Sometimes it's like magic, the stories just write themselves. From a few lines in The Coming Storm, one day I just saw Delae running to answer her door, hearing the banging on it, not knowing what would come out of the storm. I knew her heart and her duty. It wasn't just Delae's story though, it was Dorovan's, too. Dorovan, Elf, swordmaster, touched with an un-Elven wanderlust, who despite centuries of war couldn't ride past those in need or fail to offer comfort. Or to take it. A simple act of courage, trust, love and kindness, with far-reaching consequences, that would lead inevitably to the events of The Coming Storm...and change their world forever...
The pounding on the heavy wood of the doors of the homestead sounded loudly even above the shriek and howl of the storm raged outside. Pulling her threadbare robe on, only half-awake Delae ran across the cold stone floors in her bare feet to answer it, rubbing her eyes wearily. Doubtless her aged cook and houseman had been roused, too, by the pounding and were on their way from their quarters at the back of the homestead but she was the closer of them. She hated to ask either Petra or Hallis to sit by the door of a night as many landowners did anymore than she set a guard by the gates as many others did. They weren’t so far from the seat of the lesser Kingdom of Riverford that they had much to fear behind stout walls.
Who would be mad enough to be out in such a storm as this? she wondered. It was early in the night, true, but it was still insanity to be caught so far from shelter.
Lifting the bar, she set it aside and released the latch.
The door opened on a blast of wet snow and wind that struck her like a blow, nearly literally, to reveal a stranger standing there, looking windblown, frozen, battered and desperate. She caught him as he almost fell in the door, a young, plain-looking man, by the looks of him a farmer or tradesman, a traveler of some sort not used to the vagaries of the weather at the edges of the Kingdoms. His ragged brown hair was drenched, his clothing soaked, his skin white and his lips nearly blue from the cold.
“Help,” he whispered as he staggered into the relative warmth of the great room.
The fire in the great fireplace that dominated the whole of one wall was banked to coals but it still heated the room beyond the chill of the weather outside.
He was clearly injured, with blood covering one side of his face.
“My family,” he croaked, weakly, “the wagon, it overturned, we were on our way home from the birthing…”
“Hush, hush,” Delae said, gently, reassuringly, as she took his weight on her shoulders and guided him to the padded bench by the fire. “What’s your name?”
“Marlan. Lady, you have to help them…!”
“Of course I do,” she said, kindly, although it was no more than her duty as landowner, but also because people needed aid. “We’ll help them, I promised. What happened, Marlan? Where are they?”
“We were coming from Raven’s Nest, heading south for the Heartlands. My sister Jessa had her baby, we were coming home,” Marlan said. His next words were bitter and angry. “Pa thought we could make it to Riverford before the storm hit. I kept telling him no, we should stop at the last village but you can’t tell him anything. So we pressed on.”
As he spoke, Petra and Hallis rushed in. With a shake of her head, Delae indicated they shouldn’t speak.
There was no need, at the young man’s words both turned to rush back down the hall to do what was needed, Petra to get the kitchens going and Hallis to gather up blankets.
“I told him we needed to stop, hunker down to wait out the storm but he wouldn’t,” Marlan said. From the way he spoke, it had the sound of an old complaint, much voiced and now tragically vindicated. “The wagon overturned.”
“Where?” Delae asked. “On the road?”
“Yes, mistress,” he said, respectfully, as Hallis returned to drape a blanket over the young man’s shoulders.
Tall and spare, his gray hair sparse, Hallis’s hands were knotted with age, bent and twisted.
“Petra is making soup, my lady, there will be food soon,” Hallis said, his heart aching for his poor mistress as he bent stiffly to stir up the fire, wrestling another log into place.
Hallis looked at her there kneeling by the young man, a pretty young woman with a kind, gentle face and a good heart, as graceful as the dancer she’d been in her youth, her tightly curled hair glowing red and gold in the light of the coals, her dark blue eyes focused only on the young man.
In truth, most landowners would already have put him and Petra to work as drudges in the kitchens or as lesser house staff by now and there were a good many who would’ve put them out to beg on the streets. Neither of them could move fast any more.
Not Delae, though. For kindness mostly but also for good reason as there simply was no money to hire better, that good for nothing husband of hers took every penny she couldn’t hide. Still, she never ordered, she always asked and never complained of her lot in life. It wasn’t in her to do it.
A sharp petulant voice came from the door to the west wing of the house startling everyone.
“What’s going on, what’s all that racket? Can’t a body get some sleep of a night? Bad enough with this storm but then folk banging around…”
Closing her eyes, Delae willed patience as she had a thousand times before.
“It’s nothing, Cana. Travelers have broken down in the storm,” she said to her husband’s mother. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Then you must send aid,” the woman said, equally sharply, as if Delae were witless.
“This I know,” Delae said. “And I will. Go back to bed, Cana, I’ll take care of it.”
As she took care of everything else.
Despair and frustration weighed on her, battered at her soul. It was at rare times such as this that Delae wished she had a husband in truth instead of only in name. This would’ve been his duty had he been there, although she would have gone with him to brave the storm and give aid. Instead it fell to her. All of it.
She took a breath, willed strength and patience. These folk needed her. There was no one else and there was something, some satisfaction, to be found in the knowledge that she could help.
“Hmmmph,” Cana said and slammed the door shut behind her.
At least Kolan, her husband’s father, hadn’t come, too, Delae thought, which was one blessing, his joints bothered him too much on these days.
Letting out the breath she’d taken, with a wince at the door slam, Delae turned to Hallis.
“Go fetch Dan, Morlis and Tad for me would you please, Hallis? Tell Morlis we’ll need our hay cart, two of the draft horses and Besra. Then you and Petra get the rooms in the east wing ready.”
Those rooms were usually reserved for rare visitors to the homestead or for travelers such as these caught out in the storm. In this isolated part of the Kingdoms the smallholders used them most when they came in during the harsh days of winter, now fast upon them.
“Yes, Delae,” Hallis said and hurried off as best he could with his stiff joints and aching bones as Petra came down the hall toward him.
Their fingers touched for just a moment, his and Petra’s, with love and understanding and then Hallis hobbled down through the west wing of the quarters toward those of the south wing. It would take longer but he was too old to fight the winds of the storm by cutting across the square.
Petra came to sit by the boy, a mug of hot herbal tea laced with wine in one gnarled hand. She gave a nod to Delae.
“Help will be on its way shortly,” Delae said, laying a reassuring hand on the young man’s shoulder.
As she hurried away, she knew she wouldn’t tell him it would be she who would go. She, her smith, her wrangler and the addled but strong young man who assisted Petra in the kitchen.
That was all there were here save for the women and children of the homestead. All the smallholders were sheltering from the storm in the safety of their cottages and too far away to aid her.
It would have to be enough, it would have to do. Somehow.
Casting aside the threadbare robe and the thin linen nightdress she wore, Delae quickly drew on her working clothes―simple but heavy men’s winter trews, her heaviest tunic, layering over it a sweater Petra had knitted for her and thick woolen socks before she stamped her feet into her working boots. She threw her sturdiest cloak over all of it. A woolen scarf covered her abundant hair. She wrapped the scarf around her throat despite the itch of the wool before gathering up her sheepskin gloves.
She stopped to gather a jug of fortified wine from the storeroom, pausing in the kitchen to fetch a piece of warmed iron from the fire, letting it drop it into the jug of wine with a hiss before she pounded the cork stopper back in place.
By the time she reached the great room, the men were waiting.
Dan was huge and burly, heavily muscled in the chest, arms and shoulders from his hours at the forge and capable enough there. Tall and gangly, Morlis was a wonder with horses and a godsend to her. Poor Tad just looked at her with no curiosity, his huge hands dangling, his moon face waiting to be wreathed in a smile…or a look of confusion. But he was strong and he would do as he was told. For all that he was shorted on wits, he more than made up for it in other ways.
She patted his cheek lightly, fondly, and the smile broke out, big and broad, heartening her.
“I’ve the horses and wagon waiting outside,” Morlis said.
She nodded. “Tad, will you take the spare blankets and the jug to the cart please? We’re going for a ride. Dan, go open the hayloft, quickly please. If their wagon has overturned, they’ll be cold, possibly injured. We’ll need hay in the cart for warmth.”
Obediently, Tad gathered up the things and trotted out to the cart as Dan ran to the stables, Morlis on his heels to drive the little wagon there.
With a glance back at the warm building that had been her home for the last ten years or so, Delae went out into the storm.
It was an early winter storm and all the more fierce because of it, driven by the warm winds from the south and the cold winds sweeping down out of the mountains to the east and north. It was bitterly cold and damp, hurling snow before it that wouldn’t stick but would turn the roads muddy, slushy and thick.
A rumble of thunder growled above the other sounds of the storm. Thunder snow… uncommon but less so at this time of year. If this were any sign, it would be a long and hard winter.
Faithful Besra, her horse, tried to turn her back to the wind, her winter coat thick, yet still she shivered as Delae mounted.
Delae could sympathize as she turned the horse’s head toward where Dan forked hay into the cart. The cold seemed to find every gap in the layers that covered her.
“Enough, let’s go,” she shouted and he nodded, pulling the upper doors closed behind him, emerging seconds later at the door below with torches he’d lit at his forge.
He handed one up to her before mounting his own horse.
The gates were unbarred as they almost always were, save for the rare goblin raid this far to the south and west. Far from the borderlands and in a Kingdom where the King kept faith with his subjects by keeping the roads safe for those who lived within his borders, they had little to fear.
Except the storm.
The wind struck with vicious force the moment they left the security of the walls, rattling the little wagon and nearly blowing Delae from her horse.
Still there was no help for it, as landowner here it was her responsibility to render aid, regardless of circumstances.
Putting her head down, Delae drew her cloak more tightly around her throat.
In the wind of the storm, the torches and lanterns on the cart guttered and flickered. Delae could barely hang onto hers, but she did, switching it from hand to hand to give each cold aching wrist and arm relief. Both were strained and sore by the time they finally reached the road.
With no sign of the passage of a wagon south, they turned north and soon enough found the stranded travelers, huddled together for warmth in the shelter of the overturned wagon. One horse was down, tangled in its traces, still kicking weakly as the other fought to stay upright with his fellow fallen beside him.
Delae’s heart sank at the sight.
The wagon was huge, a massive farm wagon, far larger than she’d expected, put to use no doubt for the family visit to distant relatives, the last such chance to do so before the snows closed the pass to Raven’s Nest. As it no doubt would be now.
It was easy enough to see what had happened. As the mud had grown thicker it had bogged the wheels of the wagon until they’d hit a low wallow. There the wheels on one side had caught completely, pulling them off the road. The wagon had gone over in a slow but inevitable roll onto its side. Now one side of the wagon was mired in the mud, making it far more difficult to raise.
There had to be more than a dozen people there, a few men but mostly women and children, all shivering in the cold. One of the men ― Marlan’s father? ― was also injured.
It was clear the cart would never hold all of them. They would have to right the wagon.
One of the other men cried out to her in relief as he staggered to his feet.
“Thank God you’ve come!” he said as she dismounted.
“How many are injured?” she shouted over the wind. “And how badly?”
“Forman is the worst,” the man responded. “He struck his head. One of the children has a broken arm. The rest are only bruises.”
That was a relief. Their thick clothes and hay had likely softened the fall, preventing more injuries.
“Get Forman and the child in the cart and as many of the other children as you can. There are blankets there. Try to get them warm,” she said, as she fought the wind and mud to have a look at the wagon. “Dan, I need you. Morlis, help them. Tad, keep the horses still.”
She slogged through the frozen mud.
At least the axle hadn’t broken. That had been her worst fear, as it would have made everything much harder. Otherwise, they would’ve had to take them back in stages with the fragile cart, each trip risking another accident such as this one while those remaining waited in the freezing cold.
If they could even get the wagon turned over and that was very doubtful.
The storm raged around them as Delae held her torch high examining the situation.
“If we cut the traces of the fallen horse,” Dan said, grimly, “we’ll lose pull.”
With a sigh, Delae nodded. That had been her assessment as well.
They’d never get the wagon out and there would be nothing to secure the draft horses to the wagon then. One horse couldn’t pull it alone but perhaps they could rig something.
Either way it meant the death of the horse on the ground. Without untangling it they’d never get the wagon righted and if they tried it would likely break one of the horse’s legs, if not worse. The way it thrashed she wouldn’t risk the life of whoever she asked to unbuckle it. Her heart grieved for the poor animal. She couldn’t ask Morlis to do it nor have the children watch.
Which left her. She sighed.
If they could even get the wagon righted with what they had.
They had to try.
Coming around the wagon, she eyed the situation.
Morlis had gotten the two injured and all of the younger children into the cart.
With a nod, she turned to the man she’d spoken to first.
Tugging his forelock in respect, he said, “Pell, Lady.”
“Pell. Who among the women is best with the children?”
“Yana,” the man said and a young woman turned at the sound of her name, holding her thin cloak closed around her head with one hand.
“Morlis,” Delae said, “Give everyone on the cart a swallow of the wine to warm them and then leave it with those who remain to keep them warm. Leave the draft horses here. Take Yana up with you, get her, the children and the injured back to the homestead. Have Petra put them in the east wing rooms. If we aren’t back by daylight, return.”
She wouldn’t risk him coming back alone in this weather. If they didn’t get the wagon righted and on its way whoever survived the storm this night would get a ride back to the homestead in the morning. Already the cold was numbing Delae’s fingers and toes. Young Yana shivered badly.
The man nodded.
“Everyone else,” Delae said, “get back among the trees. We’re going to try to right the wagon.”
The little cart with its passengers trundled off, taking with it the dim light cast by its lanterns.
The remaining women and the older children took what little shelter they could beneath the trees. The remaining two men held the torches.
Delae turned back to the overturned wagon.
Dan and Pell waited, Tad behind them looking confused, Pell’s face already pale and set, knowing what needed to be done.
Clearly, she couldn’t ask it of him, either, and she would much prefer to do the deed herself, so it would be done as quickly as well and as painlessly as possible.
“Dan, Pell,” she said, “secure the draft horses to the rails of the wagon so they can pull as we lift but wait until I signal I’m ready. Tad, help them by holding the horses.”
She went to her knees beside the head of the thrashing chestnut horse, wary of its kicking forelegs, its tossing head hampered by the tangled traces and laid her hand on its cheek, looking into the one eye she could see. The white there clearly showed its fear. For a moment it stilled, distracted by her touch. Her heart went out to it as she stroked its rough hide and she drew her belt knife.
That was how Dorovan first saw her, kneeling in the mud by the overturned wagon. To his Elven-sight her brilliant hair was a bright splash of red against the light dusting of snow on the ground as she bent her head. Brightness sparkled on her cheeks as she touched the frightened, tangled horse gently.
Nearby three men secured draft horses to the upraised side of the wagon while a group of men, women and a young boy stood nearby beneath the dubious shelter of the trees.
It wasn’t his business, it was a thing of men. He knew he should pass by, unseen in the darkness, his Elven-sight rendering everything to him as clear as day, unlike that of the men and women here.
He was cold as well, chilled to the bone, tired, heartsick and far from home.
It had been a long journey from Lothliann in the north, where he had gone to render aid against the Borderlands creatures, through the Rift and the lands Men called Raven’s Nest. They’d lost one of their Hunters to the goblins and his people grieved the loss along with Melis’s soul-bond.
As he himself did, his heart heavy. Even without a soul-bond of his own, through the empathy his people shared he knew a fraction of what it was to suffer such a loss. His heart ached for Melis. She would go on to the Summerlands soon, he knew. And then his people would lose not one, but two.
To his vision it was clear the small party was unlikely to right the heavy wagon, not with what they had to work with, but it was also quite clear they would try. There was nothing else for it.
It was also clear what the woman on the ground was about to do, however much she clearly dreaded it and how necessary it was… If he didn’t intervene. With the storm it was also likely they would all freeze and die out here if they didn’t succeed.
Dorovan had had enough of death.
Taking a breath, Delae set the blade to the horse’s throat. She didn’t think she could successfully put it through the eye and thus into the brain―nor could she bear to do so, but she could cut its throat if she was quick. The thought of it made her want to weep but she steeled herself to do what must be done.
A strong, long-fingered hand settled over her own, stilling it.
Startled, she turned her head to look.
Shock and amazement at who stood there held her rooted to the spot.
Not who, though, so much as what.
She wasn’t certain in that moment or any moment afterward which held her more immobile, that an Elf had appeared at her side, that he was an Elf, that he was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen, as most Elves were, or the seemingly bottomless depth of the kindness in his silvery gray eyes. Or the grief and sorrow hidden in the depths, moving like shadows in the flickering light of the torch.
His features were perfect, strong, his smooth skin reddened a little with the cold beneath the hood of his cloak, his long straight hair streaming loose in the wind.
It was as if she were held spellbound and yet she knew she wasn’t. Elven magic didn’t work that way.
Rarely did her folk see Elves out here in the outlands and never one alone given the danger from her own kind, although she certainly knew of that aloof and beautiful race. Everyone did, as they knew of the Dwarves who dwelled deep in the earth in their Caverns.
What was he doing out in this storm so far from an Enclave? There was none close that she knew of and the storm would slow even his Elven-bred horse, standing patiently nearby. She hadn’t even heard its approach.
Empathic as he was, beneath the thick scarf covering her bright hair, Dorovan could see a woman of warmth and of spirit, of infinite tenderness, her blue eyes filled with both grief at what she was about to do, the determination and duty that was required to do it and wonder to see him there beside her. His kind and hers rarely interacted.
“Do not,” he said, gently. “I can hold him still, if you can but unbuckle the harness.”
Dorovan often worked with the horses in Talaena Enclave and the horses of men were much less headstrong than those, so keeping the animal still was only a matter of empathy with it, of sinking his awareness into that of the animal trembling beneath his hands.
It was on Delae for a moment to ask if he was certain, but he was Elf, so of course he was. If he said it, he was. There was that about Elves that they didn’t lie, it going so against their Honor.
Then he laid his strong, long-fingered hands on the horse, one on the horse’s strong neck, the other covering its eye, murmuring soft words as he did and it stilled completely.
“Dan, Pell, Tad, help me,” she said, softly, not wanting to disturb the Elf’s concentration.
Both seemed as dumbstruck by the presence of the Elf as she’d been, staring at him in amazement.
“Dan, Pell,” she called, more sharply, tugging her gloves from her nearly frozen fingers to work the straps free of the buckles. “Tad.”
That broke their suspension and they rushed to help her, Tad goggling owlishly at the Elf, something he’d never seen.
Still it took all of Dan and Tad’s muscle to lift and Delae’s and Pell’s efforts to get the harness unfastened from beneath the horse. Then it was free and she turned to the Elf.
As lightly as a feather, the woman touched Dorovan on the shoulder, letting him know he could release his control of the horse.
It surprised him she would know his people didn’t like to be touched by anyone other than other Elves, but even that brief touch told him much about her, including the knowledge that she possessed an empathy he’d thought uncommon among the people of men. Still, he couldn’t help but be grateful for it and for her consideration.
He looked up into her blue eyes and nodded, stepping back carefully, drawing her back with him with a touch to her shoulder as the horse thrashed to its feet.
Quickly he reached out to grasp the frightened animal by its halter.
“Pell,” Delae called. “Come help us get the horse harnessed. Have one of the women hold it.”
The other man nodded while Dan took the reins of the other horses.
Delae looked at the Elf hesitantly. “I can’t ask you for more than you’ve done…”
With a grave nod, Dorovan said, “But I can offer it.”
The gratitude in her eyes was thanks enough.
“I’m Delae,” she offered.
“Dorovan,” he said.
She smiled, her blue eyes warming, turning her beautiful.
Borrowing the traces from wagon, he set them on his own Charis, the Elven horse shaking himself at the feel of the leather on him before settling. The Elven-bred stallion knew his duty here, it didn’t need to be said. Dorovan attached the traces to the sturdiest rails on the side of the wagon. Before they could move it, first they must right it.
Even so, it wouldn’t be an easy task. It would take all of his strength and more to achieve it.
“Do you want to do this?” Delae asked.
He shook his head. “They are your people.”
Relieved, Delae turned briskly to the others.
This just might be possible, now.
“Dan,” she called, “get the horses moving forward, slow and steady. Pull them back as soon as the wagon starts to break free of the mud, as soon as it starts to go. Pell, Tad, I’ll need you with myself and Dorovan.”
The four of them bent to the wagon, dug their fingers into the thick mud to find the edge of the wagon bed. She only hoped the rails above would hold as the Elven-bred pulled against them.
Her gaze turned to the Elf beside her.
Somehow, it didn’t surprise Dorovan to find Delae crouched down beside him and them in the mud to lend what strength she had to lifting the massive wagon. He could only admire her, who wouldn’t spare herself.
“Now,” she shouted and the man Dan called to the draft horses, shaking the reins to get them pulling.
Charis needed no instruction, throwing his great weight against the traces.
At the side of the wagon, Delae, Dorovan, Tad and Pell heaved.
There was a pause and then they felt it begin to move, to shift. With a wet sucking sound it pulled free.
All of them leaped back as Delae shouted, “Stop!”
The wagon tilted free of the mud, paused for a moment teetering on its side and then it fell back to all four wheels with a crash, a rail broken, a little the worse for wear, but whole enough to get the remainder of the travelers back to the homestead.
Delae shivered with the cold and turned to Dorovan.
“Our thanks,” she said, softly. “I can offer you hospitality, shelter and food, for your help, if nothing else, but also as my duty as landowner. It won’t be Elven fare, but it will be hot and there’ll be a warm bed.”
It was the least she could do.
For a moment Dorovan hesitated, despite the wind cutting through his clothing, the cold, his heaviness of spirit. It was a long way yet to Talaena, though.
“I can guarantee you privacy and peace,” she said, very gently, reaching out to touch his hand with just her fingertips, no more. “No one should be out in a storm such as this, Dorovan. The food will be plain but good and warm. There will be a hot bath, a bed for you and a stall for your horse with plenty of oats.”
The gesture touched him. Her blue eyes were calm, steady. The offer was a kind and honest one.
It was no more or less than any Elven Enclave would offer and he was far from home. In gratitude, Dorovan inclined his head.
For Delae, a lonely landholder on the edge of the Kingdoms, a frantic knock at the door on a stormy winter's night brings more than a cry for help.
After centuries of war Elves have little contact with the race of men, but Dorovan can't bring himself to ride past those so obviously in need.
One small act, with enormous consequences. Not Magic Enough is a tale of love and honor, duty and determination, that sets in motion a chain of events that will change their world forever.
Not Magic Enough - A KND quality book. A Top Ten Romance - Fantasy novel on Smashwords for July
Book trailer - http://www.youtube.com/user/Baycat57?feature=mhee#p/u/2/9mjhi_Lg7Uk