“Come, my little bird. You must bundle up against the cold,” Lyranne Feathersong said the words softly, tugging the fur-lined hood on the girl’s cloak higher around her face and pulling it closer around her slender shoulders. The child stared up at her with owlish blue eyes as clear as the azure sky, her cheeks pinkened by the chill morning air.
“O-of course, Miss Lyranne,” she whispered, tucking her gloved hands into the folds of the fabric. She was trying to be brave, the woman knew, but the girl’s hurt and fear were reflected in the stiff lines of her body, the way her kind eyes darted and hid. The way her pale lips pressed into a tight, sad line. “We’ll keep warm on the journey. You needn’t worry…”
The woman felt tears tickle her eyes at the girl’s attempt at bravery, managing a smile that she hoped was more comforting than sad. “I am gladdened to hear it. You’re both in good hands. The Sentinels will see you safely to Astranaar, where your new guardians will meet you.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The child ducked her head, only glancing up when her brother stepped up beside her. She immediately reached for his hand, grasping it tightly.
“Sentinel Thenysil says that it’s time to go, Miss Lyranne,” he said softly, his gloves dark on his sister’s white ones.
Rhese hid his pain more thoroughly than Rhoelyn, but the woman who had cared for the twins for the past few years could see every piece of their truth. Twelve short seasons was not enough for them to be able to understand why they were being sent away to live with strangers, and she mourned that she had not found a better way to explain. How could you tell children that they were leaving the only home they’d ever known for their own good? That the dangers they knew little about were growing, and that it was becoming harder and harder to keep them safe in a tiny village on the edge of the frigid wilderness? Try though she had, she was incapable of explaining it to them in any way that didn’t sound like the only family who hadn’t already left them was getting rid of them, instead.
All she could do was reach out and pull them both into her arms, pressing her forehead against first Rhese’s and then Rhoelyn’s and fighting back her tears. “My little gifts. May Elune bless you both and protect you. Never forget that you are loved by all of us here.”
As she released them, the little girl just sniffled quietly, but her brother nodded gravely. He started to turn away, pulling his sister with him, but he paused to look back. “Miss Lyranne?”
“If… if you should hear from mother…” he couldn’t finish the sentence, swallowing past a lump in his throat. But she knew very well what the child wished.
She nodded, grave and sincere, reaching out to press her hand against his cold cheek. “Dear one, I swear that if we hear anything of her, you will know it. No matter where the message has to travel to find you.”
“Thank you…” He offered her a subdued version of his usual sunny smile. “… for everything.”
Beside him, Rhoelyn turned back long enough to bow, whispering, “Elune keep you all.”
Lyranne stood, her smile watery as her husband, Wynd, stepped closer and rested his big, comforting hand on her shoulder. “Be well, children,” he rumbled, and the few other residents of their small village echoed his words with their own farewells as Thenysil and her fellow Sentinels led the twins down the hill toward their waiting mounts.
The morning was bitterly cold, the sun bright but not yet warm as it clawed its way free of the snow-laden horizon, coloring the sky in oranges and pinks. Flurries had passed through overnight, the resulting deposits nearly obscuring the cart track that passed for the only road in the region.
Rhese watched the frozen hills around them as he deftly guided their mount behind the Sentinels, listening to the crunch of the snow under its huge paws and holding his sister curled up against his chest. She sat sideways in the saddle, all but buried in her cloak, her shoulders shaking as silent tears wetted his jacket. He patted her back, knowing she would cry until the rocking gait of the frostsaber under them lulled her to sleep, her emotions spent. Until then, her tears were his as well.
He glanced back the way they’d come only to see the last corner of the Lodge’s roof disappear over the hill. It was… jarring. They were truly gone from the only home they’d ever known, from the only place their absent mother would know to find them. As he straightened, he bit his trembling lip. Rhoelyn’s tears were his, and he refused to shed any more. He would be strong for her. Always.
It was just the two of them, now.
The little boy bowed his head, resting his cheek against his twin’s hood, and silently swore that he’d always be her strength. Even if everyone else came and went from their lives, they’d always have each other.
“Rhese! Wait for me!” Rhoelyn gasped for breath, trying not to trip over her skirts as she scrambled up the hillside after her brother. Pebbles tumbled away under her boots, but she grabbed a root with her free hand to keep from sliding back down.
“Rhese! Don- oh…” She smiled and took the hand he offered her, letting him tug her to more solid ground.
“Shoosh,” he grouched quietly as she caught her breath. “You’re too loud, Rhoe.”
“You know I can’t keep up with you when you run like that,” she replied petulantly, leaning down to attempt to brush the worst of the dirt and leaves from her clothes.
Her brother sighed and patted some dust off her back. “You could keep up with me if you wore those breeches I made for you instead of a silly dress.”
“Not likely,” Rhoelyn grinned, flicking his gangly ear. “You’re really fast, you know. If you wanted to run away, I don’t think I could keep up, dress or no.” She kept her smile fixed in place, trying to hide the worry behind the thought.
But Rhese wasn’t fooled for a moment. He grabbed her ear back, using it to tug her against him for a hug. “I’d never go anywhere without you, stupidface. When we do run away, I need you with me to tell me which herbs we can eat.”
“… of course, brother,” she giggled, shoving against him and running off as he stumbled back. The little boy smirked and gave her a few seconds to attempt to beat him across the sun-dappled clearing… and then he burst into a sprint, closing the distance between them quickly.
“Oh!” Rhoelyn shrieked in surprise, laughing as he grabbed her arm and swung her around. He dumped her unceremoniously on her backside into a clump of soft goldclover. “Oh, you stinky-!”
She yanked back on his arm, kicking out a leg to trip him, which backfired when he tumbled across her lap. Rhese “oof”ed and then fell into a fit of giggles as his sister shoved at him, managing to mostly find ticklish spots as she tried to push him off her.
“Stop that,” he gasped out between laughs, grabbing for her wrists. “Rhoe, we’re supposed to be qui-”
A shadow fell across them both, and they instantly stilled, looking up. Fahran Silentblade’s scarred face frowned down at them, his arms folded across his chest.
“When Haljan told me I’d find you out here, whelps, I scoffed at him. I told him you weren’t foolish enough to come this far from the city on your own.”
Rhese scrambled free of their tangle of limbs, standing quickly. His little fists clenched at his sides, he raised his chin defiantly. “W-we were just playing, Master Fahran.”
Behind him, his sister shoved to her feet as well, ducking her head and avoiding the man’s angry eyes.
The night elf’s expression only darkened. “Oh, trust me. I know. And so does half of Kalimdor and three quarters of the forest denizens of Ashenvale.”
He leaned down and wrapped a meaty hand around each child’s arm, squeezing tight enough to hurt. “I know you’ve been warned about this. Many times. Especially you, Rhese.” The boy scowled as he was shaken for emphasis, his short ears bouncing. “It’s more than dangerous in the deep forest. You’re going to get yourself or your sister killed!”
“But, we j-” Rhese was interrupted by another shake.
“No, boy. There’s no excuse you can make to me. You’re risking your life, here.” Sighing, Fahran turned and dragged them toward his waiting mount. “You are both confined to the house until the new moon. You’ll leave only for lessons, and you’ll return immediately after.”
Rhoelyn gasped, her brow furrowing. “But, my garden!” she cried, letting him lift her onto the saddle.
Fahran shook his head, stern and cold and unyielding as he plopped Rhese onto the seat behind her. “I’m sorry, Rhoelyn. Maybe when you have to replant it, it will help you remember not to let your foolish brother come out here the next time he gets the idea in his thick head.”
The little girl bowed her head, biting her lip against the tears that burned hotly behind her eyes, and she felt Rhese wrap his arms around her. He knew how much she’d come to love her little plot of herbs and flowers and how much it would hurt to watch them wither and die without her care. He leaned his cheek against the back of her head as the rogue crowded into the saddle behind them, a wordless apology. She rested her hands over his, sighing as they rode.
Rhoelyn knew that Fahran was not a cruel man, just a hard one. All the adults in their new environment meant well, but they had so many rules. So many restrictions. “It’s not safe” was becoming a sickening refrain. And every day, Astranaar felt more like a crowded prison than a new home.
Especially for Rhese. The forest called to him in a way that she recognized, even if she couldn’t understand it. His expression told her that it sang at him every time he stared out the window of their cluttered little house on the edge of the lake. He had told her about the sweet dreams he had of playing in the leaves with the fox kits and bear cubs, great games of hide and seek with the panthers and prowlers. When the two of them escaped there, he saw and sensed things beneath those ancient trees that could bring back that beautiful smile of his, the one that had gone into hiding in the months since they’d left Starfall Village.
Fahran wanted her to keep him from going to the forest? Not a chance. Even if she thought she were capable of changing his mind, she wouldn’t try. Rhoelyn wanted to take him there every day and watch him be happy and complete. Even if she was scared or worried, herself. Even if it got her dresses dirty and earned them a scolding. Her brother belonged in the woods, not the soft, silly city.
Despite her certainty and resolve, Rhoelyn gulped nervously as Fahran’s nightsaber padded up to the front of the Lodge at the heart of Astranaar, glancing up at its graceful wooden lines. Haljan and Aeolynn Oakheart, the busy merchants who were their official keepers, tended their shops inside, undoubtedly ready to deliver a second tongue-lashing.
The little girl shuddered as Fahran lifted her from the saddle, setting her on her feet beside Rhese. Her hand instantly and automatically sought her brother’s, and he wrapped his fingers through hers, squeezing reassuringly. Together, they trudged forward into the building and back into well-intentioned captivity.
At the end of a week of being stuck in the house, Rhese felt like he was about to crawl out of his skin. He dreamed of freedom every night, of sprinting with the stags through the underbrush, of hunting with the bears in the river, of standing beneath the mighty oaks and listening to them stretch and grow. And every day, he felt the city pressing in on him as he trudged along beside Rhoelyn to their scribing lessons and his leatherworking apprenticeship.
It was more than just the big, lifeless buildings and the bustle of ten times as many people as they’d ever seen in Starfall Village. It was the whispering voices and the curious stares of people who saw few enough children and no matched pairs like the pretty, silver-haired twins. A hundred strangers’ eyes, gauging and speculating and judging the little pair from the frosted countryside. The weight of their constant regard made both the children shrink uncomfortably.
Rhese wanted to run and never look back. Maybe back to Winterspring, but at least into the ancient woods of the Ashenvale.
“Still another fortnight,” Rhoelyn sighed softly, offering him a cup of water as she settled opposite him on the window sill, pulling her bare toes up and tucking them under her skirt. “It’s too long.”
He took a sip from the cup before pressing his forehead to the sun-warmed windowpane. “Yeah. We gotta find supplies. And a pack. I already made us a blanket that the others don’t know about. Miss Aeolynn has our winter gear in her shop, but I don’t think anyone bought it, yet.”
His sister blinked at him, a hopeful smile spreading across her lips. But it slipped away with just a little more thought. “We… can’t go back to Winterspring, brother. They’ll just send us back here, and then there will be even more rules and eyes on us.”
Rhese hadn’t considered that, and his heart sank to realize there was no going back to their old, familiar life. But she was right. He sighed, scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes. “I guess that’s a couple fewer things we’ll need to steal.”
“S-steal?” Rhoelyn squeaked out the word before clapping a hand over her mouth. With a quick glance back at where Haljan could be heard snoring away in the other room, she repeated herself at a whisper. “… steal? We have to steal?”
He looked at her with regret in his eyes, but shrugged. “How else do we get what we need, Rhoe? We don’t have much more than a few coppers left from last Ancestors Day. And if we buy a bunch of supplies, the adults will know.”
“Oh.” He watched her digest that, knowing that she’d need a way around the immorality of it and curious what she’d come up with. He didn’t have to wonder long.
“But we can leave everything we don’t need. It’ll be a trade,” she announced with a nod, grinning.
Rhese nodded, adding his own little smile. “Leave it to me, sis. I’ll get us ready.”
The children left Astranaar in the early afternoon a few days later, Rhese carrying their small pack and Rhoelyn trudging along beside him. The city slept from top to bottom, only a few drowsy Sentinels keeping watch through the day. Their eyes were fixed outward, and it was simple to slip past them into the cover of the trees.
Rhese looked up at the thick canopy as the leaves shaded them, breathing in the scents of loam and bark and flowers. He couldn’t help the bright smile that split his lips.
Home. It feels like –
“Home.” The little boy blinked at his sister as she whispered his thought aloud, his jaw dropping open. When she felt his stare, she looked back at him, shrugging. “What? It is going to be our home, isn’t it? The forest? Once we find somewhere nice and far enough from the city?”
Though she looked more frightened by the idea than pleased, she forced a brave smile, her hands knotting nervously in her skirt. Rhese was suddenly struck by all that she was willing to do for his happiness. He pulled her hands free of her skirt, holding them both in his.
“We’ll find a great place, Rhoe. You’ll see.” He smiled reassuringly. “It’ll have the perfect spot for your garden. And we’ll have a waterfall and a little pool to wash in.”
Rhoelyn smiled back, warming to the exercise. “And a big tree you can climb? And a comfy cave with crystals on the walls?”
“Exactly.” He nodded, beaming. “Come on. If we’re gonna find it, we have to keep moving.”
As Rhese turned back to the deer track only he could make out, he kept ahold of one her hands. The little boy didn’t believe in very much at the tender age of twelve, but he had absolute faith in one simple truth: that everything would be fine as long as they were together.
Rhoelyn awoke alone in the middle of their sixth night in the woods, shivering in the chill darkness beneath their blanket. She sat up, rubbing sleepily at her eyes, and promptly smacked her head on the fallen log under which they’d dug their little burrow.
“Ow!” she complained, pouting and rubbing at the resultant lump. It took a while for her eyes to adjust to the moonless dark, but she didn’t have to see to know that she was alone in the tiny space. Alone and cold and suddenly frightened.
“R-Rhese?” she whispered, scrambling out into the forest. She bit her lip as she straightened, her gaze raking the area for a familiar flash of silver hair or golden eyes. When she saw neither, she fumbled for the little knife she kept on her belt, her hand grown unsteady.
“Rhese? Where are you?” Her second whisper was higher pitched. Despite the panic creeping icy tendrils up her spine, the little girl knew better than to do the one thing she wanted to do the most: shout for her brother.
Instead, she stumbled away from the log, wary and trembling, drawing her blade for courage. She couldn’t see any tracks in the dark, but she could hear plenty of hushed sounds: the rustling of the leaves as a gentle breeze passed along, the footfalls and snorfling grunts of some sort of forager, the squeak of a conversational mouse.
Ah! And there… a hushed voice, too patterned to belong to a wild creature. Rhoelyn turned and rushed toward the sound, the leaves crunching underfoot.
In short order, she rounded a tree and spied a familiar figure crouched in the middle of a small clearing. She grabbed the rough bark to steady herself against a dizzying wave of relief, surprised when a couple of tears landed on her hand. He was safe, speaking softly to himself as he worked on something near the ground by his feet.
The little girl crept quietly forward, sheathing her knife. Her voice barely made a sound when she once more whispered, “Rhese?”
Her brother whipped his head up, wide-eyed, finding her luminous blue gaze in the darkness. “Rhoe? What are you doing awake?”
“You were gone,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around herself. “I… I was worried.”
He glanced uncertainly off to the side, then held his hand out to her. “Come here. Quietly.”
She approached as bidden, her bare feet silent in the grass, but she paused a step away from taking the offered hand, drawing in a sharp breath. Over his shoulder, she could feel… something. Something that she couldn’t see but whose presence crouched beside her brother, half comforting and half alarming. Rhoelyn had always been the type to focus more on the “alarming” parts…
“W.. what is that?” she whispered, grabbing his hand and tugging him away from the unseen presence. Rhese caught himself, stumbling to his feet. She knew when he recognized her fear because he tugged his hand free only to grip her shoulders, putting his face in front of hers.
“It’s alright, Rhoe. He’s not going to hurt me. Or you.” The little girl trembled as he pulled her close, clinging to him when he glanced back over his shoulder, mumbling, “Yes, I know you’re not technically a boy, but I don’t have a better word to use. You don’t wanna be an ‘it’, do you?
“You can see him?” It took Rhoelyn a second to realize that the last comment was aimed back at her. She shook her head.
“No,” she whispered, her wide-eyed stare fixed over his shoulder, seeming to belie the comment. “But I can… um… I can tell there’s something there. Rhese, what is it? I don’t understand.”
“Rhoe,” he looked at her in the darkness, patting her back comfortingly, “you remember when we used to watch the frostsabers playing in the snow? And we’d talk about how the old grandmother liked to watch us just as much as we liked to watch them?”
At her quiet nod, he continued, “This is a spirit of their family. To me, he looks like a frostsaber, but he’s also more than that. I think he followed us from Winterspring, and he’s been looking after us since we left the city. That’s why the bears and wolves and other predators haven’t bothered us.” The little boy smiled, pleased. “He’s our guardian spirit.”
As she blinked, digesting that information, he frowned and turned back to the thing she couldn’t see. “No, not just me. Rhoelyn, too. She’s my sister, and I protect her. So if you protect me, then you protect her, too.”
Rhoelyn took his satisfied nod to be a good sign, and she shyly peeped around his shoulder, speaking to the something that she couldn’t fully discern. “H-hello, frostsaber spirit. Thank you for your kindness. Elune adore.”
She wasn’t entirely sure that she didn’t imagine the rumbling purr that whispered with the wind, but she certainly felt the warmth of her brother’s amused smile as he tugged her back over to where he’d been crouching.
“I’m learning to make a rabbit snare, sis. Look!”
After just a slight hesitation, Rhoelyn did look, crouching beside Rhese and their odd new friend in the darkness and thinking happily about ways to prepare rabbit for breakfast.
Rhese sat in the tree, lounging back against the trunk with his ankles crossed as he munched on a handful of nuts. Below him, his sister lay in the field of wildflowers they’d found, braiding blooms into something or other happily while unaware that the cat spirit lounged lazily by her side.
They were traveling slowly, of late, spending as much of their time playing or amusing themselves in the beautiful forest as walking, but Rhese didn’t think it mattered. Between their skills and the lessons the cat was giving him, they were doing well for themselves, comfortable and fed and warm, and by now he figured they were beyond the reach of anyone trying to drag them back to Astraanar.
He finished his snack and stretched, yawning.
“Rhoe,” the boy called down, waiting for her attention to lift to him. “Let’s go a little farther before dark. I want to see what’s over that hill.” Climbing deftly to his feet on the narrow branch, he pointed vaguely south.
She shrugged, grinning. “Okay, brother. I’m almost done with this.”
Rhese climbed down the tree easily enough, feeling which branches and twigs were strong and weak with more than just his hands and landing on the ground with an agile plop. Rhoelyn met him with a smile and a kiss on the cheek, dropping a cowl woven of flowers over his head.
“Rhooooe,” he complained, pulling at the far-too-pretty contrivance with a grimace. “I’m too big for this stuff, now! You can keep your flowers to yourself.”
His sister giggled, unperturbed, and danced away. “I don’t care how big you get, Rhese Silverwing! I’m going to always make you flower weaves, and you have to wear them because I’m your big sister.”
Raising his brows, he finally untangled it from his ears and hair and stepped up beside her, pointedly looking down (just slightly) into her eyes.
“That is a big, fat NO. Little sister.” He grinned and dropped the flowers over her head, covering her eyes before stepping away to gather up their pack and sling it over his shoulder. She just laughed and tugged herself free of the flowers.
By the time Rhese was ready to travel, so was Rhoelyn, and they wandered off toward the south with the cat spirit trailing them, leaving the woven flowers in the field behind them.
They walked in silence for a long while, the light changing as the unseen sun eased its way toward a horizon that was obscured by the forest’s thick canopy. The trees were starting to run into the edge of the rolling foothills that lead up into the Stonetalon mountains, so the land had taken on a gentle rise and fall, like a frozen wave of earth. It made the children huff for breath by the time they crested the rise of the hill.
Rhoelyn wrinkled her nose, peering down into the darkness between the trees. “What is that smell? How awful!”
Beside her, he did the same, burying his face in the crook of his arm to try to shield himself from the stench. “I don’t know… maybe something is rotting? Something big?” he muttered, his voice muffled. “Come on. Let’s find out.”
“Wait, wait.” His sister resisted when he took her hand, pulling back with wide eyes. “I don’t think we should go down there, brother. Something’s wrong.”
Rhese frowned, tilting his head at her. “Why do y–”
He was interrupted by an ear-splitting screech, and before he could look up, something heavy slammed into him, knocking him into his sister and sending them both tumbling to the ground. He cried out to feel sharp claws raking across the back of his shoulders, dragging fire across his skin.
“No!” Rhoelyn screamed, reaching over him to swipe at the weight on his back, and suddenly it lifted with another screech and a rush of wind. Stunned, confused, and hurting, he found himself distractedly feeling impressed that his timid little sister had thought to grab her dagger so quickly. “Rhese? Rhese! Get up. We have to move.”
Her arms shoving at him dragged him from his stupor, and he pushed himself off her, standing with a grimace. The little girl leapt to her feet, grabbing his hand and dragging him after her as she ducked around a tree trunk. Chips of wood sprayed them both as their attacker’s claws dug deep furrows in the bark over their heads, and in the instant before he shielded his eyes, Rhese saw large, raptor-like claws red-tinged with blood.
His blood? The boy felt fear weaken his knees before he shoved the thought away, drawing his dagger and tugging Rhoelyn behind him. His wide-eyed gaze followed the shadow of their attacker as it ascended back into the trees. “W-what is that thing?” he cried.
His sister shook her head, trembling with reaction at his back. “I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like that before. It’s like a … bird-person,” she whispered, then gasped. “Rhese! You’re cut.”
“I know, Rhoe,” he responded, forcing his voice to sound calmer than he felt. “I can’t… I can’t see this thing through the branches. We need to run. Stay close to the tree trunks so that it can’t swoop down again.”
Rhoelyn gulped, nodding, “But d-don’t let go of my hand, okay?”
“Of course,” he answered, scanning the canopy for the creature. “Re–”
His sister’s startled scream had him swinging around, and he grabbed for her as she was dragged back and away from him. Another of the creatures, differently colored and slightly smaller, gripped her silver hair in its clawed hands, tugging on her. As he scrambled, Rhese could barely absorb a few details, catching glimpses of its red-feathered, winged arms and vaguely night elven form. The talons were what passed for its feet, its ankles partly covered in tough, scaly flesh.
Rhoelyn’s second scream was drowned in the middle of the creature’s grating screech as it leapt, trying to wrap those sharp talons around her shoulder. Instead, she squirmed to the side, and its damaging grip skimmed down her small arm, shredding fabric and flesh alike.
“Rhoe!” As Rhese leapt forward, a shadow fell across him from above, and the weight that slammed into him sent his small frame flying. He felt his left shoulder hit the tree trunk and then his temple…
… and then darkness swallowed him whole, and he didn’t feel anything at all.
When Rhese fell, Rhoelyn felt panic clawing at her throat, stealing her breath away. She slashed wildly at the winged woman with her dagger, squirming out of her grip and throwing herself at where her brother lay, pale and bleeding at the base of a grandfather oak. The little girl crouched over him, brandishing her small blade at the two creatures who hovered just out of reach, their arm-wings flapping.
“Stay away!” she shouted at them, slashing her knife back and forth. Despite the tears streaming down her face, the child snarled ferally. “By Elune, I swear I will slice you both if you touch him! Do you understand me?!”
If they did, they didn’t feel the need to tell her so. Nor did they feel the need to leave. They both settled to the ground, tucking their winged arms against their sides and crouching there, just out of reach of the girl’s little weapon. There they stayed, staring at the children with unnerving intensity.
Rhoelyn shuddered, her blade shaking as she held it in both hands. “W-what are you doing?” she asked, her voice as unsteady as her grip. “Just… just go away. Shoo! I won’t let you e-eat us or … or anything.” The girl put the knife in her uninjured hand, waving them away.
But the two just stared, unmoving and unimpressed, until a third suddenly dropped through the canopy, landing solidly between them.
The little girl started, her narrowed blue eyes going wide. Immediately, Rhoelyn knew this creature was different from her sisters, for she could feel the magic dancing around her like a soft breeze. Her pale skin was almost night elven, but tinged too green, as if the color of the feathers that adorned her head, chest and wings had leached into her flesh. She wore a minimal tunic and a loincloth decorated with beads and bone fragments and a headdress that was ornately knotted and woven with scraps of metal and broken glass. Around her rough-skinned ankle was a cuff of some sort of leather, tooled with symbols and patterns. Something about her shimmered with haunting music.
“W-what are you?” Rhoelyn asked, her fear slowly smothering beneath a blanket of odd, lethargic calm. She felt her dagger droop in her hand, but she was helpless to pull it back up, her head ringing with the distracting, consuming song. “What… do you want with us?”
The third sister responded, her voice as sharp and biting as her talons. “Such pretty treasures! Keep you. Pretty silver things for the nests. For the bellies. Children to feed the children, perhaps?” She cawed with laughter, her sisters joining in.
“No…” The girl could only whisper her defiance, her head lolling as she sank to her knees. “… leave us… alone…”
Rhoelyn’s dagger slid from her numb hands and landed with a soft plop in the grass as she succumbed to the harpy’s spell, her mind filling with lilting music that pushed all other thoughts away. She couldn’t care when the enchantress’ sisters stepped forward, tossing her and her twin over their shoulders. She couldn’t protest as they were carried down the hillside toward the stench of the nesting grounds.
She simply stared with dull, empty eyes as she and Rhese fell deeper into mortal danger.
Someone’s crying… Rhese pulled the awareness from the muddled jumble of pain and confusion that was his entire world, feeling his brow furrow. Rhoelyn’s crying… again. She needs me.
“Pleasepleaseplease…” Even muddled, he could feel the terror in her voice. “I’ll do anything. Don’t go! Don’t leave me alone. Oh, Elune… it’s bleeding so much… please!”
He wanted to open his eyes, but he couldn’t make them listen past the stabbing in his head and a fire that burned through his chest and side. In fact, very little was working. The boy felt like his body was a leaden weight, unwilling to respond no matter how hard he tried.
He slipped confusingly in and out of timelessness, moments of peace interspersed with moments of teeth-rattling cold and distant weeping.
Finally, after what seemed like either an eternity or no time at all, he slipped back from the darkness to something that was starting to resemble warmth. He managed to stir just slightly, making a small sound.
“Rhese,” she sobbed his name, and he felt the touch of her small hands against his. In between the moments of pain and confusion, he heard her tearful, whispered words. “… bright lady grant… beg your… heal these w….”
Her grip was warm, deliciously so, and it spread more warmth through him, slowly pushing away the hurting and weakness. Rhese got the sudden impression that he’d very nearly fallen off something dire and deadly, and an odd relief flooded through him. As soon as they would obey him, he cracked his eyes open, twisting his head to the slim figure hunched at his side.
“Rhoelyn…” he croaked, his eyes widening, “you’re golden.”
His sister laughed through a sob, throwing herself across his chest. The beautiful glow that haloed her warmed him even faster at the greater contact, and when he lifted his hand to pat her shuddering back, it clung to him, seeping like oil into his skin. He grinned with wonder, putting the pieces of what he had heard together.
“Elune answered your prayers, sister.” She could only nod, too breathless from relieved bawling to speak, her hands clutching at him wildly, blindly.
Rhese frowned and levered himself onto his elbow, squeezing her against him. For all that his sister was an acknowledged crybaby, he’d never seen her so frantically, desperately upset. “It’s okay. I’m okay,” he soothed, muttering calming nothings into her ear as he looked around in confusion.
They were laying under an old ash tree that looked sickened, with odd, bulbous structures built into the branches above them. Nests. Eggs, dirty and yellow-tinged, laid haphazardly distributed among them, as if tossed there carelessly. As if they weren’t the beloved children of the village. The stench – Rhese remembered that smell from before the attack – was astounding, and now that his senses were working correctly, he almost had cause to regret it. Almost. The boy wrinkled his nose, breathing more through his mouth.
“Rhoelyn…” He pushed against her until he could sit up more fully to shift his back against the tree. His hand slipped in something, and he looked down to realize that the brown grass under him was wet with blood. Rhese blinked, noticing his clothes and hers for the first time. Blood stained them both, and the damage across them was severe, from his sister’s sleeve, shredded from shoulder to elbow; to his tunic, wet with blood and ripped in great chunks across his chest and side.
The boy turned his attention back to his sister with a new, different sense of urgency. He patted across her back and slid his hands down her arms before shoving at her, trying to get her to calm down enough to sit up. “Rhoe. Rhoe! Where are you hurt? You’re bleeding!”
She shook her head as she reluctantly released him, straightening. “I-it’s not my blood.” Rhoelyn rubbed the heels of her hands over her eyes, trying to wipe away the worst of the tears. “It was… it was you. T-they… they were laughing! Those h-horrible creatures ripped at you when you c-couldn’t…” The girl’s face crumpled, though she fought the lump closing her throat. “… I c-couldn’t stop them. A-and you… y-you w-were… ”
Rhese wrapped her back in his arms as she bit her lip against more tears, falling silent. Despite the fact that his blood ran cold with the vague idea of what had happened, he kept his voice steady as he comforted her once more. “It’s okay, sis. I’m okay, now. Where did they go? We have to get out of here.”
His twin shook her head, quietly pointing down to the ropes and the leather cuffs around their ankles that tethered them to the tree he leaned against. “I can’t undo them. They’re enchanted somehow,” she sniffled. “And your cat… I don’t know where he went. He won’t come. He wouldn’t come even w-when…”
“I think he needs me awake.” Offering her a reassuring grin, he pointed to where the frostsaber spirit padded out of the undergrowth, his spectral form slightly luminescent. “Look, Rhoe.”
Her azure eyes widened as she followed his hand, and she whispered, “I can feel him. Oh, thank E-”
“Holy!” An incensed hiss interrupted her as one of the creatures that Rhese hadn’t seen before leapt down from nowhere, her ornate clothes jangling. “Cursed Holy! Was it you, shiny toy?” Her beady black gaze fixed on Rhese with unnerving scrutiny as she stalked toward them both, her talons digging into the fouled ground. After a thorough perusal, her eyes narrowed and swung toward Rhoelyn, her nostrils flaring.
“You!” The creature screeched, grabbing the girl by the shoulder with her claw-tipped hand. Rhese gripped his sister tightly as the cruel thing screamed, “Holy stench! Holy wench!”
The children’s strength and weight were nothing to their attacker, and she easily ripped Rhoelyn from her brother’s grasp, pinning him back against the tree and tossing the girl to the ground a few paces away. The fetter around her ankle released her at the monster’s merest glance, falling limply to the ground.
“No! Rhoelyn!” Rhese gasped for breath against the weight pressed against him, ignoring the sting as the creature’s talons scratched. The little boy grabbed at her leg with both hands, twisting and shoving to no effect until the bird-woman released him of her own volition, stalking over to grab his stunned sister around her slender neck and haul her up until her feet dangled. Though he scrambled to his feet and charged toward them, the rope on his ankle yanked taught suddenly, tripping him well out of reach of Rhoelyn.
“Save her!” He screamed to the cat spirit, tearing his eyes away from his sister’s blueing lips to meet its deep, luminous gaze. “Give me the strength to stop that thing!”
I feel your desire, child, but it is wrong. The cat’s voice rumbled in his head, his sad eyes watching as the enchantress shoved Rhoelyn’s back against a tree, laughing at her as she scrabbled at the powerful grip squeezing her throat shut. If I give your small body my form, you will be shredded. And you are too weak to give my own body form, right now.
“I don’t care!” The boy bit his lip around a sob, yanking desperately at the cuff around his ankle. “Take anything. I’ll give you everything if you just save her!”
The radiant ‘saber leapt toward him, swiping a ghostly claw across the rope binding him to the tree, and the fetter fell open. Before the boy could scramble to his feet, the spirit stood over him, capturing his amber gaze with its own. I chose you, as you chose me. There is no give and no take. There is only what we are. I can gift you my claws, little cub, a hint of the power we will one day wield together. If we are both fortunate, this little piece of my strength will not destroy you…
“Thank you,” Rhese gasped, ducking his head as the cat stepped its phantom paws over the boy’s small hands, his form breaking apart.
He barely waited to feel the effect of the cat’s power before he leapt to his feet and threw himself at the bird-woman who held his sister. Ghostly claws crackling with violent energy materialized over his hands as he swiped his fist across her back, ripping bloody swaths through her green-tinged skin. The harpy screeched in shock and pain, dropping Rhoelyn to swing around, her dark eyes wide.
The girl crumpled by her taloned feet, coughing and gasping.
“You…” Rhese growled ferally, baring his teeth even as he swiped again at the startled creature, slicing another trio of lines across her belly. Only the monster’s sudden leap saved her from evisceration. The enchantress tried to take to the sky, but the sliced muscles in her back failed, and she came crashing back to the ground, crumpling to her knees.
The boy stalked toward her, bristling with power and rage, his voice low and rough. “You hurt… my sister…”
Hissing defiantly, the monster slashed at him with her clawed hands, but he moved with feline grace and speed, deftly dodging under the slash and closing the distance between them. With one efficient, merciless motion, he swiped his ghostly claws up her belly. The harpy fell back with a piercing screech, her hands clutched over the entrails that threatened to spill from the wound as she writhed in the fouled grass.
Baring his teeth, Rhese looked up into the trees, finding the other two bird-women hidden among the foliage. They both stared at him with wide, shocked eyes. He waited just long enough for the enchantress to finally still and die before he snarled, “Who else wants to try to hurt us?”
The harpies blinked at each other twice before they both crawled farther back into the canopy, retreating from sight. The little boy stood rigid, ghostly claws crackling around his fists, until his senses told him that the horrible creatures were really gone.
And then he drooped, releasing the cat’s power to find himself courting exhaustion and trembling with reaction. He looked down at his hands, amazed, turning them over and flexing them experimentally. It felt almost… wrong that they weren’t furred and round and adorned with vicious claws.
“R-Rhese?” Rhoelyn’s hoarse voice called him back to the moment, and Rhese hurried to her side, helping her unsteady attempt to stand. Her wide eyes fell on the gory corpse of the enchantress, but he tucked her temple against his shoulder immediately, shaking his head.
“Don’t look at it, sis. We’re leaving,” he whispered.
She nodded her muffled acquiescence, grabbing for his hand, and Rhese wrapped his sister’s trembling fingers in his own. He held her tight for an extra heartbeat, pressing his teary eyes closed. He didn’t care in the slightest that her grip hurt his suddenly-aching hands or that the way she clung to his arm would make it harder to walk. He was just grateful to have her by his side, alive and well.
As they left the horrible shadows of the harpy nest, the boy slanted a glance at the cat spirit. He felt it fading back to wherever it came from. “Thank you,” he muttered, bowing his head respectfully.
You are welcome, dear Rhese. Its soothing voice in his head was already quiet and distant. Call for me, and I will come. We are bound.
The children walked through the day and night, afraid to stop despite their exhaustion. They didn’t speak to each other much, communicating more with nods and gestures. It was more than just the pain of Rhoelyn’s bruised, scratchy throat that stopped them. It was the residual fear that the awful bird creatures might find them or that they might encounter more.
But as dawn came again, they both knew that their bodies had reached their limits. Rhese found them a hollow in the trunk of an ancient oak, and they curled up in its shadows, huddled together.
“Brother,” Rhoelyn’s hoarse, soft voice intruded into the silence after they were settled , “where do we go, now?”
Rhese kissed her temple before resting his cheek against her hair. “I…don’t know, Rhoe. Just sleep for now. We’ll figure it out…” he yawned widely “… later.”
The little girl didn’t require much convincing, and within moments they were both silent and still and fast asleep.