Chapter 4 of Battle For The Blue Wilds takes Nikki into the Wyldwood (the faerie woods inside of the Blue Wilds). Here he encounters the children of the forest, who try to capture him. But as it turns out, a whole heap of new troubles is heading in everyone's direction -- both faerie and human.
Till Axeman Felled Them Good
Nikki Deldano worked his way outward in concentric circles from the very spot he'd last spoken to Shalonie. But given his limited experience, searching the forest floor for tracks had proven tricky.
He'd seen Geryon fly overhead a few times; but once the young Deldano had left the hills and hit the valley floor, the dragon no longer seemed to be following the same path.
Probably better if we're looking in different places.
Nikki had spent most of his life in the city, rarely venturing outside the walls of Khreté. When he had, he'd taken to the cliffs and beaches of the peninsula, not to the interior's forests. But despite his lack of experience with woodland and wilderness, he was absolutely certain that there was something quite wrong in these Blue Wilds.
The trees, which had been lovely, normal forest trees all day long, had gradually turned . . . odd. Monstrously large, overly lush, and — though he couldn't exactly prove it — curiously nosy.
These trees have eyes. Again, he hadn't a shred of evidence, but he was very, very certain that the trees were watching him.
He followed his prescribed path, noticing after a bit that he wasn't traveling up a slope — as he should have been were he continuing back in the wide circle he was following.
Nikki looked up at the sky. He knew enough to tell that he was heading the right way. The sun, low in the sky, had not changed. He'd not strayed from the path. But something had changed.
Impossibly, the forest he found himself in no longer resembled the forest he had entered. And it wasn't only the trees that were giving him pause.
I'm heading in the right direction, but I'm no longer in the right place.
An unsettling possibility struck him.
Is this what happened to Shalonie?
"Has it learned its Wyldwood fate?" a silvery voice asked from behind a tall honey-fruit tree. Nikki's body tensed, his heart pounding. Someone, or something, had snuck up on him.
"By the burning eyes of the Sundragon," Nikki employed what he knew to be a powerful Melian curse, "show yourself!"
"You are in the Wyldwood now," another melodious voice called from a bush covered in pink and yellow flowers. "And we're the Wyld of the Wood. And you are now our prisoner!"
Laughter accompanied the threat. And while the words of the speaker were threatening, Nikki judged the voice to be coming from someone small — low to the ground. Children maybe, or faykin? He tried to remember all the old faerie stories he'd heard in his childhood about how to deal with woodland kin if your paths crossed.
"A prisoner, am I?" Nikki considered the weapons he had on him and assessed his surroundings. How many of them are there? And what do they want? His sword was iron, and he knew from his trip into the Summer Lands that the faykin did not like iron. But those were faerie lords. These are not — these are mortal creatures in the mortal world. Do they fear iron?
"What did you do with Shalonie?" He had no way of knowing if they knew anything about Shalonie, but given the strangeness of the encounter, he thought he might as well ask.
"Who is Shalonie?"
"The most beautiful woman in the world," Nikki answered without hesitation.
There were squeals and rapid chatter as more than a dozen tiny people appeared from their various verdant hiding places — inside bushes, behind scrubs, up trees, under large-leafed ferns. The woodland folk. Dressed in leafy costumes and bright colored hats, some with leaves and flowers decorating their heads, they were an odd collection of creatures. Little men shaped like walking mushrooms, people with hedgehog spikes, twiggy women made of sticks and vines, tiny glowing sprites with iridescent wings — the assortment was too numerous for him to catalog.
"Is your Shalonie more beautiful than our ancient faerie queen?" The question came from a badger-faced, rotund creature with a beautiful golden pelt.
Nikki, like every overly superstitious Kharakhian, had grown up on stories of the wild fae and knew their sport was trickery. The faerie liked nothing more than to be caught in a web of fine speeches and chicanery.
"I have walked in the Summer Lands and gazed upon the queen of the Aelaedrine," Nikki informed the faerie host, using the lessons Beren had taught him on bardic diction and tone to modulate his voice. "I judge Queen Illythia's beauty to be that of the cold stars in the sky, much like the diadem she wears on her brow. Lady Shalonie's beauty is the warmth of the hearth and home. I find that far more pleasing." From what he knew of the woodland folk, most were mortal. It was unlikely any of them could truly claim to have seen the queen of the Aelaedrine as he could. Still he thought perhaps invoking her name might grant him some protection.
His words were met with whispers and howls, and he saw movement in the trees beyond as others drew closer. A twiggy girl with a fine mane of trailing leaves shook a berry-covered branch at him. "Ours is the world of tree and stone, root and vine, sweet fruits and ripe berries, the world of all seasons," she informed him. "What world does this Shalonie of yours walk through? Summer, Winter, Spring, or Autumn? We would judge her for ourselves."
Impressed gasps and little hisses ran through the small crowd.
"But, you see, herein lies my problem." Nikki crouched down so every one of the little folk could see his very best trustworthy expression. "My Shalonie is lost. So if you want to judge for yourself if I speak the truth and have a discerning eye, you should help me find her."
"If she is in the Wyldwood, we can find her with ease," a reed-thin girl in a smock covered in tiny periwinkle buds pushed her way to the front. "But if she has entered the castle old, then only the son of Straakhan can save her."
"Straakhan of Imlidral?" Nikki had recently had a crash course on Beren's extensive family tree. "Straakhan of Imlidral has been lost for centuries. If only he can save her—"
"No, not that Straakhan," a boy with furry ears and stag antlers crowning his head put forth. "The Straakhan who broke the whirligig. The son. Or the grandson. Or great-grandson. All of you big people look the same. Even you have the same eyes as the breaker of grand things."
There was another large gasp as the balance of the crowd crept closer. They stood on their toes and climbed on rocks to look at him face-to-face. They all whispered and murmured pointing out his green eyes, his dark hair, the dimple in his right cheek, the cut of his jaw.
"Hidden behind the green," a fae wrapped in a cloak and hood made of spiderwebs declared. "He claims to have walked in the Summer Lands. Has one of the old lords returned to us at last?"
"Straakhan of Imlidral was Winter, not Summer," a tiny little faun declared.
"Maybe they switched — maybe the Winter folk got tired of the harsh cold and joined Summer?"
"Summer and Winter were very much alike," another twiggy girl agreed. "Both stern, both harsh, both filled with their rules and unbreakable promises."
"Spring and Autumn were always more fun."
"You can't trust Spring and Autumn."
As the argument over the seasons continued, Nikki pondered the idea that his heritage was hidden. His eye color was hardly hidden.
"Are you a child of Straakhan?" a little man in a bright blue cap asked.
"And if I am?" Nikki felt a little off-balance by the suggestion that he was truly connected to the ancient faerie realms. While he knew technically he possessed faerie blood, he'd thought of himself as human his whole life.
"Give us your name? What is your name?"
"Nikki Deldano." He didn't give them his true name, but the name he was known by.
"What is a nick-key?' a little badger demanded.
"What is a del-dah-noh?" another responded. The two creatures chittered at each other like excited squirrels. "We should have captured one of those fine fellows with the orange coats. Now they were proper princes."
Orange — do they mean the cats? Nikki tried to follow the conversation but the little group all spoke at once, their words rushing like water over stones and reaching a fevered pitch.
"Do you think he's worth much ransom?" The question resonated among the group, and they began looking more closely at Nikki. "Gold or silver?"
A tiny girl with a mushroom hat and a dandelion staff stomped her foot. "Apples! Who needs gold and silver?"
"Not apples!" a little squirrel high in a tree branch called down. It shook its fine grey tail in annoyance. "We want walnuts!"
"Or almonds," someone else agreed.
"I'm not precisely captured," Nikki reminded them. "And I'm still looking for Shalonie. There can't be any ransom unless she is found." He tried to look sternly at them, and indeed some of the little creatures nodded their heads in agreement.
"Capture first, Shalonie second!" the furry-eared boy with the antlers proclaimed and then waggled his fingers in the air as he chanted strange words. Nikki didn't know the language, though he suspected it was their native tongue.
Thin silver ropes shot from the antlered boy's fingers, like fine gossamer threads, wound around Nikki's feet and ankles, then turned to fine dust that coated Nikki's boots in shimmering glitter.
A dejected groan of ohhhhh sounded from the fae troupe.
"That's not how that's supposed to go," a tiny girl riding a mouse chirped. She held a long-stemmed goose flower in one hand. The pink petals drooped as much as the mouse's long whiskers.
"Don't tell the Forest Lord!" a red squirrel said and scampered straight up a nearby oak. "He'll be so very vexed!"
Vexed? Nikki had no idea who the Forest Lord might be, but he suspected that he was some sort of authority among these small folk. And they think he'll be angry at their behavior. He didn't really know why — if the anger would be because they had tried to capture him, or because they had failed. Maybe both. But it gave Nikki an idea.
"You have attacked me in your own house," he accused. "Like hunters out of season. Or guests who steal the last bread roll or drink all your ale without so much as a by your leave."
His words had a profound effect — looks of shock, dismay, outrage and shame raced through the little group as each turn of phrase found a different target. The bit about the ale seemed to resonate quite deeply with the little men in colored caps. "Now you owe me a boon," Nikki finished.
The little folk whispered amongst themselves as if debating his words. There seemed to be some concern that Nikki might tell the Forest Lord what they had done. "He knows the Summer Lords," one of them whispered. "He had the name of the ancient queen. What if he brings Winter out of season?"
A tiny little sprite with periwinkle eyes stepped forward, her iridescent wings trembling. "What boon?"
"Help me find Shalonie."
A sigh of deep relief ran through the gathered faerie.
"But she is in the castle," someone who looked like a mushroom pointed out in a hushed tone. "And Tet-rah-mighties are in the castle."
Nikki didn't think he'd heard the fungus faerie correctly. "What are Terra-mites?"
"Tet-rah-mighties," the speaker corrected.
At the same time a chorus of voices all gave conflicting pronunciations: "Ti-ra-maytes." "Tenga-tides." "Miamites." "Turnip-bites." "Thomas."
"Now you're being silly," the periwinkle girl pinched the antler boy's cheek. "You know full well it is not 'Thomas.' And you said it wrong on purpose."
"You pinched me!" the boy squealed with laughter. "Now you have to kiss my other cheek. It's the law."
"Wait!" Nikki tried to stop the exchange from disintegrating entirely. "You have to help me—"
"Help! Help!" Screams penetrated the trees.
A dozen or so wild faerie folk dressed in furs, thick boots, and goblin masks sprinted through the thicket. Unlike the first group, this group was larger — not quite as tall as Nikki but they were certainly more formidable than the small sprites and mushroom people. Whatever they're afraid of — it has to be something much bigger.
"The swarm is coming!" one of the hunted shouted out, waving his long, furry arms.
"It's Reduse's group," a fae in Nikki's company called out.
"Did they trap the Child of Straakhan?"
"It matters not now," a very small faerie with gossamer wings shouted in a high-pitched voice. She circled Nikki's head twice and then darted away. "Flee! Flee!"
A noise that sounded like the drumming of hailstones pattered from a distance, the volume growing as it neared.
Nikki couldn't see where the rhythmical beat was coming from, but the screams for help were blaring from the mouths of the dozen faerie galloping toward them.
Run and fight, or run and run?
The faerie in his company screeched and scattered in a panic; some hurriedly scaled to the topmost branches.
Guess they're all about the running.
The tree line behind the motley bunch undulated, shaking the canopy of leaves and rattling the thick-barked trunks.
Nikki gaped as large, many-segmented appendages broke through the foliage behind the fleeing faerie. The bodies of their attackers were still hidden from sight, but what he could see did not inspire confidence.
If I were the worrying type . . . He took a step back.
The monstrosities waggling in front of him looked like the legs of crustaceans. Nikki had cleaned and cooked enough crab and lobster in his mother's tavern to make the connection instantly.
Would take an oxcart of melted butter to serve one of those, he thought as disbelief rattled through him.
A mass of claws swept aside robust trees as easily as flimsy ferns, and giant crab creatures pushed into view. Their bodies were oval instead of round, and the beasts skittered on eight legs while waving two front claws frenziedly through the air. Unexpectedly fast, they seemed to be gaining on the swift-footed faerie troupe running toward him.
"Fight!" Nikki made up his mind, then realized that he had been left standing alone while all the tiny woodland faerie had scattered and disappeared.
Get them to safety. He assessed his surroundings.
"Save us!" one of the hunted shouted as he ran toward him fleeing the monstrous creatures. "Cut them with your sword!"
Nikki drew the sword at his side, knowing full well that he could not engage the giant insects and win. From the look of their hardened shells, he doubted he could cut into them.
"To the hills," he returned the call and waved in the direction of the rock face where he'd spotted the gryphon nest earlier. "We have to climb!"
He let the faerie barrel past him, then pounded after the last of their number, heading to the granite rock formation in the distance.
When they were nearly at the foot of the escarpment, a fae with a mass of auburn curls streaming to her knees turned to help another who had stumbled. "Selesol! You have to keep going."
The one called Selesol was dragging her right leg — dark blood staining the leather and fur of her costume. "One of the termites got me!" she gasped.
Termites? I saw crab creatures — are there more than one type? That did not bode well to Nikki — the crab-things alone were enough, but if there were more creatures, he wasn't certain what he was supposed to do.
"Go up the slope, and then help each other climb," Nikki yelled. "I'll hold them as long as I can." Nikki had the advantage of some elevation but could see that the strange crab-like bugs would swarm his location before too long. "And make a lot of noise!"
The faerie girls made sounds of affirmation and began their trek up the mountain, following the rest of their number.
The first of the crab creatures to reach the plateau drove its front claws at Nikki, seeking to pierce his chest.
Nikki dove out of the way, and its heavy spikes cracked into the granite, chipping the stone.
As he'd been taught, he let his momentum carry him out of the way. He angled the strike of his blade into the joint that connected the claw to the first segment of the creature's front right limb.
The giant crab recoiled, and Nikki drove a stomp kick to the side of its exposed shell. The force sent it skittering to the edge. It bumped against the second crab beast to reach the granite flat.
Nikki backed several steps up the slope, sword in hand, but he remained completely exposed.
Three more creatures clambered over both the rock and their injured fellows. Swiftly, they were upon Nikki, who could back up no farther without risking his footing.
Can't turn. His eyes flicked from one creature to the other. He'd been practicing sword fighting as often as he could in Melia — training with anyone who would help him. But he still considered himself a novice. I fought in battles, he reminded himself. But he took little comfort in that — he'd been surrounded by other warriors those times. Now he was on his own — and apparently the self-appointed protector of a group of fae.
As he prepared a desperate vault, a mighty screech filled his ears. A gale of musky air blasted around him, nearly driving him to his knees.
The gryphon who lived in the rock face, roused by the faeries' clamor and the threat the bugs represented to its young, dove down low and gave two flaps of its mighty eagle wings.
Driven back by the gust, the crab creatures slid back several feet. They opened enough space for Nikki to turn and sprint up the slope, away from the immediate threat. As he scrambled around the hovering gryphon and up several large rocks, a brief thought flashed through his mind. Big gryphon — and I'm above him now.
Nikki didn't hesitate. He leaped forward, pushed off an outcropping, and landed on the gryphon's broad lion back.
The enormous flying raptor — half eagle, half lion — screeched again, as it tried to buck Nikki off. A thrill of shock moved through him. A year ago I couldn't even ride a horse! Now at least he knew how to properly hold on with his legs.
Nikki yanked hard on the gryphon's shoulder feathers and shouted, "Up!"
While the creature was majestic to look at and possessed strength and power, Nikki knew that this type of gryphon was far from the formidable Ven'tarian khimerac Athreus. The gryphons who inhabited these lands were more along the lines of intelligent hunting dogs — not domesticated but cooperative if one could make oneself understood.
The gryphon carried Nikki to the top of the granite rock face, passing the faerie who were in the process of scaling the most difficult grade of the incline. The view from the gryphon's back allowed Nikki a good look at where he had been and where the crab creatures had originated. In the far distance, he spotted the conical roofs of several towers.
Isn't that where the castle ruins were earlier? He hadn't seen towers then.
Nikki vaulted from the gryphon's back and landed square on the stone flats of the very top. Orienting himself by the position of the sun, he gauged that the camp was located in the hills behind him.
The gryphon let out another screech, swooped to an outcropping by its nest, and landed on some foothold too small to see. There it sat sentinel over its clutch of eggs. It glared at Nikki accusingly as if blaming him for all the ills of the world.
Nikki pointed down toward the strange crab-like bugs. "That's the threat to your eggs, not me," he told the creature, fairly certain it didn't really understand what he was saying. Nonetheless the majestic gryphon turned its gaze upon the strange beasts hunting them. It recognizes a true threat, Nikki thought, realizing that also meant that despite the fact that he had a sword and had jumped on the mighty creature's back, it didn't consider him dangerous. Great.
Three of the faerie had made it to the top ahead of Nikki. One of them was the boy with furry ears and antlers. "Can you send your ropes of light into the air?" Nikki asked when he saw the crabs working to scale the rocks.
"We can." The boy looked at him askew. "But lights won't scare off the murder bugs."
"Lights won't." Nikki glanced at the cloudless sky. "But something else will." He knelt by the edge to help the next faykin climb to safety.
"One more thing," he looked down on the shambling mess of clawed creatures, "can you conjure colors?"
Within seconds, antler boy and two of the fae dressed as goblins threw streaming lights — red, yellow, and fuchsia — up into the sky. "Mine's higher!" they egged each other on. "Mine glows brighter!"
Nikki suppressed a laugh and helped another fae find his footing.
Scrambling, the last of the faerie — the injured Selesol — arrived at the top.
"The murder bugs can't make it past the steep rock," a fae with tusked teeth cheered and waved her six-fingered hands in the air.
Nikki peeked over the edge, hopeful.
The beasts all faltered two-thirds up the climb where the angle of the slope turned steep. The nimble faerie had had no trouble scaling the rocky incline, but the crabs' claws were too thick to find purchase.
They tried, slid back; some even toppled over.
"If they can't get us," one of the faerie band warned, "they'll start searching out the wee folk still in the woods. These be flesh eaters and blood drinkers. They'll not rest until their gullets are filled."
Torn between rallying his small group to distract the bugs or leading them to the safety of the camp, Nikki caught a most distinct sound — the melodious roar of a Sundragon. The dragons of Melia were light and music and magic, even at their most formidable.
The young Deldano let out a whoop, relief zapping his nerve endings and making him hop wildly and point up at the sky. "Dragon!"
The fae rushed to surround him. "Draw your sword," the auburn-haired girl told him. "You have to protect us from the flying wyrm!"
"Wyrm?" He squinted up at a golden dragon moving across the sky like a fireball. "That's Geryon! He's a Sundragon. He's my friend!"
A great hubbub ensued, the faerie seemingly having forgotten the immediate threat.
"You know a dragon?"
"Does your dragon have a hoard of gold?"
"Can you ride your pet dragon?"
"Is your dragon housebroken?"
"He is not my pet dragon," Nikki told them and had to laugh at the disappointment on their faces. "I told you, he's my friend."
Geryon flew overhead, his massive golden dragon body gleaming like sunlight sparkling with flecks of amethyst. His enormous wings tilted slightly, and his scaled form banked along the ridge.
The Sundragon turned his gaze to the location of the gryphon's nest.
Nikki bolted to look over the edge. "He's a good gryphon—"
His shout was drowned out by the gryphon's bellowing squawks and flapping wings.
Geryon replied with what sounded like a soft murmuring coo, and the gryphon calmed considerably.
He sounds like a dove. A dove the size of a beer wagon, including the horses.
The Sundragon pulled away, shifting in the air for a clear view of the rock formation and the massive crab-bugs that were trying to reach Nikki, the faykin, and the gryphon. Once in place, great wings flapping to keep him steady, the mighty dragon breathed out a roaring stream of flame that played over the skittering crab creatures, charring them before they had a chance at retreat.
Nikki leaned farther over the edge to see their chitinous shells crack and blacken. The crabs broke apart in heaps of char and ash.
The fiery gale stirred up by the dragon's wings bathed everything in searing heat. Nikki felt himself breaking into a hard sweat, suddenly realizing that the Sundragon's powerful flames had not only taken out the enemy but had sparked a forest fire.
But before the blaze could spread and build into an inferno, Geryon hit the area again with a dousing of ice. The powerful flurry sent a rush of steam upward even as it extinguished the fires below, and Nikki threw himself backward to avoid getting scalded. Fire and ice! These are definitely not Kharakhian dragons!
As Nikki's back hit the hard rock, a loud cheer came from his group of faeries and also from the surrounding trees, where the tiny fae had hidden themselves.
Geryon circled twice, let out a roar that sounded like a trumpet ensemble, and flew off toward the center of the valley.
"Stay with us," the fae girl with the auburn hair said quickly as Nikki started to move. "There are still so many bugs to fight!"
"I'm following the dragon," Nikki told the troupe. "If there are more bugs as you say, he's going to need all the help he can get."