Dawn broke out over the vermillion leaves of the rolling forests, casting a dappled light through the tall trees. Several birds begin to sing, throwing their voices across the waking forest and all its inhabitants. The morning mist began to melt before the lightening sun, leaving diamond-like dew drops scattered on leaves and the thatch-roofs of the village.
The houses seemed to just appear from the forest, gathered together in a cluster of wood and some stone, and spanning a circular area with a diameter of perhaps a hundred and fifty meters. In the center of the settlement was a large building made only of mossy white stones, a red tiled roof and coloured glass windows. with an open space in front of it, a training yard by the looks of it. It was a simple, rectangular structure with a single large black dome on the roof and wooden double doors.. Another large building, similar in shape and size to the first, stood closer to the edge of the settlement. It had sun-yellow roof tiles, and golden spirals decorated the clean white walls. Its doors were of wood painted gold as well, ornately carved and set in the building. A herb garden lay in front of it. All the other houses didn’t differ from each other that much. The entirity of the village was fenced with thin, scattered stakes and bramble bushes. Several houses had creepers bearing plump melons or fruits on them, and most had small gardens out front. With the rising sun, windows and doors began to open, and the village slowly came to life.
Lozan was already wide awake, sparring with his cousin in the training yard. Steel clashed and sparks flew, and the two were already sweating.
Lozan was sixteen, nearly seventeen; Titon was an year older than him, and Temu by a few minutes. The three had bonded over years and blood, although the first time they had killed some bandits, they had been horrified; Titon still hated it, and had chosen to become a Healer as a result. Lozan had just forced himself to get used to it, while Temu seemed to enjoy it - to an extent.
Lozan pivoted about, slamming his foot into Titon’s stomach. The latter let out an “oof”, and went down.
“Dead again,” drawled Temu, sitting with her legs crossed on the steps of the village hall. “Really, Titon, atleast try once in a while to actually hit Lozan.”
He helped their cousin to his feet and dusted him off, grinning. “One day, Titon, you’ll know which end of the sword to hold. Come to me then.” He laughed as Titon swiped for his face and missed.
“Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?” Temu asked playfully, rising to her feet. She scooped up her two knives off the stair where she had left them, then strode to her brother, who backed off, shaking his head. “I don’t think so, sweet sister.”
“Why not?” She leapt at him then, slashing quickly and repeatedly at Lozan’s body. He responded with his own blade, ducking and parrying while trying to keep her from coming any closer. At one point, he rolled to avoid her knife, and as he got up, she slammed her foot into his face. His nose broke, and he clutched his face, falling to his knees.
“Temu!” Titon said, hurrying over to Lozan. Cupping his hands over his cousin’s bloody face, he blew gently. A golden light flowed from his lips and onto Lozan’s face, knitting him back together again. Once his face no longer resembled a mashed tomato, he turned and glared at his sister. “I’ll get you-”
“Don’t bother,” she said with a smirk. “You haven’t got me back for the last time either.”
Lozan was about to retort back, when he spied their mother walking towards them through the houses. Temu and Titon noticed as well, straightening.
Lady Luna took her time, smiling and greeting everyone she saw on the way. Her golden hair was neatly pulled back into a bun and adorned with fowers. She had Borean features; arching, slender eyebrows, aquiline noze, high cheekbones, and red lips that parted now in a smile. Only her eyes were the same as theirs. She was taller than most of the southern women here, and called the most beautiful as well, but wore modest cotten clothes of plain colours with little or no jewellery.
When she reached them at last, she nodded and said, “Daemon has sent word of his approach; he’ll be here by noon. He asked that Titon and other healers ride out and meet them at Sky Creek, though, because apparently he has wounded warriors with him. The two of you should go with him.”
“Of course, mother,” said the twins, while Titon dipped his head. It had been two days since they had brought back the corpses to the village; it would be a relief to see the hunting party back as well.
“You’re not leaving until you’ve had a proper breakfast, though, so don’t you start gallavanting about just yet,” Luna said, smiling slightly at their crestfallen faces. “Titon, your mother is preparing your satchel. Eat quickly then go get it from her.”
An couple of hours later, the three of them, along with four other healers, were cantering through the leaves on their horses, heading for Sky Creek. The wind tousled Lozan’s black hair, and he closed his eyes to breathe in the smells of their world. Theirs was the ancient Emeril Forest, one of rolling, vermillion hills, with little or no broken land. Many of the trees were immense, with younger ones scattered around them like fawning children. Their trunks would need three men stretched out to be circled, and they reared their green tops high into the sky, home to hundreds of birds, squirrels, insects and other animals. Streams and small lakes dotted the landscape, watering the forest and giving life to its denizens. The forest dwellers lived mostly at peace with those in the open, trading with them frequently but considering themselves free people despite the borders of kingdoms running through their homes, and having their own leaders called the Yavole. Eruza was situated in the prosperous kingdom of Alhallon, ruled by the Radcliffes for centuries.
Titon’s voice broke into his thoughts.
“Here we are.”
Their horses slowed as the sound of running water became audible. Looking through the trees, Lozan could make out the blue water and white stones that gave the creek its name. They broke into the open space between trees and water, then stopped in shock.
Across the bank were the remnants of Yavole Daemon’s hunting party, seven members. Four wore makeshift bandages soaked through with blood, and had a subdued air around them as they moved around their makeshift camp. Three lay beside the fire, too wounded to move. Then one of them saw the relief group, and raised hand and voice in greeting.
Lozan felt his stomach clench at the sight as he urged his horse forward with Titon and Temu. Their father and Titon’s had been in the group, but there was no sign of them. His worry reflected on his sister and cousin’s faces as they crossed the water and dismounted to tend to the hunting party. No questions were asked; first aid was their priority. Salves and potions were quickly handed out, with magic used only for the worst cases, and then Lozan saw his father and uncle, both lying on dry grass beside the fire. Their faces were a sickly white and contorted with pain, chests bound tightly with reeking bandages.
Lozan tried to call out to Titon to come to them, but he could make no sound, mouth moving uselessly as he tried to form words. There was no need, however; Titon brushed past him quickly and knelt beside Yavole Daemon, hands glowing gold. His face scrunched up in concentration as he removed the bandages and pressed his palms against the wound, a grisly mess of blood and purple flesh that made Temu sick to see and smell. She covered her mouth and turned away.
After a moment, Titon moved on to his own father and repeated the process. Once he was done, he rose, pale and shaking.
“How are they?” One of the women who had gone with Daemon, Haina, asked.
“Not good,” said Titon, wiping his mouth. “The poison isn’t anything I’ve seen before, and my magic seems unable to rid their bodies of it. I’ve only managed to slow the process.”
Haina’s face showed no surprise at this. Rather, she seemed to have had her fears confirmed, and she turned away from them. Temu’s hand found her brother’s, and she gave it a reassuring squeeze. They both glanced at Titon, now bent over the third wounded person. His face was grey, but he seemed determined not to think about the implications of the poison.
As the sun rose in the sky, the healers finished their work and began helping the now partially recovered villagers onto their horses to head back. Only the Yavole and his brother Endion were still unconscious, and they were strapped to a makeshift sled to be carried back to the village. The company set off as fast as the sled could allow, hoping to make it back to the village by dusk. Lozan’s mind was whirling. Of all the wounded, only Daemon and Endion had been poisoned. And what had happened anyway?
He trotted up beside Haina and asked her that very question.
“Not now. Wait until we meet Lady Luna.”
He tried again with some of the others, but they either stared at him blankly or echoed Haina. Temu and Titon fell in beside him. Temu glanced at him. “Any luck?”
“We’ll just have to wait, then.” Titon said grimly. They rode the rest of the way in silence, worry gnawing away at them.
“We didn’t expect more than eight or nine at most in their little camp, but there were at least two dozen of them. Half of them only turned up after we attacked, making our initial kills worthless. If it weren’t for the Yavole and his brother’s powers, we’d have been massacred. As it was, Ethe, Sal, and Dorrol didn’t make it, though they went down fighting like true warriors. Once Yavole Daemon unleashed his anger, the bandits scattered like mice, running while we took them with our arrows. And then he was shot. With a crossbow, too, of exceptionally fine make.” Haina gestured, and one of the men beside her walked forward and knelt, showing Luna the weapon. It was silvery and rather heavy, erasing her doubts. “Dwarven steel in the hands of mere bandits?”
“Exactly our thoughts, milady. After quelling the Yavole, they shot his brother as he charged them down. We would have given chase to the handful of survivors, but they set off runes around us, killing Haze, Raven and Twilight, and wounding the rest of us. But we still got one of the crossbowmen.”
Luna’s frown deepened. “Runes. How sure are you that they didn’t just have a mage?”
“I saw a few runestones when that Alfheimir merchant came by to our village.”
“So you recognized the runes in the bandits’ camp. Then why didn’t you-”
“We only noticed a few seconds before they were set off, Lady Luna. They began to glow.”
Luna sat still. They were gathered in the village hall. Her son and daughter flanked her wooden chair, listening quietly, along with Titon’s mother, Orchid. The inside of the structure was simple, with benches arranged around five chairs, all but hers and Orchid’s empty. The floor was a bright bloom of coloured tiles and chips of smooth stone, playing out random patterns that crawled across the room and onto the white walls of the building. Light filtered through stained glass windows, casting dappled shadows on the colour-dappled floor.
She was troubled. Her husband and brother-in-law were in the Golden House, where the healers resided, under the watch of several of the best, including Titon. It was the building with yellow roof, doors and spirals. They had not recovered, and the reports were increasingly worse. She had sent out riders to the few other villages in the region, asking for medical aid or information that could save them. Daemon was well-liked by the other Yavole, being an honest and plain man of a steel will and quick wit. Hopefully their friendship would come in use here.
Of course, it may have been a rival leader, or worse, some outlaw who sought to topple Emeril forest’s judiciary. Whoever it was, they were well funded and even better equipped. Even Daemon’s village had practically no Dwarven steel, the only weapon being an ornate dagger that Orchid wore; a wedding gift from her husband.
Luna shifted. “Thank you for your report. Please, take some time to rest and recover. We will speak more of this later.” Haina bowed, then left with her companions. Orchid leaned forward. “I don’t like this one bit.”
“None of us like it, auntie,” Temu said irritably. Orchid shot her a dirty look, but addressed Luna. “I mean that this can’t be a coincidence. Do you remember what happened to our husbands’ cousin? The one who was stabbed by that insane mage?”
Luna felt a chill. Of course. Haroun had been visiting some other village when the incident took place.
“It was a poisoned dagger too. No one could find a cure in time; the boy was dead in a couple days.” This was before Daemon and Endion had married. Daemon had told her once about how he had sat by Haroun’s bed throughout, barely eating or sleeping as his cousin’s life slipped away.
“We can’t assume too much,” she said aloud. “It might not be what you think it is.” And yet a feeling of dread filled her. “But ask the older healers if they remember Haroun’s poisoning. And send a bird to whichever village the incident took place in.”
Please, Daemon, She thought. Don’t follow your cousin. Don’t leave the children. And don’t leave me.