The Trail Begins
(As a note, I have been trying to post this story, but for some reason the story keeps disappearing, I am trying again to post it in hopes that it will stick this time! This is the entire first chapter. another note, the formatting is much better in the regular ebook:).
The darkness came early in midwinter, especially in the Greatwood. Even in the height of summer the forest was not a bright place. Very little sunlight penetrated the vast canopy, hence the overall effect of a cool, dark haven shot with green and gold. In winter more light could pass through the layers of skeletal branches, but it was a cold light, thin and grey. In the ever-present mists of winter, a traveler who ventured into the depths of the forest unprepared might find himself lost, chilled to death in the long dark. Fire, in this realm, was life.
Gaelen Taldin, a Wood-elf of the Greatwood Realm, was glad to have been sent out into the deep woods. As with most of her kind, Gaelen was most content among the trees, and she had dedicated herself to the guardianship of her forest home. She paused in her gathering of dead wood for the fire that she would soon need, appraising the leaden, tree-netted sky to the northwest. It looked as though it might start snowing at any minute.
She struck a spark to the tinder she had collected, carefully tending the fragile flame until it was truly kindled, and wrapped her winter cloak about her. She had lived through well over a thousand such winters and was not disquieted, for she was resistant to the elements and the cold bothered her little. Still, the fire was most welcome.
Just as Gaelen realized that she was truly hungry, her cousin Nelwyn appeared with two fine game-birds in her hand. She tossed them to Gaelen, who nodded in approval. Drawing a small, curved blade from the top of her boot, she split the breasts of the birds, pulling back the skin and removing it with a few expert strokes. She hated plucking feathers; they stuck to her fingers and would cling to her clothing for hours afterward. She tossed the skin aside with satisfaction and reached inside the birds, extracting the innards with strong, clever fingers. Tossing the carcasses to Nelwyn, she cleaned the blood from her hands by stripping a piece of fragrant bark from a nearby spice-bush. Then she settled down to watch her cousin at work. Nelwyn rubbed the meat with the previous summer’s dried herbs, wrapped it in softened sheets of fire-birch bark sprinkled with sweet oil, and set them aside. She would roast them when the coals were just right.
In the depths of winter the sunrise would come late, but Gaelen didn’t mind. The cold darkness was not to be feared, at least so long as the warmth of the fire continued. Her enemies were unlikely to be abroad in the cold, especially so deep within the boundaries of the Elven-realm. Even if they were, she had already noted the presence of at least one owl in the vicinity. Owls made excellent sentinels, and as long as these kept calling, she knew the area was secure. She and Nelwyn sat together in an enormous, hollow tree-trunk beside the well-concealed fire, quietly singing songs and telling tales, laughing and making merry until dawn.
The snow that Gaelen had sensed upon the wind finally came in the early morning, but by that time she was refreshed and ready to move on, hoping for a warmer day. She and Nelwyn had been sent by the King to patrol the eastern border of the realm, for Ri-Aruin appreciated information concerning who or what was abroad in his lands. Gaelen and Nelwyn were excellent scouts; they could travel without being seen or heard if they wished, and they had often warned the King of trespassers. They had permission to deal with certain of these on their own; Ulcas, in particular, would fall quickly.
Gaelen had always regarded these misbegotten creatures with a mixture of loathing and disgust, though she felt a small amount of pity for them. From a distance they almost looked human, but a closer look revealed their lumpy, discolored flesh, muddy, unintelligent eyes, and twisted limbs. Even more disturbing to the Elves was their utter hairlessness—Ulcas lacked even eyelashes. Gaelen had seen a bald man before, but he still had eyelashes, eyebrows, and hair on his exposed arms. She found the sight of Ulcas—especially unclothed—revolting. They reminded her of the blind, squirming things that lived under rotting logs.