Colath couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever been so weary and if he was tired, what of the men, Iric and Mortan? They hadn’t the endurance of his folk. Both were thinner in only a few weeks, and there were dark hollows beneath their eyes and a dullness. Travel bread could sustain you but it wasn’t meant to replace real food and they hadn’t seen such in nearly a week. That had consisted of the one game they had scared up, a solitary rabbit that had somehow stayed hidden in these hills. Jalila had gotten it with one shot. The rabbit hadn’t been large.
Of other game, they saw only carcasses rotting in the sun. Boggins or boggarts loved entrails but not much else.
They had to get away from the borderlands and soon but that was becoming more difficult with each passing day. The line between the borderlands and the rest of the Kingdoms had blurred. Narrowly missing an encounter with a firbolg, they’d also avoided an ogre and several boggins. They’d spent a day or so upon a tor, looked down the slopes from the rocks at its crown to watch as a troop of boggarts passed below them. Thankfully, they hadn’t picked up on their scent or were so intent on their own quarrels they hadn’t noticed. Without warning, a trio of the boggarts had leaped upon another and torn it to shreds. When they were gone a salamander had crept out from the rocks at the base of the hill where it had been hiding and made a fine meal of what the other boggarts hadn’t finished.
Manticores, they learned, hunted in prides much like some desert cats. The one they’d first seen had likely been a solitary young male, if they held true to that comparison.
All were far out of their normal ranges and too many in number.
A firbolg come down from the high ranges you would see once or twice a year, perhaps, after a hard winter. Young boggins and boggarts weren’t uncommon and most often the reason for the Hunters. The smart ones learned their lesson and fled back to the borderlands screaming their frustration and defiance. Stupid ones died. Kobolds came once a season, maybe. Ogres and trolls once or so every few years. As for goblins, this wasn’t their territory so much as north and east but every few years a new leader would come along and gather them all up for a raid. It would take a small army of Hunters to rout them and send them running back to their own lands again, never without there being wounded on both sides. Thankfully, they’d seen no trolls yet, nor goblins. So few in number, he and his small party would never have stood a chance against them, not with men in their party.
They’d see enough and more than enough, both north and south. Time to go home, to return to Aerilann. It’s the how that’s difficult, he thought, as he brooded beneath the overhang and stared out into the night.
Somewhere not far enough away something screamed at the darkness.
They’d run across a trail of a number of orcs running before them.
Behind, of course and in both other directions, was more of the same.
The orcs, those monstrous, bear-like things with their oddly hinged jaws were more than his small party could face, particularly Iric and Mortan. Despite their protest, he and the two other elves had taken their watch this night. In the end, both men had to admit they were too weary to be useful. What tricks men used to stay alert had long since worn off. They were completely exhausted, and both now slept deeply.
Alic gestured a warning and Colath tensed.
They’d had many nights like these, startled into alertness by some sign or strange noise. Once they’d had to kill a basilisk looking for a temporary den. Alic had been caught and frozen, to his shame, before the glare in those eyes.
That was the basilisk’s magic, their method for capturing their prey.
No shame to him, though, as basilisks here were as common as salamanders – that is, not common at all. They were southeastern creatures.
Then Colath caught the scent of what alarmed Alic, a faint stinging in his nostrils. A boggart or boggarts, and near. He nudged Jalila gently. She rolled over, instantly aware and awake.
The two men were so deeply asleep they dared not nudge them to consciousness for fear they would cry out. As cruel as it was, it was still much better to press a hand over their mouths and frighten them awake than it was to risk an outcry. He nodded to Jalila to wake Iric, while he went to Mortan.
Mortan bucked beneath his hand, but then his eyes opened enough to see Colath’s face in the dim glow cast by elf-light. Abruptly, he subsided, but he looked more alert than he had in several days, the little bit of sleep and fright charging him with energy. It wouldn’t last, Colath knew, beyond a few hours. He hoped it would be enough.
Tapping his sword, he drew it, so the two men could see it. Nodding, they drew their own.
With a quick gesture, he sent Jalila and her bow to the back of the tumble of rocks that arched around them. Sheltered there beneath the overhang, she had a good defensive position from which to shoot and to guard the horses. Although Elves could and did run for miles, the men couldn’t, and Colath didn’t want to think of any of them afoot in this country.
Alic stood with Iric on one side of the entry, he and Mortan at the other.
There was little else to do. Boggarts were dark-skinned and stealthy. To venture out was to risk themselves foolishly.
A tumble of wood stood where the rocks ended, but Colath hesitated to light it.
Once lit, it would be a beacon for any other creatures that prowled the night. He hadn’t lit it earlier for fear the smell of smoke would draw more than the fire would repel. Most of these creatures hated and feared fire, but they also seemed to know that where there was fire there were men and Elves. He hadn’t wanted to invite attention.
If the boggart or boggarts attacked, they might have no choice, depending on how it went. It was unlikely to go well or unnoticed. Typically, boggarts screamed when they attacked, an unnerving shriek that was intended to shatter the nerves of their prey if it were unwary enough to be caught off guard. That shriek alone would often send prey flying from cover. Colath hoped he wouldn’t hear it. If he did, they were in serious trouble. While not as thick-skinned as the manticore, their skin was thick enough to keep an arrow from driving too deeply if the shot was off a hair. The swords of men could glance off if their aim wasn’t true. For that Elven steel worked better. Add long arms, sharp claws and wicked teeth and you had a formidable opponent even for Elves.
If it came to a real fight, they would have to run, at night, as dangerous as that was. There was no choice. The sounds of battle would carry. Like the salamander they’d watched, there would be those who would be drawn to the noise for a chance at the offal.
Orcs didn’t see well at night, unlike boggarts. With any luck they wouldn’t stir and the party might get past them.
An unearthly shriek rang out.
Instinct warned him.
Elon of Aerilann, Elven advisor to the High King of Men, helped negotiate the treaty between Elves, Dwarves and men. He suddenly finds that fragile truce threatened from without by an unknown enemy and from within by old hatreds and prejudice. With the aid of his true-friend Colath, the wizard Jareth and the Elven archer Jalila, he goes in search of the source of the threat.
Ailith, the Heir to Riverford, fights her own silent battle. Her father has changed, but her quest to discover what changed him puts her life and very soul in danger and leaves her only one direction in which to turn. Elon.
To preserve the alliance though, Elon will have to choose between his honor, his duty and everything for which he fought.
Buy The Coming Storm by Valerie Douglas on Amazon and Goodreads.
Also available in the series:
A Convocation of Kings (The Coming Storm, #2)
Not Magic Enough (The Coming Storm, #3 (Novella))
Setting Boundaries (The Coming Storm, #4(Novella))
Happily married, she’s companion to two dogs, four cats and an African clawed frog named Hopper who delights in tormenting the cats from his tank.
You can find more information at Valerie Douglas Books, or at Alexandria Publishing Group.