Within the pause between the goblins seeing their great chieftain fall in the midst of his revelry, and the uproar as they rose up to seek his slayer, I swiftly shoot three more goblins.
It is not long before I am forced to move. The goblins may not have as keen eyes or ears as an elf, but neither are they deaf and blind. I leap from the tree as the goblins swarm towards me, easily keeping ahead as I jump from branch to branch and loosing more arrows as I run.
Within minutes I pass Dhilith as he stands steadfast, ready for the oncoming tide. He's grinning in anticipation.
"Your students are coming, Dhilith!" I call cheerily to him. Despite everything, the dwarf's quiet enjoyment is infectious.
"Aye?" Dhilith cries. "Then I shall teach them a lesson they will not forget!"
With that, he charges headlong into the oncoming horde, letting fly two throwing axes.
I have a hard time keeping up. The goblins are not difficult to defeat; they are weak, cowardly and petty. But in numbers this great, against only two… We would be hard pressed to see this through before nightfall, even assuming we would survive.
Loosing my last arrow, I draw my two slender knives, sweeping them out of their sheaths as I unstring the bow and fit it back in place all in one graceful movement. Their blades are unstained, and glimmer bright in the dying light, keen and eager. I grasp one in each hand, and launch myself into the fray.
Minutes pass. At least, they seem like minutes. Maybe they were hours. Or possibly even days; they feel long enough. Even Dhilith, the hardened dwarfish warrior, is tiring under this onslaught. Every goblin slain spawns two more to take its place.
Suddenly, just as I can not raise my arm for one more blow, a bright light flashes from behind me. The goblins fall back, covering their eyes and snarling in high-pitched whining tones. Grateful, I sink down to my knees, for the moment too tired to be curious as to the nature of our saviour. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dhilith stoop, leaning on his axe and breathing hard.
A voice, a female, comes from behind. "Are you grievously hurt?" A gentle hand lies on my shoulder, and almost instantly I feel my muscles garner some new strength. I look around… into a pair of light brown eyes. A human's eyes – but with a strange touch to them.
It is several minutes later, and I am still in the clearing alongside Dhilith. He is sat down with his back to the tree, red in the face and still breathing hard, and I am sat a third of the way along the edge from him against another tree. The stranger had run off, instructing us to stay here while she took care of the rest of the goblins.
"Who are you?" I ask her, as she walks back into the clearing. Upon hearing my question, she lowers the hood that had been covering her face.
She is obviously part human at least. The features are soft and rounded, totally unlike an elf. But at the same time… there is an air about her. Her voice lingers longer than a humans should, and she seems to move with a certain grace.
"I am Krystal." She said. "I have been following you."
Dhilith gets up slowly, and hefts a throwing axe to his hand. "I'll show you what happens when Dhilith Stonegramme is followed…"
"No." I raise a hand, and look at the dwarf as he looks back at me in surprise. We lock eyes for a while, and after a moment Dhilith backs down, grumbling.
I turn back to Krystal. For the first time in days, I pull the scarf down from over the bottom half of my head, revealing my face in its entirety.
I just catch in the corner of my eye Dhilith staring in astonishment, looking between my face and Krystal's. I pay no attention to it at all.
"Why were you following us?" I ask, not unkindly, but neither too welcoming.
She shakes her head. "Not both of you. You only, Tarnien."
I am silent for a while, contemplating three things. One, her correction on who she was following. Two, the sudden use of my name. Three, when she shook her head…
"You are half elven, are you not?"
I see her eyes widen slightly, and I continue. "I had suspected it when you came back, a human would not be so graceful, or their voice linger quite so. But I knew for certain just now, when you shook your head… your ears."
She sighs and nods, pulling her profound dark-red hair back to reveal her slightly pointed ears. "You have me, Tarnien. I am indeed half-elven, my father was an elf. One of the Fire Elven."
I nod. The Fire Elven were a stern and hardy folk – if not exactly the most respectable, coming as they did from the volcanic waste to the north-east. I still cannot trust her. Not yet.
"I am curious as to how you found my name. And why you have chosen to follow me."
Krystal sighs slightly, "I believe you may be able to help me find my father."
I nod again, still slightly puzzled. "And my name…?"
She shrugs "Being somewhat able to cast spells can make finding information very… effective."
I nod yet again, and stand up. I stagger slightly as my legs still feel strained from the battle, and Krystal's arm comes around my shoulders to steady me. "Come, I will help you set up camp for the night."
I am still suspicious of her, but right now, I have no other choice. Dhilith and I are too weary to set up camp effectively before nightfall, and this clearing is not the place for it.
"So, who is the dwarf?"
Krystal and I are sitting around the fire in the clearing we found. Dhilith is some yards away building his tent; being proud and stubborn as he is he refuses to let either of us help despite his fatigue.
"Dhilith? He is a mercenary. We have an agreement for his map of the leatherskin tribes for my promise in hiring his services."
Krystal considers this, then asks. "So, if I may ask, why do you need such a map? What is your history, Ranger Taragthor?"
I pause for a long while, deliberating whether she can be trusted. My mind is telling me not to, to cast her from the camp, to prevent her from following me, somehow. But my gut instinct, my heart is telling me that she means neither me nor Dhilith any harm.
"…All right, I will tell you." I take a deep breath.
"I was raised by my mother, one of the Wood Elven. My father left before I was born. When I was old enough my half-brother and I were given over to the rangers, who taught us the art of wood-craft. We both learned quicker than they thought, and in only a short time we were among the finest in the Woods. When I was an adolescent, I was chosen as the Ranger Taoiseach candidate, the youngest in a generation, but…"
I stop. My voice is dangerously close to showing my true emotions. Even the elves cannot restrain their moods indefinitely.
Krystal speaks suddenly. "No more, we'll rest for the night. I'm… I'm sorry I asked."
I smile faintly. "No, it is all right. I have never discussed the matter with anyone before, that is all."
She smiles as well. "I understand."
We lock eyes for a moment, then suddenly she turns away, briskly saying "We had better sleep while we can, the day comes fast in this season."
She glances back at Dhilith, who by this time had finally set his tent. Dhilith nods wearily. "Aye… that we must…"
I laugh slightly as he turns back into his tent and there is an audible thud as he slumps onto his bedroll.
Krystal disappears into her own tent, with a cursory nod and glance back at Dhilith and I.
Too tired to contemplate much else, I retreat back into my own tent, gently lie down on the padded bedroll, and loosen the bindings around my limbs under my cloak. The Mark of the Wood Elven briefly becomes visible, the snake under three strokes imprinted on the inside of my left forearm.
Binding loosened, I fall asleep at last.