Undrella smiled as the wind ruffled her feathers. She soared through the skies with grace, beating her wings without a thought. She yearned to test her limits. To fly up into the blinding white sun. To spiral and bank. To plummet to the earth with abandon. It had been too long since she had flown free. She had surrendered the skies when Kardswann arrived. He had monsters of his own who claimed the clouds. Dark things. Things that even Undrella feared.
Well, perhaps feared wasn’t the right word. Respected was more apt, really. Yes, respected. She respected their power. Their ferocity.
She sighed. She had let Kardswann rule for too long.
But, now! Now! Now she was free. Free to soar the skies, chase the stars and bask in the clouds. But now was not the time.
First she had to give the humans reason to let her keep her home. Not all, of course. Just some of the humans. Or, if she was lucky, just one.
Santon. He was the key.
Bree had won the day for the humans, of course. Bree was Queen of the Kulldis – not that there were many of them left – and the one with the most claim on the town. But Bree was a woman of faith – both of which were vexing to Undrella. Bree would not be fooled by her enchanting songs and mind magic. Bree could see her for what she was. Already she was working to oust Undrella from her home.
No. Bree would be of no help to her. Of no use.
Kelestair could be counted on to defend her. The devil-boy had withstood her magic, but he seemed to have a soft spot for redemption and hopeless cases.
But, Santon. Ah, Santon. Rugged, handsome, cunning, powerful, ambitious, weak-willed Santon. Yes. Santon would be her protector.
But first she had to help him into as powerful a position as she could. She had to help him achieve his goals. Then, once Kelmarane was firmly in his grasp, he would become an effective protector indeed. Perhaps he would even provide her with the raw materials for her experiments? What was she saying? Of course he would. He would do whatever she told him and, if he resisted, all she had to do was sing. This was the beginning of magnificent relationship.
Undrella smiled. One thing at a time. One step at a time. First came the monastery. Santon had a message he wanted delivered. A challenge, really. A statement. Undrella’s smile spread.
Yes. This was going to be a magnificent relationship, indeed. Even without her mind magic and meddling, she liked the way this man thought! Undrella purred.
Finally, she spied the monastery. It was an old wreck of a building marked by dilapidated stone-work, broken windows, and poorly built wooden doors. Her keen eyes spotted two guards – both human and hopelessly ineffective at hiding. The fools. She checked on the sun’s position and flew so that they would see her approaching.
As she drew closer more humans appeared. Some wore armour, some robes, but none of them would prove a problem. She sighed. Not a soul with skill in the lot.
She circled the monastery three times – lazily – both to draw their attention, and to set them on edge. Finally, when she could taste their fear and apprehension one the winds, she dove down to the rocky earth and landed upon her taloned feet with a flourish. She was forty feet from the nearest person – a dirty woman guard with a bow and a scarred face.
“Greetings, humans!” Undrella cried.
The humans tensed. Undrella smiled.
A rich woman surrounded by four red armoured guards – Almah, if Santon’s description could be trusted – stepped forward.
“Speak, beast, before my guards use you for target practice.”
“Such hospitality,” Undrella pouted. “And I thought you humans prided yourself on good manners.”
Almah’s eyes narrowed slightly. She nodded.
Undrella heard an arrow fly. Her eyes widened. From behind her? Impossible! Had she missed one of the humans? Her instincts overtook her. Birds flew from danger. They would expect her to fly.
She dove to the side. The arrow missed her by a few inches. She smiled. Plenty of room. She hadn’t lost her touch. She grabbed onto the large mandible strapped to her back and willed it to take shape as a bow. She drew two arrows, nocked one onto the jagged, bone bow, pulled back its bowstring and let her arrow loose behind her.
A filthy looking man grunted, dropped his bow and clutched his wounded hand. He growled.
Undrella nocked another arrow and fired it at Almah.
Her red armoured guards moved to protect her, but they were too slow. They had expected her to finish off the archers before aiming for their mistress. Undrella smiled. Even if they had guessed her intentions, there were few humans who could move faster than a harpy with purpose.
The arrow tore through Almah’s veil and pinned it to the stone behind her.
“What lovely robes you have, Almah, dear.” Undrella taunted.
“Hold your fire!” Almah called out. Her voice was steady, but strained. She was afraid.
Undrella soaked it in.
“What is your purpose?” Almah asked.
Undrella walked forward slowly. Purposefully. The female archer didn’t flinch or back up. Undrella smiled. She liked that one! The other humans shuffled back and forth, nervous.
“I come to bring you a message from Kelmarane.”
“The gnolls have nothing to say that we would like to hear.”
“Gnolls, dear? Who said my message came from gnolls?”
Almah stiffened. She was thinking. Plotting. Frantically trying to regain an advantage. She couldn’t. Undrella wouldn’t let her.
“You think I would let a gnoll tell me what to do, human?” Undrella asked with a cruel tilt of her lip. She forced her will into the mandible and altered its shape into that of a cruel looking mace pierced with dagger-sharp teeth. A few people in the crowd broke into a sweat.
“Of course, not.”
“Then why would I deliver a message for them?”
“Who sent you, then?”
“Humans, dear. Humans.”
“What humans, harpy? Answer me truthfully. I’ve had enough of your games.”
Undrella smiled. She forced her will into the mandible mace and urged it back into its natural state. It was a mere jawbone in her hands. She replaced it behind her back. “A pity. And here I thought you would like to hear what has befallen your friends.”
“I have no cause to believe anything you say, harpy. Why would I want to let you -“
“What has happened to Bree?” a voice called from the crowd. Undrella smiled. The man pushed forward. He was dirty and stank of alcohol. So this was Trevvis. Bree had poor taste in men.
“Do not listen!” Almah shouted.
“What has happened?” the man repeated.
She had their attention. Now was the time. “I bring a message from the rulers of Kelmarane. They bid you visit them in their town. All of you.”
“Bid us?” another man called out from the crowd.
Undrella smiled. “I would accept their invitation if I were you.”
“I’m n-n-not going back there!” another man stuttered. Undrella recognized him. He had been a prisoner of the gnolls.
“Oh, but Kelmarane is different now, Felliped.” Undrella replied.
The stuttering man paled.
“Enough!” the drunk yelled. “What has happened to Bree?”
Undrella smiled innocently. “I just told you, human.”
“Your words are empty!”
“You humans,” Undrella mused “Miss much.” She sighed dramatically. “Very well. Let me say it plainly so that you understand. Bree, Slayer of Kardswann, Queen of the Kulldis Tribe and Ruler of Kelmarane, along with Santon, the devoted Sheriff of Kelmarane and Kelestair, the benevolent soul seeking to bring the Dawnflower’s light to the dark souls of this desert,” she paused and smiled modestly “Like me – bid you join them in their newly won town of Kelmarane – a place of hope, promise, broken buildings in need of repair and freedom. You are welcome to make the trek across the pesh fields and join them.”
“It’s a trick,” someone whispered. “There’s a monster in that field.”
Undrella smiled. “They killed that, too. Lucky you have such formidable allies to fight your battles for you.”
“We won?” a voice murmured from the crowd.
“We did it!”
“Kelmarane is ours.”
Undrella’s smile turned cold. “When did I say that?”
A hush fell over the crowd.
“When did I say that you had won anything? Your friends have won something, certainly. A whole town of somethings. But you? You have won nothing but safety from the gnolls on the backs of your allies sweat and blood.” Undrella paused. “Think on your inaction as you trek across the field to your allies. They killed for you – though why I cannot possibly fathom. Still. It was their wish I send you this message and bid you welcome to Kelmarane. And, after all, what are friends for?”
Murmurs emerged from the crowd.
Undrella sighed. “Well, it’s been lovely, dears, but I’d like to return to my home in Kelmarane now. I have a meeting with the law, you know. Enjoy your walk.”
Undrella turned her back on the humans and launched herself into the sky. She banked leisurely and soared over their heads. “And a word of advice, Almah dear. Don’t let your fear get the better of you. The next messenger you order fired upon may not be so forgiving. Or have such good aim.”
Almah stared daggers up at her.
Yes. This had worked out perfectly. She had delivered the message on Santon’s behalf. Ha! Message? Message was not nearly a strong enough word for what she had delivered. It was a statement. A challenge. An ultimatum. She had delivered the ultimatum on Santon’s behalf and Almah had understood it perfectly, all without tarnishing the aspiring Sheriff’s name.
Undrella soared through the clouds. A laugh escaped her lips. Santon was right. This had been fun. Perhaps in the future she would spend more time toying with her humans before she ate them.