Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Quests Episode Three: The Great Boat Race

I'm posting Episode 3 a little later in the day than I had hoped but at least it's still Wednesday!

Read the series prologue here.

Read Episode 2 here.

Episode Three: The Great Boat Race

Lilac, a flower fairy girl, dodged another tree branch as she raced her friend, a red haired pixie boy named Reuben, through the forest. They had recently grown their wings. Now that they learned to fly on them properly, they often raced to different points throughout the woods. Lilac’s long brown hair streamed out behind her. She flapped her purple butterfly shaped wings a little harder, remembering when they had been no more than itchy lumps on her back. She enjoying the alternating sensations of warm spring sun and cool forest shadows on her lightly tanned skin. She found it easy to keep track of Reuben by the reddish glow he gave off and the slight buzzing of his insect shaped wings. She realized he was gaining on her and increased her speed, with a look of determination in her warm brown eyes.

The sound of rushing water and a constant thundering boom alerted her that they were nearing the falls of the great Farawad River which cut through the center of Fairy Wood. This was the last stretch; they passed the oak with the very tall rock beneath it. Reuben put on a sudden burst of speed, momentarily passing Lilac. She recovered, whizzed past him, and landed on a rock in the river a safe distance from the waterfall.

“I win!” Lilac announced.

“No fair, you always win,” Reuben whined.

“I do not always win,” Lilac replied.

“You do too!”

“I'm not going to fight with you over something so stupid,” Lilac said.

“It's not stupid,” Reuben mumbled, but Lilac ignored him.

“So you're here, are you?” said a water sprite girl popping her head out of the river. Sunlight glistened off her whitish skin, which was covered in small fish-like scales. Droplets of water fell from her pale blond hair.

“Yep, here we are!” said Lilac. “Hi Lilly!"

“Lilac always wins,” Reuben pouted.

“What?” asked Lilly, confused.

“Don't ask,” Lilac advised.

“Okay,” said Lilly. Then she pulled herself onto a rock and began talking. “The fairy boat race is coming up. Are you two going to enter?”

Once a year fairies raced leaf "boats" down the river to the waterfall, which served as the finish line. When the fairies reached the waterfall they flew into the air, letting their boats slip over the edge.

“You can enter now that you can fly,” Lilly continued. “You really should get some practice boating if you want to do it, though. I can help with that.”

“We'd love to enter and we'd love your help,” said Lilac.

“Yeah, and I'm going to beat Lilac,” Reuben chimed in.

Lilac gave him a withering glare.

“Great!” said Lilly. “I'll get you both signed up, then we'll start boating.”

They spent the next few days on the river, practicing for the race. They were not the only ones. Fairies were practicing boating up and down the river.

Once, Wispen, a gnome boy, stopped to watch them. He stood on the far bank stroking the white-blond peach fuzz on his chin. All respectable male gnomes had beards and he was doing his best to grow his. Lilac had met Wispen before on several occasions. He was a nice fellow, quiet, though not shy, and very polite. Lilac paddled her boat closer and hailed him.

“Hello, Wispen! Are you entering the race?”

“No, I can't,” Wispen replied, removing his pointed red cap to her. “You need wings to make it over the finish line.”

“Quite true!” she laughed.

“I'll be watching though, and cheering for you,” said Wispen. “I came about another matter which I think might interest you personally.”


“Many of the older messengers are retiring so the queen is looking for new fairies to fill their rolls. I was personally offered a position keeping the court up to date on the progress of a new mine the dwarves are building. I had to turn it down because I've got animals and plants to take care of but I thought I’d pass the word along to you. You’re a fast flyer and have wonderful endurance. You could make a great messenger. I know who to talk to if you’re interested and can put in a good word for you.”

“That would be wonderful!” said Lilac. “Thank you very much.”

“It’s no trouble,” replied the gnome. “I just hope you get the job.”

Lilly noticed Wispen and called a greeting.

Wispen waved then put his cap back in its place. He headed off into the greenish light of the surrounding trees saying, “I’ll see you at the boat race!”

Lilac paddled her boat next to Lilly's, her mind filled with excitement at the thought of becoming a messenger. She could see the entire forest and more!

A sudden splash and cry drew her attention.

Lilly groaned, “Reuben tipped his boat again!” She paddled over and helped him right his leaf.

We'll see who beats whom, thought Lilac.

Finally the day of the race arrived. Fairies from all over the woods lined the river to watch. The boats of the competitors formed a line stretching from one bank to the other. A sprite flicked a wing and shouted, “Go!” to signal the beginning of the race. The fairies and sprites in the boats paddled furiously to get ahead of the others, while those on the shore cheered. At first the water was calm and the going easy. As time went on, however, the water became rough and then rapid. At the rapids it took all Lilac’s concentration just to keep her boat from tipping over. She was tossed here and there by the rushing water. She moved roller coaster fast, up and down with the water’s foamy course. It was scary, but at the same time exciting. Amazingly, not even Reuben tipped his boat this time.

As the roar of the waterfall grew, Lilac watched for the place where it dropped over a cliff. She realized she was there in a frightening moment as her boat tipped downward and she saw the foamy water crashing on rocks far below her. Regaining control of herself, she flapped her wings hard until she rose with the other fairies like a flock of colorful butterflies.

The winner was a beautiful buttercup fairy, a slim blond clothed in yellow. She was crowned with a wreath of flowers by the fairy queen while all the little people watched. Then there was a celebration. A feast was laid out on several long tables in a huge meadow filled with lush grass. The fairies ate, talked and laughed far into the night. A group of musicians played enchanting music to which many fairies danced. When it became dark the elves who lived in the forest lit colored fires. Smaller lights given off by the pixies could be seen flickering among the trees.

Lilac was enjoying the food and might not have noticed Reuben approaching if she hadn’t seen his reddish glow.

“Hello, Reuben,” she said as he stopped beside her. “What are you doing?”

“Dance with me,” said Reuben, “I don’t know who else to ask and I want to dance.”

“Well, all right,” she replied. “I’ll dance with you for a little while.”

She hoped that they wouldn’t look silly dancing together because she was noticeably taller than Reuben. They danced around a small meadow for a few minutes until all the fairies joined hands to dance their famous circle dance. Before she realized what was happening, someone grabbed Lilac’s hands and pulled her into the circle. She danced round and round the circle with the other fairies until their feet formed a ring of mushrooms. The mushroom ring held magical qualities for a few days afterward.

The festivities were coming to an end and Lilac was preparing to return home when an elderly fairy with a weathered brown face beckoned her to him. She approached, filled with curiosity.

When she was near enough to hear him, the old fairy said, “Wispen tells me you’re interested in becoming a messenger.”

“That’s right, sir,” Lilac replied.

“I’ve been carrying messages since before you were born,” said the old fairy shaking his head, “but I’m old and it’s time to pass on my duties to younger folk. If you are serious about this job, return to this meadow in three days time and show me what skill you have.”

A wide grin spread across Lilac’s face as she said, “Yes sir! I’ll be there, sir.”

Continue to episode 4.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Quests Episode Two: Crisis of the Lost Monster

Here is episode 2 of Quests. Those of you who read the old version of Quests, please note that I have changed the name of the snake monster to a humaviper as this better reflects what the creature is.

Read the series prologue here.

Read episode 1 here.

Episode Two: Crisis of the Lost Monster

The last rays of the sun vanished behind the Emerald Mountains and shadows covered the peaks. As full night covered the rocky, sparsely vegetated landscape of the mountain tops, a number of small, hairy, bow-legged creatures emerged from the low entrances of a series of caves which stank of rancid meat. They made their way down the mountain face keeping their balance with sharp yellow claws, their beady black eyes searching for prey. They were trolls; the great nocturnal hunters of Irowasa.

A troll girl named Felnar broke off from the main group and passed through a huge carved archway, gateway to an underground city, which was set into the slope. At three and a half feet tall, Felnar was shorter than the average four foot troll. Wiry brown hair covered her body save on her leathery face, the palms of her hands, and the bottoms of her feet. She turned from the main corridor into a smaller tunnel which sloped steeply downhill and was rough, as though it had long been in disrepair. Felnar didn’t know it, but this had once been one of the main passages connecting the upper world to the rest of the city far below before the huge tunnel leading to the front gate took its place. Felnar skipped down the passage, her clawed feet made echoes bounce off the stone walls with a strange, thump-clack, thump-clack.

When the rough path ended Felnar turned into new twisting passages carved from polished stone and lined on either side with arched cave entrances. This portion of the city was inhabited by goblins. Felnar passed several of these creatures on her journey but they were busy about their own business and took little notice of her.

As she left behind the residential areas and came to a series of messy storage caves at the heart of the mountain, Felnar at last found the object of her hunt. Crawling the cool walls of the cavern and hiding in dusty corners were a number of fat cave beetles. Felnar had recently developed a taste for these creatures. She licked her lips, scooped up three beetles and shoved them into her mouth, enjoying the crunching noise they made as she sank her fangs into them.

Just as she finished her first handful of beetles and pounced on a few more she heard a low hiss from the passage behind her. The sound sent shivers down her spine. She stared into the dark corridor. Her sharp eyes fixed on a coil of a scaly body with a female humanoid face rising above it. The monster gave another hiss and bared a set of narrow white fangs. Felnar screamed, dropped the beetles and ran back up the passage she had come from. Her heart pounded and her ears rang. She knew what the monster was, she had heard the rumors of a lost humaviper hiding in the lowest levels of the city.

Felnar tried to recall all she knew about these monsters: they had the heads and arms of humans and the bodies of snakes. In their mouths they had retractable fangs filled with potent venom. This venom could kill victims in a matter of minutes after a bite had been inflicted. It was also said that they had slightly less potent venom in their finger nails. If someone was scratched by a humaviper it could take them anywhere from a few hours to a day to die. Several recent disappearances had been attributed to this humaviper. Felnar had heard a story that the monster had killed a whole family of trolls just to eat for dinner.

Was that a rustle of scales on the stone floor? Shuddering the troll girl tried to remember if the stories mentioned a way to escape a humaviper. Her mind drew a blank. She continued running, turning corners without much thought for where she was headed until she was once again in the residential area of the underground city.

It was not until she ran into him that she noticed a goblin boy with slimy green skin like a frog, bright cat eyes, and yellow fangs.

“Hey, watch where you’re going!” snapped the goblin.

Even through her fright Felnar recognized the boy as an old friend.

“Oh Fedrick!” she cried. “I’m so glad I found you. It’s true, there really is a humaviper in the mountain! She’s horrible!”

“What are you babbling about?” asked Fedrick.

“I saw the humaviper while I was hunting cave beetles. She smelled me and started looking around to find me. I ran as fast as I could to escape!”

“You’ve been listening to far too many rumors and you always think someone is out to get you,” said Fedrick, rolling his eyes. “The humaviper is probably just passing through. She could be gone in no time and I doubt she’ll go to the trouble to chase down one scrawny little troll.”

“I hope you’re right!” said Felnar casting a quick glance over her shoulder.

Another goblin ran past calling, “Come on, Fedrick! The king’s council just announced that all goblins are required to gather in the central meeting hall.”

“What should I do?” Felnar asked as Fedrick turned to follow the other goblin.

“Just stay with me for now,” Fedrick replied.

They made their way through several smooth passageways until they came to a gigantic circular chamber with a domed ceiling lost in deep shadows. Passages opened from all sides under huge archways. The chamber was already crowded with goblins when Fedrick and Felnar squeezed into it the just as the meeting began.

“Our fellow goblins to the north,” one of the council members was saying, “have asked for our help fighting the dwarves so that these enemies will not build another mine, which will certainly threaten the existence of their city. We intend to send them help of course, but we have a little problem of our own to take care of first. We have within our city a humaviper who has been attacking citizens, thus dwindling our numbers. We must rid ourselves of this monster before we can assist our brothers to the north. Are there any suggestions on how we could go about doing this?”

“We should send a group of warriors to hunt and kill her,” someone called out.

“Are you crazy?” replied another. “All those who meet her vanish. It would be a waste of good warriors!”

“Perhaps we could collapse a section of tunnel on top of her,” came another suggestion.“Too risky,” said a council member. “She moves around so much it is hard to pin-point her exact location and collapsing tunnels would weaken the structure of the city.”

With a sarcastic smirk Fedrick called out, “Why not take care of both problems at once? Hire the humaviper to kill some dwarves. We’ve seen how good she is at killing things.”

“What was that youngling?” asked one of the council members, thinking he was serious. All the goblins turned to Fedrick, so he repeated what he had said.

“What an intriguing idea,” said the leader. “But how would we convince the humaviper to help us?”

“Well…” said Fedrick, “we could negotiate a deal with her. Offer her riches and the best meat or something if she’ll help us fight the dwarves.”

“Ah yes, but there’s still the problem of getting such a proposal to the humaviper.”

“Begging your pardon,” said an older goblin toward the front of the crowd. “Why not send the boy who had the idea in the first place as a messenger? He seems clever. Perhaps he can find a way to attract the humaviper’s attention so a deal can be struck.”

Eager to find a suitable solution and wishing to avoid being sent in search of the humaviper themselves, the other goblins murmured their agreement.

“Very well,” said the council. “It seems our minds have been made up for us.”

Fedrick realized it would be pointless to try to talk his way out of being chosen messenger but not wanting to face the monster alone he said, “My troll friend here has seen the humaviper. Perhaps she can help me find it.”

“What?!” Felnar squealed.

Her protests were lost in a great cheer from the goblin crowd as it surged forward to sweep her and Fedrick into the deepest tunnels so they could negotiate with the humaviper.

Continue to Episode 3.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Quests Episode 1: Training With the Elders

And now I am proud to present episode one of Quests! You can read the series prologue here.

Please note that I will only add back links to the prologue and the previous episode at the beginning of each new episode. I will also forward link to the next episode at the bottom of each post so you can continue reading if you go back to read a previous episode.

Part One

Episode One: Training With the Elders

One spring day in the elves’ kingdom, Wilderlah, the young elvin princess, Beritta, ran up the rocky, pine covered slopes to her favorite quiet spot. The long points of her ears stuck out past locks of dark blond hair, shining like gold thread in the brilliant sunlight. Her quiet spot was a slanting stone in the shade of a tall pine tree. Beritta climbed onto it, sat down and tucked her long legs against her chest. She turned her bright blue eyes to the tall rock face to the north, looming high above one of the gaps, which were the easiest way to enter the city. On this rock face stood elvin guards, ready to shoot down any enemies who passed below them. Beritta wondered if anything ever took the guards by surprise. Just down the hill from Beritta’s rock, the edge of a lake poked out from behind a grove of evergreens, mirroring the sky. Beritta sat for a while, drinking in the warmth of the sun and the beauty and peace of the forested hills.

A voice broke the silence. “Nice day isn’t it?”

Beritta jumped in surprise and nearly fell off the rock. She turned to see her best friend Faralasa grinning at her, laughter dancing in her warm brown eyes. All elves were light on their feet, and could move quickly and quietly through the woods. Faralasa was especially good at it, making almost no noise at all. Her dark complexion, shoulder length black hair and the earthy brown tunics she favored wearing helped her blend with shadows.

“Don’t scare me like that!” Beritta snapped.

Faralasa laughed, “You make it far too easy sitting there lost in thought like that.”

Beritta scowled.

“Don’t be mad,” Faralasa pleaded. “I came to ask you if you want to come to the elders’ training session with me today. They want us to review the fighting skills they taught us. I guessed I’d find you here.”

“Oh, all right, I do want to come,” Beritta admitted stepping off her rock and smoothing her pale blue tunic.

“Race you to the northern lake!” Faralasa shouted and rushed down the wooded hillside.

Beritta dashed after her and the two sprinted downhill, dodging trees, boulders, and fallen logs. They reached the edge of the lake at the same time, a perfect tie. The surface of the lake rippled in the breeze. Glittering specks reflected off the water, turning it pale green like an emerald. The elves’ capital city was located between this lake and another, the Sapphire Lake to the south. Faralasa picked up a rock and skipped it across the water to the opposite shore.

The girls skirted the edge of the lake and headed into the center of the city. Around them the capital spread across the valleys and meadows surrounding the lakes and climbed the forested hills which sloped up to meet high protective walls of rock. On all sides were many large huts made from the interlocking roots and branches of living plants. Tree houses hung overhead formed by pine boughs tied into nests by vines. Beritta’s family inhabited the largest hut, since they were royalty. Faralasa’s family lived in one of the tree houses. All the houses blended so well with the natural world, they were nearly invisible. Beritta remembered many times when human explorers walked right through the elvin city without noticing it was there. The elves themselves were rarely seen unless they wished to be. They had ways of making themselves invisible to most eyes.

The city bustled with a colorful array of people going about their business. Many waved at the girls as they passed. It was easy to tell the rank of each elf by their looks, height and the clothes they wore. The tallest elves stood between five and six feet tall, had long points to their ears, and wore fine cloth in bright hues. They were High Elves, warriors and leaders of the creatures of Light. Both Beritta and Faralasa came from High Elvish families. Several Wood Elves balanced on branches overhead. Wood Elves were five feet tall, wore clothes which changed colors with the seasons like leaves on trees, and had slanting eyes which gave them a wild appearance. They had the job of caring for the plants and animals of all Irowasan forests. A few one foot tall tan Brownie Elves wearing simple leather garments moved through the streets running errands for the taller people. Only a few tiny elves lived in the city since most had jobs secretly helping humans in other parts of the world.

Beritta and Faralasa entered a wide open meadow and gave a respectful nod to a group of white haired elves in long robes trimmed with silver threads. These figures watched the girls with eyes filled with the wisdom of centuries. They were the elders, advisers to the elf king and administrators of law and knowledge to elves of every rank. The elders also had the high honor of teaching each new generation the skills they needed to perform the work of Light. Beritta and Faralasa attended the elders’ classes with the other elf children from the capital several times a week.

A large number of children were already in the meadow when the girls arrived. Faralasa smiled and raised her hand to someone on the opposite side of the field. Beritta followed her gaze. Unable to distinguish who had drawn her friend’s attention, she asked, “Lasa, to whom are you waving?”

“I was waving at Oakley,” Faralasa replied.

Beritta frowned in confusion. “Who?”

“The boy we always see in forest near the northern lake.”

“You mean that Wood Elf who’s always surrounded by animals?”

“That’s the one.”

The boy in question dropped his sorrowful brown eyes and ran a pale hand through his short brown curls as Beritta glanced at him.

“I didn’t know you were friends with him,” Beritta commented. “He always seemed really shy to me.”

Faralasa shrugged. “He takes a while to warm up to people but he’s alright once you get to know him.”

Just then one of the elders announced, “We will now begin today’s session. The other elders and I will split everyone into pairs. You will then demonstrate your comprehension of the fighting skills in which we have instructed you over the past few weeks.”

The elders walked around the meadow finding every child a fighting partner. Faralasa was paired with a squinty eyed red-head girl, and Beritta was paired with Oakley. Beritta made a disgusted face as Oakley moved to stand beside her. As one of the highest of High Elves, she was expected to be an expert warrior, since she would some day lead other elves in battle. Turning her back on Oakley, Beritta followed one of the elders until they were out of Oakley’s earshot.

“Excuse me,” she said tugging on the elder’s robe. When he turned to face her she continued, “I think there’s been a mistake. You see the elf you partnered me with is a Wood Elf.”

“It’s not a mistake,” the elder replied. “I’d like you to work with Oakley.”

“But you know I’m one of the best fighters in the city,” Beritta argued. “I’ll beat him in no time and it won’t even be a challenge! You should find me a different partner, one who will put up a good fight.”

“I will not cater to your pride, princess,” said the elder. “If he is below your level you can help him improve.”

Beritta grudgingly returned to Oakley, secretly vowing to go easy on him. She sized up his skinny body with an inward sigh. This would be far too easy.“We’ll start with swords,” Beritta announced with a toss of her long hair.

Oakley nodded and picked a thin curved sword from the weapons the elders provided. Beritta walked among the weapon racks for a minute until she found her favorite practice sword. It was curved, like Oakley’s but with a small blade a few inches longer than her forearm. She swung it through the air experimentally, enjoying the whistling sound this made. Oakley stretched and sliced the air in front of him before moving into a ready position with his blade pointed straight in front of him. Beritta also took a ready stance.

Once all the pairs stood ready, an elder signaled them to begin. Beritta swung her sword forward but Oakley moved at the same moment, blocking her attack. The blades met with a metallic ring, sending up a shower of silver sparks like pixie dust. They pulled back and circled each other until Oakley jumped forward, forcing Beritta to block his blow. Beritta retaliated with a series of stabbing motions which Oakley parried, swinging his sword from side to side in a quick motion and starting the fight in earnest.

They wove in to deal blows and out to avoid the other’s weapon. Their movements were quick and graceful like a dance. Beritta loved the feel of the smooth motions and the fire in her blood which made her powerful. Usually she was faster and stronger than any elf she skirmished, but that day she found her opponent’s skill greater than she expected. Oakley was just as good as she was, moving his sword smoothly through the air in time with her.

As Oakley forced her to yield ground through a fierce attack, Beritta took back on her promise to go easy on him. With a two handed sweep of her sword, Beritta chopped at Oakley’s legs. He jumped back, giving her the space she needed to push herself into an offensive leap. Yelling, Beritta extended her sword, intending to smash the flat down on Oakley’s head, ending the fight. Positioning himself in a crouch, Oakley sliced upward using the force of Beritta’s leap to send her flying backward. Beritta felt the wind knocked out of her as she hit the ground and slid, raising a cloud of dust and pine needles.

By this time most of the other pairs stopped sparing and gathered to watch Beritta and Oakley. Beritta got to her feet and rubbed her sore scratched back. She glared at Oakley who held his sword in front of him with a calm air. With a shout Beritta charged. As she neared him, Oakley swung out his sword, slapping Beritta’s hand with the flat of the blade then swinging it beneath her weapon, disarming her. Beritta stared at Oakley, red faced and humiliated. She, Beritta, princess of elves had been beaten by a Wood Elf. An elder standing nearby raised an eyebrow then clapped. Beritta and Oakley both turned in surprise. A mighty cheer went up from the watching elf children.

Exasperated, Beritta faced Oakley again and yelled, “All right, I admit it, you’re better than I am! I QUIT!”

She stormed off leaving Oakley confused and partnerless.

Several days later, Faralasa found Beritta once again sitting in her quiet spot.

“I noticed you haven’t been at the elders’ class lately,” said Lasa perching on the edge of the rock. Beritta scooted back a little to give her room. “They’re boring without you. Where have you been?”

“I can’t bear to face the others yet,” Beritta replied. She stared at a patch of moss in front of her as she asked, “Are they still talking about how I was beaten by a Wood Elf?”

“That’s old news,” Faralasa reassured her with a wave of her hand. “Right now everyone is talking about the ability tests.”

The ability tests were held every few years by elders around Irowasa. They determined the rank of each elf, what jobs best suited them, and how the elves had improved since the last test. These tests also reviewed everything the children learned in the elders’ classes.

“The elders will begin the tests next week,” Lasa continued. “You should come back for them. It could be your chance to redeem yourself. Besides, I heard that the elders will give those with the best scores a higher training and eventually send them on quests for the clans. Believe me; you don’t want to miss this opportunity!”

“Do you think I can get a high enough score to be chosen for the quests?” asked Beritta, excitement creeping into her voice.

“I know you can,” Lasa replied.

The next week Beritta and Faralasa went together to take the tests. Many other elves were already gathered in wide meadows between the lakes by the time they arrived. Here in the tall grass the elves would complete the tests, guarded by dark pines which stood like sentinels on the edges of the clearings. One of the elders explained the rules to the youngest elves who were taking the tests for the first time.

“You must listen to all directions the elders give you and perform each task to the best of your abilities. Remember, it’s all right if you’re not very good at some of the tasks. The point of these tests is to determine what your strong points are and what jobs you should begin training for. Everyone will have different jobs but every job is important. Now, let us begin.”

The elves split into several groups, each group led by one of the elders. The elder in charge of Beritta and Faralasa’s group led them to one end of the meadow.

“Begin by stretching,” the elder instructed. “Then you will each come forward separately and perform the series of physical exercises I give you.”

Beritta came forward first. The elders made her twist in every direction, doing back bends, cartwheels and flips to test her agility. She felt alive and strong as she stretched muscles she hardly knew she had without harming or even truly exerting herself. The elder marked points for the amount of skill she showed as well as the skill of those who came after her. In the end he added these points up to discover each elf’s total score. When her turn came, Faralasa moved through the exercises quicker than any other elf. She ended with a few complicated flips of her own, bowing to the elder with a flourish. Beritta giggled, then covered her mouth seeing the elder’s disapproving frown. He shook his head as he marked down Lasa’s score.

He probably thinks she’s just a show-off, thought Beritta.

Once the last elf under his charge finished the agility test, the elder announced, “You will now race around the edge of the meadow to demonstrate your speed. Run three laps but be aware of those around you. I will be watching closely. You will lose points for interfering with fellow runners or the tests of other groups. Take your places!”

The children scrambled to form a line.The elder shouted, “Go!” and they were off, skirting the perimeter of the clearing at top speed. Beritta’s feet pounded out a crude rhythm and her hair streamed behind her like a banner. Just when she thought she outdistanced the other elves, a figure moved into view. Beritta sped up but it did no good. Faralasa passed her with a couple long smooth strides. Winking at Beritta, Lasa moved into the lead. Beritta noticed the graceful ease with which her friend ran. It was like Lasa was born to move fast. They completed the next two laps with Faralasa in the lead and Beritta bringing up a close second. They were far enough ahead of the others to have time to catch their breath and enjoy the end of the race. As the last elf child passed him, the elder sniffed and jotted down a few last notes.“Show me what skills you have with plants,” he said once he finished.

He motioned to the flowers and mushrooms scattered throughout the grass at the children’s feet. They all bent and touched the plants, reaching out to them with their senses. Beritta placed her fingertips on a wild lily. She could feel everything the flower felt, from the soil in its roots to the sun bathing its leaves and petals. Noticing a sharp pain in the flower’s side, Beritta removed a grasshopper who had stripped several leaves to tattered ruins. Beritta channeled some of her magic into the plant to help it recover, then straitened, breaking the connection with the lily. She stretched, watching the other elves as they focused on their own plants. With a mischievous grin Beritta extended her senses to a cloud overhead. The elves cried out in surprise and jumped to their feet as a thin rain sprinkled them. Frowning, the elder turned to Beritta.

“Did you just…” he began but she interrupted him.

“The plants needed to be watered,” she said, giving him her most innocent expression.

Faralasa went into a coughing fit to hide her laughter and the elder’s frown deepened.“We will move on to fighting skills,” he snapped.

The elder called to an elf on the edge of the meadow, telling him to bring weapons. The assistant obeyed, distributing practice swords to each elf child in turn until all were armed.

“Take a partner,” the elder commanded. “You will dual your opponent for several minutes. On my signal you will switch partners. You will continue fighting and switching partners until I tell you to stop. You may begin.”

They broke into pairs as they had when practicing several weeks earlier. Beritta charged a boy with long black hair and almond eyes. He brought his sword up to block her. The ring of weapons echoed off the hills and the boy staggered backward from the force of Beritta’s attack. She bore down on him, pressing her advantage through hard rapid blows until the boy stumbled over a tuft of grass. He flung out his sword arm in a desperate attempt to fend off Beritta. This threw off what was left of his balance and he fell flat on his back. Raising her sword and holding it to the side, Beritta held out her left hand and helped him to his feet.

“Come on, get up and keep going,” she said.

Just then the elder called, “Switch partners!”

The almond eyed boy looked relieved as he ran to find a new partner.

The rest of the fighting test passed in a blur of action, bruises, and disappointed faces as each opponent swept past Beritta in defeat. Only once did the pattern change, and that was when she faced Faralasa. As a small girl moved away, rubbing a sore arm, Beritta turned to find her next victim. Lasa was also scanning the field to see who was available. Their eyes locked. Lasa smirked and Beritta’s eyebrows met in concentration. Unlike most other elves, Faralasa didn’t wait for Beritta to attack first, but charged full force. Beritta also moved forward and they crashed into each other, blades first. All the muscles in their arms screamed in pain as they collided. They pulled apart to circle each other and regain their focus. After recovering from the shock of impact, they closed in again to trade blows. Blades flashed and connected, never reaching skin, as they predicted each other’s moves. Beritta swung at Lasa’s head. Lasa blocked and they stood with swords locked, each waiting for the other to break. They were still standing like that when the elder called for them to switch partners. They pushed away from each other panting a little. Lasa smiled and raised her sword in a salute. Beritta nodded, also raising her sword, and they danced around each other and on to other rivals.

After making the children complete a couple quick rounds of archery and spear throwing, the elder moved them on to basic skills. All around the meadow elves blended with shadows of evergreens, rendering them invisible. Some shot water droplets at each other while friends sent each other secrets on the breeze. When she tired of these exercises, Beritta gathered a few loose sparks floating in the air and formed a tiny ball of flame the size of her palm. Turning, she located Faralasa moving out of the shade of a spruce. With a grin Beritta mouthed, catch, and tossed the fireball to Lasa. Faralasa caught it on the tips of her fingers then tossed it on to the next elf, who also passed it on, turning the exercise into a game of hot potato. The ball was halfway around the meadow when a small elf girl yelped in pain, dropping it and setting a patch of grass on fire. Rolling her eyes, Beritta called to the rain clouds again, convincing them to put out the blaze.

“We will conclude today’s tests with animal care,” said the elder as the last sparks fizzled out.

They moved into the woods, reaching out with their senses to the squirrels in the branches, the foxes and badgers in their dens and the deer grazing in quiet corners. It was similar to calling out to plants save that the animals’ minds were more complex than the vegetation. If the elves’ thoughts were gentle enough, the animals came to them, allowing them to touch them and remove burrs and thorns from their fur. Beritta held out a hand to a faun. The baby came forward, sniffing all the while. Out of the corner of her eye, Beritta saw a large deer bond away, spooked by a quick motion made by a younger elf. The faun stared after the older deer for a minute before turning back to Beritta. Beritta sent out reassuring thoughts until the faun came forward again, nibbled at her hand and lay down at her feet. Beritta sat in the mixture of grass and moss beside the faun and stroked her head. Glancing up, Beritta saw Faralasa leaning against a tree with her arms crossed as a squirrel climbed her neck and perched on her head. Lasa tried not to laugh at the ticklish feel of its claws. Beritta smiled down on the faun who was falling asleep.

“Good work all of you,” said the elder, breaking the calm drowsy spell the children were falling under. “We will return to the meadow now where I will add up your points and give you your scores.”

Sighing, the children detached themselves from the animals and drifted back to the clearing, forming a line moving toward their group’s elder. Faralasa fell behind Beritta.

Leaning closer to Beritta’s ear she whispered, “How do you think we did?”

Beritta shrugged. “I felt pretty good about the tests this time. They all seemed easy.”

“I thought so too.”

When they reached him, the elder handed them their score tablets with a smile. “You girls should be very proud of yourselves. You have two of the highest scores today. In a week’s time I want you to report back to me for a special assignment.”

Moving out of the way of the other children, Beritta and Faralasa looked over their points, grinning at the results.

“We must have two of the best scores in the city!” said Beritta.

“For now,” agreed Lasa. “Don’t forget it will take several more days for everyone from the capital to take the tests.”

“I still think we should celebrate,” said Beritta.“You get some honey cakes and I’ll get a bottle of nectar juice.”

“Sounds good to me,” Faralasa agreed.

“We’ll meet back here once we have them,” said Beritta.

They split up, found what they wanted, and rushed back. Beritta ran the last few feet smiling with excitement. Her smile faded when she saw Faralasa discussing the test scores with Oakley. They turned their attention to Beritta as she approached.

“Hi,” said Oakley.

She just stared at him coldly.

“Look Princess Beritta, about the other day,” Oakley began. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, I just got carried away.”

Still Beritta said nothing.

“Maybe it will make you feel better to know that you got a higher score than I did today.”

“I did?” asked Beritta, speaking in spite of herself. “How do you know?”

“I told him our scores, he told me his,” Lasa chimed in. “We did so well today I couldn’t help bragging a little.”

“I was so nervous,” said Oakley, “that I made a lot of mistakes.”

“Your score wasn’t that bad!” said Faralasa with a dramatic roll of her eyes. “Say, Beritta and I were going to have a little party celebrating our scores. Want to join us?”

Beritta glared at her but Lasa paid no attention. Oakley didn’t seem to notice Beritta’s anger for he smiled and said, “All right, I’ll join you.”

Faralasa tossed her short black hair triumphantly and led the others farther up the hillside to a place where they could be alone. As they ate the cakes and drank the nectar, Lasa announced, “I got the most points for speed and agility. What did you two get the most points for?”

“Basic and fighting skills,” said Beritta.

“Animal care,” said Oakley.

“I’ve seen all your forest friends," Faralasa said with a grin, “It makes sense that you’re good with animals.”

“That’s not all he’s good at,” observed Beritta giving Oakley a pointed sideways glare.

“I’m sorry I beat you,” said Oakley. “Can’t we just forget about it and move on?”

Beritta sighed.

“You have to admit, it was kind of funny,” said Faralasa. “I can’t decide which looked more silly, your face, Beritta, when it turned bright red, or you, Oakley, standing there with that bewildered look after she left!”

She laughed at the memory. Beritta was still embarrassed by the thought of the incident, but realized with surprise that her anger was fading. She noticed that Oakley looked just as embarrassed as she did. Perhaps, she thought, we have some things in common after all. She resolved to be a little nicer to Oakley, though it would take time before she could truly call him her friend.

Continue to episode 2