Decades of careful training sent the arrow unerringly into the goblin’s left eye. It fell back with a short shriek and the others skittered back around the corner, scrambling over each other to get back behind cover.
“That was my last one,” Merith growled, letting the bow slide from his fingers to the ground.
“I am out, too,” his friend said, his voice choked with despair.
Merith glanced over at him, his eyes fierce. “We can still get out of this, Blackwood,” he insisted angrily.
“Can I just say that this was a terrible idea?”
“Noted.” He turned, looking out their only escape that was teeming with goblins, and shouted, “Where in the Deep are the others?”
Blackwood sighed. “Maybe it is better they are not here.”
He snapped, “By Anob, would you stand up?”
He straightened obediently, his eyes downcast.
Merith pulled a long hunting knife out of his belt and snarled, “They should not even be this far north!” He grit his teeth, glancing again over at his attendant lord. “Listen to me. We can still get out of this.”
He didn’t argue. If there were less than a dozen, yes. Less than a score, maybe. But that didn’t seem to be the case. Despite emptying both their quivers into the little monsters, there were still more than enough to snuff their lives out. And maybe if they were human or dwarven or something a little stouter, they might still have a chance, but elves were fragile, and, despite their long life spans, few of them ever lasted long enough to die of old age. Blackwood glanced up at Merith and said mirthlessly, “You always get me into trouble.”
He laughed harshly. “And back out again. Do not forget that.”
“Just wait for the rush.”
“If I have to die, I am glad it is with you,” he added solemnly.
Merith glanced over at him with a weary smile. “As am I. But not today.”
The goblins were arguing again, that grating, screeching language that always preceded another tentative prod. Sure enough, another hapless goblin was tossed screaming into the open by its friends a moment later. It threw itself to the ground, and then immediately glanced up again, wide eyes staring at them. Then it cast a broad, victorious grin back at its companions and the entire horde came pouring around the corner. Blackwood noted in an instant that there were definitely more than a score. Merith dropped back into a defensive stance, knife at the ready, and the first of the goblins crashed into them. Snarling, he slashed at an exposed throat, scattering scarlet through the stale cave air. Hot pain lanced through his side and he turned, ramming the knife into another’s skull. He wrested its short sword from its dead grip and turned, swinging wide and driving the others back. They skittered back, except for the unfortunate one that he gutted, and then poured forward again. Another darted around the side and Merith turned, slashing at it, and stepped back closer to the cave wall. Pain erupted in his leg and he stumbled, dropping to one knee.
He swung wide again, chasing after them on his knees, and then fell back against the wall once more. He gasped for breath in his short reprieve, glinting eyes glaring at his would-be executioners. He tightened his grip on the knife and sword as the tide shifted back toward him and they crushed against him. He slashed and twisted, batting aside dented blades seeking his life. He heard his name again and spared a glance at his beleaguered friend. He immediately felt a blade bite into his arm, but couldn’t look away. He shouted Blackwood’s name one last time as the young lord tumbled backward, lost from sight. There was nothing more to be done for him.
Merith was going to die. He finally accepted that. But he would not go quietly. Roaring defiance, he plunged forward into the crowd, determined to take as many with him as he could. And he would guarantee that whatever sorry savages survived this encounter would go to their graves with nightmares of the blazing green eyes of the fallen prince of Alekasyl.
The chapel was peaceful. Sacred. Silent.
Nahldria felt instantly shamed and quietly closed the door behind her, resting a hand over her chest as she tried to still her breathing. Her gasping slowed and she stepped away from the door, going further into the chapel. With a glance up at the neatly aligned altars to the Eight Gods at the front of the room, she straightened her acolyte’s robes, still frustratingly undyed, and smoothed back her long orange braid. She went down one of the aisles and slid into a pew, its ancient wood darkened with age. The Aged Priest of Fenthal had told her and her fellows, back then they were all new acolytes awed by everything, that he could remember when the wood had been new, when it had glowed like molten honey in delicate lines and curves. He had glanced out the ice-laced windows and reminisced how they had once reminded him of sunshine in those long, dark winters.
Nahldria ran her fingers across the dark wood. It had been many decades since they had afforded him that comfort, she supposed. Maybe even centuries. She shuddered in the chapel’s chill, glancing up at those same windows. They were beautiful, but notoriously leaked heat out into the still endless night of the Deep Cold. She thought she could perhaps see a few of the stars through the thick, pitted glass, out there in the cold that froze water, lamp oil, and cocky little acolytes from Paleithois alike. Winter was brutally cold, a long, dreary season of preserved foods and stifling cloaks when the color green seemed but a fantastical dream. But in the winter, there were stars, and for that she could tolerate just about anything. She glanced down again at her plain robes, mulling over their silent rebuke, and then back at the door through which she had come.
Maybe she was wrong. She had dared to hope when she had been pulled out of class and told to hurry to the chapel to meet with the Aged Priestess of Kanyer. After all, she had done everything they had asked of her, learned everything they could teach her, taken to the holy magics with an intuitive ease that had startled her teachers, but she still remained one of the very few of her class who had not yet advanced. She had been courting the night goddess Kanyer since before she had even arrived at the Seminary, and she had hoped that the time had finally come to dye her robes in the colors of the goddess. But waiting in the lonely silence of the chapel, she couldn’t help but feel that maybe she was wrong.
And as the silence stretched on, she became certain she was wrong. Running through the sacred halls like an unruly child? No wonder they still had not granted her full priesthood. Yes, she knew the Holy Writ, and yes, she felt the magic flare through her with the greatest ease, and yes, she worshiped with unmatched fervor, but no, she was not ready. There was always a reason why. Perhaps there always would be.
Ancient hinges groaned a protest as a little-used side door opened and Nahldria stood respectfully. She bowed deeply to the Aged Priestess and stepped out to greet her. “I came as quickly as I could,” she whispered.
“Yes, I had heard there was an acolyte sprinting through the halls during class,” she replied with muted amusement.
Nahldria blushed and glanced up. The woman smiled her ageless smile and Nahldria immediately saw worry and sorrow in her eyes. Her final hope crumpled. She wasn’t being promoted. Then why had she been called?
The priestess saw her worry mirrored in the girl’s face and motioned her back into the pew. “Sit down, Nahldria,” she said softly.
Nahldria immediately dropped back into her seat. It worried her that she used her real name. Of course the Aged Ones had always known her identity, but they had always used the name Fireweed before. Why not now?
The Aged Priestess drew a deep breath and then mechanically took Nahldria’s hand, looking up at her with concerned eyes and hesitating to speak.
“What happened?” she asked huskily. “Am I being turned away?”
“Nahldria,” she breathed, glancing down again miserably. “We would rather not have it this way.”
So she was. It had finally happened. She had dallied long enough in the Holy City and they would waste their time on her no longer. Throat tight, she asked miserably, “Why?”
“You are being sent home,” she admitted. “But not by us. Word came by echomancer. Your father has sent for you to return to the Keritnas immediately.”
She blinked away tears, confused. “My father?”
“Your brother…” The night priestess looked away suddenly, squeezing Nahldria’s hand.
The girl stiffened, leaning back just slightly. “Merith? What happened?” she demanded, her voice ringing with authority through the chapel.
“There was an accident during a hunting trip. It was not-”
Nahldria felt instantly sick. She pulled her hands away, staggering to her feet, and felt all the blood rushing out of her face. She stumbled in those cursed skirts that would never be black now and gasped for breath, head reeling. The priestess called her name and she felt herself falling backward.