Not a word was spoken by any of the four companions as they walked back into the streets of Glenfold. The only sounds any of them made, aside from their footfalls on the rock-strewn paths, were the occasional grunts and sighs of Wilkey hauling the heavy pack. Marcus thought at first to take the burden from the halfling, but determined that the sound effects were just that, an attempt to make the effort seem more than it was so someone else would take it off his hands. He smiled in spite of himself, hiding the grin with his hand so Lorelei would not turn suddenly and see him making light of her pain.
They came at last to a massive, but otherwise unremarkable, building of gray stone. The entered through a narrow archway and passed along a torch-lit corridor for sometime, occasionally turning this way and that, before exiting again into the light of day. Behind him, Marcus could hear Heather gasp as she looked out into the space they had just entered. The dome roof above them rose high above the ground, reminding Marcus of indoor stadiums he saw on television, but at various intervals across the wooden structure, large openings allowed them to see patches of gray clouds still clinging to the skies overhead. Along each wall, large holes were cut into the stone, not deep, but far enough back that their far walls were obscured in shadow. Upon the ground, an odd mixture of straw and feathers littered the dirt floor. The whole place smelled to Marcus like the chicken houses some farmers operated in Kentucky near where he grew up, a very distinguishable stench for anyone unfortunate enough to have experienced it.
However, the features of the room were not what caught Heather’s eyes, or Marcus’s who could not recall ever having visited this place as a child.
It was the griffons that demanded their attention.
Swooping in and out of the building through the great open windows at the top of the building, the massive creatures flew above them, barely noticing the four newcomers who had entered their building. Their magnificent eagle heads and torsos blending seamlessly with their feline hindquarters, the beasts exuded a sense of power and cunning that could be seen in every movement of their graceful bodies. Several stood perched around the perimeter of the building on great nests made into the niches that had been prepared in the walls. On the ground level, a lone elf was issuing commands to a particularly large griffon, mottled gray in color, which turned to regard them with cold, fierce eyes.
The elf before them looked older, but not nearly so old as Lanian. His hair was a dull gray matching the clouds that could still be seen through the openings in the ceiling above them, and his face bore many wrinkles. Still, he moved extraordinarily well for one of such an advanced age, Marcus thought, and handled the griffon with absolute confidence. In one hand, he held several dead rabbits that he was apparently using in some training exercise, an exercise that, by the look of exasperation on his face, was not going well.
“Lorelei,” the elf said in a surprised tone. “I wasn’t expecting you for another day or so. I’m afraid this one’s not ready to go with you yet. Still too stubborn.” He motioned to the beast in front of him, which seemed to understand what the elf was saying as it cocked its head sideways and squawked loudly, sounding like a huge eagle.
“I don’t care, Felden” Lorelei answered. “She’s the one I’m taking. She’ll respond to me.” Lorelei strode forward and patted the griffon’s neck. The large avian head leaned into her, nestling against her torso in an affectionate manner and making soft cooing sounds that reminded Marcus forcefully of a pigeon.
Feldem looked up and saw the others standing in the doorway, wary to approach such a fearsome looking beast despite Loralai’s display. He motioned them to come forward, stopped, appearing to think something over, and motioned for them to approach again, but more cautiously. “Slowly, now. They’ve never smelled any of your kind before. I’m fairly sure they’ll be fine, but just in case, don’t rush up to her.” He motioned to the griffon Lorelei was caressing. “Especially not this one. She still has a wild streak.”
Marcus, Heather, and Wilkey all walked forward toward Feldem, constantly looking around them and, particularly, above them as they did. A few of the griffons above them, high in their perches, looked down upon them curiously. One even buffeted its wings, producing a small storm of dust and straw, and scared Heather to the point that she clutched Marcus’s arm for support. As they approached Lorelei, the griffon she was with looked up suddenly, its predatory eyes scanning them over. Marcus could hear it taking in breath through its beak, taking in their scent, while deciding if they were friend or foe.
Feldem moved quickly to their side, offering the remaining rabbits, one to each. “Here,” he told them, “try giving her these. It might work as a peace offering so she won’t be too suspicious of you. Just throw them up and she’ll catch them.”
Heather stepped around Marcus, releasing his arm as absently as she had taken it, and gave her rabbit a weak toss, barely flinging it a few yards before it prepared to strike the hay-strewn floor of the room. Just as it was about to land, though, the griffon darted forward like a cobra striking at a mongoose and snatched the rabbit out of the air. Throwing its head back, it lifted the rabbit up and allowed it to fall down into its throat while its hooked beak chewed it, breaking the rabbit’s bones with sounds like pencils breaking. When the griffon looked down again, the rabbit was completely gone save for a small piece of brown fur still clinging to the tip of its beak.
Wilkey threw his next, nearly smacking the griffon in the face with it before the beak opened again and nearly swallowed the rabbit whole. Then, Marcus took his and swung it around slowly by his side like a lasso. Giving it a mighty fling into the air, he saw the griffon explode from the ground as several others swooped down from mid-flight or their nests to try to claim the prize. The rabbit soared upward and it looked for a moment as if a half dozen griffons would crash into each other in their efforts to catch it.
Instead, a white griffon, slightly smaller than the one Lorelei was taking, dove down nearly on a straight vertical drop, its wings pinned to its sides to increase its velocity, and plucked the rabbit right from the beak of the mottled gray. Still facing the danger of impact with another of its kind, it stayed in the dive until it was about to slam into the hard floor, then opened its wings wide, slowing its descent at the last moment, and swept directly over their heads in a flurry of wind, dust, straw and feathers. It made a large arc around the room, ignoring the squawks of protests from its cohorts, and rose again with three powerful strokes of its wings to perch upon the ledge at the very top of the building.
Marcus watched the white griffon the entire way and turned back to Feldem and Lorelei, smiling. “I’ll take that one,” he told them, pointing up to the white griffon enjoying its snack high above their heads.
Lorelei continued to ignore Marcus, but the older elf beamed at him. “Good choice, that’s one of our best and brightest, as you just saw.”
Heather stepped forward then, pushing Marcus aside. She looked at Feldem and Lorelei, her hands on her hips. “Wait a minute, here. You mean to tell me that we’re going to ride those things? In the air?”
Feldem laughed. “Well, they won’t move very fast walking through the woods, will they?”
“Oh, no,” Heather said, shaking her head. “I’m not getting on one of those. I’ll just walk, thank you very much.”
Lorelei looked at Heather and her expression made Marcus’s blood chill in his veins. “We have to take the griffons. If we don’t, we’ll never make it to the Fell Lands in time to save my people.”
Heather looked at Marcus for support, but saw she would gain none on this matter from him. “Where are these Fell Lands? Where are we going, Marcus?”
Marcus wanted to avoid the question, hoping it would come up after they had already been on their way for some time, too far away to return to Glenfold. Now, however, he saw that he would have to reveal their destination and their reason for going if he was even to convince Heather and Wilkey to join them, for behind Heather, Marcus could see the halfling had gone pale, staring at him with wide eyes.
“We’re going to see the oldest and probably wisest being in these lands. She is the only one who may know why my powers have lessened and how I can get them back.”
“What kind of being are you talking about,” Heather asked.
Marcus hesitated. Here it is, he thought. “Amadyr Onewing is a . . . a dragon.”
Heather blinked several times but said nothing. Finally, her tongue seemed to loosen itself. “We’re going to see a dragon with one wing to find out how you can use your powers?”
“Uh . . . yeah,” Marcus replied.
Feldem, sensing the uncomfortable nature of the conversation, interrupted. “Marcus, can you help me and Lorelei gather the saddles and equipment you’ll need for the journey?”
Marcus readily agreed, thankful that he would not have to answer any more questions right away. He knew Heather had several more, but he knew Wilkey could fill in the blanks so that he would not have to. Smiling weakly at her, he turned and jogged after the two elves to a corridor opposite the one they had used to enter the room.
Heather turned and looked at Wilkey. The halfling stood statue still, pale as cream, staring into nothing. “A dragon with one wing?” she asked.
Wilkey snapped out of his catatonia with a start. “What?” he asked, sounding as if he had just awoken from a dream.
“I asked about the dragon with one wing that we’re going to see,” Heather said.
Wilkey swallowed. “Yes, Amadyr. The Great Wyrm. Oldest of Old. She has had many names over the centuries, but Onewing is a relatively new one. For ages, she terrorized all the peoples of this land, stealing livestock and burning towns at will, with no one to resist her. She even attacked the elves, as formidable as they are, with great success until . . .” he looked up at Heather, “until Marcus came.”
“Marcus defeated her?”
Wilkey nodded, his focus far distant as he recalled the tale. “That’s why they call her Onewing now. She was preying upon the elves because they were hiding their livestock. One day, she flew through the magical barrier, being powerfully magical herself, and unleashed her fury on the city itself. She had threatened to burn the whole city to the ground when Marcus walked out to the common area, next to the fountain where . . .” The halfling shifted his eyes uncomfortably, not wishing to remind Heather of what she had seen with Marcus and Lorelei. “Anyway, Amadyr attacked, breathed fire down on him, but he countered by producing a pillar of water from the fountain that blocked the fire. Then, he pulled out a dagger, the one he still carries, and hurled it at her. Amadyr, thinking she had nothing to fear from so small a weapon, ignored it while she prepared to attack again. The dagger struck her wing, lodged itself inside the joint, and a great flash of light came from it. Amadyr was thrown down among the trees which ripped her wing off as she fell. The elves and Marcus moved her body while she was still unconscious beyond the borders of Glenfold and left her by the river. When they returned the next day, she was gone, but elven scouts managed to follow her as she returned to her cave high in the mountains of the Fell Lands, a horrible, barren place far from here.”
Heather listened intently, then looked into the darkness of the corridor where Marcus had disappeared with the elves. She marveled to think of how much power it took to defeat a dragon, as Wilkey had described it. For the first time since their trip through the cave, she began to realize how terrible losing such power in a time like this would be. She felt sorry for Marcus and guilty for her lack of understanding. Regardless of any vendetta for the death of his friend, Heather felt that simply regaining what he had lost would be more than enough motivation to continue on this quest were she in his shoes.
The two elves and Marcus came back, each bearing a large pile of leather and steel in their arms. When they returned to where Heather and Wilkey were standing, they dropped their loads before them and Heather saw that four complex saddles lay before her. She had owned a horse in her youth and was well acquainted with the tools of the equine trade, but the equipment before her looked foreign, having been adjusted to allow for the differences in anatomy between the two creatures. The saddles were smaller than those used for horses and cut differently to allow the wings their full range of movement. In addition, the straps that held the saddle on seemed to be at odd angles from what she knew, again to compensate for the vast difference in mount.
Feldem smiled at Heather’s perplexed look. “That’s exactly how I looked when we first tried to saddle one a few years ago. These are some I’ve made modifications to so they’ll fit and not hinder their movement. We’ve only been keeping griffons for about ten years, so there’s a lot we still don’t know about them, but we have managed to use a few as mounts on particularly important occasions.”
“I’d say this qualifies as ‘particularly important’,” Wilkey said. The halfling was also eyeing the saddles. His expression said that he would sooner face the dragon alone and on foot than sit in one of the saddles atop a griffon.
Feldem showed Lorelei how to harness the saddle to the mottled gray griffon, Winterdusk, he called her. He bade the others to watch as well, telling them that he expected them to saddle their own when he finished with Lorelei. He would still be available to help, of course, but they would need to know how to do this in the wild with no handler there to help them or else they might be a thousand feet in the air and figure out they had done it wrong as they plummeted to the ground.
When the saddle was securely strapped to Winterdusk, Feldem produced a small, silver whistle from his breast pocket. On it, he blew two long, harsh notes and a short sharp note. Looking up, Marcus saw the white griffon he had picked out step out from its perch and float to the floor beside him. It turned its head to regard him with its eagle eye, then turned its attention to Feldem.
“I don’t think they’ve ever smelled humans,” Feldem said, a bit nervous, “or halflings, but I think that if they were going to attack you, they would have already done so. At least your coming in with Lorelei showed them that you are friendly to the elves.”
Marcus did not take a good deal of comfort from the handler’s statement, but moved forward anyway to attach the saddle the way he had seen it done in their example. The white griffon tensed at first and Marcus wondered if he would have the reflexes to escape if the hooked beak came down on the back of his neck. He doubted it, but found the point moot as the beast relaxed and allowed Marcus to place the saddle on its back.
“What’s this one called?” he asked Feldem.
“Blizzard,” the handler replied. “He’s one of the most cunning of the lot. It took very little to train him and I think some times he was the one training me.”
Next, a dark brown griffon, Aspen, was selected to be Heather’s mount. A female, like Winterdusk, it seemed to enjoy being called to stand next to Blizzard as Heather fought to strap on the saddle, hardly taking her large, dark eyes off him. After much cursing and a few squawks of protest from Aspen, Feldem proclaimed the saddle safe and looked around to find a griffon for Wilkey, who seemed less than eager.
“If it’s all right with you, I’d prefer to just ride with Marcus,” the halfling said.
Feldem would hear none of it, saying that the saddles would only accommodate one rider and that adding another would not only be unsafe, but would also be a hindrance to the griffon. After some moments of deliberation, Feldem drew his whistle again and blew one long note and three short, shrill notes that seemed to echo in the cavernous room. A second later, a feathery bolt leaped from the upper most reaches of the walls and dived straight down, plummeting at a dizzying speed. Just as the griffon was about to splatter into the floor, it unfurled its wings like the sails on a clipper ship, and sped directly toward them. As he drew near, Feldem blew another note on his whistle, a loud wavering call that made the griffon pull up just short and land lightly beside Aspen.
Wilkey looked at his selected mount and could not keep himself from laughing. The griffon was smaller than the others by a substantial amount. To make matters worse, the feathers that covered the front half of its body were yellow, making it easily the most eye-catching creature in the room.
“This is Sunbeam,” Feldem explained. “He’s a little rambunctious, but he’s a loyal steed nonetheless.”
Wilkey did not looked convinced. “You expect me to fly a chicken to the Fell Lands?” he asked.
Sunbeam seemed to take his meaning, even if he could not understand the words. He head-butted the halfling, producing a loud thunk as his feather-covered skull connected with Wilkey’s. The halfling, caught completely by surprise, fell backward in a cloud of feathers and dust. He got immediately to his feet, giving the griffon a look of contempt, but said nothing that might warrant further violence.
Within a half hour, Feldem had all seated the four upon their griffons and instructed them in some basic commands. He said he doubted they would encounter any threats while in the air, but he drilled them briefly on mid-air combat just in case. Using Lorelei as an example, as she had already ridden a few of the griffons over the past few years, he explained how to make the mounts dive, climb, and whirl about with only verbal commands. The reins that they held did not help them steer, Feldem told them, serving only to help them stay seated along with a complicated series of straps and ties that secured them to the saddle.
At last, Lorelei instructed her griffon to land and Marcus took his turn in the air. He found the motion nauseating at first, but as his body adjusted to the rhythmic beating of the great white wings, he found the experience exhilarating. They were still inside the great building that housed the rest of the griffons, but the wind still whipped his hair as he bade his mount to dive and roll, feeling its powerful body flex and contort to perform the necessary avionics. Soon, he felt that he had mastered all the commands Feldem had given them and he landed, giving the griffon and affectionate pat on the neck.
Heather took her turn next and, though it seemed to Marcus that she was quite a natural at guiding the griffon through the necessary commands, he saw her face when she landed to be slightly tinged with green. She looked at him, trying to hide her dizziness and discomfort, and smiled weakly.
Wilkey, on the other hand, had trouble simply trying to mount his griffon. The yellow beast moved away from the halfling every time Wilkey tried to hoist his foot into the stirrup, inspiring a comical one-legged dance as Wilkey followed. Finally, Feldem retrieved his whistle and blew one short note at Sunbeam, who stopped moving altogether and allowed the halfling to finally straddle his back. When airborne, the yellow cared little for the halfling’s commands, preferring instead to perform a series of difficult rolls and turns designed to dislodge Wilkey from his perch. Feldem called again on his whistle after a few minutes, commanding Sunbeam to land. Wilkey did not even have time to pull his foot from the stirrup and swing his leg over the saddle before his lunch came back out the way it had gone in.
Feldem scolded the yellow griffon for some time, then talked to it in low soothing tones that Marcus hoped would settle the beast for their trip. He felt he had quite enough to worry about with the silent conflict between Heather and Lorelei, not to mention their task with Amadyr, and cared little to add an airsick halfling to that list.
Towards mid-afternoon, with their gear distributed and packed upon the griffons, the party prepared to leave Glenfold. Feldem assured them that they could get well beyond the borders by dusk and if any moonlight penetrated through the clouds, they could also travel a good distance by night.
“One word of caution, though,” the handler added. “You won’t be able to take the griffons all the way to Amadyr’s lair. Once they pick up her scent, no one would be able to move them any closer. There are few things that scare a griffon, but a dragon is the top of that list.”
“How close will they get us?” Marcus asked.
“That depends on how soon they pick up her scent,” Feldem said.
After going over the commands one more time, the four companions instructed their mounts to take off, circling the room a few times to gain altitude, and one by one exited the building through one of the large holes in the roof.
Rising quickly above the city, Marcus marveled at the vista that lay before him. The magnificent forest of the elves, always beautiful, lay stretched below him in a patchwork of golds, oranges, and reds. The thick foliage, in its autumnal glory, spread before them as far as the eye could see as they climbed, only broken by the rejoining of the two branches of the Misteld that circled Glenfold many miles in the distance. Though no sun yet appeared through the clouds, the overcast skies appeared lighter and less gloomy than they had previously, and Marcus found his spirit uplifted by the warm wind and the smell of recent rains that filled the air.
Looking around him, he saw the others and imagined by their expressions of awe that their thoughts were similar to his. Only Wilkey seemed to not be sharing their delight, holding the reins and the edge of his saddle with white-knuckled hands and his eyes clenched tightly as though he was trying to compute something very difficult in his brain. Marcus felt sorry for the halfling, but too much so, thinking back to the episode at the pub in Yellow Banks where Marcus had found him passed out drunk.
Maybe the clean air up here will do him some good, Marcus thought, turning his attention back to the incredible view before him.
They closed upon the borders of Glenfold in what felt like only a few minutes. Marcus knew that more time than that had passed by the lower position of the sun, but at their height above the forest, he could not gauge for sure how fast they were going. As they soared over the point where the Misteld fused again into a wide, raging torrent, Marcus could barely hear the roar of the rapids over the whistling wind blowing into his ears. He looked down and could see no movement on the ground, but his instincts told him that they were being watched by eyes on both sides of the border. He thought about requesting the griffons to fly higher to use the blanket of stratus above them for concealment, but looking up could not measure how far the lowest level of the cloud cover would be. Wilkey, drenched in sweat and still clenching his eyes shut, would not follow them any higher, he knew, and Marcus also knew they needed to stay together from now on to have any hope of success.
Lorelei, astride Winterdusk, flew out in front of the others, the elf knowing the land better than the others, especially from above. Her red hair whipped back in the wind, looking like flame in the rays of the setting sun, emerging from a break in the clouds. Marcus tried to imagine what she was thinking as they traveled on, what her emotions were like after his scene with Heather by the fountain. He knew his own emotions were confused and irritating, like the cacophony of many voices in a crowded room. On the one hand, he loved Heather and could not imagine his life without her. On the other, he found Lorelei compelling him in ways that Heather never had and the thought of her body pressed against his while they rolled in the grass still made his skin tingle. He elected to see how things went and hoped they sorted themselves out in a way that would benefit all, although he usually found that such optimism failed him more often than not.
They flew on, the griffons riding the air currents with no sign of weariness, until the sun’s last rays gilded the clouds nearest the horizon. Above them stars appeared through openings in the thinning clouds and the air around them began to chill quickly. Looking to his side, he could see Heather in the failing light trying to fold her arms across herself for warmth while still holding tight to the reins. Wilkey, on his other side, still held on with a vice-like grip, now occasionally opening his eyes to ensure that the others were still around them.
Marcus urged Blizzard to increase his speed until he drew even with Lorelei. “I think we should find a place to land,” he yelled to her over the rushing wind. “The others are getting cold.”
Lorelei turned to him and her expression made him cold. Her vivid green eyes appeared as great, dark orbs in the shadows of her face and the firm set of her mouth told him that she still had not forgotten his words to Heather. Without any warning, she gave the command for Winterdusk to dive, aiming for a small clearing barely discernible in the failing light of day.
The other griffons did not even wait for their riders to instruct them to dive, following after Winterdusk on their own, either knowing the commands were coming or out of a desire not to be separated. In wide circles, they lost altitude until they at last landing in a small grassy area, roughly the size of a baseball diamond. The wood around them, while thinner than those of Glenfold, were dark and forbidding, causing Heather and Wilkey to glance about them nervously as the griffons squawked to each other loudly.
Each rider dismounted. Marcus slid off his saddle and felt his knees buckled beneath his weight. He had never been much of a horseman, preferring to walk even in these lands when he chose not to use his abilities to teleport, and found the weakness of his legs disconcerting. He recalled seeing in some well-made Western movies how the riders would dismount after a long ride and squat down a few times to resume proper circulation to their legs. Marcus did this and found the exercise to be of enormous help, the numbness in his legs replaced with a dull, aching pain, that nevertheless gave him full strength in his muscles.
Heather, he saw, was doing the same, though she had obviously not felt the effects of the ride like Marcus had, being an experienced rider. Wilkey slid off Sunbeam and all the way down to a sitting position upon the grass, leaning against the griffon’s powerful hind leg for support while he gasped for air.
Lorelei swung off her saddle and landed lightly on the ground below, walking toward them as soon as her feet touched the dewy grass. She looked like she suffered no effects from the long ride and Marcus found himself feeling jealous.
The elf stopped in the center of the clearing and looked around for a moment. “I know where we are,” she said simply. “There is an inn where we can stay not far from here. We can leave the griffons here and return for them in the morning.”
A pang of dread rose in Marcus at the thought of leaving the griffons. They would certainly be in no danger with their many physical defenses, claws and beaks, as well as their ability to flee into the sky should the odds overwhelm them, but Marcus could not escape the feeling that parting ways from the griffons would leave them, at best, with no other transportation to the Fell Lands than their own feet. Still, he trusted Loralai’s judgment, despite her obvious negativity toward him at the moment, and retrieved his pack from the side of the saddle.
The others did the same, slinging their packs over their shoulders and wordlessly falling into step behind Lorelei as she walked to the edge of the wood. As they neared the tree line, a path appeared before them, although it still remained practically invisible to the humans and the halfling. Lorelei walked confidently forward, not slowing her stride as she left the patch of grass. As they followed, the others walked in single file and met no resistance from the underbrush the could barely see growing up wild all around them. The elf knew this way well, they saw, and Marcus wondered how many times Lorelei had walked this particular path, or if her enhanced eyesight simply made the clear way more obvious to her.
They walked for some time, no one saying a word in the hushing darkness of the forest. All around them, they could hear birds singing their night songs and crickets providing their rhythmic string music. A deer exploded from the underbrush at one point, startling all of them except Lorelei, who only paused a moment while the others collected themselves before continuing on in silence.
At last they came to another clearing where a sprawling two-story building rose in the darkness. Welcoming slivers of light could be seen in the shuttered windows and faint voices could be heard from within. From a point farther around the clearing, the dark outline of a thin road could be seen like a black ribbon along the ground, barely visible in the starlight.
“What is this place?” Marcus asked. “I don’t recall ever coming here.”
Lorelei turned to look at him, her face impassive. “It wasn’t here the last time you visited these lands. We built it here as a means of alerting Glenfold of any threat from Amadyr. Our scouts that travel to the Fell Lands use it as a place to rest before tackling the mountains.”
“You said it was an inn.”
“And so it is,” Lorelei returned with a note of impatience. “We also take in travelers to these lands as need arises. We find it the best way to keep Amadyr from guessing our true intentions.”
Marcus doubted that if Amadyr knew of the inn, she would have thought it simply an elven business venture. The dragon, despite her physical incapacity, still possessed a powerful mind or else Lanian would not have sent him to her with his problem. He looked up over the dark canopy of trees on the other side of the building and could vaguely see the outline of the Norag Mountains, jutting upward like rotted teeth in the distance. On the other side, the Fell Lands stretched out for an unknown distance under the complete control of the Great Onewing.
They came to the inn and could hear the voices more distinctly now. The building was a simple design, built of logs that reminded Marcus of the homes in a Shaker community he visited as a child in Kentucky. No sign hung outside advertising it as a rest stop for weary travelers and he wondered how anyone knew of its existence in such a remote area. The last time he passed through these lands, the road had been there, but it led only into the mountains where the dwarves dwelled inside their cavernous mines. No one he knew took the road into the mountains, so close to the Fell and the dwarven gate, which was known all around as an inhospitable place littered with cunning traps designed to deter trespassers.
Lorelei put the fingertips of her right hand upon the wood door. Immediately, the voices within stopped talking. Footsteps, advancing quickly, could be heard coming to the door and a female voice came from inside.
“Who is it?”
The voice did not sound fearful, but Marcus detected a wariness in its tone.
“It is Lorelei.”
A slot in the door opened and two slanted elven eyes peered out at them. They scanned each member of the party, having to raise up to the visual limits allowed by the small window to see the diminutive Wilkey. The window snapped shut and for a long time nothing happened. Then, the door opened, spilling warm light upon them.
Lorelei entered first, not looking back to the others. She offered no introduction to the the female elf that stood by the door, nor to the male who sat in a chair in the room just inside the door. Instead, she walked straight through to the back of the building and disappeared into a room, shutting the door softly behind her.
Marcus looked at the two elves that had let them in and smiled. “We thank you for your hospitality. I am Marcus and these are Heather and Wilkey.”
The male elf nodded in greeting, but the female stared down the hallway where Lorelei had disappeared a moment before. She wore a concerned look which vanished as she turned again to regard Marcus. “Yes, we are glad to have you. It gets rather lonely being out here with so few visitors. I am Valista and this is Polan.” She motioned to the male elf, who nodded again, and then gave another quick look down the hall in Loralai’s wake. “I imagine you are all very hungry. We have prepared a meal, though it will be cold soon if you do not eat straight away.”
“Thank you again,” Marcus said. He turned to look at Heather and Wilkey, both of them standing by the door with awkward looks on their faces. Both held their packs in their hands and the halfling was looking around as though trying to decide where to set it down.
“Valista,” Marcus said as the elf turned to lead them to their dinner. “Is there somewhere where we can put our things and freshen up before we eat.”
The elf raised her hands to her mouth and gave a small gasp. “Oh, yes. I’m sorry. Like I said, we’re not used to many visitors. Usually the only ones we get are elves who regularly come here and treat the place as a second home. Please follow me.”
Valista led them up a narrow staircase to another hallway that mirrored the one down which Lorelei had left them. She motioned to the six doors that flanked the hall. “Choose any you like. They’re all the same, more or less, although the last on the right has a wider bed than the others.” She gave Marcus a meaningful look that she smoothly shifted to Heather before returning back down the stairs.
Heather thanked Valista as she passed and stepped by Marcus to enter the first room on the right, shutting the door behind her as Lorelei had done. Wilkey walked down the hall to the room with the larger bed that Valista had mentioned and entered, smiling at Marcus as he did so. Sighing, Marcus took the first room on the left.
The quarters were small, but comfortable. A large rug covered most of the wood plank floor and a bed that Marcus guessed would equate to a twin size in his world stood in the center of the far wall, the sheets already turned down. A desk sat in one corner with an oil lamp atop it, lit and turned down low so that its soft light danced across the room. On a small table near the window, a ceramic jug and basin sat ready, faint wisps of steam floating out the top, and a thick towel lay beside them.
Setting his pack down at the foot of the bed, Marcus stepped to the table and, taking the jug in hand, poured some water in the basin. He noted that as soon as he placed the jug back upon the table, it refilled itself, the warm water rising again to within a few inches of the top. He stared at the magical device, so simple in its purpose, and felt a sudden pang of loss. Such simple magic he could have done in his sleep as a child, but now he was forced to confront a dangerous enemy in the thin hope that he could move the boulder blocking his access to those abilities. Putting his hands in the warm water, feeling the muscles relax from their exertion holding the reins of the griffon, he sighed and closed his eyes.
“Is there really any hope?” he asked himself aloud.
Finding no answer in the otherwise empty room, he washed his hands and face, toweling them dry, and left the room to return downstairs for dinner.
Walking down the steps, Marcus heard steps approaching and saw Lorelei sweep by below him. He saw that she carried a plain wooden bowl in which a small assortment of different foods was neatly arranged, though she passed too quickly for him to see what she was eating. She did not look up the stairs at him, either not hearing him descending or still ignoring him. Marcus assumed the latter knowing the advanced senses the elves possessed as a race. He heard a door open and shut, then proceeded down the stairs.
Lorelei had returned to the room into which she had disappeared earlier. The door was shut and Marcus, seeing no one else, walked quietly down to it. He wanted to talk to her, reason with her, tell her how confused he was. He wanted to talk to her alone, without fear of interruption, even though he knew the temptation to give in to the power of those green eyes may be too much for him to withstand.
He raised his hand and started to knock on the door, but his hand stopped just a few inches short of striking the wood. He heard steps from the hall above and could not tell if they belonged to Wilkey or Heather. In either case, he did not want them seeing him about to knock on Loralai’s door, particularly not Heather, and moved quickly away up the hall, pretending to be exploring the back reaches of the house.
The footsteps came down the stairs quickly and Marcus saw Wilkey appear at the bottom. He turned, caught sight of Marcus, and started to speak before Marcus raised a warning hand, telling him to be quiet. Wilkey stared at him for a moment, not understanding, so Marcus pointed his thumb at the door Lorelei had shut behind her when they entered the inn. The halfling nodded his comprehension and motioned for Marcus to follow him.
“Nice place,” Marcus whispered when he reached the stairway again.
“Nicer than most of the inns I’ve been in,” the halfling agreed. “Although probably not much of a money maker. Not enough rooms.”
Marcus considered this, then remembering that the business side of the inn simply fronted its true purpose of keeping a watch on Amadyr, he elected not to open the topic for discussion.
“What’s with her?” Wilkey whispered, throwing his head back in the direction of Loralai’s door.”
“She thinks she’s in love with me.” Marcus could not hide the note of sadness in his voice, saying that he really did not believe what he had just said. He knew that Lorelei loved him. No woman could get that angry at anyone other than someone she loved.
“And what do you think?” the halfling asked.
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Marcus said. “I just want to speak to Amadyr and get back my powers so I can defeat this Necromancer. I’m going to give up on women.”
“A wise choice, my friend,” Wilkey said, smiling. He clapped his small hand on Marcus’s back and they walked to the dining room adjacent to the room they had first entered inside the inn. They had not been showed the location of the room, but a wonderful smell of cooked meat drifted down the hall and they only had to follow the tempting aroma to find the table.
When they entered the dining room, Valista and Polan were already there, seated at the far end away from the door. Another door on that end led to what Marcus assumed was the kitchen. The table held many plates and bowls full of a delicious range of foods—roasted venison, vegetables, cheeses, and others—and beside each of the three plates sat a goblet filled with an amber liquid. The mingling scents of the different dishes intoxicated Marcus and he saw Wilkey’s nostrils flaring, taking in the same olfactory bliss as he.
“Please sit,” Valista said. “I’m sure you must be starving after your long journey.”
“Yes,” Wilkey answered simply, seating himself at the table.
Marcus studied the three places that had been set for them. “I guess Lorelei won’t be joining us?” he asked, knowing the answer before he did.
Valista smiled, but not before a look of concern passed over her face like the shadow of a cloud. “She said she was not feeling well and needed a little time to herself. She told me to ask your pardons.”
Taking the seat at the head of the table opposite Polan, he looked over and saw Wilkey already piling food upon his plate, lustily gazing at the dishes while he made his selections.
“This is a very nice place,” Marcus repeated, this time to their hosts. “It’s a shame it is so far from Glenfold.”
“Yes,” Valista sighed. “We do miss our home, but this assignment is a great honor for us. It does get lonely sometimes, but the solitude is great for elves like us.”
Marcus looked at Polan and agreed. The male elf had yet to speak a word to them. Had he not heard the two of them speaking from outside the door as they approached, Marcus might have thought him mute. He was handsome enough, though he appeared to be nearing middle age, whatever that meant for elves. His hair, cut extremely short to his scalp, was mostly black, but a patch of gray appeared over each pointed ear and swept backward as if someone had swiped him on each side with a paintbrush.
As Marcus finished filling his plate, he heard steps from the hall and for a half second thought Lorelei had decided to join them after all. Instead, Heather came through he door, sniffing the air like a hungry dog and when Marcus saw her, he let his fork, half raised to his mouth, drop back to the plate.
Heather stood in the doorway wearing a pale blue dress, cut perfectly to accentuate her body. The material clung to her curves in all the right places, Marcus saw, and revealed enough skin below the neck and above the ankle to be conservative and enticing at the same time. The dress was simple, lacking any adornment save a small silver oak leaf attached to the base of each of the two thin straps that rose up her chest and disappeared over her shoulder. Even her hair looked different, Marcus saw, as she had pulled it up and fixed it in a loose bun, showing off the perfect skin of her neck and shoulders.
Everyone in the room remained silent until Heather began to blush with embarrassment. “This dress was on the bed,” she said. “I hope it’s okay that I put it on.”
“Of course it is,” Valista said, waving her hand. “That’s why I put it up there. It’s sized more for a human, and I knew you would want something to get you out of your traveling clothes, even for just one night.”
“Thank you,” Heather said, her voice low with touched sincerity.
“It’s nothing,” Valista assured her. “Now, please sit and eat.”
Heather did, sneaking a quick glance at Marcus to ensure he was still staring raptly at her, which he was. In all the troubles of their relationship, Marcus realized that he sometimes lost track of how beautiful she truly was. All thought of food, however delicious, left his mind as he stared fixedly at the woman sitting next to him.
Heather leaned over toward him, showing him a little more cleavage and causing his heart to beat rapidly. “Quit gawking,” she whispered out of the corner of her mouth.
Marcus did, though he continued to peek at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.
They each ate their fill, engaging in small talk between mouthfuls, and when they finished the meal, Marcus could not remember the last time he felt so full. Beside him, Wilkey leaned back in his chair, patted his stomach, and groaned.
“That ought to hold me over for a couple of hours,” the halfling said.
“You ate enough to hold me over for a month,” Heather told him.
“You need to eat more,” Wilkey returned. “You’re too skinny.”
Heather barked a laugh. Marcus knew that she had been unjustly self-conscious of her weight since reaching adolescence and he hoped the good-natured remark would not ruin her obvious good mood. Instead, he saw, she smiled and looked at Marcus, as though they were sharing some inside joke. He assumed she was thinking the same thing about her self-image, but could not be sure, so he smiled and raised one eyebrow in response. He hoped the gesture would be enigmatic enough to make her think he knew exactly what she meant.
“So, how long has it been since you’ve seen any activity from Amadyr?” Marcus asked, changing the subject. He saw that Valista and Polan exchanged glances.
“We haven’t seen any sign of her since she returned to the Fells,” Polan answered, shocking Marcus by breaking his long silence. “I think she’s dead.”
Polan looked at Valista. “I also think that we have been here too long and that the time has come for us to return to the protection of Glenfold. There are many other dangers in these times than a dead dragon.”
Marcus saw another look pass between the two elves and could tell, based on Polan’s tone and his dark glance at Valista, that the thought of them giving up their assignment and returning to the elven kingdom was a source of some tension between them. Had he been isolated away from civilization for nearly fifteen years, Marcus imagined he would feel the same way.
“Have you not even been allowed to visit your home since you’ve been out here?” Heather asked, seeming to read Marcus’s thoughts.
“We have,” Valista said. “Four times a year we are replaced for two weeks at a time. We return home, but as neither of us have any family there, we are usually ready to return after a few days.”
Polan looked again at Valista, his countenance countering what she had just said. Speak for yourself, his eyes said.
Heather could see the same tension as Marcus. Turning to him, she raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes slightly, as if to say “these two have problems.” Marcus returned the look, though he was considering whether he and Heather appeared the same way around others. No one had ever asked if there was some trouble between them, which is why it came as such a surprise when their relationship crumbled the way it did. Now, he knew seeing the interaction between the two elves, that no one needed to ask. The issues in their relationship were obvious, completely obvious to anyone except him.
The conversation continued on for nearly an hour before being interrupted by a loud noise from beside Marcus. Wilkey had fallen asleep, his head leaned back against the chair, and was snoring with miraculous volume for such a small body. Those still conscious at the table shared a good laugh, Heather even looking at Marcus for a moment with a gleeful twinkle in her eyes that made his heart jump.
“Yes, it is late and I’m sure you will need your rest before your day’s travels tomorrow,” Valista said. “I think we will retire as well.”
Polan, surprisingly to Marcus, offered no argument to this suggestion. The two elves had disagreed over every other topic during their conversation—from the fate of Amadyr to the politics of their home kingdom. Rising, the male elf left the table, muttering a quick “Good night” to the visitors. As he walked through the kitchen, Valista watched him, her eyes sad to the point of tears.
“He’s normally much more jovial than he is tonight,” she said. “He was never very social, even before he and I married, but the strain of this assignment is getting to him—the uncertainty over the fate of Amadyr and the threat of the Necromancer—it’s more of a waiting game than even he has the patience for.”
Marcus and Heather both bid Valista a good night, then woke Wilkey. The halfling lowered his head down to its proper position and rubbed his eyes.
“Time for breakfast, already?” he asked.