A quiet day was a gift. Many sought it, longed for it, and wished it could last forever. Saren's job was to make sure they got the chance.
She jogged silently through the trees, bare yards from her quarry. Even without his bright red shirt he was an easy target. His breath came in loud gasps, and the vibration of his clumsy human feet could be felt from a mile off.
Saren kept pace effortlessly with no more sound than the passing of a soft summer breeze. She knew she should stop him now. A quick blow and the threat would be gone. He would not see her coming, would not see her at all. But where was the challenge in that? Where was the honour? She would watch a little while. Perhaps he would turn aside, run as blindly from danger as he had stumbled into it.
A spasm of anxiety tightened her chest. The Queen's directive was very clear. No mortal may approach the Barrier. In ages past the Fae had walked freely across the whole of the Creation, but as the race of Men had grown in number and power they had retreated. Men feared them, and in ignorance destroyed them. Men were dangerous, bringers of death, and deserving of death in return.
So Saren had been taught and so she believed, with a passion. That passion had earned her the position of Sentinel, watcher of the borders of the Fae haven. She did not take her duties lightly, but nor would she follow blindly. She intended to take whatever opportunities came her way to gather her own information, make her own judgement.
Here was one such opportunity. He certainly did not seem dangerous. She increased her pace to draw level with him, her hand hovering above the hilt of her short-sword, just in case. He was tall, easily a match for her height, and well-muscled though totally lacking in grace.
For a member of a dangerous race, this specimen did not seem overly threatening. Just out for some exercise it seemed. Perhaps, like her people, he was seeking solitude from the massed communities the humans favoured. A man seeking peaceful rest could not be a danger, surely.
The hairs on Saren's neck prickled, a sudden sense of something foul and malicious sent a shiver down her spine. Feeling outward, her senses pinpointed a presence not far ahead. She recognised it instantly. Foul dog! She cursed inwardly and sprinted ahead.
The interloper was not hard to locate, his stench preceded him. He had hidden himself near a fork in the path. Saren made no secret of her approach.
"You are not welcome here, Mearkhund," she said coldly, walking slowly toward him. She stopped several paces away while the black creature regarded her with its watery red eyes.
"This is no-man's land, Fae." He spat the word from his mouth like a lump of foul meat. "I come and go as I please," he hissed, shifting on his thick leathery haunches.
"You will go as I please," Saren ordered, brushing her cloak aside and resting her hand on the hilt of her sword.
The Mearkhund snorted. "My Lord commands that I stay. Would you have me flayed for disobedience."
"Leave and be flayed, or stay and be gutted, it makes no difference to me," Saren snapped, her almond eyes narrowing. "This is my patrol. I am the Queen's appointed Sentinel. Your Lord's commands are nothing to me. He may deny his blood, but he is still Fae and still bound to obey our Queen".
Saren stepped away from the path, thinking to draw the beast after her. If the human saw them there would be no choice. She would have to eliminate him. No man could live to spread stories of fell things in the forests. Men were curious to their own detriment.
But the Mearkhund was not some common goblin. It was a vicious, cunning creature with unquenchable bloodlust. A perversion created by the Fallen Lord to serve his dark purpose.
"My Lord is as much concerned with the protection of our borders as are you and yours," the Mearkhund growled. "He feels that of late the Sentinels have grown lax in their vigilance. You grow soft," he hissed, snapping his long snout at her. Thick ropes of spittle sprayed from his maw. He made a move towards her, the stench became overwhelming.
Saren's sword came to her hand. The human's footfalls were thunder in her ears, a rumble in the ground beneath her feet. The Mearkhund lifted his snout to taste man-scent on the breeze and grinned, revealing rows of sharp yellowed teeth.
"No time, Fae, no time." He laughed, a cold, mirthless sound in the back of his throat, and darted for the path.
Saren sprang after him. She knew his intent. If he reached the human before her he would tear him limb from limb. If she pursued, the human would be close enough to spot them both and she would have to kill him herself. Why stop the beast? The barrier would be protected, her duty fulfilled. Why kill one of her own kind, even this abomination, to protect a human. What had any human ever done for her?
What did it matter? With a thrust of her powerful wings, Saren closed the gap between them. She gripped the Mearkhund's leathery shoulder, jerked him back onto the tip of her blade, and drove it to the hilt in his tough flesh.
The Mearkhund clutched at the sword protruding from his throat, making wet sucking noises. Saren had angled the blade upward, slicing through his vocal chords. With deadly efficiency she wrapped her arm around his head and twisted. His necked snapped with a dull crunch.
The human was upon them. Saren caught the Mearkhund beneath the arms and flew them both backwards into the trees. There was no time to cast a glamour to hide them. Had he seen? His feet faltered, he hesitated. Saren could see his sweat-beaded brow pull into a frown. His brown eyes narrowed, peering into the shadows. Hands on hips, he walked slowly towards her.
Saren willed him to turn around, to take the path back to his world. The Mearkhund's stink was in her nostrils, her mouth, burning down her throat. It reeked of death. She did not wish to add to it.
Fifteen paces away, ten. A blur of fluid motion, Saren dropped the Mearkhund, grabbed the flail at her waist, and sent it spinning towards the human. She watched it spin end over end, a mere whistle on the wind. Just moments before the flail struck, she breathed soft words of power. The weapon shimmered, ghosting into writhing light. Her aim was true.
The man doubled over in pain, clutching his side. He swore loudly, words Saren did not understand. The flail reappeared in her hand. She gripped its warm chain and waited. The human straightened, breathing deeply and rubbing his side as though struck by a stitch. He shook his head, muttering to himself and then turned, taking the path from the forest.
Saren watched until his back was lost from sight and stood for a long time after. What would come of the chance that she had taken? What if his curiosity led him back? She sighed. Whatever the consequences, the choice had been made.
Despite her training, her heart refused to believe that all humanity was beyond hope. At the time of the Creation, the Holy One had thought them worthy to be caretakers of this world. How could she do any less than show one of them a little grace?
She looked at the corpse at her feet and frowned. Besides, it could be argued that there were far worse things in these forests than humans.

© 2003 -Sherri-Lee Lavender Green