Whispers on the Wind, Chapter One

Copyright © 2013 Rachel C. Lightfoot.  All rights reserved.

He watched his princess run through the trees, a picture of grace and eloquence.  Auburn hair frisked back and forth over her shoulders, eyes closed.  The black ragamuffin dog running beside her seemed to guide the way, leaving her mind free to wander.

The watcher couldn’t help but peer inside to see the swirl of emotions unfold.

Warmth entangled every facet, woven in between brief impressions that glinted in his mind’s eye, their names dancing through his head.  Freedom. Hope. Love.

Imaginative fancy.

He could almost see the magical energy radiate off of her in the cool autumn air, growing brighter as she approached.  His breath caught.  She was close enough now he could reach out and touch her.

No.

Luccio drew himself back with a sigh.  The girl rounded the bend, now on her way back to the concrete world she called home.  A pang of loss struck him.

For several years now, he had come to stand at this spot, at the edge of the Veil, to see this one mortal girl run through the park.  It had started out as curiosity, a secret wish to witness what other fae told stories about around the tavern fire.  But as time marched on, his wish had grown into a burning need.  He lived for these fleeting moments where he could bask in her presence, no matter how oblivious she may be.

All he needed to do was step across into her world.  Then she could become more than just a ray of sunshine skirting through his days.  They could talk, perhaps grow to be friends, and then…

He closed his eyes and sighed.  Who was he kidding?  They were from two different worlds.  Luccio flexed his too spindly hands as if trying to remind himself of all the reasons he must remain in the shadows.  Of course, the hands weren’t the worst of it.  One look at his crag-like face, and surely a creature such as herself would turn tail and run.  No, he would continue to content himself with admiring from afar.

The Veil twinkled in the fading light, airy and breathtaking as a spider’s web studded with morning dew.  He turned his back to the park, pulling his cloak tighter as he pushed through to his side of the great divide.

A sharp blast of wind ripped around him as the light was sucked away in an instant.  The trees began to grow closer together and the path became more steep and treacherous.  A thousand tongues talked in a thousand languages, drowning out the late summer insects’ droning.  He could make out words every now and then; a child’s laugh for a unicorn’s horn, a widow’s tears for a flask of faerie wine.  Luccio tuned the hawker’s cries out and kept walking.

The weeks in the Glen surrounding the mortal Samhain were the busiest of the year.  When the bright full moon shone overhead, the two worlds temporarily ceased their endless game of chase, time in one world slowing to match the other between the hours of midnight and dawn for that one night.  With the weakening of the Veil, an increasing number of fae were able to push through the boundary.  But the crossing wasn’t without risk.  If a weak fae crossed the border but let too much time pass, crossing back over became increasingly difficult.  It was a fae’s worst nightmare to be trapped in the mortal world of iron and shrinking forests, waiting for the next full Samhain moon, yet some said the goods to be had were worth the gamble.

Luccio found most of the hubbub to be little more than an annoyance.  He was but a simple fae, low on the glamour-slinging totem pole, limiting what he could offer the tradesmen.  There were few mortal things he could afford and fewer still that he’d want to trade for.

But the festive air did draw a smile out of him.  As the hours clicked away, the fae gathered to share drink and tales, waiting to take advantage of the safe passage.  Old friends would meet again, possibly for the first time since the last alignment.

Luccio stooped to walk in through the door, one of the unfortunate few too tall to stand upright in the five-foot doorway.  The door swung shut behind him, submerging him in a raucous world of gossip and firelight.  He shed his cloak before setting off in search of friendly faces.

A creature composed of slender twigs caught his eye and waved, sending green dreadlocks flying.  “Where in Faerie have you been, man?  I’d just about given up on you!”  His voice was thin and reedy.

Luccio pulled a chair up to the small corner table and bowed his head.  “Just out for an evening walk, Ax.”  He smiled, black eyes twinkling.  “Harder to find a quiet place to think this time of year.”

The stick man snorted.  “Tell me about it.”  He held up a finger.  “Here, I have something for you.” A carton of cigarettes emerged from under the table.  “I don’t know why you can’t get these yourself, you’re just as capable of crossing the Veil as I am.”

You don’t even know the half of it.  Luccio lit one, tucking the rest away for later.  He let out a puff of smoke, reveling in the way it hung in the air.  “What did they cost you?”

Ax shrugged.  “Doesn’t matter.”  Green eyes looked past the man, scanning the room for someone else.  “Hey, you didn’t happen to see O’Rourke when you-”

A loud explosion outside interrupted the stick man, every eye in the room turning toward the door expectantly.  Sure enough, it swung open to reveal a stout dwarf on the other side, coughing and sputtering in a small cloud of acidic black smoke.

Ax sighed.  “I swear he’s going to get himself killed one of these days.”

Luccio ignored him and smiled at the newcomer, pulling up another chair.  “O’Rourke!  Been working on a new experiment, I take it?”

The man sat, pushing a pair of charred safety goggles up past his ring of hair.  “Yes.  Oh, you know me.  Trudging away from one explosive moment to the next.”  He began to take off his thick rubber gloves, still sputtering.

“Was this one a success?”

Ax rolled his eyes.  “Luccio, you know better than to encourage crazy people.”

“What’s that you say?” O’Rourke rubbed an ear angrily.  “Darn thing’s giving me fits again.”

The stick man sighed and slumped back into his chair.  “Why do I even bother?”

O’Rourke clapped Ax on the back, bringing a gasp and a scowl from his friend.  “Oh, come now, come now!  What would life be without a little excitement?”

“That’s not what I was getting at.”

“It isn’t?  But what else could ‘I don’t know why he bothers’ mean?”

“But that’s not what I said!”

“Err, are you positive, definitive beyond the shadow of a doubt?”

Luccio held up his hands, eyeing the pair.  “Calm down guys.  Don’t get any ideas.”

Ax slumped back once more and muttered under his breath, too low for the others to hear.  “Darn good thing the old bat only leaves his tower for Samhain.”

Luccio tried to get the conversation back on a less explosive track.  “So how did it go?”

“It?”

“Your experiment.”

O’Rourke stared at Luccio for several seconds, uncomprehending before it hit him.  “Oh!  Oh yes, the experiment.”  Another coughing fit overcame him.  The dwarf snatched a tankard from a passing server to wet his throat before continuing.  “Fine and dandy, for the most part.”

“How so?”

“I’m here,” the dwarf said bluntly.  “Chemical teleportation is indeed possible.  However, the smoke produced during the reaction is also teleported with the test subject.  I still need to look into this.”

“Who was stupid enough to let you experiment on them?” Ax shouted.  The room fell silent in seconds.  His eyes bulged and he slipped a few inches farther in his chair.  “No reason to go stone-still everyone.”

“Ax,” Luccio whispered, “I don’t think it’s you.”

The room’s attention had focused on a pair sitting on the other side of the room.   Even with heads bent low, their conversation carried throughout the space.

“I- I swear I didn’t tell anyone!” the shorter fae squeaked.  Luccio didn’t recognize him as a regular patron, but he fit in well enough with the other lesser fae.

Certainly more so than his companion.  The man had to be just shy of six feet tall, closer to Luccio’s height than anyone else in the room.  His cloak covered his face, but the hand that rested on the table served as proof enough that he was not a lesser fae.  It looked soft and tender, like it had never withstood a day of hard labor’s abuses.  “If you didn’t tell a soul,” he hissed, “why do I hear my name whispered around every corner of this glen?”

“Y-you’re a legend.”

“Legend my foot.  What have you spilled, worthless rat?”

“Nothing!  I swear!”

This placated the man.  His shoulders relaxed slightly.  “Good.”  The cloaked head turned to face the staring crowd.  “Mind your own business.”

Strained conversations resumed at his command, little more than a dead weight in the air.  The carefree, joyous energy that had been so abundant before vanished.  Ax and O’Rourke began trying to figure out who the man might be, but Luccio ignored them; he was still listening.

“Lousy little hole you have us in,” the stranger huffed.

“It’s the closest to where you need to go.”

“Do you have the crystal?”

“Yes, right here.  But why do you need one?  You’ve done this for centur-”

A fist closed around his neck.  “Don’t ask questions.”  The man let him go.

Voice now hoarse, the fae spoke again.  “Noted.”  He pulled a small bundle out of his pocket and the man snatched it up at once.  “Will you,” the fae croaked, pushing his luck, “at least tell me how beautiful this one is?  Please?  I’ll never get to see real beauty…”

“A pretty, youthful face.  Straight hair with a soft, red-brown glow, and dark brown eyes.”  The man paused.  “But you’re right.  You will never see beauty.”  Before the fae had time to react, the man grabbed him and snapped his neck.  He walked back into the night, clearing the room with sweeping steps before the body had finished its journey to the ground.

The tavern exploded with hurried, nervous chatter after the door swung close.  Luccio hadn’t been the only one still listening, but he was certain his heart alone raced at breakneck speeds.  That girl… He couldn’t have meant my Princess, could he?

Ax shook his head, oblivious to his friend’s inner turmoil.  “Poor kid.  Of all the people to have eyeing you…”

Luccio whipped back around to face them.  “What do you mean?”

O’Rourke’s demeanor turned glum.  “His last words.  They made it clear who he was.”

“Mandibar,” Ax chimed in with a nod.  “Had to be.”

He prayed he’d misunderstood them.  The legendary woman slayer couldn’t possibly have been sitting mere feet from them, talking about a girl all too similar to his princess.  “You don’t mean that Mandibar, do you?”

“No, I mean his cousin.  Of course I mean that Mandibar!” Ax snapped, looking Luccio up and down curiously.  “What’s up with you tonight?”

His heart hammered against his ribs, threatening to burst from his chest.  “I’ve got to go.”  The chair toppled over as he stood and scrambled for the door.

“Where are you off to in such a fizz?” O’Rourke searched his friend’s face before his scorched eyebrows shot up.  “You can’t be thinking about-”

“I’m sorry, but I have to!” Luccio called back, snatching his cloak as he bent to go through the door.

The cool night air sent a wave of vertigo washing over him after the tavern’s warmth.  His frantic heartbeat mocked him as it ticked away the passing seconds.  It would take a miracle to find Mandibar in time.  He didn’t even know which direction the fae had gone, but standing around certainly wouldn’t do any good.  He took off running down the path he’d taken earlier, hoping.

As he ran, he thought of reasons why Mandibar would have traveled this way.  With the alignment, a day would have already passed in the mortal world.  The girl would be setting out on her evening run any time now.  Mandibar must know this too if he’d decided she was his target for the year.  He would have studied her habits in preparation for this moment.  Luccio ran a bit faster.

It took all of his willpower to slow as he neared the clearing.  His nerves screamed, begging him to charge ahead, but he knew facing one of the Sidhe head-on would be suicide.  He needed to maintain a certain element of surprise.

Luccio’s stomach did somersaults as he approached, the sound of footsteps drifting to him.  The lesser fae peered into the clearing from the sheltering undergrowth, planning his next move.

Mandibar was quite accustomed to the rituals crossing the Veil with assistance required and already had crystals of varying size set out in a perfect circle.  Only an incantation remained and then a trod would be opened, allowing him to return to Faerie in this very spot with the girl in tow.

Here Luccio saw an opportunity.  If his timing was just right, he might be able to grab one of the crystals and jump through the trod before it collapsed.  He didn’t want to think about the consequences of failure.  Not that things would be too grand if he succeeded, either,  but at least his princess would be safe.  He steeled his will.  He would face the warrior fae for her.

The incantation flowed from Mandibar’s lips like a song, ancient words rippling with power.  Crystals began to glow and hum around him, making the air vibrate with electricity.  When the last and largest joined the throng of sound and light, Luccio burst from his hiding place and ran for it.  The gateway to the mortal world was opening in front of it, he was going to make it…

“What do you think you’re doing?”

The growled question sent a wave of terror rippling through him.  He had been so intent on reaching the crystal he hadn’t noticed Mandibar had finished the incantation.  Luccio refused to stop or turn around, knowing either of those things would mean a swift death.

More words of power marred the air.  He would be struck down, he knew it, and there was nothing he could do to protect himself.  He’d chosen his path and he would have to see it through.

Mandibar’s cadence rose in tempo, a powerful wind causing the trees to groan in its wake.  Luccio leapt for the crystal and felt his spindly hands lock around the stone.  It was all up to momentum now.  He closed his eyes.

Lightning crackled through the clearing, its light so blinding he saw its glow through closed eyelids.  The heat was cooking his insides, he could feel the process beginning…

But then the air was suddenly cool once more, leaves rustling in the breeze the only sound.  Luccio slowly opened his eyes.

He was on his back in a different clearing, the full moon high above.  The crystal remained clasped in his hands, its polished edges cutting into his skin.  Mandibar was nowhere in sight.

He sat up gingerly, shaking with fright.  Nothing appeared to be broken or seriously damaged.  “I did it…” The words hung in the air, taking their time to sink in.  When they did, he threw his head back and laughed.  “I did it!”

Luccio tried to stand, but found himself back on the ground; his nerves kept his legs from working.  But at least he was alive.  He reached into his pocket, pulling out his father’s watch.  He still had five hours to find her.  And then what?  He didn’t know.

Lighting another cigarette, he sat and tried to relax.  The hard part was over.  He would think of something.

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