by Raven Jade
Aelhar is a ranger tasked with protecting forest land inhabitants from possible threats.
Shadow of the Gryphon by Raven Jade
A wind rose in the Blue Mountains of the Pyrenees. Born below the ever-cloud-capped peaks, the wind blew east, out across the Sable Hills. Down it rushed into the Twin Rivers, into the twisted forest known as the Draylam Woodland. Aelhar moved through the thick, knotted woods as skillfully and deftly as the animals that inhabited the woods.
Gusts whirled around him, whipping the peaked tails of his leather cloak around his legs. Pulling the peaked hood forward to protect his face from debris, the wind picked up. No birds sang in the forest, no squirrels chittered from branches. He did not expect them, not this spring. Trees that kept leaf or needle through the winter had no greenery. Snarls of last year's brambles spread brown webs over stone outcrops under the trees. Nettles numbered most among the few weeds; the burrs or thorns, skunkweed, which left a rank smell on the unwary boot that crushed it.
Scattered patches of snow still dotted the ground, where tight clumps of trees kept a deep shade. The pale sun sat above the trees to the east, as if mixed with shadow. It was a morning made for unpleasant thoughts.
Without thinking, he reassured himself of his weapons in hidden locations around his body. Winter had been bad enough on the farms, worse than even the old ones remember, but it must have been worse in the mountains, if the number of wolves driven down into the Twin Rivers was a guide.
Wolves raided the sheep pens and chewed their way into barns to get cattle and horses. Now, bears were coming down from their mountain homes after sheep, too. It was no longer safe for folks to be out after dark.
Aelhar kept moving steadily, his eyes scanning, ears listening; all senses peaked and reflexes ready. An icy, chill crawled up his spine, unseen eyes bore into his senses. Nothing moved or made a sound among the trees, except the wind. That's what bothered him.
However, not only did it persist, but it grew stronger. The hairs on his arms stirred; his skin prickled, making it feel itchy on the inside. He glanced over his shoulder and over twenty spans of the trail, a cloaked figure on horseback. A horse and rider, all in black. Aelhar stopped and faced the rider. The rider's cowl hid its face well. Aelhar could not see an outline of a face, only a black hole. However, he sensed he was looking into the rider's eyes, and he sensed hatred as sharply as if he could see a snarling beast, a hatred for everything that lived. Hatred for him above all. The rider abruptly reined in his horse. Aelhar pulled his sword, ready for the attack.
The wind died down; silence followed. Aelhar waited, tense. The wind gusted again, bringing with it a scent of death. Not fresh, not rotting flesh--a stale odor of blood and decay. An icy shiver ran up his back. What is this? Who are you? I am your enemy!
"What do you want, black rider?" Aelhar said through clenched teeth. "Do you come to kill me?"
"I would like nothing better."
Aelhar looked harder at the darkness of the hooded cloak. His heart pounded wildly in his chest; sweat trickled down his neck under his clothes. This can't be happening! I'm dreaming!
"Who are you?" Aelhar demanded.
"I am Death," the voice said.
"Death!" Aelhar exclaimed. "You're a liar! There is no such thing as death, only life."
"There is always death, even when there is life."
"You speak riddles. How will you answer my questions?"
Hollow laughter erupted from the empty abyss of the cowl. "Ask your questions."
Aelhar swallowed hard, trying to control his breathing. He knew this thing was Death, but how could he prove it? "Who are you?"
"Another time, ranger," hissed in an ethereal voice. With that, the rider turned his horse, rode away, and disappeared.
Aelhar stood staring after the rider until the wind picked up again. The coldness returned; he felt chilled to the bone. He waited with sword poised, watching and listening. Satisfied no attack was forthcoming, he sheathed his sword. What did it mean, another time, ranger? Then he realized what had been odd about the horseman besides his strange appearance. The wind did not stir the black cloak. The strangest encounter he had ever experienced, which left him shaken and numb.
Reaching into his cloak, he pulled out a letter. It read; Strange things are happening around Doln Nory, the Vearney Woods, and other hamlets and farms. I need your help! Come quickly! Your friend Jax. Aelhar sighed. It would be a long night.
Vearney Woods is close to Doln Nory. On the second day of his journey, the sunset and the woods thinned until the last few trees stood among the stout frame houses. The land sloped gently to the east. Patches of woods, farms, and hedge-bordered fields and pastures quilted the land beyond the village, reaching the far edge of Vearney Woods. Meadows, streams, and ponds abound in this maze. The land to the west was fertile, and pastures were plentiful.
Aelhar looked down at Doln Nory. Dusk had set in, and candlelight began flickering in the windows of each cottage. He descended the hillside with agility and skill. Everyone was in for the night, and the smell of home cooking was inescapable. He did not realize how hungry he was until his stomach growled, triggered by culinary aromas. Aelhar headed down the lane toward Potter's Manor Inn. Jeremiah Potter was the establishment's proprietor. Potter kept a reputable place, always clean, hospitable, and excellent food.
Telena Ambrose made the quality of food possible. She had been with Potter and the inn for thirty years and was a spritely, middle-aged woman that could work in circles around the younger folk. The lady kept everything organized and ran a tight ship. Travelers coming to and from Sharach would take the roads passing Doln Nory to stay at the inn and eat.
Aelhar could not wait to get a plate of her pot roast, seasoned potatoes, buttery peas and carrots, and her delicious sourdough bread. His stomach growled again, prompting him to hurry before it ate him. Arriving at the inn entrance, bright lights from inside shone warmly through the colorful stained-glass windows. As he stepped into the room, Aelhar closed his eyes and breathed.
The inn had an aroma he found irresistible: pipe and hearth smoke mingled in the air, along with Telena's cooking in the kitchen. As he opened his eyes, the pleasant odor caught his throat. The inn crowd was often boisterous, but not tonight; the air was more solemn, only low murmurings and conversations. He noticed people glanced at him with suspicion - not three years ago.
Aelhar furrowed his brow. This was not the homecoming he expected. A hand on his shoulder interrupted his thoughts, and he turned to see Jax.
"It's about time you got here!"
"Well, hello to you too!" Aelhar snapped.
"Things have been tense recently and we have a lot to discuss."
"I'm hungry," said Aelhar.
The men looked at each other intently and then laughed.
"It's good to see you, my friend," said Jax.
"It's good to see you too, Jax."
Jax pointed to a table to the right of the hearth.
"We can talk privately from there."
Aelhar and Jax seated themselves at the table in the far corner of the inn near the hearth and spoke in hushed tones. Jax waved at a serving girl. The lass was a fourteen-year-old with red hair in braids, sparkling green eyes, and skinny legs. Her name was Trixie. Potter hired youth who needed work to support their families. Both he and Telena trained them to work well at the inn. Potter and the village people believed in taking care of themselves. Good people lived in Doln Nory.
The young lady quickly arrived at their table, and the two men ordered their food. Trixie was off in a flash to turn in the order, but returned with two mugs of ale and a small loaf of sourdough bread with honey butter.
She leaned in and whispered to the men.
"What is going on, making everyone gloomy and anxious?" Her eyes registered deep concern.
"Nothing to worry your pretty little head about." Jax smiled at her and winked as he buttered a slice of bread. Aelhar pulled back his hood and smiled at her, too.
"It will be all right, Miss Trix. Don't let the rumors scare you. Jax and I will figure this all out."
He also reassured her. She smiled back and moved off to help another customer.
"I hope so, my friend," replied Jax.
Aelhar sat contemplating, and the events described were disturbing.
"So, did you see any of the bodies firsthand?" asked Aelhar.
"Yes, but I'd rather wait after we eat."
"Weak stomach, eh?"
Jax gave him a withering look. Trixie popped up with their food, steaming and sizzling, placing their plates in front of them. Aelhar's mouth watered as he inhaled the steamy goodness.
Jax lifted his mug. "Here's to Telena's culinary wizardry."
Aelhar lifted his mug, "Here, here!", and both took a long draw.
"How are your brother and his family?"
Jax washed down his food bite with ale. "They're doing fine. Levi wants to talk to us as soon as you get here, but since you were starving, we will leave as soon as we are done."
"That bad, huh?"
"Yes, like nothing we have seen."
Jax and Aelhar sat across the table from Levi, Jax's brother and mayor of Doln Nory, as he explained the gruesome attacks.
"This all took place in 'the land between the lakes'," began Levi. "A bipedal wolf-like creature stalks the forest."
"Wait," said Aelhar. "This thing walks upright?"
"Yes," resumed Levi. "It kills livestock, forest animals, and pets. They describe it as being seven feet tall on two legs, thick matted hair all over its body and a stench that smells of rotting flesh."
Aelhar rubbed his chin. This was fantastic. Werewolves and malevolent fairy creatures were stories told to children to make them behave and stay indoors at night.
"Are we talking about a werewolf?"
Levi nodded his head. "From the descriptions I have received of this creature, yes, a werewolf would fit."
Aelhar looked over at Jax, who shrugged sympathetically.
"Is it possible that it is a wild man who thinks he's a werewolf?"
Levi shook his head. "It's a possibility."
"I saw it, Aelhar, and it did not prepare me for this kind of carnage." exclaimed Jax. A wild man could not have accomplished what this creature did.
"What about a bear? There have been reports of bears, wolves, and other wild animals coming from the mountains to find food. This could be a case of mistaken identity."
"Bears cannot run on two legs, and their bodies were twisted and drained of blood," Jax said. "Bears and wolves are not vampires."
"Fine. What about paw prints? Did you see any paw prints?"
Jax shuddered and spoke calmly. "The prints looked like human feet, but clearly paw prints as well."
The black horseman flashed in his mind.
"Whatever it is, we need to find out. That's why we called you back home, Aelhar," said Levi. "You and Jax are the best, and I'm not saying that because he's my brother and you're his best friend. You both are the most effective team this area has. I need answers because people are becoming irrational from fear. I have a town hall meeting tomorrow and need you both there."
Aelhar was about to speak--his vision blurred, he gasped for air, and he sweated profusely. The air crackled and popped around him, and the acrid taste of bile built in his throat, causing his stomach to roll. His ears roared, piercing his mind. He slumped over the table, and all turned dark and silent.
"There she is! Get in and get her," the leader shrieked.
Lightning flashed again, and they lost the silhouette. Their quarry escaped.
"Idiots, you let her get away!" The dragon howled.
A bolt ripped through the harpy and gargoyle ranks. The leader watched their flaming bodies descend below to be claimed by the black, oily waters of the Maelstrom. She knew if she didn't escape the storm melee, she would suffer the same fate. Shards of burning pain tore through her forearm where the other dragon clawed her. The leader veered into the same cloud bank as her sister and spied a waning rift. "Fool," she said and headed for the rift.
Aelhar jerked awake, his head throbbing fiercely. "Oh, my head." Something cool touched him and a melodic voice spoke.
"It's all right, Aelhar. Just lie back down and rest." The soothing voice instructed him. He obeyed and opened one eye to see Marla looking down at him.
"What's going on? Why am I in bed?"
"You collapsed at the table. Levi and Jax stepped into the guest room. Larina and I have cared for you. Levi and Jax want to know when you've regained consciousness. Larina left to get them."
She dabbed his face with a cool, wet cloth from the water bowl next to the bed and placed it on his forehead.
"How are you feeling?"
"My body is in pain."
"He's awake. You had us scared to death when you slumped over like that for no reason," said Jax as he burst through the door. "I thought you were dead."
"Not quite. But I feel I should be."
"How are you doing, son?" asked Levi.
"I'm alive, but I don't know what happened or why."
Jax and Levi looked at each other with concern etched on their faces.
"All right, you two know something. What's up?"
Levi pursed his lips, gazed at the floor, and then returned to Aelhar. "After you collapsed, my boys thought they saw a figure near the woods. He was all black, and his horse was black. They said that when he saw them, he disappeared into the woods."
Aelhar sat up and swung his legs off the bed to stand up and realized he didn't have his trousers on. Throwing the covers over his lap, his cheeks burned. Marla giggled and waved her hand. "I'll be in the kitchen if anyone needs me."
Jax threw his trousers at him, laughing.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked Levi.
"The figure you described was the one the boys saw. I'm convinced it's the same dark figure I encountered in the Draylam Woodlands on the way here."
"Why didn't you tell me about it, Aelhar?" asked Jax.
"Please tell us about this encounter," said Levi.
Aelhar recounted the incident with the figure on the trail through the Draylam. He also recounted how it stalked him and what it said.
"What did it mean by that?"
"Jax, I'm just as perplexed as you. I've never dealt with anything like this. I really didn't know what to think about it, so I just put it out of my mind," said Aelhar.
Levi looked thoughtful, tapping his chin with his index knuckle. "Well, it's obvious that this person or thing follows you. We need to find out what it is and wants. Something says this thing might be behind the werewolf sighting. The town hall meeting is tomorrow evening, and I have no answers."
"We can start by finding whoever this dark figure is, and try to determine what it wants," said Aelhar.
"Yes, I agree," said Levi. "Whoever or whatever this dark figure is, it has some purpose."
"Do you remember how you felt when you last saw this mysterious figure?" asked Jax.
Aelhar thought for a moment. "It gave off an evil aura."
"That sounds like a demon to me," said Jax.
"Stop, you two," interrupted Levi. "Let's not jump to conclusions yet. We still don't know if this is a demon or paranormal. The only thing we know for sure is that whatever this thing is, it's dangerous."
"You're right," said Aelhar. "If it's a demon, then I must be its target. If it's paranormal, maybe I can help stop it before it causes more mayhem."
"In fact, I suggest we all leave tonight," suggested Jax.
"And go where?" asked Aelhar.
"To the Draylam, of course. That's where you first saw the dark figure," said Jax.
"I think we need to rest on this for the night. Everything will be clearer in the morning and after the town hall meeting, we can decide what to do next," interrupted Levi.
The door opened and Marla walked in with a tray of food in her hand. "Good evening, gentlemen."
Jax and Aelhar jumped up from their chairs, but she waved them back down.
"Please, sit down and eat. This is all I could find. I haven't had time to cook much lately."
She sat the food down near the fireplace and started for the door. Then, turned to the men. "Please be good dears and clean up after yourselves. I'm going to bed."
The door closed, leaving the three men alone to discuss the matter in hushed tones. They sat and watched the fire in the hearth while eating as nightfall descended upon them.
Wispy clouds of pipe smoke floated in the air of the town hall. The place was brightly lit and crowded with farmers and laborers. Aelhar moved off to a dimmer part of the hall, while Jax stood by his brother, Levi. One farmer stood up to address the mayor.
"Bah, we cannot wait any longer," snorted Angus Farnsworth. "Got to git them fiends while the trail is still warm."
Several of the gathered farmers nodded their accord. Aelhar scrutinized the man speaking. The farmer was a hunch-back, not profound just enough to show through his shirt. He had wild, scraggly whiskers, gnarled eye, and rough, sun-baked skin. His demeanor was that of an uneducated, harsh, miserable, and some who believed he was never wrong.
"We don't know how many of these creatures we are dealing with or what type of creature is killing our livestock," said the mayor. "And now you want us to go out and hunt them unprepared? I think not."
Farnsworth set his jaw and glared at the mayor. The other farmers milled nervously and whispered to each other.
"I saw one of those things," a gangly and unkempt man spoke up.
The room went silent and everyone turned to stare at him.
"Did you, now?" said the mayor. "What did this creature look like? Speak up, man, we don't have all night."
The farmer, known as Dougan, scuffed his feet on the floor. "What in tarnation I saw was nothin' to what I saw before. All I can say is it walked like a man an' looked between a bear and a wolf. It was all covered in hair an' had red glowin' eyes," said Dougan as if he were telling a ghost story around a campfire. "My blood froze when I seen it near th' hills," continued Dougan. "I went back into th' cabin an' barred th' doors an' windows. I hoped an' prayed I would not see anythin' like that again. It was a terrible sight."
"Bah! That thing kilt my houn'dogs." Angus Farnsworth yelled. Aelhar's impression of Angus was the man had no actual feelings, concern, or care for others, much less his hound dogs. He had the distinct feeling the farmer enjoyed causing trouble.
Levi glared at Angus, and Angus eyed him back.
"Wait, a couple of days," said Levi. "Wait for us to gather evidence and find out what is happening. Our chances will be better if we know more about what we are up against."
Angus gave the mayor a dark look. "Fine! What happens this time on is on your head cuz I warned ya!"
He stalked toward the door, halted, and looked in Aelhar's direction. A look of disgust crossed his face, and he stormed out. Some farmers looked at the mayor with confused looks, then walked out behind Angus.
"Well, that went well," said Jax.
"No, it didn't," said Levi. "We've got a severe problem and if we don't get it solved, we'll have a mob of people going after this thing and lord knows what will happen."
A morning and chilling howl broke the silence, and then a bloodcurdling scream. The three men ran outside to find a creature in the town square. Aelhar couldn't tell if it was a man or beast. It was filthy, naked except for a piece of grimy cloth tied at the waist. It growled, gnashing its teeth, advancing toward two children cowering near the well in the center of the square. The children screamed in terror.
The men went into action, running toward the creature. Aelhar dove into a barrel roll, knocking the wild man off its feet. Levi took advantage of the distraction and whisked the children to safety. Jax ran at the creature with a long dagger.
"Jax, no," screamed Aelhar.
The wild man swiped at a villager with his long sharp nails, tearing into his flesh across the side of his ribcage, throwing him careening into Jax. Both men went flying against a building, knocking Jax out as both men landed in a heap on the ground. It whirled on Aelhar and leered, and it filled him with horror when he saw this creature covered in short, wavy hair, two long, tusk-like teeth protruding from its lips. Its eyes were full of hate and malice.
The abomination glared at him, snarling with saliva dripping from its maw. It lunged, pinning him to the ground. He struggled to keep the beast from tearing out his throat. The monstrosity crashed to the ground, away from Aelhar.
"Vordecai!" Aelhar jumped to his feet. Vordecai sank a silver dagger into the beast's heart. It bellowed in pain. Vordecai scrambled away as it writhed on the ground. Burning flesh filled the air, and the creature combusted into ashes. Vordecai retrieved the dagger from the pile.
"Vordecai, where did you come from? I thought you were in the Northlands!"
"I was," snapped Vordecai. "I have been tracking this creature for some time now, my boy."
Aelhar looked at his foster father in amazement. Something was different, but he couldn't put his finger on it. The villager groaned in pain. Vordecai, with Aelhar following, ran to the villager and Jax.
"What happened?" Jax grimaced, touching a lump on his head.
"The wild man knocked the villager into you."
"What is it, Vordecai?" asked Levi.
"We need to get this man to the infirmary, quickly," commanded Vordecai. "Aelhar, find something to wrap him in!"
Aelhar located some ripped fabric from a vegetable stand. He brought it to Vordecai.
"Help me wrap him and don't get any of his blood on you."
Vordecai fixed him with a steely glare. Aelhar clamped his mouth and did as he was told. Both men picked up the man, who cried out in pain, and towed him to the Botanical Emporia, ran by an apothecary, Conrad Gage, on the other side of the well. Levi with Jax followed.
Conrad greeted the men and escorted them to the back into the infirmary.
"Put him here." The apothecary pointed to the nearest bed. "Mayor, please put your bother on the bed across the aisle," said the apothecary.
They drew long curtains around each bed for privacy. The other people in the infirmary drew their curtains, which is why Aelhar heard snoring.
Vordecai took the apothecary aside and whispered to him. The man nodded and disappeared back into the shop. Moments later, he reappeared with a cart of herbs, spices, liquids, and jars. He looked at the villager gravely, and then at Vordecai. The apothecary turned and handed Levi a cloth wrapped around something.
"Put this on Jax's head to lessen the inflammation and relieve the pain."
He turned back to the cart. Vodecai handed him a small pouch. The apothecary began putting dried herbs in a mortar and ground them and putting them in a jar. He put pinches of spices and powder from the pouch. Then he finished the concoction with a few drops of some liquids in the jar, making a paste. He picked up another jar of liquid that he poured into a cloth and held it hovering close to the patient's nose. He settled down and dozed off. The apothecary began slathering the poultice on the villager's wounds. The man cried out and thrashed.
"Hold him down," demanded the apothecary. He once again put the cloth near the man's nose, and he went unconscious.
Vordecai and Aelhar held the man's arms in case the man woke up again, so the apothecary could finish smearing the poultice into his wounds and then bandage him. The man remained unconscious. The apothecary secured the patient on the bed with straps in case of a seizure.
Vordecai left the rooms and walked outside the building, with Aelhar following close behind. The old man found a stump against the wall and pulled out his pipe and tobacco. Producing a match, he struck and lit his pipe, leaned back and smoked as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. The aroma from the smoke had a cinnamon and licorice fragrance that was both uplifting and relaxing at the same time. However, Aelhar didn't allow the aromatic smell of the pipe leaf to block the questions forming in his head or the trepidation crouching on the fringes of his mind.
"Vordecai, what's going on? What just happened out here and in there? I don't understand, but I think you do."
Vordecai puffed at on his pipe thoughtfully. "I don't have a great deal to understand myself, my boy," he said as white puffs of smoke left his lips. "All I know is something strange and nefarious is going on."
"Meaning that we are not alone in this land?"
"That's one way to put it."
Levi appeared outside the building beside Vordecai. A burly farmer ran up to them, wheezing.
"Mayor," said the farmer.
"What is it, Silas?" the Mayor demanded.
"The Wynn Farm," the burly man gasped. "They're dead. Something attacked the whole family."
The mayor turned to Aelhar and Vordecai. "Are you prepared to go tonight?"
"We're on our way," said Vordecai.
The mayor gave a curt nod.
"Go!" the mayor said.
Aelhar entered the farmhouse. The place looked like a cyclone ran through it. The acrid smell of death hung in the air like a swarm of locust. Two adults and two teenagers were dead, drained of blood and bodies twisted. They were still children, and Aelhar fought the anger burning in his gut. He bent down over the bodies of the two teenagers. One boy and one girl. No blood pooled around them. All fluids drained, as well as blood. Aelhar was believing the farmer Dougan's story. What kind of creature could drain the body of all fluids? It wasn't possible.
Aelhar moved to the back of the house to the rooms of the children. A small doll lay crumpled on the floor near one room. Aelhar knelt to pick up the doll and swallowed hard. A range of emotion swept over him as his fingers touched the doll images flew through his head. He saw the creatures, the parents and the two oldest Wynn children fighting for their lives. Then he saw the two small twins being shoved through the window of the room by their older sister. Aelhar bolted into the room and hopped through the window, dropping the doll outside the house. Immediately, he spotted signs of a great struggle. An additional set of prints he could not explain were visible on the damp ground along with lupine prints. The children's prints were only visible in one spot, which struck Aelhar as odd. Where did the children's prints go?
Aelhar felt like a fool. He was a seasoned ranger. He knew about footprints and the trail of a predator. But he had seen nothing like this before. Some distance away was a pile of fur. Aelhar investigated the mound and found it was some livestock torn to pieces. Then something glinted in the sunlight near the children's footprints. Aelhar went back to the area of the children's prints. A necklace lay in the middle of the muddle of brief impressions. Aelhar bent to grab the necklace and again images flew through his head. He saw one of the wolf creatures shoot through the window toward the children. Before the beast reached the children, something larger knocked it aside. The other creature lunged for the were beast and knocked it down into the snow with a sickening crack. Then, the children were gone, but the creature remained. Aelhar shuddered-icy eyes bore into his as trepidation and anger flooded him. The image faded when a hand gripped his shoulder, snapping Aelhar out of his visions.
"Aelhar, are you all right?" Vordecai stared at him, concern lining his face.
Aelhar gripped the necklace into his fist. "The three youngest Wynn children are still alive."
"You won't find their bodies. Somehow they escaped."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! They're not here. I'm going to find them."
"I'm going with you."
"No. Vordecai, go back to Doln Nory and report to the mayor. I can take care of this."
Aelhar turned to go, but Vordecai stopped him.
"Wait, Aelhar. The mayor is in charge here. You don't want to be responsible for whatever happened to those children."
Aelhar grumbled and turned to leave.
"You were right about the tracks. The tracks you saw were of a werewolf. I found the tracks of two werewolves."
"What? That can't be possible. A werewolf is supposed to be a myth."
"There was also another set of prints, but they didn't match up to either of the wolves."
Aelhar's heart skipped a beat.
"What did the prints look like?"
"They looked like the prints of an enormous beast with claws, but not a werewolf," explained Vordecai. "I don't know what it was. I didn't get a good look at them. But they were large, and I think they had something over them to hide them."
Aelhar thought of the necklace that lay on the ground.
"I have to go, Vordecai. I can't waste any time."
"What if I go with you?"
"What do you have in mind?"
Vordecai looked at him. "I know you're worried about the children, Aelhar. But if there's something that can hide its tracks, we could be in a lot of trouble. And it could still be out there. We should go together. I can help look for them."
Aelhar considered his proposal.
"No, you're needed in Doln Nory, with Jax injured in the infirmary. Just in case one of those things attacks the village. I understand what you're saying. I can handle this. Go back and help the mayor keep Doln Nory safe," said Aelhar.
Vordecai hesitated. "All right. You and Vordecai can handle this, Aelhar."
Aelhar nodded and turned to go.
Vordecai stood in the doorway and looked at Aelhar. "Aelhar, I know you're concerned about the children. I'm sorry I couldn't be more help."
"Don't worry. You've done enough."
"I just hope you can find them before anything else does. It's going to be dangerous."
Aelhar nodded. "You're right."
Jax smiled. "You and Vordecai are good men. I'll see you back in Doln Nory."
"Just one more thing," said Vordecai.
"The Wynn children."
"Are they still alive?"
Aelhar hesitated. "Yes."
"How do you know?"
"I can feel it," replied Aelhar.
Vordecai nodded and turned to go.
Aelhar entered the forest to search for the Wynn children. These creatures went to great lengths to hide their trail. I'm going to have to get creative to find anything to give us clues.
Aelhar took off to the south. After a while, he realized he was being stalked.
He looked around to make sure no one could see. The woods were still and silent.
Aelhar moved toward the sound until a figure stepped from the trees. Aelhar knew immediately what this creature was. And this beast wore its own hair. Its skin glistened with sweat. The thing's eyes glowed red like embers as it approached.
Aelhar gripped the hilt of his sword and held it behind him. The lycan's mouth opened, revealing jagged teeth.
"Come and get me, if you dare." Aelhar clenched his jaw and tensed himself, ready to fight. His muscles tightened as adrenaline raced through his veins. This was not the time to show weakness or fear.
The monster charged at Aelhar, and he tried to jump to the side. The creature was too fast and barreled into Aelhar, sending them both tumbling. It landed on top. "Get off me!" yelled Aelhar, struggling against the weight of the creature that pinned him down. The lycan pulled away slightly, giving Aelhar an opportunity to rise.
He poised for another attack, but instead of attacking, the lycan backed away, disappearing back into the woods, leaving Aelhar alone once more. Aelhar frowned and shook his head. He stood and searched the area. Hearing nothing, so he continued his search. He found the children's trail in the late afternoon. He followed the tracks carefully. They led through the forest. He could hear the children's voices. The tracks led him to a small clearing and stopped. Aelhar stopped and looked around. The sun was setting. He could still hear the children's voices. He glanced at the sky. It would be dark soon. Aelhar gripped his sword tighter. He scanned the ground for any signs of the children. He heard a scream. The children were lying on the ground. Aelhar's heart sank when he noticed the children had bruises and scratches, but they were alive. He was about to call out to the them when he felt a presence. Aelhar grabbed his sword and spun around.
Something in the trees, watching him. Reaching into his pocket, he gripped the necklace he had found at the Wynn Farm. He rose to his feet. "Come out!"
A low rumble shook the ground vibrating his body. Out stepped a magnificent beast from legend and lore. Aelhar wavered. The head of a great eagle, and the body of a lion with steely, blue eyes, strangely human, bore into his soul. Aelhar trembled but held his ground.
"We finally meet, Aelhar." The creature spoke. Aelhar swallowed hard.
"Who are you," he said struggling to breathe.
"I am you, or who you should be."
The ground moved and his stomach lurched. "What do you want from me?"
"I am Adelphalanyx. You are of my blood."
Aelhar hit his knees. "You are a myth! You don't exist!"
The creature roared and ran at him.
Drifting in and out of consciousness and the sensation of tiny, stinging slaps, Aelhar opened his eyes. A little, blonde girl stared down at him with her bright green eyes. She smiled. "You are finally awake."
Aelhar sat up and a little boy was beside him with a water cupped in a leaf.
The boy gave him a wide grin, his green eyes sparkled as he handed Aelhar the water. Taking the cup from the tiny hands and drank. The boy jumped and clapped his hands with glee. Aelhar chuckled and scuffed the boy's hair, then remembered the creature.
"Did you children see anything?" he said, looking around.
The youngest girl peeked around her sister. "I saw you fall down," she said.
Aelhar sighed and chuckled to himself. Must have been a hallucination.
He jumped up and whirled with a dagger in his hand.
Vordecai threw up his hands. "Whoa, boy. I see you found the children." Aelhar sheathed his dagger and nodded his head. "I say we get them back to Doln Nory."
The little boy and youngest girl held their arms to Aelhar. He scooped them up as they giggled with delight. The oldest took Vordecai's hand and the men and children entered the woods.
Vordecai and Aelhar returned to the village with the children.
Aelhar was exhausted. He needed to rest, but the children needed him.
Aelhar carried the two into the mayor's home followed by Vordecai with the oldest.
The mayor's wife, Marla, with a worried expression on her face, began preparing food for the children.
She eyed Aelhar and asked, "Are you alright?"
Aelhar nodded and placed the children at the table.
Marla looked over at the children. "What happened to them?"
"Some creatures attacked them. But they're safe now."
She smiled and nodded.
"I'll be in my room," said Aelhar.
He went to his room and stretched out on his bed.
His body ached, but he couldn't sleep.
Staring at the ceiling, he thought about the Wynn children. They had survived the attack. Aelhar knew he had done his best to protect them. Their family was dead and now they were orphans.
Sitting up in his bed and pulled on his boots on and swiftly left the house and made his way to the square.
He found the villagers gathered together at the well, talking. He went to the center of the crowd.
"I have news. The Wynn children are alive. I found them in the forest, but they're safe now."
A cheer went up and people clapped.
Vordecai walked up and Aelhar turned to him. "What do we do with them? They're orphans now."
Vordecai frowned. "We'll let the mayor decide what needs to be done. Right now, they are in good hands with Marla."
"I'm going to go get some sleep. I'll see you all later."
"You should eat first, Aelhar."
Aelhar shook his head and smiled. "I'm fine."
Aelhar left the crowd and headed to the mayor's home.
Marla was sitting at the kitchen table, cleaning the dishes.
"How are they?" asked Aelhar.
Marla looked up. "They're doing much better. The youngest is sleeping. The other two are playing with toys."
Aelhar smiled. "That's good. You did well. I know you've been worried."
"I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night, Aelhar," said Marla.
Aelhar walked out of the house and made his way to his room.
He stretched out in bed and closed his eyes. He felt a warm breeze blowing through the window.
Aelhar opened his eyes with a start hearing footsteps coming closer to his door.
A figure stood in the doorway. Aelhar gasped.
He threw off his blankets and jumped from his bed.
He grabbed his sword and pointed it at the door. His chest pulsed fiercely and his muscles contracted under the tension.
The door slowly opened, and the figure stepped in.
Aelhar's heart pounded harder.
Aelhar felt his throat dry up.
Aelhar stepped forward, and the figure stepped back.
Aelhar's sword arm wavered.
The figure moved slowly toward Aelhar and then pushed back the hood. Aelhar breathed in sharply. She was the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Her eyes were emerald green, her skin like porcelain, her hair a deep rich auburn that fell in long ringlets. Her red lips were supple.
Aelhar's breath caught in his throat as he watched the woman step into his room. He felt his heartbeat race as he watched the woman's soft, full breasts heaving with each breath.
"You are the man that brought the Wynn children to this village?" she asked.
"Yes," Aelhar said breathlessly.
"I am a relative of the Wynn family, and I claim them. Can you take me to them?"
"I will. I must talk to the mayor first."
The woman looked down and bit her lip.
Aelhar stared at the woman, not knowing how to react.
The woman stood in the doorway, looking into his eyes.
"Can you give me a moment?" he asked.
The woman nodded and walked out of the room.
Aelhar leaned against the wall to steady himself and put on his boots.
The woman came back into the room. She smiled at him.
Aelhar swallowed hard and cleared his throat. "Come with me," he said.
Aelhar led the woman to the mayor's home.
Aelhar knocked on the door, and Marla opened it.
Marla's eyes widened as she saw the woman. "Who is this, Aelhar?"
Before Aelhar could speak, the woman stepped forward. "My name is Feyona and I am a relative of the Wynn family. I have come from the town of Glastonbury to claim them."
"Certainly, but first you must meet with my husband, Levi, the mayor," said Marla, letting Feyona and Aelhar in the door.
Marla led Feyona to the parlor. "Wait here and I will tell the mayor you are here."
Marla hurried to the parlor and returned a few minutes later.
"He'll be out shortly. Please, have a seat."
Aelhar and Feyona sat on the settee.
Aelhar stared at Feyona.
Feyona was gazing at him.
Aelhar looked away. He heard footsteps and turned to see the mayor walk into the parlor, followed by Jax and Vordecai.
Levi smiled and held his hand out to Aelhar.
"I trust everything is well with the children?" said Levi.
Aelhar stood and took the mayor's hand. "Yes, the children are safe. They are in the care of Marla. She's taking wonderful care of them."
"Thank you, Aelhar. I appreciate your work on this," said the mayor.
"Of course," said Aelhar.
"Please, make yourself comfortable."
Aelhar and Feyona sat on the couch across from the mayor while Jax and Vordecai seated themselves in chairs nearby.
Levi looked at Feyona and smiled. "And who is this lovely young lady?"
"I am Feyona of Glastonbury. I am a relative of the Wynn family. When I heard what had happened to my relatives near Doln Nory and your rangers rescued three Wynn children. I came as swiftly as I could to claim them," said Feyona.
"So, Feyona, you're a relative of the Wynn family?" began Levi.
"Yes, sir. I was married to a distant cousin."
"I see. So, you are seeking to claim these children, yes?"
"I will have to consult with the other town leaders to settle your claim. Our position to make sure the children will be safe and cared for. However, I don't think it will be a problem."
"Of course," said Feyona.
"There is also the matter of the lycan attack."
Feyona's face went pale.
"Yes, well, the children were attacked by a lycan and I believe they were lucky to survive the attack."
"Yes, sir. That was my assessment as well."
"All right, Feyona, I will speak with the counsel in the morning and will let you know of our decision," said Levi.
"Thank you, mayor," said Feyona.
"Marla will show you to our guest room where you can stay the night and get rested," said Levi.
"Thank you," said Feyona.
"I'm sorry, but I need to return to the square. We have many things to discuss."
Aelhar stood and shook the mayor's hand. "Thank you for the hospitality. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night, Aelhar."
Marla, Aelhar, and Feyona walked out of the house and toward the guest house.
Aelhar opened the door to the guest house. "You can use the bedroom in the back. I'll be sleeping on the floor."
"Thank you, Aelhar."
Marla smiled and winked at Aelhar. "I think you have things under control here. I'll take my leave," Marla said.
Aelhar watched her leave the room and close the door. He leaned against the door and sighed.
"What happened to the children?" asked Feyona.
"They were attacked by a lycan. I found them in the forest. I killed the lycan."
"What happened to their parents?" asked Feyona.
"I think a dragon creature killed them. It's all so confusing."
Feyona stifled a gasp.
"Feyona? Are you all right?" asked Aelhar.
"Yes, I'm fine. It's just that the dragon creature you spoke of, that would be a wyvern, wouldn't it?"
"It could. Why?"
"I've heard stories about the wyvern. They are a vicious creature. I'm surprised it left the children alive."
"Yes, it was quite unexpected."
"What do you think the town will do with the children?"
"I hope they will release them to you. I will help you in any way I can," said Aelhar.
"Thank you, Aelhar," Feyona said as she moved to closer to him. Her scent, cinnamon, and wild flowers sent his mind reeling. "You're a good man. Thank you."
"I did nothing. You're welcome. You should get some sleep."
"Yes, I should. Good night, Aelhar," said Feyona.
Aelhar watched her go up the stairs.
Aelhar closed the door and walked over to the table. He sat down. His heart pounded as he remembered the feel of her presence next to him.
The sun was rising when Aelhar walked into the parlor.
"Good morning, Aelhar," said Levi.
"Good morning, Levi. I trust you slept well?"
"Yes, I did. Marla and Feyona left a little after midnight. The council is ready to hear the Wynn relative's claim to the children."
"That's great news."
"Yes, it is. I'm sure they will want to release the children to Feyona."
"I hope so."
"I'm going to the market. Will you come with me?"
"Yes, of course."
The two men walked to the market.
As they entered the market, a crowd gathered around them.
Aelhar looked around. "What's going on?"
"We haven't seen you in town for a while, Aelhar," said a woman. "Where have you been?"
"I was away for a while. I came back with the Wynn children," said Aelhar.
"That's wonderful! Have you seen them?"
"Yes, I have."
"Yes. I have. They are in the care of Marla. They are in good health and are doing well. I think they will be released to their relative, Feyona."
"I hope so!"
"Yes, I hope so too."
Aelhar and Levi moved through the crowd. They stopped at a stall and bought bread and a jug of water.
Aelhar and Levi continued down the market until they reached a large stone building.
"The council chamber is inside," said Levi.
Aelhar looked at the building.
"I have an errand to run, I will meet you inside," said Levi.
Aelhar nodded and walked into the council chamber.
Aelhar stood before the council and waited. Marla and Feyona sat before the council, waiting for the hearing to start.
The mayor stepped forward. "Aelhar, thank you for coming."
"Yes, sir. Is everything all right?"
"Yes, everything is fine. Please, sit down," said the mayor.
Aelhar sat down in the chair in front of the mayor's desk.
"The council is ready to hear the Feyona's claim to the children," said the mayor.
"Yes, I thought so," said Aelhar.
"Well, if there are no objections, we can proceed," said the mayor.
"I have no objections," said Feyona.
"I have no objections," said Marla.
"So, without objection, I will hear the claim of Feyona of Glastonbury," said the mayor. "Do you agree to be bound by the laws of the town of Doln Nory?"
"I do," said Feyona.
"Very well. Please, state your claim."
Feyona stood and began speaking. "My name is Feyona of Glastonbury. I am a distant relative of the Wynn family. I came here to claim the Wynn children, and I believe my claim to the children is valid, as I am the only relative they have left."
"Thank you, Feyona. Aelhar, do you have anything to say on behalf of the Wynn family?"
"No, I don't. I have no reason to not believe that Feyona's claim is genuine. Why else would she have left the safety of her home to claim the children of a distant relative?"
"Thank you, Aelhar. Does anyone else wish to speak about this matter?"
"I do," said one of the council members. "Feyona, what is your relationship to the children?"
"I was married to a distant cousin of the Wynn family," replied Feyona.
"Why did you leave the safety of Glastonbury to come here?"
"I felt it was my duty to take these children into my guardianship because we have no other family. It's what my husband would have done if he were alive."
"Is there anything else?" asked the mayor.
"No, I don't believe so."
"I will notify the town of Doln Nory that their relative, Feyona of Glastonbury, has claimed the children."
"Thank you, mayor," said Feyona.
"Thank you, Feyona. I'm sure you'll be glad to get your hands on these children. I think they are in very capable hands with Marla."
"Thank you, mayor," said Feyona.
"I'm happy to help, Feyona. I know how much you love the children."
"Yes, I do. Thank you."
"Now, you must excuse us. We have many things to discuss."
"Of course, mayor. Thank you for your time."
Aelhar stood and shook the mayor's hand. "I'm glad to see that the children are going to Feyona."
"Yes, and I'm sure you're glad to see them well cared for."
Aelhar nodded and left the council chamber with Levi.
Aelhar walked outside with Feyona.
"So, Feyona, you're going to take the children back to Glastonbury?"
"Yes, I'm going to take them back to my home. They need a place to call home. I can't imagine how worried they must be."
"Yes. With your permission, I would like to escort you and the children to Glastonbury to ensure your safety," said Aelhar.
"Yes, of course, Aelhar. Thank you."
Aelhar walked with Feyona and the children through the streets.
Aelhar watched the children.
They were excited to be returning to Glastonbury.
They ran ahead of Feyona.
Aelhar watched the children as they ran through the streets.
Aelhar's heart swelled as he watched them.
Smiling he watched as the children ran to the edge of the cliff.
The children stopped and stared at the great lake.
Aelhar walked over to them.
The children looked up at him.
"What are you looking at?" asked Feyona.
"Nothing," said the children.
"Are you ready?" asked Feyona.
Aelhar stood on the edge of the cliff and watched the children jump into the water.
"They look happy," said Feyona.
"Yes, they do."
"Are you going to join them?"
"No, I'm going to stay here and watch the waves."
"I can understand that. You love it here?"
"I still love it," said Aelhar.
"It's time to go!" she called out to the children.
Feyona took the children the guest house to get ready to leave. Aelhar waiting for them and walked them to the mayor's house.
"Marla, thank you for taking care of the children. I will leave for Glastonbury shortly. I would like to take the children with me."
"Of course, Feyona. I'll make sure they're ready to go. I hope they're safe in your care."
"I hope so too."
Feyona left the inn with the children and Aelhar.
The next morning, Aelhar heard Feyona walking through the house and opened his eyes.
She walked to the window and looked outside.
The children were running through the streets.
Feyona smiled as she watched them.
Aelhar sat up and watched the children play.
"Are they playing outside?" he asked.
"Yes, they seem to enjoy running around."
"They are wonderful children."
"Yes, they are."
"Do you have any children?"
"No, I don't."
"I never married."
"You never married? Why not?"
"It was a long time ago. I was young, and I was in love. I thought I would get married, but I didn't. She died before our wedding day."
"I'm sorry, Aelhar. That's terrible."
"It was a long time ago. I've gotten over it and I don't know if I would have wanted to marry, anyway. The people of Doln Nory are my family."
"Well, I'm glad you found happiness. What about your parents? Do they live nearby?"
"They died when I was little. I barely remember them," said Aelhar. "My Uncle Vordecai raised me."
"Is getting married something you would consider?" asked Feyona.
"I don't know. I haven't thought about it. I guess I just don't think of myself as being a husband and father."
"You should because you are good with children. Those three outside adore you," said Feyona.
Aelhar smiled. "I need to get back to Doln Nory. I can't neglect my duties as a ranger. I'll come to Glastonbury every chance I get to visit you and the children. Please explain this to the children. I don't like saying goodbye."
"I will," said Feyona.
"I'll see you soon."
Aelhar walked to the door and left.
Feyona sighed as he left. "We will meet again, ranger. But it won't be in the way you think." Feyona's skin changed to a creamy, smooth green and her ears elongated into points. Three small dryads entered the house and looked up at her expectantly.
"The time is growing short. We will need to cross the great divide to perform the ritual and we will need the ranger."
The three little forest beings nodded in accord. Pulling out a pouch from a pocket in her dress, she poured its content into her hand. A large seed with a sprout, the lifeforce of her home world. Feyona looked out the window, the Maelstrom was the last place she wanted to go but the seed reminded her that she had no choice.
The next morning, Aelhar was in the woods. He heard a rustling in the trees and turned to look.
Three small figures darted across the forest floor. Aelhar stood still and watched the children. The children ran up a hillside, reached the top and looked down and then screamed and jumped into the pond. Aelhar smiled as he watched them. He knew he couldn't follow them although would miss their screams of joy.
Aelhar turned to go into the woods when he noticed Feyona standing beside him. Her eyes were closed, and she took deep breaths. She opened her eyes and looked around. When her gaze landed on Aelhar, she grinned and held out her hand for Aelhar to take. He did so without hesitation.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"There is something you must know. I need your help."
"What is it? Are you alright?" asked Aelhar.
"Yes. But...," Feyona bit her lower lip.
"But, what, Feyona?"
"Would you love me no matter who or what I am?"
Aelhar frowned and cocked his head. "Why are you asking this?"
"I want to know if I can ask you this," said Feyona.
"Do you have feelings for me?" she asked.
Aelhar could hear the fear in her voice. It scared him a little but also excited him at the same time. He thought about how beautiful she was. Her face seemed flawless, but she had the beauty of the forest wrapped within her like a cloak. She had power, grace, confidence, courage and determination and that was just one facet of who she was. His heart swelled as he realized that he loved every part of her and that included all of those things as well as the way that she smelled. He stepped towards her and kissed her forehead.
Feyona smiled and pressed her cheek against Aelhar's.
"You're the only woman I've ever known or wanted to know. The only one I will ever know," said Aelhar.
"Then this is what I need to show you and you will have to decide if it changes your feelings."
Before he could speak her skin shimmered into a beautiful green and her ears elongated into a point before his eyes. "You see Aelhar, I am a Fae, and the children are dryads. We need you."
She pointed behind him, he turned and saw three small tree-like figures with green human faces and wide, green eyes looking up at him.
Aelhar nodded. "I think I understand."
"I need you to come with us," she said.
"I will come with you, Feyona. But I need to know what this is all about."
"Help us get back to our home world. I'm going to be honest; it will be dangerous and inhospitable along the way."
"I will help you. But you must promise me that you will help me in return."
Feyona looked down and said, "I promise."
Aelhar stayed with Feyona and the dryads for the night, while she explained what they would undertake on the journey to the new Fae home world. Aelhar finally realized everything that he thought was myth and legend actually existed. What else was waiting for him out there.
"I don't understand," said Marla. "Why won't he just take them home with him? He loves the children, and he cares for them, but he doesn't want to be their father."
"I don't think I'd like being a father to someone else's children. I don't think I could give them the love I have for them."
"I'm sure he has no idea how much the children love him. He seems to have a special connection with them."
"Marla, you think too much, and your heart is good and kind. But, Aelhar has to choose his own path in life," said Levi.
"I know. I'll stop worrying about it. I'm sure he will find what he needs."
"I hope so. I can't stand to see you worry," said Levi.
"I'm sure I'll be fine."
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