running around the forest the way you do, you might need a new dress by next month.”
Lenna groaned. “Why must dresses be such a pain?”
“If you do not like wearing dresses, you could always try on a pair of trousers,” Serena suggested with a teasing grin. “Those might be easier for you to run in.”
She looked at her surprised. “I will do no such thing, Serena! I would rather not look like a boy.”
“You look lovely, my dear.” Lenna and Serena’s mother stood smiling in the doorway. “As always, Taëlenna.”
Lenna smiled. “Thank you, Mother.”
“Serena is right, though. You go through your dresses faster than I can keep up with. Perhaps you should get a second dress for all of that running around.”
“I get it!” Lenna replied, throwing her hands up in the air. “I will try to be more careful.
The sun felt comfortably warm and pleasant as Lenna stepped outside of her family’s hut, following Serena and Inwë. Flowers were in full bloom on the surrounding trees, showing vibrant colors of pink, purple, and blue. A small troupe of bees swarmed around the blossoms, gathering the sweet nectar before buzzing off to their hive. It appeared as if the entire population was outside today. Why wouldn’t they be, though? The leïfae always had a love of being outdoors. That was something that would never change. Especially today.
Today was the day when a group of grown leïfae would find their destined steed—a unicorn—that would carry them from this day forward. This day only came every ten years. It was a sacred tradition they cherished all the way back to their earliest ancestors.
Lenna found her unicorn during the last event. The creature was oddly smaller than the other unicorns, but it and Lenna made a bond with each other the instant their eyes met. She loved her unicorn’s eyes—light blue, as the clearest skies, with a ring of silver moonlight around the pupils. So fascinating. So beautiful. Lenna picked the only name she found fitting of her steed: Silyer. It meant—in the leïfaen tongue—the daylight moon. There couldn’t have been a better name for the little unicorn.
She watched as a group of leïfae, who did not yet have steeds to call their own, entered the field occupied by a large herd of unclaimed unicorns. The unicorns, which were already claimed, stayed as a separate herd on the other side of the village. They spread out and looked among the beautiful creatures. This went on for a few more moments before both leïfae and unicorns stood in front of each other, forming their bonds with each other. The whole process took only about an hour until every leïfae had found their own unicorns, which would carry them until the end of their days. They would be more than just rider and steed. Both individuals would become good friends with each other; even best friends.
What came next was something Lenna looked forward to the most.
After the leïfae found their unicorns, everyone would ride across the grassy fields of the Ember Meadows before returning to the village to finish the event with a large feast—which would last three days and nights—of various meats, fruits, and vegetables with only the best water from the river running from the distant mountains and down through Anecia and the leïfaen village.
Her friend, Renefaire, came up and tugged at her sleeve with a big smile. “Come on, Lenna! I do not want to miss this!”
“All right, I am coming,” Lenna replied, returning the smile.
They walked off to their unicorns, discussing the large number of both the leïfae and the unicorns who has just formed bonds in the event. This was the largest group the village had since two-thousand years ago when the village was still very young and new to the land after years of moving from one place to another. The Ride would surely be very beautiful to see: strong, majestic unicorns crossing the Ember Meadow with their riders sitting on their back as one. They would cross the entire meadow until they reached Inlë Moore. Then, they would return to the village for the feast that would follow. Sometimes, even the people from Anecia would come outside of the castle walls to see this. However, they would not come out to watch this year. They had some other event of their own to prepare for.
Lenna mounted Silyer, and the unicorn whinnied with excitement as if it knew what was to come.
Renefaire laughed. “Someone seems really excited,” she remarked.
She nodded. “She is really smart, that’s why!” She leaned down to whisper in Silyer’s ear, “My beautiful Silyer. Let’s show them all how well we ride today.”
Silyer responded by bobbing her head up and down, tossing her creamy-white mane about. She whinnied in a beautiful high-pitched voice that reminded Lenna of bells.
Once everyone mounted their unicorns—after some young leïfaen children needed help to sit upon their steed’s backs—the Ride began immediately. Those who had their steeds the longest rode in the back while the ones new to riding their unicorns were in the middle. They then followed those who found their steeds during the last event. It was this group’s duty to lead the rest across the Ember Meadow.
Lenna and Renefaire rode their steeds, Silyer, and Sorrel, in the line of leïfae at the front of the group. They wanted to make sure they started in a good position to race each other on the way back to the village, as it was tradition during each Ride.
The Ride was quiet, save for the hoof beats rumbling the earth. This was the time when both rider and steed worked with each other; learning how the other worked and bringing their differences together so they would ride fluently together. It was almost magical in a sense.
The group soon reached Inlë Moore. It was a beautiful lake that had an underground river flowing all the way back to the village. The waters teamed with life. Fish jumped high in the air as birds swooped down over the water, plucking the water-grass sticking out just enough for them to snatch up in their beaks. Even water dragons lived in the lake since the water was so pure. It had a rejuvenating feeling on their blue-green scales, keeping them healthy for years on end.
One by one, the leïfae dismounted their unicorns to let them quench their thirst from the cool waters. This was the perfect time for everyone to rest before returning to the village.
Lenna lay on the grassy banks next to Renefaire, who watched the water dragons move through the water as if they were dancing with each other. “This place looks better than I remember,” she said.
Her friend nodded. “I could stay out here forever.”
“We could always come out here, you know. Enjoy the dragons more often than just during the Ride.”
“How about next week, or after the feast?” Renefaire suggested. “I love being able to ride Sorrel over here. It’s good for him to get out of the same meadow he has to munch grass from every day.”
“I am certain Silyer would love that, as well.”
As if on cue, both Silyer and Sorrel came up behind Lenna and Renefaire. They then nudged the girls’ shoulders, as a way of telling them it was time to go back. The unicorns seemed to be nervous about something. Their eyes darted back and forth as if they were looking for some kind of an invisible enemy.
Lenna noticed all of the unicorns acting nervous about something. They shifted around, frightened about some kind of danger, but there was nothing around to be frightened of. “What is wrong with them?” she wondered aloud.
Renefaire shrugged her shoulders. “I do not know. Perhaps there is a storm coming.
She looked up at the sky. It was blue and free of any clouds. There wasn’t even a slight gust of wind to be felt. “There can’t be.”
“Well, I guess we will find out what is bothering them when we get back. It might have just been a bad patch of grass they ate before we left.”
Lenna raised a pensive brow. “A bad patch of grass?”
Renefaire lifted her hands and chuckled. “What? It’s not like I am an expert on these sorts of things.” She rose to her feet. “Let’s just go home.”
Once again, Lenna and Renefaire rode in the front line of the group as they all returned to the village. Gradually, the unicorns began to pick up the pace, and soon, the entire group was riding at full speed. The Ember Meadow passed under them in a blur of different shades of green. It felt as if they were all flying high above the ground, and the unicorns’ hooves didn’t even bend a single blade of grass.
Suddenly, the unicorns stopped in their tracks and reared back as if a wall stood before them. Lenna struggled to stay on top of Silyer’s back. She straightened and looked down to see the grass was scorched black. “What is this?”
Silyer started to back away from the scene, but Lenna stopped her by gently stroking her neck.
“It is all right, Silyer,” she said softly. But she wasn’t really certain if this was really all right. The earth wasn’t scorched like this when they left. There was no natural reason for it to be. Even a wildfire could not have caused this kind of damage so deep within the ground.
An elderly leïfae, Eolan came up from the back of the group. “What is it?” he asked. “Why have we stopped?”
“The ground,” Renefaire simply replied.
His eyes narrowed his eyes at the ground, and he then lifted his gaze. “We must hurry to the village,” he said. “I must discuss this with the chief.”
The group followed Eolan up the hill, spreading out to see what was to come.
When they stopped at the top of the hill, everyone was shocked into silence. The entire village was in chaos. Leïfaen men, women, and children scrambled to escape what was an army attacking the village. This enemy wasn’t from Anecia, or anywhere else familiar within the Westerlands. They could tell immediately by looking at the armor and weapons, which were crude and appeared as if they had been made in a hurry.
Lenna stiffened. Her family—her parents, her sister, Jïera and Ciaran, her nephews—was down there in the middle of the pandemonium. She had to get to them somehow and save them.
Kay came to her side.
“We have to do something,” Kay said.
She could see how anxious he was to get down there to his wife and children, looking torn between riding down there immediately and staying put to formulate a plan in his head while hoping they were still alive.
“We shall, Kay,” Eolan replied. “We are the riders of the leïfae, and right now, we are their only way of rescue.” He turned his gaze to Kay. “Lead a third of the riders on the south side of the village. Renefaire and Lenna, you both take another third on the north side. I shall lead the rest through the middle. We should be able to push the enemy back with this tactic.”
They did as he said.
Kay’s group rode in first, followed by Renefaire and Lenna’s group, and then Eolan’s group charged in through the road while some of the adults stayed with the children on top of the hill to keep them safe.
The invaders didn’t see it coming. In the midst of the onslaught of the riders, the leïfae were able to retrieve weapons to keep themselves protected without the enemy knowing they had come to the fight unarmed.
Silyer seemed to gain some confidence in the battle. She occasionally reared up and knocked an enemy over with her hoofs and slicing with her horn as Lenna slashed at them with a short sword she obtained from one of the fallen warriors.
It seemed the battle had fallen in their favor. Lenna let out a relieved sigh as she watched the enemy fall back into the forest, running in defeat. “Finally,” she said breathlessly, falling to her knees in exhaustion.
She jumped when a hand touched her shoulder.
“Are you okay?” Kay asked. “Were you injured?”
Lenna shook her head. “Just…tired…” She looked around, trying to find certain faces. “Where are they?”
“Serena and Jïera hid the other mothers and children in one of the larger huts so the enemy wouldn’t find them.”
“How many did we lose?”
Kay hung his head. “It’s hard to say. There’s so much smoke, and five of the huts collapsed from the initial attack I’m guessing. We’ll make it through this, though. We’ve had more difficult fights in the past.”
They froze when they heard a strange and chilling howl. Lenna turned in the direction she thought she heard the sound come from. What made that sound? She had never heard anything like it before.
“Looks like we aren’t finished yet,” Kay remarked, tightening his grip on the hilt of his sheathed sword.
Renefaire ran up to them just as a strange line of figures emerged from the shadows. “What are those things?” she exclaimed, her voice almost shaking.
Neither Lenna or Kay could answer.
A swarm of execrable creatures flooded out from the forest. Their skin looked like dry, cracked, bloodied mud with razor-sharp teeth set in two messy rows in deformed faces. Black, soulless eyes gleamed with a furious hunger. These monsters were looking for blood.
There was no way the village could survive this kind of assault.