Taric looked around at the dark, shrouded forest surrounding him, the terrain shadowy with mossy greens and blues. It was high noon, and the forest still seemed dark and foreboding all around them. He had been forced to dismount his horse because of all the low branches, and the horse repeatedly neighed its distaste for the place, snorting and stomping around Taric’s feet. The creature was unsettled too.
“You know how people say this forest is haunted?” Taric’s cousin Draevan asked, as he sliced his and his horse’s way through another set of thick cobwebs that hung over the branches like gluey drapery.
Taric was already rolling his eyes at the comment. Taric’s aunt, Draevan’s mother, had been a seer. He could, and did, believe in some people with supernatural abilities, but he simply wasn’t going to buy into every single myth out there, especially those that pertained to ghosts.
“I’m just saying,” Draevan said, reading into the doubt Taric was presently radiating about his person, “that it feels like we’re being watched.”
“You’ve been saying that for three days,” Taric reminded, hacking his sword through overgrowth on the trail. It looked as if no one had walked through this section of the woods for years. The nearest village was about a four-day walk through landscape that was less than hospitable.
“Because it’s felt like someone’s been watching us since three days ago,” Draevan clarified with a grumble. Draevan raked his hands through his shaggy blonde hair as if he were worried that a spider had landed in it. He frowned and continued, “Where is this giant, anyway? For all the babble we heard about death for any who step into the Blue Forest, we’ve yet to see that goddamned thing, and we’ve taken more than a step or two! I haven’t even seen a footprint.”
“We’ll find the giant, Draevan,” Taric assured with a laugh in his tone. He was certain that he and Draevan were the only people in the world who would want to cross the giant’s path… And even that was only because his aunt had foretold that they’d be the ones who’d finally defeat it. “Don’t you worry.”
“I’m not worrying,” Draevan assured tersely. “I’m just saying that the sooner we do this, the sooner we’re done with this.”
“Very profound,” Taric teased with a grunt.
“Fuck off. You know what I mean.” He turned around, a grin on his face that foretold clearly that he was about to talk about some tavern wench’s posterior. “So, did you see the ass on Amelia?”
“Amelia…” Taric hummed thoughtfully.
“It was that wench at the alehouse four days ago. The one that does that little dance…” He stopped talking to jump over a short ravine. He growled with satisfaction at the memory. “The only thing better than that dance was the one she was doing in the bedroom with me afterwards. The woman could suck a cock like no one’s business too.”
A giggle suddenly lit through the canopy overhead. They whipped their heads up, instantly stopping in their tracks, but when they looked in the direction of the giggle, which had certainly come from a female, there was nothing there.
Taric and Draevan exchanged uncanny glances until Draevan waved towards the canopy overhead and said, “See?” as if that proved anything.
“Was probably the wind,” Taric replied, shrugging his shoulders and walking farther into the forest.
“Wind, my ass!” Draevan snapped, stomping quickly along to catch up with him. “Just admit that something strange is going on. First, there was that flute playing at all hours of the night—”
Taric waved his hand as if he could physically brush this days-old argument away. “Well, that was definitely the wind.”
“Taric, it had a chorus. Wind doesn’t often howl in a structured manner.”
He was very decided about this, Taric realized, and Draevan wasn’t a man who would change his mind about anything once it was made.
“Fine, fine,” Taric said, just to let the subject go. “It was ghosts. Now what do you want us to do about it?”
“Nothing,” Draevan admitted in his low, gruff tone, kicking a shrub in front of his boot. “I just wanted it acknowledged, that’s all. Nothing you can do about ghosts. Not that I know of, anyway. Still leads me to wonder, though, why the hell they’d decide to be annoying.”
“Well, that’s just not very nice!” a girl’s voice suddenly huffed from the trees overhead. “Besides, how is it that I’m annoying you? You’re in my woods.”
Taric swore under his breath, the clarity of the voice becoming less and less supernatural-sounding as it came closer. “It’s an elf,” he realized. He had never seen an elf before, but he did know their hidden kingdom couldn’t be too far away. It was rumored to be somewhere beyond the Crystal Mountains, and though they were in that region, they’d never seen anything that made it seem like civilization was near at hand, nor had they ever met a human man who claimed to know how to get there. Elves dealt with dwarves far more than they’d ever dealt with humans.
“Show yourself!” Draevan snapped firmly, drawling out his sword, though he surly knew it wouldn’t do him any good. As much as elves reportedly loved watching executions, they didn’t murder, and they didn’t fight wars. Instead, they were good at hiding and even better at running away. It was said that elves could become entirely invisible if they wanted to… But they were normally much more silent than this one was being. He could hear footfalls crackle upon dead leaves as the creature walked near.
“Ask nicely,” the voice reproved teasingly.
Draevan’s face contorted. It couldn’t be more obvious that he didn’t want to play games.
“I’m waiting!” the voice chimed. It was hard to tell exactly what direction the voice was coming from. Sometimes it seemed like it was coming from the west, at other times the south…
“Show yourself now, Elf,” Draevan demanded in a low growl.
There was a whistle behind them, and they spun to see… a girl sitting up on a tree branch, her face merry, seeming like a child on a swing. But she was no child.
She was a beautiful elf-maiden like they’d never imagined. He’d heard that all elves had tattoos all over their bodies, even on their eyelids, and piercings throughout their face, ears, and noses. He’d also heard that elves had red smiles because of all the bitter, red fruit they ate which stained their teeth.
This girl had eyes as large as silver coins, a button nose, and was smiling with a row of straight, white teeth. Her skin was unmarred and pale, and her fingernails looked like they were made of glass. Her long, ivory hair was braided intricately to seemingly accentuate the points on her ear tips, but the bulk of her long braid was draped over her shoulder like a white, shimmery rope. She peered at them with eyes as gold as thick honey.
“Would it have killed you to ask me nicely? You are guests in my home, after all,” she said, then bit her lip thoughtfully. After a second, she added, “Well, until the giant eats you, that is.”
Taric put his sword away, feeling quite disarmed even with it out. Draevan looked lost as he regarded the girl, as if he had wanted a fight but got something he could have never anticipated instead. His shoulders were sagging, and his eyebrows were crunched. “Have you been following us this whole time?”
“No,” the girl made a snorting laugh sound with her nose. She kicked her legs playfully in the air under her branch. “Just for the last three days or so.”
Draevan hummed and lifted his eyebrows at Taric in an obvious I-told-you-so gesture.
Taric did his best to ignore him. He hated being wrong. “And why?”
“Taric, isn’t it?” she said, pointing her finger to him. “And Draevan,” she pointed to his cousin, whose shoulders straightened in response. She grinned, “Well, I followed you for a few days because it’s my home, and therefore, what you do here is my business, savvy? I thought people were well-done with trying to have a go with the giant. It never works out.” She stopped kicking her legs, a serious look finally settling on her face. “And I do mean never, Northlanders. That giant has been out there for nine hundred years. Do you know how many times he’s been killed? Here’s a hint: he’s still around to tell you.”
Taric couldn’t help but grin at her concern, even if his grin made her look at him like he was nuts. A little wrinkle formed between her dark eyebrows. It was somehow extremely endearing. “You’re a cute little thing,” he observed. He had never wanted to just pick up a girl and squeeze her before, but he was becoming overcome with the desire to do just that.
Her face pouted for a moment as if he’d just compared her to a forest critter. “And you’re a dumb big thing,” she assured firmly. “If you start heading that way now,” she said, pointing behind them, “you might be able to save your skins. Maybe.” She grimaced as if their prospects weren’t very good. “You know the giant’s cave is only another twenty miles from here, right down that path.” The direction she was pointing bore no path whatsoever. It was even more grown-over than the terrain they were trying to trail-blaze. The undergrowth was only just low enough to walk through.
Draevan made a sound that Taric had never heard him make before. It was an amused sort of grunt that was almost flirtatious… And Draevan wasn’t a flirtatious man. He was the sort that was perfectly happy to pay for what he wanted and then take it hard. In all his life, Taric had never even seen the man smile at a woman kindly. “Twenty miles is quite far in this,” he reminded skeptically. He smiled boyishly at the little elfling, making Taric think he was acting even stranger, but she didn’t return the grin.
She shook her head as she differed, “Not when you’re a giant.” She glanced towards the horse’s saddle bags with a glint in her eye.
Suddenly, Taric had a bad feeling about her. It was odd for him to have them—Draevan normally had a no-fail sense about people. He used to have a nearly uncanny ability to spot traitors or anyone who meant to do him or Taric any ill. Their grandfather used to swear by it.
He didn’t make an accusation, however, because the elf maiden came right out and said, “Well, I’m not going to argue with you. I suppose humans are cute in the way you tramp all this way, and go through all this trouble, just to get eaten. Besides, I haven’t had a payday in far too long.”
“She plans to rob us,” Taric rumbled in a secret language, one he and Draevan had been developing since they were small boys on stick horses.
“Aye,” Draevan agreed, his expression not changing. He continued to look up at her with amusement. “She does. Can’t be a very successful thief, though. She’s wearing a dead man’s boots and a dead man’s coat… She’s a scavenger.”
Taric was so busy being entranced by her angelic little face that he hadn’t looked at the rest of her body. Draevan was right. The clothes she wore were very old, very dirty, and far too large for her. She probably waited for men to come looking to kill the giant and then plucked as many earthly goods from those warriors as possible as they searched through the woods.
“There’s that stupid language again!” she grumbled unhappily. “What sort of language is that?” she demanded, looking very annoyed. It was proof enough that she had been keeping them company for at least a while. He and Draevan hadn’t bothered to speak in their secret tongue all day.
“If you’ve come to steal from us, elfling,” Taric told her, ignoring her question. He straightened, trying to make himself seem even larger, hoping to intimidate her into behaving. “I’d warn you away from that. We know how to teach a lady not to play with fire.”
Her eyes widened in surprise, but she recovered her reaction until she was looking out at him through slits between her long, black eyelashes. “No, no. You are the ones playing with fire. I consider you both as good as corpses, and you can’t take your wealth with you.”
Taric gave a singular laugh at being called wealthy. Perhaps in comparison to her they seemed well-to-do, but they were far from considering themselves rich-men. That’s something they hoped to remedy on this adventure—that, and their marriage.
Long ago, the king of the elves decreed that whoever would slay the giant and bring back a golden shield that the kingdom had lost nearly a millennia ago that the giant now kept on his person, would be given an elf-maiden of the victor’s choice as payment for the service.
Draevan and Taric found themselves, in that case, between two prophecies told in the North: that the slayer of the Dark Wizard, the scourge of half the world and enemy to the Western Realm, would be killed by the spawn of an elf and a giant-slayer. And Draevan and Taric, when they were boys, were foretold to be the slayers of that giant. In short—the Dark Wizard’s time was drawing near… As long as something wasn’t misunderstood.
“Don’t you worry about us, pet,” Draevan scolded, though a smirk still hadn’t disappeared from his face. “Just worry about yourself. We don’t take kindly to thieves, but I tell you what: you keep your hands to yourself, and we’ll keep our hands to ourselves.”
She frowned. “You’re not as fun as I thought you’d be,” she openly pouted like a little girl who couldn’t get anyone to join her for a tea party. She contorted her body and pulled herself up until the feet of her boots perched on the branch she’d been sitting upon. “I come out to warn you, and I get threats and accusations in kind!” She slipped off the branch, stomped behind the dark, ominous oak she had been seated on, and promptly disappeared.
The men just stood silent and looked at the tree. Eventually, they walked around it, looking up at the climbing branches, but saw no trace of the elf. “Well, she’s still around, I guarantee it,” Draevan grumbled.
Taric agreed. “And she’ll be back to rob us blind before tomorrow when we meet this giant,” he ascertained. “This is her window of opportunity.”
Draevan turned and raised an eyebrow. Normally, thieves would make him bunch up his fists and scream swears to the world around them. This time, however, Draevan was rolling his shoulders back with excitement. “Well, let’s get ourselves ready for her visit then, shall we, Cousin?” he asked him mischievously.
Taric stifled a laugh, realizing instantly what Draevan planned—to set a little trap. Tonight was going to be very interesting, indeed. “Well,” Taric replied. “It’ll surely get us used to the feel of an elf-wife.” He pointed to Draevan then and reminded, “But I was right about there not being ghosts.”
Draevan smiled with his whole face. “I’ve never been so happy about your being right.”
Finally! The humans were asleep. It was nearly sad, as Kyra watched them drink the afternoon away while laughing and joking with each other, knowing that it was their last night with such joys. They’d surely die tomorrow, fast if they were lucky, very slowly and painfully if they got the giant in too bad of a mood first. She guessed on the latter. There was something hardened about these men that Kyra couldn’t help but recognize. They’d surely succeed in using their weapons on the giant, but that would only piss him off.
It still bothered her that she couldn’t put her finger on the language they would sometimes speak in. Their accents were known to her: they were from the Northern villages, beyond the Crystal Mountains… But she still didn’t understand their tongue, and until now she had been quite confident in thinking that she’d heard all the northern languages before. Apparently, she had been wrong.
She stifled a sigh, trying to be as silent as possible, but she couldn’t help but think of her brothers, three of whom had raised her but were now very dead: one by the giant and the other two by the hangman’s noose in the middle of the elven kingdom. Any one of them would have been able to understand the language spoken by these two human men; they had been so smart and clever… before they were hunted down like dogs.
The human men had unsaddled their horses to give the beasts rest, and unfortunately they were using the saddles as pillows. This was not uncommon, but it always made getting her loot more difficult; most men kept their gold coins in a bag they tied to their saddle. Even worse was when they hid their coin in their boots—like she did. She’d taken the boots off a corpse once, and although they were too big for her, she fell in love with the hollowed-out sole that allowed her to keep her coins, and even a spare weapon or two, safely hidden beneath her feet.
She bit her lip and slowly approached the men’s camp, where they had hunkered down in knee-high grass, using the carpet of the forest and a couple of bedrolls as a mattress. A small fire burned by their feet, though it wasn’t even nightfall yet. Even with the fire, she realized it would be better to try to make her move now, before it became too dark to see. Humans always had the advantage when it came to total darkness, since elves’ eyes weren’t as sharp. Elves were much weaker in body, and they probably would have been killed off years ago if they hadn’t had some magical ability.
The hulking Draevan gave a loud snore just as she was reaching out to his saddle. The sudden sound nearly made her jump backwards. Wearily, she took a relaxing breath and bent down closer to Draevan’s saddle, pulling coins out of a purse secured around the horn. She smirked and then turned towards the other one.
There was a sudden tightening around her ankle. She paused. All she was able to do was mutter “Damn!” wearily, just before a rope yanked her violently from the ground and then up a tree, until she found herself swaying back and forth and upside down by a thick, low-hanging oak branch.
She recognized the full indignity of being caught in the same manner as one might catch a rabbit and was suitably furious. “Son of a bitch!” she cried, then looked at the upside down image of the two men climbing easily to their feet.
They didn’t even look drunk now! They had stumbled to their make-shift beds not thirty minutes before… This didn’t make any sense.
She had been tricked! And they added insult to injury when Draevan crowed with laughter. “Eenie, meanie, minie, moe. Catch a she-elf by her toe…”
“Get me down!” she cried, realizing that she had let herself go back to her visible state during the shock of being captured. She pulled her shirt down—or up, rather—over her belly-button, since it seemed to want to expose her breasts with the help of gravity. “Put me down right now!” She tried to bend in a way that would free the rope lasso from around her boot, but she didn’t even come close to completing the maneuver before her muscles trembled from the strain and then straightened with defeat. She let herself hang and sway, grumbling. “When did you even find time to do this? I was watching you all afternoon!” she cried.
“You were watching us, but not carefully enough. We’ve done this before. Enemies are easily distracted,” said Taric as he brushed his black hair back out of his eyes. “Got any weapons on you?” he asked.
“No,” she lied, pressing her lips together stubbornly.
She was searched anyway. Draevan came up to her and patted his ridiculously large hands up and down her squirming body. “Ogre,” she grumbled as he found a slingshot in her pocket and a dagger strapped to her upper arm.
“You are quite a different sort of elf,” Taric grumbled. His tone sounded like he was trying to be angry but still only coming up as amused. He must have been referring to elves not being creatures known to carry weapons… And he would have been right if he hadn’t been talking to the last descendant of a long, tragic line of outcasts. Her family had to make-do to survive.
“The only thing I hate worse than violence,” she defended tersely in defense, “is when it’s being done to me!”
He pulled her coat completely off of her, and yet another knife hit the ground. “Careful!” she snapped. “You’re gonna cut me that way!”
“You could have told us the truth, dove,” Draevan replied firmly. “No weapons, indeed! If I find one more—just one more—I’m stripping you naked. Even an idiot knows to throw down his arms when he has no other choice.”
“Well, I’m a special kind of idiot,” she replied, although his threat was alarming enough. She wasn’t about to come clean about what was hidden in her boots; she was hoping for the best, and they were her last defense. Without weapons, she wouldn’t have a prayer in fighting either of these two behemoths off. They were massive, hard-bodied men.
He gave a wry laugh. “I guess so.” Even though she struggled, he had no problem binding her hands together with a piece of leather. He looked at Taric and said, “Cut her down. We need to get her boots off. If they’re a dead man’s, she’s probably using them for storage.”
Her brow ruffled. “How’d you know they’re not my boots?” she asked, quite astonished.
“Your foot ends about here.” He squeezed her toe, which ended halfway through her boot. “Don’t you know it’s unlucky to wear a dead man’s boots?”
She pursed her lips, but was quickly feeling unease as blood continued to rush to her face. She wondered how much longer it would be before her face turned purple. “That would explain a lot…”
Draevan scooped his massive arm around her body, and when Taric cut the rope tied to her feet, he neatly adjusted her body so that she was cradled in his arms. She looked down at the ground beneath her. Damn, he was tall… She had never been this close to either of them and hadn’t really considered how tall they’d be up close. He would have dwarfed even her brothers in comparison.
She kicked her feet, struggling to get out of his grasp, but Taric jumped forward to aid him and pulled her boots off. They came off easily, being so large for her, and he quickly upheld one, pulled out the inside sole, and several knives, coins, and small trinkets fell out. They had apparently run into those sorts of boots long before they met her, and often enough that it was apparently something they expected from a thief.
Still, Taric looked at her and lifted an eyebrow, silently accusing her of, once again, lying about not being armed.
“Alright, so you caught me,” she growled. “I don’t have a pot of gold or anything, so I fail to see what you gain by this.”
“What’s not to be gained by this?” Draevan replied curtly, dropping her bare feet onto the grass. She tried to run, but got stopped mid-step as Draevan grabbed at her tunic.
Her eyes went wide. “No!” she growled as she fought against him. With a loud tearing noise, Draevan had ripped her shirt into two pieces at the seam. “Stop!”
He didn’t; he merely continued to tear the rest of the fabric completely from her bound arms and threw it onto the ground in tatters.
She shot a terrified glance towards the leaner, and seemingly more cultured, Taric. “Please,” she begged him.
She immediately lost hope in gaining his assistance when she saw that his eyes weren’t on hers. They were looking at her bare, exposed breasts. She wanted to get swallowed up by the earth and die; never before had her breasts been seen by a male. Her throat tightened, a cry getting stuck in her throat, unable to contemplate her current modification or fear.
Massive arms reached around her from behind and unlatched the clasp at her belt. Her pants, pulled from a body far larger than her own, fell off her hips and right onto the ground around her. Her thin underwear came down moments after that, and she sunk down low, bending herself in a way that she hoped would hide some of her nudity.
Taric merely gazed hungrily at her with those icy-blue eyes of his, a curt smile curling at his lips. She looked at his boots to avoid the leering gaze.
“Now,” Taric said as Draevan came along beside her, leering down at all of her skin and holding her by her elbow, “I think she’s unarmed.”
“You can’t treat me like this!” she gasped, feeling out of breath from the shock of her miserable situation and her treatment. She knew she wasn’t attractive enough for them to be actually aroused, thank the gods, but the humiliation stabbed at her like a blade in her heart. “What have I done to you?” She meant to raise his eyes and pierce him with a hurt look, but she couldn’t do it. In fact, she squinted her eyes shut so she wouldn’t have to look at anything at all.
“You tried to steal from us, for one. And I warned you to come clean about the weapons, didn’t I?” lectured Draevan pedantically.
She began to shiver violently from the cold on her skin and curled her toes into the cold, moist ground under her feet, unable to find warmth. Noticing her misery, Draevan grumbled and swooped her up into his arms.
She took a deep breath, surprised by the way her body clung comfortably to the heat he emitted. At least she wasn’t knee-deep in cold grass any longer. Draevan shifted her weight in his arms and said to Taric, “I say we fuck the daylights out of her. She’s a ripe little thing.” She felt a wave of nausea when he said this, but upon his expression, she found herself relaxing. There was only mischief in Draevan’s eyes, and far too much of it for his words to be believed. “Besides, it’s never been done before—a human-elf coupling. I say we practice up for when we claim our elf-bride.”
Taric smirked. “Why would we reward her for trying to rob us blind?” he replied, squaring his shoulders suavely. He looked at her as if to say, ‘What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?’
She didn’t answer that look. “Robbing is a dark way to look at this little visit!” she defended sharply, after he glared in her direction long enough. “Besides, I’m not the one manhandling a harmless female!”
She sniffed the air indignantly, and was surprised. Draevan smelt surprisingly good; not like food, but strangely like the rain after a storm—earthy, yet fresh.
She squirmed to get more comfortable, adding, “I like to think of this like I was a neighbor, simply borrowing a cup of sugar from some friendly-looking folks. One that I don’t plan to return since you’ll both be dead by tomorrow evening. Don’t forget that—you being dead in the morning is very important to looking at this situation the proper way. Anyway, I don’t know what it’s like in the Northern Lands, but around here we don’t strip people who come about borrowing things!”
Taric continued to look at her like she should be ashamed of herself. She sighed with resignation. “Fine,” she huffed. “I was a very naughty girl. Is that what you want me to say? I still don’t deserve this treatment!”
“You’re a thief! Do you feel shame?” Taric asked her, looking both amused and exasperated, which was a mixture of emotion she’d only seen on her brothers.
“Let me think…” she replied, looking up at the tree canopy above. “No! You’re the ones that should be shamed! Me, on the other hand… I can’t afford shame. I’m too poor.”
“Well, I think we can spare you some,” Draevan replied, stepping backwards towards a log resting on the ground nearby. “Consider this helping of shame on the house, our death not even required in this transaction!” He sat down on the old, hallowed log and flipped her body over his lap as if she were merely an oversized pancake. She kicked her bare feet, but she only stubbed her toe for all her trouble.