What do you think? Daniel asked Ebona as they raced through the forest, unhindered by the undergrowth.
About the Heart? Ebona asked. Well it’s certainly true, and it’s causing problems. But I’ve got a horrible suspicion that The Core was only ever meant as a stopgap measure until the Heart recovered by its creators and it can’t hold the World together on its own. From what we’ve learned about its flaws, I doubt it will ever accept that.
That’s what I’m thinking as well. Daniel agreed then frowned as he noticed that Ebona was slowing. What’s wrong?
Nothing. She came to a halt by a silvery stream which seemed oddly clear of fallen leaves or similar detritus and switched to speaking aloud. “But this stream is the de facto border between Waldhafen and the territory claimed by the purple dragons. We probably don’t want to cross it.”
“What?” Daniel dismounted and stared back through the forest. “We’ve come a long way. Why?”
“I felt like it,” she said. “And you needed to clear your head. This is the only direction we could travel without crossing the Green River other than the direction the shelters are in, and I didn’t feel like going that way again.” She gave a delicate shudder.
“No,” Daniel agreed and they walked together downstream. From the sweet scent the stream gave off, it was sap as well. “If we follow this we’re going to reach the Green River eventually, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” she said. “It becomes a small river itself before then, apparently, and the confluence is the closest the dragons’ territory comes to Waldhafen.”
“And you know this how?” he asked.
She gave a little neighing chuckle at his expression. “I spoke to Shadavar before we left to get an idea where it would be safe to go and make sure the path would be cleared.”
“Oh, good idea.”
They continued walking in companionable silence for a few minutes when a distant crash from across the stream, followed by screams and the sounds of a fight, made them stop.
“What the hell?” Daniel turned in that direction as a young wood haltia – probably ten or so – came pelting towards them. She was carrying a purple eyed goblin toddler which looked mostly Haltia himself and had an even smaller dragon infant in human form strapped to her back. She apparently didn’t notice him and Ebona yet, but she did see the stream and skidded to a halt. Daniel took advantage of the moment and wove a concealment for him and Ebona before she sensed them.
She swore fiercely in what he thought was draconic. “Wrong way,” she muttered in what must be one of the Haltia tongues, since he understood it. She seemed to be trying to get her bearings and started along the bank upstream, then cowered back as two svart alfs leapt in front of her.
Daniel had to bite down on his tongue to keep from swearing. Both of them were wearing those damned circlets from Elapyron.
The girl whirled away from them but more emerged from the trees in the direction she’d come from. The girl looked around wildly and seemed to come to a decision and tried to leap across the stream onto the Waldhafen bank – she landed in the sap only a foot shy of of the bank and scrambled up on to the grass. She was barefoot and Daniel could see where the rich sap had burned her skin like acid on even that brief contact. It splashed the goblin toddler as well, but he was unaffected of course. The girl sobbed and hobbled towards the trees, obviously still intent on escaping. As he watched, a soft breeze seemed to ruffle Daniel’s hair even though there was no wind. The girl’s crossing had triggered Waldhafen’s wards.
The circleted alfs milled about uncertainly on the other bank. Given that the circlets made them mindless, Daniel suspected that they had conflicting orders – probably regarding chasing their quarry and not crossing the border. They wouldn’t be able to decide which took precedence. A moment later, an uncircleted Leshy emerged from the trees and surveyed the scene.
“What are you waiting for?” he snapped. “Go after her. She can’t run now.” The alfs obeyed immediately, their boots allowing them to splash through the stream without trouble.
Daniel swore mentally, paralysed by indecision between helping a renegade and a dragon or letting these monsters kill or enslave her. His mind raced frantically as she turned, put down the toddler and drew a small dagger – clearly intending to fight if she couldn’t run. Even though she didn’t stand a chance.
She’s just a child. It’s not her fault she’s been raised as a renegade, he thought. If only she didn’t have that dragon with her. He looked at the baby on her back and his stomach twisted guiltily. But it’s just a baby, as well.
Yes, and none of this mess is its fault, Ebona said reasonably.
You’re right, he said. I wish I’d brought my spear. I wasn’t expecting a fight. He dropped his concealment and leapt between the girl and the alfs.