He turned the blade slowly in the dawn light, sunbeams glinting off the metal. Blue eyes surveyed every flaw in the weapon, dings and scratches smoothing with age and disuse.
‘Much like myself.’ Artur mused, looking down at his body. Sunlight dipped and wound through thick muscle and fading scars, skipping along the thick, golden curls trailing from his chest to under the thin blanket. The light was only interrupted by the rise of his need tenting the covering. Artur frowned at it and the blade, thinking it sad he owned both yet hardly used either. At least he could put the blade away.
As he did every morning since his retirement, Artur rose from his bed and completed his morning ablutions at dawn in complete silence cleaning his face before braiding his long hair and donning his tunic and belt. Even two years after the elders saw fit to retire his service early; he wore the belt ready for battle but never the broadsword; leaving that accursed thing hidden by the fireplace only to be removed on pensive mornings like this. Their excuse was leave from duty was a reward for excellent service in the wars. Artur knew better. They feared him. Of all the elves, his sword was the bloodiest, having killed more of the enemy than any other soldier. While friends and brothers in arms fell, he returned to his rulers with the heads of the halflings the elders insisted on eradicating time and time again. The memories were of nothing but the blood-stained heads of dark skin and white hair of the dead in an endless blur and Artur laced his boots with more force than intended, the snap of the leather strap forcing him back to the present.
Groaning in annoyance, Artur wound the remaining strap as a temporary fix and reached for his bow and quiver of arrows. He knew he needed meat for storage for the coming cold and the extra hide would be useful. New boots would be something to work on in the endless tedium of retired life. The key was keeping busy, you see. The series of hushed whispers, horrified gasps, and rude pointing as the chorus of his visits to market were so unpleasant, Artur learned many new skills to avoid going near other elves. He was an amateur smith, farmer, butcher, wood-worker, and mender. If it maintained his privacy and peace, he would learn to weave and keep animals, as well.
Plucking an apple from the tree growing by the low stone wall around his home, Artur made his way to the forest. He met no one on the road to the woods and made it to his favorite hunting spot without incident. Leaving the core of the apple on the ground for the soil, Artur waited in the bush with an arrow ready for the telltale sounds of a buck in the woods.
A slight rustle of leaves was Artur’s signal to silently rise and pull back on the bow, the creek of the wood was masked by the soft tread of footsteps. A brown shape moved slowly in the distance, shuffling through the bushes for food.
‘No antlers.’ Artur lifted his arms. ‘A doe will do for now.’ He let the arrow fly but the sound it made on impact was all wrong. It was a very non-doe yelp of pain. Whoever was out there struggled briefly as Artur shouldered his bow and drew his dagger, knowing no one friendly would be skulking around in the woods. As he approached, well-trained ears picked up the sounds of labored breathing and the whines of discomfort of a baby.
Baffled, Artur pushed aside the underbrush and found a dark-skinned elf pinned to the ground by his arrow. Her hide cloak was stained with her blood, white hair in snarls around her face, and thin limbs weakly curled around the squealing babe in her arms.
Artur stared down at her, listening to the increasing volume of the baby and the gasps of the female. How many like her had fallen under his sword? Hundreds? Thousands? Many cut down before they could even scream, red blood staining the ground and his weapon. A weapon very much like the dagger he pressed against her neck.
A chill crawled up his spine. Artur hadn’t felt his arm move to place the blade at her neck, ready to cleave her head from her body. His arrow just missed her heart, blood pooling under her. Her child squirmed, took one look at him, and screamed as loud as its tiny lungs could muster, breaking his trance. The sound woke its mother from her dazed state and her black eyes widened in terror. She struggled against the arrow, her flesh tearing around the shaft as she moved to protect her child. The blood spurting from her wound and the screeching of the child made Artur wince. He sheathed his dagger in its sheath hidden in his boot. “Calm yourself, woman, or you’ll rip your arm off.”
The sound of his voice did nothing and Artur couldn’t blame her. She was a halfling; elf bred with demon as the legends say, and a blight upon the pure elf race. With unpredictable powers, the elders ordered their eradication where ever they were found to keep them from tainting the bloodlines. It was how Artur spend half of his adult life, how his body was honed and scarred, and how he inspired such fear in his own kind. No doubt the woman at his feet knew who he was so her struggling was justified. Artur was a scourge to her kind. A phantom. The man they told their children tales of his horrors to get them to behave.
“If you don’t stop, you will bleed out.” He said, flatly.
The woman didn’t listen, cradling her child in her healthy arm and digging her feet into the ground to push herself away. Artur watched her desperate struggling, unsure of what to do. Had he ever killed a female and babe before? So many dead… He could hardly remember.
The smell of blood brought him back to the present and to the barely conscious, desperate mother on the ground. Artur didn’t wait for her to pass out from blood loss, lifting her screaming bundle by its wrappings. She lurched forward so violently, the fletching caught in the wound. The pain finally too much, she lost consciousness with tears running down her cheeks.
The child calmed little in his arm, as exhausted as its mother. Artur looked at it squirming in the cradle of his elbow and shook his head. “And for a moment I resented the boredom.”
It was midday by the time Artur had the woman and the baby in his home and the female’s wound dressed properly. His stomach protested the inattention. He left her briefly to find meat and returned to find her still fitfully sleeping in his bed and her babe curled up awake in the basket he used to gather fruit and vegetables. The baby’s eyes were black and round like its mother’s, looking at the new surroundings with a bit of drool spilling from its lips.
“You appear up to something.” Artur eyed the tiny creature then picked up the scent of his new guest’s plot. “Gods, child. What sort of concoction was your mother feeding you?” He grumbled, bringing the four rabbits he’d snared to his kitchen to free his hands for what was bound to be messy work.
With a clean bottom, the boy became entirely too cheery, cooing and squealing for attention as Artur skinned his catch and prepared a thick stew from the meat and small collection of vegetables he grew in the back of his home. The noise was jarring to a man so used to his solitude but much preferred when compared to the horrified gasps of the children in the market. When the child whined for food, Artur mashed up some boiled carrots to quiet him. The baby ate with vigor and promptly fell asleep.
As the sun dipped into the horizon and the cottage filled with the scent of the hearty meal, Artur heard the sounds of his guest stirring as he once again cleaned the filthy bottom of her child. She moaned fitfully, panicking even as she slept and rolling in the damp pool of sweat on Artur’s bedclothes. She gasped, her eyes prying themselves open as the gasp dissolved into a moan of pain.
“You shouldn’t move.” Artur bundled the baby and placed him back in the basket. “You tore your wound on my arrow. Tear it again and you may lose that arm.” He picked up the basket by the handle to take the soiled linen to the washbasin.
The female halfling didn’t listen. Her eyes fixed on her son, she tried to launch from the bed and failed, barely managing to lift her head from the sweat-drenched pillow. “My son.” She whimpered.
“I am only cleaning his clothes, woman.”Artur groused; tilting the basket to show her the boy was quite alive, unharmed, and cleaner than when last she’d seen him. “Stay there. I will be back with water. If that stays down, then broth.” And he left her panting on his bed as he walked to his back door.
The boy made a gurgling noise as Artur washed the soil from the fabric in a nearby creek and Artur flicked clean water into his face. The child giggled loudly and the pained gasping from in his home eased. Artur would feel insulted by the suspicion but it was deserved. No sane mother would trust their child with the most hated soldier in the realms. But this was not war and Artur would not bring war to his own home.
With the linen clean, Artur returned with a bucket full of fresh drinking water and filled a cup for his guest. She eyed him warily, watching his every move as he approached with a cup in one hand and her son’s basket in the other. Placing the child right beside her, Artur sat by her head and lifted up her torso so she could drink without drowning. He could feel the revulsion in her skin when the position forced her to lean against his chest and ignored it choosing to focus on gently tipping the cool water into her mouth.
She drank with gusto, sucking at the water when Artur didn’t tilt the cup to her satisfaction and it dripped down her chin.
“Slowly, or you will choke.” Artur moved the cup away to allow her to catch her breath before returning the cup to her dry lips.
“What are you doing?” She rasped when the cup was empty.
“Helping.” Artur reached for all his pillows and spare blanket to keep her propped up and moved off the bed. “Your name?”
“Yana.” She sighed, still watching Artur with a suspicious glare. “Why are you helping?”
“Because I shot you.” He answered simply. “Not a good idea to wear animal skin in the brush where you can be hunted.”
“I am always hunted.” She sighed. “The hide kept us warm. Covered my dark skin.”
“Quiet.” Artur went to his fire to fill a bowl with steaming broth. “You lost a lot of blood and talking will only tire you further. Save your energy for healing.”
Yana’s lips twitched into a sour grin. “You sound as if you don’t talk to many others anyway.”
“No.” And Artur silenced her with an insistent spoon to her lips. “Don’t worry about the boy.” He said after Yana held down several spoonfuls. “I fed him mashed vegetables from the stew. That should hold him till you are ready to nurse again.”
“You know I nurse?”
“His cries caused you to leak when I was bandaging you.”
Yana blushed and turned her mouth away from the approaching spoon. “Enough. Let me hold my son.”
On cue, the boy’s hands flew up towards his mother, making an impatient gurggle as a demand for her.
Artur left the bowl on his table and carefully lifted the child from the basket. When the weight of the child was firmly in Yana’s good arm, she finally relaxed, the tension in the shoulder under her baby’s head finally easing.
“His name?” Artur stayed close, fearing Yana’s weak state would cause her to lose her grip. But he worried in vain. Yana rolled to a comfortable position to allow the child to be cradled by the pillows as well as her arm.
“Jayel.” Yana’s eyes drooped. “You’ll not harm him?”
“Rest. You can talk when there is enough blood left in you to move your lips.” Artur stood and turned towards his fire, pushing two thick logs in to feed it.
Yana watched the pure elf’s back but had no energy left to glare. If he chose to do so, he could have killed her several times over. She lowered her chin to look at the expert wrappings covering her wound and binding her arm to her side to keep her from aggravating it. She could rest for now, heal, and then move on to find a safer place for her and her son.
If there could ever be such a place for a halfling.
Yana woke in horrid pain, her entire body aching from the strange position she’d slept in and heat throbbing from her wound.
“Don’t move.” A gruff voice unfamiliar with common conversation pierced her fevered senses. “The wound is fine but you have a fever. Likely from how little you’ve been eating.”
“What do you know of my meals?” Yana panted through the words.
“I see your ribs.” Artur said and she looked down to see him wrapping her bare chest in clean bandages. “The child is thin as well.”
“Not much time to eat while fleeing for our lives.” Yana lifted her hand to grab at the sheets to cover herself and got only an annoyed huff from Artur, who batted her hand aside.
“You couldn’t nurse him?” At another baffled look, Artur sighed. “He cried out and your breasts leaked, remember? I am not ignorant, woman.”
Yana sighed. Damn this elf and his observant eyes. “I did the best I could. If I don’t eat, I don’t have the strength to make enough milk for him.”
“You will have time now.” Artur secured the bandage and stepped back from the bed.
Yana looked around the austere bedroom, taking note of her son sleeping peacefully in the vegetable basket beside the bed. The cottage was warm yet not an item in it was a waste. No decorations, no trophies of war, no spoils of conquest. Only pure practicality. The space was large and round, centered around the large fire in the center with a stone chimney rising to the ceiling. She wondered if the rest of the house was as bare but the thought was scattered when Artur sat at her side with a bowl in his hand.
“More broth. Then more sleep. If your fever is gone by daylight, you can move on to solid food.”
Yana accepted the steaming spoon and swallowed the liquid. “You sound so used to giving orders,” She sighed. “And no good at holding conversation.”
“I am also used to being obeyed.” Artur pushed another spoonful passed the dry lips. “And silence.” Following that spoon with another before Yana could speak again. A smile curled her lips but she did not test Artur further. She ate in silence till she fell asleep between spoonfuls.
Artur blew on the remaining broth to cool it and fed it to Jayel, whose nose scrunched up at the bubbles of fat floating at the top.
“You need it.” Artur grumbled and the boy laughed with the same sly grin as his mother, pushing the cold fat out of his mouth to drip down his cheeks. The blonde elf sighed and cleaned the halfling’s face. “Stubborn.” But he smiled.
In the days that followed, Yana healed well. As the days shortened and the air grew colder, she nursed Jayel till the boy was fat and happy and Artur spent his days preparing for winter. On warmer days, Yana would sit outside and watch Artur chop wood or help gather fruit to dry for storage.
His focus on his tasks made her nervous and finally one late fall day, she couldn’t resist asking. “Why do you do so much?” Yana balanced Jayel in the crook of her uninjured arm as she nursed in the autumn sun. “It would be easier for us to move on before winter comes than for you to slave so hard.”
Artur didn’t break his rhythm, his ax coming down and splitting a log clean in two in one powerful stroke. “I’m retired. Work keeps me busy.”
Yana sighed at his usual brisk manner. “I suppose one does tire of war.”
“More like it tired of me.” Artur said, placing the wood in a neat pile. “I was set aside by the elders when they had no more need of their weapon.”
“Left to rust, I take it?”
Artur turned his gaze over a sweaty shoulder at the bitterness in her voice. “You sound as if you know if it?”
“I was a simple farmer’s wife, soldier. I know only of the death brought to my village.” Jayel whined at the sound of his mother’s angry voice. “I gave birth alone shortly after fleeing. If my mate hadn’t stayed behind…”
Artur didn’t need her to finish. If her mate covered her escape, he was dead. With the child so young, there was no way Artur was part of the raid on Yana’s home; having been retired for several years now. It relieved him to have nothing to do with this halfling’s misfortune. It relieved him so much, Artur was grateful for the work ahead of him to distract him from it. He turned back to his ax with a low and brusque “I’m sorry.” To his guest.
Insults were on the tip of Yana’s tongue but her wound itched at the thought. This elf had nursed her back to health; spared her life when it was his duty to slaughter her kind. The obvious discomfort in his shoulders made her pity him and Yana sighed, shaking her head. “Thank you.” Jayel stirred then fell asleep mid-suck and his mother slowly tucked her breast away. “You didn’t know your kind still hunt and kill mine?”
“Once a tool is shut away, it no longer knows how tasks fare without it.”
Yana tilted her head in curiosity. “You sound bitter.”
Artur hit the log harder than he intended not only splitting it but lodging the ax firmly into the stump beneath it. “It’s getting cold.” He growled. “You should go inside.”
Yana shivered but it had nothing to do with the chill in the air. Despite the urge to rebel, she did as she was told, letting the heavy wooden door close behind her. Bouncing Jayel in her arm, she paced the cottage, circling the near roaring fire. She paused at the new chair Artur slept in since she commandeered his bed, heavy with skins and irregular pillows. The pure elf had obviously made them himself with amateurish skill but they did the job for him. Moving again, she spied a pile of wood shavings and a nearly complete wood crib.
The permanence the crib represented made her colder and Yana fought the urge to run then and there. What sort of life could she have with an elf whose former life involved snuffing out halflings like herself? Is even considering it a betrayal of her baby’s father? Yet, is it fair to her child to live a life on the run?
But to saddle Artur who coveted his privacy with a female and babe out of the blue…
She should leave. Yana would wait till her shoulder was strong again then brave whatever the wild may bring. It was simpler than dealing with being a burden to a stranger.
Artur kept working till the sun had set and sweat from his labors made him shiver. He couldn’t face the halfling’s knowing black eyes looking right through him. ‘Bitter’ didn’t cover it. Enraged, confused perhaps. But most of all, he felt cheated. He was pressed into service, made to believe he was serving his kind for the greater good and all he was left with was scorn and nightmares. His own kind reviled him yet the dark-skinned elf he’d taken in had looked at him with deserved mistrust at most. Artur was baffled by the relief that filled him every time Yana looked at him without her eyes filling with horror or hatred.
“Ho there!” An official sounding voice sounded from the beaten path in front of Artur’s property. All Artur could see in the darkness was a lantern and a tall, regal shadow of a horse from the counsel’s private stables. Artur could recognize those horses by the sound of their footfalls alone.
“Who comes to my home?” Artur’s did nothing to hide the distrust in his voice. Artur believed he would be left in peace after the elven elders tossed him away. If they dared press him into service again, Artur would make sure their private little war was the least of their worries.
“An old friend bearing a message from the front!”
Artur snorted. He had no friends. When Yana’s face suddenly came to mind, he shook his head and approached the stranger. “What business have you with me, Brookwyn?” He huffed upon the rider’s face becoming clear.
“Has civilian life hardened you more than war that you would deny me the hospitality of your home?” Nothing in Brookwyn’s smile was genuine and Artur scowled.
“Had I any friends, they would be welcome in my home.” Artur grimaced as if he tasted something sour. “You are a toy of the elders in their little war games and I have no interest in you or them.”
Brookwyn laughed and pulled back his hood to reveal a scarred face and twisted smile. “I had heard you had gone soft in your retirement.”
‘I can see how killing has kept you young.’ Artur thought, eying the messy scar on Brookwyn’s face. Angry red flesh slithered up the side of his forehead and into his hair, leaving a bald patch in the dirty blond tresses and another on his cheek; distorting his lips. “If you have business, state it and be on your way. It is late and I am tired from preparing for a winter I will not spent murdering.”
“I was asked to check on you. The wars have scattered the halflings into the forests and we wondered if your seasoned eyes have found any of them. They are to be turned over to the guards in the nearest town for execution.”
Artur’s insides churned yet he kept his face flat. “I keep to myself. The business of the realms has little interest since the realms have no business with me. As I have other things to attend to, you should be on your way.” He barked and turned to his door.
Brookwyn snorted. “Haven’t changed a bit. You aren’t my commanding officer anymore, Artur. It would be wise for you to cooperate with the authority of the elders and turn in any halflings you find lest you find yourself on the chopping block with them.” He shouted to Artur’s back before jerking his horse into motion to ride away.
Artur did not turn and released a great heaving sigh when he bolted his door behind him. “Insufferable brat.” He growled.
Artur looked up to see Yana gripping her child as tightly as she could, tears streaming down from eyes filled with such hate, Artur shivered with the intensity. “Woman, what are you-”
“It was him! He murdered my mate!” Yana screeched and Jayel howled in anger. “Why was he here? Why was he here!?”
Artur stepped towards her slowly, hands up and spread so she could see he was no threat. “Yana, please breathe.”
A litany of foul words fell from Yana’s mouth, slipping through her clenched teeth and Artur spared a moment to be impressed. The woman could melt metal with that tongue.
“He was here looking for fleeing halflings.” Artur said, taking another step towards her. “Did anyone follow you when you fled, Yana?”
Yana’s eyes darted from the door to Artur’s face. “I don’t know. Didn’t cover my tracks, I just ran.”
“I understand.” Artur knelt by her side, his face close to hers so she could see him and not the memories haunting her. “He is gone, Yana. He will not find you here. No one will find you here.”
“You don’t know that!” Now Jayel howled in outrage, flailing in his mother’s arms so violently, Artur moved to take him. Yana cringed away. “He’ll be back… Put the sword to my son… Make me watch like he did the other mothers in my village.”
Brookwyn was a monster. Artur saw his sadism on the battlefield and reporting it was sure to have touched off the forced retirement. “Release the boy before you crush him.” He growled, losing patience and prying the child away from her. Artur patted the boy’s back to soothe him and watched his mother continue to tremble in the grip of panic. Caught between the angry baby and insensible mother, Artur lost his patience and gripped Yana by the base of her head, forcing her eyes to his. “You WILL get control of yourself, woman. Or I will slap you until you do.”
Yana scowled, smacking away his hand and growling, “I am not one of your nasty little soldiers and you will NOT give me orders.”
Artur smiled a wry grin. “Much more like it.” And he placed Jayel back into her arms.
Yana slowly blinked at Artur’s retreating back, soothing her son with slow pats to his back. Jayel pushed his little head into his mother’s neck and promptly fell asleep.
“You are an ass.” She rasped.
“That I am.” Artur said, stirring dinner over the fire.
“How fares your shoulder, halfling?” Artur said as his morning greeting.
Yana blinked sleep from her eyes, too groggy to glare properly. “Well enough.”
“I could use some help in the smokehouse to dry the meat for winter. It will go faster with an extra pair of hands.”
Yana lifted Jayel to her breast, the babe hardly opening an eye before nursing. “You dry your own meat?”
Artur lifted a blonde eyebrow. “Would you rather I go into town and leave the rabble to wonder why I buy enough meat for two? I am known to keep to myself here.”
“I am well enough.” Yana looked down at her wound, now a healthy pink and healing smoothly. “I’ll gladly help.”
“Good.” Artur picked up his bow and quiver. “Feed the child and I will be back with my catch in a few hours.” He crossed the distance to his door in a few quick strides and opened it with a grin. “Try not to injure yourself again.”
“I will if you keep your arrows away from me.” Yana smiled, shaking her head as Artur closed the door.
Looking around with clearer eyes, Yana found the plate of fruit and cheese left for her by the bed. She nibbled as her baby fed, watching his cheeks puff out with more health than she had ever seen in him. Jayel’s white hair and dark skin glowed and she looked down at her own hand to see her skin was much the same.
Yana walked around Artur’s home searching for a way to keep busy. She long tired of laying in bed and gratitude for all the elf had done for her would not let her flee. Her bare feet stopped at the completed crib next to Artur’s chair, half finished pillows and a blanket shoved inside it. With a grimace, Yana lifted both to inspect them. Every stitch was uneven and much too tight, the fabric bunched up as if in pain. Clicking her tongue, she claimed his chair and sewing kit and set to work undoing the shoddy stitches as best she could as she nursed her son. When the boy was full, she placed him in the crib and put her full attention to repairing the blanket. She worked so diligently, watching her own nimble fingers work was a relief. When the fire cracked and her breasts ached with milk an overwhelming sadness swept through her. Though Yana was grateful to Artur for saving her life, it pained her to think of her mate, the first man she had sewn for. The clothes he died in were made by her own hands. A slip with the needle brought her back into focus, the pain in her pricked finger more welcome than the pain in her heart.
Artur returned to a quiet home, the only sounds of sizzling embers and the light breathing of his guests. Yana and Jayel slept deeply in Artur’s chair, a half repaired blanket in her lap. The now spoiled and pudgy boy suckled as he slept, the scene making Artur’s lips curl in a wry grin. Artur could already picture Yana’s dark face twisted in disgust at his failed attempt at sewing but just glancing, he could tell she was much more adept. He placed his bow and remaining arrows by the door and detached the baby boy from his mama to place him in the crib with the half-repaired blanket.
When he lifted Yana to place her in his bed, the dark elf groaned in her sleep, pressing her face into his chest.
“Larson.” She moaned, her lips twitching into a grin before relaxing again in deep sleep.
‘Her mate.’ Artur didn’t like the way his heart clenched. He didn’t like that he didn’t miss the silence and the solitude. He didn’t like enjoying having her and her son around.
Artur drew his lips into a firm line as he tucked Yana into his bed. Larson; the father of her child and likely love of her life, murdered by men much like Artur was before he was retired. The place over his heart where Yana had pressed her cheek hummed painfully, vibrating straight down to between his legs and Artur covered her quickly and fled the room to seek release and distraction in the grueling, bloody work of turning three dead deer and five rabbits into dried meat.
When she woke, Yana smelled a busy cook. The house smelled of sweet smoke and animal fat. Leaving her sleeping son in his new crib, she followed the smell to a sticky, sweaty Artur hanging the last of the strips of meat in his smokehouse. Yana stood in the doorway and watched, taking in the clench of the muscles under his glistening skin, long blonde hair plastered to his neck and back as he worked.
“I told you I would help.” Yana grinned when the elf tensed. “You should have waited.”
“You helped.” Artur gruffed. “You fixed my sewing.”
“More of a favor to the fabric than to you. Your stitching is a crime. I do still need to repay you for saving my life and using your resources to shelter me and my son.” She leaned on the doorframe with her good shoulder, shuffling her feet. “We will likely be stuck with you during the winter. You said you have plenty but I would like to not be a burden to you.”
Artur stopped his work and looked at her, his concentration broken by the hesitant words forcing themselves from Yana’s lips. A blush colored her cheeks and he admired her ability to put aside her pride and accept help. It was only fair to do the same. “You are no burden, Yana. You and your son are guests.” He turned back to his work. “And if you can repair my sorry excuse for stitching, you will have more than been of use.” Artur couldn’t hide his smile. “You will be a miracle worker.”
Jayel’s scream broke the levity but as Yana excused herself to soothe her son; her mind was filled with the sight of a genuine smile from the gruff elf. The hard lines of his jaw softened, his blue eyes sparkled, and the small scar on his cheek blended away in the lines and dimples on his face. She could tell he was not a man who smiled often.
As she neared her son, Yana heard the source of the boy’s distress. An insistent, rhythmic pounding at the front door.
“Artur!” A chill shot up the dark elf’s spine at the sound of Brookwyn bellowing through the thick oak door. “Open at once! At the order of the Elders, I demand you let me in!”
Yan swallowed her scream, clinging to Jayel as she ran for the smokehouse. She didn’t say a word till she was able to lay hand on Artur lest Brookwyn hear her.
“He’s back.” She hissed. “The man who killed my mate… He’s at your door! He knows!”
Artur’s eyes narrowed and he immediately stopped his work, wiping his hands on a rag to clean off the blood. “Stay here.” And he marched from the smokehouse into his house and threw open the door. “Brookwyn, how dare you-”
“Don’t bother, Artur. You have someone here.” Brookwyn pushed passed Artur without welcome, immediately pacing to search the home. “A crying child, fire alight when you spend hours hunting, and then you bring back enough meat for a family of elves.”
“You know very well I avoid going into the market and keep to myself.” Artur growled, closing his door to the chilly air. “Too many vicious stares at the old murderer of dark elves who lives in their midst. I would rather hunt for ten than endure the constant tension of them all waiting for me to turn my sword upon them in madness.”
Brookwyn ignored Artur’s tirade, circling the fireplace and checking under every piece of furniture. “You are as good with words as you are with a sword; weaving them so you say a lot of untruths yet not lie. If you will not tell me, I shall have to stay till my question is answered for me.” He sneered.
“Artur?” The elf in question paled at the sound of a small, tired voice from his back door. “Is someone there?”
A pale, skinny woman stepped into the door Yana dashed out of, trembling and sweaty as she peered into the room. Her skin was ivory, hair golden, and pointed ears blushed red with exertion. Her sky blue eyes set on Brookwyn and she daintily hid behind the door frame. “My apologies. I did not mean to intrude.”
Brookwyn’s eyes went wide at the sight of her. “And who are you, woman?”
Artur watched this unfamiliar creature simper like a broken animal. “I-I was lost. My village attacked by halflings. Artur… He found me.”
“A widow, Brookwyn.” Artur crossed his arms and looked down his nose at the baffled soldier. “Another outcast from a war we are not a part of.”
“You claimed to be alone.” Brookwyn huffed.
“I said I keep to myself. A retired soldier garners enough gossip. If the townspeople were to hear a widow and her baby have taken shelter with me; an old soldier who has had many years pass since he has known a woman-”
“Enough.” Brookwyn raised his hand and rolled his eyes. “Keep your self, and your woman. But you will be watched, Artur. All in this area will be watched.” He inclined his head to the trembling female and as brusquely as he entered, Brookwyn left.
The moment the latch clicked, the pale elf collapsed to the floor, panting as her skin darkened to its natural color. The golden tresses returned to their gleaming white and Yana looked up at Artur with coal black eyes.
“I knew the halflings had powers but I never dreamed…” Artur breathed, helping the gasping woman to her feet.
“It’s a glamour…” She rasped. “But it hurts… Not like they told you… It hurts… Every time…” Yana was limp in Artur’s arms and did not resist as he poured her into the bed. “Tell your friend… Don’t drop by… As a habit.”
Artur chuckled. “He knows he is most unwelcome.” He looked around. “The boy?”
“Smokehouse… By the door…” She said before her eyes refused to open.
Artur went quickly to retrieve Jayel, the smokehouse a good hiding place for only a short time and the baby would quickly overheat. Once he returned, Yana was sleeping deeply, too deep to hear the relieved whimpers of her son as the babe snuggled against her.
The woman was clever; knowing Brookwyn wouldn’t leave and spinning a likely story so quickly. Passing off the pain and fatigue of casting the illusion as fear and trauma from war, playing on the hatred of her people to keep Brookwyn from asking too many questions; both brilliant ideas. The elf would be back and Yana would have to be careful if she decided to go outside, but they would both have time to cultivate some more detailed excuse.
Elves like him passed stories around like candy, frightened of the wild powers halflings could have. Artur knew they could perform magics, but nothing like the complete illusion he watched Yana cast. If she wasn’t in such obvious pain, he never would have known the blonde, soft-spoken waif in his doorway was the ebony-skinned, foul-mouthed, stubborn woman his arrow found in the woods.
He shook his head and saved his questions for when the woman was more rested. There would be time all winter for Yana to explain, he thought as he went back to his work in the smokehouse.
It wasn’t long before Yana and Artur could rest easy, as snow would keep much more than Brookwyn away. As she shivered near the fire, she understood why Artur made so many preparations for winter. The winters here were harsher and crueler than in her homelands; which she made no effort to grumble about from under the pile of blankets.
“My kind are not meant for this wretched cold!” She growled, glaring at the fire like the lazy flame that it was.
Artur merely shook his head, just fine in long breeches and a long-sleeved tunic. “Jayel seems to have adapted.” He chuckled, tipping the cradle to see the baby’s sleeping face. “And he certainly has the lungs to let us know if he is uncomfortable.”
“Nonsense.” Yana pulled her blankets tighter. “He just hasn’t learned the words to properly complain.”
The child in question sighed in his sleep, stretching his limbs and pursing his bottom lip. Artur poked the protruding flesh only to have it poke further out and a small laugh escaped Jayel’s chest. “He is more than pleased with the heat in here.” He teased.
“I can’t take it!” Yana hissed, shuffling herself and all her newly mended blankets towards the woodpile. “You spent so many hours chopping this, put it to good use!” She snatched up two and leaned over to toss them in the already sizable fire but a twinge in her sore arm made her drop them, spilling glowing embers onto the layers of fabric surrounding her.
Artur leaped to his feet and pulled the blankets to the floor, swatting the smoldering fabric with calloused hands before the embers could become flame. Yana yelped when the cold air hit her but gathered herself in time to assist by stomping her stocking feet on any spots Artur may have missed.
“Stubborn halfling! You’ll burn down the whole house!” He said, but there was no venom in it. Artur shook out the singed blanket and looked it over to make sure there was no more risk of fire. When he looked back to his guest, he found her black eyes wide and shaking, her entire body quaking in fear and cold.
He sighed, lowering the blanket. “The fire-”
“Did what you would think.” Yana whispered and Artur didn’t press her. It was not a practice to let halfling villages lie empty. Soldiers burned them to the ground; often before all the dwellings were vacant.
Shame filled him for his part in it and Artur wrapped the blanket around the dark shoulders. Without thinking, Yana dropped her forehead on his chest and hugged herself tighter, gritting her teeth against the tears blossoming in her eyes.
Artur stiffened but did not move an inch, merely holding the blanket around her. Even as he felt hot tears on his shirt, even as their combined heat made them sweat, he stood there and let her take whatever comfort she wanted. It wasn’t long before both of their legs ached and Yana had no more tears to shed, the mismatched pair simply sat where they were and Yana fell into a deep sleep cradled in Artur’s arms.
It was hard to tell how long he slept but Artur guessed it was morning by the feeling in the air. He groaned as his body protested the strange position he’d slept in, aghast at the creaking in his spine and ache in his shoulders as he slowly stretched from his curled position. He shamed further at the tightness between his thighs, lamenting his lack of control and trying to contort his body away from the woman in his arms so she didn’t feel his weakness against her.
He ceased breathing when Yana pressed closer. “Don’t.” He rasped.
“Why?” Yana whispered, looking up into his eyes as a challenge.
“This is not the sort of payment I desire.” Artur growled, pushing himself away from her.
“If I could use such things as currency, I would not be in your home.” Her voice was even, not pleading or even angry. “Is a halfling so distasteful?”
“No!” Artur said too quickly, looking away from her. “Your mate…”
“You cry out for him in your sleep.”
“And he is still dead. Nothing will change that.” Yana looked away only briefly before standing to command Artur’s attention. “And my body is not such cheap currency for your shoddy stitching and frigid hearth.”
Artur broke into a thin smile but the sight of Yana flushed from more than warmth and barely covered in a pair of his pants and a simple top usually reserved as an undergarment made it wilt; unlike the tension in his groin. “Please, Yana…”
“And here I thought you would make me beg.” The dark elf smirked, pulling the furs tighter around her. “I am lonely, Artur, but not so foolish to offer something I was not prepared to give. But tonight? Just hold me, soldier.” Her black eyes teared and she took a tentative step towards him. “The snow isn’t all that makes me cold.”
Artur twitched to move towards her but his feet were rooted to the spot. “I am no man’s replacement.”
This time, those dark lips smiled. “Not even close.”
The pair of them stared a moment, each waiting to call the other’s buff if there was one. Yana finally shook her head and took herself and her bundle of furs to Artur’s bed and lifted her blankets to invite him. “I need nothing but warmth this night.” She whispered; then closed her eyes to display sleep to make him more comfortable.
Artur found the first step to his bed was the hardest but the others were nonexistent. He found himself beside the dark elf in what seemed no time at all. Without opening her eyes, Yana draped the furs over Artur and nestled closer to finally find rest. Artur had more trouble, finding sleep a fickle prey despite the sleeping woman sharing his bed. It seemed sleep hunted him as he felt his eyes droop and the whirl of his thoughts finally spun itself out.
The hardness was distracting. The persistent ache, the gnawing pressure for release. Yana whimpered as she turned in Artur’s arms and her full breasts twinged in pain at the slightest movement. Her son remained quiet but nature demanded he eat and Yana reluctantly tried to squirm away from her bedmate.
But he grumbled in his sleep and resisted her attempts to lift his arm from her shoulders. She appraised him with her black eyes, watched his eyes twitch in his dreams and the way his lips pressed together as he clung to her like a babe.
On cue, Jayel whimpered in his own dreams and Yana’s breasts throbbed with her mother’s duty. She dared to press a small kiss to the pursed lips before she climbed over Artur to the crib to take Jayel to her breast. Humming gently as he fed, Yana watched the older man struggle through his dreams. How many nights did this terror of dark elves sit in his horrid chair when she was in his bed, tossing and turning with his nightmares? Yana tried to find the anger at the death of her people, knowing it was the screams of her kin from the underworld which hunted Artur for different reasons as the screams in her own nightmares. Sadness seemed to haunt them both; sadness and guilt for being alive when so much death surrounds you.
Jayel released her nipple and burped happily when patted against Yana’s shoulder. “There is life.” She whispered to her son. “And we owe it to life to live.” But who did she really believe she was telling? Artur chose to hide from his demons and Yana chose to run. She looked down at her fattening son, round and full of innocence. “Or maybe,” She chuckled, lifting him up to tickle his nose with kisses. “We simply owe it to you not to be cowards? Right? Yes, that’s my little one.”
Bitter cold brought with it punishing snow, sealing the pair within. Despite all of Artur’s preparations the wind leaked through, and Artur was concerned they would run through their supply of wood before the spring.
Sharing a bed became more necessity than habit with the two of them curled safely around little Jayel with blankets heaped upon them all. They filled the days playing with the baby and trying in vain to improve Artur’s sewing skills. He was grateful at the end of the storm to flee and clear a pathway to escape Yana’s harsh lessons and pricked fingers.
It seemed hours of hard shoveling before Artur reached his gate. He pushed the last pile to the side with a relieved grunt and leaned on the shovel to catch his breath. He shivered as sweat poured down his neck and back beneath his heavy coat and Artur decided there was no one worthwhile who needed to come down the road so the snow could stay right where it was.
Turning to trudge back inside, his eye caught tiny shadows in the drifts. He abandoned his shovel at the wall and crawled over the three feet of tightly packed snow to look closer and his panting breaths snagged in his throat. Hoofprints and paw prints from an animal much too big to be a normal dog.
‘Trackers.’ Artur bit back a curse and pushed himself back to his shovel. It appeared Brookwyn didn’t believe his ruse and did keep Artur under close watch. These creatures were bred to track prey over long distances, obey without question, and much larger than even a dire wolf. The hulking beasts had fur peppered with thick barbs and claws as long as Artur’s hand. The teeth in their mouths had been bred to be so larger and sense of smell so keen, their jaws would not fully close, presenting a drooling, and sinister creature with glowing red eyes. At this point, Artur could only hope the animal’s noses couldn’t catch Yana’s scent in all this snow. From the looks of the tracks, the beasts lead the rider past Artur’s home without stopping.
But they were here. And would be back.
Artur never told Yana about the trackers. With all the snow and cold, she had no reason to go outside into the very temperatures she made no hesitation complaining about. Her shoulder strengthening, Yana kept busy around the house; carefully replacing each poorly sewn object with masterful new pillows, blankets, rugs, and thick tapestries to block out the draft. She helped Artur construct a simple loom and kept at it all day. Jayel hated the click-clacking of the thing.
Nights were spent piled in the bed but Artur rarely slept through them. Once he assumed mother and child slept soundly, he would go out and walk his property checking for tracker prints or signs of intrusion. Other than the odd woodland creature searching his fruit trees for food, there was no sign of anything for weeks. Artur was unsure if the weather kept them at bay or they were only biding their time and watching from afar for proof of suspicious activity. There was no doubt Brookwyn reported the stray woman living with him with a baby so any sounds a spy may hear would not be suspicious. Brookwyn believed Yana to be a traumatized waif so it is likely whoever watched them wouldn’t be surprised to never see her outside. But as Artur stood by his apple tree under the pretense of seeing how the poor thing was faring through this miserable winter, he knew they were being watched. The soldier could feel it in his bones, however achy they may be.
When he closed the door, Yana was standing there waiting for him, wisely out of line of sight of the open door. “Why have you been getting out of bed every night?” She accused; black eyes ready to combat any lies or flimsy excuses for his actions. Even with the glare in those eyes and the no-nonsense strain in her smooth back and set in her shoulders, Artur considered lying. Despite her bluster, she still feared discovery and the thought of Brookwyn searching for her may drive her into a panic. He didn’t want to see her so frantic she no longer knew where she was or if her own son was in her arms.
“Out with it, Artur.” Yana insisted, stepping in closer to watch every nuance in his face when he answered. “And it has been every night this week so try and make it a good excuse.”
“Damn it all, Yana.” He looked away from her eyes long enough to sigh in frustration. “I don’t want to worry you.”
“I’ve no need for coddling. Just say it.”
Artur steeled himself. “After the last storm, I saw tracker prints in the snow. I’ve been checking for further signs of them and as of yet, I haven’t seen a sign of them.”
Color blanched from the dark elf’s face but Yana remained as outwardly calm as she could. “But they were here.”
“And may be back.” He said as softly as he could.
Biting her lip so hard Artur was tempted to pry her jaw open himself, Yana backed towards Jayel’s crib and sat down next to it, her arm draped over him. “I see.”
Artur watched her scrape together bits of calm and force her mind to cobble them together into some semblance of stability. The battle was etched in her face and when she finally spoke, Yana’s voice was a tight squeak. “What are we going to do?”
Artur was impressed. The question didn’t come out as desperate or confused but ponderous as if already forming a plan in her mind. She held her panic at bay. “Should Brookwyn cause trouble, I know I could best him in battle. The trouble will be if he brings others.” He rubbed his face, feeling the stubble growing with callused fingers. “There is sadly precious little we can do right now.”
“And you have been checking every night?”
Under Yana’s shrewd gaze, he nodded.
The dark elf ran her fingers through her hair and stood. “We should go. I’ve brought enough trouble to your doorstep.”
“And where will you go, Yana?” Her steps faltered at the sound of her name said in such a gruff tone instead of “foolish woman” or “stubborn creature.” “Will you run with Jayel into the snow? There may be worse storms. Even if you evade the trackers, you won’t evade the cold.”
“So I should stay and wait for those beasts to break down the door and rip us all apart? Perhaps they will spare you for just long enough to let you watch them devour my son while the soldiers pass me around so you can hear me screa-”
Artur cut her off by drawing her into a hug. Feeling her trembling, he held her tighter. “It’s going to be fine, Yana. I can protect you here.”
The dark elf shoved herself away from him. “How!? Damnit, Artur, this isn’t war! This is my son! Me! All alone!”
“You aren’t alone.” Artur gruffed. “And I am aware what war is. I was very good at it; so good my own kind shuns me.” He crossed to the mantel and reached behind a woodpile, moving a large plank Yana never noticed and pulled out a broadsword as thick as his arm.
Yana couldn’t help but shrink back at the sight of the blade in Artur’s hand, recognizing the Elven Counsel sigil on the pommel. Seeing her recognition, Artur’s face became unreadable; cold and closed. “I could kill them all.” He hissed with shame. “You know how well versed I am in murder.”
The disgust twisting his features was so obviously directed inward so when he turned away towards the door, Yana ran to him, wrapping her arms around him to trap his arms against his sides. Her hands couldn’t meet given the trunk-like nature of his thick physique and he could easily shake her off but he stopped.
Artur’s grip on the hilt was knuckle white. “Release me.” He whispered.
“To do what?” Yana squeezed as hard as she could, awkwardly encircling someone more than double her mass. “Hunt that bastard down and murder one of your own kind to protect a halfling fugitive? You will be killed by him or executed for killing him!” She felt tears sting her eyes and turned her face into his shirt. “Either way, I will lose you and end up dead!”
Artur grit his teeth, the sword heavy in his hand. “Then what should I do, woman?” His voice was a shadow of his former strength.
Yana rested her hand on Artur’s shaking fist. “Drop it.” She said as she fought back her tears. “Please. For now, just stop.”
Artur’s fist slowly opened and the sword fell to the floor. It hit tip first, the pommel hitting the rug after with a soft thud. Artur fell to his knees and Yana did so as well, retaining the press of her face on his back. “How can you touch me? My name is death among your people. I have earned nothing but hatred and fear in my life. A life I have clearly wasted.”
Yana slipped around Artur and cupped his stubble-covered chin, forcing him to look at her. “Just stop.”
The blonde elf did not cry, he only covered the ebony hands on his cheeks with his own trembling fingers and fought to meet her black eyes. “Why?” He rasped.
“I don’t know.” Yana closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his to stop them from shaking or arguing any further.
More than twice her weight and strength, yet Artur had no power to push Yana away. Their joined lips kept Artur from flying apart and he deepened the kiss, nervously extending his tongue to taste the softness of her lips. He expected spice, dark forbidden chocolate or exotic fruit. No. Yana tasted of fresh spring and sweet cane; all things simple and natural filled Artur’s senses and left his lips shaking against hers. Yana pressed her lips against his firmly to ease the shaking and Artur responded by slipping his fingers through her ivory hair, pulling her closer, kissing her deeper, and growling softly when instead of yielding, her mouth and tongue matched him stroke for stroke and her hands wandered over his back.
He stiffened when she moaned into his mouth. Artur pulled back but could not release his hold on Yana. “You shouldn’t.” He panted, yet neither moved from their entwined position. “I am a monster to your kind.”
Yana shook her head. “If you knew what I had to do to survive, to protect my son, you would think me a monster, too.”
“No.” Artur croaked. “Never.” He pulled the slight woman into his lap and met her lips with his.
From then on Yana vowed not to let him speak again. She held him tight and kissed him with everything she had, threading her fingers through his golden hair, tossing aside the leather strap when it got tangled in her grip. Yana pulled off his shirt and he made quick work of her own, Artur’s hands being gentle with her swelling breasts. At her slight gasp, he left them alone, both pairs of hands reaching down to fumble with their undergarments.
Yana was much more efficient pulling Artur free of his breeches, hot and pulsing in her hand. At her curious squeeze, Artur growled and tore her underwear clean off to join his shirt forgotten somewhere on the floor around them. Desperate, Artur lifted her up and Yana guided him inside her, gasping as he filled her to the root.
Artur shook with poorly contained restraint. “Have I hurt you?” He whispered, his lips brushing against hers.
Yana shook her head and met his searching eyes. When Artur dropped his head to the crook of her neck, leaving soft kisses and bites between there and her shoulder, she signed and wrapped her legs tighter around him taking him deeper and earning a low moan from the pale elf.
She kept moving and Artur’s hips rose to meet hers. Yana hardly considered herself a master of pleasure but Artur’s nearly feral grunts and the moisture dripping from her, she must be doing something right and she let pleasure guide her body’s movements.
It wasn’t long before tentative pushing gave way to vigorous thrusting, Yana gripping Artur’s shoulders tight as she rode his shaft, biting on his neck hard to keep from screaming. At the deep stab of her teeth, Artur returned one in kind, shoving deep inside her as the heat of her began to undo him.
“Y-yana. I can’t`” He couldn’t stop. There was nothing in this world that could move him from this spot; nothing that could stop his hips from driving ever forward.
‘Gods, the way this man whimpers my name.’ And Yana’s body locked in climax, bruising Artur’s skin to hold in her screams.
Artur felt her clamp tight around him, the flood of juices dripping to the floor below them, the clenching nearly crushing his shaft, and the sting of her teeth in his flesh in ecstasy sent him over the edge. His member pulsed and Artur held Yana tightly to him until his breaths slowed.
Yana moved first, lifting her head from his shoulder and smoothing sweaty blond hair from Artur’s forehead. Searching his eyes, she met confusion and fear of what she may say or do now. Having mercy, Yana cupped his chin tenderly. “You are not a monster.” She whispered, placing a soft kiss on his lips. “But you certainly are a beast.”
Soft chuckling and a sloppy grin erased Artur’s lost expression and Yana rose with him so they could gather themselves and clean up. First Yana used the bath, then Artur and when the pale elf returned to her, she re-wound his hair into the leather thong.
“You know I regret nothing.” She said turning him to face her.
His slight blush widened Yana’s grin. “Nor do I, Yana.”
Blatant relief flashed through her dark eyes and she turned to the bed. “Come keep me warm in this gods forsaken cold.”
Artur followed her. “We still have an important issue-”
“Not now.” Yana sighed, laying down and lifting the covers to invite him in beside her. “Rest now. Stop and just rest.”
Soul-weary and sated, Artur obeyed. If the trackers passed them by they would not be back tonight. Tonight, he could rest.
The weather improved in the coming days and while spring was closer, Yana and Artur felt the underlying tension of what may await them when travel was easier.
“I am glad you’ve healed so well.” Artur said, inspecting the paler flesh of Yana’s scar. “How does it feel to move?”
“Stiff, but much better.” Yana smiled. “Thank you.”
“The more you move, the better it will feel.” He smiled in return. “There are herbs I can use to make an ointment for the soreness.”
“Let me guess,” She pulled her arm through her shirt and smirked. “You have bunches already in your stores.”
“One better. I have the salve already prepared.” Artur went toward a small chest under a window. “I am surprised you have not searched in here.”
“No cause to. I’m stubborn, not nosy.” She peered over his shoulder into his medicine chest. “I am no healer but that is an extensive collection. You made these yourself?”
“I learned to make many things to use on the battlefield. I would have to be near death to see a healer in the village anyway.”
“Do they really fear you so?” Yana sat down near the fire and rocked her son’s crib. “I truly do not mean to be snide but they are the people you fought for. Should they not celebrate you? Or at the very least respect you?”
Sitting beside her, Artur opened the small jar and smirked when Yana’s face scrunched up at the strong odor. “My retirement was forced but the reasons are well known among my people.” He spread a thin layer of ointment on the front and back of Yana’s wound; pressing hard to massage the muscles beneath the dark skin. “I made my stance on murdering innocents clear and it was feared I had gone soft.”
Yana huffed. “Not in my opinion.” She said with a sly curl to her lips.
“You are filthy, woman.” He laughed, admiring her need to keep him from brooding. Artur put the ointment back in its place and watched Yana lift Jayel into her arms and lay him down to tease and tickle him as she cleaned his soiled wrappings. “I’ll be back in a moment.” Artur reached for his coat and winter boots. “I should check my snares in case some unlucky creature ventured out.”
“Make sure to be on the lookout for some particularly unintelligent rabbits,” Yana called out. “Some fresh meat would be a welcome change from dried.”
“I agree.” He pulled on his rabbit skin hat so it covered his pointed ears and tucked a dagger into his belt under his coat. “The snares are close so I won’t be gone long.”
“I’ll be careful. Nobody will get in.” Yana’s smile was tight and she turned away before the door closed.
Pausing at the gate, Artur checked the angle of the sun; vowing to return before it reached its apex in the sky. Heading to the first snare at the edge of the woods, Artur’s nose picked up a bitter scent in the air. It couldn’t have been an animal in a snare so long it began to rot, he thought; turning his feet towards the smell.
Snow squishing beneath his boots, Artur slowed as he saw the smoke rising in the sky and the smell thickened. Burning pitch and blood. Fine hairs rising on the back of his neck, Artur turned on his heel and ran for his home.
Yana nearly screamed when he burst into the door, brandishing the metal poker awkwardly in her hands. “Artur! “What-”
“The village is under attack.” Tracking snow all over, Artur grabbed his bow, quiver of arrows, and his hidden sword. “Stay here and bar the door.”
“The hell you say.” Yana began to bundle Jayel in heavy blankets and herself in much better quality cloaks than they formally wore.
“Damnit, Yana! Listen to me! Fleeing will be no help!”
“I know.” Her voice was harder and more determined than Artur had ever heard it before. Gone was the cold fear and panic and her gestures were sure and tremble free as she strapped her sleeping son to her back and took Artur’s ax from its place by the fire. “I’m going with you.”
“You have lost your senses.” Artur gasped.
“Unless you plan to pin me to the ground with your arrow once more, shut your mouth and lead on.” She pushed past him to the door. “Even ungrateful villagers don’t deserve the teeth of those dogs.”
“I have no horse!” He warned, firmly closing the door after following her outside.
“Then try to keep up.” She sprinted towards the plume of smoke rising into the sky.
Artur had to admire her. Yana was as sure and swift of foot as the doe he’d mistaken her for many months ago, and her son endured the ride with not a single protest. He pushed aside the anger rising at the thought of how the pair learned such co-operation and ran silently by her side. When screams could be heard, he stopped her and took cover behind a hill of snow piled high due to the efforts of the villager’s efforts to clear paths in their streets. He listened to the sounds of crackling flames and cries of fear, hearing the clash of sword and fang against farm tools and soft, civilian flesh.
“Stay quiet and behind me. When I tell you, go for the burning buildings and use your ax on the barricades trapping people inside.” At Yana’s firm nod, he moved forward. “Pay no mind what they say. Free them and move on. Do not put yourselves at risk.”
The main entrance to the village was littered with the bodies of the village guardsmen and neither elf gave the bodies pause. Yana stayed right on Artur’s heels. He motioned for her to stop right at the wall and duck down and drew an arrow to have at the ready.
Yana watched Artur in action, grateful he was no longer an enemy. He listened then looked around their cover, aiming a shot in a blink; hitting the eye of a hound dead center, then sprinting for their next cover with practiced ease. When no opposition was heard, Artur leaned further out behind a fallen salesman’s stand then stood. “Nothing. They must be gathered in the center of the village if they left only one tracker to guard here.”
“Why?” Yana crept up behind him, wincing as she stared at the smoldering buildings and burning fires that were once homes and shops.
Artur heard muffled screams and vicious barks from the center of town and he couldn’t help the scowl that twisted his features when he heard Brookwyn’s booming laughter. “As an example.”
Yana shuddered but at Jayel’s uncomfortable whine she bounced him with one hand until he quieted, then lifted the ax in both hands. “I’m ready.”
The unease in her voice made Artur turn and press a soft kiss to her lips. “You be careful with that boy. I know you can survive anything.”
“Damn right.” She smiled.
“Stay out of sight and save who you can. Leave Brookwyn to me.”
With only a parting nod, Artur made his way towards the center of town while Yana snuck behind the buildings.
Artur kept one arrow primed and ready to shoot as he slowly through once familiar if not welcoming streets. Drying blood and dead elves littered his path and though these people had not shown him hospitality, he eyed the chaos with grief and disdain. They were all clearly mauled by the beasts Brookwyn brought along with him.
‘Could he have come alone?’ Artur thought, looking at the spattering of tracks under his feet. One horse and five sets of paw prints. Damn that elf.
A low growl to his left alerted Artur to a tracker likely sent to keep any wayward escapees from getting very far. The beast crouched to ready himself for a killing blow, dodging Artur’s first arrow by inches before bounding at him.
Artur dropped his bow, rolled away, and drew his sword, climbing to his feet in one smooth, instinctual motion. Hounds were bred to strike fear and obey, not for their brilliance so Artur was able to take the beast’s head before it could recover for another attack.
Retrieving his bow, Artur strode confidently to the center of the village. Two more trackers greeted him but did not attack, keeping their places guarding a crowd of injured and sobbing captured elf citizens.
Brookwyn turned and looked up at Artur from his latest victim, blonde hair gripped in one gloved fist and a bloodied dirk in the other. His scarred mouth stretched in a horrid smile as he dropped the dead body next to the others at his feet.
“It took you long enough.” He chuckled as if three slit throats at his feet were not the horror to him they should be. “Since you saw no fleeing halflings, I inquired here. It was so very disappointing of these pure elves to behave too suspiciously so as you can see, I needed to pursue more aggressive lines of inquiry. You are quite late to the party.”
“You inquire by burning down homes and slitting the throats of farmers?” Artur stepped forward, gripping his sword pommel while it was still in its sheath and saying a prayer to the gods his voice would carry over the dull thud of his ax pounding nearby. “I doubt this is sanctioned by the council.”
“My testimony stating they harbored fugitives will be enough to excuse me.” Brookwyn shrugged and reached for another elf, this time the blacksmith’s eldest daughter. A wisp of a girl with her father’s strength in her arms, who would manage a strained smile when Artur needed his ax sharpened before her father ushered her away to the back of the shop. ‘What was her name? Damn, what is her name?’
“If I ask enough of our kin, I am sure someone will answer.” Brookwyn hummed.
“Put the girl down.” An arrow was cocked and ready in Artur’s hand before he’d known it, the anger in him nearly blinding. Brookwyn hesitated then jerked the girl’s hair violently so her eyes ran with tears and her hands reached ineffectively up to fight his grip and relieve the pain.
“Oh, don’t be foolish. What would you do even if you would be foolish enough to defy the will of the Elven Counsel?”
Artur caught the movement of a cloaked figure with white hair behind the prisoners in his peripheral vision and his voice dipped to a low growl. “You know I could not only hit you but paralyze your hand for good; even around a squirming hostage.”
A hush settled among those who could quiet their tears or moans of pain, waiting for the soldiers to make their decision.
“You would impede me in my sworn duty?” Brookwyn hissed; his blue eyes veined with maddening red.
“The council would not sanction the annihilation of a free elf village and despite my forced retirement, my words will have weight. Drop the girl and get out before my report is your head in a bag at their feet.” Artur kept his eyes on his target and not on the whimpering girl, pleading to be let go.
The scarred elf exploded in loud laughter. “Old man, you never made me laugh like that in the field.” His eyes held no feeling when they settled on Artur and he closed his fist tighter against the weeping girl’s scalp. “I don’t think you are even capable of tying your own scabbard to your belt without fumbling like a new recruit. Go nap while I do my work.”
The moment Brookwyn’s eyes left him, Artur let his arrow fly, hitting the armor of the hand in the blacksmith’s daughter’s hair, shocking the digits open but unable to pierce through to the skin. A streak of white hair and flapping cloak scooped up the terrified elf and dragged her away. When they passed him, Artur heard Yana yelling; “Run, fool!” to the younger woman. Artur stepped into their path, another arrow at the ready.
“Get out of this town, Brookwyn.” Artur’s calm blue eyes didn’t stray an inch as the hounds crept towards their master’s aid.
“Or what?” Brookwyn howled, drawing his sword. “One word from me and my hounds tear these people apart and that dark elf fugitive too cowardly to face me!”
Yana pulled the blacksmith’s daughter behind a thankfully safe and unburned building. “Stay here while I try and save the others.”
“No!” The tearful blue eyes met Yana’s black eyes without fear. “This is my fault! I want to help!”
“Please, child. Your martyrdom is stupid and misplaced. It is my trail they are after so collect who you can and flee this place.”
The girl stopped Yana from leaving her with a firm pull on her cloak with strong hands. “No! I did help dark elves escape! A little boy with his sister!” The girl wept, her body shaking with sobs. “They were so young! So hungry! I wouldn’t turn them in! I couldn’t!”
“You fool.” Both women turned towards the soot covered man walking up to them. “You helped halfling filth escape through this village? You brought this horror upon us!”
“Well this filthy halfling accepts your enduring gratitude for hacking down the bolted door to the burning forge you were trapped in.” Yana growled, turning her back on both of them and muttering under her breath about how ungrateful pure elves could be.
“Wait!” The blacksmith’s daughter went to follow Yana but her father snatched her by the forearm.
“What the hells do you think you’re doing?! Do you know what she is?”
“Yes!” The elf wrenched her arm free. “A woman with a baby who saved my life and yours.” Without further comment, she turned to an astounded Yana and said “What is left of the forge?”
“Last I left it, less than half burned but spreading.”
“Come with me. We’ll grab whatever weapons are left and help the injured get away. I have friends who will help fight.”
“You are mad. Get armed then get the hell out. I will help Artur.” Yana turned and ran for the forge with the younger elf alongside her.
“My name is Crissa.” She said before running inside and grabbing whatever she could carry, which was substantial. The young girl must be helping her father with the forges for those thin arms to have so much strength. “Thank you for helping me but I am not leaving.”
“Suit yourself.” Yana did not wait for her, leaving the younger woman to run back to where Artur and Brookwyn were fiercely battling.
“It’s no use, old man! These people will die after watching me lay waste to you and this pathetic town.”
Artur parried Brookwyn’s broad sword, feinting a low blow then breaking Brookwyn’s nose with his elbow. “Do not insult your betters, boy.” He glanced at the huddled townspeople and spotted the former hostage running towards them carrying weapons. “Get the wounded out of here! Anyone not carrying injured, fend off the trackers! They are weak in the belly and under the burrs behind their neck!” He yelled to her.
Flailing, Brookwyn stumbled into one of his waiting hounds, who bore the bloodied elf’s weight with an annoyed grunt. “Kill them!” He garbled. “Kill them all!”
Artur readied his stance, placing himself between the remaining trackers and screaming elves behind him. ‘I could kill one, wound another but…’ Artur grit his teeth, ready to do what he could before the hounds overtook him.
Then they suddenly stopped, eyes wide and whimpering with fear. Tails tucked tight and ears folded back, they inched back from Artur in pure terror. He had never seen trackers this frightened of anything.
“What’s wrong with you?” Brookwyn swatted blood from his face as if the pain of a broken nose was nothing, ignoring the crunch of bone as he did so. “Attack!”
The horrid beasts ignored him, cowering in fear before fleeing into the woods.
Artur turned to where the creatures were staring and saw a panting, exhausted Yana leaning on the ax for support while a small group of young elves from the town gathered behind her.
“I hope you appreciated that because gods did it ever hurt.” Yana gasped, her body begging to kneel but she steadfastly refused.
Crissa helped steady her and looked at Artur. “Look out!”
Artur turned just in time to deflect a wild swing from Brookwyn that put a gash above Artur’s eye rather than cleaving open his head.
“Filthy traitor! I’ll kill you and flay your halfling whore right beside you!”
Artur shoved Brookwyn away from him. “Get the fires out before the hounds work their way back here!”
“No!” Yana made to lift her ax and nearly fell on her face. Jayel screamed in discomfort.
“Do it or there won’t be a village to save!” And with that, Artur turned his full attention to the snarling Brookwyn. “Come, boy. Let’s finish this.”
Brookwyn smiled, blood staining his teeth and sword gripped in both hands as he advanced on Artur.
“That’s it.” Artur threw off his bow and arrows as the mad elf approached. “This is what you wanted. This is why you came snooping around my home. One last clash of swords. One last battle. One more village on fire with the stench of burning flesh around you before I take that twisted head of yours.”
“I’ll have a collection of heads when I am done today.”
“Foolish brat.” Artur struck first, forcing Brookwyn back with powerful hits but Brookwyn recovered fast and they met each strike and parry giving no ground.
Whatever townsfolk decided to stay behind did good work on the fires around them as the clash of swords rang out clearer and clearer. Neither elf noticed the growing quiet. Artur lamented his lack of practice and increased years. A lack of bloodlust left Artur flagging and Brookwyn knocked Artur on his back and kicked the sword from his hand.
Brookwyn leered down at Artur, the blood from his broken nose dripping down his chin. He raised his sword for the killing blow but an arrow grazed his sword arm. He looked to the source and saw a breathless Yana trying to aim another arrow with trembling hands. “You bitch! You dirty little who-”
Further insults were cut off when Artur shoved his hidden dagger into his throat. “That is no way to speak.” Artur rasped, shoving the gurgling man away as he caught his breath.
When Brookwyn fell to his knees, blindly grasping at the dagger protruding from his neck, Crissa ran around Yana and hit Brookwyn in the head with her smelting hammer as hard as she could and did not stop until Brookwyn’s brains were exposed to open air.
Artur sat up and watched Bookwyn’s body as if he could rise again. He only looked away when Yana collapsed next to him and unstrapped Jayel from her back.
“How are you fairing, old man?” Yana asked through relieved gasps, patting her son’s back as he nuzzled against her shoulder.
“I shall survive, meddlesome female.” He quipped and both of them broke into nervous laughter.
Crissa knelt down to both of them. “Will you be alright? I should treat your wound, Artur.” She suddenly stopped before speaking to Yana when she saw her father and several other elves approaching them.
“Get back, Crissa.” He bellowed. “This is the creature that brought this all upon us!”
“None of you fools laid eyes on me; including the dead madman over there.” Yana rose to a crouching position, her son in one hand and bow in the other.
“It was my doing, father.” Crissa stood between Yana and her towering father, a shame-filled frown on her face. “I helped two halfling children escape.”
Yana’s chin dropped, her mouth agape in shock along with Artur and several other townsfolk. Artur watched the girl and her father with growing suspicion as he got to his feet.
“She wasn’t alone.” Another young elf stepped forward with the elderly innkeeper and the butcher. “We gave the children food and supplies.”
“I gave them directions to help avoid the soldiers.” The elderly innkeeper said, leaning on her cane.
“I won’t name names but we are not the only ones and those were not the only halflings to come through here.” The butcher said, wiping soot from her face.
“Why?” The blacksmith looked squarely at his daughter, who braved the weight of his glare without flinching. “These creatures are a threat! Look what helping them has done!”
Crissa shook her head, the expression on her face one of pure pity. “All I saw were two scared kids. I would do it again without hesitation.”
A tall, slender elf shouldered his way through the crowd and dropped a long-fingered hand on the blacksmith’s shoulder. “Beo, stop this. Our town still smolders and we have dead to bury. Since our leader is among the dead, I am next in line as treasurer, so do as I say.” When Beo made to protest, he was cut off with a firm shake of the head. “We owe Artur and that woman our lives. Right now, I don’t care if her skin is the color of ink or milk; our village still stands and we have a mess to clean up.
Deflated, Beo turned on his heel and the taller elf walked up to Artur, who held Yana behind him. “I find this outpouring of sentiment highly suspect, Yasim.” Artur looked at the retreating townspeople then back to the treasurer. “This town’s suspicions of me were quite clear.”
Yasim had the good sense to look ashamed. “In truth, we did all fear you, Artur; although each of us for different reasons. Some thought you mad, others thought you a spy.” The man had a wise face and the tired eyes of many nights toiling over figures by candlelight. He slipped closer to Artur and offered his thin hand. “I must say, I am grateful for clarification despite the circumstances.”
Artur blinked slowly then took the offered hand. “Forgive me as I am more confused at the moment.”
Chuckling, Yasim released Artur’s hand and took a polite step back. “Of course. Things will change. It will just take time.” He looked to Yana, who hugged her child closer to her under the attention of those blue eyes. “And ma’am, thank you for helping to save lives today.”
Yana gaped at Yasim. “I-I’m afraid I echo Artur’s feelings.”
Yasim inclined his head. “Of course. But you both did a good thing when you didn’t have to and you will have to learn one day to deal with our gratitude.” And with that, he turned to help the others. “Starting with my report to the council. You have done more than enough so don’t worry about having to face them.”
“Was I struck in the head?” Yana broke the silence first. “This must be some sort of illusion.”
Artur wiped blood from his forehead, wincing when his fingers scraped the wound. “My pain says this is quite real.”
Jayel let out a hardy scream and Yana gently bounced him. “And the pain in my ears as well.” She said, a hesitant smile on her lips.
“Jayel!” Yana shrieked. “Get your behind out of that tree and come clean up after yourself!”
“Mama!” Jayel whined, his five year old hands about to reach for another branch but now froze in place at the sound of his mother’s scolding voice. “There’s a huge peach up here!”
“There’s a pile of dirty clothes and toys down here!” Yana stepped out of the front door and put her hands on her hips, her swelling belly setting her a bit off balance but she caught herself fast enough to remain menacing to her son. “If I have to come get you boy…”
“Gotcha!” Artur plucked Jayel from the tree as easily as any fruit and tickled the wiggling boy until he could scarcely breathe. “Go on and mind your mother lest she punish us both. Do a good job and that peach is all yours.”
“Okay, Papa!” Setting the boy down, he scampered past Yana who shook her head.
“You spoil that boy!” She called out to him as Artur pulled himself up to the same branch Jayel was on. “And now you risk your neck on that tree! Gods above, do you fear ladders more than injury?”
Artur easily pulled the peach free and jumped down. “I spoil you both. I don’t like peaches.” He smiled and tossed the fruit to her before meeting her at the door.
Yana easily caught it and playfully tossed it back. “Well, your baby likes them so you are outvoted three to one.”
“A true pity.” Artur kissed her, ignoring the impish “ew” from inside the house. He moved past her and withdrew a small pouch of coins from his pocket. “Between your tapestries and my repair work, we should be able to buy plenty of feed for the sheep. They will be so fat; you will have more wool than you will know what to do with.”
Yana leaned in the open door frame, one hand on her belly tracing small circles against her dress. She watched Jayel dashing around organizing his things with Artur on his heels with a laundry basket to help. A bright smile stretched her lips and she brushed a windblown strand of white hair from her face. “I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with it.”Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in