All right. Whoever was betting I wouldn’t be able to make it a week without writing, you won. I am dusting off an old story I started a long time ago.
It was a time of magic and murder, but for today, this one day, Jia decided it would be a time of music.
She stepped out of the tree and laid her hand on the trunk for a brief moment just like her family had for generations untold. The touch was soft and gentle, but even so there was a burnished place worn into the massive oak where many hands had offered many thanks.
Wood elves were a natural part of their surroundings. They even looked somewhat like them. As Jia rested her hand on the worn spot for a moment, she watched it seamlessly blend into the wood. She could have hidden and become a part of her surroundings, but this was different. Even away from the tree her skin would always be the same pale ivory as the heartwood. Her cousin who lived in a hummock a few leagues away. Jenlin always had that green tinge, making people who weren’t familiar with hummock dwellers think the poor thing was sick.
She kicked a stone from her path as she strolled toward the garden. Even Jenlin was more fortunate than the cave-dwelling elves with their pale silver skin that matched the pristine quartz from which their homes were carved by nature with just a little elven assistance. She wouldn’t want to glitter and sparkle like that even though many outsiders were instantly smitten by the exotic cavers.
No, better to be a wooder. There was plenty of variation with all the different types of wood. She had no desire to be beautiful or exotic…or green.
She just wanted to be a great bard. Now if she could just convince Zorin and Myndel she wasn’t going to be a fighter. She was supposed to practice in the warrior’s hall this morning, but she didn’t feel like training today. It was springtime. She wanted to pick flowers and berries and make some tarts and maybe even a birthday cake for Lily. It was almost time for her naming and the two old trainers still drilled her as hard as any young warrior. Perhaps when she was 18 seasons and named, they would realize she was a bard and not a fighter.
She felt the tiny prick in her ear about the same time she heard the tinkling sound of pixie wings. “I have you, bard. Surrender now or forfeit your life.”
Jia laughed and swatted at the creature on her shoulder. “Go away, Lily, before I squash you like a bug.”
The pixie laughed and sat down on her shoulder. Jia glanced at her luminous form. “You’re glowing again.”
“I always glow when I’m happy. Mother says I need to control my emotions better.”
“Sashya’s right. You announce your presence like a beacon and you know how some people feel about pixies.”
“I know. We are hunted without mercy for our dust and know the sheriff pays for our wings.”
“Yes, he’s increased the bounty on pixies again. What did you pixies do to him?”
The minute creature giggled in her ear. “It might have something to do with one of his children developing pronounced pixie features.”
Jia raised an eyebrow as the pixie on her shoulder laughed so hard she nearly fell off. “I don’t even want to know how that is possible.”
“Of course you do, but you’re too young. I’ll tell you about pixie elder pranks when you’re older.”
“I can’t wait.”
Jia unfurled the whip with a flick of her wrist. She liked the feel of it. The handle molded to her small hand, becoming an extension of her. Energy raced through the lash and up her arm.
The old elf stood before her, apparently inspecting the edge of his blade. Jia cracked the whip and it sang out less than an inch from his left ear. Like many old ones, hair sprouted from his pointed ears like a bushy, gray nest of moss. She snickered to herself as she wondered if the hair was slightly shorter now.
“Forgive me, master,” she said unable to hide a wide grin. “A wasp was buzzing about. I didn’t want you to be distracted and hurt yourself in practice.” Anger flashed in his brown eyes, but she thought there might be a hint of approval also.
“Put the whip down. I want you to practice with a staff today.”
“You know I never use a staff or club. Besides, I only came by to pay my respects. I’ve decided to spend the morning baking. It’s too pretty to be indoors. I’m going to go forage some fruits and bake pies.”
His face flushed purple in rage. “And will your pretty tarts save your life when some centurian decides he needs a new slave for the mines? Mayhaps one of those ungodly dakhas will spare you from the sacrificial altar long enough for you to bake some cakes?”
He paced the worn floor of the practice lodge. His overly long ears, all old elves had overly long ears, twitched back and forth. He was wearing steel chain armor over his faded green leathers. A slight paunch padded the tunic, but she knew he wasn’t soft. Even at his age, he kept his silver mane shorn close.
The younger men of the tribe often let their hair grow out and Zorin delighted in grabbing them by it and demonstrating how easily and enemy could use it against them. He even used Jia’s long blonde hair to throw her to the ground more than once. It only made her more determined to grow it longer. She wasn’t a warrior, she was a bard. Her training with arms wouldn’t last forever.
He stopped pacing and whirled to face her. “Jia do you have no idea what happened to Sephren? She was as good as any I have ever trained and that dark one still managed to capture her. your sister was tortured for weeks until she got away. I will not let that happen to you,” he screamed. “You will learn to fight as good as any warrior in this tribe.” He tossed the staff in the corner. “Fine, you don’t want to practice with the staff. You know better than your trainer what you need. Put the whip down,” he bellowed.
Jia dropped the whip in surprise just as his sword sliced toward her midsection. His foot kicked the whip out of her reach, but his eyes never left her face. More from habit than thought, she jerked her cloak off. She ducked his next blow and rolled out of danger. Now slightly behind him, her cloak flew over his head, but the old elf was too experienced for the maneuver and sidestepped the makeshift net.
She backed across the training room; her senses springing to life as she realized he wasn’t playing. She could feel each board beneath her boots. Her feet warned her of dangerous pockets and edges, which might trip her. Zorin often loosened boards and bolts in the floor, hoping to trip unsuspecting trainees. She was wise to his trick and felt her way along the floor. The smell of blood assaulted her sharpened senses. It was old blood from previous practice sessions, but she wasn’t too sure she wasn’t about to freshen it.
Zorin backed her across the lodge, bashing her with his great silver shield and slashing constantly. Her sister’s armor deflected most of the sword blows, but it couldn’t deflect the pain. Thankfully, he was using a practice sword or she would probably have been sliced to ribbons by now.
To her right, she could see Mendyl watching with mild interest. He was a grouchy old elf, but she felt sure he would help her get a weapon if she could just get close enough to him. Her foot flew out and hit Zorin behind the knee, dropping him to the ground momentarily. She used that precious time to run to Mendyl.
“Mendyl, help me. He’s trying to kill me. Give me a weapon.”
“No, Jia,” the other trainer said. “I don’t know what you did to Zorin, but I’ll not interfere with him.”
Zorin’s shield crashed into her back, crumpling her at Mendyl’s feet. She looked over through a haze of pain and saw Mendyl shift a heavy mop with one foot. Her head cleared enough to grab the mop and roll away from Zorin. She clubbed him in the small of the back and then whacked his left knee. He had an old injury, which caused him to limp slightly when the rains came. The pain on his face made her want to run to him and comfort him.
“Oh, Zorin. I’m so sorry.”
He responded by hitting her beside the head with the flat of his sword. Jia ran to the other side of the lodge and jumped out the window. She could hear both men chasing her as she ran behind an inn and across a bridge. They would expect her to go to the lift so she ran up the ramp to a higher platform instead. The trick didn’t throw them off her trail. She peered over the platform edge, growing slightly dizzy at the height. They were getting near. She jumped.
She laid still for a moment, hurting all over. Well, you can still feel that so you aren’t dead. Mendyl was always the pessimist. He would have told her she was nearly dead. Zorin would have told her she always had hope as long as there was the merest sliver of life and she better keep fighting.
The jump would not throw the old trainers off track for long, so she clambered to her feet and started singing a healing song as she ran to the spire woods. She often went there to forage food and watch travelers. It was quiet and she could sit for a moment and heal.
She faced the trail to the spires and leaned back against a huge tree. She was still in pain, but even the slightest sound would lead them to her so she stopped singing. If the trainers were still after her, they would listen for a song. She was safe as long as she stayed hidden.
What had possessed Zorin to attack her? She had never seen him that angry. Sephren had been dead and gone for many years. She died shortly after Jia was born, but it seemed like she was an eternal presence. She lived in the shadow of a ghost.
Perhaps I will die in your shadow. What happened that was so terrible you wanted to die? I can’t live with the hints of your life and the horror of your damnation. Why would a dakha want either of us?
She leaned back against the tree and closed her eyes. She had to return to the training lodge and apologize to Zorin. He was only trying to help her. The smells of the grass and the flowers comforted her soul and she began to relax.
Cold steel sliced into her throat and a voice growled in her ear, “Time to die, young bard.”