The large Wolfhound raised his shaggy head and let out a long, mournful howl. Standing there within the semi-circle of the wolves, Lucas heard the haunting trill of pipers from the far end of the vale. Above the bagpipes a pleasant voice rose in song:
Kissed by the sun,
embraced by the morning,
the Forest sheds
her cloak of night.
She slips into
a gown of mist,
she wove herself,
by morning light.
In amber rays,
the Forest dances.
In hidden glens
within the hills.
Barefoot, she glides
through open meadows,
tip-toes her way
past silver rills.
Her gown of mist,
trails behind her,
the morning wind,
adorned with gems
and sparkling jewels,
the rising sun,
did surely send.
The song ended and a herd of dainty black stags appeared on the slope in the distance. The tiny sable stags were no bigger than fawns, and yet they each sported a full rack of glistening antlers. All of the tiny creatures had overly-large blue eyes that glowed with a strange illumination. A moment later, the herd of stags gracefully bounded down the green slope, scattering fall leaves in their wake. Within the mad swirl of colorful leaves, a company of child-like riders appeared there at the crest of the slope.
To Lucas’s surprise, all of the wee riders were mounted on dozens of the dainty black stags. At first, he thought the riders were small boys, but then he saw that beneath their long, black riding coats, they were clad in leather armor and heavily armed, with sheathed swords strapped to their saddles. Most of the small folk wore their various shades of long hair either loose or in single, braided tails, but some wore wide-brimmed, deep-crowned hats adorned with jewel-encrusted broaches or bright red feathers.
It was a strange company for sure, and Lucas was quite startled when one little rider let out a riotous whoop, sending the entire band galloping down the distant hillside. The stag-riders rode in loose for-mation, their black mounts leaping in chaotic patterns across the valley floor. Then all at once, like a flock of swooping swallows, the wee riders fell in behind the leader, forming an orderly charge directly toward the clearing where Lucas stood.
Suddenly, their leader, the long tails of his coat flapping wildly, rode hard toward the green mound. Lucas noted that beneath his long coat, the small fellow was dressed in shiny, black leather armor. He also wore a black beret, adorned with a single red feather, and the locks of his raven hair swirled back over his slender shoulders, revealing gold hoops dangling from the lobes of his ears.
When the diminutive rider was a mere twenty feet away, Lucas could clearly see that he had a tiny, upturned nose, a slight cleft in his delicate chin, and a faint dusting of freckles on his dimpled cheeks. The rider brought his mount skidding to a halt, sprang from his saddle, and nimbly landed in front of the white wolves and the wolf-hound. While his stag raised its head and gazed at Lucas with its blue eyes, the wee rider removed his black beret and dropped to one knee, declaring, “Greetings, Advocate of Woodwalkers! The Black Foxes are at your service! I am their commander, Peyton Ring!”
Peyton Ring kneeled there, strands of hair swirling down on either side of his brow. He rose to his feet and drew twin swords from his stag’s saddle sheaths. Both blades were illuminated by a violet light that reminded Lucas of a winter sky before nightfall. He looked on in amazement then as the entire company of stag-riders drew their own glowing blades and shouted, “Hail, Advocate of Woodwalkers!”
Stepping in between two of the wolves, Peyton leaned forward and whispered, “Lad, now would be a good time to retreat back inside the Lodge. If we should lose this battle, you will be on your own.”
That said, the small woodland warrior wheeled around and re-mounted his stag. He then joined the twelve other Black Foxes as they advanced upon Traxx Dire and his antler-crowned allies.
The fight that ensued was brutal. Traxx’s fiery blade swooped down only to be met by the flashing, shimmering, glowing jewel-blades of Peyton Ring, his violet swords ringing as they deflected the fire-blade of the silver-haired swordsman.
Lucas could hear the snick and flick of blades as the small riders were met by the ragged band of warriors, their helmets crowned by antlers. Where Lucas expected to hear the humming and whirring of light sabers, much like those wielded by Jedi Knights, instead he heard the worrying blades of the Black Foxes ringing and pinging, sending shrill echoes off into the black trees.
He had watched many sword-fighting movies back at home, The Lord of the Rings, The Thirteenth Warrior, The Kingdom, and even The Princess Bride, but never had he seen the speed and skills dis-played now by the Jewel Folk, their moves so graceful and fluent that it was more like a well-rehearsed dance rather than a bloody, savage battle. And there was blood involved.
Much blood, as the Karth were swiftly eliminated by the glowing blades of the Black Foxes. Some died with silent screams erupting from their mouths, others fell with loud gasps or pain-filled grunts as the shimmering blades of the Foxes slithered in past their guards, or sank deep within their bodies, spilling them from their saddles.
Peyton Ring forced the elk to back up as his own small steed sprang up so that he could exchange sword strokes with the wielder of the fire-blade. Quicker than the eye could follow, the woodland warrior delivered dozens of loops and whirls of his shimmering blades, and yet they were deflected by Traxx as he expertly parried and blocked each attack.
With a loud bellow, Traxx’s elk mount skidded to a sudden stop, lowered its head, and with the wide spread of its antlers, caught and lifted Peyton’s stag, tossing both high into the air. Peyton somersaulted backwards, landing twenty feet away on his feet. His black steed, however, struck the ground hard and collapsed into a crumpled heap, the blue glow slowly leaving its eyes.
Stirred to wrath by the loss of his steed, Peyton started back across the clearing, but before he could renew his battle with Traxx, the huge swordsman drove his fire-blade into a hapless Fox. The fiery blade crackled as Traxx lifted the sword-skewered warrior up and out of his saddle. The Black Fox screamed in agony then as the red blade literally sucked his soul from his small body.
Looking on in horror, Lucas watched as the Chaykin’s face melted, his eyeballs popped, and his entire body collapsed like a wet paper-sack, folding in on itself and dropping to the ground with a wet-sounding thwack! Laughing wildly, Traxx withdrew his blade from the dead forest warrior, and sent the fire-blade cleaving into a second rider within his reach. This small Chaykin died horribly, too, his body flopping to the ground like a landed fish as the fire-blade sapped his soul from him.
Traxx took out four more of the Jewel Folk before Peyton finally reached him. And then, the wielder of the fire-blade was knocked from the back of his elk mount as the Chaykin warrior sprang up high and barreled into him, slashing and hacking with his jewel-blades.
Traxx landed on his feet, his sword sizzling as he fended off the small swordsman’s twin blades. Finding himself hard-pressed to win against the highly skilled Peyton, Traxx removed his left hand from his hilt and with a wild gesture, he cast a spell at his fierce attacker.
A strange purple blast of force blew Peyton off his feet, sending him cartwheeling across the clearing, his violet blades flashing as he rolled to a stop before the wolfhound and the wolves.
Lucas could see that the little swordsman was dazed by the sudden blast. He had also dropped his glowing swords, and as he pawed frantically at them, Traxx came on, his own flaming sword raised above his head, his red eyes locking on the wolfhound as the great, noble beast moved to defend Peyton.