Free Fantasy Feature September 2022 | Legends of Lasniniar: By the Light of the Moon

Legends of Lasniniar By the Light of the Moon cover

No matter where their journeys take them, Barlo and Iarion always seem to find trouble.

The eve of the Harvest Festival. The dwarf and elf pair find themselves potentially lost on the way to the closest human village. A blanket of mist drifts from the nearby hills to obscure the dirt road as night closes in.

Barlo remains content to let Iarion lead the way. At least then he can blame his elf friend if—no when—things go wrong. Still, Barlo’s hand stays close to his ax.

What danger lurks in the darkness beyond the mist?

The infamous duo of Barlo and Iarion return in this spooky, stand-alone misadventure 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 Godmaker Lasniniar Collection.


Legends of Lasniniar: By the Light of the Moon

Jacquelyn Smith

“Are we there yet?” Barlo asked, allowing a slight moan to creep into his voice.

Iarion’s brow furrowed. “I think so…”

“What do you mean, you think so?” Barlo demanded as he did his best to keep pace with his elf friend’s long legs.

Iarion shrugged. His long, white braids rustled around his shoulders. “I’ve never actually been to Misthaven before.”

Barlo rolled his eyes. “Well that’s comforting…”

Iarion looked over his shoulder past his bow and quiver to give the dwarf a dark look with his golden-flecked, sapphire eyes. “Do you want to lead the way?” He cocked a slender eyebrow.

“Oh, no.” Barlo shook his bearded head. “And miss my chance to complain? Be serious, Iarion.”

They both fell silent for the next few moments. The only sound was the faint jingle of Barlo’s chain mail. He knew they made an odd pair—not that anyone was around on the well-worn dirt track to see them.

Iarion glided ahead of him on silent feet with all the innate grace of his kind. Barlo did his best to emulate him. Countless years with the elf had made Barlo more graceful than most dwarves, but he knew there was no comparison. His lips twisted beneath his long, brown whiskers. Iarion was quick to remind him of it, with half-joking comments about Barlo’s ‘tromping,’ as he called it.

Still, Iarion had little cause to complain this time. Barlo’s heavy boots made hardly any sound against the dirt road that led south along the Mountains of Shadow. The late afternoon air was damp and close beneath the gray, low-hanging clouds, carrying the scent of rain to come. It seemed to muffle all sound like a thick blanket, creating a feeling of isolation.

And then there was the mist.

Barlo had somehow forgotten how close they were to the Hills of Mist that bordered the Barrier Mountains to the south, marking the entry to Middle Lasniniar. Pale, translucent fingers of air seemed to brush against Barlo’s feet as he walked, often obscuring the dirt road from view. It carried a thick, earthy smell that filled his mouth with the taste of wet grass.

Their destination was invisible, hidden by tentacles of the swirling mist. Barlo narrowed his brown eyes in an effort to pierce it, but all he could sense was vague shadows. Anything could be out there, just off the side of the road, and he wouldn’t know it. He stifled a shiver and let his callused fingers wander to the ax that hung from his belt.

“Couldn’t we have gone to Nal Nungalid instead?” he asked Iarion in a hushed voice.

He forced himself to admit that his suggestion was at least partially motivated by the idea of running into Paige. The young dwarf orphan who had adopted Barlo as her only family had set out from Melaquenya several months ago in search of her own adventures. His last message from her had outlined her journey to Northern Lasniniar. He knew she was a capable lass, and more than able to take care of herself, but still…

He trotted forward to walk alongside the elf. The mist was making him uneasy.

“This is closer,” Iarion said without looking back. His arms swung at ease at his sides.

Barlo took a measure of comfort from his lack of concern. As much as they both often joked about it, Iarion’s elven eyesight and pointed ears were much more sensitive than his own. Not only that, but Iarion’s survival and fighting skills were the stuff of legend. If he didn’t sense anything in the mist to be worried about…

Barlo shrugged and returned to peering through the mist. Iarion might have lived for thousands of years and traveled the length of Lasniniar, but Barlo’s own fighting skills were nothing to sneeze at, and he had even managed to save the elf’s skin on more than one occasion.

No point in letting my guard down.

His lips tugged in a smile at the idea of noticing an attacker in the mist before Iarion did. Barlo would never let him hear the end of it.

Iarion wrinkled his nose and continued speaking as if no time had passed. “Besides, the sooner you have a bath, the better.”

Barlo spluttered, his determination to remain vigilant forgotten. “The sooner I have a bath? We’ve both been traveling for weeks.”

“Yes, but I’m not wearing chain mail.”

“So?” Barlo felt his face flush beneath his beard as he suddenly became aware of the metallic funk that had practically become a part of him.

“You smell like a rusty, old pot.” The Light Elf’s golden-skinned features were expressionless.

“Oh, and I suppose you smell like roses?” Barlo’s voice was heavy with sarcasm as he rose to the bait.

Iarion gave a casual shrug, but Barlo thought he saw the corner of the elf’s mouth twitch.

“I am an elf, Barlo.” He sniffed. “My body is used to wandering out in the open air for weeks at a time, not like some half-grown creature that’s meant to stay deep beneath the ground. It’s just common sense.”

“Half-grown—”

Barlo’s words devolved into a stream of Dwarvish curses. Iarion burst out laughing.

“I don’t care what you say, elf,” Barlo growled when he got a hold of himself. He should know better by now than to spar with Iarion… “I’m walking downwind of you, and you’re just as rank as any dwarf who’s been working at the forge all day.”

Iarion gave an untroubled smile. “All the more reason for us to find an inn with baths as soon as possible.”

“Good thing Lodariel’s not here to smell you,” Barlo said with a smirk at his friend’s roundabout admission.

Iarion’s mate was far to the south, visiting her parents in the jungles of Melahalas with her twin brother, Daroandir. Iarion and Barlo had decided to use her absence as an excuse to make an exploratory foray into the north lands—just like the old days.

There hadn’t been much to find in the Mountains of Shadow, but Barlo had enjoyed them nonetheless. He was always happy to explore a mountain range he wasn’t as familiar with. But after a few weeks of hard travel, food was running low, and both of them found themselves yearning for an actual bed.

Hence, the journey to Misthaven—an outpost village of Nal Huraseadro that huddled between the Mountains of Shadow and Hills of Mist.

Barlo stumbled as he heard a creaking sound somewhere up ahead.

* * *

Barlo’s gaze flitted to Iarion, his mouth gone dry and his heart pounding at the idea of an impending battle. The elf’s slender fingers were already at the hilt of the long knife at his belt. Barlo fumbled for his ax with a grim smile.

Another creak sounded, followed by a sharp snap and string of what sounded like curses in a dialect of the Common Tongue Barlo couldn’t identify. His thick brows furrowed.

Iarion went still. He peered into the mist for a moment, his eyes narrowing.

The sun was starting to set somewhere behind the hanging clouds. Night came early at this time of the year, when the days of summer were long over, and winter was just around the corner. Red-tinged darkness began to crowd around them behind the mist.

Iarion’s hand fell from his knife.

Barlo watched him stride in the direction of the voices. Barlo followed with a curse of his own.

He blinked. A colorful, painted wagon with a roof and curtained windows appeared a few steps ahead of them on the road. It lurched at an unsteady angle.

Barlo’s eyes drifted to a broken wheel, sunk deep into the mud of the road. Three people stood around it in hushed discussion—two men and a woman. A pair of chestnut horses snorted at Iarion and Barlo’s approach. All three people looked up.

They all wore gaudy clothing—bright silk scarves and crude jewelry that glimmered in the fading light. Like the men, the woman wore breeches instead of a skirt. Her long, blond curls tumbled from her shoulders, framing her heart-shaped face. She was the first to notice Iarion and Barlo’s approach. Her tanned fingers darted for a dagger at her belt as her blue eyes widened.

“Greetings,” Iarion said in a calm voice in the Common Tongue.

He held out his hands to show they were empty. Barlo hastily sheathed his ax.

Both men turned at the sound of his voice. They seemed cut of the same cloth—both had flaming red hair and matching stubble on their ruddy cheeks. The woman’s eyes narrowed.

“Who be you?” she demanded.

“My name is Iarion, and this is Barlo. We are on our way to Misthaven.”

“An elf and a dwarf?” The woman cocked her head. “Even among the Travelers, your kind be rarely seen, and never together.”

Barlo’s eyes widened in recognition. He had heard of the Travelers—roving bands of mostly Lesser Men and Women who lived out of their wagons—but he had never seen any. They were a more recent phenomenon in Lasniniar, formed of disaffected members of the various tribes that made their homes in the Daran Falnun.

Iarion shrugged. “Ours is an old friendship. Do you need help with your wagon?”

The woman gave him a wary look. “My man and his brother be able to fix it. You travel to Misthaven?” She jerked her head in the direction of the road behind her.

“We’ve been in the mountains for several weeks now,” Iarion said. “We go there in search of an inn for the night.”

The woman gave them both a measuring look. Barlo found himself admiring the lass’s pluck. Both men clearly deferred to her.

Her fingers fell from her knife.

“I be Nalla.” She raised her chin. “This be my man, Pell, and his brother Coll.”

Each man nodded in turn—not that it mattered much to Barlo, since they both looked almost exactly alike, aside from Pell being the taller of the pair. Both men were lean and wiry looking beneath the rolled up sleeves of their colorful tunics.

“Nice to meet you,” Barlo said in a dry voice.

Nalla’s tan face flushed. “We be not usually so wary, but after the welcome we be receiving in the town, and the wagon wheel…” She gave a half-shrug of apology.

Barlo frowned. “What be happ—” He shook his head. The girl’s strange way of speaking was contagious. “What happened in Misthaven?”

Her feature’s tightened. “We Travelers be going wherever we please. We be making our own way in the world.” She drew herself up. Pell and Coll nodded in agreement.

“We be doing odd jobs in each village we visit in trade for food and goods,” she continued. “We be bringing goods from across Northern Lasniniar to places where they be new and valuable. But we be not always welcome.” Her expression darkened.

Barlo exchanged a look with Iarion and chose his next words with care. “It seems I might have heard rumors about the Travelers… Something along the lines of, ah, transferring ownership of valuable items without payment?” He raised an eyebrow.

“Lies!” Nalla spat. “None of the Travelers be thieves. That be a rumor started by city folk who be afraid of their children running off with us.”

Barlo shared a look with Iarion. He had no doubt that Nalla believed what she was saying. And it actually made sense. There were many among the Greater Men and Women who made their homes in the cities and villages who looked down their noses at their Lesser cousins for their shorter lifespans and tribal way of life.

But hers wasn’t the only band of Travelers roaming Lasniniar. What were the odds none of them were thieves? It would have been simple enough, drifting from one town to the next, always taking their leave before anyone noticed anything was missing…

“So the people of Misthaven weren’t very friendly towards you,” Iarion said after a moment had passed.

Nalla gave an annoyed shrug. “We be used to people being unfriendly. This be different.”

Barlo’s thick brows furrowed. “How?”

Nalla considered a moment before answering. “At sunset, all the people be shutting themselves inside and locking their doors. No one be smiling—not even the few little ones. They be not even talking to strangers.”

She met Iarion and Barlo’s eyes in turn.

“The people of Misthaven be scared.”

“Scared?” Barlo frowned. “Scared of what?”

Nalla shrugged. “I be not knowing. But I be thinking you be not welcome there.”

Barlo sighed. The damp of the mist surrounding them seemed to have soaked through all of his clothing beneath his chain mail, chilling him to the bone. The idea of spending yet another night lying on the cold, hard ground in his bedroll when a village was so close at hand with an inn and bathhouse waiting made him want to pull out his whiskers in frustration.

Nalla gave them an awkward look. “I’d be offering our wagon for the night, but it already be cramped with Coll’s wife and children inside…”

Barlo’s eyes widened. There were more people crammed inside that thing? His eyes rolled to the brightly-painted wagon. For the first time, he noticed the muffled sounds of children’s voices behind the curtained window.

Huh. Maybe it’s bigger in there than it looks.

“Thank you, Nalla,” Iarion said with a smile. “But I think we’ll take our chances in Misthaven.”

Nalla shook her head. “Don’t be saying I didn’t warn you. We be here if you change your mind and want to be sharing your fire with us for the Harvest Festival. It be taking until at least tomorrow to fix the wheel.”

Iarion nodded. “We’ll keep that in mind.”

* * *

“What do you make of all that?” Barlo asked Iarion in a hushed voice as soon as they worked their way around the collapsed wagon to continue down the dirt road.

The sky was almost dark now. Between the lengthening shadows and the mist, Barlo could barely see anything a few feet in front of him. He looked back over his shoulder.

Impossible as it seemed, it was as if the gaudy wagon had been swallowed up behind them. There was no sign of Nalla, Pell, or Coll. The road around them was silent once more.

Iarion shrugged. “Maybe the people of Misthaven just don’t like Travelers.”

Barlo snorted. “Or maybe there’s something else going on. Nalla didn’t strike me as a fool.”

Iarion was silent for a moment. “You’re right. But there’s only one way to find out.”

“I was afraid of that…” Barlo shook his head with a sigh. “I suppose it was too much to hope that we might have an uneventful trip this time around?”

The elf gave him a dubious look. “Since when has that ever happened? Besides, I thought that was why we went on all these journeys in the first place.”

“What, to get ourselves neck-deep in trouble? Or I suppose chest-deep in your case—assuming we’re using dwarf measurement.” He gestured upward at his friend.

Iarion raised a slender, white brow. “If you wanted a relaxing time, we could have just stayed in Melaquenya.”

Barlo gnawed at his bearded lip. He knew the elf was right. Why else go wandering the lands in search of adventure? The problem was when he was with Iarion, he didn’t have to look that hard. He didn’t mind a little bit of excitement, and maybe even a battle to get the blood pumping. But when you put him and Iarion together, you never knew what was going to happen.

Which was probably how they had ended up being best friends.

Barlo spared a brief thought for Melaquenya’s hot springs. Unlike the elves who made the ancient forest their home, he wasn’t as casual about getting undressed in public, but the idea of sinking up to his beard in warm, bubbling water right now, surrounded by the fresh scent of soap root filled him with longing.

He uttered another sigh. “I suppose a bath at the local inn with have to do. I just hope they don’t turn us away…”

“You’d better let me do the talking then,” Iarion said.

Barlo shot him a suspicious look. “Why? You know I’m much better at bargaining than you.”

Iarion’s lips twitched. “Because if the innkeeper smells you first, it might knock him unconscious.”

* * *

The streets of Misthaven were empty. Barlo and Iarion had arrived just before the village gate had been closed for the night. The guards had grudgingly allowed them to pass before locking up and scurrying to their homes for the night. Barlo watched them go with a snort of contempt.

“Don’t take guarding the gate very seriously once the sun goes down, do they?”

He eyed the crude, stone wall. He could tell from just looking at it, it had been erected recently. It was no dwarven work, that was for certain. Definitely a rush job.

He rolled his eyes. “Even I could climb over that thing if I wanted to.”

Iarion shrugged. “It must make them feel safer. Come on. Let’s try to find an inn.”

“A village this size, I doubt there’s more than one…” Barlo muttered to himself.

The guards hadn’t stuck around long enough for Iarion or Barlo to ask them for directions. Iarion selected the largest fork of the dirt road that led down the center of the village. Barlo trotted after him, his bearded head swiveling from side to side.

There was no sign of anyone else outside. Squat houses of mortar and stone with thatched roofs huddled in the gathering darkness. Slivers of candlelight peeked through the seams of drawn curtains in a few of the windows. Once or twice, Barlo caught sight of moving shadows behind the fabric.

A chill wind blew across the town. It carried the curling, white mist with it, along with a trail of dry leaves that rasped across the ground as they went. Barlo almost jumped as he heard the harsh caw of a crow in the eerie silence.

Iarion led the way past what appeared to be the village marketplace. The stalls were empty, aside from decorations made of dried corn husks and a few gourds, too large to bother carting away. They seemed somehow forlorn in the flickering light of the torches that lined the street. Barlo breathed in the familiar scent of burning pitch.

So the villagers lit the torches, but stayed locked inside their homes after dark? Why bother lighting them at all…

Unless Nalla’s right.

If the villagers were afraid of what lurked in the darkness, the torches might make them feel safer.

He looked up as he realized Iarion had slowed to a halt. A large, ramshackle building stood ahead of them, dead in the center of the village. The windows were heavily curtained, but a wooden sign carved with a picture of a foaming tankard swung in the evening breeze with a dry creak.

“Looks inviting,” Barlo muttered.

Iarion visibly steeled himself and went to open the heavy, wooden door.

It didn’t budge.

“Here, let me try,” Barlo said as he shouldered the elf aside, ignoring Iarion’s dubious look.

Barlo grasped the door handle with both hands and pulled.

Nothing happened.

“Huh. It must be locked.”

Iarion raised an eyebrow at him. “Do you think?”

Barlo shook his head. “But why lock up the inn? I mean, I get not being inviting and all, but surely the locals come here at the end of the day to get a drink… And it’s the Harvest Festival tonight!”

“There are definitely people in there,” Iarion said as he cocked his head. “I can hear them.”

Barlo narrowed his eyes and strained his ears. Sure enough, he caught the faint sounds of murmured voices.

Barlo raised his fist and pounded on the door.

“Hey! Open up!” he shouted at full volume. Iarion winced.

The muffled voices fell silent.

A long moment passed.

Barlo shook his head in annoyance. “This is ridiculous.”

“We know you’re in there…” he called out. “We just want a room for the night.”

Silence.

“Look, if you don’t open this door, I have an ax that will do the job for me.”

Barlo slid his ax from his belt and hoisted it. He caught sight of a curtain twitching out of the corner of his eye.

“Great way to start making friends, Barlo,” Iarion said in a dry voice. “I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to meet us now… Didn’t we agree I should do the talking?”

Barlo opened his mouth to respond, but then he heard the sound of footsteps from behind the door. A moment later, there was a dry rasp of a bar sliding free. The door opened a crack to reveal a wizened man’s seamed, bronze-skinned face in the sliver of warmth and light that came from behind him.

“Who are you?” he demanded in a voice that crackled with age.

Barlo brandished his ax. “We’re the ones who are going to chop down this door if you don’t—”

Iarion stepped in front of him with an apologetic smile. “Forgive my friend. My name is Iarion, and this is Barlo. We’ve been on the road for some time now, and are in great need of a place to rest.” His golden-flecked sapphire eyes drifted to Barlo. “He gets testy when he hasn’t bathed in a few days.”

The man’s watery, blue eyes narrowed, darting from Iarion to Barlo and back again.

“Please,” Iarion said in a wheedling tone. “The guards at the gate let us in, but now we need a place to sleep for the night. We can pay…” He raised a leather pouch from his belt and jingled it.

Barlo stifled a groan.

How many times have I told him to bargain first, before throwing our money around?

The man held his measuring gaze a moment longer. “Very well,” he rasped with ill grace. “I suppose you can stay—but just for the one night. And your friend had better put that ax of his away first.” He gave Barlo a meaningful look.

Barlo slid the ax back into his belt. “I only meant to use it to get us inside,” he grumbled. “What kind of inn locks its doors after nightfall?”

The man shook his head. “You’re not from around here, are you?” He swung the door open and stepped aside. “Come on, now. You’d best get in quick. We’ve been out here blathering too much already.”

Iarion slipped through the opening with Barlo on his heels. The old man peered out at the darkened street behind them with a wary look before closing and barring the door behind them.

* * *

Barlo blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

The first thing he noticed was the heat. It bathed the skin of his bearded face and eased through the layers of his damp clothing, suffusing him with warmth. He breathed it in with a sigh. Now this was more like it…

The rich smell of roasting meat came from the direction of a pair of swinging doors at the far end of the open common room, making his mouth water. He couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed a home-cooked meal.

The walls were decorated with hunting trophies, as well as more decorations of dried corn, in honor of the harvest festival. His gaze snagged on a bundle of garlic hanging near the front door beside him.

Strange. He didn’t remember garlic as one of the usual Harvest Festival decorations…

A fire crackled merrily in a large, stone fireplace across the room. Several battered, round tables surrounded by wooden chairs stood about, illuminated by candlelight. Only one of them was occupied—the one closest to the fire.

Several men in rough, working clothes of drab colors were staring at them. All of them had the bronze skin that marked them as Greater Men.

“Hello,” Barlo called out with a wave in an effort to make up for his destructive threats only a few moments before.

The men turned away as one and started muttering among themselves. A few of them cast suspicious glances over their shoulders.

“Don’t bother my other customers,” the old man said with a frown. He wiped his bony hands on the stained apron tied around his waist in an absent gesture.

Barlo shrugged. “I was just trying to be friendly. By the way, what’s your name? I didn’t catch it earlier.”

“That’s because I didn’t mention it.” The old man’s lips formed a hard line. “It’s Withen. You said you had money, yes?” His white-tufted head swung in Iarion’s direction.

Iarion nodded. “How much for a meal and a room? We’ll also want a bath, if that’s possible.”

“Ten silvers.” Withen held out his withered hand as Iarion handed over the payment before Barlo could stop him. “Bathhouse is downstairs. The water will be warm for another hour or so. Now take a seat, and my wife will bring you out something to eat.” He jerked his stubbled chin in the direction of the tables.

“Thank you,” Iarion said with a smile, which Withen ignored.

The innkeeper took Iarion’s coins and shuffled off behind a counter near the swinging doors that Barlo suspected led to the kitchen.

Iarion wove between the empty tables and selected one beside where all the men sat. He made the choice seem casual, but Barlo caught several of the villagers giving them wary looks as they fell silent.

“It’s been a long day,” Iarion said to Barlo in a voice pitched a shade louder than usual. “I don’t know about you, but I want to warm up.”

“Definitely,” Barlo agreed, taking his cue. He swung off his dripping cloak and hung it over the back of an empty chair to dry.

“I wonder what the food is like here,” Iarion asked in his too-loud voice.

Barlo snorted. “I’m sure they can find you some vegetables, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Iarion was a Light Elf, and did not eat meat. Barlo however, did not have any such restrictions.

After a few more moments of Iarion and Barlo’s seemingly casual small talk, the men sitting at the nearby table seemed to relax and return to their conversations. Barlo wanted to remain silent and try to listen, but he suspected if he did, the men would stop talking once more.

Iarion seemed to have the same idea, because the elf continued with a stream of empty chatter until a sturdy-looking woman with graying dark hair arrived at their table with a steaming tray of food. She wore a serviceable brown dress, and her bronze features were careworn, but she was a handsome woman. Barlo suspected she had been striking in her younger years.

Her dark hair and blue eyes reminded him of Narilga. He forced down a pang of sorrow. His wife had been gone for some time now, but the memory of her was never far away.

The woman’s dark-blue gaze took in her elf and dwarf guests with a flicker of interest.

“Mutton and vegetable stew,” she said as she placed a pair of battered wooden bowls on the table. “Fresh bread—baked this morning, and some mead.” She placed a pair of metal tankards down with a dull thud. Foam sloshed over the sides.

Barlo brightened at the mention of ale. “From Nal Huraseadro?” It was his favorite—after dwarven ale, of course.

The woman shook her head. “We brew it ourselves. Most people ’round here can’t afford the stuff from Nal Huraseadro.”

“Oh.” Barlo’s face fell until he saw Iarion giving him a pointed look. “Well, I’m sure this will be just as welcome after the journey we’ve had.” He did his best to make it sound convincing.

“Is this the extent of your Harvest Festival?” Iarion leaned forward to ask her with a questioning look.

The woman flushed. “It is this year.”

“But where is everyone?” Iarion pressed. “Where is the music and dancing? Where are the women and children?”

Barlo wasn’t sure whether it was his imagination, but he could have sworn the woman flinched at the mention of children. She hesitated before answering.

“We’ve had some dark times here recently,” she said. Her gaze darted to a worn-looking yarn doll that rested on the stone mantle of the fireplace. “People feel safer in their own homes after the sun goes down. This lot will probably only be here for another hour before clearing out.” She jerked her head in the direction of the men sitting at the nearby table.

“Bella, those strangers aren’t bothering you, are they?” one of the men leaned back in his chair to ask with a look of warning. He stroked at his brown mustache.

Barlo bristled. “We were just asking a few questions. No need to get your breeches in a twist.”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but Barlo didn’t flinch. He hadn’t fought ogres, shapeshifters, and a kraken to be intimidated by some local yokel in a backwater village—no matter how many friends he had with him.

The man scowled. “Well you should learn to mind your own business.” He gave the serving woman a meaningful look before turning back around again.

Bella scooped up her tray and strode away with a mumble of apology before disappearing behind the swinging doors.

Barlo and Iarion exchanged confused looks. Barlo shrugged and decided to focus on his meal. He wasn’t a huge fan of mutton, but it smelled good. From what he could tell, Bella had added a variety of savory herbs and spices—a far cry from the dried meat rations he had been breaking his jaw on for the past few weeks.

Iarion scooped out the chunks of meat from his own bowl and added them to Barlo’s. Barlo nodded in approval. He dipped a thick slice of brown bread into the broth and took a bite. His lips stretched in a smile. The stew was rich and flavorful. He followed with an experimental sip of mead.

“Hm…” He took another sip. “You know, it’s not bad.”

Iarion raised an eyebrow at him. “You’ve got foam in your beard.”

Barlo’s fingers darted to his damp whiskers in an effort to wipe it away before deciding it didn’t matter. Who was he trying to impress anyway? It wasn’t like the villagers wanted to make friends.

He and Iarion ate for the next several moments in companionable silence. It was the perfect opportunity for them to listen to the men sitting nearby. Snatches of muttered conversation reached them over the sounds of their own scraping spoons and Barlo’s grunts of satisfaction.

“Should we try to look again, do you think?”

“It’s too dangerous.”

“A few of the children swear they’ve seen Saren near the graveyard…” someone said in a low voice. “Not just the younger ones either. What if they’re right, and she’s still out there somewhere?”

Barlo shifted in his seat and strained his ears.

“Don’t let Bella or Withen hear you saying that. They’ve mourned enough already. First their only son dies of a fever, and then his wife dies in childbirth… No need to give them false hope.”

“I still say we should have searched that Traveler wagon.” Barlo recognized the sullen voice of the man with the mustache. “What if they’re the ones behind everything? Everyone knows they kidnap children. My cousin Verel in Nal Nungalid—”

“Enough about your cousin Verel,” one of the men snapped in an exasperated tone. “We’ve all heard about how he claims Travelers took his neighbor’s son. The boy ran off, is more like it. Your cousin Verel has a story for everything. Besides, folks started going missing long before we had any Travelers come to the village.”

Barlo resisted the urge to voice his approval.

“But what if they’re taking advantage of the situation?” someone asked. “It could be both—Travelers and… something else. Everyone knows you can’t trust the Travelers.”

“That’s true,” another man chimed in. “The Travelers are tricky customers.”

“See? That’s why I messed with their wagon wheel when they weren’t looking,” Verel’s cousin said with a trace of smugness.

Barlo met Iarion’s gaze as the man with the mustache continued his bragging.

“If we find out in the morning that anyone’s gone missing, at least they won’t have gotten far.”

* * *

Barlo and Iarion lingered over their meal until the group of men finished their drinks and started getting ready to leave about a half hour later. Withen came out to collect their payment with murmured thanks as chair legs scraped against the worn, wooden floor. Coins chinked as he tucked them in his apron pocket. The men brushed past Iarion and Barlo’s table, filling the air with the scent of mead as they went.

The innkeeper lit them a torch from the fireplace and handed it over with a solemn expression. “Happy Harvest. Best be getting home quickly now. At least there’s a full moon.”

One of the drab-looking men accepted the torch with a nod. “Happy Harvest. We’ll see you tomorrow, Withen.” Barlo recognized his voice of the man who had spoken up on the Travelers’ behalf.

Withen slid the bar free from the front door to let them out. He was quick to close it again as soon as the men were clear. He slid the heavy, wooden bar back home with a thud before turning to face Barlo and Iarion.

“Anything else?” he asked in an uninviting voice as he surveyed their empty bowls and tankards.

Barlo opened his mouth to answer. He was stuffed, and well content, but another round of mead wouldn’t be amiss…

“We’re fine, thank you,” Iarion said with a pointed look in Barlo’s direction. “Just a bath and bed are all we need now.”

Withen nodded. “As I said earlier, bath’s downstairs. You can take the first room upstairs on the right.”

Barlo found himself wondering whether it mattered which room they took, since all of them were probably empty. He rose from his seat with a groan of contentment. He was almost tempted to go right to bed, and bother the bath.

But he knew Iarion would never let him get away with it.

Iarion rose to his feet with his usual, silent grace. Withen gave them both a warning look.

“The front door stays barred until morning,” he said. “Don’t even think about going outside until then.”

Iarion nodded. “Understood.”

Withen’s watery, blue gaze held them for a moment longer before he turned to clear up the table. Iarion walked in the direction of the basement stairs, gesturing for Barlo to follow. There was a fey glimmer in the elf’s golden-flecked, sapphire eyes that Barlo knew all too well.

Barlo waited until they were several steps down the narrow, lantern-lit stairs before uttering the obvious question.

“We’re not going to bed after this, are we?”

“No.” Iarion’s voice drifted back to him from two steps below on the creaking stairs.

Barlo sighed. “Then what are we doing?” He suspected he already knew the answer.

Iarion looked back at him with a grin.

“Going outside, of course.”

* * *

“Was the bath really necessary?” Barlo asked in a breathless voice as he and Iarion scaled the stone wall that circled the village sometime later. “I’m going to need another one before the night is through.”

Despite his earlier bragging about how easily he could climb the poorly-constructed wall, his callused fingers scrabbled against the uneven stone as his booted feet searched blindly for footholds. His long beard was still damp from bathing, chilling him in the cool, autumn air, but his brow prickled with sweat. The fresh scent of soap warred with the metallic tang of his rusted chain mail.

Iarion was already waiting for him on the top of the wall, of course. He had climbed up like a spider, seemingly without effort. He peered down at Barlo in a low crouch, his long white braids hanging around his face like a curtain.

“Yes.” The elf’s voice held no inflection, and Barlo couldn’t see his face in the shadows, but he still got the impression Iarion was smiling down at him.

“Care to elaborate?” Barlo grumbled as he finally reached the top with a huff. He flopped down for a moment to rest.

Getting out of the inn had been much easier. He had used a rope from his pack to climb from their second-story room. Iarion had climbed down second, untying the rope and scaling the inn’s walls by hand.

“First of all, I doubt Withen fell asleep quickly with a pair of strangers staying in his inn. We needed to convince him we were staying put by bathing and going up to our room.” Iarion’s voice was matter-of-fact as he began his silent descent down the outside of the wall. He was swallowed by the swirling mist in moments.

“And?” Barlo prompted, knowing he would probably regret doing so as he forced himself to follow the elf down.

Iarion’s voice drifted up to him like a phantom. “And we don’t want whatever’s out here to smell us coming.”

“Well we probably should have taken the time to work the rust off my armor then,” Barlo grumbled to himself.

He disliked the sensation of putting on soiled clothes and armor after a bath. He felt itchy all over.

“Where are we going, anyway?” he asked as he climbed down. It was slow work. The mist had coated the outside of the stone wall with a film of moisture.

“Well, we know something or someone is abducting people from the village,” Iarion said from wherever he was in the mist below.

“Are they killing them, do you think?” Barlo asked. “Wait, can you see me down there? How much further before I reach the ground?” It was impossible for him to tell with all the mist.

“You can probably drop from where you are.”

Barlo flattened his palms against the stone wall and pushed. He fell backward through the air for a few feet before knocking into something behind him. He landed on the ground with a jingling thud.

“Ow.” He turned around to find Iarion scowling at him. “What did you push off like that for?” The elf demanded. He was rubbing at his chest.

Barlo snorted. “You’re the one who can see in this stuff… Why didn’t you get out of the way?”

“Because I assumed you would just let go and drop to the ground like a normal person.” Iarion gave him a flat look. “You’re no lightweight, you know.”

“I’m the perfect weight for a dwarf my size,” Barlo huffed.

“Not after that meal at the inn, you’re not,” Iarion muttered in a voice pitched just loud enough for Barlo to hear. “The chain mail doesn’t help either.”

Barlo flushed in the darkness. “Are you going to keep grumbling, or are we going to get on with this?” It was a good thing there were no guards on duty with all the ruckus they were making…

Iarion rolled his eyes. “Let’s go then.” He led the way toward the dirt road. “And yes, I think it’s possible whatever is taking the villagers is killing them.”

“But one of the men mentioned a child…” Barlo frowned as he tried to remember. “Saren? Anyway, he said some of the other children had seen her.”

Iarion nodded without looking back. “Withen and Bella’s granddaughter.”

Barlo’s eyes widened. “You think? Huh. I suppose that makes sense. The men were afraid to let them know about it, and then there was the mention of them losing their son and his wife after she gave birth…”

“And don’t forget the doll on the mantelpiece,” Iarion added.

Barlo stroked his beard. He remembered Bella’s eyes darting toward it. “Right. So do you think anyone really saw Saren then? Maybe it really is some kind of kidnapping scheme, and she escaped.”

“Maybe.” Iarion’s voice was dubious.

“But you don’t think so,” Barlo prompted.

Iarion shrugged. “If she escaped, why didn’t she go back home?”

“So what’s your theory then?”

Iarion hesitated. “I’m not sure. But I figure we can start with Nalla.”

Barlo stumbled on the uneven road. “You think the Travelers might actually be responsible?”

“Not especially, but we need to start somewhere,” Iarion said. “And now that we know a little more about why the villagers are so unwelcoming to outsiders, we know what questions to ask.”

“I’ll let you ask the questions then,” Barlo said as he regained his footing. “I don’t much fancy making Nalla angry. That lass is a feisty one.”

“So I get to do all the dirty work?” Iarion asked in a dry voice.

Barlo smirked. “Just use some of your legendary elven tact.”

“So I shouldn’t threaten to chop down their wagon door with an ax?” Iarion looked back at him over his shoulder and raised a slender eyebrow.

Barlo scowled. “Hey, that actually worked. Withen opened the door, didn’t he?”

Iarion sighed. “Just remember to let me do the talking this time.”

* * *

Even though Barlo remembered where the Travelers’ wagon was, he found himself blinking in surprise as it seemed to suddenly materialize from the swirling mist. The sky overhead had cleared somewhat, revealing a bright, full moon that hung low on the horizon.

The gaudy colors of the wagon were washed out by the surrounding darkness. It sat like a hulking beast in the middle of the dirt road.

A crackling fire had been lit just off the road nearby. Several figures sat around it while children with tanned, ruddy faces ran about with giggles and shouts of merriment to the accompaniment of a lively fiddle. The lingering smells of roasting meat hung in the air, making Barlo wonder whether he might get the opportunity of a second dinner.

One of the children noticed them first—a young boy with a thatch of blond hair. The rest stumbled to a stop a moment later as the adults turned to look, their shadowy outlines illuminated by the flying sparks of the fire. The skirling notes of the fiddle fell silent. Nalla rose to her feet to greet them, her golden curls seeming to glow in the firelight.

“Welcome back,” she said in a dry voice. “I be thinking we be seeing you again.” She gestured toward the fire. “Please be joining us.”

Iarion gave her a nod. “Thank you.”

He and Barlo settled themselves on the grass near the fire while the rest of the Travelers watched. A woman with her hair bound by a shimmering scarf herded the children off to bed in the wagon, ignoring their sullen protests—Coll’s wife, Barlo guessed.

“So,” Nalla said once she had sat back down on an outcropping of rock. “What kind of welcome be you finding in Misthaven?”

Iarion shrugged. “It was pretty much as you told us.”

“See?” Nalla shook her head with a tight smile. “I be right.”

The woman in the headscarf returned and began pouring something from a battered kettle hanging over the fire into scuffed tin cups that were passed around.

Iarion and Barlo each accepted one with questioning looks.

“Blue mushroom tea,” Nalla said as she read their expressions. “In honor of the Harvest Festival. That be why Jana be putting the little ones to bed.” She nodded in the direction of the woman with the headscarf.

Barlo gave the contents of his tin cup a dubious look. The liquid was murky in the flickering light of the fire, but he could smell the familiar, earthy aroma of mushrooms over the scents of woodsmoke and cooked meat.

Dwarves often cooked with the mushrooms and other fungi that grew beneath the mountains where they made their home. Barlo hadn’t had anything like that since…

Well, since the last time he had visited Dwarvenhome—and that was some time ago. With Narilga gone, and Barlo making his new home among the elves at Melaquenya, he found himself visiting his old home less and less.

He was surprised to find humans drinking such a thing. He thought dwarves were the only ones who liked to use mushrooms in their cooking. Iarion, Pell, Coll, and Jana each had a cup of their own. Nalla was the only one without.

“You don’t celebrate with us?” Iarion asked her with a pointed look at her empty hands.

Nalla’s lips stretched in a secretive smile. “Not this year.”

Barlo’s gaze slid to Iarion, but the elf wasn’t paying any attention. He was watching the Travelers.

First Pell took a sip of his tea, and then Coll and Jana. Iarion shrugged and sipped at his own cup. Barlo followed suit.

The warm liquid was surprisingly rich and smooth, followed by a strange tingle. It filled his mouth with the taste of growing things.

“Hm. Not bad.”

Iarion looked as if he were about to say something before Barlo drank the rest down. He saw the elf give an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Barlo shrugged.

I suppose he thinks I should have better manners or something.

“Can I ask you something?” Iarion said to Nalla while everyone else drank their tea. Nalla nodded.

Iarion took a deep breath. “The villagers say some of their children have gone missing.”

“And you think we be knowing something about that because we be Travelers?” Her lips twisted as she shook her head. “I be thinking you and your friend be different from the foolish village folk.”

Iarion raised his hand in defense. “I only wondered if you might have heard or seen something that might be helpful.”

Nalla looked away for a moment before answering. “All our children be out here when you arrived. None of them be having bronze skin.”

“There were a lot of them though,” Barlo mused aloud. “None of them are yours?” Nalla had only referred to Coll’s wife and children earlier.

“They all be Jana’s—more or less.”

The woman in the headscarf shook her head with a sorrowful look. “Three of them be mine. The rest be my sister Zara’s. I be caring for them for almost a year now.”

“All right…” Barlo’s brow furrowed. What Jana said seemed to make sense… His thoughts seemed hazy for some reason. His head swiveled toward Nalla. “And why aren’t you drinking the tea?” He felt the blood drain from his face. “There’s something in it, isn’t there?”

Nalla shrugged. “Only blue mushrooms. They be helping us reach our ancestors in the spirit world during the Harvest Festival, when they be near.”

Barlo pondered this as he stared into the flames of the campfire, which were suddenly a rich purple. Part of his mind knew he should be alarmed by this, but he found himself mesmerized instead.

His thoughts moved slowly. He seemed to remember that Lesser Men of the north believed the night of the Harvest Festival was when the veil between the waking world and the spirit world was at its thinnest. In the southern lands, the People of the Plains had a Spirit Talker, who communicated with the spirits of their ancestors on their behalf. It seemed the Travelers used this as their own workaround, without a shaman of their own to intercede.

“I not be drinking the tea because I be with child,” Nalla continued. Her voice seemed to reach Barlo from a distance. “It be my first.” She turned to face Iarion. “So you see, none of us be needing children from the village.” She raised her chin and held his gaze.

Barlo leaned back in his seat. Nalla’s blond curls seemed to have come to life around her heart-shaped face, lifting and swirling in the night air. His eyes darted to Iarion and the other Travelers, who didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m sorry,” Iarion said. “I had to ask.”

Nalla’s jaw tightened, but she gave a grim nod. “I be understanding.”

Iarion hesitated before continuing. “I hope this isn’t another awkward question, but what happened to Jana’s sister? Where is her husband?”

Nalla looked to Jana, but the other woman shook her head with a look of grief. “Zara and her man be disappearing,” Nalla said to Iarion. “It be happening the last time we be visiting Misthaven almost a year ago.”

“Really?” Iarion leaned forward. Barlo shook his head and tried to refocus on Nalla’s face instead of her writhing hair. “So not just the villagers are going missing.”

“It be why we came back,” Nalla said. “We be making camp one night, and the next morning, Zara and her man be gone. We be looking for days for them, but there be no sign. The villagers be telling us nothing, except to be leaving.”

“Where did it happen?” Iarion asked.

“Not far from this place.” Nalla gestured to the mist surrounding them. “We be making camp outside town, like usual.”

“And you thought you might find something almost a year later?” Barlo heard himself say before he could think the better of it.

Nalla’s eyes flashed. “We be hoping the spirits of our ancestors be knowing something.”

Barlo snorted. “Good plan.” His eyes widened and he clapped his hands over his mouth.

Nalla’s gaze hardened. “I know it be the tea talking, but I be thinking maybe you should be going now.”

“Yes, I think that’s a good idea,” Iarion said with a pointed look at Barlo.

Barlo opened his mouth to say something, but immediately thought the better of it.

Iarion rose to his feet and dragged Barlo up with him. “I’m very sorry we bothered you,” the elf said.

Nalla watched them go as Iarion herded Barlo back into the misty darkness. Her hair was still dancing in the light of the purple flames. Barlo gave an apologetic wave before she disappeared from sight.

* * *

“What were you thinking?” Iarion demanded as soon as they were out of earshot.

Barlo shrugged. “I dunno. It just sort of came out.”

Iarion rolled his golden-flecked, sapphire eyes. “I meant why did you drink the tea? Didn’t you see that look I gave you?”

Barlo frowned. “Yes… But you drank it too! Why don’t you see the magic fire?” he accused before his words devolved into a slurred mess that was beyond his control. “An’ don’t tell me it’s because you’re an elf.” He shook his finger at Iarion.

Iarion sighed. “I only pretended to drink. I assumed you would do the same—not chug it down like you were in a drinking contest.”

“I’s—” Barlo shook his head to clear it. “I was being polite. Besides, it tasted good.”

He did his best to enunciate the words. His mouth felt very strange. His fingers probed his lips for the source of the problem.

“Whoa…” He grabbed Iarion’s wrist. “Feel my beard.” He buried the elf’s hand in his whiskers with a blissful smile. “…Soft.”

Iarion gave him a dubious look. “What am I supposed to do with you now?”

“D’you feel it?” Barlo insisted. He took Iarion’s hand and stroked it against his beard. It felt nice.

“Yes, it’s very soft,” Iarion said in the same sort of voice he used with children. “Thank you.”

He gently disentangled his wrist from Barlo’s grip as Barlo continued to stroke his beard on his own. If the elf wanted to miss out, that was his problem.

Iarion shook his head. “I can’t leave you on your own like this, can I?”

A sudden thought struck Barlo—something so obvious, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it before.

“Why don’t you grow a beard, Iarion?” He looked up at his friend with an earnest expression. “I can help you. You’d look nice with a beard.” He smiled at the thought.

“Um, I’m not really sure how that would work.”

Barlo shook his head with a laugh. It was so obvious!

“We take some of my beard and put it in a potion!”

Iarion shook his head. “Maybe later, Barlo.”

“Ooh, or you can grow a mustache… A long mustache, with curls at the ends.” Barlo stroked his own mustache as he imagined how it would look.

“What if I knock you unconscious and tie you up somewhere?” Iarion mused. The words meant nothing to Barlo, who was completely absorbed by his own train of thought. “I can go looking for whatever’s kidnapping the children and come back for you in the morning…”

“You could even braid it to match your hair.” Barlo reached up to touch the beaded end of one of Iarion’s long, white braids.

Iarion nodded to himself. “I’m definitely going to have to knock you out. I’m sorry about this Barlo…” He reached for the knife at his belt.

Barlo blinked. Something over Iarion’s shoulder caught his notice. A sudden, tingling coldness settled over him.

“Do you see that man?” he asked in an unsteady voice.

Iarion turned around with his knife held ready. “What man? Barlo, there’s no one there.”

That man!” Barlo pointed at the hazy figure of a man in gaudy clothing that wavered in the air behind the elf. He was pale in the swirling mist—the colors of his scarf, tunic, and breeches washed out somehow.

Iarion’s gaze followed the line of Barlo’s arm before darting back to the dwarf’s face and narrowing.

“Who is he, Barlo?”

“I think he’s a Traveler.” Barlo uttered the words as if he were in a trance. He saw the man beckon. “He’s dressed like one. He wants us to follow him.”

Barlo walked past Iarion to follow the strange figure into the mist. He heard Iarion curse in Elvish behind him.

“I really hope I don’t end up regretting this…”

* * *

Barlo followed the strange man through the mist without slowing. Nothing else seemed to matter. He sensed more than heard Iarion’s presence behind him. For once, the elf followed in his footsteps. For whatever reason, Barlo was the only one of them who could see the mystery Traveler.

The wavering man did not speak. Barlo didn’t bother trying to engage him in conversation. He somehow seemed to know that it wouldn’t get him anywhere.

The part of his mind that was still working properly noticed that they had circled the stone walls of Misthaven to skirt the edges of the Hills of Mist. The air had become so thick and white, Barlo could barely make out his own hand in front of his face. But somehow, he could still see the Traveler that led them.

They seemed to be on some kind of worn footpath. Barlo’s boots brushed the damp grass as he walked. A chill seeped through the leather to cool his toes. The air felt thick in his lungs as he breathed. It was heavy with the scent of damp grass. An owl hooted somewhere in the misty darkness, making him jump. His mouth still tasted of blue mushroom tea.

The man moving through the mist ahead of him came to a stop. He looked back at Barlo and gestured.

Barlo’s gaze followed the line of his outstretched arm. The area ahead of them opened up into a small plain bordered by the burbling waters of the Rilnimril. The mist was thinner here. Barlo could make out furrowed fields in the moonlit darkness.

Beyond the farmlands, where the Hills of Mist met the mouth of the river was a graveyard. Tombstones jutted out from the rolling grass, caressed by fingers of mist.

Barlo nodded to himself.

That was where they needed to go.

“Um, Barlo?” Iarion said from behind him, reminding him of the elf’s presence. “Why are we here?”

“We need to go there.” Barlo pointed in the direction of the graveyard. Their Traveler guide nodded.

“All right…” Iarion dragged out the words with a note of skepticism. “Are you sure about this?”

Barlo nodded. “It’s where the children saw Saren, isn’t it?” It all seemed very obvious to him. Why couldn’t Iarion figure it out?

“Huh. I suppose you’re right. Maybe the tea works after all.”

“What d’you mean?” Barlo demanded. His head swiveled in the elf’s direction.

Iarion shrugged. “The tea is supposed to help contact the spirits of the ancestors. You do know that Traveler you’ve been following is a ghost, right? That’s why I can’t see him. I never drank the tea.”

Barlo shook his head in frustration. “He’s right there, Iarion…” Barlo blinked.

The Traveler man was gone.

“He was there a moment ago…” Barlo took a few steps forward. “Maybe he went ahead to the graveyard.”

“Barlo—”

“We have to find him, Iarion!” Barlo started running in the direction of the graveyard. He had no way of explaining the sense of urgency he felt.

Iarion caught up with him easily. The elf jogged beside him.

“Barlo, we can’t just go barging in on whatever’s waiting there. It could be anything.”

Barlo ignored him and kept running. The elf tried to reach for his shoulder, but he dodged it. His booted feet seemed to fly across the damp grass much faster than usual. Iarion followed after him with a curse.

“Barlo!” he called out in a harsh whisper.

Barlo shook his head and kept running. He wasn’t faster than Iarion, but he ran in a wild zig zag pattern that forced the elf off balance. A wild laugh escaped his lips.

The air was blistering with Iarion’s curses now.

“You blithering idiot!” the elf called after him in a breathless voice. “I knew I should have tied you up…”

As Barlo reached the graveyard, he prepared to make another dodge, but Iarion was ready this time. The elf dove toward him in a tackle that knocked the breath from Barlo’s lungs and sent them both sprawling to the ground in a jumbled heap.

“Ow! What did you do that for?” Barlo demanded from where he lay on the ground with Iarion sitting on top of him. He spat out a mouthful of wet grass.

Will you keep your voice down?” Iarion scolded in a harsh whisper.

“Are you going to get off of me or not?” Barlo asked in a lower tone of voice.

“That depends. Are we going to play tag again if I let you up?”

Barlo snorted. “What for? We’re already here.”

Iarion hesitated before rolling smoothly to his feet with his knife in hand. Barlo clambered up beside him with a faint jingle.

Moonlight illuminated the worn faces of stone slabs chiseled with the names of the dead. A crow perched atop one of them to glare at the pair of intruders with a beady eye. Barlo let out a startled breath as it flapped off into the darkness.

“Well?” Iarion demanded. “Where is your Traveler friend?”

Barlo looked around. There was no sign of the man who had led them.

He frowned. That wasn’t right… Why would the Traveler lead them here and then vanish? There must be a reason.

Iarion had begun stalking between the tombstones to search for anything interesting.

“He’s not here,” Barlo said in a numb voice.

Iarion sighed. “I was afraid of that. I guess you were just hallucinating after all.”

The faintest hint of movement by one of the tombstones caught Barlo’s eye while Iarion’s back was turned. Barlo opened his mouth to say something, but found himself falling silent. A strange chill went through him. He found himself frozen in place as his eyes narrowed in an effort to pierce the misty shadows.

A pale face turned toward him.

* * *

“Iarion?” Barlo croaked.

“What is it?” the elf asked, turning his head. His golden-flecked, sapphire eyes met Barlo’s in the darkness.

Barlo raised his arm to point.

Iarion was already moving. He pounced on the shadow huddled by the tombstone. A high-pitched voice cried out in protest.

“Is this what your Traveler friend wanted us to find?” Iarion asked. His voice was muffled, but seemed to hold a trace of amusement. Barlo watched as Iarion dragged a small form out into view.

Her face was pale and smeared with dirt, but it had an unmistakable bronze cast. Long, dark hair tumbled around her shoulders in tangles. Her dress was in tatters. It was impossible to say what color it had been originally. She looked from Iarion to Barlo with wide eyes.

“Please, don’t hurt me!” she said in a frightened voice.

Barlo frowned. “Saren?”

The girl nodded.

Barlo shook his head in disbelief. “Hammer and tongs, lass. You gave us a fright!” He frowned. “What are you doing lurking around in a graveyard? Everyone in the village thinks you’re dead!”

The girl swallowed. “She needs me.”

Barlo’s brow furrowed. “Who needs you?”

Iarion looked down at his prisoner. His eyes narrowed. He kept one hand firmly gripped around Saren’s shoulder while he reached down with the blade of his knife toward her neck with the other. Barlo made an inarticulate sound of protest.

Iarion used the tip of his knife to twitch Saren’s hair aside. Barlo uttered a startled hiss.

There were bite marks on Saren’s neck.

* * *

Barlo’s eyes narrowed as he struggled to separate the visions of the mushroom tea from reality. The moonlight illuminated raised patches of skin around the wounds on Saren’s neck—scars. A sudden chill went through him.

The girl had been fed on not once, but multiple times.

“Get away from her, Iarion,” Barlo said in a wary voice. He drew his ax from his belt and did his best to shake the cobwebs from his mind.

Saren might look like a child, but once turned, the blood-drinking drakhalu were nothing more than mindless monsters. Only a wooden stake through the heart or decapitation could kill them, as he knew all too well.

Iarion didn’t move. “Who did this to you?” he asked.

“Please, don’t hurt her.” Saren shook her head. “She’s my friend.”

“Iarion, get away, so I can deal with her.” Barlo took a step toward them. His fingers tightened around the haft of his ax.

“It’s all right, Barlo. She’s not a drakhal.” Iarion lowered his knife. “If she were, she would be half-mad by now with me standing right beside her.”

Barlo hesitated as he processed Iarion’s words.

Of course. The blood of a Light Elf was irresistible to the drakhalu.

He lowered his ax with a shake of his head. “But how…?”

“Someone has used her to feed on without turning her—like a cow kept for its milk.” Iarion’s voice was filled with disgust.

“She needs me to help keep her strong,” Saren said. She raised her chin. “We take care of each other.”

“And what about the other children?” Iarion asked.

Saren looked away. “She tried to make friends with them too, but they weren’t brave, like I am.”

“And where are they now?” Barlo asked. He had a bad feeling he already knew the answer.

Saren bit her lip. “I don’t know. I brought them here to help her just like she asked, but I never saw them again.”

Barlo and Iarion shared a long look.

Iarion looked down at Saren. “If I let you go, will you run away?”

Saren shook her head. “Zara told me to stay here until she gets back.” Her voice quavered. “She doesn’t usually leave me alone at night… Are you going to hurt me?”

Iarion drew his hand away from her shoulder. “Of course not. Wait here a moment while I talk to Barlo.”

Iarion drew Barlo out of earshot to stand several graves away, where they could still keep an eye on the young girl in the misty darkness.

“Well?” Iarion said to Barlo in a low voice. He gave the dwarf a measuring look.

Barlo frowned. “Well, what?”

Iarion sighed. “Have you regained your senses yet? Or are you still seeing things that aren’t there?”

“How am I supposed to know?” Barlo huffed. “Besides, it looks like my Traveler friend led us to something interesting after all.”

Iarion pursed his lips. “I’m guessing he was Zara’s husband—assuming he wasn’t a figment of your addled wits.”

“So Zara’s a drakhal,” Barlo said with a shake of his head. “Nalla and the others will be disappointed.”

Iarion toyed with one of his braids. “She and her husband must have been attacked the night the Travelers stayed around here almost a year ago. He was killed, but she was turned.”

“And she’s been feeding off the villagers ever since…” Barlo’s eyes widened. “What about the creature who turned her? Are we dealing with one drakhal or two?”

Iarion shrugged. “I suppose we can try asking Saren, but my guess is, Zara is the only one. Otherwise, I doubt there would be anyone left in Misthaven.”

Barlo gave the young girl a dubious look. “What do you think happened to the other children?”

“I think Saren brought them to Zara, telling them she was a friend. The villagers mentioned that some of the other children had claimed to have seen Saren.”

Barlo stroked his beard. “So Saren was the lure, and when they saw what Zara was really like…”

“They panicked.” Iarion nodded. “Zara probably killed them to prevent them from running back to the village and letting them know exactly what was out here.”

“But why hasn’t she killed Saren?”

Iarion shrugged. “She doesn’t seem to be afraid of Zara.” His golden brow furrowed. “It is strange though. Why lurk around Misthaven and feed off one girl when you could wander all over Northern Lasniniar for fresh blood?”

Iarion’s face went pale as he spoke the words.

“What is it?” Barlo demanded.

Iarion ignored him and strode over to the young girl cowering by the tombstone. He knelt before her.

“Did Zara tell you where she was going?” he asked in a gentle voice.

Saren hesitated before nodding. “She said she was going to bring me new brothers and sisters. She said we could play together here forever, and I wouldn’t be lonely anymore during the daytime.” She swallowed. “I miss my gran and grandpa, but Zara told me they don’t want me anymore. She says she’s my mother now. I’ve never had a mother before.”

Barlo blinked as the words seemed to flood from the young girl’s lips. His mind was still foggy, but an alarm seemed to be going off somewhere in the back of his head. It took a moment for him to sift through what Saren had said for the source of his unease.

Brothers and sisters…

He met Iarion’s gaze. What if Zara had been waiting all this time for the Travelers to return? The elf nodded.

“She’s gone to get back her children.”

* * *

Barlo ran through the mist after Iarion, doing his best to keep the elf’s streaming, white braids in view. They had plunged back into the mist again, rushing in the direction of the Travelers’ wagon.

The night breeze whistled in his ears, chilling his face. Saren clung to his back as he ran, her slender arms wrapped around his shoulders. Her weight helped to muffle some of the jingle of his chain mail, but other than that, it was barely noticeable. After telling her they were going to find Zara, she had been quick to agree to come with them.

Barlo cursed himself for not figuring it out sooner. Why else would Zara linger around Misthaven than to wait for her family to return? He shook his head to himself. He was still unsure how much he was affected by that blasted blue mushroom tea… The earthy taste of it had soured in his mouth.

He felt more himself than he had after leaving the Travelers’ fire, but running through a seemingly endless stretch of mist in the darkness made the whole thing seem like a strange dream.

But Saren’s arms around his shoulders and the scent of her unwashed clothes told him this was real.

What would they do with her once they caught up with Zara?

The woman was a drakhal now. She had to be dealt with. Otherwise, she would only continue to kill others to feed, whether she meant to or not.

But Saren would understand none of that.

The poor girl had been through so much—raised as an orphan by her grandparents, only to be taken in by a drakhal to be fed off of and used as bait. For almost a year, Zara had been Saren’s only family. Barlo didn’t relish the idea of chopping off Zara’s head in front of her.

He wished he and Iarion could talk about all this, but Zara already had a head start on them. What if she had already reached the wagon? Images of Nalla, Pell, Coll, and Jana’s broken bodies strewn around their campfire filled his mind.

Unless Zara managed to turn them, which would create a whole other problem. And Nalla was with child…

Barlo lowered his head and pumped his legs as hard as he could to catch up with Iarion. His breath rasped in his ears.

How far was the wagon?

“Iarion, I think we need to talk about this,” he panted as he drew even with the elf’s longer strides. He rolled his eyes in the direction of the girl riding on his back.

Iarion gave a curt shake of his head. “No time.”

“What happened to not bursting in without a plan?”

“I guess we’ll have to improvise.” Iarion’s lips twitched. “Like usual.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Barlo asked with a dubious look.

Iarion shrugged. “At least you seem more like yourself now.” He reached down to give Barlo a pat on the shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll come up with something.”

* * *

Iarion flung out an arm, stopping Barlo in his tracks with a muffled curse. Barlo narrowed his eyes to peer through the misty darkness. Sure enough, the shadowy outline of the Travelers’ wagon loomed ahead of them on the road. He briefly wondered how Zara had managed to reach it while they were on their way to the graveyard. They must have passed each another in the mist without even realizing it.

This, if nothing else, made Barlo believe the figure of the man he had seen earlier had been real and not a figment of his imagination.

Barlo reached over his shoulders to grasp Saren’s arms and swing her down to the ground. She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“I want you to stay here,” he said in the same sort of voice he had once used with his own children. “Can you do that for me? I promise we’ll come get you after we’ve found Zara.”

Whether Zara would be alive or dead was another matter…

Saren nodded, her long, dark tangles rustling around her slim shoulders.

Barlo looked up to meet Iarion’s questioning look and nodded in return. They both slipped off into the mist. Barlo waited until Saren was out of sight to draw his ax. Iarion slipped a sharpened wooden stake from his belt. He had carried one out of habit, ever since he and Barlo had discovered that at least one drakhal had managed to migrate from the lost continent of Ralvaniar, well over a century before.

The thick, night air was quiet.

Too quiet.

Barlo gripped the worn, wooden haft of his ax as he breathed in the damp mist. His bearded head swiveled from side to side as he searched the shadows for any sign of an intruder. Zara had only been a Lesser Woman before she had been turned. Unlike an elf drakhal, she wouldn’t be able to enchant anyone with her gaze, but she would still be unnaturally strong and quick.

Barlo’s eyes darted to the looming shelter of the wagon. A drakhal could move through the darkness like smoke.

The flames of the campfire had died down. Much to his chagrin, they still had a faint, purple tinge. So much for regaining his wits…

He shook his head to himself and continued creeping forward around the front edge of the wagon behind Iarion.

A startled cry made them both start. Their heads swiveled in the direction of the campfire. Iarion and Barlo rushed forward.

“Zara?” Nalla stood before the fire in a wary crouch. “Be that really you?”

A woman stood before her with her back facing Iarion and Barlo. She wore a tattered dress and fringed shawl. Her hair was caught up in a ragged scarf. Her bare arms gleamed pale in the flickering firelight.

“Nalla?” the woman rasped with a tilt of her head. “Where be my children?”

Nalla shook her head. Her golden curls rose up around her shoulders. Barlo shook his head once more in an effort to clear it.

“Zara, what be you doing to Pell?” Nalla’s hand slipped to the dagger at her belt.

Barlo looked around the fire. Pell, Coll, and Jana were all slumped over. At first glance, he had assumed they had only passed out from too much drink and mushroom tea, but Pell’s head was tilted back, exposing his throat.

Blood trickled from a fresh wound on his neck.

Barlo’s gaze darted to the man’s face. There was no sign of blood around Pell’s mouth… Zara hadn’t tried to turn him.

Yet.

Barlo didn’t know whether the man was still breathing. In the flickering light of the purple fire, it was impossible to tell.

“Where be my children, Nalla?” Zara rasped again. “I be waiting for so long…”

Nalla’s eyes narrowed. Barlo heard her swift intake of breath. “Drakhal,” she hissed.

“Your dagger won’t harm her,” Iarion said in a low voice.

Both women turned to face him. Barlo flinched. Zara looked almost exactly like her sister, Jana. Fangs gleamed in the firelight behind her lips.

Her eyes narrowed as she caught sight of Iarion. Barlo doubted she had ever seen a Light Elf before…

She sniffed the air like an animal. Her tongue darted out to lick her lips as she uttered a whine of hunger. Her eyes bore into the elf as she seemed to go rigid all over.

“You.”

Barlo immediately cursed himself for an idiot. Zara might not have ever seen a Light Elf before, but now that she was a drakhal, she certainly recognized one when she saw him. The Light Elves’ connection to their source of magic made them irresistible to the drakhalu. Once they caught the scent of Light Elf blood, they would go mad with it. Only the strongest could withstand its lure.

Barlo doubted Zara qualified.

* * *

Zara lunged at Iarion without warning.

Iarion threw up his arms and forced her back. She eyed him with a snarl.

Barlo watched the scene with a strange sense of detachment. He could see what was happening—he could smell the burning campfire and feel its warmth against the chill of the misty, night air as its flickering violet light illuminated the pale and tattered figure of the drakhal woman attacking his friend—and yet he felt strangely apart from it.

“Get in the wagon,” Iarion said to Nalla without looking in her direction. He made no mention of the children sleeping inside, but Barlo knew that was what his friend was thinking.

Nalla shook her head. “I be staying right here.” She positioned herself over the fallen forms of Pell, Coll, and Jana and raised her chin. Iarion shook his head in annoyance.

Zara threw herself at Iarion again. This time, Iarion stepped aside, lashing out at her with a kick as she passed him. It landed against her side with a grunt.

“Don’t hurt her!” a small voice cried out. Barlo blinked as Saren’s slender form flew through the darkness to stand in front of Zara. She shot Iarion an accusatory look. “You promised!”

Barlo found himself uttering a groan. Why couldn’t the lass have stayed put?

“Take her to the wagon,” Barlo called out to Nalla.

Nalla bit her lip. Her eyes darted to her fallen mate. Barlo sighed. He knew the suggestion was useless as long as Saren stayed between Iarion and Zara. Even if Nalla managed to seize the child, she had no way to protect herself.

“Get out of the way, Saren,” Iarion said without taking his eyes off Zara. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Zara spared Saren a cursory glance before returning her hungry gaze to the elf. No matter what kind of bond she and Saren had forged, the child would only be collateral damage if she came between Zara and her Light Elf target. The rest of them might as well not even be there now that the blood madness had set in.

Iarion circled in a crouch with his stake held ready. Barlo knew his friend was fast—as fast as a drakhal. But with Saren between them…

Zara lunged.

Iarion shoved Saren aside. The girl fell to the ground with a cry of protest. Barlo thought to wade in to take her in hand, but she was already back on her feet somehow.

Iarion’s concern for Saren compromised his defense. Zara landed against him in a full tackle, sending both of them sprawling.

They rolled on the damp grass in a clinch, each struggling to get the upper hand. Iarion gripped his stake and held his arms crossed over his face to hold Zara back as she slavered over him. Saren was right there with them, tugging on Zara’s sleeve.

Barlo looked down on the scene with his ax in hand, with a dim sense of helplessness. It was impossible for him to do anything without risking Iarion or the child.

“Are you hungry, Zara?” Saren asked in a pleading voice. “I’m right here if you need to drink…”

Zara lashed out at her with a snarl. Saren skittered backward for a moment before trying again.

“Please, Zara. You said we were going to be a family…”

Zara’s head whipped up for a moment. She stared at Saren, breathing heavily between her fangs. For a moment, Barlo thought he saw a glimmer of reason in her wild eyes.

But Iarion’s presence was too much for her to resist. She turned back to her prey with a sudden ferocity, flipping Iarion onto his back.

Barlo knew he should do something… Anything. Now that Zara was on top, maybe he could get a clear aim at her neck.

But Saren was right there.

Even if he could manage to take Zara’s head off cleanly, he hesitated to do so in front of the child. Not only that, but even though the world seemed to be madness all around him, he found himself feeling as if it were all somehow surreal. Was this even happening?

He suspected his sluggishness was yet another side effect of the blue mushroom tea, but even as his mind screamed at him to act, his arms continued to remain frozen.

Iarion elbowed Zara in the face. Blood blossomed from her nose, trickling down her face. She licked it with a moan of pleasure.

Barlo’s eyes darted around the campfire.

I have to do something!

* * *

“A little help, Barlo?” Iarion called out in a tight voice as he struggled to keep Zara at bay.

The elf’s words seemed to reach Barlo from a distance. His bemused gaze was focused on the dancing, purple flames of the campfire. The battered kettle of the tea that had started this whole mess still hung over the embers. He blinked.

A familiar figure had wavered into view.

Barlo found himself reaching out toward the Traveler who had led them to the graveyard. He didn’t even know the man’s name…

Can he help us somehow?

Clearly, he had wanted them to find Saren. If he really was Zara’s mate, perhaps he had returned to reunite with her.

“Please, you have to stop her!” he called out to the unearthly figure.

“What do you think I’m trying to do?” Iarion called back in a breathless voice. “Are you going to help, or are you waiting for an engraved invitation?”

Barlo shook his head. “Not you, him!” He pointed at the Traveler man by the fire, who gave a helpless shake of his head.

“There be no one there,” Nalla said, sounding confused.

Barlo uttered a strangled oath of frustration. Of course. Iarion and Nalla couldn’t see him. Neither of them had drank the tea.

The tea…

“Of course!” Barlo blurted.

He sheathed his ax in his belt and rushed toward the fire. He snatched up the kettle, ignoring the burn of the heated metal against his callused hands. He tilted it back and forth and heard a faint swish from inside.

He ran over to where Iarion and Zara were still struggling. Zara was straddling the elf, looking for an opening with her fangs bared. Saren continued to plead with her in a broken voice, but Zara ignored her. The Traveler man stood off to the side, watching with an anguished expression.

Barlo stood over Zara and seized her tattered headscarf with one hand.

* * *

“No!” Saren cried out in protest. She reached up to claw at Barlo’s fingers.

“Relax, lass,” Barlo said without letting go. “I’m just going to give her a little something to drink.”

His words meant nothing to Saren, who continued to work at his hand, but her slender fingers were no match for his own. He yanked Zara’s head back and hoisted the kettle over her face. Her lips stretched back and she uttered a feral hiss.

Iarion’s golden-flecked, sapphire eyes rolled up at him from where he lay pinned on the grass. “Barlo, what in Lasniniar are you doing?

“Saving your elven arse,” Barlo said as he tilted the contents of the kettle between Zara’s fangs into her open mouth.

At first, Zara tried not to swallow, but Barlo’s grip on her head was firm. He kept pouring until the kettle was empty. Dark, earth-scented liquid spilled over Zara’s face and down the front of her dress. He watched as Zara’s throat constricted of its own accord. She went still beneath his hand.

For a moment, no one seemed to breathe.

Zara’s eyes rolled up at Nalla and then Barlo. “Blue mushroom tea?” she said in a bewildered voice.

“That’s right,” Barlo said. “Someone wants to talk to you.”

He forced her head in the direction of the Traveler man. She didn’t fight back, but her breathing was ragged and heavy.

“Please, let her go!” Saren pleaded.

For a moment, Barlo thought Zara was going to lash out at her again, but instead, Zara went completely still beneath his grip. Her eyes widened.

“Dall?” She uttered the name in a whisper.

Barlo saw the wavering Traveler man nod.

Zara shook off Barlo’s hand and rose to her feet to approach the ghost of her mate. “Dall! It really be you…” She reached out to touch him, but her pale fingers went through him like smoke.

A tremble went through her. “But you be dead? No…” She shook her head in denial, followed by a low moan.

“I be remembering now,” she said in a numb voice. “The drakhal… It be killing you. I thought it be killing me too. I be remembering its mouth on my neck…”

Zara’s hands flew to her own mouth with a strangled sob as her fingers probed the tips of her fangs.

“I be one of them now.”

* * *

Saren tugged at Zara’s hand. “Zara? Are you all right now?”

Barlo dropped the kettle to the ground with a dull thud and let his hand drift to the ax at his belt as he waited for the drakhal woman to answer.

Zara looked down at her and uttered another moan. “What I be doing? All those children…”

“Zara, you not be knowing,” Nalla said in a broken voice. Barlo watched her reach out to touch the other woman’s shoulder. The ghostly image of Dall gave a nod.

Zara shook her head. “Jana and Coll be taking good care of our little ones?” She gave Nalla a measuring look.

“Of course,” Nalla said. “They be caring for them like their own.”

“Good.” Zara straightened her shoulders and turned to face Iarion, who had regained his feet. She faced him with her arms lowered. “Be doing what you must.” Her eyes darted to the stake in Iarion’s hand.

“What?” Saren blurted. “Zara, no!” Tears coursed down her dirty cheeks as she threw her arms around the drakhal woman’s waist.

Zara gently pried her free with a sad smile. “You be like a daughter to me, but I be using you, Saren. I be lying to you too. Your gran and grandpa still be wanting you. I only be wanting you to stay with me because I be lonely.”

“But I don’t want to go back home to the graveyard without you,” Saren wailed. “I don’t want to be alone!”

Zara reached down to wipe a tear from her face. “Your home be back in the village with the other children. My home be with Dall.”

Saren shook her head and collapsed into tears. Barlo eased her away, shielding Zara from view.

Zara met Nalla’s gaze. “Tell my children I be loving them.” Nalla swallowed and nodded.

Zara turned back to face Iarion. “Do it. Before I be losing control again.” The ghostly figure of Dall nodded.

Barlo looked over his shoulder and saw Iarion hesitate. After all they had been through together, Barlo understood his friend’s reluctance all too well.

He also understood exactly what Zara was asking him to do.

“Do it, Iarion,” he said in a soft voice. Iarion met his gaze and nodded.

Barlo saw the elf’s shoulders stiffen as he raised the stake. A moment later, it was plunging downward, directly at Zara’s heart. Barlo’s arms tightened around Saren as he kept her turned away.

Zara didn’t flinch.

The stake landed deep in her chest, a crimson stain spreading across the front of her shawl as she crumpled to the ground with the ghost of her mate hovering over her. She looked up at Iarion and Barlo with a smile. Her last words emerged in a soundless whisper.

“Thank you.”

* * *

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Barlo muttered to Iarion as they stood at the gates of Misthaven the next morning. The late autumn sun was shining, burning off most of the mist that surrounded the village’s amateur stone walls.

They both looked considerably worse for wear. Iarion’s white braids were disheveled, and there were grass stains on his tunic and breeches. Barlo knew there must be dark circles beneath his stinging, bloodshot eyes. The lingering visions from the blue mushroom tea had lasted for what had remained of the night, making it impossible for him to sleep. His mouth was dry and sour, and he could still smell Saren’s musty scent on him from when he had carried her.

They were not the only ones waiting at the gate.

Nalla, Coll, Jana, and a pale and bandaged Pell stood with them, shielding Saren from view. In addition to being up all night, Barlo had also spent his time trying to calm the poor child, who had eventually passed out from sheer exhaustion. How would she recover from her ordeal?

Barlo had no idea.

Part of him wanted to stay with her to keep an eye on her, but he knew it wasn’t his place. Not only that, but he and Iarion could hardly stay in Misthaven forever, and the last thing he wanted was to subject the poor lass to another painful separation.

The village guards gave the group a wary look.

“What is your business in Misthaven?” one of the men demanded. His hand drifted to the sword at his belt as he eyed the Travelers—a weapon Barlo doubted he knew how to handle properly based on his awkward stance.

Iarion held up his hands in a warding gesture. “We are here to discuss the disappearances of your children. We know what happened to them.”

Both guards exchanged a wary look.

“We also need to get our things from your lovely inn,” Barlo grumbled. Iarion rolled his eyes at him.

Barlo sighed. “Look, why don’t you just go round up Withen and Bella? I’m sure one of them can vouch for us, and what we have to say concerns them.”

The guards exchanged silent looks for a long moment before one of them ran off in the direction of the inn.

Villagers were wandering out of their homes to start their day. A few of them took notice of the standoff at the village gate and drifted over to watch. In a matter of moments, an entire murmuring crowd had gathered.

“What are they doing here?” a man demanded.

“They probably came back to take more of our children!” a woman cried out in a shrill voice.

Someone threw a clod of earth in the direction of the Travelers. Nalla watched it land at her feet with a stony expression.

“You idiots!” Barlo shouted as he placed himself between the Travelers and the crowd. “They helped us figure out what was happening to your children.”

It was a bit of a stretch, but that was the story he, Iarion, and Nalla had agreed on. Saren wasn’t in any condition to contradict them—assuming she decided to talk about her ordeal at all.

“What are you talking about?” Withen demanded as he shouldered his way to the front of the crowd with his wife in tow.

The other villagers gave way to the wiry man. He measured Nalla and her companions with his watery blue eyes. Nalla raised her chin and did not look away.

“It was a drakhal,” Iarion said. “It was living in the graveyard and preying on your children.”

Barlo heard several of the villagers hiss at the word ‘drakhal.’

“Did they tell you that?” Withen asked with a quirk of his bushy, white eyebrows. He cocked his head in the direction of the Travelers.

“Likely story!” someone called from the crowd before being silenced.

“It’s true,” Iarion continued. “Thanks to the Travelers, we found and killed the drakhal last night. It used an accomplice from the village to lure the children to the graveyard.”

Bella paled as she clutched at Withen’s hand. “No…” She shook her head. “Who would do such a thing?”

Iarion exchanged a look with Barlo before plunging forward. “Someone who didn’t know any better. Someone who was convinced the drakhal was the only family that wanted her.”

“Are you ready, lass?” Barlo said to Saren in a low voice where she cowered behind Nalla and the others. His heart bled for her. She looked even more gaunt and fragile in the pale light of day.

Saren swallowed and nodded.

“I think it’s someone you know quite well,” Iarion said when Barlo gave him a nod of his own.

Nalla and the other Travelers stepped aside to reveal Saren.

For a moment, no one spoke.

Then Bella collapsed to her knees with a sob.

“Saren?” She uttered the name in a choked whisper. Her deep blue eyes were wide with disbelief. Withen seemed to have been turned to stone beside her.

“Gran?” Saren whispered back. “Grandpa?” She looked up at Barlo with tears in her eyes, as if unsure what she should do.

“Go to them, lass,” Barlo said in a gruff voice. He gave her a pat on the shoulder.

Saren took one step, followed by another. A moment later, she was hurtling toward her grandparents, her dark hair streaming behind her. Bella opened her arms. Saren collapsed against her and started crying.

Withen fell to his knees beside them, his mouth hanging open. He wrapped his arms around both his wife and their granddaughter, as if afraid they might disappear at any moment. When he looked back up at Iarion and Barlo, there were tears in his eyes.

“How?” He shook his head, wisps of white hair trembling around his face. “How did you find her?”

“We would have never been able to do it without the Travelers,” Barlo said. He gave Withen a meaningful look.

At least that much was true. If Barlo had never drank the blue mushroom tea, who knew if Saren would have ever been found? Never mind what would have happened to the Travelers with Zara on the prowl for her children…

Withen looked from Barlo to Iarion, who nodded in agreement. His head turned toward Nalla and her companions with a measuring look.

“I see one of you is injured.” His voice was rough. “My wife is skilled in the art of healing, if you would like her to take a look.”

Nalla’s eyes narrowed. “The Travelers be skilled at healing as well. My man’s wound already be tended to.” Withen winced.

Barlo resisted the urge to shake the proud woman. Didn’t she know a peace offering when she saw one? Her eyes slid over to meet his before returning to Withen.

“But…” she continued after a moment. “Our wagon wheel be broken, and our own children not be eating breakfast yet.”

“Come to my inn, and I’ll serve you all myself,” Withen said as he helped Bella back to her feet. Saren clung to her grandmother’s skirts. “I’m sure we can find someone to help fix your wagon.” Withen glared at the assembled crowd as if daring anyone to disagree.

“That be most kind,” Nalla said in a dry voice. “Usually, our wagon be quite sturdy. But we not be beggars. We be willing to show you what goods we be having to offer in exchange for a fair price. We be having many items from across Northern Lasniniar—even a cask of mead from Nal Huraseadro if anyone be interested…”

Some of the crowd began to murmur in interest. Nalla turned her head toward Barlo and gave him a wink.

Barlo bit back a chuckle. He had a suspicion that as soon as the rest of Misthaven decided to let their guard down, Nalla would have them eating out of the palm of her hand.

In a matter of moments, Jana had collected the children from the wagon, and everyone was swept away toward the inn in an impromptu procession with Withen, Bella, and Saren in the lead.

* * *

“Well?” Barlo said to Iarion with a tilt of his head as they were left behind. Even the guards had left their posts to join the excitement. Barlo eyed the poor excuse for a village gate with a snort of disgust.

Good thing there wasn’t a drakhal wandering the countryside anymore… Not that Zara would have been able to bear the sunlight, but still.

Barlo’s beard bristled with a trace of exasperation at the previously suspicious villagers’ complete lack of professionalism. He almost found himself wanting to negotiate a contract for some dwarves to build them a decent wall. It probably didn’t matter one bit to Iarion, but the current slipshod state of Misthaven’s walls offended him.

“Well, what?” Iarion asked.

Barlo shook himself and took a deep breath of the fresh, morning air in an effort to rouse himself from his wandering thoughts. He grimaced. His mouth tasted awful.

“Do we join them for a big breakfast?” He rubbed at his stinging eyes with his knuckles, stifling a yawn. “Now that the tea’s worn off, I feel like I could eat a horse.”

Barlo’s stomach rumbled to accompany his words. Both he and the elf seemed to have been forgotten by both the Travelers and the villagers in the shuffle.

Iarion shrugged. “I think it might be better if we slip away and let the Travelers make their peace with the villagers.”

“Without eating first?” Barlo spluttered.

Iarion’s lips twitched. “I’m sure we can pull Bella aside and convince her to give us a little something to eat on the road.”

“All right, then what about bathing again?” Barlo shook his head. “I might have been clean before I put all my dirty clothes back on again, but after last night, I’m a musty-smelling mess. And you’re no prize either.” He eyed the elf’s stained and disheveled clothing.

Iarion wore a serious expression, but his eyes sparkled with mischief.

“Trust me, you’ve smelled worse.”

They wandered toward the inn together at the tail end of the crowd.

“Oh, and you’re welcome for saving you from Zara last night, by the way,” Barlo said in a dry voice, refusing to rise to the elf’s bait.

Iarion gave another shrug. “I had her right where I wanted her.” His lips stretched in a smile. “Besides, I knew you would think of something.” He patted Barlo on the shoulder.

Barlo shook his head. “You cocky, arrogant, elven…”

The rest of Barlo’s words devolved into a stream of Dwarvish curses that lasted all the way back to the inn.

* * *

Legends of Lasniniar: By the Light of the Moon

Copyright © 2022 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Akv2006, Ralf Kraft, Siiixth,  Wimstime/Dreamstime


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