Chapter 1: The Tavern in the Valley
The door opened so quietly, so carefully that the innkeeper almost didn't notice in the loud, lively clamor. Drying the inside of a mug, his snout twitched as a traveler entered the tavern.
She wore loose, green robes with a hooded cowl that draped over her shoulders and chest. She was clearly not a cannor—no fur or tail—and immediately stood out from the villagers in the tavern.
Approaching the counter, the young woman lowered her hood, revealing her pointed ears. Her hair fanned down from the back of her head like pine needles or a porcupine's quills. The tavern went deathly silent.
"I'd like a room for the night, please," said the elf politely but firmly, seemingly taking no notice of the tension prickling in the air. Her fingers curled around a misshapen, flat object in her pocket.
The keeper didn't answer right away. His dark eyes scanned her carefully, scrutinizing her for the slightest ill intent. "Name?"
"Rivana, daughter of Lady Tama." Then, she corrected herself. "Rivana Tama-kin." That was the custom outside of the Everglen, right? A first name and a last name.
The innkeeper's muzzle contorted with displeasure as he jotted down the elf's name in his ledger. "And just what business does an elf have in the Arkfell?" he asked suspiciously.
Irritation flickered across her eyes, but she held back her retort. "I'm just passing through on my way to Dolan," said Rivana with forced calm. "This is the fastest road to the Inimanes, after all."
Hardly a lie—she certainly would be stopping in Dolan, and once she left the Arkfell, her final destination was irrelevant to cannors. Still, the keeper relaxed. "I'd have gone by water, if I were you," he said. "Third room on the left should be free. Watch out tomorrow, there's been packs roaming the area lately."
"I'll manage. Thanks." The elf's stomach growled, and she glanced around. Most of the villagers were still eating. "By any chance, I don't suppose there's still a hot fire in your kitchen tonight? Some roast rabbit would do nicely."
She almost thought he might refuse, but the innkeeper didn't so much as blink. "Yeah, sure thing," he replied indifferently. "Take a seat and someone'll bring it over. I'll add it to the bill in the morning."
Gradually, the carefree mood in the tavern returned. Friends shared jokes and gossip while couples danced in the middle of the floor. One table over, a pair of young boys playing a game of cards yipped loudly at each other while their sires pulled them apart. Outside, a few drunks crawled in the dark like feral dogs.
They were all cannors, of course, from their black-tipped noses to their short tails. Whatever their origin, they closely resembled the "dogs" which humans often kept as pets—except, of course, that cannors were bipedal.
By the hearth stood a bard with thin, silver fur, beating a goatskin drum with his paw, two flute-players on either side. "Then came man, with a burning blade," sang the cannor with passion, his voice rough but charming. "With the scaly beast, he fought his lethal dance—"
On occasion, a cannor would nervously glance to the elf by the wall, and then look away. And who could blame them for being uncomfortable, retiring to their favorite haunt after a day of fatiguing labor, only for an elf to intrude upon the one place where they felt safe?
They didn't care if true elves had died out centuries ago. They didn't care if the last vestiges of elf pride had long vanished in the Dragon Wars. Most of the villagers looked at her civilly, if not kindly; but a few gazes made her skin prickle and her stomach turn.
"Hey, elf! Don't ya know? This isn't the forest!"
Keeping silent as she ate, Rivana pretended not to notice their reactions and tried not to let them bother her. Other inns in the Arkfell had been the same way. So there was no reason to be flustered. Right?
Funnily enough, the tension between cannors and elves reminded her why she'd left home in the first place. Her fingers found the flat object in her robe's pocket again, and she smiled to herself.
"Hey, elf! What's with the ears?"
She chewed her food slowly. With each mouthful of rabbit, the internal melodies of the Cryling stirred inside her, like leaves fluttering in the wind.
The rabbit roast was tender and welcome after three days on the road. She was surprised, and a bit relieved, that cannors cooked their food at all. They didn't use much in the way of spices, though—
"Hey, elf! I'm talking to you!"
Abruptly, a voice pulled Rivana from her thoughts. A tall cannor with shaggy, gray fur like a wolf stood over her table, glaring down at her. All her rationalizations for cannor behavior vanished. "I'm sorry," she relented, setting down her fork. "I didn't mean to—"
"That's what your kind always says," snapped the gray cannor, a fist clenched. His voice wasn't actually that loud—but it carried a threatening edge that made his words stand out. "You should stick to the woods and leave us alone—"
A black paw caught the cannor's wrist from behind. "Please disregard my friend, miss," said another cannor sheepishly, dragging the first away from Rivana's table. "He's just had a bit too much to drink."
If the gray cannor was like a wolf, then this one was like a fox. His tail was larger than the other cannors, and his ears were triangular. Most of his fur was a pale orange; his hands and feet were black, and his belly was closer to cream.
"Again, I'm sorry for causing a disturbance," she said with forced calm Her father had warned her that cannors liked to look others in the eye when talking, but she hadn't expected so much... scrutiny. "Thank you."
Retiring to her room for the night, Rivana gave a relieved sigh. Now alone and free to be untidy, she changed into a night-gown and flopped down on the bed, leaving her robe and cowl on the floor in a lump.
Slowly, she relaxed her body. Her blood hummed with the Cryling—often called the music without sound, or the silent hymn of the elves. The Cryling bridged her thoughts with reality by resonating with her heartbeat and pulsing energy from the earth's depths.
Though the Cryling could manipulate magical energy, it was not considered magic in and of itself; rather, its main purpose was mental reinforcement. Thoughts could be organized. Memories could be preserved in crisp detail. Priorities could be maintained.
Her body relaxing, she allowed the day's events to flow into the Cryling. She hadn't slept in a bed for the last three days, and she let the internal melody absorb her fatigue.
Like a golden mist, the Cryling was coalescing around the one object that had captured her attention since she was a child. Reaching into her robe's pocket, she took out the flat, misshapen object and held it up to the bedside candle.
The scale was three inches long—a memento of an older, harsher time. A reminder of the war that left her parents and all of the Everglen with a bitter hatred for dragons.
The outside was jagged and rough. Rivana could easily imagine how fearsome the dragon must have appeared, covered in serrated scales and barbs. But the inside of the scale was smooth and radiant, cool to the touch. Of course, no creature would have armor that hurt itself.
Still, the dragon's scale evoked the elf's greatest curiosity: Were dragons truly so savage?
Chapter 2: To Trust a Fox
Mother and child, the two elves stood in the meadow before a stack of small logs and a flat tree stump. The mother's eyes were stern, her touch reassuring but firm. Her cowl had a thin red stripe down the center of the hood—a mark of authority.
The daughter wore a simple brown and green dress. She stood at attention as her mother placed a hand on her shoulder. "Focus, Rivana," ordered Tama, bending down to place a log upright on the stump. "Listen to the light in your veins, and reach out to the metallic spirits."
Arms crossed, she stepped back to watch as young Rivana approached the stump. Her cheeks pale, the daughter raised her hands over the stump and brought her palms together. Closing her eyes, she immersed herself in the Cryling. Focusing on her hands, she imagined a steel blade, cool to the touch and unyielding.
Taking a deep breath, Rivana raised her hands, then brought them swishing down.
With a loud crack, the small log split in two, falling to either side. Gasping, the young elf opened her eyes and briefly saw the glowing shape of an ax in her hands before it vanished.
"Good work, Riva," said her mother, smiling as she knelt down to retrieve the cut wood. "You'll make a fine woman someday."
After paying for her room and board, Rivana left the inn early the next morning, raised her cowl's hood, and set off down the road. Dewdrops glistened on swaying blades of grass as the sun rose above the green ridges in the distance, tinting the sky with streaks of gold.
Given her current pace, she expected to reach the Wyrn River within the next three days.
The Wyrn River served as the border between the Arkfell—the cannors' valley in the southwest—and the Inimanes, the human island-cities in the east, of which Dolan was the most prosperous. The river's origin lay in the Wyvern Mountains to the north, from which it took its name.
Between the Wyvern Mountains and the Arkfell lay the elven homeland, the Everglen. It was not entirely woodland—in fact, it was mostly brush and shrubs—but its forests were a symbol of elven pride.
One of their last symbols, to be precise. Elves had little to be proud of these days. Her mother always told her that, constantly reminding her that she had high expectations to fulfill—
Rivana stopped. She could not actually see the Cryling, of course; but if she normally imagined it as a golden mist, then now she would picture it as blue, chaotic rays, colliding with each other and tumbling to the ground. Mental clarity was essential to the Cryling; using it in a clouded state of mind could have unpredictable results.
She stepped off the road and took a deep breath. Calm down, she told herself. The innkeeper was right; it was dangerous for elves to wander the Arkfell on their own, even while thinking rationally. This would be a bad time for her frustration to impair her abilities.
Rivana was particularly annoyed, because she didn't have this problem very often; she'd maintained her composure the entire time in the tavern, after all. Why did this only happen when she thought about her mother?
At that moment, she sensed someone else approaching. Whirling around, the elf saw the foxlike cannor from last night, bounding up the road. He wore a loose gray tunic and had a leather bag over his shoulder.
"Oh! I thought that robe looked familiar," mused the cannor, jaw muscles curling into a grin. His eyes gleamed with delight. "You're heading to Dolan too, right?"
Trying to contain her alarm, Rivana mentally ran through her current options. Her knife wouldn't help; the cannor looked very lithe and flexible, and would quickly win if she attacked him head on. She could try to bind him with climbing rope, but she'd never tried that before, and it would be too risky if she failed. And she doubted she could outrun him—
"Um, you all right?"
The elf suddenly realized she'd been staring at the cannor for a full minute, and he hadn't attacked her. She sighed at herself. Of course he wouldn't attack her. He helped her last night, right? "Yes, I am fine," she said very carefully. Then, she frowned. "What might you be doing here?"
The cannor blinked. "Same as you, I'm on my way to Dolan." Sounding both confused and amused, he tilted his head at an angle. "You looked kinda scary there for a bit. Something wrong?"
He seemed like a friend, but Rivana wasn't quite sure yet. "I was trying to figure out if you were about to kill me or not."
Eyes widening, the elf immediately covered her mouth. She didn't mean to say that out loud!
Fortunately, the fox-cannor was amused, not insulted. "Me? Don't worry, I wouldn't even kill a deer if it was about to die and begged me to," he said cheerfully. "The name's Chance. You?"
"Rivana... Rivana Tama-kin," she said, holding out her hand and frowning. "Is that your first name or your last?"
"It's a nickname, I don't really go by my given name much these days," explained the fox, shaking her hand. "Well, nice to meet you, Rivana! I didn't know elves had last names, though."
We don't, thought Rivana, now feeling stupid.
Turning back to face the road toward Dolan, they stared out over the plains on either side of the Wyrn River, farms and crop-striped fields like pieces of a patchwork quilt. Rivana's eyes widened. Thanks to the forest's bounty, elves never farmed for food; while mundane for most, agriculture was a fascinating discovery for her.
Though the elf had passed through a few farms since leaving the Everglen, this was her first time seeing the fields from overhead. She found the fields and the laboring farmers—some human, some cannor—mesmerizing, albeit artificial.
"So, I was just thinking," began Chance tentatively. "Since we're both headed to Dolan, why don't we travel together?"
She was surprised. "You'd be willing to travel with an elf?"
"Sure, why not?" The cannor grinned. "I've wanted to leave the Arkfell for a while. Some parts look beautiful—but it's not so great to actually live here. That's why I'm thinking of moving to the Inimanes."
Rivana hesitated. She wasn't sure of his motives, but... "I'm not actually heading to Dolan, though," she admitted. "My actual destination is a place called Alabaster, up in the eastern mountains." The place with answers, she thought to herself.
The fox blinked. "Alabaster?" Then, he shook his head, giving a more earnest smile. "No matter. We're still headed in the same direction, anyway. We'll part ways at Dolan, all right?"
Well, he was right. And she would be safer with a traveling companion than on her own. Still, the elf felt uneasy. "I suppose it can't hurt," agreed Rivana finally. Chance seemed trustworthy, at least. "To Dolan, then."