Tatterwings: Part Four
The seven travellers soon found that they couldn't keep up the pace that they had originally set. Bruno didn't appear at all tired, but finally, when even Rafe was drooping, Ioni said, "We can't go on like this... we need to slow down."
They did, and Bruno reminded them, "Not too much slower, though -- the Rabble will move quickly."
Tolya complained, "How do you keep up this sort of pace?"
Bruno looked away. "I bought a potion from a peddler that he said would make me strong."
"And it did?" Tolya's voice was full of curiosity.
"Of course. It granted whatever your deepest desire was... and then twisted it into your darkest nightmare. I'm strong -- but I also look like a monster. Such was the price of foolishness." He laughed, a harsh sound without any joy whatsoever. "I kick myself for that choice every time I look in a mirror. But faeries don't do anything so simpleminded as that."
Lucine sighed. "I wouldn't be walking alongside you if we didn't."
Ioni turned to look at the tall faerie. "What do you mean?"
Lucine's thin features momentarily sharpened, and then seemed to melt with sorrow. "I heard a story about the hiding place of the Lost Treasures of Solaris -- the most powerful and prized artefacts in the history of light faeries. I went searching for them -- I was young then and full of longing for power and glory. In my daydreams, I saw myself as a princess of Faerieland, second only to Fyora!
"I realised the truth, yes -- when I was caught in a trap and the Dark Sisters swept down upon me. The treasures were never there. The story was only created so that Vanity, Malice, and Spite could catch a silly faerie and steal her magic."
Rafe said, "I hate to be the downer here, but we've all done stupid stuff or had things happen to us that we would rather have avoided. Otherwise we wouldn't be in the middle of these miserable woods being chased by a crazed warlord. But let's save the soul-searching for after we've avoided the catastrophe of the day.”
Lucine straightened and set her face into its normal stern mask. Ioni admired the older faerie more than she ever had before... even after all these decades, the former earth faerie still couldn't get through the story of how Melanthe took her wings without crying.
But after Lucine's tale, she couldn't keep herself from dwelling on it and reliving it all again in her mind. One night in the wilds north of Meridell, she had thought she had seen a fire and heard children calling for help, only to find it was a trap when the net caught her up and the fire -- only an illusion after all -- disappeared, to be replaced by the Darkest Faerie.
Isn't that how it goes... it all looks straightforward, and you only realise it was actually a maze when you hit the dead end.
It was nearing sunset when they heard someone crashing through the underbrush toward them. Ioni's nerves were on edge, and she could tell everyone else's were, too. Rafe drew his sword, and she drew her knife and moved to his side as he called, "Who goes there?"
A small voice called, "Bruno? Is that you?"
Bruno swung his head around. "Everyone, relax! It's Gilly!"
A small Usul in a red cape ran into sight and hugged Bruno. He laughed as he picked her up and swung her around. "How are you, Gilly?"
"Good. But -- Bruno -- you need to get out of here, fast! Archos and the Rabble are headed right this way! They almost saw me!"p> Bruno sighed. " I know. It's us they're hunting."
The little girl -- Gilly -- looked over Bruno's shoulder. "Grey faeries?" she asked in wonder.
Bruno sighed again. "And that's why. We're going to Ilere to seek shelter."
Gilly said, "I'll come, too."
Tolya cried, "No! We've already got one kid along..." She gestured at Tavi. "And we really don't need another!"
Rafe said, "If the kid wants to, she might as well."
Tolya drew herself up to her full height. "And you're just trying to be contrary, without any thought for the child's safety! Do you realise that we're all likely to be killed? She's ten at most!"
Gilly interrupted, "I'm eleven."
Rafe didn't pay her any attention. "Well, I'm sick of you acting like the boss around here. I listen to Ioni. I'll listen to Lucine and Bruno, too, since they've got sense. Unlike some faerie Rukis who think a pretty staff gives them power of command."
Ioni grabbed Rafe's shoulder. They really didn't need a fight right now! "Stop it! Stop it, both of you! Since Bruno knows the girl, he'll make that decision. And neither of you need to worry about it -- or the other. You can argue later, when we're not running for our lives!"
Gilly said firmly, "Bruno, I'm coming anyway. I was good when we rescued Neovia -- maybe I can help now!"
Baelia fretted, "We don't have time for this -- no, not at all!" Tavi grabbed her hand.
Bruno said, "She's right. Let's keep going. Archos isn't going to let the darkness stop him."
Rafe walked back until he was alongside Ioni. Ioni chided him, "I know you don't like her, but we have bigger issues than that at the moment."
Rafe sighed and said softly, "I know. But I get angry, and I can't keep my mouth shut. You know more than anyone else that I have a problem with that."
Ioni noticed that Tavi and Gilly were looking at both of them with curiosity. She whispered, "We can talk more later, when we have some privacy."
And they kept walking.
Eventually, Bruno was carrying Gilly on his shoulders, and Rafe had picked up Tavi, who had been unable to keep going. Ioni knew the feeling... every step she had to work to resist the urge to fall over on the ground and go right to sleep.
Baelia gasped out, "Maybe they were distracted."
Both Rafe and Bruno raised their snouts to sniff the wind. Their eyes both widened at the same moment. Bruno said, "No -- they're just being very, very quiet... RUN!"
He set Gilly down and said, "You know the way -- lead the others! I'll see if I can delay Archos!"
Tavi stumbled off Rafe's back as he unsheathed his sword. The Lupe growled, "I'll help -- dying of old age never looked fun anyway."
Ioni drew her dagger. "Three maniacs it is, then."
The others were already running away along the path as fast as they could manage, as Rafe said, "You can't, Ioni! Go with the others!" They could already hear the battle cries drawing ever closer.
Ioni looked up at him. "I'm not deserting you, Rafe!"
He grabbed her shoulder with his free hand. "It's not deserting me at this point -- it's saving yourself!"
They both looked at Bruno as the Gelert said, "They're coming... I can see the banners!"
Ioni turned toward Rafe again. "Well, I'm not doing it, whatever it's called. So let's get ready to fight!"
A dark shape moved toward them out of the now visible horde of soldiers waiting along the path. Ioni gulped... he was huge! He held up a torch, allowing her an unfortunately clear view of a hideous green Skeith with vicious red eyes. I'll never think of Bruno as ugly ever again...
The Skeith grinned. "Hello, little Tatterwings. I have a friend who would like to see you."
Rafe aimed his sword directly at the Skeith -- Archos, Ioni guessed. "Don't you dare touch her -- and the same goes for your filthy Rabble and whatever twisted haunts the Nightmare Queen gave you!"
Archos drew his sword -- a good deal larger than Rafe's. "Are you sure you want to do that, Lupe? Or would you rather surrender now?" Behind him, the Rabble jeered.
Rafe dived toward Archos, who barely blocked the blow in time. A shrill horn blew, and the Rabble moved forward to attack.
For a second, Ioni tried calling the trees to her aid and springing into flight, as she had in battles before. But then she remembered that magic and flight were both lost to her... she had nothing to help her against the mortals who outnumbered her, Rafe, and Bruno by impossible odds.
She did her best to try and help... while her limbs were thin, she had journeyed long enough that they were strong. For a few precious minutes, it actually felt like she was holding her own.
That was when the net closed over her. "RAFE! RAFE!" She clawed at the strings, remembering when Melanthe had caught her, trying desperately to rip or cut her way free. Oh, no, oh, no... it's not working, I'm lost, they’ll haul me off to Fyora only knows what nightmare...
The knife was dragged out of her hands as the net was hoisted up onto a tree limb, giving Ioni an all too clear view of what was going on. Bruno and Rafe had been netted as securely as she was. Rafe -- good old Rafe -- still wasn't giving up; he continued trying to gnaw at the ropes even as Bruno gave up the fight.
They had been in some tough spots before -- searching for a cure for grey faeries tended to bring one to the nastiest places in Neopia -- but never had the end of the line seemed quite so close. Ioni knew she was completely helpless... she took deep breaths, trying to at least keep hold of her sense. She remembered what Rafe had taught her, what he'd learned from his years of training on the unforgiving Tyrannian plateau. Always keep looking for a chance, no matter how small... any chance is better than nothing when death's the other option.
So she watched what unfolded on the ground below her.
Archos stood over Rafe and Bruno, smirking. "Care to repeat those threats, Lupe? Or is foolish boasting not quite so attractive now?" Ioni winced, knowing how her proud friend had to be feeling at the moment.
Archos continued, "Know something else? My lady said she only wanted three Tatterwings. Anyone else was to be... disposed of."
Ioni gasped. No! She had to do something... had to think of something quickly, or Bruno and Rafe would be... she couldn't think of it -- had to make something up. She called, "Archos -- stop!"
He looked up at her with a sneer. Rafe cried, "Quiet!"
But she continued, trying to keep the quaver out of her voice. "I know what the Shadow Lady wants. But I don't have it any more. He does."
His eyes widened -- she knew he had understood. He shouted, "No!" but she knew it was just to give her a little back-up.
Then Archos laughed. "Nice try, little Tatterwings, but I've already been told that it's you yourself that she wants -- not anything a big-mouthed Lupe could have." He drew his sword; Ioni screamed, "RAFE!" Rafe looked up at her, completely helpless... Oh, no, no -- this can't be happening...
Then a green light fell over everyone present, freezing them in place.
"Who dares disturb the domain of the Lady of the Wood?"
To be continued...