The tiny boats rocked gently as they entered the deeper waters. Waves broke upon the exposed reef where the first of the lunar crabs crawled from the ocean. Row upon row gathered before the moon in obeisance to the stoic god of the night. At their feet the reaper fish boiled and frothed sensing the snare closing around their necks. Higher and higher climbed the sparkling crabs assembling their babbling tower to the heavens until every last member had its place into the living wall. Now the fishermen would get fill their nets. The black scaled reapers, cheated of their death banquet, turned to flee finding themselves faced with barbed nets. The tiny boats began to turn back toward the shore pulled by the eager mass of fish determined to escape certain doom. Harder and harder they pushed thrusting with their tails, wriggling and writhing until their spiny scaled interlocked sealing their fate.
Fires ignited with hunger all along the shoreline as the fishermen hauled their catch up onto the freshly exposed sand. Children ran back and forth between the fires their silver bladed knives glinting in the moonlight as they gutted and split the fish. Some they cooked others they rubbed with salt and hung in readiness to cure in the morning sun.
Among the toddlers ran the human girl Lo, a dark skinned child with the same raven hair as her mother and brightest brown eyes imaginable. Her countenance was of the eaten provinces another inheritance of her mother. She was a thing of beauty with a voice beyond her years. She would utter things no mortal could know. Since the day of her birth when her expectant mother was pulled from the burning wagon and taken into Voy by Lon, her adoptive father, her voice has been heard as cry unto heaven.
“Mummy,” Lo ran to her mother. Xianto knelt in the soft sand her arms held ready to scoop up her child. “Whee,” Lo squealed as her mother spun her around and around. Other children gathered about her legs begging for a turn.
“If only I was an octopus,” Xianto smiled at the excited children gathered about her. Reaching over the eager arms waggling in the air she stood Lo at the back to await another turn. Lo plopped herself down and scooped sand over her legs patting it firmly with her tiny hands. She was smaller than other children her age, her clothes hung around her slim frame waiting for her to grow into them. Lo threw herself back onto the sand her long black hair splayed out around her. She giggled at a face she saw in the stars, then laughed as the stars winked back. It was a game she liked to play every night before sleep. Xianto knew Lo would never sleep until she had said goodnight to the one who watched over them.
Xianto collapsed beside Lo, tired from playing with the children. Some of them had followed her and were busily trying to bury Xianto’s legs in the sand. But they would not stop there, soon only her head remained visible. “Oh no, now we will have to sleep on the beach.”
“Yay,” Lo leapt from her sandy cocoon throwing herself on top of her mother she planted a huge wet kiss on her cheek then settled down to sleep complete with loud snores.
“I cannot sleep buried in sand little lady, I am not a crab,” Xianto’s hands burst from the sand raising Lo aloft.
“Can I help?” Lon swept Lo from Xianto’s hands tossing her above his head. She seemed to pause in the air before falling back into his strong arms. I have rescued you from the sand beast, princess. What is my reward?” A gentle breeze ruffled the hair on Lon’s neck as he bowed before his maiden fair.
“Fish,” Lo twirled around falling back into her mother’s arms as she dusted the sand from her blouse.
“Fish?” Lon looked back over his shoulder toward the merriment on the beech, “must I fetch my own reward?”
“Too tired,” Lo faked a yawn.
“Then I had best get the little lady to bed. The moon is already dipping a toe in its bath. Soon the sun will come and chase him away.” Xianto tickled Lo who screamed and ran back to join the other children in the celebrations. “Thank you, my good knight.” Xianto gripped Lon’s hand allowing herself to be pulled up from her sandy bed.
“Where does one so thin get the strength to run all day?” Lon chuckled.
“Your children are no different, they have boundless energy. Look at them.” Xianto lunged after a child as it ducked through her legs, “they have spent the entire day running in the surf, do they show any signs of slowing?”
“But our children are tougher. Their bones are strong and their muscles are already there. Lo looks frail beside them.” Lon lifted a young boy and threw him high into the air. The child tumbled over to land on his feet and ran to join his friends. The adults shared food with each other laughing heartily as they swapped stories of old.
“Has there been anything from my husband?” Xianto turned Lon to face her, her green eyes sparkled in the moonlight.
“We have not been beyond our borders. The warlock has barred the southern border and the thorns are not our ally.” Lon’s shoulders sank at Xianto’s gaze, “and Northshire is a plague land we cannot cross. A curse hangs over that land the like of which I do not want here.”
“You think it would pass among you?” Xianto tilted her head to one side.
“Not us, you.” He touched Xianto’s nose with blackened nail, she wriggle her nose but her gaze never faltered. “What can I do? I can only take you to Luz, what would they do to you in that sin riddled pit.”
“I trust you Lon. I have seen all the borders. And while I can pass through them all I would rather be here than any of those. Northshire has the sweet reek of death and the the dead to not rest there. The Thorns are beyond my reckoning and an invite from the king I do not have. As for Gnell,” Xianto hung her head. “There is evil there.”
“You have been out of the village… alone?” Lon raised one end of his eyebrow.
“Indeed,” Xianto pursed her bright red lips. “I often venture into the woodland. The saplings remind me of the bamboo forests of my home.”
“Karlo will kill you the moments you set foot in his territory.” Lon scratched at the long hair on his neck.
“I set no foot on any ground,” Xianto bit her bottom lip. Lon pointed a finger at her, scratched his head and sighed. “I would do nothing to endanger you and your people. Just being here is enough for that. Come, let us eat before all the good fish are taken.”
A hint of morning was kissing the moon goodnight as the black sky gave way to purple and crimson. The stars winked out one by one as a silent curtain fell. The moon took a bow and made its exit by the western door. Xianto held Lo in her arms as they sat and watched the sun climb in the west scattering glitter over the sea and envelop itself in a crystal blue morning gown. And there they sat until at last they were alone with just the shushing of surf for company.
Lon watched over them throughout the day. He shuddered off the brush of cold wind carrying on its back a rainbow scarab whose wings rattled an eerie lament as it droned south along the beach. The beetle with its long hooked pincers and shimmering carapace flew an unerring course toward its intended prey. Catching a sudden thermal it rose up over the escarpment drifted across the susurrous grass into the dark embrace of the woods. There the messenger meandered: seeking trails, catching scents, drawing ever closer. Onward, southward toward its goal more than a day away. Never resting, the rainbow warrior flitted through spears of light stabbing through the forest canopy. Passing through shadows visible only to the compound eye the sheath-winged evangelist homed in on its target. As the day folded into the embrace of night the light of the rainbow flickered and died. The beetle dropped from the air, landing on its serrated legs, gently vibrating. The vibration quickened into a whirring buzz as the insect burrowed into the wood and vanished.
Morning crept across Nitewold in a veil of long shadows. Fingers of light probed the forest floor searching for flora to awaken. Young ferns unfurled in the gentle warmth stretching out their filament fronds to bask in the life giving radiance of the sun. Voles snuffled about in the leaf litter snaffling up grubs with lightning reflexes. Slowly the spotlights arced to vertical as the noon day sun strut across the deep blue sky.
Something larger stalked through the undergrowth. Heavy pads trampled the new growth tearing at its soft flesh with with razor claws. Thick furred legs rippling with muscles desperate to give chase tracked through the woodland, patrolling, not hunting.
“Another night passes without intrusion,” a guttural voice grated. “Will they come?” The black fur around its crimson lips slick with yellow spit.
“I think it unlikely now,” his auburn fur shone as Karlo bathed in a pool of sunlight. “Goblins have never our worry. Vargor and those stinking undead are another matter,” he grated in his gravel tones. He never heard the whir of wings. Never saw the descending rainbow. Never felt it nestle in the thick fur behind his ear. But he did taste the tang of the sea air carried on the gentle breeze. Though Karlo never caught the words of his friend he did feel the wing tickle his ear in a soft whisper. The beetle raised its hind quarters funneling the gentle breeze through its wings where the message waited to be replayed.
“Kill the prophet.”