Free Fantasy Feature June 2022 | Legends of Lasniniar: Without Wings

Legends of Lasniniar Without Wings coverGround walker. Wingless worm. Freak.

The only Sky Elf ever born without wings, Arinwyn does her best to ignore the taunts and slurs. Bad enough she can never know the thrill of flying. Must she suffer the cruelties of her own kind as well?

But the winds of change blow from beyond the elven wood as the Fallen One stirs.

…And more than Arinwyn realizes lies hidden within her wingless heritage.

A stand-alone origin story from the World of Lasniniar epic fantasy series by Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Legends of Lasniniar Shadow Stalker Collection.

Legends of Lasniniar: Without Wings

Jacquelyn Smith

Arinwyn let her thoughts wander as she meandered between the ancient, golden flecked trees of Melaquenya. As usual, the western section of the forest was practically deserted—unless you looked up. The Sky Elves made their homes in the treetops overhead, far above the forest floor. A pair of them—a male and a female—flew just beneath the canopy, their gleaming, feathered wings outstretched. Arinwyn slowed and considered throwing herself in the nearest bush.

Please don’t let them notice me…

“Look! It’s the ground walker,” the male cried out from above.

Arinwyn suppressed a groan as the two Sky Elves swooped lower. It had been too much to hope they would ignore her.

The female looked down at her with a smirk, her long, red-gold hair framing perfect features. Arinwyn suppressed a surge of envy.

“Hello, little worm,” she said. “Out for a stroll?”

Arinwyn remained silent, knowing any words she spoke would end up being mocked. She looked up at the hovering pair with what she hoped was a bored expression. She didn’t know their names, but she knew their type. They would harass her until they tired of their little game and decided to move on. The less she did to encourage them, the better.

“Hm, it seems as if the wingless creature has forgotten how to speak,” the male said, his pale eyes glimmering with amusement. “Perhaps she isn’t an elf at all.”

“Should we try using the Common Tongue?” the female asked with a false look of concern.

The male wrinkled his nose. “No, I’d rather not sully myself. Besides, we have more important things to do. Iadrawyn and Valanandir have asked those of us who can fly to act as scouts.”

“Scouts?” Arinwyn blurted. “Scouts for what?” The words slipped out before she could stop them.

The female uttered an exaggerated gasp. “It speaks!”

“Do not concern yourself, flightless one,” the male said, grinning at Arinwyn’s scowl. “We will protect the forest from the Fallen One and his minions.”

“Fallen One?” Arinwyn said, frowning. “What does Saviadro want?” She spoke the name without thinking. Both Sky Elves flinched.

The female rolled her eyes at her companion. “Now I wish it would stop speaking.”

“Now, now,” the male said. “You cannot blame her for being ignorant. She’s not really one of us, after all.”

“You are right.” The female looked down at Arinwyn. “It’s not your fault, is it, little worm?” Arinwyn’s hands balled into fists and the female uttered a silvery laugh.

“I think she would like to hit you,” the male said, smiling.

The female snorted. “I’d like to see her try. It’s not as if she can reach me.”

Arinwyn considered threatening them with her bow, but she knew it would be no use. Both Sky Elves had bows of their own, and wouldn’t hesitate to use them against her. Oh, they wouldn’t shoot to kill, but they would torment her as much as possible, and they had the higher ground, so to speak.

A trilling whistle sounded in the distance, drawing both Sky Elves’ attention.

“Time for the meeting,” the male said, placing a hand on the female’s arm.

The female shot Arinwyn one last look. “Until next time, worm.” She followed the male as he flew off, her laughter trailing behind her.

Arinwyn took several deep breaths to regain control of her temper as she began walking once more.

Stupid, arrogant, overgrown chickens! They think just because they have wings, they’re better than everyone else…

And yet, Arinwyn would give anything to be one of them.

She found herself in a clearing, looking down at a pool of water fed by a small spring. A wavering, golden skinned face stared back at her with dark eyes from beneath a spiky crest of white hair. Her hairstyle had always been a bone of contention between her and her mother, since most elves wore their hair as long as possible. Arinwyn didn’t see the point in trying to look like everyone else when it was so obvious she was different.

She scowled at her reflection. Her strange eyes were enough to set her apart. No Sky Elf had eyes as dark as hers, nor did any Light Elf, for that matter. But to be born without wings when her own mother was a Sky Elf was patently unfair.

No other Sky Elf had ever been born with such a deformity. Arinwyn had checked. She had also asked her mother who her father was. Repeatedly. But her mother had remained tight-lipped on the subject, leaving Arinwyn to speculate.

He couldn’t have been a Sky Elf. But who else could he be? Our people have little to do with the wingless Light Elves who share our wood. I remember hoping Mother had taken me in as a foundling, but she insists she gave birth to me.

Arinwyn had spent countless years pondering the problem, to no avail. She had become used to the shunning of the other Sky Elves, who saw her as some kind of freak, but it didn’t make it hurt any less.

I would make my home with the rest of the Light Elves, but I don’t belong with them either.

In fact, Arinwyn avoided her wingless cousins as much as possible. It was bad enough being mocked by her own kind.

A sudden wind gusted into the clearing, ruffling the surface of the water and stirring the grass around Arinwyn’s feet. Her skin prickled and a nervous flutter stirred in her chest. She swiveled her head, searching for the source of her unease, but she was alone.

“I’ll kill you!”

Arinwyn jumped. The unfamiliar voice seemed to come from nowhere, echoing in her mind, and filling her with strange, dark thoughts. She gasped, and found the air around her had suddenly gone cold. Her breath steamed from her lips.

What is happening?

Arinwyn remained frozen in place, unable to move. The air around her slowly warmed, as if a large fire had roared to life nearby. Moments later, she felt her skin burning and smelled scorched flesh. She looked down to find herself unharmed. The wind picked up again, whirling around her. Her eyes were wide open, but it was as if she were seeing two different places at once. A churning sky superimposed itself over the forest around her. The dark clouds rumbled, shaking her to her core. The strange voice spoke again.

“Fire may be flashy, Lysandir, but in the end it is air that will be victorious!”

A wild surge of triumph that wasn’t her own seemed to fill her, immediately followed by pure terror. A bone-shuddering crack sounded overhead and a bolt of lightning lashed down from the heavens, striking her in the chest. Arinwyn screamed in agony, her nostrils filled with the stench of burning hair and ozone. Part of her knew the initial pain was not her own, but then she felt it—a white-hot spear of light and power burning through her.

The vision was fading, but the trees around her tossed in an unnatural wind. She fell to her knees, closing her eyes against the dirt and blades of grass pelting her face. Some of the debris landed in her open mouth, ending her screams in a series of coughs.

The pain subsided to a dull throb and the wind died down. Arinwyn sprawled panting at the edge of the pool with no idea of what had just happened. The forest had fallen silent, and a bird called from somewhere nearby, making her feel as if what she had just experienced had been a dream.

But then she felt it.

A pulsing core of power, raw and uncontrolled stirred somewhere inside her, like a coiled serpent.

What is that? What is wrong with me?

An unnatural breeze caressed her cheek. She shivered, remembering the darkness and hatred she had sensed behind the voice she had heard. Her thoughts conjured up the one person she trusted to help her: her mother.

She ran through the trees, carrying the strange power with her. It surrounded her with a gust of wind as she ran. She was panting by the time she reached the winding steps that led up the large tree that held the home she and her mother shared. Her mother had built the stairs especially for Arinwyn, so she could come and go from the Sky Elf village whenever she wished.

Arinwyn pounded up the stairs until she reached the canopy. Suspended bridges connected the huts nestled among the treetops. Even though the Sky Elves didn’t need them, they were useful for when someone’s wings were tired or injured. The walkways were also used by unfledged younglings—a point many of the villagers liked to throw in Arinwyn’s face. She ignored the stares of passersby, leaving a ripple of air in her wake as she fled for the hut she shared with her mother.

She nearly tore the doorflap from its frame as she entered. Her mother sat by a window, weaving. The sunlight glimmered on her golden skin and the markings on her wings. Unlike her daughter, Sintariel wore her white hair long and braided. She looked up with a smile, but her pale eyes filled with concern the moment she saw Arinwyn.

“What is wrong?” she asked, abandoning her weaving.

“Mother, I—” Arinwyn faltered, uncertain how to begin. She shook her head and tried again. “Something has happened. I’m seeing things, and hearing voices. I feel a strange power inside of me!”

Sintariel stood with a frown and began pacing. “I was always afraid this might happen.”

“What?” Arinwyn demanded, her chest tightening and her voice brittle with fear. She grabbed her mother’s arm. “Am I going mad? What is happening to me?

The wind seemed to have followed Arinwyn inside the hut. Sintariel’s braids lifted from her shoulders, dancing in the air behind her. She sighed.

“It has to do with your father,” she said, meeting Arinwyn’s gaze.

Arinwyn frowned. “My father?”

“Yes.” Sintariel paused for a moment before continuing. “You must understand; we only did what we did because the Quenya prompted us. I had been sent to Mar Arin to deliver a message for Iadrawyn and Valanandir. I know it is not our way to mate with outsiders, but we both felt the Quenya pulling us, and he was a Learnéd One…”

“A Learnéd One?” Arinwyn nearly choked on the words. Her mind reeled as she put the pieces together. “Mar Arin? Sun and stars… You bedded Numarin?

Numarin was the Learnéd One of Air. Like his two brothers—Lysandir and Feoras—he was also part Light Elf.

“It was only the once,” her mother said, her cheeks reddening. “I never saw him again, and I never told anyone about it—not even Iadrawyn. Even after you were born, and you were… different from other Sky Elves, I kept the affair to myself.”

“Different? Mother, I’m a freak!”

Sintariel gave her an admonishing glare. “You are not a freak. I waited for signs that you had inherited his powers, but aside from lacking wings, you were a perfectly normal child. I don’t know why his magic would come to you now…”

“He’s dead,” Arinwyn said, finally making sense of what she had seen and heard. “I felt him die.”

Her mother gasped. “Numarin dead? But… how?”

“I think Lysandir killed him.”

“Lysandir.” Her mother hissed the name of the Learnéd One of Fire. “So Iadrawyn was wrong all these years.”

Lysandir had been kidnapped by the Fallen One as a child. He had eventually escaped, but not before most of Lasniniar had decided he had become an agent of Saviadro. Iadrawyn was one of his few supporters.

“Lysandir wasn’t the traitor, Mother,” Arinwyn said, feeling sick. “Numarin was. It was Numarin that called the storm down on Lysandir. Lysandir used the storm to summon lightning.”

Sintariel shook her head in denial. “Numarin would never do such a thing.”

“I saw it happen. I was somehow part of him. He has been serving the Fallen One for years. My own father…”

A miniature whirlwind sprang to life, whipping her mother’s weaving about the room as Arinwyn lost herself in her own grief and horror.

“Arinwyn,” Sintariel said, gripping her shoulders. “You must control your emotions. Otherwise, this new power of yours will rage out of control.”

Arinwyn’s stomach clenched in fear as her mother’s words sank in.

I’m doing this. The power inside me is making this happen.

Her thoughts were immediately followed by another realization.

I can’t stay here…

She clamped down on the storm of emotions inside her, forcing herself to be as calm and rational as possible. The whirlwind died. Arinwyn shouldered her way past her mother to her room, shoving her belongings into a pack.

“What are you doing?” Sintariel asked, trailing after her with an expression of concern.

“I have to leave,” Arinwyn said. “I can’t stay in Melaquenya. It’s bad enough not having wings. I don’t dare let anyone find out I’m Numarin’s daughter once word reaches the wood he was a traitor.”

“Then we keep it a secret!” her mother said, seizing her shoulder. “What do you think I have been doing all these years?”

Arinwyn turned to face her, a bitter laugh on her lips. “That was before. Do you really think we can keep this quiet now? The other Sky Elves torment me on a daily basis, and until I learn to control it, this new power feeds off my emotions. How long will it be before I let it slip? What if I hurt someone? I’m already an outcast. The other Sky Elves will banish me. You won’t be able to stop them.”

“At least speak to Iadrawyn—”

“No!” Arinwyn kept a firm grip on her frustration and took a shuddering breath. “I need to deal with this on my own. I’m barely holding myself together as it is! If I did anything to Iadrawyn, I would never forgive myself, and neither would anyone else.”

“Where will you go?” Her mother’s voice was desperate now. “What will you do?”

Arinwyn shook her head. “I don’t know. I just need to get away from here—away from everyone.”

“At least let me come with you! The Fallen One is stirring and his minions are flocking south. The outside world is not safe.”

“No, Mother,” Arinwyn said, taking Sintariel’s hand. “Your place is here. I need to do this alone. Besides, I don’t want to hurt you, either.”

Her mother swallowed and nodded, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Arinwyn said past the lump in her throat. Despite the swirl of emotions raging inside her, she knew she was meant to leave Melaquenya.

“Very well.” Sintariel’s shoulders slumped. “Do as you must, but please be careful.”

“Tell no one what has happened,” Arinwyn said. “Let them think I have run away.”

“What about—”

“Iadrawyn too,” Arinwyn said, anticipating her mother’s protest. “She has enough to worry about with Saviadro on the move. I don’t want to be a distraction. Promise me you won’t say anything.” She held her mother’s gaze.

“I promise,” Sintariel whispered, wrapping her arms around Arinwyn’s shoulders. “I am sorry. If I had known my decision to bed Numarin would be so hard on you…”

“If you had chosen otherwise, I would not be here,” Arinwyn said with a lopsided smile.

Her mother stroked her cheek. “I only hope the fate the Quenya has in store for you is worth all the suffering you have endured.”

Arinwyn bit her lip. She suspected her suffering was far from over.

“I hope so too.”

* * *

For all her brave words, leaving Melaquenya was more difficult than Arinwyn had anticipated. The ancient elven forest was the only home she had ever known. She had never set foot beyond its borders. Part of her was also afraid of leaving the presence of the Quenya. She had no desire to fade and become a Shadow Elf. The rational part of her knew Numarin’s power wouldn’t let that happen. The Learnéd had been bred for the purpose of traveling far from Melaquenya while keeping their connection to the Quenya and their magic intact.

Huh. I suppose I am one of the Learnéd now. And Lysandir and Feoras are my uncles…

The idea felt strange. Even though she was a descendant of the Learnéd bloodline, she suspected there was a lot more to being a Learnéd One than being born of the right stock.

I wonder if there are any other children out there like me?

The more she thought about it, the more likely it seemed. She doubted all three brothers had remained celibate their entire lives. But if there were any other offspring, she had never heard about them.

Then again, it’s doubtful I would have. I only inherited Numarin’s powers after he died. Lysandir and Feoras are still alive.

She realized the transference of magic did not bode well for the fate of Numarin’s soul. No one knew what became of the Learnéd when they died, but if he had died serving the Quenya, Arinwyn suspected there was a good chance he would be reborn with his powers intact. Since he had turned traitor, the responsibility fell to her to take his place.

The realization sent her into a panic. The wind picked up, slamming against her face. The trees behind her swayed and creaked. She closed her eyes and forced down her fear, her breath coming in ragged gasps. The wind eventually died, but Arinwyn was shaking from the effort. Her face was bathed in sweat.

I’m still too close to Melaquenya. I have to get away from here.

Her emotions firmly in check, she stumbled away from the forest and into the Rolling Hills, heading southwest. Her direction hardly mattered, as long as she was away from other people. She wandered in a numb haze, stopping only when she was tired or hungry.

She came to herself hours later. The sun was setting, and Melaquenya had fallen out of sight behind her. Nothing around her was familiar, and in the lengthening shadows, the grassy hillsides seemed ominous and full of secrets. The birds and animals had gone quiet, but Arinwyn heard a new series of sounds take their place.

Muffled footsteps, jingling metal, and muted voices drifted toward her from the hills ahead. No elf would make that much racket. She froze, her hand straying to the knife at her belt. Her mother had trained her to fight, but Arinwyn had never faced a real opponent before. An icy lump of fear formed in the pit of her stomach.

I’m such a fool.

Somehow, she had expected to get away from Melaquenya without encountering anyone, even after her mother’s warning about the Fallen One’s minions. She had been traveling with no regard for her surroundings. She ducked behind the nearest rise.

A large contingent of pale skinned men in dark armor marched past her. They were heading directly for Melaquenya.

How did they get so far south? I thought the Sky Elves were supposed to be scouting.

She didn’t know how they had managed it, but somehow the Darkling Men had circled around to approach Melaquenya from the west. Arinwyn knew the Sky Elf scouts would likely be focusing on the northern borders of the wood, which meant this group might reach Melaquenya unnoticed. There was no chance a group of humans would be able to seize the Quenya, but that would not stop Saviadro from sending them as a distraction. With the Darkling Men, goblins, ogres, and trolls on his side, he could afford to throw lives away.

Although Darkling Men would not be able to bear the touch of the Quenya, they could harm the elves living in the wood, if they surprised and overwhelmed the border guards. Arinwyn couldn’t walk away and let that happen. She had two options: she could either run back to Melaquenya and warn them, or try to deal with the Darkling Men herself.

Warning the other elves might have seemed the logical choice on the surface, but Sky Elves watched the western borders of the forest. Even if she reached them before the Darkling Men, she knew none of them would believe her. She was only a wingless outcast. She could try to find some of the Light Elves and warn them, but by then it would be too late.

If I had wings, I could just fly back to deliver my warning. I would reach Melaquenya in no time. Then again, if I had wings, I wouldn’t be here in the first place…

Arinwyn swallowed her bitterness and fear, knowing what she had to do. She waited for the Darkling Men to pass before stepping out of the shadows. She couldn’t bring herself to attack without warning, especially when it wouldn’t be a fair fight. The last thing she wanted was to follow in her father’s footsteps.

“Where do you think you are going?” she demanded in halting Common, her hands planted on her hips.

The men stumbled to a stop and whirled to stare at her. A muscular redhead shouldered his way past the others.

“We’re marching on the forest, elf woman,” he said with a challenging glare.

“Woman?” one of the nearby men called out. “How can you tell? She looks like a boy to me.”

Arinwyn flushed. She knew her spare, athletic frame was far from voluptuous, and her hair was cropped short, but she had never been mistaken for a male before.

“Don’t be a fool,” the redhead said. “She’s a woman, all right—the first one we’ve seen since the Master sent us to these blasted southern lands.” He looked Arinwyn up and down, making her blush even harder. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves some entertainment. I say it’s a good omen. First, we plunder the elf girl, then we plunder the forest.”

Arinwyn went cold all over. As cruel as the Sky Elves had been to her, no one had ever threatened to rape her. The large man stepped forward with a smile as the rest of the men surrounded her, some of them already fumbling with their breeches. A surge of wild terror flowed through her. She reached for her knife, but the leader grabbed her arm hard enough to leave bruises. An errant breeze ruffled his red hair. He pulled the weapon from her belt and tossed it aside. It landed on the wind-tossed grass with a thump.

“You’re not to my usual tastes,” the man said, his face scant inches from Arinwyn’s, “but I’m guessing you’ll do.” He licked his lips as his other hand slid down to raise the hem of her tunic.

“No!” The word burst from Arinwyn’s lips.

Numarin’s power flared to life within her, like a wild dragon unchained. A blast of cold air lashed out at everything around her, sending shards of ice at the gaping men like a thousand freezing daggers. Arinwyn stood in the center of the storm, untouched. Her eyes were wide and her mouth was open in a silent scream as she gave in to all the anger, pain, and fear she had been suppressing. The men cried out in surprise and agony, the unnatural shards of ice slicing them to ribbons. The torrent of power continued to rage within her. Soon, it would consume her.

I have to… control it…

Arinwyn turned her focus inward, struggling to rein in the magic she had unleashed. It swirled within her—a wild tempest feeding off her storm of emotions. She searched for the connection that bound her to the Quenya, somehow knowing it was the only thing that might save her…

The world faded to black.

* * *

Arinwyn cracked one eye open with a groan. Every nerve in her body felt raw. She was surrounded by dark silence. She opened her other eye and blinked until her vision came into focus. She lay crumpled on the ground on a circle of grass. Beyond that circle was pure carnage. Piles of bleeding bodies lay unmoving, covered in a layer of frost that was just starting to melt. The leader of the Darkling Men was the worst. He was unrecognizable, save for a few tufts of red hair.

Arinwyn’s gut clenched. She rolled to her knees and emptied the contents of her stomach with a shuddering heave. She took several ragged breaths, her eyes squeezed shut.

I did this. I killed them.

Even though she had stopped the Darkling Men from raping her and attacking Melaquenya, it didn’t make her feel any better. She had lost control of her magic. If such a thing had happened while she was still in Melaquenya… She shuddered at the thought.

I’m used to being called a freak, but now I feel like a monster.

She struggled to her feet to walk among the bodies, but there were no survivors. She picked up her knife and ran, wanting nothing more than to get as far away from her handiwork as possible. She ran all through the night in a dazed stupor, the cool air drying her tears. She collapsed at the edge of the Rolling Hills, falling into an exhausted sleep, haunted by dreams of her attackers.

She awoke disoriented with the sun on her face. For a moment, she hoped everything that had happened was only a terrible nightmare. But the gleaming stretch of sand that lay beyond the hills convinced her otherwise. The air shimmered with heat and there were no signs of life to be seen.

What is this place? It looks like some kind of wasteland.

Wherever she was, it was on no map she had seen in Melaquenya. The vast emptiness appealed to her. Finally, she had found a place where she could be alone with her thoughts, without the risk of hurting anyone. After a light meal of dried fruit and some water, she shouldered her pack and stepped onto the sand, feeling as if she were entering another world.

The sun beat down on her head like a hammer. She welcomed it, allowing the heat to fill her and erase all other thought. Her brow was soon dripping with sweat, and her skin was hot to the touch, but she didn’t mind. She embraced the pain and discomfort as if it were a fitting punishment for what she had done. She squinted against the harsh glare. She had lost all track of time. All she knew for certain was that she had only a few mouthfuls of water left in her waterskin. She knew she should be worried, but she couldn’t bring herself to care.

This is my atonement. If I die out here, at least I won’t take anyone with me. Maybe then Numarin’s magic will pass to a more suitable successor—assuming there is one.

Arinwyn stumbled, her weary legs wobbling from trudging across the yielding, uneven sand. She looked up and noticed the southern sky had grown dark. A swirling mass of cloud was traveling northward at an alarming rate. She could see the approaching windstorm wreaking havoc among the dunes, sending sheets of sand through the air, turning the tiny grains into a rippling wall. A trickle of fear penetrated her numbness.

Did I do that? I don’t think I did…

A cluster of moving shadows on the southern horizon drew a groan from her lips. She shielded her eyes to get a better look. Not only was she in the storm’s path, but a group of humans was as well. They didn’t wear the trademark black armor of Darkling Men…

They’re not going to make it!

There was nowhere to run for shelter. The humans struggled with horses and goats, who were half-mad with fear. Veiled women ran at the front of the pack, several of them with children in their arms. Robed men with lengths of fabric wound around their heads and faces urged them on from behind, acting as rearguard, as if they could somehow protect the others from the coming onslaught.

Can I help them? I’ve never used my magic deliberately before… I’m not sure how. What if I end up hurting them?

Images of the slaughtered Darkling Men filled her vision and her fear threatened to overwhelm her. She gritted her teeth and squared her shoulders.

I have to try. If I don’t, all of us will die.

This time, she took a moment to use her connection to the Quenya to anchor herself. She had no idea if it would work, but it felt like the right thing to do. She didn’t want to lose control of her power a second time.

Once she was centered, she reached for the power inside her, using every ounce of her focus to picture what she wanted to accomplish. The humans were getting closer now, the storm right on their heels. A few had noticed her, but most were too concerned with fleeing. Sand pelted her face, stinging her burning skin. The grit filled her nostrils and stuck to her lips. She ignored it.

Just as the storm was about to overtake them, she raised her arms in a warding gesture, her eyes narrowed to mere slits. The approaching wall of sand paused for a moment, and then parted, gusting around Arinwyn and the humans as if diverted by an invisible dome. She could hear the roar of the wind, but the air around her was completely still. The humans watched in wide-eyed shock.

The storm continued to rage for what seemed like an eternity. Arinwyn’s entire body trembled with the effort of holding her shield in place. A part of her mind noticed one of the men had come to stand beside her while the rest of his people stood apart. His hazel eyes watched her from within the folds of his head-wrapping, shrouded in mystery. He made no move to disturb her. She forced herself to ignore him as well.

Just when she was certain she could not maintain the shield any longer, the storm passed. The darkness swept northwest into the distance. Her legs buckled and gave way. The strange man caught her shoulders and lowered her to the ground, shouting to his people in their own dialect that was somehow like the Common Tongue, but lilting and unfamiliar at the same time. Arinwyn struggled to remain conscious. She didn’t think these people were evil, but after what she had experienced with the Darkling Men, she was loath to put herself at anyone’s mercy. The man’s face loomed over her, still partially concealed.

“You must rest now, Wise One,” he said in Common. “No harm will come to you, I swear it.”

Arinwyn wanted to resist the encroaching darkness, but something in his earnest gaze convinced her to let go. A part of her trusted this stranger already, and instinctively knew he would protect her—with his life if necessary. She let the darkness claim her.

* * *

Arinwyn opened her eyes to find herself in strange surroundings once more. She was lying on a bed of embroidered pillows, covered by a thin sheet. Sunlight filtered through a silken canopy overhead, filling the tent with scarlet light. The skin on her face was tingling. She ran tentative fingers over her cheeks. Someone had washed the grit from her face and covered her skin with a cool, gel-like substance. She sniffed her fingers, but they only held a faint plant odor.

“I applied aloe to your sunburn,” a quiet, male voice said.

Arinwyn recognized it as belonging to the man who had helped her when she had collapsed. She struggled to prop herself up on one elbow to get a better look at him.

He no longer wore anything over his head or face. His dark hair was streaked with highlights from the desert sun and bound in a tail at the nape of his neck. He had a serious mien, but Arinwyn saw patience and kindness in his hazel eyes. He had a strong, stubbled jaw and watched her from beneath bushy eyebrows.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Why did you help me?” She was not used to receiving kindness from anyone besides her mother.

“I am Nasir, Wise One,” he said with a bow of his head. “I helped you because you saved our tribe.” He looked at her as if the question puzzled him.

“Who are your tribe?” Arinwyn pressed. She was unused to speaking Common, but it seemed to get easier the more she talked. “What were you doing out here in this wasteland?”

“Wasteland?” Nasir chuckled. “These are the Shifting Sands. They have been our home for generations. As for your other question, we are the Tribe of Hawk. We roam the central desert. Our cousins, the Tribe of Wind, make their home to the east, while the Tribe of Stars wanders the western sands.”

Arinwyn frowned, taking in the information, as well as Nasir’s lack of surprise at her appearance. “Have your people met elves before?”

Nasir’s brow furrowed. “Elves?”

“People like me,” Arinwyn clarified, indicating her pointed ears and golden skin.

“No, we have never seen anyone like you before, Wise One. The other tribes will be eager to hear the tale of how you rescued us.”

“Please,” Arinwyn said, her voice a desperate plea. “Don’t tell anyone what happened.”

The last thing she wanted was for word about her fledgling powers to spread. These people might not know her father was a traitor, but others might.

“As you wish, Wise One.” Nasir gave a solemn nod, his manner soothing. “You shall remain a secret of the tribe.”

“Thank you,” Arinwyn said, relief flooding through her. “Nasir, where is your family? I hope I’m not putting anyone out of their bed…” She had no desire to be an imposition.

“Be at ease,” Nasir said with a smile. “Despite being the chief’s brother, I have no wives or children. I am, shall we say, a confirmed bachelor.”

“Oh,” Arinwyn said, feeling awkward. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Nasir cut her off with a click of his tongue. “It will take far more than awkward questions to offend me. I have no wives because I choose to live alone. I am not like the rest of my tribe, who love to cluster together like a family of desert mice. They respect me because I am the best warrior, but they do not understand my need to live apart, or my lack of interest in challenging my brother for his position. I am different, just as I suspect you must be, unless all your people are powerful wizards.”

“I am no wizard,” Arinwyn said with a bitter expression. “Until a few days ago, I was nothing more than a wingless freak.”

Nasir gave her an encouraging look and she found the words spilling out of her as she told him her tale in full. He remained silent as she spoke, watching her intently. She talked until her voice ran dry, and her eyes filled with tears. Nasir handed her a waterskin and waited for her to compose herself. Arinwyn swallowed, feeling ashamed. What must he think of her now that he knew what she was? She held her breath, dreading the moment when he would denounce her.

“It is as I suspected,” he said. “We are kindred souls, you and I, although you have had the harsher life, I think.” His hazel eyes were warm and full of understanding.

Arinwyn swallowed another lump in her throat. “You aren’t… afraid of me? Of what I can do?”

“You saved our tribe. Yes, you have power that frightens you, but you can learn to master it. The desert is a good place for such things.”

“You think I should stay here?” Arinwyn asked in a wondering voice.

“For a while, yes.” Nasir nodded. “Once your magic is under control, you can go out into the world without fear of harming anyone. But if you wish to do this, you must first become a member of our tribe. We do not allow outsiders to remain with us for extended periods of time.”

“But your people… You may not fear me, but they must be afraid of me. I saw it in their eyes.”

Nasir shrugged. “They fear you, but they respect you—unlike your Sky Elves. They will be proud to have you join our tribe. They understand what a boon your power could be.”

Arinwyn’s eyes narrowed. “What would I have to do?” She knew such an offer would not come without a price.

“First, you would need an existing tribe member to sponsor you. Then, you would need to pass the initiation ritual. All outsiders and adult males must take this test. I cannot tell you more.”

Arinwyn tensed. “Is it dangerous?”

“Yes,” Nasir said, “but I would not have mentioned it if I did not think you were worthy.”

Arinwyn was tempted by the thought of finally belonging somewhere, but there was more than danger to consider. She also struggled with the fear of rejection.

“But who would sponsor me?” she asked in a small voice. “You already said the others are afraid of me.”

Nasir shook his head. “Shall I start calling you ‘Foolish One’ instead? I will sponsor you, silly elf, if you choose to accept.”

Arinwyn flushed. “I would rather you not call me ‘Wise One’ at all. It certainly doesn’t suit me.”

“I will call you whatever you wish,” Nasir said with another shrug. “But you will always be ‘Wise One’ to the rest of the tribe. They will never forget what happened out on the sands.”

“Arinwyn. Call me ‘Arinwyn.’”

“Very well.” Nasir’s expression turned serious. “Arinwyn, will you allow me to act as sponsor so you may be initiated into the Tribe of Hawk?”

Arinwyn held his gaze, wondering once more at the strange sense of kinship between them. It was nothing romantic, just a strong sense of trust she could not explain.

He is a human from the desert, and I am a wingless Sky Elf with Learnéd magic from Melaquenya. How is such a thing possible?

The Quenya must have a hand in such a bonding. It was the only explanation. She knew she would be a fool to spurn it. She gave Nasir a tentative smile.

“I accept.”

* * *

Arinwyn fidgeted on the back of her horse, gripping the beast’s mane with both hands. The desert folk did not use saddles, preferring to ride with nothing more than a blanket beneath them. Either way, Arinwyn was unaccustomed to riding. Her blindfold didn’t help matters.

“This isn’t exactly what I expected,” she called out to Nasir, who was riding ahead of her.

“And what did you expect?” Nasir asked, his voice tinged with dry humor.

“I don’t know… A feast involving ritual sacrifice, perhaps a foolish dance and costume designed to embarrass me in front of the rest of the tribe… Something like that.”

“There will be plenty of time for those things later, assuming you survive the initiation trial.” Arinwyn couldn’t tell whether he was being serious.

“Is it too late to turn back?” she asked, half-joking to hide her nervousness.

“Even if you wanted to, I would not let you,” Nasir said. “I am your sponsor. I cannot allow you to embarrass me in front of the tribe.”

“Thank you. That’s very comforting.”

“You will be fine.” The horses stopped and she heard Nasir dismount onto the sand with a soft thump. “All you have to do is find your way back to camp.” He put both hands around her waist and lifted her to the ground.

“You make it sound so easy,” Arinwyn muttered, struggling to find her balance on the uneven sand.

“Remember,” Nasir said. “Once I leave, count to one hundred before removing the blindfold.”

Arinwyn sighed. “I know.”

“Good.” He spun her around three times and pulled away. “I will see you back at camp, my friend. Good luck!”

She heard a slap, followed by muffled trotting and began counting. She thought the sounds came from her right, but she was still stumbling and disoriented. Beneath her blindfold, her head was spinning. It took several moments to regain her balance. Time trickled past, but all she heard was the echoing emptiness of the desert. The night chill crept through her new linen robes, making her shiver.

When she finally finished counting, she struggled to untie her blindfold from within the length of fabric wound around her head and face to protect her from the sun. Her cheeks were still tender from her sunburn. She tugged off the blindfold off and blinked.

The sky was dark, which meant she couldn’t use the sun to guide her. There were no landmarks. She had no idea which direction was which. A few stars glimmered in the night sky, but she was no Sea Elf to navigate by their orientation, even if the unfamiliar constellations had meant anything to her. She looked for signs of Nasir’s passage, but no trail marked the sand. She realized he must have sent the horses ahead of him and followed them on foot to erase their tracks. She turned in a circle, expecting to see the flicker of campfires somewhere in the distance. Wherever the tribe’s camp was, it was not to be seen, even with her keen elven vision. She chose a direction at random and started walking.

Hours later, she began cursing. There was still no sign of the camp. Her frustrated thoughts turned inward.

If I had been born with wings, I would be able to find it.

She considered resting until the sun came up, but the cold gnawed at her, even though she had only stopped walking for a few moments. She altered her course with a sigh and started moving again.

The night seemed both endless and too short. Arinwyn stumbled along on exhausted legs as the first fingers of sunlight stretched across the desert. She welcomed the heat—at least at first. As the sun rose in the sky and she still could not see any sign of the camp, she began to panic. The sand around her stirred, and she forced herself to take several calming breaths. She followed them with a drink from her waterskin, only to realize it was empty. Her fear resurfaced.

What if I die out here?

She had no food or water. All she carried were her bow, knife, and the clothes on her back. The sand around her started swirling again. A trickle of sweat traveled down her back. She was suddenly aware of how dry her mouth was. She didn’t even have enough saliva to wet her cracked lips. Part of her was tempted to give in to her rising panic. After all, there was no one around she could harm if she lost control.

But panicking won’t solve anything either… I can’t believe Nasir did this to me! If I die, it will be his fault.

She remembered his complete confidence in her and felt a surge of guilt. He was convinced she could survive this test. He had taken her in and called her friend. He was probably at the edge of the camp right now, waiting for her to return. Perhaps he was even concerned she was taking so long. If she failed the initiation and he was her sponsor, what did that mean for him? She had never thought to ask.

Nasir thinks I can do this, so there must be a way. What else do I have that I can use?

She looked down at the dancing sand and cursed herself for an idiot.

Of course! But how can I use my power to find the camp?

She had only thought of her magic as a liability until now. She was new to her power, and still understood little of what it could do. She looked up at the brilliant blue sky in search of answers. She spent several long moments racking her brain, but none of her ideas seemed feasible. A lone hawk soared in the distance, riding the thermals as it looked for prey. Arinwyn watched it idly, wishing once more that she had the wings she had been born without.

“That’s it!” She spoke the words aloud to the empty air.

She closed her eyes to focus, drawing her magic around her. The air surged to life, creating a powerful updraft. Her robes flapped, but she remained firmly anchored to the ground. Her brow creased.

I need to be lighter…

Part of her mind continued to concentrate on bending the winds to her will while the rest of her focused on becoming one with her new element. Her body gradually became less substantial, and the sand fell away beneath her feet. She opened her eyes, but avoided looking down.

As her body became lighter, she drifted higher, until she was several body-lengths from the ground. She swiveled her head from side to side, searching until she found what she was looking for.

The camp!

From her current vantage point, it was easy to spot. She used the winds to propel her toward it.

The ground rushed beneath her feet. Arinwyn uttered a surprised laugh. She had never thought her new magic could make her feel so free.

I’m flying! I’m actually flying!

She had never dreamed it was possible. Her mother had carried her through the air as a child, but this was different. She spotted a pair of horses running below her. They followed her as she glided toward the camp, arriving moments later. Nasir leaped down from the lead mare’s back, his face split in a proud grin. Arinwyn gave him a shy wave.

Of course. He must have been watching over me the whole time.

The realization might have made her feel foolish or angry, but she found it comforted her instead. She liked the idea of someone other than her mother guarding her back—someone who treated her as an equal.

The rest of the tribe ran forward to greet her as she touched down with expressions of awe, giving Arinwyn an uncomfortable feeling. They hung back, allowing her and Nasir a chance to talk.

“You see?” Nasir said, holding out a waterskin. “I knew you could do it.”

“It was a near thing,” Arinwyn said in a low voice after soothing her parched mouth and throat.

“But worth it, yes?” His hazel eyes held hers.

“Yes,” Arinwyn couldn’t help but agree. “Your idea to train here in the desert is a good one, but once I gain control of my magic, I think I would like to wander the lands. My powers can be used to help people, especially against the darkness that threatens my home.”

Nasir cocked his head. “Will you return to your forest?”

“No,” Arinwyn said, surprised by her own words. “I don’t belong there. I never did. Even if I go back to help my people, I will do it in secret. I’m not ready for anyone to know what I have become.”

“You will always be welcome to stay with the Tribe of Hawk,” Nasir said, his expression unreadable. “You are one of us now.”

“And I have you to thank for that.” Arinwyn reached out to squeeze his arm.

Nasir shook his head. “Thanks is not needed. You are both the savior of our tribe and a friend.”

Arinwyn took a deep breath. “Do you mean that? About being friends, I mean.”

“Of course. I would never lie about such a thing. We are kindred souls. Have I not said it?” He gave her a curious look.

“Nasir, would—would you come with me when I leave? It’s just… I’ve never had a friend before. I know it sounds strange, but I think we have been brought together for a reason.”

“You think it is the work of your Quenya, yes?” Nasir asked.

Arinwyn nodded, her heart in her mouth.

Nasir waited a moment before answering. “I must admit, I was hoping you would make such an offer,” he said, speaking slowly. “I have often thought of riding off to see more of the world, but my place has always been here. I would be proud to accompany my friend, the Wise One, on her journeys to help those in need—on one condition.” His expression was solemn.

“What?” Arinwyn asked, afire with curiosity.

“You must first entertain the tribe with your best chicken dance.” He grinned at her. “It is part of the initiation, after all.”

Arinwyn uttered a groan, but she found herself smiling in return. “Is there a costume involved?”

Nasir chuckled. “I have it ready in my tent. Do not disappoint me.”

The tribe watched their exchange with nervous smiles. Arinwyn knew they were afraid of her, but perhaps after getting to know her, that might change. They were already more friendly than any of the Sky Elves. No matter what happened with the rest of the tribe, she knew she had found her home with Nasir. She accepted his stipulation with an exaggerated bow.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

* * *

Legends of Lasniniar: Without Wings

Copyright © 2022 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Akv2006, MerryDesigns, Vi73777, Wimstime/Dreamstime

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