Alton & Velda Part 22 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerThe men have vanquished Eleion. Now, they seek the women. Using tears as energy, the women are able to send a beacon to the men, guiding them to their tower.

With a gasp, Astrid sat up, nearly dumping her friend on the floor. “Revanth!” She reached out for him, but the dream faded. She had seen him as the man he’d been; black haired, handsome, well muscled. Her heart fluttered as she settled back, leaning on the wall.

“Sister, is something wrong?” Velda sat up.

“No. I think—I hope—I believe that Revanth has been restored. I don’t know how, but somehow he and Alton have broken the curse upon him. We need to try…. Do you have any magic left?”

“Very little. But I think we need to tap into your own. You are a magical creature, Astrid. If I’m not mistaken, there is a wood sprite or a dryad in your family. Not so far gone…. A grandmother, perhaps? It is from the female side.”

Astrid wasn’t sure if she believed her friend or not, but there was something other worldly about her mother’s mother. Together, they devised a plan, whispering softly so that they would be less likely to be overheard. Though they had no reason to believe they were being spied upon, they had less reason to believe they were not.

“Do you think it will work?” Astrid breathed.

“It has to.”

Alton felt drive to reach the women as quickly as possible. The urgency to find them was almost more than he could bear. Unfortunately, he had no idea how far away they were, or what he and Revanth would face in terms of opposition. His worry and desire warred with common sense and he had to force himself to rest and eat. Interestingly, it was the impatient Revanth, who preached caution and a more leisurely pace. Though he felt the same urgency, his soldier’s training was hard to set aside.

Once again, the woodland creatures helped them, providing food, shelter and guidance. After three days of hard travel, they came to the end of the woods. Ahead lay a white water river. Beyond were green fields and rolling hills. Having never been this way before, both men were understandably wary of a path that looked so innocent. Although their journey on foot would be easier, Alton would have preferred not to walk. There was a small city on the other side, perhaps large enough to have horses for sale or hire. Revanth wasn’t wild about the idea, but he had to admit the logic of obtaining them.

They spent the night at a small, cozy inn by the river’s edge. The ferry didn’t run after dusk. Given the waters they traversed, Alton understood why. The way would be dangerous even in daylight. It wasn’t rock and stone that made the way so rough. He spied naiads among the roiling waves. After supper, he wandered down to the riverside and lowered his hand into the water, calling softly, “Sisters!”

There was a splash and he was drenched in a chilly wave of fresh river water. A young naiad swam to the bank. She was not more than ten summers old, hardly more than a child.

“Who are you to claim kinship, wood sprite?”

“Sir Alton of Lyndon Meade, mate to Velda of Flowing River. She was taken by a puka, and I am searching for her, to bring her safely home.”

The girl frowned, “Let me get my sisters. I don’t know anything about pukas.”

She dove with another splash. She had to be doing it on purpose, because no naiads were that clumsy. Moments later, three women joined the young one. They swam over, their faces impassive.

“You are Alton? Our mother is a kinswoman of Velda’s. How may we aid you?

Alton repeated his story. The eldest frowned.

“This is very bad, brother.”

“Yes, even now, my friend and I seek our lady loves. We could use your assistance.”

“On one condition.”

It was Alton’s turn to frown. “I never heard of naiads striking deals with family.”

“And you are not our family. You are the man who lured our mother’s sister from her home. Because of you, she will not birth daughters to add to our numbers. So you will give us something for our help.”

“If it is mine to give….”

“Your friend is human?”

“Yes.”

“We demand his seed.”

“His—what?”

“The three of us are in season. We want children, but our sisters have mated with the men near here, and have gotten only sons. We need daughters. If your friend will mate with us, we will help you. Otherwise….”

Completely flummoxed, Alton sat back hard on his rear.

“It is a fair deal,” the eldest said. “His seed for our help.”

“A request of such magnitude…. It is for Revanth to decide.”

“What is for Revanth to decide?”

Alton jumped, not having heard his friend approach. Turning, he smiled sheepishly.

“The ladies have a proposal.”

“How does it concern me?”

“We need your seed,” the eldest replied.

“My—um—oh!” Embarrassed and surprised, he stepped away, scratching the back of his head.

“My sisters and I want children, but the men here sire sons. We have enough sons. We need new blood.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 21 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerFree from his enchantment, Revanth kills Eleion. He thinks he’s broken the deal between them, but because of a little clever word play on Alton’s part, he didn’t.

Holding his belly, Revanth laughed loudly as the swampland around them went wild. Furious, the land and plants, which had sustained Eleion for so long, did their best to seek their mistress’ revenge.

“Soon, they will calm down,” Old Jon assured them. “When the life returns, and they are no longer under her spell.”

“When will that be?” Revanth asked.

“It will be better by tomorrow,” Old Jon promised. “Nature is resilient. Now that she’s gone, I can reclaim what she stole and make it whole once more. The death of the dryads, I cannot counter, but I can bring forth new life, new trees.”

“But how? Are you a wizard or a god?”

“I go by many names. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will share one with you. Tonight, we celebrate, sleep and dream of better things.” He led them in the house, inviting them to sit.

The meal was delicious and filling. Along with the food, Old Jon provided mead the color of sunlight. It filled the men with warmth and made them sleepy. Curling up in their cloaks, they lay down on their palettes and slept until mid-morning.

When they woke, they found another meal waiting for them. This time, no horse food was necessary. Both men partook of the thick, rich, sweet porridge Old Jon had prepared. It was full of nuts and honey, as well as dried fruits and fresh berries. Feeling well satisfied, they gathered their belongings and went looking for their host. They found him walking the perimeter of his land, singing. The tune filled them with joy. The land around looked better, for the night without Eleion. New green flushed the dried, dead foliage. Small trees already sprouted from the ground. The land itself was less spongy and muddy. The air was sweeter, less heavy.

After thanking Old Jon, the two men made their way on foot across the damp ground. Only the deepest pools of water lingered, but the land had recuperated well overnight. Alton suspected Old Jon had something to do with that.

“What do you suppose he meant about having many names?” Revanth said as he adjusted his pack.

Alton pointed to something on one of the trees.

“It’s a face!” Revanth said after a long look.

It was the face of an old, bearded man. Smiling, he wore a wreath of leaves around his head. His chubby face curled in a smile, his tongue sticking out playfully.

“I’ve seen such things before,” Alton said. “I do believe, my horsey friend, we have been walking amongst the lands of a primordial god.”

“You’re joking, surely. What would a god be doing here in the swamp? And how could he not battle Eleion?”

“Perhaps he brokered a deal that went wrong? Or perhaps it wasn’t his battle to fight? We may never know. For now, accept the fact we’ve been in the presence of the Green Man, and we made a friend of him.”

Chuckling, the two of them walked many miles. They weren’t sure they were going the right direction, but it seemed almost as if they could smell the women on the wind. Although Revanth had lost his horse shape, many of the characteristics remained. His sight and sense of smell were better than that of a human’s. He could also hear better. His stamina was nearly equal to Alton’s, and he kept up with the wood sprite with ease.

After several hours, they stopped for a meal and a drink of water. With no clear plan in mind, they talked at great length about what they could do to battle the puka. Its master might be problematic, but they considered the puka the greater threat.

“How do you know which way to go?” Revanth asked his wood sprite friend.

“Don’t you feel them? Something pulls me, and I know it’s Velda. I can no more explain it, than I can tell you how the grass grows and wind blows—but it does just the same.”

Revanth closed his eyes, listening to the wind. He thought he heard Astrid’s voice calling to him. A breeze brought her scent to his nostrils and he smiled. “I do, brother. Somehow….”

“They are calling to us,” Alton finished.

Velda sighed softly, exhausted from the effort. She had Astrid had spent the last hour sending a message to Alton and Revanth. It wasn’t much more than a sense of direction, but it was all they could manage. With only a drop of tears to fuel her, Velda was soon out of energy. Astrid could add a little to it, but her powers were as yet untapped. She had no idea what she could do.

“Rest, Sister,” Astrid said, stroking Velda’s hair. “The men will find us as soon as they are able. Revanth will not rest until he finds me.”

“He will, because Alton will make him,” Velda smiled, remembering her lover. “While it sounds romantic, it is impractical.”

Astrid giggled. “Yes, true. Now, you rest, and try not to worry.”

Unable to keep her eyes open another moment, Velda slept with her head on Astrid’s lap. The human woman sang softly, stroking the lush, blue hair. She sang songs of the sea, all that she could remember. Her folk were of the forest, but there was a massive seaport to the northeast of her home. She imagined the crying of gulls, the splash of fish, and the chuckles of dolphins. Soon, she too, was asleep with her back and shoulders against the prison wall.

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 20 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerRevanth and Alton have found Eleion. Alton speaks to her, asking for aid. When she refuses, he uses a spell to raise her from the ground, cutting her connection with the swamp. While she’s incapacitated, he binds her with an oath.

He continued to bind her will and intentions, giving her the Deal Maker’s Oath. It was equally binding to both parties. If she wanted to be protected, she had to accept.

“Do I have your promise that you will not harm me if I help you?” Eleion said, somewhat subdued.

“You have my promise that I will not harm you, if you aid us as we need.”

The rest of the deal was struck. Alton, having dealt with witches a time, or two dozen, before, knew how to give her very little leeway. As protected as he could hope to be, he spit on his palm, lowering her enough to clasp her spit covered palm.

“Let me down,” Eleion demanded. “I can’t work up here.”

“As you wish,” Alton said, lowering her with a thump.

Eleion advanced, poking her long, sharp nailed finger into his chest. “I know you, Sprite. You and I have crossed paths before. We shall again. The next time, I won’t wait for a deal, I’ll kill you where you stand.”

“You’ll try,” Alton said with a smile. “Now, for our deal. You have agreed to change my friend back to his former self. And no tricks, or your head is mine.”

Digging her toes into the mud, Eleion spoke in a guttural language that made Alton’s skin crawl. His hair stood out, making him feel quite peculiar. It was nothing to the effect it had on Revanth. He collapsed to his knees, gulping and retching. His body shivered and shook, his bones snapping and cracking. The horse writhed on the ground, pawing the air with his hooves as he tried to breathe. With a scream that sounded as much human as horse, he lay still.

“You’ve killed him!” Alton drew his sword. “If you have lied to me, Witch!”

A moan at his feet greeted his sensitive ears. The horse body fell to black dust, coating the naked man within. Squinting against the light, Revanth rolled to his hands and knees. Rocking back on his heels, he raised his hands in front of his face, marveling at them.

“I’m myself again! I am a man! Thank you, Eleion!” He grasped her arms as if he intended to kiss her, but stopped himself. “You did this to me, you foul hag!” He took a step toward her, but stopped as his feet took root in the mud. Wild-eyed, he gazed beseechingly at his friend.

“Peace, brother. You have thanked her for your release, but take no action against her.” His dark green eyes flickered and he shook his head.

“I lost myself for a moment. Brother, do you have spare clothing? I can hardly walk around the land without my pants.”

Alton chuckled, digging in his pack. He handed Revanth his clothing. The binding on him receded, and he was able to dress.

“The other part of our deal, Witch,” Alton said. “I don’t wish to sully my blade with that swamp water you call blood.”

“You could make an effort to be more polite, Alton of Lyndon Meade,” Eleion spat. “You don’t remember, do you? Who I am? How we met?” She grasped him firmly between the legs, rubbing hungrily. “Do you remember now—lover?”

Taking a step back, he pushed at her. “I remember you did your best to suck the life from me, and leave me to die—lover. Ill met one night when I’d had more mead than sense. A less than satisfactory tumble, I must say.”

“Wait!” Revanth said, struggling with his pants. “You know her?”

“In every sense of the word,” Alton replied, his tone cold. “She lured me to her, pretending to be Velda. It was the first time I was unfaithful, shortly after we met. Then, the witch tried to kill me for her amusement. Velda banished her here, to live the best she could amongst the slime and putrid gasses. You deserved worse. Your sister was kind.”

“They are sisters?” Revanth paled. “Is that why you told us to seek her out? Why you ruined my life? Revenge, because she had the man you couldn’t have, except by trickery?”

Revanth snatched Alton’s sword from his scabbard. Swinging it in a tight arc, he severed Eleion’s head from her shoulders. The ground rumbled as her head fell. The water rose, lapping and grabbing at their feet.

“Run!” Alton said.

“This way!” Old Jon called from a tangle of trees not far away.

“The deal,” Revanth said, halting. “I broke the deal! What will happen?”

“Run!” Alton urged. “The swamp will eat us alive, if we give it a chance.”

They followed Old Jon to his holding. The world around them shuddered and shook violently. Trees, bushes and grasses tried to trip them. Animals crossed their path, but they cast them aside. Once back at Old Jon’s land, they stopped running. Though the trees and mud writhed and reached for them, they could do no harm to the three men. Gulping air, Revanth leaned over, supporting himself with his hands on his knees.

“I broke the deal. I killed the witch! What have I done?”

“Saved us all a lot of trouble,” Old Jon said, grinning. “And you didn’t break the deal.”

“But how? We promised no harm would come to her.”

“No,” Alton said, smirking. “I promised I would do her no harm. I never said you wouldn’t. When she said you will not harm me, she chose to mean both of us. But, you couldn’t speak then, only I. You couldn’t give your word, therefore, the oath wasn’t binding to you. For the purpose of the deal, you meant only me. One small word has saved us from destruction.”

“How could she be held accountable to help me, then?”

“Because, my friend, I said us.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 19 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerAlton and Revanth have gone in search of Eleion. Velda tells Astrid how she met Alton. Astrid tells Velda that Revanth changed from man to horse in her bed.

The moisture from her tears seeped into Velda’s thirsty skin, and she felt revitalized. Naiads didn’t cry like humans. They shed no tears, but perhaps, if she were clever enough, she could store up a little bit of moisture. It would take only a few drops to cast a spell. Holding her friend, she wiped Astrid’s tears. Feeling the prickling of magic in her fingertips, Velda smiled.

The men knew when they had found Eleion. Though they saw nothing particularly different about their surroundings, mud is mud, after all, the feel of the air was different. The soggy peat tugged at their feet, trying to throw them off balance. Revanth slipped three times before Alton called a halt. They stood on a tuft of grass, as it was the only firm ground that could hold Revanth. Alton didn’t sink as rapidly as the horse, but the hungry slime sucked at his boots, striving to draw him in.

“Eleion!” Alton called. “It is I, Alton of Lyndon Meade. I wish to speak to you.”

A resounding silence replied.

“Eleion, the Naiad Witch, I wish to speak to you. Please.”

Revanth nudged him with his nose, snorting softly.

“Please,” Alton’s tone changed to more pleading than commanding. “My friend and I need your help, Eleion. Our women are taken by a puka—a being too powerful for us. But perhaps, not too powerful for you. Will you help us, Eleion?”

“I might,” a voice purred behind them.

How she could sound sultry, and menacing, at the same time, Alton didn’t know. It sent a shiver up and down his spine, lodging in the parts of him that only Velda touched. However, her voice, which reminded him of the soft rumble of a giant cat, lodged there, caressing him. Odd stirrings filled him. Revanth snorted loudly, knocking Alton off his feet. Ass first in the mud, the lure of the voice ceased to be a problem. He wanted to be angry with Revanth, but he thanked him instead.

“I know you,” Eleion said, walking toward them. Swaying ample hips, she took hold of Revanth’s mane.

She was the sullen, murky green of old swamp water. Her hair hung in lank tangles, much like dry, snarled tree moss. Her lips were black, though sharp teeth flashed white in her dark face. Her clothing couldn’t be called a dress, so much as it was dabs of moss and slime slathered together to conceal her form. Her ample breasts were nearly bare.

Shivering, Revanth recoiled from her touch. The last time he’d seen her, she’d woven a spell to make him a horse. The urge to fight her was strong.

Alton touched his friend’s neck, grasping a handful of Revanth’s mane. “It’s all right, brother.”

“How quaint,” Eleion said, scratching Revanth’s neck. “A wood sprite and a—whatever you are, together. Lovers? Perhaps? Though the last time you were here, you had some hot little human with you.”

Revanth snapped at her, but Eleion merely laughed.

“So, not lovers, then. What do you want, wood sprite?” She spit the words at him, her tone holding malice.

“We came with the intent to kill you, Eleion. But we find ourselves asking for your aid. We need a witch of your power, to help us defeat the creature holding our women.”

Eleion lifted her chin. Eyes the shade of vipers, riveted them with a stare. “You wish my help, and yet you want me dead? What’s to keep you from killing me once I give my aid?”

“Not a damn thing,” Alton replied defiantly. “Except our word. If you help us, I give my word, I will not harm you.”

“What are the terms of your deal? And what do I get in return?”

“You get the satisfaction of living another day,” Alton said.

“You seem quite certain you can defeat me, wood sprite. Here in the heart of my swamp, I am queen. You might harm me, but my swamp will swallow you alive before you can enjoy it.”

“Will you help us?”

She eyed them critically. “I don’t know.”

“I give you one last chance to say yes,” Alton said. “Will you, Eleion the Witch, help us?”

“Not today.”

Suddenly, she was off her feet, hanging in mid air. Screeching, she flailed around, trying to work her magic. An unseen force kept her airborne. Alton smiled up at her.

“You’re sure, are you? That’s your final answer? I can keep you up there indefinitely, Witch. A wood sprite has a few skills, you know.”

“Not this, not an air spell! How can you? You’re of the Earth and Wood.”

“That would be telling. I can leave you, high and dry, until you dry up and fall to dust,” Alton said. “Or, you can give us the aid we require. Which is it?”

“I’ll help you!”

“You will give your unimpeded word,” Alton said. “You are bound by it, just as I am. You will not harm us in any way, nor will you cause, directly or indirectly, for harm to come to us. You will not impede us, nor cause us to be impeded. You will not slow us—”

“Enough! Obviously, you have dealt with my kind before.”

“I have dealt with you enough to know, that I will say the rest of the oath, or I’ll kill you now, and leave you to rot in your filthy swamp.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 18 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerAlton and Revanth have a chat with Old Jon about Eleion.

“Then, perhaps, our goal is to take her feet from the mud,” Alton said quietly. He sat in silence, thinking.

Old Jon and Revanth watched him for a few minutes, then carried on their own silent conversation. The old man could see Alton’s mind working. He knew the direction of his thinking, and prodded him in the right direction, guiding him to his own decision and plan. He was far more capable than he let on, knowing it was important for the men to do this themselves, without relying on him. Only with that confidence, could they defeat the being that held their women. Eleion was a challenge, but with the right persuasion, she would aid them.

He nodded, smiling as he watched the last pieces of Alton’s plan click into place. “Yes,” he said softly. “That just might work.”

Revanth and Alton settled for the night. Each had a fragrant palette to sleep on. The peat fire was banked and glowed in the darkness. Old Jon sat in front of it, long legs crossed in front of him, staring into the fire, smoking. From time to time, his fingers flickered. Nodding, eyebrows dancing up and down, he watched something that only he could see.

Night passed into morning. When Revanth and Alton woke, Old Jon wasn’t around, but there was a pot of porridge bubbling over the fire. It smelled delicious. Not sure whether they should serve themselves or not, they waited. When it became apparent that Old Jon wasn’t around—a quick check by Alton confirmed this, they ate. Feeling fortified by their meal, they prepared to leave. Alton took a container from his food bag and put some of the porridge in it to save for another meal. Having nothing else to leave as thanks, he enchanted a packet of tobacco, so it would always be full, and left it on the table.

Standing in the center of the clearing, Alton cast out, searching for Eleion. He sensed darkness near the heart of the swamp. It wasn’t evil—exactly—more of a chaotic flow of natural energy. He communicated his plan to Revanth, and the two of them set off for Eleion’s home.

Astrid woke, stretching. Each muscle sang out in protest from lying on the stone bench. Across from her, Velda lay, huddled against the hard surface, her head cradled on her arms. Her eyes flickered with dreams. A frown crossed her face. With a gasp, she woke. Her gaze met Astrid’s and she relaxed slightly.

“Only a dream after all,” she whispered. “I can’t even touch his mind from here.” Her voice was full of sorrow.

“Nor can I sense Revanth. I worry that he’ll lose strength without me. I can feel an emptiness inside me, and I’m growing weaker—albeit, not as rapidly as before. I think being with you and Alton has strengthened us.”

Velda smiled. “True friends can do that. With Alton by his side, Revanth will be fine. They will find us, and bring us home.”

“I wish I shared your confidence. I know they will find us, but do any of us truly have a home to return to?”

Velda sat beside her friend, her arms around her. They sat together, in silent misery until a rattling at the door caught their attention. Their captor had thought of everything, it seemed. They were not given liquid to drink, but juicy fruits and succulent meats sat on a tray. Though she would have liked to shun the food, Velda knew better than to do so. Their captor hadn’t mistreated them, and it didn’t seem as if he intended to do so. She had the impression that they were being used as bait, but for what purpose, she didn’t know.

A glazed jar appeared in the corner. Both women used it and it disappeared as soon as they were through. Velda frowned. She could have used their waste water to work some magic. Their captor was no fool. Given nothing else to do, the women talked quietly about themselves and their lives.

“How did you meet Alton?” Astrid queried.

Velda smiled, remembering. “He dove into the pool where my mother, sisters and I lived. We had never seen a male wood sprite before. Of us all, only our mother had seen a man, or been with one. I was the eldest, and near the Time of Leaving.”

“What’s that?”

“As I told you, naiads are all female. We must mate with humans, or other compatible species, in order to have children. Any male children we have, are of their father’s race, with a strong affinity for the sea. Many of the great sailors, though they don’t know it, had naiad mothers. Our daughters, when they mature, leave home and find mates, returning to the water when they tire of life on land. Usually, we bring our daughters with us, and live secluded lives. Our pond was deep in a forest, far from Alton’s home. He was exploring, finding us by chance.”

She sighed, remembering. “I loved him the moment I saw him. Completely naked, his body that lush, dark brown—such a fine specimen. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. My mother discouraged me, telling me that a man like Alton couldn’t give me the children I would want one day . Children of the Earth and those of Water cannot create life together.”

“I’m so sorry,” Astrid said. “It must be horrible for you.”

“I love him more than my own life,” Velda said. “He is my heart, my soul. Even if we will never have a child, I will never leave him. That night, I left my mother’s underwater grotto, and presented myself to him. We made love under the stars. It was beautiful. Each time with him feels magical, like that first time.”

“You are so very lucky,” Astrid said. “Revanth and I never had our first time. He became a horse in my bed!” Burying her face in Velda’s shoulder, she wept.

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 17 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerThe men finally reach the swamp. It takes a long time, but they finally get through the swamp, and find cultivated lands. An old man greets them, welcoming them into his home.

“Have a seat, lad. And you, sir, enjoy the oats and hay. There might even be an apple or two nearby, if you look a bit.”

Revanth bowed his head, front legs bending, showing his thanks. The old man chuckled.

“You’re welcome, young fella.”

Alton sat and the old man ladled the stew into their bowls. A loaf of crusty black bread thunked on the table and the old man sawed off huge chunks for both of them. He slurped a sip off his spoon and dipped the bread in it. Alton joined him in his meal.

“I’ve been waiting for you all day. Must have approached me from the south. Worst way to come in. Of course, they’re none of them good.” He winked a merry eye.

“How did you know we were coming?” Alton asked.

The man put his finger on the side of his nose. “Old Jon knows all,” he said with a chuckle. “But I’ve not introduced myself properly. I can see you boys haven’t a clue who I am.”

“No, sir,” Alton replied. “We thought the swamp was unoccupied, save for—”

“The witch, Eleion.”

“Yes. Is she nearby?”

“Not if she’s smart. She and I don’t see life the same way. She’s damn near killed my swamp. Sucking the life out of the trees so the dryads left or died. Scared off the fairies and the wood nymphs and killed the sprites.”

Alton’s eyes grew wide. The more he heard of Eleion’s crimes, the angrier he became. “Tell me where I can find her, so I can kill her,” he demanded. He stood, throwing his napkin to the table.

“Sit down and eat, young man,” Old Jon said. “You can’t kill someone like Eleion. She’s too powerful, even for me. If I can’t take her, a young sapling like you can’t. Besides, you’ll need her knowledge to fight what’s taken your women.”

“You know that, too?” Alton was shocked.

“Word travels fast around these parts. Nothing else to do. I know all about it. They were taken by a puka.”

“Where are they? Do you know? Have you seen them? Can you help us?”

Old Jon settled back, relighting his pipe. The smoke smelled like burning mud. Revanth wrinkled his nose. Alton angled himself so the smoke went past him.

“They’re far from here. I know more or less where. No and yes.”

Alton blinked, puzzled for a moment. Revanth snorted, shaking his head. Alton laughed as realization struck. The old man had answered his questions, with no real explanation, but in order.

“All that can wait. We need to concentrate on the witch.”

“I thought she was a naiad,” Alton said with a frown.

“Can’t she be both? You’re a wood sprite and a hunter. Your friend is a man and a horse. Just because she’s one thing doesn’t mean she can’t be the other. Some of the most powerful witches are naiads—among the nastiest too. They can take the life force of the land around them, and use it to make themselves stronger. Eleion has been here a long time. This used to be a lush river and forest. You see it now. That’s because she’s sucked most of the life from it. But it still feeds her.”

“How do we overcome a creature that strong?” Alton sighed.

“You don’t. Most you can do is trap her. Or you might persuade her to help.”

“By making another deal like the one that trapped Revanth?”

Old Jon held up a gnarled hand. “To be fair, your friends miss-worded their request. Had they asked properly, not given the old hag any room for interpretation, there wouldn’t have been a war, and your friend wouldn’t be a horse.”

“Can you help us with that?”

“I can.”

Will you?”

Old Jon chuckled. “You’re learning, Sapling.”

Alton tried not to be offended by that nickname, but it rankled. He was hardly a child. Among his own kind, he was still a young man. By human standards, he was probably of an age with Old Jon.

“Don’t like that, do you, youngun’?” The old man winked. “Think you’re old as me?” He shook his grizzled head. “Sapling, I was merely old when the world was young. When you were a lad, I was ancient. Truth is, I don’t know my age anymore. But trust me, even Oak Mother is a spry twig in comparison to Old Jon.”

His glance moved to Revanth. The horse stood, head bowed, knees bent in supplication. “That’s the first sensible thing anyone’s said today—besides me, of course.” He winked. “Your friend thinks you need to put aside your petty annoyance, and have a listen. He didn’t say it quite that way, of course.”

“He’s right,” Alton said, somewhat chagrined. “My apologizes, sir. I guess I’m used to being the old man of the bunch.”

Old Jon laughed heartily. “No offense taken, lad. You and I will get along splendidly.”

“How do we go about this, Old Jon? We can’t take her on head to head, as we’d planned. Do we sneak up on her?”

“There’s no sneaking with Eleion. She knows you’re here, and she knows your intentions. She’s got ears to the ground and the wind. The animals and plants are all her slaves. She’s as close to a god as it’s possible to be without divinity. I’m old and strong, but I don’t drain the life around me dry. As long as she’s got her feet in the mud, she can call upon everything to aid her.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 16 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerAlton and Revanth know they must break his curse, before they can go after the women. An elderly dryad gives them advice and gifts to help in their quest.

Turning to Revanth, she took his face in her hands. Leaning her forehead against his, she breathed into his nostrils. “May the courage of all of us fill you, horse-man, for you will need it all. Watch after your impetuous brother, and keep him safe.”

Revanth snorted, nodding.

“My gift to you—is love. And this.” She braided a charm made from bits of glass and metal, into his mane. “Your brother is of the wood and earth. You are of the moon and sky. Remember that, for you will need it.” She kissed them both and headed back to the grove.

The others bid farewell. By this time, the residents of the next territory had joined them and been introduced. They took over showing Revanth and Alton the way. This handing off was done three more times before the two came to the place where they would sleep for the night.

Alton was all for forging ahead, but Revanth dug in his heels, refusing to go another step. He was tired, but he also knew that traveling all night was foolish. His protests were met with resistance on Alton’s part, until one of the dryads spoke. She was a pretty thing, with pale golden hair and moss green eyes. Her tree was an ash.

“Your brother is right,” she told Alton. “You can’t travel all night and arrive tired. You’ll need your strength to outwit Eleion.”

“Do you mean fight her?”

The dryad said nothing more. She set out food and drink for the two and showed them to a stream where they could bathe. The naiads here laughed and dove as Alton bathed, making comments about his attributes. Revanth chuckled as he splashed around in the river. The naiads climbed on him, weaving twigs and bits of glass into his mane.

As they ate, the sprites and fairies sang to them. Nymphs and dryads built beds for them from grass, moss and heather. They fell asleep with music winding around them.

His eyes fell shut and Alton stepped into the dream world. He was in the grove, but the colors were more vivid, the scents and sounds more pronounced. A man with black hair and dark eyes was standing beside him. Smiling, the fellow held open his arms, greeting Alton.

“Revanth?”

“Yes, brother. Apparently, this grove makes it possible for me to join you. It feels good to be a man again! I wish it could last.” His eyes turned sad and he fell silent.

Alton hugged him, clapping his friend on the back. “Soon enough, brother.”

“Do you know the agony I’ve felt all these months? What if I never change back? Am I destined to love a woman I can’t have? Will I revert to an animal? Even now, the human traits and thoughts fade from my mind. Every day, I become more horse and less man.”

“With the help of these good people, we’ll save you, my brother.”

“While we have this time, we should talk about our plan.”

“Agreed. Tell me what I need to do.”

They sat down together, talking long into the night. Near dawn, they woke, rested and refreshed. A quick breakfast, and they were on their way. After half a day’s travel, they came to a very different environment. The trees were gnarled and twisted. Thick moss covered the trunks. Tendrils of hanging plants and vines dangled from their branches. No friendly dryads or sprites came to greet them.

Before stepping into this strange and unpleasant looking land, Alton stopped. He raised his head, sniffing and listening. “I don’t like this place,” he murmured.

Revanth snorted, nodding adamantly before nudging the wood sprite with his head.

“I know,” Alton snapped. “Do you know how this feels? Imagine walking into a room full of spider webs, and not knowing where the spiders are.”

Shuddering, he and Revanth advanced. The ground was spongy underfoot, oozing with each step. Puddles of stagnant, scum covered water dotted the landscape. Footing became treacherous, especially for the horse. Alton went first, searching for the best path. Their progress slowed as they struggled through the quagmire. Only the croaking of frogs, buzz of biting insects and slither of snakes accompanied them.

Late in the afternoon, they came across cultivated lands. Stands of barley dotted the marshy land. Neatly maintained shrubs and squat trees formed a ring around a clearing. The smell of decay and damp was slightly less here. It took a few moments to realize that there was a low hut not far from them, in the center of the clearing. Smoke struggled from the chimney, dribbling toward the ground, as if unable to rise in the moist air.

“Do we dare approach?” Alton whispered.

Revanth sniffed, raising his head. He turned slightly, inhaling deeply. With a snort and horsey chuckle, he led Alton forward, picking his way delicately between the paddies. Alton followed, the path not wide enough for two.

The door to the hut opened when they arrived. An old man, as dark and gnarled as the trees, stood in the doorway. He smoked a long, narrow pipe made of muddy clay. The smoke from the bowl dripped and wriggled downward like snakes hanging from trees. A toothless smile split his weathered, dark brown face.

“So, you’re here at last, eh? I’ve been expecting you all day. Well, don’t just stand there. Come in!” He gestured to the hut.

It hardly looked large enough for Revanth, but that didn’t stop the old man from inviting them in. Somehow, the horse fit through the opening, though Alton couldn’t have said how. It was as if the doorway stretched to accommodate the horse.

Inside, the hut was clean and cozy. A peat fire burned in the hearth and a savory stew bubbled in a cast iron pot. A pile of hay and bin of oats stood on the side of the hut furthest from the fire. A table, laid for two, took up most of the space in the floor. The old man gestured to Alton.

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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