The Hidden War – Marie Andreas

“Again!” Eladrea had heard the cry so many times today that she knew she’d be hearing echoes of it long after sword practice was over. Keeping her sigh to herself, she resumed her stance against Marko. The baker’s apprentice wasn’t someone you’d think would be training to fight. Short, round, and had tasted a bit more of his baked goods than was probably healthy. But he was determined. And far more agile than she’d predicted. His form with the sword wasn’t great—that was one of the reasons Armsmaster Sadlin kept recalling the move—but he was quick and twisty enough to almost get a blow in more than once. “Do you think that type of fighting is going to save you? You signed up for this, Marko, act like you mean it,” Sadlin yelled and then turned toward another pair of fighters to give them a round of the same. Sadlin was one of the few surviving old fighters; therefore he got the job of training the new ones. Eladrea wasn’t a new fighter, but she wasn’t anywhere near Sadlin, so she got the dubious honor of being the sparring partner for those Sadlin felt showed the most promise. After a few more rounds, both she and Marko were sweaty and her right arm felt like it was ready to fall off. “It’s ridiculous that we have to all go through fight training like this. We’re doing it because of myths and rumors.” Jaston came up behind her as she wiped down her equipment. He’d been sparring with another newer fighter but, as usual, managed to look un-sweaty.

Eladrea wasn’t sure how to react to the tall archer. There was always a look of calculation going on in those blue eyes. Constantly weighing the odds on what would be the best path for him. She did know, unfortunately, what he was talking about. He wasn’t happy about the training, but it had become so ingrained in their village over the last two years that everyone of an age did it. Eladrea was the only one who had lived through why they did it. She hadn’t been born in this village. Her home village, Levanal, was nothing more than a patch of dead ground and empty buildings and had been so for the last fifteen years. Although she told little, even now, to the village elders of her adopted home village of Bedlia, she still had nightmares of that night so long ago. It had been a night of celebration, of joy and remembrance. A light had shone down from above in the village center. She was frightened at first; but her parents held her hands, and a wave of happiness flowed over her. The few people who hadn’t already been in the clearing came in, pulled forward by the light. Everyone moved closer and she first lost hold of one parent’s hand, then the second. But it felt okay—even at five years old, she felt comfort and safety.

Then a tall, dark shadow, moving almost too fast for her to see, grabbed her and threw her out of the light. She remembered pain and loss as she rolled in the dirt, scrambling to her feet to get back into the light. A massive wind rushed at her, pushing her away. Then the light, and everyone in it, vanished. Eladrea was left alone. Her people were hardy. The villages of the mountains and plains of the country of Cadair were spread out and self-sustaining. A proud people, they were united in their fierce independence. She had no memory of the time that passed before a fishing party from Bedlia came through Levanal. Eladrea remembered that first night, when the people vanished, but she didn’t recall the time afterwards, being found, or the journey to the village of Bedlia. Her first memory was waking up in a small cottage with Gwennin, or as she called her now, Mother. When she was older, she was told they believed she’d been alone in the empty village of her birth for a week or more. She took their word for it. Academics from all over Cadair came to speculate on what happened to the people of Levanal. Many tried to interview Eladrea.

However, Gwennin protected her and didn’t let them. Eladrea had told her story, what she recalled of it, to the village elders. They were the ones who talked to the academics. After a few years, the furor died down. There were too many real dangers to deal with; the mystery of Levanal went unsolved. Eladrea grew up as any other child in the village. She apprenticed to Sadlin in the blacksmithy. While not huge and bulky like her mentor, she was tall, far stronger than she looked, and always found a way to get her tasks done. Two years ago, another village vanished. This was a small village to the far north and high in the Snowlin Mountains. Less than forty people had lived there, and they were so isolated it was unclear when exactly they vanished. But the same black, dead ground in the center of the village was there. That time, no one had remained. The council of Bedlia decided they needed warriors. Since Sadlin was a survivor of the last time they’d gone to war, twenty-five years earlier, he was elected Armsmaster.

When the training was first announced, Eladrea was skeptical. Although she didn’t speak of it, she recalled the night the disappearance happened, and fighting wouldn’t have made a difference. No one wanted to fight when the light shone down and her parents and the rest of their village had been taken. But once she started training with Sadlin, she realized this was something she was good at. Any response she might have made to Jaston defending why they had to train, was drowned out by a fast approaching horse and wagon. Conall was a reoccurring visitor to the village. His father had been a beloved visitor. A traveler always armed with a wagon of goods, Conall’s father, Paddy, had been well loved by all. When Paddy passed away five years ago, Conall had stepped in. Conall was reckless, flashy, and always ready to find a laugh, whether it was at others or himself. Unlike his father who had been nurturing and kind, Conall always seemed like there was a lingering joke that only he was in on. His long chestnut hair, well past his shoulder blades, was haphazardly caught up in a knot at the top of his head. His eyes were a sharp green, but they changed shade dependent on the weather and his moods. His mouth seemed always poised in a crooked smile, and his cheekbones had been known to make women weep. “Well met!” His horse had been coming in far too fast, in Eladrea’s opinion, but halted exactly where it was supposed to.

Per usual, the horse looked a bit wild eyed and surprised at the sudden stop. “I have trinkets that would make even a harsh campaigner like yourself blush with envy, Eladrea.” Jaston dropped whatever he’d been planning to say to Eladrea, and went to the back of Conall’s wagon. With a quick grin and nod to Eladrea, the consummate showman and salesman leapt around to the back to show his wares. He was easily a few inches over six feet, but moved with the grace of a dancer. The way everything hurt after sword practice, Eladrea envied him that. Eladrea shook her head. Conall was handsome, and very aware of it, but also too loose and wild to even consider getting involved with. Not to mention, he viewed her as far too war-like for his tastes, and spent most of his dalliances with the fancy bar maids in the village tavern. She thought about going to check out his wares, but money was tight right now and Gwennin had warned her they needed to be careful until the new crops were ready for harvest. With one last look at the two men, Eladrea walked back through the village to the cottage she shared with Gwennin. Their cottage was small, with a thick thatched roof, and always had a warm and earthy peat fire going, often two. It was the most comforting place in the village. “What is it, child? You look like the wee ones stole your breakfast,” Gwennin said from where she sat near the living room fire in her rocking chair, knitting a scarf. It seemed like she was always knitting a scarf, or some other small item, to give to people.

Cadair was a cold country the vast majority of the year, and the warming touches were welcome. Conall had tried repeatedly to get Gwennin to allow him to sell her wares in the other villages. But the tiny woman was even more stubborn than he was. She gave away her goods to those who needed them—even if they didn’t know they needed them. Even now, when a bad crop had caused them to have far more bean soup for dinner than normal, she refused to make a profit off her knitting. “Just dealing with Jaston and Conall.” Eladrea shook her head and checked the huge pot of soup on the fire. The welcome, homey scent of beans, herbs, and a bit of meat caressed her face. “Not to mention I am still training Marko. He means well but I’m not sure if he’s meant to fight.” Eladrea regretted her words the moment she came into the small living room and saw Marko sitting across the room, hidden from the kitchen by the wall. With wet hair that indicated he’d run to shower right after their sparring, and then beat her here; he clutched a ragged bunch of wildflowers in his hand. “I am…hello, Marko,” Eladrea said. She would have apologized, and from the look on Gwennin’s face, she should have. But they’d had this issue before.

Being polite didn’t really work with Marko. He wanted a nice wife to take care of and he was determined to fail to notice that Eladrea was not the woman for him. “Fair met, Eladrea. Might I have your accompaniment for dinner?” He sat up straighter and waved the flowers he’d found along the way at her. One thing about Marko, he didn’t give up. His speech was a bit too flowery for him though. Eladrea narrowed her eyes. Conall had spent a lot of time with Marko when he’d been in the village two weeks ago. Now she had a better understanding of Conall’s quirky grin at their latest encounter. It must have taken Marko this long to work up the nerve to try and use whatever Conall had sold him. “Marko, we’ve gone over this before. It won’t work. I am very sorry, and I can have Sadlin find you another sparring partner tomorrow. But nothing between us will ever happen.” She paused, “Regardless of what Conall sold you.

” Marko flushed and fumbled with the chain around his neck. The trinket on the end of it had been hidden down his shirt and when he pulled it up Eladrea saw it was a lover’s knot. Gwennin saw it as well. “Ach, lad. Those don’t work. Get yourself over to his wagon and tell that young shyster that I told him to give you your money back.” From the look on her face, she might have originally felt bad about Eladrea turning him down, but Gwennin didn’t stand by people using magic, or trying to, to change fate. Marko sputtered, dropped the token back down his shirt, and fled. Only to come back a moment later and shove the half-wilted flowers into Gwennin’s arms. Eladrea poured both herself and Gwennin a cup of tea. The knots left her neck and back as the soothing beverage took over. All the knots were from Marko, some from the recent interaction. Gwennin took her cup of tea and watched Eladrea over the rim. “More will be coming, you know. You’re an attractive young woman, and of an age to be wooed.

” The tea was hot, but Eladrea gulped down a few sips to avoid Gwennin. Of course, those solid gray eyes were still waiting for her when she finished. Eladrea did notice men looking at her, and some she looked back at. Jaston was extremely good looking, but he had no love of life. Others were attractive as well—Bedlia wasn’t a small village, there were options. But none of them had that spark. Eladrea grew up listening to fairy tales. Even as an adult she felt there would be one man who just came swooping in and took her to far distant places and exciting adventures. She’d gone out with a few boys growing up, but they never lived up to her dreams. “Someday I’ll find the right one.” She sipped her tea. “If not, I can stay on my own. You’ve done fine that way.” Gwennin had never married. That was one of the reasons she was given custody of five-year-old Eladrea.

Well, that and the strong recommendation of Conall’s father. Gwennin had been friends with the older man, and the council had listened to his impassioned plea that Eladrea be allowed to live with her. She had room enough and a heart large enough for the mysteriously orphaned child. The villagers were afraid of what they didn’t understand, and what had happened to Levanal wasn’t understood by anyone. Meaning that Eladrea would have faced an outsider’s upbringing if anyone less powerful than Gwennin had raised her. Gwennin stood for no nonsense from the villagers, or her ward. So everyone got along fine. “You have a different path than me.” Gwennin rose and went into the kitchen. Even though Eladrea had just checked the simmering soup, she heard Gwennin checking it again. It was more habit than anything else, but often repetitive actions meant Gwennin was seeing something in her mind and needed a distraction while she worked through it. Gwennin was a mystic, one of the reasons the villagers respected her—magic was to be feared, but someone with the sight, as they called it, was valued. Her sight kept telling her that Eladrea was destined for greatness. There was more, but whenever Eladrea asked, Gwennin’s face would become shadowed and the subject would be changed. “Hello, my favorite ladies!” Conall called from the front door.

The top half of the door was usually kept open unless it was the middle of winter or they were eating. Like his father before him, Conall mostly sold his items from his wagon in the middle of the village. But for some special customers, he brought items to their homes. Gwennin was closest to the door, so she welcomed him inside. Eladrea probably would have left him outside this time. It was odd, Conall was always a bit of a nuisance, but he never bothered her this much before. It was all she could do to not excuse herself and go to her room. “I have trinkets and gossip. Which would you like first?” Conall settled himself at the small dinner table and placed a rolled satchel on the tabletop. “Both in due order,” Gwennin said as she shut the top half of the door. Most likely she’d been expecting him even though Conall’s routine wasn’t totally predictable. “Honey for your tea?” The smile said she knew the answer, but it was always good to ask. “Just a dab, if you don’t mind.” Eladrea shook her head at the huge amount of honey that joined the tea in his mug. That was one way he was like his father; Paddy had been addicted to honey also.

Once all three of them were settled, Gwennin nodded to Conall. “Gossip first, if you would.” He nodded and took a few sips of tea. “There’s something afoot; of that, I am certain. The villages of Liles and Fronwed are both shut down with an illness. I dropped off herbs and the last of your medicines, and they have healers in place from other villages. But they will have a rough season, both for farming and hunting.” Gwennin made the appropriate noises of sympathy before she leaned forward. “Now what of the lines? Any movement?” The lines she spoke of were ley lines, places that supposedly once held great magic. According to the old tales, long ago mankind had lost the ability to draw power from the lines, all magic had died, and the dark times had come. Gwennin was sure that when the ley lines came back, so would the magic. “You need to leave worrying about those things alone, Gwennin. I’ve told you before, they’re dangerous. We don’t want magic coming back into our world.” Conall added a bit more honey to his tea.

Gwennin laughed. “Now you truly sound like your father, young one. Coming from him they sounded like valued words of wisdom. Coming from a young pup like yourself, they sound like fear.” An odd look flashed across Conall’s eyes. It wasn’t there long enough to grab its full meaning, but there was a feeling of deep sorrow…and something else. Eladrea watched him closely but the look didn’t come back. He was mostly a cheerful and jesting man—but she’d swear she saw something dark there. “My father was wise; I just follow in his footsteps. Magic is not to be trifled with, even by someone with the sight.” He took a long sip of his tea-flavored-honey, and leaned back. His long legs were crossed under the table and Eladrea had to adjust her own legs so they weren’t on top of each other. “As for the lines, nothing has changed.” Gwennin smiled and nodded. That was another similarity both father and son had—they couldn’t lie.

Neither would be clear as to where their family came from, beyond saying it was far away and a small village near the border with a neighboring kingdom. The non-lying could have been religious, it could have been a family curse—there were still some of those floating around—or it could have just been a code of honor. But neither would lie. However, they could twist things so the person didn’t ask the right question. Or get the right answer. Gwennin had figured out Paddy’s issue years ago and used it well to get information from both of them. “Now, on to the trinkets,” Conall said. “Wait a minute, I have a problem with you,” Eladrea sat her tea down and stared Conall in the eyes. “Did you or did you not sell Marko a lover’s knot to win me over?” His eyes seemed to swirl, but Eladrea kept staring into them. It was finally Conall who turned away. “I might have sold someone something. I’m sure I had no idea it would be aimed at you.” He turned back to Eladrea with a smile guaranteed to melt the heart of women everywhere. Eladrea simply raised her left eyebrow. “Or I might have unfairly taken advantage of Marko’s crush and tried to give him confidence with a trinket?” He glanced to Gwennin, but her glare was in full form as well.

“Okay, fine. He already found me and asked for a refund.” He raised the hand that didn’t have the teacup in it. “Which I gave him.” Eladrea shook her head. “You can’t use me. If anyone else comes to you asking for things like that because of me, you have to say no.” Conall grinned while he untied the satchel on the tabletop. “Believe there will be more, do you?” “I know if there were, you’d take advantage of them.” There was a time when Eladrea would have blushed and run to her room at being called proud or pretty. Not anymore. She knew her worth. She was attractive, yes. Not a stunning beauty, but attractive. But her value lay in hard work and skills with a blade.

Conall managed to make his shrug look both appeasing and innocent. Eladrea filled his teacup with more tea, but made him reach for the honey. “You know, I just provide what the people ask—” Conall was cut off as pounding hit the door. “Gwennin! Some of the wee ones have been taken!”’ Conall was on his feet and next to the door before either Eladrea or Gwennin could push back from the table. He flung it open and glared down the farmer. “Who has taken wee ones?” Gwennin was the healer and the closest the village had to a magic user. She claimed it was just knowing the right herbs, but even Eladrea swore that some of her solutions seemed magical. Eladrea couldn’t fathom why Jacks, the farmer looking up at Conall, would come to Gwennin for missing kids though. “Conall, you can help too. Pixies took them!” Jacks’ eyes were huge. Conall visibly relaxed at the nonsense of the threat. “There are no such things as pixies, you old man. Stop drinking moonshine.” He turned to go back to his tea. “I’ll help,” Gwennin stepped forward, her small basket of remedies on her arm.

“He thinks it was pixies.” Conall stayed standing. “I’ll go with you, Jacks,” Eladrea said. “Conall can stay and finish his tea.” She gave Conall a tilted smile and followed Gwennin and Jacks out the door. Conall was at her heels in a moment. “I’m fine with forming a search party to find missing kids, I just don’t think pixies need to be involved.” Gwennin shot him a look over her shoulder, then turned back to the man leading them. “Now why do you think there were pixies involved, Jacks?” Jacks was taking them to the end of the village, the end that hit the wide farmlands. At least wide for a mountain village. “They left markers. The Florst boys, all three, and tiny Rubela. Missing. If it wasn’t the pixies, it would have been worse.” His voice dropped at that.

Pixies were childhood stories, usually told with a moral or lesson involved. The something worse would be the mythological fae, creatures from worlds beyond this one who could steal souls. Conall said nothing but stayed walking alongside Eladrea. Although he was acting affronted at the foolishness of blaming missing kids on pixies, Eladrea noticed that he was paying a lot more attention to everything around them than he previously had. The fields were empty, but a few pieces of wood were stuck in at the edge of the forest. Conall moved ahead of the others. “I don’t think it’s pixies, but let me go first. Our warrioress in training can back me up.” He nodded to Eladrea. Gwennin put a hand on Jacks and let the other two pass. “We can wait. Let the young ones go in first, Jacks.”


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Updated: 10 March 2021 — 16:55

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