The rustling in the leaves was never a good sign. The woods were a quiet place normally and any change to them lead to trouble. A ginger haired maiden sighed into the wind outside her tiny cottage dwelling. It grew darker by the moment. A hand went to the dragon talon necklace that was always around her neck. She tended to touch it whenever she grew nervous. This was her first time alone out there in all those years. Isolated completely from society. Granted, she knew how to get to the nearest city if she needed to but it would take days to arrive even then. There did happen to be a clan of elves a bit closer should anything happen. These elves did not usually take kindly to humans but her father had a good rapport with them, and as did she. He was friends with several of them, in fact, and upon his passing they had offered their deepest sympathies. They had even offered to give assistance if she were to need it in her future alone.
"But wont you be moving into the city? Surely you won't want to live out here all by your lonesome." She had been asked by Edda, a fair-haired maiden of an elf who was much older than herself but looked roughly the same age.
"No, its very far, and I am not well versed in human customs. I grew up with the trees of the wood!" She had responded with a smile.
That was the truth. Her short twenty-three years had been masked by trees and greenery. Although, that had not always been the case. She remembered living by the sea at one point, herself and her father. They had a small dwelling on a cliffside not far from the city of Sapphirus. Creator, it was so beautiful, those rolling waves and sea salt air. She could not now remember why they were forced to move. In her defense, she had been quite young, seven maybe and much had happened since then. A storm, perhaps? No, that didn't feel right. That would always be home to her, as much as she knew and understood the woods.
She went back inside and extinguished the last candle with a wave of her hand.
Some hours later, there was a knock to her door. It was after midnight, she could see that from the position of the moon in the sky. Groaning slightly, she heaved herself from her bed and lit the candles about her home one by one to the door as she went.
"Who goes there?" She asked behind the door, a fireball at the ready in her hand.
"My name is Nicodemus. I mean you no harm, dear lady." He sounded old, weary.
She opened the door to find him not alone, however. Several elves stood behind him. They all looked exhausted and out of breath. Not to mention, injured. The fireball did not extinguish in her hand.
"My companions and I have come a long way, and have farther to go. We seek only your assistance in borrowing your barn for the evening, and then we will be on our way." It began to drip rain upon them as he spoke.
"The barn is not a good place to rest." She shook her head and allowed the fireball to dissipate. "But my home is open to you. I've been expecting company." His face grew suspicious. "This is a quiet forest. When the trees start to get restless something is afoot. I was not wrong in taking that sign. Please, come in before your injuries catch you a cold. I'll put on some hot soup, you all look hungry."
One by one, they filtered in. The old man, a warrior, a beautiful elven woman, two half-elves-now that she could see them more clearly-and one who hid himself in a cloak of shadows.
"You don't have to hide, Sunshine." She told him as she closed the door. "There is no prejudice here." That seemed to reassure him, and sure as she had guessed he had the appearance of a dark elf.
"Thank you, I do not get that often."
"Had you been alone I may have thought otherwise at first, but if your companions trust you, then so do I." She admitted. "Make yourselves at home, please."
"Thank you for opening your home to us. Especially at such a late hour." Nicodemus thanked her.
"It is nothing. I've been alone for some time, it is nice to actually speak to someone other than the animals for once." She smiled. "Ladies, you may sleep in the loft up above if you wish. Its more comfortable than down here."
"We do not wish to impose any more than we have," the fair-hared elven woman spoke up.
"It is truly no trouble, Starshine." The redhead shook her head. "I am sorry, I should introduce myself. Serafino Kacela."
"Duncan," The one she had called Sunshine waved. "And you know Nicodemus," She nodded. "Kira," he gestured to Starlight. "Velias," the warrior. "Talisen," the male half elf. "And Marin." The half-elf ginger.
"Nice to meet you all." Sera smiled. "Seems as though you've fallen on hard times. Are the dark elves troubling you?" she looked to Duncan. "No offense."
"Non taken." He shook his head.
"We have had some troubles as of late, but nothing we can not handle." Velias assured her.
"Mhm. That explains why you've run off here with your tails between your legs." She jested, but no one laughed. "I can guide you through toe forest more easily, if you wish. I know this forest as well as the elves do."
"That would be far too much, you have already given us your home." Her fellow ginger told her. "I wouldn't want you to get into trouble."
"They don't bother me if I don't bother them. Besides that, if you've really been running as hard as you look like you have they must be after you for some reason. I wont let them have you then. They do enough damage without getting any knock back."
"Are you sure it is wise? If they already leave you alone…" Nicodemus waited for her response.
"Of course." Sera nodded. "I have made considerations about moving closer to the sea for some time now, perhaps this is my chance to do so."
"This trip will be dangerous." Talisen warned her, almost sounding as though opposed to the idea. He didn't trust her, it seemed, and rightfully. This was a group who had seen some things in their travels, Sera could tell.
"I can defend myself, Pretty Boy. Did you not see that fireball in my hand when I answered the door? That could have been flung into that pretty hair of yours. I am also trained with a sword. I do not fear the journey. I fear taking the journey alone."
"Then it is settled." Nicodemus said. Usually he would have been against this but the woman seemed to know what she was on about. Furthermore, he could sense the intense aura of magic around her. Humans did not usually posses such strong amounts of magic, especially in such a raw form. Truly, he was curious to this girl's intentions. It wasn't as though he wouldn't keep an eye on her.
Talisen seemed to disagree, and put himself beside his fellow half-elf protectively, although he did not openly say so. Even Velias inched toward her when he thought no one was looking, most particularly Sera. Whatever the dark elves wanted, it was with Marin, Sera figured that much.
"Now, how about a meal, and then we can get some sleep." Sera suggested. "You will need your energy."
"May I assist you?" Kira perked up.
'Must be the one who keeps them running' Sera thought to herself. "Of course, Starlight." Sera nodded. "Ive got everything we should need…"
The midmorning found Sera throwing some of the few things she would want to take with her into a pack. A change of clothes, some food, all the coin hidden variously around the house, and then the rest from around the cottage. Finally she strapped her sword to her hip and was ready to depart. The others were still gathering themselves from having truly rested for the first time in weeks, and Sera herself was not so much in a hurry as she just wanted to be ready.
"Nicodemus," She asked when he came outside to see how things were going. "Where is your group heading? I'll need a direction."
"We are trying to get to Garnetsia." He answered.
"I haven't been there in nearly a year. I wonder how Hanna and the children are." She wondered aloud. "All right. It will still take a while, but we can make it work."
"I will need to train my apprentice along the way, if that is all right." Nicodemus told her.
"Marin? She seems…down, for lack of bettor words." Sera pointed out. "Is something the matter?"
"She recently lost her family. The wound is still very fresh."
"Oh." Sera's green eyes met the ground, and Nicodemus noted the drop in the ginger's mood. "I can relate. My father passed recently. The wound never really does heal, it only grows easier to ignore."
"Then you can sympathize with how she's feeling closely then. She may need that in days to come, truth be told."
"I still need it sometimes." Sera half smiled.
"For what it is worth, you do have my sympathies." He told her with a pat on her shoulder.
"Thank you." She perked up. "All right, who's ready to go? I haven't been this excited in a while!"
Heading south from the cottage, the group was met with some rough terrain in the foothills from the mountains.
"Sorry about this." Sera apologized to the group behind her. "But we have the home field advantage up here in the foothills, especially at night. Too many places to fall off to your death if you aren't careful."
"It is a rather sound strategy." Duncan agreed, helping Kira over a set of particularly wobbly rocks.
"Even better," Sera went on. "There is a flat to camp on for the evening, since it is getting dark, and its easily defendable due to the cliff on one side. Father and I used to camp here all the time before things got too bad."
"What do you mean by that?" Marin asked.
"Well, since were on the border of Milluria right now—well, were close to it anyways—the dark elves took it upon themselves to start taking everything from the area. That's including the hunting. What was my father to do with just me out here? So we had to stop coming to this place. I tried to get him to come when I started throwing fireballs but he wouldn't have it. Told me they'd probably execute me on the spot for trying to fry them like fish and he didn't want to risk it."
"That was a wise decision it seems." Duncan snorted.
"When did you start being able to use magic?" Marin asked with an air of curiosity.
"It was…not long after we moved from the sea, I believe, I remember so little of that time for some reason. Father said it was his punishment for taking me away from my home. That I must have been truly so angry that it awakened something in me. But I still don't know for sure. If he knew anything about it, he took it with him to the grave."
"I see." Marin nodded.
When they stopped to secure camp, Marin offered to help Sera gather some firewood, which Talisen looked about to protest to until Nicodemus had him and Velias go scout the area to be sure of their safety for the moment.
"So, you're the old man's apprentice, eh?" Sera raised a brow, picking up sticks that were not too dampened by the rain of the night before.
"Yes, Nicodemus is teaching me the ways of magic."
"Right on." Sera nodded. "I'm glad you have such a caring teacher, he worries about you a lot, I can tell."
"I am too. He's been very patient with me." Marin smiled, the first Sera had seen. "Who taught you magic? I mean, how did you develop it? Your father was not a mage, was he?"
"My father could hardly make a hearth warm!" Sera laughed. "No, when I started setting things on fire, at first he was intimidated. But then we took a trip to the nearest elven clan and asked them if they had anything that might help me. They had some books and one of the older elves who was skilled in the use of healing magic helped me pick up how to control it at least. I'm afraid I cant help if you need a healer though, I tried and tried for years and I never could pick it up. Fire is too raw for me to figure out anything softer."
"Velias and Kira are very skilled healers, as it were." Marin told her. "I just think it interesting that fire happens to be the element that I am attempting to master, and here you are, hardly older than myself, and you have it down."
"Don't be down on yourself, it took me a long time to get this. You'll get it. If I can be of assistance in our travels together, I will gladly do so."
"I appreciate that." Marin smiled again. "We should get back before they send out the search party."
"Most likely." Sera agreed, adjusting the sticks in her arms before following Marin back to camp.
Talisen and Velias watched the exchange from the shadows and both seemed to agree silently that Sera could be trusted. For the moment.
Sera watched Marin and Duncan spar from atop a small bounder not far away later that evening. The sun had set a bit ago, but the light from the campfire was enough to give them light. Sera had never seen a dark elf fight before, let alone actually fought one. Duncan was quick on his feet. It was clear that Marin had been practicing though, her movements were much quicker than what Sera's would have been.
"He's rather quick, isn't he?" Sera said down to Kira, who had come to stand beside the bounder to watch.
"Yes he is." Kira smiled. "You should see him in a real fight. He becomes something else entirely. More defensive."
"I've been meaning to ask you, actually, are you two…?" Sera raised a brow at the elf.
"Yes. Duncan is my betrothed." Kira affirmed.
"I'm happy for you then." Sera smiled at her. "Although if he's half as fast in bed as he is on the field, then you have my sympathies as well."
"Wa—I-I," Kira sputtered, blushing.
Sera burst into laughter. "I'm sorry Starlight, I went too far. That was rude."
Kira cleared her throat and straightened herself out. "It is okay."
"What did I miss?" Duncan had suddenly appeared beside them. Kira turned red again and made some excuse about making something to eat and walked away. "What…"
"I ah, made a joke, and she is a bit compromised by it." Sera grinned awkwardly, fiddling with her necklace. "I'll refrain from that in the future."
"Do I want to know?"
Sevweral days later, they had no choice but to hide out in a small cave from the rain that decided to pour in the late evening. They were drenched and cold, no matter how hot Sera got the fire, her companions seemed cold. While wet, she was not all that affected by the cold. That would of course change when she ran out of energy to keep herself warm. Deciding to take point and keep watch for the moment since she was the only one not actively catching hypothermia, save perhaps for Marin, she sat herself at the mouth of the cave in wait.
"Are you sure you do not wish me to do this?" Velias asked from behind her, making her jump.
"Goodness! Battering ram, warn a lady before you sneak up on her."
Velias frowned. "That was the best you could come up with?"
So far, Sera had named everyone. Marin was now Wallflower, and Nicodemus was Old Man Grump. Even Marin's grandfather, whom she didn't actually know what his name was, had a nickname; Papa Elf. Velias had gone unnamed thus far.
"Well, I would have liked to call you sunshine, but alas the nickname fits Duncan rather well." She shrugged. "I don't think yours will stick. It will most likely change several times before I find the right one."
He leaned on the cave wall. "Or you could just call me by my name."
"But that isn't as fun." She grinned widely.
"I'm sorry, if it truly offends you, then I will call you by name." Sera told him. "But no, I am fine up here. You should rest, if we are attacked you're going to need it."
"What about you? I haven't seen you fight, but you seem able bodied enough."
"True, but I will be fine. I just remind myself that this is like hunting. You never really sleep when you're hunting."
"All right. I will be with the others then if you wish to trade."
The woods grew quiet again that night. Sera's guard was on high. On a whim, she stepped outside the safety of the mough of the cave when the rain ceased, but that was a mistake on her part. Their persuers had caught up, somehow. One slipped around her and knocked her feet out from under her and several others stormed the cave.
"Bring the princess back alive!" The elf attacking Sera barked a reminder at the others.
"Ve—mm!" She tried to warn them but took a swift kick in the side. Thinking quickly, she lit her hand for light, blinding the poor dark elf above her for long enough to sink her blade deep within her gut. There was a scream, Kira it sounded like. "Damn," Sera's side ached but she made herself follow the attackers on pure adrenaline alone. By the time she arrived, the others had taken care of the intruders, and sera used a rock to lean on. "I'm sorry, they surprised me,"
"Then what good are you at keeping watch?" Talisen snapped at her.
"I realize now that maybe I should have had more keen of eyes with,"
"Now? Marin could have been hurt, Kira, any of us and you didn't really think about it?"
"I'm sorry." She hung her head. "Is everyone all right?"
"Nothing I can't heal." Kira assured the human quietly, hovering her hands over a jagged wound in Duncan's arm. He had leapt to her defense just in time, it seemed.
"The closest village will come before nightfall tomorrow." Sera said. "I will part with you there. Velias, it might be a good idea to switch for the night." She rolled into her sleep roll away from the others and heard Talisen mutter, "It's a bit late for that."
Sera tried all night to make sense of what the elf had said. 'Princess'? Which one of them was a princess? Kira seemed the type honestly. But Sera just had a sinking suspicion that it was Marin. The way they all seemed to act around her just made the idea come to life. Yet, she did not really want to ask. After her failure the night before, she just wanted to make up for it somehow. If not asking questions was it, then so be it.
Oh, but the curiosity nagged at her. A princess from where? What was she even doing out here? Sera hadn't even been aware that there was a princess to any of the kingdoms. Finally, over lunch in a shaded glen, she burst out, "I know I shouldn't ask, and I don't deserve to know, but one of the elves last night said something about a princess and don't try and tell me I misheard. I didn't."
The group all looked at one another and then back at her. She was so blunt about it. No one seemed willing to speak up, but Marin decided that it was all right.
"They were after me." She explained. "My full name is Marin Draconya, and I am the hair to the Millurian throne, as well as the Ever Kingdom."
"I…" Sera was astounded. "Damn."
"I am also a Dragon Guardian."
"No kidding?" Sera gripped her necklace. "Those…aren't just tales my father tried to tell me?"
"Not unless you think I don't exist."
"You are very much real and in the flesh, that's for sure." Sera breathed. "I see why all the subtlety."
"Then you can understand why you were not informed until now." Nicodemus said.
"Of course, that's not the sort of thing you just tell people. I didn't realize there even was a princess. This changes nothing though, you're still a bit of a Wallflower."
"That will take time to change." Marin said.
"So then, am I to understand that it's not just a group of dark elves that is after you, but the Bitch Elf herself?"
"That is indeed the case." Kira affirmed.
"Ah. Well, it's a good thing I'm moving anyhow then. My cottage is most likely burned to the ground as we speak."
"Sorry about that." Duncan apologized. "We did warn you though."
"I'm not upset." Sera shook her head. "It needed to happen. The plan is still in place though, I will be departing you at the village."
"Do I have your word to not tell a soul?" Marin eyed the human.
"You have it on my honor as a fellow fire mage and ginger that I wont tell a single living soul."
"Like you said you'd keep watch." Talisen rolled his eyes quietly. No one heard him, but his distrust for the woman grew as time went on.
Right after dark they made their destination, and Sera was quick to buy herself a horse as they others secured rooms for the evening. She stayed a spell to chat over dinner.
"Are you sure you don't want to come with us?" Marin asked.
"I'm sure. Not because I don't want to. I just…I feel like there is something I need to do first, but I don't know what it is exactly…?"
"I understand." Marin sighed. "But you can join us again, at any time."
"I enjoy the offer." Sera smiled. "I should go, though. If I ride hard tonight I should be able to make it some of the way to Sapphirus."
"Why go there, the sea is right here." Kira pondered the woman's decision."
"My father and I used to live there, but I have no memory of why we left. I'd like to learn the reason."
"I see. Will you be all right on your own?"
"Of course, my ability to get into trouble will also get me out of it."
"Or get you killed." Duncan pointed out. "You and I never did have a chance to sparr on the way."
"I will actually regret that, of all things. My one encounter with dark elves in battle and I failed into the epic proportions, which I am still so very sorry about."
"Talisen was just afraid. He will forgive you in time, I'm sure." Marin said encouragingly.
"You'll make a fine queen yet." Sera grinned. "I'll see you when I see you next, then?"
"Yes." Marin waved as Sera stood at the door.
"Sounds like a plan." She winked and slipped off out of sight into the night.
'Fancy that, meeting a princess of all things.' Sera smiled to herself as she rode through the night. 'I hope her time in Garnetsia is all right though, they have been hit particularly hard by all this…'