“I’m not going to do that.”
The young wood elf sat on a rough, uncomfortable tree stump. Her arms folded across her chest, and her bottom lip puckered out stubbornly. Her hazel-coloured eyes turned upwards to the faces of her mother and father, who returned her gaze with glaring disappointment and annoyance.
“It’s the annual spring time festival,” her mother pointed out for the hundredth time. “The Starflowers have headed the festival for the past three centuries. Do you want to break tradition?”
Caelynn shrugged. “Why should I give a damn about tradition? What difference does it make?”
“Caelynn…” her dad murmured disapprovingly.
“Fine,” her mother interjected, stomping down her foot and turning her back on her eldest daughter. “If you won’t take part in the ceremony, then don’t expect to join in the festivities.” She bundled up a flowery dress that she previously hung on a nearby tree, not caring that the seam ripped slightly, and she stormed off, into their small cabin, concealed by a gathering of tall, looming trees.
Caelynn looked up at her father, her expression softening silently. “I hate the festival. It’s just a gathering of the rich, rejoicing in the fact that they are destroying the forests. Do they forget they are wood elves?”
Her father reached out and grabbed Caelynn’s hand, forcing her to relax slightly. “It’s easy to forget where one comes from, my dear. I don’t think the festival represents a celebration of forgetting, I think it embodies a chance to bring people together to remember.” He swallowed and looked back after his wife. She slammed the door shut and was probably in the process of tormenting Caelynn’s younger brother, Sitch, into taking her place. “Won’t you join us?”
Caelynn withdrew her hand from her father’s and hopped down from the tree stump. She dusted down her trousers and sighed. “For you, I would consider it. But I’m sorry, dresses and frills and pretending everything is hunky-dory – it’s not me. And I don’t want to endorse something I can’t believe in.”
Her father took a moment, then nodded once. “I won’t force you into it, Caelynn. But think on what your mother said, if you don’t take part in the ceremony, don’t come to the festivities. I would love to see you there, but I don’t want your mother creating a scene either.”
Caelynn gave a half-hearted smile. “I’ll try not disappoint her,” she scoffed, knowing that ship sailed long ago. Her father pulled her into a tight hug.
“Oh, Caelynn,” he murmured. “You’re far too headstrong for your own good.”
Caelynn patted her father’s back and pulled away. She smirked up at him. “Since when was that a bad thing?”
Her father chuckled. “Can’t argue with that.” He disappeared into their cabin.
Caelynn’s smile faded and she turned and ran.
She ran for a couple of hours, ducking in and out between the trees of the forest, keeping to the outskirts of the small town. She passed the marketplace, the lands which were setting up for the festival the next day, out as far as the outcrop on the cliff edge of the Greenbark where the druid circle often met.
Here, she sat for a good half an hour, taking in the cool air as it washed over her.
“Caelynn Starflower,” a voice sneered behind her. Caelynn didn’t have to open her eyes to recognise the voice of the one who spoke.
“What do you want, Nikolai?”
Nikolai Minola, a young druid just a few years older than Caelynn. The druid hated her ever since she upstaged her in a tournament three years prior, of which Nikolai’s parents had bet a lot of money for their precious son to beat the daughter of the Starflowers. When Caelynn felled Nikolai after less than three minutes per round, Nikolai felt the brunt of his parents disappointment once they returned home. Caelynn felt bad at the time, but when he decided to dedicate his life into making hers a misery thereafter, Caelynn’ sympathies grew thin, until it stretched into nothing and formed a mutual hatred.
She heard Nikolai take a step closer to her. She opened her eyes and got to her feet. Nikolai stood with his fist clenched in front of him, wearing the crown of his druid’s circle.
“That’s new,” she commented.
“Didn’t you hear?” Nikolai spoke in a overcompensating voice. “I’m officially a member of the Druid Crafters now. So I get access to a lot more things. Including this.” He held up his clenched fist.
Caelynn sensed trouble. She eyed it contemptuously. “And what is “this”? Am I to be impressed?”
Nikolai smirked. “Let me show you.” He uncurled his fingers, revealing a palm-full of some sort of white, powdery substance. Caelynn recognised what it was moments too late.
Nikolai pressed his lips together and blew the powder of the posinous Nitharit into her face. She inhaled it without a second thought. A moment passed and Caelynn felt her vision start to blur. She coughed for a second and found her skin felt strangely numb. She didn’t even look as Nikolai wandered off, laughing cheerily to himself, not even having the bravery to stand by and watch the effects of the poison.
Caelynn knew she was in trouble. It was getting late. If she stayed and waited here before the effects of the poison wore off, she would be left to the mercy of the wolves and other deadly creatures prowling Greenbark at night. Besides, she didn’t even know how much of a dose Nikolai gave her. She doubted it would be enough to kill her. But still, she didn’t trust Nikolai’s judgement either. It could be hours before this wore off.
Hazy and frightened, she began to attempt to make her way back home, trying her best to go the way she came.
As the afternoon darkened and the sky threatened rain, she found herself miles away from home, hot, tired and starving.
Bleary eyed, she made her way back to the market place.
In her exhausted state, she began to see the taller, crowding figures in the market as faceless shadows, looming ahead of her, watching her, judging her and sensing her as prey. She bumped into some of these figures and they hissed at her. Or at least, they sounded as such.
Now all she could think of was the hunger burning in her stomach, and the food surrounding her in the carts. The sweet smells reached her nostrils and consumed her thoughts. She fumbled inside her pockets. If she had any money, her numbed fingers couldn’t tell.
Then, her eyes focused on something. The first thing she made out clearly since the Nitharit. A young wood elf, tall and handsome, standing in front of a cart, with wandering hands. He plucked a bag of fruit from the stall, while distracting the vendor, by asking the price of something behind him. Clever. But if Caelynn stole from a thief, did that really make things so bad? Not that Caelynn had much qualms about stealing, just she never did it before. And she was in no state to take too many risks right now.
Besides, focusing on the thieving wood elf seemed to relax her racing mind.
She followed the wood elf.
He stole through the crowds. Sometimes his hands reached into the pockets of passer-bys and plucked some coins. He really was a master thief – nobody batted an eye lid. To those more sensitive, he shot them charming smiles and they apologised to him for bumping into him. Caelynn found herself chuckling to herself. It was all very clever. All very stupid.
She caught up to the wood elf, a few minutes later. Her eyes on the bag of fruit dangling temptingly out of his pocket. She strolled past him, her hand out by her side. To her surprise, she caught the string keeping the bag shut and it slipped easily out of his pocket.
The bag dangled in her hands. She walked forward several paces before glancing back. The wood elf disappeared from sight. She grinned at her victory and started to run, zig-zagging in and out of the crowd, the adrenaline of what she just did helping her regain her senses once more.
By the time she found a quiet corner and started to dig in to the bag of fruit, the effects of the poison had almost completely worn off.
As she chewed on the last few berries at the bottom of the bad, she found herself suddenly lying on her back, the berries rolling out of her hand, and staring into the dark sky. Rain pattered onto her face. A hand held out in front of her. She discarded the bag and fruit, and took the hand. It helped her to her feet and suddenly she was staring face to face with him. The thief from before.
“Ah crap,” she muttered.
“Crap, indeed,” the thief mused, with a small smile on his face.
Caelynn took a step backwards. “Look, I think you have me mixed up with someone else.”
“Then why do you look so guilty?” the other countered.
“An unfortunate infliction to the face,” she responded wittily, stepping back further. “Been that way since birth, I’m afraid.”
The thief took a step forward and gave an amused nod. “A thief and a liar. You’re quiet the catch.”
“I’m not something to be caught, my friend,” Caelynn responded. The thief chuckled at that.
“Listen, why don’t we skip this back and forth, as much as I enjoy it,” the thief said. He held out his hand. “The name’s Dalen. There’s not many people who can steal from a thief of the Outcasts.”
Caelynn looked at his outstretched hand. “You’re admitting you’re a thief.”
The thief named Dalen shrugged, keeping out his hand. “I’m not ashamed of it. Though I don’t rabbit on about it to the authorities.”
“Why are you being so…”
“Kind? Charming?” Dalen offered.
Caelynn glanced back up at him. “Odd.”
Dalen laughed and dropped his hand. “Because, like I said – there aren’t many who will or can steal from the Outcasts. Didn’t take me long to find you, mind you. But you’ve got potential for a little street rat.”
Caelynn narrowed her brows. “Who are you calling “street rat,” thief?”
Dalen waved away her comment. “Same brush,” he said vaguely. “Point is, I’ve decided. I like you. And if you want to keep up this thieving business, which I recommend by the way, why don’t you come visit the Outcasts?”
“Outcasts, you keep saying that like I’m supposed to know what that means.”
“Hmph,” Dalen didn’t sound put out, just mildly surprised. “I figured any thief in Greenbark heard of us.”
“I’m new to this whole thieving business,” she retorted. “Haven’t decided if it’s for me, yet.”
“Well, if you do – come to the Milestone Inn, and I’ll give you a proper introduction.”
Dalen shook his head. “You really are new to this, aren’t you?” he turned and pointed towards a large oak tree peeking above the centre of the town, out across the other side of Greenbark. “See that tree? You’ll find the doorway to the underground caverns nearby. Milestone Inn is easy to find after that. Ask for me.”
“And how do I know this isn’t some trick?”
“Do I look like the kind to trick a young lady, such as yourself?” Dalen asked, feigning hurt.
Caelynn called his bluff. “Do I look like such a lady to you?”
Dalen laughed loudly at that. He had a pleasant laugh. The kind that made you want to join in. She refrained all the same, although her spirits certainly lifted.
“Point taken. But look, come to the Milestone Inn. Ask for Dalen Struckle. And…don’t look anyone in the eye for too long…” he shrugged and started to walk away. “Enjoy the rest of your meal.” And with that, he disappeared into the shadows.
“What meal…” Caelynn started to mumble before she looked down at her feet and found a fresh bag brimming with berries spilling out onto the ground. She found a smile creeping onto her lips, picked up the berries, and grinned foolishly all the way back home.