Taral looked at the food they had handed him. It smelled like dry earth. It looked like a lump of pale wood, and was almost as hard. He wasn’t sure if it really was food. He gingerly tore off a piece, staring at it for a moment before plopping it in his mouth.
It was stale and sweet and dry. But at least it was edible.
He was sitting in a makeshift shelter, if it could be called even that. It was little more than a blanket stretched between what the villagers called ‘wagons’ and some spears serving as improvised poles. The rain drumming on it was soothing, at least.
Not quite the same as home, but it was far better than anything else since they left the forest behind. Except for the man hunters at the bottom of the hill. Something about them didn’t feel right – what predator keeps fighting after being wounded instead of seeking easier prey? It seemed desperate.
Like a starving hunter.
Taral took another bite and watched as some of the villagers gathered around one of their wooden bags. He’d watched them do the same last night, playing some strange game of chance involving carved bones and small cloth bags that were eager to burn…
He eyed the blanket. Looked like the same material…
“Hey, Tar-lagh!” Elau ducked under the blanket and peered around. “Have you seen Lyara anywhere?”
He looked up mid-bite, staring silently at the huntress. It had been awfully peaceful today.
“No,” he said at length, taking the bread out of his mouth. “Not since before she went to stalk our predators.”
“Oh…” She frowned, looking over at the villagers and their game. “I was hoping she’d help me talk to the child’s mother… Tudy?”
“Trudi,” Taral muttered. Something was going on outside the circle wagons.
“That’s the one.” Elau looked over at him with a smirk. “You must be worried, to care if I get one of their names wrong.”
“Huh?” He glanced at her, then watched as Marcus gruffly interrupted the game. “No, she’ll be fine. But something’s going on with the elder.”
Taral tossed the remaining bread to Elau as he rose to go find Nar-lagh, then paused when he spotted the scarred man making his way over. The lean warrior had a wolfish smile on his lips and a spring in his step as he stopped outside the shelter, waving for Taral to come with him.
“Get back here, ya weasel!”
Lyara dove between the gray orc’s legs before bounding away on all four between the packed tents.
“There’s a weasel? Where?”
Rain slick grass proved better footing for the nimble fey than the oafs chasing her – sending one of them headfirst into a refuse pit.
“Over there! Chasing the rat!”
She glanced around as she scurried. Crates tossed into piles. Gear hastily shoved inside tents to protect from the light rain. Horses scraping at the ground. Thugs huddling around the fires – eyes darting between hill and horizon. The whole camp was on edge.
“That’s a squirrel!”
She bolted to the side, then doubled back around the tents. Somewhere here she’d spotted a campfire with no one around. Ducking between some crates, she discovered it wasn’t.
“Oi! D’ya see it?”
Any magic-user who knows illusions knows it’s harder to make them right in front of people than where no one can see them. People have an easier time accepting there’s a troll waiting for them when they round the corner than the troll appearing out of thin air.
“I think I saw it hide in them boxes.”
Lyara needed an explanation for the fire dying down. Something like a sudden increase in the rain. She didn’t have time for anything better. The sudden downpour had the two ducking into tents and the flames dying down to embers.
The gap-toothed woman who first caught Lyara threw aside the crate with a hungry smile. Lyara let out a squeak and moved to bite the woman’s hand.
The woman yelped and staggered back, crashing into one of the men from the fire.
“Watch where yer goin’!”
He shoved her away right into another brute. Lyara ran into a tent.
“It went under there!”
She emerged from under the back fabric to find the small bigling standing on a crate right next to her, trying to look past the tent at the commotion on the other side.
“What’s going on?”
Lyara reached into the ground with her magic. The soil shifted and the crate toppled – sending the old child crashing into the tent. She paused only a few moments to watch the tangled mess before bounding off again.
Her cheeks hurt from grinning as she paused under a table – well, more of a broken box upended to serve as a table – to catch her breath. She hadn’t had this much fun in ages.
“Anyone see it?”
Lyara peeked out between the boards. There was a whole pack of them now. Poking around among crates and under blankets.
“I think it slipped into Reggie’s tent. Look!”
Her nearly magic spent, Lyara’s glamer broke when the orc lifted the limb sticking out from inside the tent. He scrunched face, turning away and covering his nose as he dropped the leg.
“Nah, that’s just Reggie’s foot.”
Lyara giggled. The brutes laughed. Behind them a flame leapt from the invisible fire onto the discarded tent. The flame paused, savouring this new meal, then – for reasons Lyara didn’t know related to flammable weatherproofing of tent canvas – spread across the tent in a heartbeat.
The man hunters stopped laughing. A few brave embers launched themselves onto crates, only to find the wood far too damp. The flames grew taller, leaping for other tents.
All around the camp everyone started yelling about the fire.
It was like watching a colony of ants after a troll stepped on it. Everyone rushing left and right. Some trying to get things away from the fire, others trying to put it out. And a few just panicking with no idea what to do.
She barely ducked under the grasping hand, quickly darting out the closest hole. Back on the run again. If only they thought her a bird – then she could fly around. Too late to fix that, though, or one of the fools might get suspicious enough to see through the ruse.
And any pack of greedy folks who’ll go through this trouble for some food are likely to be even more trouble if they think they can catch a faery – biglings have such strange stories of faery mag- She collided with something large and furry.
Like a fluffy bunny mid-charge. Except this bunny was more boot-shaped. And attached to a crone who was sneering down at her. The wrinkly woman was dressed in ragged furs and covered with dangling charms. Her cloudy eyes glittered as she squinted at her captive, complementing the covetous grin on her lips.
Lyara felt the breath knocked out of her again as a rod slammed down on her chest. The shaft’s thin black bark was peeling, with the raw wood underneath peeking through several holes along its length.
The man holding the formerly-fancy cane looked no better himself. His clothes looked like something from a Fair One’s Court, except they were worn and tattered and dirty. His skin was dark, darker even than the biglings of the north. He was bigger, too – taller and bulkier.
His face was completely blank, his eyes staring vacantly into the distance.
“Ou augh a piche.” The crone’s eyes gleamed as she leaned down to grab Lyara.
“You have caught a pixie,” the man stated. His voice was flat, almost lifeless.
“Can I see?”
“We’re picking what?”
“Oi! I caught it first! I gets the prize! Boss’s rules!”
“I said enough!”
“Wait, where’d the critter go?”
“Quit yammering and help with the bloody fire!”
Lyara squeaked and did her best to act like a distressed squirrel. Granted, she had never been very good at mimicry by faery standards – which still made her pretty decent by most people’s. While probably enough to fool most people, the hag merely peered at her with a milky eye.
“Ou on’g foo’ me, pi’ifu’ piche.” She tugged on Lyara’s wings for emphasis.
“You do not fool me, pitiful pixie,” the man translated.
“Ow!” Lyara stared hard at the crone. “Let me go, you big bully!”
“Beggah.” The woman handed Lyara over to the man and began emptying out one of her bags. “Ou ah going o be ve’y u’fu fo’ my machig.”
“You don’t have a tongue!” Lyara stared, mouth agape. She’d thought the woman to be speaking some strange language. She’d never imagined someone could not have their tongue – voice, sure; eyes were easy enough to lose; even the occasional trade for a finger. But tongue – what was even the point?
“deGaere,” the man echoed. “You are going to be most useful for my magic.”
Lyara stared at him with narrowed eyes. Fair Folk know a thing or two about putting someone under a spell, and Lyara was particularly adept at putting people to sleep. This sleeptalking drone was definitely not fully awake.
“Hey, big guy!” Lyara wiggled a leg loose and kicked him. Pain usually broke this type of charm, but if he even felt it he sure did a great job of hiding it. Either the hag was a better magic-user than Lyara had thought, or this man didn’t have much will to begin with. “‘Come on! Wake up and let me-”
The rumbling of thunder approached, accompanied by loud screams.
Lyara scowled at the direction of the noise that had rudely interrupted her. Now what? She craned her neck but, as tall as the man was, everything around her was still hidden by tents. Also smoke.
A wagon crashed through a pile of refuse, leaving behind a few of the burning tents it had been dragging before disappearing deeper into the camp.
The three of them stared after it for a few quiet moments.
Then the cacophony of melee broke their silence. Along the path of flattened tents and broken crates the refugees were rushing in, sending man hunters running – some for the hills, but many for whatever arms and armor they could get hold of.
“Bah!” The crone looked around at the hornet’s nest that the camp had become. She grabbed something from the pile she had just dumped on the ground then roughly shook some dust off Lyara’s wings over it.
“A faery trod? Have fun getting lost!” Lyara giggled – no way they’d be able to keep hold of her back home.
The hag merely smirked at her before turning to the chaos. She tossed the mixture into the air, shaping it into a cloud of deep purple fog and glittering with iridescent motes.
Lyara turned and tilted her head, trying to get a good look at it. She’d seen a lot of magic using faery dust in her life, but this was a first.
“Leafspear!” The voice was Gary’s, coming from somewhere behind the tents. “Mage!”
The crone intoned some mystical sounds, and the cloud grew.
She gargled the final call for magic.
The cloud hung still but for its roiling and sparkling.
The crone slumped to the ground, obviously exhausted from conjuring this magic.
“Well,” Lyara stared at it, “what’s it do?”