Hidden Magic - Chapter 1

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"Meer, snap out of it."

The young wood elf glanced down from her vantage point in the lowest branch of a mulberry tree to see her scouting partner giving her an exasperated look, an expression she was all too used to seeing on his weatherworn face. He stood with his hands on his hips... flank... whatever it was called. Even after years of being his constant companion, she was still not sure which terms to use regarding her brother. She had learned, however, that he very much disliked the nickname "horsebutt," so of course she used it whenever possible. He wasn't her sibling by blood, which would be even stranger than her actual heritage, but sometimes life hands you family you wouldn't predict. A decade ago she certainly hadn't expected to find a colt asleep inside her tribe's storage tent with a half-empty bag of grain near his hooves.

Meren made a face at the centaur. "We're on guard. I'm keeping watch. What's the problem?"

"The problem is that you have been on that branch most of the morning and you have traps to check, which I am fairly certain you cannot do from a tree."

Meren briefly wondered if this would in fact be possible to do by traveling from branch to branch and tree to tree, but he unfortunately did have a point, irritating though it was.

"Okay. I'll go." She paused, then admitted sheepishly, nodding towards the north, "I'm wondering about the town out there."

Kryro tilted his head to the side. "Why? What about an abandoned human village draws the attention of an elf away from what she should be doing?"

"Oh, come on, 'Ro. You know we were sent to this border because nothing ever happens here." When she saw that he was about to speak again, she added, "And I don't know, okay? It just has me curious."

She swung down from the branch and joined her much taller companion on the ground, hardly making a sound as she landed in last season's debris. While she was crouched, she reached out to touch a tiny sprout with a vine-patterned hand. She loved early spring with the plants beginning to bud with the promise of new life. There was so much potential everywhere she looked and she couldn't help wishing that her own life and career had as much possibility.

"If you're so keen on checking them, let's-" An abrupt "snap" to the east, followed by a muffled shout of some kind, interrupted her words.

"Sounds like snare number three may have caught something interesting,” he said with an "I told you so" look. Spirits, did she hate it when he did that! He was so annoyingly right all the time that just once she wished something would happen that she predicted.

Meren shrugged, not wanting to admit that he could be right yet again. Besides, their patrols were always boring. She was under no delusion that this one would be any different. "We'll see about 'interesting'. Likely it's a squirrel or a goblin or something.”

It was perfectly normal in their line of work to list small woodland animals and humanoid monsters in the same category of nuisance. Both regularly got tangled in the traps, although the animals were generally easier to take care of. Those she could simply set free. With this assumption of what they would find firmly planted in her mind, the two sneaked towards the trap as quietly as someone with hooves was able. Meren, far more light on her feet, continued ahead.

Well, that's certainly not a goblin, she thought as she eyed their visitor.

Dangling upside down from the rope snare was what appeared to be a human, specifically a young human who would probably have been rather attractive if not inverted with his warm brown face flushing to a deeper red. The human flailed at his embroidered black robe that entangled him better than the simple rope caught around his ankles. To Meren's surprise he was able to wiggle like a fish. Within moments he'd writhed out of the robe, dropped it to the ground below his trailing dark hair, and produced a dagger from somewhere. Seemingly with little effort, he swung himself up and reached for the rope caught around his legs.

Meren was so surprised by the fact that someone not appearing to be of elf-kind could move so lithely that she almost forgot her job. After mentally chiding herself for being so distracted, she grabbed her blowgun from her belt. Without taking her eye off the captured man, she stuck a dart inside the tube by feel and fired it off. A lucky shot- the barb stuck in his hand. He gave a startled exclamation that could only be a curse and dropped the dagger, which landed point-down in his discarded robe. He glared in her general direction before he swung loosely back down, stretching to try to snatch up the hilt just beyond his fingertips. Surely his glare was a guess at a direction. Meren knew her tattoos and mottled brown and grey clothing blended her into the trees, although melding into the forest would have been easier had it been summer instead of early spring.

Concerned that he might be able to contort enough to reach his weapon or that he had another one tucked inside his clothing, she called out, "Do not move or I'll fire something worse."

The human froze, but from his furrowed eyebrows she could see it was more out of confusion than fright. He said something again that Meren didn't understand. Now she regretted leaving her brother behind as he was far better at languages than she. She tried one of the few phrases he'd taught her in the human tongue. "Do not move. Trespassing you be."

Here he again said something that Meren did not understood. Greatly wishing she carried her sleeping draught-filled darts rather than the plain barbs so that she and Kryro could do their usual "knock out and drag from the forest" act, she drew her bow and silently strung it. While she was not keen on firing at someone trapped, perhaps she could frighten him. She stepped out of the sparse underbrush with an arrow at the ready.

She wasn't sure what she expected, but the human crossing his arms over his chest and saying rather confidently in the language of the smaller forest folk, "Aren't you awfully tall for a halfling?" certainly wasn't it. 

These words caused Meren to lower her bow. How did he know? Only other elves had ever been able to pick up on the fact that she was partly something else. She looked down. No, her feet were hidden away in boots. This young man was most certainly strange: a dexterous human who spoke the halfling tongue and could pinpoint a hidden race? Although if he knew halflings, that could partially explain his level of coordination. She had never learned much about this part of her heritage, but she did know they were almost as dexterous as the elven side of her family.

Breaking off her stream of consciousness, she answered in the same language. "I am an elf. You're trespassing on our land."

The human shrugged, which must have been difficult to do while upside down because his shirt got tangled on his shoulders for a moment. "And how was I to know? There were no signs, no warnings."

"This is the warning. You have crossed our border."

Now he sounded rather less confident as he gave up smoothing down his shirt. "This is a warning? I'd hate to see the threat."

Meren raised an eyebrow, causing the green tattoos on her face to shift, and lowered her bow. "You wouldn't, believe me. Most of my kin don't even give warnings."

Just as quickly as she said that, she wished she hadn't. Wood elves weren't supposed to share information with outsiders. There was something about this human, however, that caused Meren to ignore protocol. Possibly it was because while upside down he hardly posed a threat.

Kryro, on the other hand, wasn't so kind. He walked forward with his large club raised in what Meren considered a needlessly threatening manner.

The human gulped. Nothing like a seven and a half foot tall horse-man to inspire fright where a small elf could not. "Look, I'm sorry. Can you let me down? I'll leave."

Meren thought about this for a moment, then nodded to Kryro. When reached up to untie the rope, he didn't bother to steady it, causing the man to swing in what had to be a nauseating circle as the knot unwound. Kryro was generally more careful than this, so Meren assumed he wasn't pleased with her decision.

The human fell and turned the drop into a kind of cartwheel. Kryro rolled his eyes, clearly not amused by this show of acrobatics. The man pulled on his robe, which now had a rip in the right sleeve from the dropped dagger, and said shortly in Halfling, "Watch it, horse."

Kryro's annoyance turned into heated indignation. As he reset the snare, he replied in the same language, "And you should watch what you say, two-legger."

The human brushed strands of his waist-long hair out of his face so that he could stare at Kryro for a moment. Meren stifled a snicker when he held his hands up in a complaisant manner. "Sorry sorry. Chalk it up to a bad day. I meant nothing by it."

Meren choked back another laugh at the snort of contempt her brother made. Yes, this was rather interesting. There was one thing she couldn't help asking the newcomer, though. "You must leave the forest, but... how did you know I wasn't fully elven?"

"I used to know some halflings when I was young.” He gave her a small smile that seemed more genuine than the casual smirk he had been wearing. “Something about you reminded me of them."

Young. Meren knew enough about humans to know that this one couldn't have been any more than twenty, meaning this was recently. Or "recently," coming from a half-elf, anyway. She wondered if those halflings were ones she was related to.

Before she could ask, Kryro cleared his throat. "Yes, yes, how convenient that you speak her language. Meren, let him go." Switching to Elvish, he told her, "You know quite well that you are not supposed to be friendly towards intruders."

Which she did know, quite clearly. Yet this human intrigued her... Still, she did have a border to protect. "I must lead you to the edge of the forest, mysterious Halfling-speaking person. There's an old human village that way from where you could possibly get your bearings."

The man shrugged at her vague northward gesture, as if the prospect of getting lost didn't bother him. He peered over at the centaur distrustfully and whispered to Meren, "Thank you. Sorry to have caused a problem."

Meren glanced down at her boots to try to hide her embarrassment. She really shouldn't have spoken so openly to him. She didn't want him thinking her kin was friendly. As they led him through the woods, Kryro stayed a pace behind, acting far too much like he was guarding her for her liking. Surely this human wasn't a threat she couldn't handle. He seemed rather nice. How nice can someone be if they're sneaking around the forest with no apparent reason to do so, a logical part of herself chimed in.

It didn't matter. He was leaving and he wouldn't return. So far no one she or her brother sent away had ever returned.

Kryro watched to be sure the human left the treeline and had vanished around the wall of the old town, then turned to Meren. "Do not do that again. How do you know you can trust him with the knowledge that your people claim this area?"

Meren stared at him, then at the wall, then back at the forest behind them. She couldn't figure out why her brother was chastising her. What him? "Trust who? What did I do?"

Kryro scratched the back of his neck with the side of his club and said hesitatingly, "There was a human... was there not? We caught... no. We were on border guard, keeping an eye out for orcs."

"Like always.” Meren nodded in the direction of the wood elf encampment. “I really think those are a story made up by my father to keep us occupied."

"Possibly, but we are still guards. We should go check our traps."

"We just did." Hadn't they? She was pretty sure they had done that already. Her head felt strangely foggy, as though she had grazed herself on one of her sleep-draught darts. She glanced down at the case on her belt. No, she didn't have those with her today, only the simple barbs. Strange.

"Right. However something tells me we should again." Her partner's attention to detail was rather obsessive at times, but she was used to that. Kryro was Kryro and she loved him for it, even if he could sometimes be a know-it-all.

She glimpsed over her shoulder one last time at the high stone wall in the distance before they slipped back into the forest. Sometimes when the wind blew from the north it still carried a lingering whiff of smoke and ash. What had happened there so long ago?



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