Miyana had been busy for the past two days so I had had no chance to ask her about learning how to wield a sword. I had finally asked a servant to see when she would be free. The servant hurried away to ask around. I stayed in Miyana’s sitting room, staring into the fire and waiting for news. The servant came in after a good half hour and told me that Miyana would be available in about an hour. I thanked her and she smiled at me.
“Miyana has taken a liking to you. Until she gets here, she asked if you would spend some time with her daughters.”
I sighed internally, but on the outside I smiled. “I would be delighted. Are they in their sitting room?”
“Yes ma’am. I believe they are washing their hair,” the Faun said with a knowing smile.
“I believe Zaharra is expecting company tonight. A young Satyr is to be our guest at dinner and afterwards we are to be entertained with music and dancing.”
“Oh?” I asked curiously.
“Yes. I have heard he questioned Queen Miyana on the bride price.”
“Bride price?” I asked. “Is that practiced in all of the races?”
“I am sorry, ma’am, but I do not know that. Queen Miyana might, but I have no idea.”
I shrugged. “Okay then. I better get going to their rooms then.”
“Yes ma’am. Try to enjoy your time with them?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.
I laughed. “I’ll try,” I promised.
I was still chuckling at the Faun’s perceptiveness when I knocked on the door to the girl’s sitting room. There was a scramble of movement and the door was cracked open, one brown eye peeking out. When Laetitia saw it was me she pulled me in swiftly and closed the door. She smiled at me and hurried back over to her sister.
“Hello, Filynora,” the black-haired Faun said. “Have you come to get all prettied up?”
“Um, your mother said I should come spend time with you.”
Zaharra laughed from the bathing room and came out wringing water out of her hair. She wore only a single strip of cloth across her chest, which barely covered everything. As if she was reading my mind, Laetitia smiled.
“Oh she is not wearing that,” she laughed. “She is wearing something much fancier. She was just finishing washing her hair. Now it is your turn.”
“What about you?” I asked quickly then noticed her hair was damp. I sighed in resignation. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”
They dragged me into the bathing room and laid me on a table that let my hair dangle down into the tub. They poured warm water over my hair then rubbed soap in my hair until it bubbled up then rinsed it. They told me to let the water drain out for a minute or two then to wring out the rest and come back into the sitting room. I lay there, not really understanding the whole point of it, for about five minutes then sat up and wrung the excess water out.
I walked out to see Laetitia rubbing oils into her sister’s white gold hair. She turned her head to look at me and smiled without stopping what she was doing.
“Good. Help me do this.”
We took turns sitting and getting our hair done and then we helped Zaharra into a special top, this one with sleeves and red designs woven into the fabric. It bared her stomach, but covered what needed to be covered. Laetitia put on a less decorated version of her sister’s top then they both looked at me. I smiled.
“I don’t have any clothing like that.”
“No,” Zaharra said mischievously. “But you do have something else.”
My eyes widened as she and Laetitia went and brought out a new, red with silver swirls sewn into it…
“A dress?” I asked weakly.
“Mother said that Human females usually wear this, but that you are different,” Zaharra said with a grin. “But you will wear this tonight because I want you to wear it and it is my party!”
I groaned. She did have a point. I could just decline to go to the party, but that would hurt her feelings. I stared at the dress for a while then nodded resignedly.
“I will wear the stupid dress,” I sighed. “For you.”
They both squealed in excitement and had me change in the bathing room so that they could be surprised. I had just finished changing when I heard a knock on the sitting room door. I listened in and it was Miyana checking on her girls. They chatted excitedly about their getting ready and then told her about me. I groaned and put my head in my hands. The dress went slightly past my knees and I knew that every single Satyr would be staring at my legs. I could not blame them, but I did not relish the thought of being stared at. It was bad enough that I had to wear the stupid dress. There was a knock on the door. It was Miyana.
“Filynora? Are you ready, dear? I’d like to see you.”
I took a deep breath then stepped out. Just as I knew they would, their eyes dashed down to look at my legs. They stared for a minute before they took in the entire look for me. All three of them lit up.
“Oh you look amazing!”
“I can see why Human females wear them. They really bring out your shape!”
“Why would you not wear this all the time?”
They stopped talking eventually and Miyana moved and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“You really do look beautiful, Filynora,” she said with a smile.
I snorted. “Yeah, sure,” I muttered. “Are we done?”
Their smiles faded and Miyana looked hard at me. I stared back, confused. They finally moved and Miyana looked back at her girls.
“Well, Wyeth is here. That is what I came to tell you. The feast will start when we arrive. Let’s go, yes?”
I followed Miyana to the big dining hall and was surprised to see my friends already there. They hadn’t noticed me yet as they were talking with each other. They stood out in the crowd, especially Gabrithon. The Satyrs were milling about, waiting for Zaharra no doubt as she was the other guest of honor. I hurried through the crowd as inconspicuously as possible, but I could feel the Satyrs staring at my legs.
Gabrithon noticed me first. As soon as he saw me, his eyes widened and his jaw dropped open. I was confused when the others did the same. I stopped a few feet from them and felt my cheeks heat up as I became very self-conscious. Why were they staring at me? Elthinor finally walked over to me and gave me a smile that I had never seen before. It was surprise and amazement with a touch of mystery all wrapped into one.
“Wow,” he said with a soft laugh.
“What?” I demanded. “Why are you all staring at me?”
“Have you seen yourself?” Valtrak asked pointedly.
“No,” I replied. “Why?”
Elthinor looked around then pulled me over to the side, Gabrithon, Nolan, and Valtrak following. He stopped in front of a mirror—there had only been one in Paxtonvale and it was nowhere near as big as this one. My Elven friend placed his hands on my shoulders and pushed me forward and I found myself staring at a beautiful girl that looked nothing like me. Her golden-brown hair was sleek and shiny and hung past her shoulders. The red of the dress she wore made her skin look pale and lovely, desirable by Human standards.
“Is that…me?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes,” Elthinor said, a smile on his face. “You look quite nice.”
Before I could really process everything, the crowd suddenly moved towards the tables and Elthinor pulled me away from the mirror and we followed the crowd, sitting down in our places. A young brown haired Satyr sat across from Zaharra in between, I assumed, his parents, who were looking very happy. I stared at Miyana’s husband, Jestyn, at the head of the table. He was where Zaharra had gotten her white gold hair and where both of the girls had gotten the white bands at their hips. He was very distrustful of Elves and was glaring at Elthinor and to a lesser extent me. He stood with Miyana by his side and everybody fell silent.
“We are here today to assess whether Wyeth will make a proper husband for my eldest daughter,” Jestyn announced. “I have spoken with his parents and then Wyeth, questioning his work ethic and conveying what he would be required to do as a prince if he was to marry my daughter.” There was a pause and then he smiled a warm smile at Zaharra. “I have found him a suitable match for Zaharra and the wedding date is set for this spring. Let us drink to them!”
There was a cheer from the assembled Satyrs and I smiled at Zaharra, who beamed back at me before turning to look dreamily at Wyeth. The Satyr was looking at Zaharra with a grand smile on his face, his eyes sparkling with joy. The feast began with a flourish as servants brought out the food and, in spite of the happy atmosphere, I felt a little sad. I had a feeling I would never know the happiness of marriage. Nolan, who was sitting to the left of me, elbowed me.
“Hey, what is it?”
“Nothing,” I said with a false smile.
He raised his eyebrows then smiled. “Sure,” he said, nodding solemnly. “Nothing is making you look sad. That makes sense.”
“You sound like Elthinor,” I said with a snicker.
“Hey, are you going to eat?” Elthinor asked, holding out a piece of fish covered in some kind of red sauce.
I smirked and snatched it out of his hand, stuffing it in my mouth before he could get it back. He tried to glare at me, but failed. He rolled his eyes.
“Get your own food!” he laughed.
I chuckled as I filled my plate and then forgot my sadness as we ate and talked to the Satyrs and Fauns around us. It was nice, I thought, but something had been weighing heavily on my mind: the mission. I felt as if we were achieving nothing just staying with the Satyrs. Even though it was still the middle of winter, I could not stand doing nothing. I talked about it with Elthinor during dessert and he just smiled at me.
“Enjoy the peace, Fily. We will start out when the weather warms up and get to the next scroll,” he told me. “Now relax and enjoy this party! They are to be married! It is a merry occasion!”
I laughed at the pun and decided to do as he said and enjoy the party. Once dinner was finally done, everybody was led into a large, high ceilinged room with doors on all four sides. It was nothing but a wide open space. I wondered what it was for and jumped when music started up. I realized it was a room made for dancing and music. The room magnified the sound of the drums and lyres and all sorts of horns and wind instruments, most of which I had never seen before. Elthinor pointed to and named most of the instruments, so it was obvious that they were old enough to have been around when the races were on good terms.
The king and queen started the dancing with a lively song that they moved to gracefully. Soon other couples and friends joined in. I stayed on the sidelines, clapping along and swaying to the beat of the drums. The Satyrs and Fauns playing the music were evidently experts at what they did because they barely paused between songs. Nolan suddenly offered me his hand.
“Care to dance, milady?” he asked, mimicking the Satyrs.
I laughed and shook my head. “I don’t want to look silly” I said with a smile.
“Nonsense!” Elthinor suddenly exclaimed from behind me and I jumped in surprise. He chuckled at that and grabbed my hand as a fast paced, very energetic song started. “Now, we will dance!”
At first I was dazed by just how fast the song was, but soon the drumbeat lined up with my heartbeat and I got into the rhythm. We swirled together through the Satyrs and soon we had the whole room gathered around us clapping. I laughed breathlessly and Elthinor dipped me, but the laugh died in my throat. A chill filled the room and all the candles and torches went out, leaving the roaring fire on the east side of the room the only light. Elthinor jerked me up and I turned and faced the door opposite the fireplace, reaching instinctively for my knife. It was not in its sheath. The door opened to reveal darkness and several Human-like figures moved into the room.
“Lugat,” I gasped, taking a step back.
“Hello, little Strangeling,” he crooned, walking forward; the crowd seemed to melt away before him.
I swallowed, feeling very defenseless. “What do you want, Lugat?”
He laughed, the sound grating like broken glass. “Come now, Filynora. We both know why I am here, what I want. And look, you got all prettied up for our Masters.”
“You won’t get her!” Elthinor snapped, shoving me behind him.
Elthinor was just as unarmed as I was. I could not let him die in my place. I looked to the side and hesitated for the briefest moment before taking off towards the south door.
“Get her!” Llugat screamed and there was a flash of movement as the Vampires chased me.
“Filynora!” Miyana and Elthinor cried out after me.
I slammed the door behind me and ran through the maze of hallways, the Vampires following behind me. I turned one more corner and found myself in the great dining hall. I dove for the table and grabbed one of the sharpest knives. Footsteps came up right behind me and I spun around, plunging the knife up through the soft part of the underside of the Vampire’s jaw. The knife went up to the hilt and I knew I had hit the brain because his red eyes stopped glowing. I jerked the knife out and stuck it through his heart just to be sure. The other Vampires stood back away from me watching in shock as I killed one of their own. I kicked the dead Vampire away and he burst, a cloud of black smoke erupting from him along with the thick, black blood that I had come to associate with the dark creatures. The blood dissipated just as quickly, leaving dark splotches on the dirt floor. Llugat suddenly seemed to materialize behind the other Vampires. He glared at me, making me shudder, though I kept the knife at the ready.
“Get her. Now!” he roared.
They jumped at his voice then launched themselves towards me. I jumped up onto the table and slashed at the nearest Vampires, slicing one’s face open. He recoiled and skittered backward, but Llugat grabbed him and threw him back towards me. My dress was grabbed and I jerked back and heard a ripping sound as the bottom part of my dress was torn off, leaving it just above my knees. I want to live, but I would also like to preserve my modesty, I thought angrily and lashed out, stabbing the offending Vampire through the chest. He placed a hand over the hole and stumbled back, falling to the ground. The Vampires hurried backwards again, and even Llugat’s angry commands could not get them to move forward again. Llugat glared at me.
“You are becoming a painful thorn in my side,” he spat, glaring venomously at me.
I did not know what to say to that so I just pointed my knife at him. He grinned and began walking forward. He was about in my arm’s reach when hands suddenly grabbed me from behind and I cried out as my arm was twisted, forcing me to drop my only weapon.
“Hush, child,” a hissing voice said in my ear.
“Naga?!” I demanded of Llugat.
“We had no choice,” he said, sounding bitter.
I assumed by his tone that he meant Naga were ranked higher up in their twisted hierarchy than Vampires were. They could walk in the sunlight, I remembered anxiously, so that meant I could not get away from them like I had the Vampires. The Naga holding me pulled me off the table and I wriggled and fought, but his grip was like iron. Fear settled over me and I screamed, hoping that somebody, anybody would help. I was being dragged towards the door when something whizzed past my head. I opened my eyes and cried out in relief when I saw Elthinor and Gabrithon standing with arrows nocked and bowstrings taut. Valtrak stood in front of them armed with an axe and Nolan was behind Elthinor looking frightened.
“Help!” I gasped, staring at them desperately.
“Let her go,” Elthinor said coldly.
“Why should I? She is going to make a wondrous gift for our Masters,” the Naga hissed behind me, and I could sense a cruel smile.
Elthinor narrowed his eyes and loosed an arrow. The Naga pulled me down as he ducked and an idea hit me. I went limp and the Naga’s grip slipped. As soon as I hit the floor I scrambled away. Gabrithon and Elthinor began loosing arrow after arrow at the Vampires and Naga. When I looked back, there were four Naga along with about ten more Vampires. One Vampire fell with an arrow through his head and disappeared in a burst, spreading blood and releasing that black cloud. Some of the blood got on my arm and I shrieked as my skin seemed to catch fire. The pain was so intense that I could barely keep moving, and I felt a scaly hand grab my ankle. I turned and kicked at the hooded face, forcing the Naga to release me.
I was grabbed by strong arms around my shoulders and dragged backwards. I screamed again until a hand moved my chin and I found myself looking into Valtrak’s violet eyes. I wanted to sing with joy when I saw him. Instead I embraced him briefly then stood and backed into the midst of my friends. The Naga stared at us and one reached up with green scaled hands and slowly lowered his hood. I stared at the revealed snake head with horror. It had orange eyes with no pupils that glowed like all the dark creatures’ eyes seemed to. Its fangs were as long as my whole hand, maybe longer, and it had mostly green scaly skin with a white chin and throat. The disgusting image made me swallow convulsively and I wished desperately for a weapon. I could tell that I was not the only one who was repulsed by the Naga’s appearance as a collective shudder ran through my friends.
“I thought it was Llugat’s incompetence that prevented him from catching you,” the Naga hissed angrily; Llugat growled at that. “But it seems as if we underestimated you and your friends.”
A second Naga slid his hood down, revealing a snake head that was, as far as I could tell, identical to the other one. He spoke in a lower voice, but he still dragged out the s in every word.
“Mark my words, Strangeling,” he spat. “You will be taken to our Masters one way or another.”
The Naga began backing towards the door, their full orange eyes looking too much like the Dwarves’ eyes for comfort. I shivered and grabbed onto Elthinor’s tensed arm, seeking reassurance that I was not going to be given to those monsters. When the last Naga exited the room, Elthinor aimed at Llugat.
“I suggest you follow,” the Elf said icily.
Llugat’s red eyes narrowed and he mockingly bowed. “Far be it from me to argue,” he said sweetly and the Vampires rushed out the door, slamming it behind them.
We stayed tense for a couple of minutes then relaxed with a collective sigh. I sank to the floor, my right arm still burning where the blood had splattered on it. I whimpered and stared at the angry red skin. Elthinor grabbed my arm and looked at it with confusion on his face.
“Did you touch a candle or something?” he asked, his fingers skimming around the burn mark.
“No,” I said quietly, still a little shocked by the attack. “I got a Vampire’s blood on me. We should not really be surprised that it burns. Remember what it does to plants?”
“It kills them,” Nolan said in response to Valtrak’s confused look. “And it looks like their blood agrees with skin even less.”
The door to the left of us opened slowly and Jestyn peeked in. When he was satisfied that no threat was present, he opened the door all the way and stepped in the room, glaring at Elthinor. Miyana brushed past her husband and hurried over to us, pushing past the boys to squat down beside me. Her blue eyes held worry and concern as they looked for wounds. She helped me to stand and stroked my hair gently.
“What were those things in the hoods?” Miyana asked, fright in her voice.
“Naga,” Elthinor answered. “They have snake heads and scaly skin.”
Miyana looked a little ill. “I hate snakes,” she muttered. “Why were they here?”
“This is all the Elf’s fault!” Jestyn snapped suddenly. “He drew all those monsters to Stonemere! Didn’t you?!”
“Well, I…Not…Maybe it was…” Elthinor stuttered, looking taken aback and a little scared by Jestyn’s fierce look.
“It wasn’t him,” I said firmly. “At least, not on his own.”
“Oh? Then who was it?” he demanded.
“They were after me.”
“Because of what I am. They are trying to destroy me.”
Jestyn was outraged. “I want you out of this city!”
“Jestyn!” Miyana exclaimed.
“I mean it! They have brought dark things to this city and I will not have it destroyed because of them!”
“They are not going anywhere,” Miyana said sternly. “It is the middle of winter. There is no leeway on this, Jestyn. They are my guests.”
The golden white Satyr did not look happy, but he seemed to think about it for a minute. “Fine. They can stay, but they are your responsibility. If there is another attack, however, they will leave.”
Miyana smiled and moved over to kiss Jestyn’s cheek. “Thank you, dear. But they are not leaving until winter is over. I could not live with myself if they were sent out into the bitter cold.”
Jestyn looked us over. “You have faced these creatures before?”
“Yes sir. Well, except for Valtrak,” Gabrithon answered, sounding important as he looked down at the Dwarf smugly; they still were not on good terms and were always trying to outdo each other. “This was his first battle.”
“We know how to fight Elves,” Jestyn said. “But these dark creatures are new to us. You shall train the Satyrs on how to defeat them.”
My friends looked at each other and back at Jestyn. “If you wish,” Elthinor finally said.
“On one condition,” I cut in.
“Oh? And what condition would that be?” Jestyn asked.
“Your Satyrs know swordplay, yes?”
“Nolan and I do not know how to wield swords. We need to learn. I want somebody to teach us.”
“And we need swords,” Nolan said behind me.
Jestyn looked surprised. “Is that all? Okay then. Granted. I shall have the head of the guard meet you within the week and get you and Nolan ready for training. Once you have proceeded far enough, you will receive a sword specially made for you.”
I smiled. That had been easier than I had expected. I was a little light-headed from the constant burning on my arm and I shook my head and nearly fell. Miyana grabbed me and helped steady my balance.
“I believe that is enough excitement for one day. Jestyn, please send the guests home and make sure our daughters are alright. I shall take care of Filynora.”
“Good idea,” Jestyn sighed, rubbing his temples. “This has been a bizarre day and I look forward to resting.”
“Come on dear. Let’s get you into something more comfortable and take a look at that burn and those scratches,” the queen said with a smile.
“On your arms,” Miyana said gently.
I looked down to see blood on my upper arms. I looked up at Elthinor questioningly. He shouldered his bow as he stared at the wounds.
“It must have happened when that Naga grabbed you,” he said with a shrug. “Now go and get cleaned up. You look unsteady on your feet.”
I did as he asked and followed Miyana out of the room. One question burned inside of my head, but I had no answer: How did they find us?