The air was so cold it seemed to Marek that a witch had cackled her frigid breath across the landscape of the village.
Marek and the other men made their way through the village toward the tree line that bordered the darkened forest. He held up his torch against the unending blackness, although he didn't know why he carried it; it gave off little light and no heat.
"The Nymphlings do not like the light," Jascha said, reading Marek's thoughts in a way that unnerved him.
"Aye," was all the older man said in gruff reply. Jascha was half Marek's age, but on a night like this he appreciated that it was Jascha and no other who stood by his side.
Jascha held up his own torch a little higher and scanned the horizon. Their breath rose as hot steam around their faces and hovered over their heads before evaporating into the cold darkness above them. Marek couldn't even make out the presence of any stars. The other men from the village were scattered across the border like Marek and Jascha were. Similar torches burned beyond them. The shadowy faces of their kith and kin looking past them into the forbidding trees.
"This cold is an ill omen," Marek noted to the younger lad who kept a careful watch at his side.
"To warn that the cold night is an ill omen before our actions have time to shape it makes it an ill omen."
Although Marek would not admit it, Jascha's riddles confused him. "Aye," he said after a moment of pause.
Old Ben moved forward from the waiting line. He scanned the trees silently, waiting, almost invitingly. The rest, all in scattered clusters, stood ready at the tree line behind him. Turning back Marek could see the small cabins only by the smoke that rose up from the chimneys. A few box windows held candles—including his own, where his daughters waited—but beyond that only the empty miles of black were visible. Jascha kept close to Marek as they waited for the signal.
"I will go first, lad!" Marek's voice came out as an order, but Jascha did not object.
Jascha's hot breath steamed and pooled around his face, and as he waited for the final signal his bones grew jittery with the fear of undone deeds and unsaid thoughts. "Marek," he began slowly, he was unnerved because he too felt the strangeness in the air, and it worried him. "If I am still alive after this deed is done, I would like to ask for your permission to pair-bond with your daughter…"
"Linza?" Marek raised his eyebrows toward the strange lad by his side, and frowned at him in disbelief.
"No," Jascha corrected quickly. "'Tis Taja that I am fond of."
Marek stewed over the idea, letting Jascha's heart quicken and pound in his chest in anticipation while he waited for an answer. Trying to aid Marek in his decision, Jascha quickly added, "I know it is an odd request. Linza is the eldest of your two daughters, and she is very fair…"
"Linza is not for bonding," Marek said flatly, his tone was curt.
"I know," Jascha agreed, although neither man put words to their thoughts. "I will give Taja a good life," he added on a lighter tone. "My grandfather was one of the Sayb—a silverspine—and I am told my mother had a bit of the red Irisa tribe in her as well—as you and your kin do." Jascha began to stammer, but he took a deep breath to calm himself. "I can take care of her. Provide for her. I do believe that I have been in love with her for many years."
"Aye," Marek said with a slight nod of his head. The torch suddenly became very heavy in his hand.
"Aye?" Jascha was not sure of his companion's response. He hung on the edge of Marek's agreement or disapproval.
"Aye," Marek continued slowly. "If we make it out of this tonight you have my permission. Though be warned," he added with little regard to Jascha's widening grin. "She is wild and untamed. I had thought to never have a bonding for either of my daughters." Jascha could not contain his smile from spreading until it covered the entire lower half of his face. "But if you care for her as you say—"
The signal came in the form of Old Ben breaking the rank of men who hovered near the border of the village. Each man stood a few feet away from the tree line. When Ben broke free he released a loud howl that could rival any battle cry, and entered the woods with a fierce run. The rest of the men followed after him quickly, hoping that Ben as decoy could distract the Nymphlings enough so that some of them could be taken down.
When Marek entered the woods he felt his blood quicken, and the coppery taste of adrenaline filled his mouth. He remembered as a boy his father had been killed by a Nymphling in an attack similar to this, and each time he struck his fiery torch in their direction he considered the assault done in his father's name.
Marek watched as a Nymphling darted from the top limb of a tree all the way down to its base in the same amount of time it took him to blink. He was aware of their quickness but every time he witnessed it, it startled him. The creature clung to the side of the trunk, its tiny webbed feet never touching the mossy ground. Glowing green eyes met Marek's, and the creature opened its mouth revealing a narrow row of pointed teeth and let out a wet hiss. The Nymphling clung to the tree bark at an angle, its weight supported by the same mechanics that allowed a full grown spider to dangle precariously from its thin web.
The creature looked at both Marek and then Jascha. Marek thought he could see the tight inner workings of its mind as it calculated which of the two men would make easier prey. It jumped from one tree to another and began a strange dance of blurred movements until it pounced on Jascha.
Forgetting to check his perimeter Marek turned his back on the woods and ran to aid the lad. The Nymphling was crouched over his chest, the heaviness of the little creature having toppled him until he lay face up in the dirt. Jascha swung his torch, using it like a club and slapping the creature with the end that burned white hot with fire. The Nymphling rolled away, letting a tiny cry escape from its round mouth. Its frightening green eyes dilated wider from the light. Marek took the opportunity to strike it with his own torch now that it hovered in a weakened state. His arm flexed and the wood and flame hit the Nymphling full on the top of its head. The creature darted away quickly, retreating to another tree and scurrying in a blur of feet and arms all the way to the top.
"Come on, lad." Marek extended his arm out to Jascha and helped him to his feet.
"I thank you," Jascha spoke, although Marek could tell that the boy was out of breath.
Turning back toward the woods Marek's eyes bulged at what he saw. Each tree around them was covered in Nymphlings, each holding two or three creatures to a trunk. Scanning his parameter Marek saw dozens of glowing eyes glaring at him.
"Go back!" Marek and Jascha heard a voice yell from deeper in the woods. The others had seen the horde and already knew how hopeless their mission had suddenly become.
Another man's hoarse voice rose above the collective hiss of the Nymphlings directly in front of them. "Fall back! Get back into the village!"
Neither Jascha nor Marek wanted to leave the fight so soon, but they quickly realized that any continued assault would be useless in the light of how outnumbered they were.
"I've never seen so many of them!" Jascha panted as he and Marek made it back to the edge of the wood. Once back across the border to the village they each breathed a strong sigh of relief. No Nymphling could cross the border beyond the tree line. Instead they hovered on the trunks and swung themselves from branch to branch. "That is," he continued, "never so many in one place before. They usually like one to a tree, never more."
"You are right," Marek agreed. Turning back to face the wood again he could still see the ethereal glow of green eyes watching him from deep inside the shadows.
A/N: I do not own the cover image.
All work by D.J. Wilson (FictionPress id. 350994) is copyrighted under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.