A Raven's Dance (Part Four)
“You’ve come a long way, Ranger,” she said.
Leif nodded. “It’s been a tough winter on everyone this year. I’ve seen my fair share of terrible things.”
The Shaylin paused, then turned to face him. “I think you have,” she said, her eyes meeting with his. “Probably more than most.”
Leif shuddered. Her tone carried a level of certainty, an edge that accented the look in her dark brown eyes. It was as if she were looking through him and found something lurking. Something she didn’t like.
Shaylin were always hard to read, only the degree of emotion they showed hinted at their age. Still, on the same token, those same hints could be equally misleading. Elves prided themselves on their mastery at playing Kings, even if the game was invented by humans.
She turned away, her attention focused on the path. It was one of many. The others led deeper into the grove, each winding their own way toward some unknown destination. They were graded but looked as if no tool had touched them.
Vibrant flowers with hues of blue, red, and purple lined their edges granting them definition. It was like walking down a street, only greener. Thanks to the canopy overhead, it accented the sense that, even though it wasn’t completely impenetrable from the snows, the world outside and this one, were separated by it.
“We have a Shaper here,” she abruptly said. “Long ago it was a talent seen among many Shaylin. Now, it has become a rare thing. I fear it may fade one day, one more treasure lost to my people.”
“I thought all druids could shape nature?” Lief replied.
“Not like a Shaper,” she answered. Her tone resonated with reverence. “Druids coerce nature, bending it to their will. In rudimentary terms, we are simple carpenters. Shape and form are stimulated by our magic based on what we imagine. It takes talent, something few possess. The changes we make are never permanent. A Shaper, however, speaks to nature, asks it for aid, and becomes part of it.”
“So you mean it becomes an expression of their desires?” Leif asked. “Of their hearts?”
She turned, briefly losing her footing, and catching herself. “You actually understand?”
“You sound genuinely surprised.”
“Oh, I am,” she said. “The humans we train to follow The Path, eventually understand. But, for an outsider to grasp it.” She narrowed her eyes. “I misjudged your ability to perceive things.”
“These past few months have opened my eyes to many things. Perspective has been one of them.”
She cracked a smile. “How curious.” She took the lead once again and they followed the path until it opened up to a small clearing. The canopy was denser here, only grass grew and the sun orbs around its perimeter provided warmth.
A handful of houses were arrayed in a semi-circle. They weren’t large, appearing capable of accommodating two people at most. Each house was spaced with a span of five yards between them. Two of the houses were melded into part of the evergreens along the outer edge of the clearing.
“Huntsman Wulf reserved these for Rangers who might pass through, though he is currently away. I noticed you do not wear his banner.”
“No, I receive my contracts from Huntsman Shuet, ” Leif replied.
“I will inform the Elders of your contract,” she said. “You will need to make a list of the medicines you require. In exchange, a day working in the fields will suffice.”
“When will I start?”
“In the morning and once you have bathed,” she smirked. “You have the smell of a man who has been on the road far too long.”
Leif grinned. “Here I thought such musk was a pleasing aroma to a woman.”
“Only if you’re a sow or desperate,” she replied. “You may address me as Lennella.”
“And you may address me as Leif.”
She bowed her head respectfully, then started up the path. Leif turned toward the house, his attention drawn to the small raven perched on the roof.
“You know, I’ve always been fond of the grace Shaylin females carry about themselves. Especially how they smile. It’s like getting stabbed in the back. It’s a painful thing and bittersweet. It surprises you and hurts you all at once. Deep down you suspect the knife is there, but for some reason, you can’t but help walk closer.” He shuddered. “Get’s me every time.”
Leif rolled his eyes. “Where did you run off to?”
“Nowhere in particular,” Talyn replied. “This place unsettled me for a moment, but it’s fine now.”
Leif stopped halfway through the doorway of the small house. “Unsettled?”
Talyn flew through the doorway, passing him, and perched on the end of the bed. “This grove is just different,” he said. “Its magic is strange.”
Leif narrowed his eyes.
“What is it, Leif?” Talyn asked. “You look like something came to mind.”
“Lennella told me there was a Shaper here.”
A chill filled the room. Leif touched his chest and looked up at Talyn. He was angry, no, he was afraid. His mouth felt open.
The Shaper can kill you.
“Leif, finish your business, quickly,” Talyn said.
His tone was the same as it had been in Gruiner before he had slain those three Blades. The weight of its authority was certain. It radiated something primal, insisting it should be obeyed.
Leif rubbed his temples. “Nothing has changed Talyn. You heard Lennella. A day's work and we leave.”
“We will see,” he replied coldly.
Yggsid was like the groves in Daeshal at night. The sun orbs were like lamps, providing just enough light for the Shaylin to see. They also measured the passage of time. The dimmer they grew, the later in the eve it was.
Pity for the humans though. Some trained in The Way might have a nocturnal animal as their totem, making it easier to navigate in the dark like the Shaylin. Hopefully, none were about at this late hour.
Talyn stalked through the grove, keeping clear of the paths. He twitched his ears, every muscle tensed while listening for any aberrant sounds. There were none to speak of, just the eerie quiet blanketing the grove.
He curled his lip, the Shaper ever constant on his mind. How could I have not expected this? Of course, there would be a Shaper here. House Ravenfeather always prefers to have one if they can be spared at a grove. Though, having one so far from the elves' homeland was unusual.
Why are you here?
He shook his head, shoving the questions aside. The task at hand came first. The Shaper was ultimately irrelevant. Only the child mattered. Her spark had to be extinguished.
Talyn stalked passed some of the communal clearings where many of the druids and their families lived until finally coming to the one Naya resided in. He looked up, feeling slightly foolish when his gaze met with the canopy. Some habits were hard to break.
Talyn crept closer to the front door of her home, ears twitching as he listened for sounds of anyone stirring inside. Silence greeted him. Smiling he crept around the house, toward the window where Naya’s was.
“Zgin’jesh,” he whispered.
His feline frame became mist and he drifted toward the window, seeping through the cracks. Once through, the incant ended and he reformed, scanning the room to get his bearings. It was like he remembered, with a bit more clutter. It should be no surprise, she was very young.
A chest for her clothes sat at the foot of the bed. Her closet, where her mother hung her furs and winter clothing, was on the opposite side of the window behind him. Its large wooden frame and doors had been shaped with druid magic. The seamless curves in its design were a telltale sign. Against the wall sat a spindle and other various tools for weaving and sewing.
Naya’s mother was teaching her. She had the most curious expression when she practiced but seemed to enjoy it. The little girl’s toys littered the floor. Most were dolls made of wool and cloth. A set of them was gathered around a large table and dressed like druid elders. It seemed ‘the council’ was in ‘discussion’.
Talyn smirked, then shifted forms, transforming back into a raven, and taking flight. It was a short hop onto the edge of the bed, though he was careful not to her. He stared Naya and winced inwardly. “Poor creature. I fear like the Shapers so long ago, I must do the same to you.”
He closed his eyes, drawing on his power. Naya’s spark resonated in response. It only proved she was a Channeler. It truly was a pity, she was probably the first Channeler to be born in nearly a millennia. It was humanity’s last tie to their ancestors. To the Old Ones.
The air in the room grew heavy, his feathers shifting, like smoky shadows wafting in a breeze. Nausea returned in full force, but Talyn pushed past it, allowing the dark magic to swell inside his tiny body. Shadowy hands took shape above him. Hovering near his head. They seeming to absorb the ambient light filtering into the room from outside.
The dark hands stretched out, reaching toward Naya and plunging deep into her chest. Naya arched back in her bed, mouth open in a gasp for breath and eyes fluttering. Talyn simply looked up dispassionately. There would be no scream. No pain, at least nothing the body could understand or properly express.
“Though from ancient blood did you descend, a scar I leave that none can mend,” he softly whispered. “In shadow’s hand, this spark is unkindled, and with its scarring touch you’re your power had dwindled. Magic will be faint and out of reach, and to you, only the simplest magiks can your masters teach.”
The hands withdrew, one of them clutching a small red gem shard. Naya collapsed on her back, head turned to one side. She was still breathing, but unconscious.
Talyn opened his beak, turning his head up. The shadowy hand holding the red gem shard came closer and dropped it into his mouth. He craned his neck swallowing it, then hopped off the bed and transformed into a snow leopard.
He winced. His body had already begun absorbing Naya’s power into it. No, it’s happening too quickly!
“Zgin’jesh,” he whispered.
Transforming into a mist he quickly slipped through the window. When he solidified outside, Talyn collapsed, clenching his jaw. The pain was intensifying. The sensation was like shards of glass slicing back and forth across his insides. He stretched out his front paws, clawing at the ground and fighting to get to his feet.
I need to get away!
Pushing through, as his fur began to fall away, Talyn sprinted toward the nearest evergreen. He leaped for the tree, burying his claws in it and began scaling up to its highest parts. His flesh already peeling and when he craned his neck, Talyn saw some of his claws had been pulled out.
His vision blurred and sense of smell was already gone. Talyn went to take a step but saw through the haze that the cacoon had begun forming. He knew he was anchored now and soon, it would envelop him completely.
Talyn stopped fighting the change and gave in to the pain. He relaxed his will, like flexing a muscle, and his feline form melded into the cocoon's viscous membrane. After a few minutes the pain numbed and it cacoon washed over him. His sight had left him, his thoughts the only thing remaining.
Leif, pray they don’t find me before your day is up.
Leif scanned the cleared and the canopy. Talyn had vanished. He pursed his lip unable to shake the feeling that something was wrong.
“Not sleep well?”
He turned, trying to hide his surprise as Lenella seemed to appear from nowhere from the treeline. “No, I slept fine. I guess I’m not used to this place. It’s so peaceful and serene.”
Lennella smiled. “Many who visit Yggsid say that,” she said. “Few realize how alive this place is.”
“Perhaps it’s not the place but the people that bring it to life,” Leif replied.
Her cheeks flushed and she turned away starting down the path. “Perhaps, Ranger,” she said, sounding amused. “Now, shall we put you to work?”
Leif grinned. “Only if you insist.” Maybe it was the grove, but part of him felt lighter. He glanced back at the house. Talyn, please don’t do something stupid here.
He was unusual. Both as a human and a Ranger. Humans weren’t the most thoughtful or introspective of creatures. They could be crafty and cunning when driven, but often those traits surfaced when they were focused primarily on self and personal gain. It was bewildering. They had so much potential and talent, yet they waste it.
Rangers came to and went from the grove often enough. Some of them seeking Huntsman Wulf others for respite on their journeys. In general, they were well-meaning, believed in what they did, and adhered to what the Rangers stood for. They spoke family and the community of the Rangers. Of the brotherhood it represented. Still, Lenella couldn’t help but feel that their true colors might show under the right circumstances. Loyalties shifted like a breeze so often among humans.
Looking at Leif, however, he somehow seemed different. There was something dark about him, it was veiled behind many layers, but it was tempered with purpose. Whatever he had embraced it was the source of that determination. Perhaps it was the Rangers themselves?
As a Ranger, though their interactions had been brief, Lenella was certain her latter assessment bled over to him as a Ranger.
“Could your life experiences before joining them have built upon your career as one?
The genuineness in his voice whenever he spoke. His sincerity for fulfilling his contracts. Leif believed in what he was doing. It wasn’t like the others who had come passing through. Leif’s convictions ran deeper.
Lenella smirked. He and Huntsman Wulf were similar. He was devoted to the Ranger’s cause, even if it sometimes caused tensions among the Elders. He was a good man and leader, for a human.
She thought of Leif’s blue eyes and how reminiscent of a raven’s they were. While different in color, he was observant and watchful. Lenella bit her lip, unconsciously navigating the path.
What is this I sense from you? This hole inside?
“You seem deep in thought?” Leif commented.
Lenella blinked. “Am I?” she asked.
“It was hard to notice from the furs and folds of your robes at first, but you’re tense,” he said. “Though your back has been turned, I briefly saw you biting your lip when we rounded that last bend.”
She stopped, turning to face him. “Leif, why do I sense something dark lurking inside of you?”
He paused, his smile fading. “What do you mean?”
“You have a scar, it runs deep,” she said. “What happened?”
And just like that, the mask he wore cracked. His blue eyes, telling their own tale. “We had best get to the fields,” he replied, solemnly.
Lenella drew closer, placing a gentle hand on his cheek. “Leif, whatever this thing is,” she said. “You must let it go. It will only cause you more pain.”
His expression grew hard. “We have work to do, Lenella,” he said.
“Of course, Leif,” she replied. “Of course.”
There wasn’t much left to say after that. At last glance, Leif’s expression said that they were done talking. Despite the quiet walk to the caverns, upon their arrival, his expression changed upon seeing the immensity of the fields within them.
Everyone knew that Yggsid was an essential part of helping the other territories survive. The food they grew year-round was for the benefit of all. By the look he wore, it was obviously larger than what he had imagined.
Lenella grinned. “You were expecting something smaller.”
“And colder,” Leif replied, unclasping his cloak, and gazing over the sea of green before him.
“While the greeneries in other villages use stoves and other means to heat and maintain the temperature,” she said. “We use sun orbs. Their light nourishes and warms the plants.”
“I’ve never seen so many,” he replied, his tone hushed. “How long do they last. I've heard most only shine for three years at most.”
“The ones on this cavern had been burning for twenty years now, I think.”
His mouth felt open and Lenella smiled. He was like a boy with a renewed sense of wonder. Whatever cloud had hung over him was gone. It was endearing.
Lenella reached out, taking his left hand. Nervously he complied and she led him through the stalks of corn. “They’re almost ready. In a few days, we’ll begin harvesting them.”
“How do you keep them from rotting?” he asked.
“Preservation Bags,” she replied. “We make them. The magic doesn’t keep them fresh indefinitely, but long enough to distribute them to the stores of the villages that need them.”
“It feels like I really am in another world,” he said.
Lenella gently squeezed his hand. “You could be,” she replied. “For as long as you like.”
His eyes softened. “Lenella…”
“I’m sorry for making you angry, Leif,” she said. “My brother and I are more sensitive to things than most druids.”
His eyebrows drew together as curiosity wound its way onto his face. “Sensitive how?”
“Sometimes, we Shaylin who train in The Way can feel more than just the energy and life of nature. Sometimes, we can feel what others do.”
He looked away, his eyes fixed on the cornstalks behind her. “I really have stepped into a different world,” he said.
He shifted his gaze. “Maybe I’ll tell you as we work.”
Lenella nodded. “Only if you are comfortable with it.”
It was different, not having to keep bundled up. The heat the sun orbs provided was more than adequate. Leif paused, taking a breath and wiping the sweat from his brow. He caught a half-smile from Lenella when she glanced over here shoulder to watch him.
Like himself, she was covered in dirt and sweat, wearing a simple cotton tunic, pants, and leather slippers. Her soft auburn hair was pulled up in a bun and without it draped around her shoulders, Lenella’s angular features and pointed ears were more pronounced. Leif caught himself struggling to keep from staring, though from the subtle tells she gave off, Lenella didn’t seem to mind.
They had been working to prepare the ground for a new planting in what Lenella had dubbed ‘The Southern Field’. Once the field was properly tilled and prepared, in another week they would plant turnips. It was strange to think you needed to change what crops were planted throughout the year.
Thiry other druids were working alongside them. Most had been had quiet, with the occasional conversation between them. There fewer Shaylin than expected as well. Lenella had said that there weren’t many of her people in Yggsid. Most of those living here were Sokoran and had done so for generations.
“I’ve noticed the sun orbs dimming.”
Lenella glanced over at one of the closest orbs mounted on an iron pole. “I never realized it was so late,” she commented.
Leif smiled, she sounded a bit disappointed. “You sure you aren’t trying to work me to death?”
A wicked smirk crossed her face. “Well, we could always use more fertilizer for the fields. Perhaps, I will simply have to leave you guessing at my intent.”
Leif shook his head, a broad grin on his face. “I suppose I will simply have to keep a sharper eye, preferably before I pass out.”
She smiled wider. “If you do, then you are fortunate to be surrounded by so many who can nurse you back to health.”
Leif sat back, laughing. The feeling from earlier returned, the one of a dark shroud lifting from his shoulders. Lenella had already turned her attention back to her work, but her smile never faded. She was biting her lip again.
A loud gong sounded, and one by one the druids began gathering their tools. Leif began collected up the spades, trowels, and rakes. Lenella took to gathering the loose canvas sacks used to haul fertilizer for the fields. Everything was loaded into a small wagon sitting on a nearby dirt path. It was one of several used like small roads to travel between fields in the cavern.
Leif carefully stacked the tools in a pile in the wagon, then turned to Lenella taking the sacks of fertilizer from her. The putrid stench of their former contents assaulted his nostrils as he fought the urge to gag. Lenella laughed and he tossed one of the sacks onto her head.
“Ugh!” she cried out, grabbing the sack and throwing it back at him. “You horrid man!”
Leif chuckled, catching it. “It’ll wash out.”
She rolled her eyes, trying to hide her smile. Some of the other druids cracked a few smiles of their own while others simply shook their heads. Leif tossed the sack into the back of the wagon and began pushing it toward the entrance to the cavern. He felt a hand touch his shoulder and looked back to see Lenella shake her head.
“You can leave it there, someone will be along after the evening meal to finish up,” she said.
“Are you sure? It’s not that far.”
She nodded. “Everyone in the grove does their part. We have a lot more to do tomorrow.”
The disappointment in her voice returned. Leif felt a twinge in his chest. There would be no work tomorrow. Talyn would want to leave before first light.
He smiled softly, shoving his feelings aside. “Lead the way, fair lady.”
The mood had shifted since leaving the fields. It was like before it had been that morning, before reaching the caverns. Leif appeared to be deep in thought and some of his emotions were bleeding through.
The most powerful among them was regret. He wanted to stay, but something was preventing him from following his heart. Lenella touched her chest a sense of foolishness washing over her.
You cannot expect him to stay or that hole inside him.
“It was seven years ago,” he said.
She paused and turned on the path to face him.
“I was tracking a Blade up north. He had gotten into a fight and killed someone in a drunken fit,” he said. “It was my first bounty. I had just earned the right to accept contracts on my own.” He bit his lip, his expression hardening and eyes watering. “I was such a stupid kid.”
Lenella drew closer, cupping his face in her hands. “Tell me, Leif, let it go,” she said, tilting his head down and resting her forehead against his.
“He deserted and normally Bodvar would hunt his own, but the man killed one of our own. Shuet felt it was best handled by another Huntsman because of Viktor. Eirik was livid, but allowed it.”
“So you found him?”
He nodded. “I found him. He was trying to book passage to Absion. Things went bad from there.”
Lenella felt her eyes water. More emotions were bleeding through. Leif’s dam burst, leaving his regret and guilt flowing freely.
“I chased him throughout Yodnar, but everyone knows its futile to run from us. By the end of my hunt, he had taken a hostage.”
“She died didn’t didn’t she?”
He looked away. “I knew she might die, but I was so focused on the bounty, on the attack on our family, that I got careless. When it was done, I killed him too. No one would question it, he was a Blade.”
“Leif, look at me,” she said. When their eyes met, Lenella leaned in and kissed him. “I forgive you, you’ve suffered from this long enough, Leif.”
Leif collapsed on the path, his embrace like a vice. He was crying. “I have lived with the memory that day for a long time. I swore I would never the same mistake again.”
She held him tight. Leif simply let the tears come. The flood of emotions pouring from his heart was long overdue. What he had done was wrong, but it explained his devotion to the Rangers. They were his penance.
“I'm here, Leif,” Lenella whispered, softly stroking her fingers through his dark hair. “I’m here for as long as you need.”
Though the light was dim, it may as well have been broad daylight. Its brilliance seared his eyes with each new tear that formed across the cacoon. Talyn wanted to scream but fought the urge. Instead, he summoned his powers to cloak himself in darkness.
He pressed against the chrysalis, its confines resisting. Slowly it sheared and with it sundered, the cold air of the outside world filled his lungs. Taking it in, Talyn focused, pooling his energy into maintaining his feline form.
He dismissed the darkness, his eyes adjusting to the light. Talyn looked down and frowned. Poor, poor, Shaylin, he thought after his gaze met with Somasa’s on the ground. You should have left things alone.