Chapter 1: Elatawen
The elf maiden felt the pain of another contraction and cursed under her breath. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and doused the smoking remnants of last night's fire. She got up to look out the mouth of the shallow cave. From her viewpoint at the top of the rocky crag, a hundred miles away from the judgment of her elven clan, she had a commanding view of the forest around her. She rubbed her belly and cooed to her half-breed baby, feeling weak for allowing herself to be driven into hiding from her elven clan's bigotry. But her baby would have had to fight more than bigotry. If the baby had the misfortune to be born a girl, then she would have to fight a prophesy.
Elatawen shivered against the lingering cold from the night before, when rain had poured in sheets at the opening of the cave. Her fire had kept away the chill, but she had counted on the rain to keep unwanted eyes from seeing her smoke. Now she cursed having fallen asleep to the welcoming warmth and oddly rhythmic crackling of the flames, dancing with their life giving energy. She knew that smoke had been streaming out of the cave for a good hour of daylight. She didn't want attention. As she doused the embers with more sand, she caught an unmistakable scent on the breeze. It was the scent that had contributed most to development of elven senses over the last dozen generations. She knew it to mean the worst kind of trouble.
Urak'var. The Forgotten Ones.
She tried to recall the human name for them. “Goblins” she whispered, hoping the small victory of recalling the word wouldn't be the only victory she'd have that day. This was human territory, far north of the dark lands. Why would urak'var be here?
In the forest below, she could make out two dozen dark figures moving between the trees at the edge of the nearby road. She knew from years of hearing stories that the urak'var loved to fight and kill. They'd come like moths to a flame. Daylight meant that their eyes, so well developed for hunting at night, would be aching against the brightness of the sun. She hoped that would give her an advantage. They must be here to pillage and steal, but the gift of having an elf in their path would be too great to pass up. They would certainly come if they caught elf scent. Centuries of hatred between their races would make their blood boil. She watched as two dozen of the primitive man-like beasts hurried across the open road without looking to their right at the rising sun.
There, on the road, something metallic glinted and caught Elatawen's eye. Was that a man in armor? She couldn't spare the time to think about it. She had only a score arrows, which would mean resorting to her dagger to fight four urak'var. And she couldn't outrun them in her condition.
Ellis Johansson sat astride his horse, staring at the goblins that crossed the road in front of him as though they cared naught of trespassing in a human kingdom. Their arrogance amazed him. Perhaps they were lost and didn't realize that they had crossed the borders of Arkitheon. Ellis laughed to himself. No. Goblins would know. They were testing how well the land was defended. The King hadn't mentioned that the road to Skavda needed clearing of monsters when he'd given him the town. Grateful to be a newly-minted Lord, Ellis hadn't considered the ramifications. Apparently, he would need to protect the road to his lands as well as the lands proper. He was still grateful, but now he wondered what other challenges this gift from the King came with.
He scanned the direction of the goblins' travel and saw a thin haze of smoke from a rocky crag, ending with a small puff of white. That meant someone had just put out a fire. And they were about to have two-dozen hungry guests for breakfast. He sighed and dismounted, pulling out his sword. He patted his horse. “Stay here, horse. This will only take a moment.”
Elatawen tried to ignore a contraction as she scanned the forest below. She bit her lip against the pain, squinting against the sun's glare, her sensitive eyes searching for signs of movement. She readied her bow, notching an arrow. The unmistakable smell of urak'var was getting stronger. As the urak'var emerged from the trees, she drew her bow and loosed a shot. The arrow flew true, piercing the neck of the first warrior.
He went down, gurgling and sputtering, grasping the shaft of the arrow. The rest ignored their fallen comrade, let out a collective howl, and charged the base of the rocks.
Timing her shots, she made each count with a deadly precision. She paused and waited out another contraction. The pain would distract her and she couldn't afford to miss. She debated trying to hit the leaders below, but they had shields that might deflect her shot. The climbers were vulnerable. She loosed again. And again. Each arrow killing with perfect precision. Nineteen urak'var lay dead or dying before another contraction hit. She had used all but her last arrow, and there were still five of the monsters.
She saw motion in the woods. A man in shining armor moved with amazing speed behind the urak'var commander and his guards, killing each guard with a single slice of his sword, and then slicing away one of the urak'var commander's legs.
The commander's horrifying shriek drew the attention of the two urak'var still climbing the rocks. They turned to see their commander fall to ground, and a knight behind him. The knight lifted his sword, and lowered it with brutal force on their commander's skull. The shrieking stopped. The moment seemed to hang in the air. The knight calmly wiped his sword on the urak'var commander's ragged cloak, and looked up the crag.
The two remaining urak'var roared. They turned back to the cave entrance, and Elatawen met their gazes with defiance.