--Chapter Two: Winter and the Coming Storm
During the dinner hour, when a light crowd of five travelers (a typical nightly number for this time of the year) were talking heartily amongst themselves around a table and starting in on their third round of ale, an elf arrived: the first in a few weeks. Like most elves, he was blond and had the characteristic ears and sharp, refined features. He was of medium height and build, and he was currently unarmed. Isa recognized his face immediately, though his name escaped her until he made his introduction at the bar.
“Greetings, Isa of the Windmill Road! My, you get prettier every year, don’t you? I’m not sure if you remember me. I’m Diamo... I suppose you get too many elves running through here to keep track of us all, though.”
“Oh, no, actually,” Isa reassured him. “You do look familiar. If I recall correctly, you were with your wife the last time you came.”
“Ah, so you do remember! Yes, Anni is home right now. We agreed it would be best if I took this particular journey separately.”
“Really? Must either be important or dangerous... or both...” Isa had mastered the art of asking a question in the form of a sentence; she found it to be one of the best mind tricks to get customers to tell their most interesting stories.
Diamo caught on immediately and smiled. “Serve me a pint, and I’ll tell you all about it.”
She handed him one of the tavern’s best steins, and Diamo, as promised, told her everything:
“The Woodland suffered a pretty hard frost this year. I’m afraid many of the trees didn’t make it through. It’s been at least seventy years since a winter has been that harsh. The good news is, all of the animal creatures seem to have taken it well. Anni and I were fine; we elves and gnomes coped by using the less fortunate trees for firewood, and while it seems barbaric for and elf to chop a tree, it was necessary that one lost life be used to sustain many others. Such is the way of the world sometimes.
“All of us are now working to plant the seeds of these trees with the goal in mind of planting three new ones for each that fell. The effort is early, but with a little luck and a lot of skill, we should be able to do it...
“The fairies, as usual, flew south with the birds for the winter, and only two fortnights ago did we see the first of them return. They brought news from all over Aren Country—pirate hangings in Pril, wandering mages and sages and minstrels, smoke rising from a mountaintop in the South, where a dragon has long been rumored...”
“So you have heard at least some of this... I’m not surprised. Has anyone told you of what is happening in the East?”
Isa shook her head. “I hear the war’s still going, but it’s always been that way.”
Diamo checked over his shoulder to make sure the five men at the table were not paying attention to the conversation at the bar. Then the elf lowered his voice and said, “The fairies brought news of the war, and there are some startling new developments.”
Isa took the hint and lowered her voice as well. “Yes?”
“We heard it from every fairy that took refuge in the southeast: Desdon is pursuing a new tactic to win the war. The basic plan is for their forces to cut off all supply routes going into Incria, which means the north sea—not an issue until summer, when it will no longer be frozen—and the Windmill Road. It is still a design in the making, and the date of its execution is as of yet unclear. Also, I am not so certain the Desdon army would want to bring a sizable number of its troops anywhere near this far west when troops are a scarce enough resource already. They are undoubtedly weighing all options, though.
“On my mare, Hesra, I went directly over the fields and through the brooks all the way to Desdon to see if this were indeed the case. I saw every single suspicion of the fairies confirmed, and this when I had spent less than a day inside the city’s walls. The bottom line is that the war is moving westward. You may see human spies evaluating your village as a crucial point along the supply line for both cities, which makes sense in a way, given this town shares the name of the road. While this may be a brilliant tactical move for Desdon, though, it is one we woodlanders have always dreaded, since it brings the problems of mankind that much closer to our own homeland. Undoubtedly, a war would be bad for your little town as well.
“Listen: the woodlanders would hate to lose the ability to travel over the Windmill Road in peace, and your town has been very gracious to our kind for many generations. It is long since time we had an opportunity to repay you for your hospitality.”
Diamo reached under his collar and procured a piece of cloth tied to a string around his neck. The cloth was gray but showed a red and gold vertically striped shield on it.
“This is the seal of the Desdon army,” said the elf. “If you see it on a uniform in this town, you’ll know you are speaking to a spy. Also:”
With his left hand, he slipped the cloth back beneath his tunic, while with his right hand, he lifted a flap on one of his pantaloon pockets. A small fairy flew out, glowing a dull green. It landed on the bar.
Diamo took a chug of his as yet untouched pint and then said, “Isa, this is Cerie. Cerie, Isa.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Isa.
Cerie’s glow warmed for a second in reply.
“You may not be able to understand fairy language,” said Diamo. “But Cerie can understand you, at least. She’s agreed to stay in this town throughout the entire year until winter. She will mostly keep out of your way, but she has one very important instruction you should know: if your town is at all in trouble, or if it becomes clear the war will come here imminently, then on your command, Cerie will fly to the woodland. Then we creatures of the forest will come at once to defend your town.
“Please do not misunderstand me: it is my sincerest hope that this never becomes necessary. But the war is changing, and I would rather we play it safe. Do you understand?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Diamo drank the rest of his pint and said, once again up at his normal volume, “You’re most welcome, Miss Isa.”
At this point, the men at the table wanted yet another round of ale, but Jinn was there to wait on them, so Isa had nothing left to do that night after Diamo left for his room at the hotel.
Left with nobody else to talk to, Isa looked at the fairy—still an unidentifiable, glowing green sphere of mist to the naked eye.
“So what do we do now?” asked Isa.
The fairy squeaked and flew over her shoulder, onto a shelf where some of the tavern’s decorative glasses and plates rested. Cerie dimmed significantly, and Isa could hear her snore.
“I suppose it is getting late,” Isa mumbled as she looked at the clock. “But that’s still a pretty rude way to respond to a simple question.”
When Isa and Jinn closed up the tavern for the night, they walked out into the brisk night air, and the former told the latter about Diamo’s visit. Jinn, a twenty-year-old, tall, thin redhead who lived on a nearby farm, showed excitement at the mention of the war.
“It’s coming here? Oh, I don’t know if that’s bad or good. I mean, I hear war is supposed to be bad and all, but men in armor can be pretty hot...”
Isa sighed. “Is that all you think about?”
“Oh, you know I’m joking. I have no idea what a war is like. I guess I wouldn’t even know if I wanted one to come here or not until I actually saw it.”
“Diamo treated it like it was the worst thing in the world.”
“Well, if an elf says something like that, it’s usually true...” Then, after a pause, Jinn added, “So when can I meet this fairy?”
“I’ll show you tomorrow when she’s not asleep. She just flew over me one moment, and the next, I hear little squeaky snores.”
“Aw, how cute!”
Jinn went to the stables, where she mounted her horse for the late ride home. Isa simply crossed the street and opened her own front door. When the next morning came, Diamo was not there for breakfast, though he had left his tab for last night’s pint as part of his hotel room payment. Apparently, the elf had left just before sunrise, saying he was already late in his travels, and his wife would miss him back home.