Nicca had been making torches for a century and ought to be better at it. ‘Twas a skill an adolescent wood elf should have mastered by now. The light lapping ahead of him up the tunnel had dimmed to the feeble blue of marsh gas. A few strides short of the opening, the flame brightened and flagged round the birch handle. He crouched and listened. A draft whispered in the passage. Strange in a sealed chamber.
Though not as strange as the leatherwing finding him at dawn in one of the subterranean passages he used for short cuts between watch points: the sea cave that opened on Lannhorn Porth, the slate wall on the moor, and the oak above Wynn’s hillfort. Her frequent wanderings from the secure circle of her settlement pressed him to travel below ground, where, like any other Ellyll, the lack of fresh air and light frayed his nerves.
With the mageling and her kinfolk away at Trevelgue Head, he’d considered himself off duty; she only got in trouble when she went off alone. A good time to better himself. He’d been reviewing the Four Hundred Rules of Human Bardic Composition when the agitated leatherwing woke him from a deep sleep. The creature circled his head, conveying an image of someone curled up among broken rocks, and disappeared into the dark. Concerned, Nicca had followed.
His footsteps, light has they were, echoed as if he approached a larger space. By his calculations this should be the sealed cavern under Huath’s Chamber, though he couldn’t be sure. The prickly Queen delighted in rearranging her surroundings to confound unwanted visitors. Nicca entered, thrusting the torch ahead of him. Light leapt to a jagged gap in the roof and the eerie root curtains far above. Sweet air, smelling of moor and sea, stirred his hair.
Jumbled stone blocks mounded in the center; shattered fragments spread to the walls. The leatherwing hung above a hooded form—the brooch at the throat partly covered by a hand, but unmistakable. The Sign of the Scarlet Oak, last worn by Derowen, Magewoman of Awe.
His stomach contracted. It was Wynn. But then, who else would it be? No other from the Vale would be granted entrance to the Chamber by Her Royal Spineness. Huath must greatly favor this human child to open a way for her into the lower caverns. Or Wynn broke down the roof. Neither would surprise him.
But why was she here and not at Trevelgue Head?
Nicca braced his torch upright between two slabs and sat on the lower of them. He rested his arms on the laces of his leggings and studied her sleeping face. Wynn did not take after her light-haired father, but had the look of her mother’s Kembri people from north of Hafren Channel. Her glossy hair was black as a raven’s wing.
Derowen’s wild hair had blazed around her face like living fire.
But here now was Wynn. Leggier than when he’d seen her up close on the moor after the Festival of Alban Hefin, the summer’s first day longer than the nights. He should’ve risked observing her at closer range. Should’ve known she had not gone with the others. Should have studied something other than the Four Hundred Bardic Rules.
He tried to shake off the grip of guilt. After all, her father had made it clear after Wynn was born that he did not want Nicca to meet his daughter, much less mentor her. It grieved him, but he understood and had respected Marlen’s choice, watching over her from a distance.
For her grandmother. For Derowen.
When Wynn brought sheep onto the moor, he was both amused and touched by the eager way the wooly bleaters gathered round her, the lambs rubbing against her skirts like granary cats. Shy voles and hedgehogs led her to their babies hidden in slate walls and under heaped boulders. It was charming.
And, merely charming: not performing true magic, thankfully. That was certain to attract unwanted attention. The attention of Derowen’s nemesis; he who caused Nicca to be the only one left to raise her little boy, Marlen. Living with the Ellyl had been an unusual life for a human orphan, especially the son of a king, but that had been Derowen’s choice.
These days, humans chose, elves counseled.
And, Marlen had chosen an ordinary life for his daughter. Elves, mages, and magic, did not promote an ordinary life. As a lad Marlen had been ever reluctant to take up crafting with spells or charms, believing the magic itself, not its wrong working, had taken his mother from him. Even after he had grown to a man, he denounced it, voyaging as a trader of gems and silverwork instead. If only Wynn had her father’s reluctance.
She seemed harmless enough just now. Most likely run away from home over some willful spat with her mother. That was it. He stood up. He sat down again. His refusal to admit that Wynn possessed more than special perceptions and an affinity for animals had made no difference. Today he sensed undeniable power—power that attracts evil the way beauty attracts envy from the self-despising.
His blood chilled. What if Archdruid Nathir found her? Had her turn come to carry the burden awaiting her since birth? She was Derowen’s heir, after all. And she was not ready. Dread displaced his breath. Nor was he. But, ready or not, he needed to act. After he took her home, of course. After he spoke with her mother and uncle.
After awhile. His nostrils flared and his brows jerked up, pulling his breath inward in short gasps. He rubbed his nose to stifle the sneeze, but it came anyway. Always the sneeze when confronted with his failings.
Wynn stirred. The leatherwing detached from the cave wall and alighted on the rim of her hood. Swinging along in an ungainly crawl, it advanced to her shoulder and licked her jaw line with a tiny, black tongue.
The little creature knew what needed doing. Nicca knelt at her side and placed a gentle hand on her arm. Her head tilted toward him exposing a blood-crusted bruise above her ear.
Dear Devas! She was hurt. “Wynn?” Her eyes opened and stared blankly into his.
“Da?” Her lips looked dry. “I don’t feel good.”
The lump on her head did not appear grave, but Nicca thought she had to be knocked silly to take an adolescent elf for a middle-aged trader. Though more than a hundred fifty-nine years old, Nicca knew he should scarcely look eighteen to her.
“My name is Nicca.” He adjusted the journey bag under her head. The leatherwing fluttered back to its dangling comrades. “I’m not your Da, but I’ll help as I can.” Remembering Derowen and Marlen, he had to stifle a sneeze. This time he truly would.
Third time’s the charm.
~ from Chapter 5 The Ellyll ~