"So much as blink without my leave and I shall slice you open from ear to ear."
"Charming. Can't a daemon take a leisurely stroll these days without threat of dismemberment."
Leandra pressed the edge of her short-sword against the rolls of oily flesh beneath the mearkhund's chin. "I meant silence," she spat. "Or were my words too subtle for you to grasp?"
The mearkhund, a squat evil-smelling creature covered head to toe with thick leathery skin, shifted its considerable weight from one dog-like haunch to the other, but held its tongue.
"You stray. Last time I checked, your boundaries were many leagues east of here."
"Yes, yes, I'm on your patch, out of bounds, blah, blah, blah. Let's just get to the bit where you kill me and gloat over my stinking corpse. I have a very busy afterlife to get to. Rather keen to get started really – hauntings, possessions, impersonating long lost loved-ones." The mearkhund's longing sigh ended in a harsh cackle.
Leandra's eardrums rattled with the sound. The muscles of her sword arm tensed. She could almost taste the satisfaction that spilling his black blood would bring. But then, she reminded herself, she would only have to find another one.
"Well, I believe this is your lucky day, mutt," she smiled darkly. "I am sending you back to your master with your filthy hide intact, in return you will take to him a message."
"A message? What business has a Fae with the Lord of Darkness, The Prince of Earth, the Deceiver, the....."
"That is no business of yours," she snapped impatiently. "Just inform him that Leandra, daughter of the house of Pantaleon seeks an audience."
"That's it? My Lord should be impressed by this?"
"Mind your tongue, dog." Her sword bit into the mearkhund's flesh and a thin stream of blood flowed along the blade. "If my name is not enough for your master, then he is not worth my time."
She shoved him away, fetching him a harsh kick on his leathery hindquarters. Stumbling clumsily into the shadows, he fell into a crouch, watery red eyes fixing her with a baleful glare. Leandra could smell his eagerness to rend her limb from limb.
"Do not entertain any foolhardy notions, mearkhund. They will only get you killed."
But he was a mearkhund, a dog of war, driven by a mind-twisting hatred that made him a killer of merciless efficiency, but also made him imminently predicable. Leandra's fist tightened around the grip of her shield. The mearkhund charged, powerful hind legs tearing up the soft soil of the forest floor.
He was impressively fast, covering the short distance between them in the time it took her to draw breath. Taking a quick step back, Leandra raised her shield arm across her chest. As the beast reached her, large maw gaping, revealing rows of yellowed fangs, Leandra brushed it aside with a vicious back-handed blow. The edge of her shield sliced open the side of the daemon's head. His head snapped back and bones cracked as he struck the bole of a nearby oak. In an instant Leandra stood over him, sword point pressed against the swell of veins in his neck.
She felt the blade jump with each beat of his pulse. Blood like tar oozed from the head wound, bringing with it an overwhelming stench like the effluvium of a week old corpse. It seemed to seep from the very pores of his skin and was so potent it scoured her nostrils and seared a path down her throat.
"See something that disgusts you, Fae?" the mearkhund spat, spraying bloodied spittle. "We are not far different, you and I," a wicked grin cut a yellow hole in his ebony face.
"We are nothing alike!" Leandra hissed, tightening the grip on her sword.
"Oh? Even now I see the blood lust in your eyes. Do you deny your eagerness for the kill? We are the same, we live for it, both of us beasts of war. You merely hide from your true self."
Leandra kept a tight-lipped silence. Control was everything- control over herself, control over her enemies. Without control she was nothing more than a.....
The mearkhund's slitted eyes widened momentarily. A low rumble started in the back of his throat, his chest spasmed and for a brief moment Leandra thought he was fitting. Her jaws ground together, however, when she recognised the horrible sound as laughter.
Drawing rasping breaths between guffaws the mearkhund sneered, eyes glinting with malicious glee. "You do know it, don't you?" he accused. "You know it, but deny it. You deny yourself."
Leandra flicked aside her sword. "Go," she ordered. "I have better things to do than listen to your rubbish."
The creature did not move, but continued to eye her darkly.
"Quickly!" she snapped, digging the toe of her boot roughly into his side. "Before I change my mind."
Snarling, the mearkhund rolled onto all fours and slunk into the gloom of the underbrush. When only his eyes were visible, his disembodied voice drifted back at her.
"Watch for my Lord's answer on the Eastern Border. I will find you, and then we shall see." The eyes blinked and were gone.
Leandra resisted the urge to snatch up her staff and hurl it into the underbrush, skewering his tough hide to the birch her senses told her he lingered by. His putrid stench had left a foul taste in her mouth and she longed to be far from him, far from his nonsense. Her wings beat the air and in minutes she was leagues away.
Coasting over the canopy, still far outside her designated patrol area, she sucked deep, cleansing breaths into her lungs. She knew she should be concerned about deserting her post, but Queen Galiana had her positioned so far from any areas of possible conflict that there was no danger of trouble occurring in her absence.
Her keen eyes caught a flash of bright movement. Descending through the canopy, she dropped to the forest floor and advanced toward the source on silent feet. Childish giggles pierced the forest peace, raucous, grating voices, loud and disrespectful. Leandra's fingertips dug into the craggy bark of an old birch.
Familiar anger boiled through her. Her stomach clenched, her entire body tingling with a rush of adrenaline as she hefted her staff and a dropped a hand to the hilt of her sword.
"Stay your hand, sister," a firm voice breathed at her left shoulder.
Leandra cursed inwardly. Saren! How had she come up unnoticed? No-one snuck up on her, no-one!
"They trespass," Leandra hissed.
"They are outside the Barrier."
"They draw too near."
"They are but children."
"Even the smallest child can kill a butterfly. That is how they see our people - insects, oddities to be kept in jars, preserved in foul liquids. Or have you forgotten?"
"No, I do not forget. I chose not to be blind to the possibility of change."
"You accuse me of blindness?! I am not the one closing my eyes to Man's treachery. It is not I who endangers our people with foolish notions of tolerance and peace."
"Be careful of your words, Leandra," Saren warned, dark eyes hard. "Our Queen is more tolerant of your opinions than I."
"Good," Leandra whispered fiercely. "Then perhaps there is hope for us yet."
"Hope for what.... for open war? Is that what you desire?" Saren's composure slipped momentarily.
"Should it be otherwise? Open your eyes, Saren," Leandra snapped. "We are already at war, as we have always been. But no-one else has the courage to admit it."
"Is it courage that tears friendships, that leads us to question our loyalties? Is it courage that steals life?" Saren's eyes flicked towards the rowdy group of children.
Leandra flinched inwardly, her mind flailing wildly.
Did she know? How could she? She could not possibly. I have been so careful.
Saren's face was only inches from hers, her hand resting firmly over Leandra's on the hilt of her sword. "True courage comes in daring to trust, in taking chances," she whispered passionately. "What you speak of is not courage, it is fear."
Rage like a roaring tidal wave swept her worries aside. "I fear nothing," she bit off each word, forcing them through clenched teeth.
"I do not know what saddens me more," Saren's eyes softened with pity, "that our friendship has eroded so, or that you believe what you say. Poor Leandra. How lonely it must be to live in a world that has only enemies, those known and those yet to be found."
Pity? She would pity me?
"Poor me?" She felt like screaming in Saren's face. "What about poor, conflicted Saren? I think our Queen's policies too soft, yet you think them too harsh. How close would you let the humans get before you carried out your orders? When was the last time you carried out your pledge with 'Extreme prejudice'?"
All emotion fled Saren's face. "You do not need to lecture me about the responsibilities of my duty," she said, voice cool as steel and stepped away. Her eyes disappeared into shadow, unreadable. "I have spilled my share of human blood."
"Not for a while though, I wager," Leandra snapped.
Saren's silence was its own reward.
"You think too much, Saren. Philosophy will get you only so far, and then it will get you killed."
"If only it were as simple as you believe," Saren sighed, turning her head aside. Leandra could imagine the thoughtful look in her eyes, even if she could not see it.
"But it is!" Leandra took a step towards her. "There is 'us' and there is 'them'! Why do you pretend to think it could be otherwise?"
"The Creator did not make us for war."
"No? Then maybe He should not have made us so good at it!"
Saren straightened, flexing her wings. Even in shadow, Leandra could see the resolute set of her jaw. "It is clear we can agree only to disagree," Saren's voice was stern. "Because we were close friends once, I shall not report your dereliction of duty. But do not think to cause harm to humans on my patrol again. You are a formidable warrior, Leandra, one of our best, but if you force my hand you will not find me in the least part soft. I will be as extreme in my prejudice as you are in yours.
I respect your zeal in your desire to fulfil your pledge. We are one in our love for Ingengaard and its people, but our way forward as a nation is not to be found in the wrongs of our past. In that I fear we two will never agree. Tread carefully. Mind you remember who your true friends are."
Leandra opened her mouth, a bitter retort on her lips, but Saren was gone, melted into shadow. She felt no hint of her presence, such was her skill, but Leandra knew she would not be far away - protecting her precious humans no doubt. It took several slow breaths before she felt calm again. She felt more unsettled by the quarrel than she would have liked.
Saren had been a friend for many long years, had sponsored her application to become a Sentinel. She could not imagine facing her in combat. Why could she not see the danger they faced? She was one of the wisest Fae Leandra knew, the most thoughtful. Had the Fae sunken so far into their mallee that even the greatest of their warriors had lost the fire of their heritage?
Fine, I care not. If we are to meet in combat it will be your choosing, not mine. You will not listen - our entire order will not listen. Turn a blind eye if you must, but the humans will not find me unprepared, with my eyes closed in sleep. I will not hide away, a frightened mouse that scampers at shadows. There are those who do share my view, Saren of the Fae, and you cannot oppose them all.

The end… Until next time.

© 2003 - Sherri-Lee Lavender Green