Throughout the ages, legends have always been richly embroidered with fantastic creatures; fairies and elves, trolls and giants, dragons and gryphons, phoenixes and shape-shifters. Humans interacted with these creatures in ways both peaceful and violent, battling evil ones, helping or being helped by the good ones. And so the tradition has been passed on, and littles learn of tiny fairies and huge, bat-winged dragons.

But no one ever seems to ask, why are they gone? For while we have changed the fairies and elves into tiny, thumb-high creatures that could easily hide in a garden, the dragons and gryphons would certainly be remarked upon. Yet there are no signs of such an extinction, not from a time when it is possible that humans were around to witness their majesty.

Some thirty thousand years ago, at the time considered the dawn of humanity, five races were dominant. These were the humans, the fey, or fairies, the Aelfen, which we know as elves, the gryphons and the dragons. Each race had different characteristics, each race different strengths and weaknesses, different magics.

And from this time comes a tale, passed on from trayve'lair caid to trayve'lair caid, from parent to child. They call it stra'endza, or world-song, and it is one of their most honored traditions, telling up to the time when the wandering folk swore allegiance to Queen Araethe of Aitlantias.

This is how the tale was told to me, so I shall tell it to you. Make of it what you would.


The band passed over a large hill, following the dusty trails they had followed all their lives. There were about twenty of them, weather-tanned and road-hardened, dressed in plain brown leathers. Much used blades were in plain evidence, slung over a shoulder, hanging from a waist or sheathed in a chest strap. Hardly peaceful looking, though that wasn't their intent. In these dangerous times, a show of arms was usually the best way to stay out of trouble with others.

The youngest of them, a fifteen year-old redhead named Alsan was walking rearguard, watching both the backs of his band's heads and the road behind them. A yew longbow rested on his shoulder; the hawk feather fletched arrows were in the quiver on the other. Almost everything about him was sharp: features, eyes and wit.

He looked back frequently, and his brown eyes searched for any large group of people or a hint of a red so dark it was almost black and dark gold: the colours of Lord Ishtak. Alsan's upper lip curled at the thought of the Lord. That man called his group bandits, while if it hadn't been for him, Alsan still would've had his blood family, and had it not been for the brigands, he wouldn't even have his life.

~ He was five again, and he was playing outside on that cool spring day. It was still morning, and while the sun was long risen, enough dew remained on the grass to make it slippery. Sunlight filtered through the tall oak trees, and he jumped from patch of sunlight to patch of sunlight, his younger sister Kara watching. The two year-old fairy seemed content enough in her little patch, and not at all likely to wander off, so he largely ignored her.

As he reached the farthest patch, one next to the old wooden fence, he reached a hand out to steady himself. The wood was damp, and much to his delight; the spot in which he landed was wonderfully muddy. Squelching his toes in the cool, sticky mud and wondering how much of it he could get on himself without getting into trouble, he heard hoof steps on the nearby road and looked up to see two men leading horses come up and lean on the fence, talking quietly and often glancing at the two of them.

From their facial features they were both human, though one was tall and slim and the other was short and muscular. They both had plain brown hair and brown eyes, and the lad scorned them. His mother was a vivid woman, with striking auburn hair and arched eyebrows of the same colour. His father was also a redhead, though his hair was a fiery, red-gold colour that rarely showed up out of his family.

Just Ishtak's men, Alsan thought. They were a common sight in the eastern area, mostly in pairs, and they all wore the same red-black and deep gold. They left after a moment and he forgot about them. Already bored with the mud, he concentrated instead on seeing if he could reach the next patch of sunlight – and an interesting looking stone – without the help of his wings. He was still fairly small, and so were his wings, though they could support him well enough. They were about two feet in length and a pale brown like elm wood. Like the rest of his body, they would grow with him, eventually reaching over six feet like his father's did.

Alsan's father, a mercenary-turned-merchant – and thus rarely argued with – was quiet that night over dinner. When his mother asked what was wrong, however, he just nodded at Alsan and Kara. Alsan supposed that it had something to do with work, then. They were sent to bed early, and neither of them complained, sensing that something was wrong. When he clambered under the woolen blanket, though, he had a faint moment of apprehension. Shoving it out of mind, he drifted off to sleep.

He awoke to a strange smell, one that reminded him of winter. Like wood fire, or the great bonfires that the village had at midwinter and midsummer…He sat upright, and realized that it was fire! He crawled out of the low bed to see if his parents knew, and was knocked back by the fiery inferno when he reached the door. After trying twice more, he climbed out the window and landed with a thump. It was not danger to him, he'd snuck out of the house often enough to play with the neighbor's children, and had easily perfected it. Looking towards the neighbors' homes, he saw flames flickering from their roofs. Knowing instinctively that if this many homes were ablaze at once, it could not be an accident, he hid in an old barrel, though he watched the door to see if Kara or his parents would exit.

After a depressing half hour of watching the flames grow steadily higher and brighter, then start to dim, he hunched his small shoulders and turned his back to the opening of the barrel. Under his breath he began to softly keen the death-song of his people, using the word that had been sung at his grandmother's burial, though with minor alterations. He did not know the words for a murder-death, or the words for a father or sister, though he knew what to sing for his mother. He could only guess with the intuitive knowledge granted to all fey in their prayer songs.

"Tyreth Ironstar, father-mine,
Bleak the song and bleak the time.
Sorrow sings through every vein,
Death leaves behind only pain.
Slain in darkness, no defense,
Let your death-song be sung hence.

"Kara Ironstar, sister-mine,
Black the song and black the time.
Sorrow sings through every vein,
Death's black rope a deadly chain.
Young you were and young you died,
For the cause of foolish pride.

"Lae Silverfrost, mother-mine,
Grim the song and grim the time.
Sorrow sings through every vein,
Knowing love bereft again.
Killed in silence as you slept,
As were those who would have wept."

After completing the songs, he curled in on himself and wept silently, tears of rage and sorrow: rage for the deaths of those he loved, sorrow at the knowledge that they hadn't even died for a cause, just on someone's whim. Exhausted, he then fell asleep, drifting into haunting nightmares filled with blood and tears.

Sunrise arrived bleak and sorrowful the next day, as though mourning the loss. Striding towards the ruins of the burned village was a fistful of hard faced men, all of them with expressions of concern. Shaking their heads sadly as they looked around the once proud village, one almost large enough to be called a small town, they turned to leave when a small, shuddering sob echoed through what had been Tyreth Ironstar's yard.

A frighteningly large – at least for the five-year-old he was – man with a bush of dark brown hair and wild beard squatted down in front of the barrel, then shouted in surprise as he saw a quivering pair of wings folded tightly back as the owner wept quietly. The trayve'lair caid then spent half a mark on the ground trying to convince a terrified Alsan that his band wasn't about to hurt him, and that they'd help him avenge the deaths on Ishtak. There was no doubt that it had been the human lord carrying out the extermination started by his forefathers, not when the found evidence of more than a few red-and-gold dressed men in the nearby fields.

So the fairy left his barrel, and with it his home, for in the next nine years of his life, the trayve'lair caid band hadn't passed through that part of Dolin. He never regretted the decision, only the circumstances under which it had been made. Tyreth would have supported him if he'd decided to join a mercenary band, and probably even recommended a few. But he would never receive that guidance from his father. ~

Time was when what Ishtak had done would have sparked rage in human and mythic alike. But now the mythics – once glorious races – were too under trodden to care about anything other than another day's survival. The humans failed to understand that they were equal to the rest of the races and sought to enslave or kill the others. Most detested were the Aelfen and the fey, for they resembled mankind. The humans believed that they were demons in human guise.

After the humanoids were the dragonchildren. Some dragons had once discovered that they could take human form, but once they changed it was impossible to return. Still the choice was attractive to some, and they raised families with a human parent. However, their children could change back to dragons, and with them the change was not permanent. So they were considered halfbloods, these children of dragons, and thus were to be eradicated.

The rest of the mythics; gryphons, harpies, sprites and the like were not as violently opposed to. The only 'threat' that they presented to the humans was their intelligence, and their unwillingness to submit to a master.

The fairy, sole survivor of the burning of his village, frowned, then shook his red-maned head to clear the memories. He focused instead on the countryside, looking for landmarks and signs that they had been followed. Then, barely visible, came a body over the hill they had recently crossed. Coming in their direction. Alsan whistled an alarm to the rest and the band slowed and stopped. Toril, the great bear of an elf who was their leader, came back to see the intruder. The human could not have heard the whistle, though Alsan fancied it might have given a slight jump.

Few humans could hear it, as most of the band's whistle codes were higher pitched than the untrained human ear could detect. This wider range of sound gave the fey and Aelfen the advantage of communicating without being detected. The trayve'lair caids were wanderers by nature, and habits such as whistle-codes came easily for the sake of protection. They were one of the few groups that still included humans as a majority, and the only one that was welcomed by the mythics in this part of Dolin. Part of that was most likely due to their oath to Ascal, which was in turn one of the Vas'traye, the Aelfen High Council. When they took their oath to become trayve'lair caid, they became Ascal, and with that came soul-brotherhood with the Aelfen Houses.

The lone human proceeded down the road towards them, and it showed no signs of alarm upon seeing the brigands halt to watch. It was female, with her black haired tied in a tight braid that hung down her back. From her hard-worn leather boots to her light cape, she was clothed entirely in black. She carried herself with ease, holding herself with the air of a confidant warrior. Her posture seemed to say, Even if you wanted to, you couldn't possibly hurt me. And it was true, much to Alsan's surprise. Not one of the overly cautious trayve'lair caids had even reached for a blade.

Toril suddenly drew in a sharp breath, and then rushed a few steps forward to meet the casual woman. "Shadow," he called once she was within hearing range, "we haven't seen you for years. What brings you to these parts? Not another job?" The woman smiled back at him, white teeth gleaming against her tanned face.

Alsan had a hard time keeping his mouth closed. Small wonder no one had threatened her! Nineteen years old, the Shadow was one of the greatest assassins ever. She was trained in every style of fighting, some of them older than the oldest kingdoms. Legendary, swift and silent, it was even rumored that she could slay a man surrounded by a guard of one hundred trustworthy men and no one would notice till dawn. And human though she was, pureblooded at that, her chosen targets were almost all human leaders.

He never would have guessed her for an assassin though. The waist-length black hair fought its constraints, and some of the black locks had succeeded in escaping and now curled slightly to frame her strong face. Her nose and mouth were proud, and the silver eyes were alight with good cheer. Neither tall nor short, she was slim and wiry.

And able to slip a dagger between your ribs if she thinks you're a threat, Alsan reminded himself. The Shadow had no tolerance for traitors, as she had proved several times over. Popular rumor also had it that she was searching for someone. Whoever it was, he pitied them, and hoped that they had some sort of warning. He most certainly wouldn't want to awaken to Shadow holding a knife over his neck. He gulped in sympathy, then stepped back along the bumpy roadway.

 "Not a … job, Toril," Shadow answered calmly, shaking the leader's hand warmly. "One of my … customers had an interesting rumor for me, and I figured I'd see if there was any truth behind it. You got anything new for me?" She tilted her head to one side.

 "Perhaps if you told me what you were looking for?"

She shook her head. "No, just give me the gossip. I don't want you asking around and then getting clapped up in irons for threatening Lord Ishtak's safety. I'm traveling your way anyways, so I figured that I'd travel with your band. You are traveling southwards, right?" Shadow asked genially, and the leader nodded.

On average, Alsan figured, the boring times out numbered the exciting three to one. His usual cure for boredom was to get someone to teach him something, but after nine years with a group of non-specialists there wasn't much left. Maybe she'd teach me… Or not. Assassins tended to be very jealous of their skills, with good cause. They were masters in many trades: thievery, espionage, fighting and poisons. It was one of those trades where the best succeed and the rest die.

I'll ask her later. He resumed rearguard, and the group continued southwards. Shadow fell in with the rest of them in a place behind and to the left of Toril. That was the place that the leader's second would normally have taken, though Alsan was sure that Geran wouldn't protest his change in traveling position. He valued his life.

Her air of ease showed that she had been doing this for many years, and she matched their pace without comment, at times even seeming to slow herself to stay in line with them. Then again, she had been trained by the woman who's band this one was a splinter of, a trayve'lair caid lady almost as famous as her protégé; Kestrel of Ascal. Kestrel was a direct line descendant from the first woman of Ascal to swear alligiance with the Aelfen, and had gladly welcomed Shadow into her band when she saw the assassin's potential.

He envied the assassin her training, and wondered if she appreciated it, or if she only saw it as a convenient way to get around. He would have gladly seized the chance to study the fighting arts with such a reowned professional, and would have set his mind to learning it with the same stubborness he applied to everything else. He knew that there might not always be an opportunity to relearn it.

At a sudden movement from the brush that lay on either side of the road, he strung his bow and aimed it, only to have a flock of sparrows fly out, chattering indignantly. He smiled to himself, but frowned just as quickly. The bowstring was frayed; he'd have to replace it soon. But where he'd find another to match the quality of the first, he didn't know. Perhaps when they stopped in Kelsar; it was a large enough town to warrant a bowmaker who would be able to sell strings.

 "Frayed?" a voice asked quietly from his left. Startled, he looked up to meet calm, silver eyes. The owner regarded his bowstring with concern.

 "Yes," he replied, awkwardly. How on earth had the woman moved from the front of the line to the back? With a quiet smile, she reached into the dark leather pouch that hung at her waist and pulled out a flexible string.

 "Here," she said, pressing it into his hand. When he started to protest, she shook her head. "Consider it from teacher to student."

From teacher to…? Student!

A/N: Dearest readers, I would like to make a note before you continue. While this story was completed some time ago, I am currently reworking it to prepare it for submission to a publisher. I will replace the chapters as they are updated, so please bear with me if some facts change from time to time. Your input is gladly accepted, so feel free to ask questions.