Laurel stepped into the sunshine outside the cave bearing a rug on each arm and smiled. They had been living in the cave for almost two years now, and, all things considered, it was not as terrible as it first sounded.
Often, she spent her days sitting upon her father's old easy chair at the mouth of the cave, wishing for new people to meet.
"It isn't that you aren't good company yourself, Moraenor," she assured him, "but wouldn't it be so much fun to meet new people, and play hostess in our cave? It is all very grand, with the furniture from our old home in it, but--" she sighed, "it just doesn't feel like a home till I've had someone to visit!"
Moraenor only shrugged.
Laurel amused herself on occasion by climbing through the treetops till she came upon the various picnickers who found their way among the trees closest to town. There, high above the parties, Laurel would spy unseen, like a spirit of the woods. Thus she passed the days when she was especially bored, but the more she observed, the more she wanted to participate in such activities.
At long last, Laurel got her guests-- but it was not in the manner she quite expected.
They came at night, when a large, noisy storm pelted the woods outside. Inside the cave, laying upon fur sleeping mats, behind a thick curtain they hung across the back of the cave for a sleeping area, Moraenor and Laurel were snug and dry.
Moraenor breathed softly in deep slumber, but the noise of the storm creaking through the trees and the rain slapping the stone threshold of the cave all prevented her from sleeping.
Quite unexpectedly, she heard more than the rain and the trees--Laurel heard voices! More correctly, she heard a voice--and a loud one at that.
"Here! I've found a cave! Let's get out of this storm!"
Laurel froze with a frown. Whoever spoke had a very queer accent, one she could not identify.
She heard movement, the scrape of boots and dripping cloth at the front of the cave.
The voice continued in a whisper, "There, now, just lay 'em here--gently! Don't want to damage them! That's good, away from the rain; we don't want them too wet, now. I’ll light us a fire."
Laurel held her breath as she peeked from under the corner of the curtain. A stocky figure sat against the wall, striking his tinder over a pile of small branches as his tall, lean companion laid four bundles in a row on the cave floor. Laurel wondered if these two were merchants, and the bundles were the goods they intended to sell. She silently prodded Moraenor awake.
"Hm? What is it, Laurel?" he asked.
"People!" Laurel whispered back. "There are people in our cave!"
Moraenor joined Laurel in peeking out under the curtain. By now the thin intruder had disappeared, leaving only the stocky one perusing his bundles as his eyes glinted in the firelight. She wondered where the lean one had gone as the stocky one continued talking.
"Poor little tykes!" he murmured, gazing over the bundles. "Won't they have a shock to be so far from home in such a short time!"
Laurel caught Moraenor's eye.
"They are children?" she mouthed.
"Yes, sir," the stocky figure continued, "they're sure to make a handsome profit in this town."
"He's a slaver!" Laurel gasped silently.
"Nothing like selling an act well, eh, my friend?"
Laurel saw him turn his head back and forth, looking for his companion.
He received no answer; perhaps this Athelron had left.
She saw him wag his head and shrug as he resumed gazing at the fire. His words had pierced her compassionate heart, and all she could think of were those poor innocent children and the cruelty of a man--he could not be an elf or dwarf, she reasoned, which meant he was a man--who thought only of making money by them!
Hand on her hilt, Laurel slipped out from behind the curtain. Noiselessly she drew her sword.
The man had been sitting, lulled into a semi-trance by the rhythmic rain, when he felt the tickle of a sword-blade at his throat.
A hooded figure stood menacingly over him.
"W-wh-what d'ye want with me?" the man stuttered nervously.
"I want your name," the figure's voice was low and dangerous, "and I want you to tell me your intentions with these poor children, quickly!"
"Jeroham," the man replied, hastening to add, "My intentions are by no means to harm them, I am only a simple--"
"Enough, base liar!" the figure barked, pressing into the sword and forcing Jeroham to his feet. "I am acquainted with your vile breed, and there is not a whit of truth in you! Every word from your mouth is calculated in gold and silver, and every glance is but as profit to you! Do not speak of noble intentions to me! I heard your plans to cull money from the innocent folk of Glastor City by the lives of these poor innocents whom you so falsely profess to love!"
Laurel flushed brighter and her voice raised louder as she spoke; she would have continued voicing her thoughts, hoping to drive the frightened old slaver away from his intended victims--but for the tip of a dagger which came to rest on her earlobe.
"I would hold my tongue, or cut it out, ere I called an Elf-friend 'liar,' little maid," a low voice said distinctly in her ear. "Take your sword off the man's neck, or I'll slit your ear like a common sow."
Laurel had no choice but to drop her sword. Jeroham immediately slumped back into his seat as the one holding the dagger seized Laurel's wrist and moved his blade from her ear to her throat.
Now that he stood in front of her, what little she could see of his features told Laurel she looked upon an elf, but one quite different from the Andarian elves she used to see.
“Stranger, identify yourself to us, and state your business in this cave,” the elf ordered.
Laurel drew herself up haughtily, “I live here in this cave, and I should not have to identify myself first, as if I were a petty intruder in my own dwelling!”
The Elf sniffed at her rebuttal, and twisted her wrist around behind her. “It seems you need a lesson in respect,” he jerked her arm roughly and painfully, “and I will—“
“Unhand her,” Moraenor’s calm voice cut in.
The Elf’s voice stopped, as Moraenor’s own sword touched at his throat. He glared at Moraenor.
Lightning split the sky, followed immediately by tremendous thunder, and in that instant, many things happened all at once.
Laurel twisted away from the Elf as he dodged away from Moraenor’s sword and lunged for the Elf himself. Jeroham suddenly swept to his feet and came for Laurel, as Moraenor and the Elf grappled for the upper hand.
Laurel had litheness and quickness to her advantage, against the old man’s strength and weight. Her main objective being to rescue the children (who remained solidly ensconced in their blankets during the whole ordeal) and not to actually kill her opponent, she left her sword where it lay, and sparred with Jeroham in hand-to-hand combat.
Jeroham armed himself with a staff, and aimed to strike Laurel as much as he could, and the Elf-maid dodged his blows and sought to wrest the weapon from him.
For an older man (Laurel assumed, because of his silvery hair), Jeroham proved surprisingly fast. A few times, Laurel dodged a blow from one end of his staff only to be bludgeoned by the other end. She staunchly maintained her guard, though, and at last got her hands on Jeroham’s staff. She discouraged him from attacking her with a blow to his face, and dove down to where the children lay under the blankets.
“Hurry, little ones!” she yelled to them, whipping off the blankets, “Run away!”
The four figures jumped to their feet—and Laurel realized something was very wrong about her assumptions.
“You…you—“ she spluttered in shock. “You’re not—“
She glanced over to where Moraenor and the Elf were still locked in combat. The light from the fire was fading, making it more difficult for the two to find each other, but both skills matched so evenly that neither cared about the lack of light. Moraenor fought gamely in defense of his ward, while the other Elf fought just as adamantly in defense of his own life.
Quite suddenly, a bright light illuminated the entire cave, and Laurel yelled, “Stop!”
Everyone froze and gave her their attention. Laurel swung the lantern she held over the faces before her. The four short “children” she had thought to rescue proved more like adults in their faces than their statures. They stood a full head shorter than the height of a dwarf. Two—a girl and a boy—had dark-brown skin and frizzy, dark hair that stuck out in all directions, and the other two boys had wavy hair (one dark, one bright-red) that hung down to their shoulders. All four had round dark eyes, all filled with the same petrified expression as they gazed upon their new surroundings and the strangers locked in combat with their evident guides.Laurel looked sternly at the combatants. “Everyone put down your weapons! We are not enemies!” she said forcefully. She pointed to the man and the Elf. “Who are you—“ she moved her gaze to the short ones, “—and what in Murinda are they?”