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By: Lisa Ann McLean

 

The sun was rapidly descending into the jagged, snow-trimmed trees, leaving a trail of flame-tipped, purple clouds in its wake. It was a spectacle of colour—gold, coral red, orange—that was tinting the world a soft blush. It threw colour onto the pale face that watched it, glittered in the black eyes, even streaked wild mane of ebony hair that framed the face, dancing through the iridescent jewels that glittered challenging pink back at the disappearing sun.

The sun was always quick to leave these days, the watching Goblin thought as his black eyes followed the last flames of sun above the trees. Quick to leave, and slow to arrive again. It seemed the sun didn’t like winter any more than he did.

Then why let it come, he thought accusingly at the sun, why let it come at all?

“He was like this when he was back at the village, too, you know.”

The voice, which had been long silent, startled him with its abrupt recurrence. He turned away from the colour explosion in the west to face Isidia. She was still cutting the last of the rabbit in pieces and tossing it into the bubbling stew over the small, struggling fire. It was already starting a rich aroma that was beginning to make him salivate.

“He would always obsess over something and go running off on some idiotic quest for revenge or sex or some stupid thing like that. Like he did with that Ylf. It’s how he lost his dick in the first place.”

Agrath could not help but smile at that. The dickless king. It was kind of a running joke—when his majesty wasn’t around to overhear. As he wasn’t right now—which was the impetus of this conversation.

Agrath shrugged, opting for silence. Isidia lifted her eyes from her stew, looking hard at him for several moments. The reddish glow from the sunset had deepened, highlighting her flame-red hair and the jewels within it like sparks and embers. It burned away the gaunt winter paleness in her skin, and heated her to vivacious life. She looked like a part of the cooking fire—like she had risen from it. A fire-nymph. She was actually quite lovely. He would have to tell her that later…

“It doesn’t matter anyways, Isidia,” Agrath replied, forcing his eyes from her and shaking off his sudden infatuation. “He is our king, and so we wait.”

“He doesn’t have to be.”

Agrath blinked, raising his eyebrows at the impact of her comment.

“Is that a challenge? Or treason?”

“One is like the other. What does it matter?” Her eyes glittered with menace. “I’m faster than he is at both sword and arrow. And he is… not what he once was. I would challenge any of the men here and win. You know I would, Agrath.”

Again, Agrath remained silent. Isidia was right about her prowess, but it wasn’t speed that made Zarian a dangerous opponent…

“He’s treacherous, Isidia. And unstable.”

“As his absence indicates,” Isidia shot back.

Agrath looked uneasy. He wasn’t sure he was liking the direction this conversation was taking. No one had challenged Zarian since the fulfillment of the Prophecy. He had, after all, kept what was left of them together after the Ylf-chasers went off into the woods to repent. A snort of disgust escaped him. Gutless traitors. Of course, Zarian kept traipsing off like this, too. Who knows where he went? He was probably still looking for that Ylf-girl he was so infatuated with. Maybe Isidia was right. Why were they following Zarian anyway? Every year they raided and pillaged and stole and scraped a living between Zarian’s mood swings, and they were still starving and desperate. Nothing was back the way it had been, as Zarian had promised. Agrath sighed. Nothing would ever be the way it had been, would it? Never again. The Ylfs were right—and that left the Goblins with what? A dissatisfied writhing began in the pit of his stomach. He turned back to the sunset, which was nothing but a blood-red stain on blue-grey clouds now. The sight of it made him want to see Zarian’s blood stain the snow like that…

“I say we leave in the morning,” Isidia was saying, “Zarian or no.”

Agrath refused to look at her. “He said to wait. Maybe he went back to that woman's house,” he replied uneasily. “Maybe something happened…”

“Maybe she killed him,” Isidia said carelessly, hopefully.

Agrath finally turned incredulous eyes to Isidia.

“What would you do, Isidia?” he argued. “Take over leadership? Just like that?”

“Why not?” Isidia flared. “It’s what he did! We’re nothing but a band of renegades now, anyway. I could lead this motley crew better than that useless pig!” She made a disgusted gesture towards the blackening forest. “He’s not coming back—he’s off on another one of his stupid crusades! I say we go! And if he does return”—her voice dropped to a threatening, husky tone—“he’ll have me to deal with.”

Agrath shook his head, trying to drive the smile from his face. This was ludicrous—or was it? To be honest, he had about had it with Zarian’s antics himself. And he had heard the whispers of the others. Under Isidia, they would move as a group. And, knowing Isidia, they would not stop moving. Would not sit for days while their ruler brooded over some dark disturbance in the past that was past and unchangeable. They would focus on the future: On the next raid. On the next meal. And in time, perhaps, on the next home…

“Okay,” he said, “I’m with you.”

Her eyes turned to him, the fire and intensity of them lighting into his own. She was reckless—but so was he. So were they all. That was how they had survived. Isidia would have no trouble. And, he thought with a rush of passion that he was not sure was only the simple excitement of treachery, he would see to it that she did not…

“Did I mention to you,” Agrath said, taking a step towards Isidia, “how beautiful you are right now?”

Isidia rolled her eyes, but could not (or did not?) hide the invading smile that tilted her lips.

“Shut up,” she said, “and have some stew.”

* * *

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