At long last, the final installment of The Elfling. Hope you enjoy it!
Naerel glanced over his shoulder to where Syllar was eating breakfast. He frowned. She’d been eating more again, more than she had even prior to her last molting.
He turned back to the small tent and finished rolling it up. Once it was tied and attached to his pack, he sat next to Syllar. “About finished?”
She raised her head and turned to look at him. Her blue flecked eyes glinted mischievously. With a deliberate slowness, she rolled onto her back and picked up a leafy branch from the pile. Holding it with her hind legs, she nibbled at one of the leaves, chomping noisily.
A half sigh, half laugh escaped his lips. “Alright Syllar. It’s time to get moving.” Since the attack on their hut half a year ago, he’d kept them moving deeper into the forest. Twice he’d seen signs of being followed while he was gathering food, but had managed to slip away both times.
“Come on,” he told her, standing. She clicked at him once, then tore off another leaf. Naerel shook his head and grabbed hold of the thick end of the branch.
A rapid succession of clicks and squeaks burst forth from his daughter. She rolled into a ball, clinging to the end of the branch.
He rolled his eyes. “You’re feeling feisty today, aren’t you?” When she squeaked her agreement at him, he shifted his grip on the branch. His muscles strained as he twisted it upward. She’d molted two more times since the attack, and was now three feet long and heavier than when she was born. Still, it wasn’t long until he had hoisted her into the air like a flag.
Syllar squealed as she clung to the end of the branch. Naerel shook it slightly and she scrambled to keep her grip. He bounced it up and down until her feet slipped loose. Releasing his grip, he caught her as she fell. She twisted in his arms and he held her close, stroking the smooth skin between the orbs of her eyes.
Finally he pulled his head back. “Do you want to ride, or walk?” He’d fashioned a sling on his backpack for her. Her leg, injured during the battle with the troll, had never properly healed. The wound left a scar and an odd limp that caused her to tire quickly. She shook her head though, and wriggled free of his grip. Inch-worming alongside him, they made their way through the trees.
* * * * *
Naerel’s stomach twisted in knots. “Syllar, no.” He rushed over and plucked her off the tree she’d begun climbing. “Not here.”
She whimpered at him and reached for the tree.
“I know, I know. We’ll find a tree for you, I promise. I just need to know you’ll be safe.”
She clicked her jaw testily at him. He knew she couldn’t go much longer. Her mandibles were elongated and the tip of her tongue had hardened into a spike, making it hard for her to eat. Normally, larvae would be brought to one of the life trees to pupate. No such tree grew in the wild though. He didn’t dare think of what would happen if she latched onto something dangerous. Not to mention he would have to stand guard over her once she did.
They pressed on. Syllar rode in the sling on Naerel’s back. Deeper into the forest, heading east away from the elven cities he’d grown up in. What would Syllar do when she got older? Would she return to the city? Or would she stay with him?
Naerel knew he’d never be able to return. He’d defied the council by leaving, and they would have him imprisoned for it if they ever caught him. He’d made the right decision though, hadn’t he? He had. He was certain of it. There wasn’t anything else he could have done. But what if they hadn’t taken her from him after all? What if it had just been a routine visit, and then they’d have left him be? Naerel shook his head. The risk had been too great. He’d been forced to–
A branch snapped and a muffled grunt came from somewhere behind him. Without hesitating, he broke into a run. Stupid! If he hadn’t stayed the extra night at their last camp, they wouldn’t have been found. His pursuers no longer bothered trying to hide their thrashing and cursing.
Deeper into the old growth of the forest. A dark gloom hung in the air as Naerel darted around the trunks of ancient spirok and thaen trees. Alone he could have swung up into the branches and escaped easily, but with his pack and Syllar on his back he feared she would fall.
He burst from a patch of scrub brush into a clearing. A gnarled, twisted, tree loomed in the center. Naerel couldn’t identify it, but it captured his eye for a beat before he turned away to scan the rest of the clearing.
Waist high rocks about two feet across ringed the clearing. Vines slithered up and around the stones, making them nearly invisible. Even so, Naerel could see they were evenly spaced. At the far end of the clearing, what may have once been a large stone table was tipped on its side, creating a three-sided box.
“Syllar! Up against the table and don’t move.” Naerel twisted himself free of the pack and sling, dropping both to the ground. Syllar made her way across the clearing as Naerel prepared for the fight. He’d claimed the knives from the troll that had attacked the hut. He now held one in each hand, with a third knife tucked into his belt at the small of his back.
Clawed fingers pushed the branches of the brush apart as the first troll burst into view. Naerel rewarded him with a thrown knife in his right eye. The body fell and convulsed on the ground.
Another troll stormed out, dodging the flying blade. He lowered his head and charged. Naerel pulled the last knife from behind him and plunged it between the troll’s shoulders. Momentum carried him forward, and both sprawled to the ground.
The impact knocked the wind from Naerel’s lungs. He pushed the dead troll off of him and lay on his side, gasping for breath. Before he could recover however, a pair of black clawed feet stepped in front of him
Naerel looked up at the troll towering over him. Before he could speak a foot lashed out, catching him in the face. His head snapped to the side.
“Where is she?”
Without responding, Naerel forced his hands and knees under himself. Struggling to stand, he’d almost succeeded when another blow caught him across the face. He fell backward.
“I know the heir is here with you. Give her to me and…” The troll’s voice trailed off as he stared past the elf.
Naerel brought his foot up, catching the troll in the groin. As his enemy’s knees buckled, he swept his leg to the side, knocking him to the ground. A quick elbow to the throat was followed by a twist of the troll’s head and the snap of his neck.
Finally, he turned to look at what had caught the troll’s eye. The large tree in the center of the clearing shivered, despite a complete lack of wind. Then one of the branches began to move. Naerel rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the scene didn’t change. One of the thick branches swung downward. His blood turned to ice. A light green head with blue eyes appeared from behind the trunk, about half way up.
“Syllar! Get down from there!” He ran toward the tree, but knew he was too late. The branch lowered and shifted until it was right in front of her. Her jaws wrapped around the wood as the branch swung back away. Her body dangled, long and straight. She shifted her weight once, then again. Her thick mandibles clamping down until the bark cracked between them.
“Stop,” he shouted. But she wasn’t listening. Her tongue appeared and the spiked tip thrust into the branch. Her body quivered, and he could see the dark sap from the tree begin flowing into her body.
An explosion of light blinded him. Flames devoured the vines on the stones surrounding him. Beneath them, runes and symbols carved into the stone glowed with an eerie green light.
Flames continued consuming the vines, burning toward the tree in the center with frightening speed. Panic squeezed Naerel’s heart. How could he protect her? She was attached to the tree. There was no removing her now. He pressed his back against her already stiffening body. Flames licked at his feet and the exposed roots of the tree.
And then they went out, like a candle being extinguished. A gust of wind cleared the ash away, revealing a cobblestone pattern covering the ground, ringed by the still glowing stones.
“That can’t be good,” Naerel muttered to himself. He turned and ran his hand down Syllar’s back. Her skin was dry and already starting to crack, revealing the cocoon within. Thin, dark lines wound across the surface.
The tree shivered again. A few purple-black leaves fell silently to the ground. Naerel sat on one of the exposed roots and leaned against the trunk.
He didn’t sleep that night.
* * * * *
Naerel ran his fingers across Syllar’s cocoon. Over the last month, the thin black lines on the surface had thickened until they nearly covered her, leaving only a few small, white patches. He sighed, letting his hand fall away. She needed the tree’s nourishment to survive, but the strange coloring frightened him. The tightness in his chest never left him anymore. Occasionally she would shift inside the shell, so he knew she was still alive.
He walked over to the small shelter he’d built a few paces away from the tree and returned with a blanket. On clear nights like this, he preferred to sleep out here with his daughter than inside.
Dusk settled across the clearing, making him aware of the faint glow from the patterns on the stones. Naerel settled uneasily against the tree under Syllar. Something was out there, watching him. He scanned the trees, but didn’t see anything. Still, he could feel eyes burning into him as he let his mind drift.
The thick root he sat on twisted under him violently, waking him from his half sleep and dumping him onto the cobblestone.
Thwack! An arrow stuck in the tree right where his chest had been a moment earlier. He dove to the side and scrambled behind the tree for cover. Yanking both knives from their sheaths, he pressed his back against the trunk.
A shudder swept up the tree. The branches shook, shedding leaves onto the ground. Before he could react, the branch Syllar hung from wrapped around the tree, suspending her next to him.
He poked his head around the tree. An arrow came flying back at him. He caught a glimpse of the single troll before jerking his head back to safety. Only one. If he could get close it would be a short fight.
Stones clattered together from the other side of the tree. The troll cursed. Naerel crouched low and looked out from the other side of the trunk. His jaw dropped.
A root reached up from the ground and wrapped around the troll’s leg. The cobblestones had been flung aside when it burst out. The troll’s leg buckled as the root pulled downward. He had a blade in his hand, trying to hack free.
Naerel threw the knives in rapid succession. Both found their mark, and the troll dropped lifeless. The tree root released the troll and slithered back into the ground. With a creaking groan, the branch unflexed, returning to its original position.
Stunned, Naerel stepped over to the troll to retrieve his blades. He pushed the cobblestones back into place with his foot. His brain finally re-engaged, and questions flooded in.
“What was that?” He turned toward the tree. A small part of him felt foolish yelling at it, but who else was he going to try to get answers from?
“Who are you? What do you want? What are you doing to my daughter?” He pounded a fist on the trunk until his hand was raw from the bark.
Dimly, he became aware of the glow from the border stones. Their intensity increased until the entire area was awash in garish, green light. He backed away from the tree, fingers resting on the hilts of his knives
A shadow moved to his left. Near the upended table the light shifted. A pool of mist, or maybe smoke, pulled together. It glittered with tiny flecks of light. Shifting, swirling, the lights danced within as it took on the shape of an elf.
The shadow glided toward him silently. He stepped to the side, putting himself between Syllar and the mysterious form.
The shadows came into focus. She lifted her finger to her lips, a faint smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Wind swirled around Naerel, shaking the tree. Leaves and branches rubbed together, rustling and whispering with a thousand hushed voices. “They are coming. It is time.”
“Who? Time for what?”
There was no answer. She slid forward once more, passing through him effortlessly. He whirled in time to see her wrap her ghostly arms around Syllar, then vanish.
The border stones flashed, blinding him, then extinguished. A crack and a thump came from nearby. Naerel swiped angrily at his eyes, willing them to see in the nearly perfect blackness. He staggered forward toward the dim outline of the tree.
His throat choked shut. He snapped his head down. There, on the ground, was his daughter. Still struggling to see, he grabbed his blanket and wrapped her in it. “I’m right here, Syllar. Right here.”
Ghost white hair covered her head. More alarmingly, her skin was a deep purple, nearly black. It matched the color of the leaves on the tree. When her eyes opened, they were the same brilliant blue of her mother’s.
“Daddy, wha–” she started, but stopped. She reached a hand up and felt along her jaw. After opening and closing her mouth a few times she scrunched her lips together. Shaking her head she clicked her tongue twice and looked up at him.
“It’s ok. You’ll get used to it. You’ll learn.”
Syllar adjusted the blanket around herself. Her breathing was labored and ragged. “What happen?” Her face creased with frustration, and she waved her arms to indicate the tree and dead troll.
“I don’t know, baby girl. We’ll find out.” He forced himself not to wince when he saw her arm. A deep scar ran from her shoulder, past her elbow and halfway down her forearm.
He held her tight as her breathing smoothed. “Love. Daddy.”
“I love you, too.” He stroked her hair as she drifted off to sleep.