A flash of brown against the green grass caught Tara’s arcane eyes. She was fifty feet in the air, perched unmoving on the high branch of an elm tree, and from up there nothing in the woods of Anador could escape her notice. Not even a small rabbit child moving as quickly as moonlight…
Straight for the spring-loaded trap Tara had lain for intruders.
In one fluid motion, Tara used her wing to remove an arrow from her quiver, knocked it to her horizontally-held bow, and loosed the arrow at her target. Though Tara’s bow was enchanted with ancient earthen magic, she needed no spell or arcane arrow now. Just a well-placed shot.
The arrow whistled through the leaves, narrowly missing denser branches along the way, until at last it smashed against the pan of a makeshift bear trap she had built. Less than a second before the rabbit child could hop onto the pan, the trap snapped its jaws and the arrow deflected harmlessly into the woods. The child might have avoided being snapped in half, but she ended up tripping over the closed trap and tumbled to a rough stop.
Now that the kid wasn’t moving at breakneck speed, Tara got a good look at her. She was young indeed—her ears were floppy little things, still tufted with white on the edges from her change in coat since the winter months. She wore a midnight blue tunic with fine stitching that suggested she came from Verdania, the city built around the Mother Tree. What was a city child doing in the wilds so far from home?
Tara wasn’t one to go down and ask. She preferred to learn things from afar with her eyes and ears—the only things she could trust. But when another figure came ripping through the woods, heavier and louder than the child, Tara couldn’t afford to stand by and wait.
“Where did ye go, ye little morsel…?” the larger beast called as it traced the path of the girl. Tara instinctively trained her eyes—and arrow—in the direction of the voice.
The beast was coming up on the child’s location quickly. A grizzly bear, ten feet tall and garbed in shoddy hide armor, shoved young trees aside as he rushed through the woods. His long tongue lapped at his snout and his wet nose sniffed the air eagerly. He had a club strapped to his belt, but he didn’t need it—his massive paws and dark claws were weapons enough.
The rabbit girl uttered a whimper. Rather than run or hide, she grabbed the jaws of the bear trap and tried desperately to reset it. Tara’s beak curled upward. The kid was a fighter. Too bad she probably didn’t have the strength to pry open the trap.
At last the bear shouldered his way into the small clearing of tall grass where the girl stood. The bear looked down at her with a toothy grin. “There ye are,” he snarled. “Not much more’n a snack, but a fresh one.”
He took one heavy step forward, then an arrow whistled down from the treetops and plunked into his leathery boot, just between where his toes would be.
“Who’s up there?” he growled, his great snout inclining upward. He looked directly at Tara, but, clad in a cloak of leaves, she remained unseen.
“Let the kid go,” she called down. She had a way of making her voice echo without direction, as many falcons did. “There are plenty of berries just south of here.”
“I don’t eat berries,” the bear laughed. “Why don’t you come down and I’ll tell ye what I eat?” He bent over and plucked the arrow from his boot, but kept his beady eyes toward the sky, still searching for Tara.
All the while, the rabbit girl struggled with the trap. Kid just won’t let it go, Tara thought with amusement. The girl was quick, but her legs were tiny compared to her pursuer’s. She couldn’t outrun him.
“The weather’s nicer up here,” Tara called down as she slowly slid another arrow from her quiver. “One more step and you’ll be feasting on arrows, big boy.”
The bear growled again, growing impatient. “Fine,” he boomed, taking a step back instead of forward. “She’s barely a mouthful anyway. You, though…”
Before Tara could react, the bear threw his back at the ash tree she was perched atop, shaking it violently. Tara released the arrow in surprise, barely missing the bear as the arrow exploded in arcane energy just beside him on ground. The bear snarled in pain and shouldered the tree again, sending Tara tumbling off her perch, dropping her bow as she flapped her wings to soften her fall.
The bear snatched Tara’s bow before it hit the ground. It was long and delicately curved, with sharp runic symbols etched into it that glowed a sizzling green.
“Magic bow, eh?” the bear mused. “Long way from your Warden friends, falcon girl.”
Tara tried to fly higher, but the bear quickly shot a huge arm out and grabbed her leg. He was too strong—she wouldn’t be able to fly away.
“Oh, you’ll roast nicely,” the bear chuckled, pulling at her hard enough for the branches she clutched to snap.
Before she could get too close to the bear’s teeth, she snatched an arrow from her quiver and brought the tip down hard on the bear’s paw. He let out a roar of pain, finally releasing Tara and letting her dart away, now on the ground. Unfortunately, the high grass wasn’t her best hiding spot since she was cloaked in leaves and garbed in Ironbark.
Worse, she couldn’t see where the rabbit girl had gotten off to. She hoped the kid had the sense to run.
She unsheathed a knife from her belt, holding an arrow in her other wing. The bear was a massive opponent, but she’d bested bigger. Not without her bow, but still.
Tara waited as the massive golden-brown figure edged toward her. He smiled grimly when he removed his club, while Tara’s eyes scanned him for weak points. With every nearing step, her odds of success seemed more and more dire.
“Hey, ugly!” came a high voice nearby. Tara couldn’t see who it came from, but she spotted two floppy brown ears sprouting from the high grass.
The bear growled and pivoted toward the source of the voice, lifting his club high in the air and roaring as he bore down on his prey.
Tara dashed for the bear, but she didn’t need to. A familiar spring sound clanked noisily, followed by the sickening crunch of bone.
The bear wailed loud enough to stop Tara in her tracks. He flailed madly around with his club, striking nothing but grass.
An instant later, a voice from below her said, “I have your bow! Come on!” and she saw the rabbit girl leaping farther into the woods.
Even if the bear opened the trap, he’d be too wounded to chase, Tara thought. After a couple minutes of running, Tara called, “Slow down!”
The kid obeyed, allowing Tara to catch up. She swiped her bow back immediately.
“It took me forever to open up that trap!” the girl panted. “I want to learn how to make one. Hey, aren’t you Tara? The Head Warden?”
Tara bowed. “Very observant. But I’m afraid I don’t know your name.”
The rabbit girl grinned with her prominent front teeth, bowing so her ears flopped over her face. “I’m Chloe! Hey, why aren’t your Wardens with you?”
“I enjoy my alone time,” Tara said simply.
Chloe scratched her ear with her toe. “I want to be a Warden and fight in the Arcanium. But my mom won’t let me. So… I ran. To learn how to fight.”
So that was why she was out here. “The Arcanium isn’t a game, kid.”
“But we’ve got to prove we’re the best!” Chloe exclaimed. “Sansea needs more champions.”
“We have real enemies, kid. The minions of the Black Shard don’t play games.”
“Sure they do.”
Tara blinked. “What?”
“The yucky guys everyone calls evil? Shardy guys? They fight in the Arcanium all the time. There’s a creepy crow and an ugly frog…”
“The minions of the Black Shard fight in the Arcanium? Why?”
The girl shrugged. “To be the best. To bring powerful magic to their dumb rock. To learn how everyone else fights.”
That made some kind of sense, Tara admitted to herself. When Sansea, the Mother Tree, granted her the gift of sight, she vowed to bring honor to the great Tree. But only the woodland folk knew Sansea’s glory. Perhaps Tara could spread the message further.
As though reading Tara’s mind, Chloe said, “Why don’t you go fight in the Arcanium? I’d cheer for you.”
Tara looked down. The girl’s giant brown eyes were so pure. Tara’s gleamed green with arcane sight, but before that they were milky and unfocused. If not for Sansea’s blessing, she would still be a blind girl wishing the Wardens would accept her. She owed everything to the Tree.
“We should get you home,” Tara said eventually, heading toward the city.
“Will you sign up for an Arcanium match when we get there?” Chloe asked, following Tara. “I want to watch you fight.”
Tara thought about the Black Shard, and about the Woodland Wardens. She didn’t care about silly games, but she cared about testing herself. And about showing the world what the warriors of the Mother Tree could do.
“I’ll think about it,” Tara answered, slinging her arcane bow over her shoulder and looking to the distance with gleaming eyes.
-Written by Kyle Hubbard