Encased in a net and suspended just inches from the ground, Sandriel clawed trying to release herself and her sister. "Oh no. What happened? What is this?” she asked aloud. Struggling against the netting, Sandriel could feel the panic inside herself trying to escape. She wriggled wildly until face to face with her sister and saw a look she didn't recognize...anger. "It will be ok Laurie." Turning her head slightly, she tried to assess her surroundings. The net is different than anything she could remember. She'd seen fishermen's nets made of various fabrics, cargo nets made of animal hide and dungeon netting made of iron but this net seemed to be made of some fibrous plant material. Looking up she took in her captor. He had golden brown skin and deep brown eyes. As his shoulder-length, curly black hair swayed in the wind she thought she saw curved horns like a rams hiding beneath the curls. He wore a breastplate made of leaves that covered just his chest, leaving his arms exposed. He had a small string instrument hanging from his waist, as well as a sheathed dagger and a stick in his left hand. He was slim and muscular, and wore short pants that revealed extremely hairy legs. “Are those hooves?” she asked, shock registering on her face, realizing she had said that aloud. Am I seeing this correctly? she thought. In place of shoes or boots, their captor stood on brown hair covered legs with cloven hooves.
Shifting again to face forward, Sandriel could feel her sister's hand on her back. Lauriel then grasped the necklace hanging from her neck, like she did when she was nervous. But, instead of shivering in fear, Sandriel noticed her sister's calm resolve and the heat from her nostrils as she breathed in and out evenly. I've never seen her like this, thought Sandriel.
"What are you two doing in Devonshire Woods?" asked the man in a deep, firm voice.
Sandriel looked into his eyes and replied, "Sir, please. We are just passing through." She waited for the man's reply, hoping for mercy, but three things happened very quickly. First, they fell from the netting. Next, somehow the man stumbled backward. Finally, her position changed and she was being pulled by her sister.
Instinctively, she ran. "What’s going on?" she asked out of breath, but continuing to run away. She deferred to Lauriel since she had no idea what was happening. One moment they were captives and the next they were sprinting through the trees. Her mind was racing. "What? How did we..." she stammered. Lauriel clutched tight to her sister's hand as they ran. They weaved left and right through the wood with no sure direction to travel. Out of breath, she tugged on her sister to stop. Looking back, she could no longer see their campsite and didn’t even know which direction or how far they’d fled. Luckily, she was still clutching the satchel. Sandriel looked into her sister's eyes and saw fierce determination.
She huffed, gasping for breath, "What just happened?" Lauriel launched into a frantic description with her hands. "What do you mean you don't know? I just remember falling and then running," said Sandriel. Lauriel grabbed her sister's face and kissed her cheek. She held up two fingers and closed them together before holding them over her heart. "I know Laurie. We only have each other. I will keep us safe but that doesn't explain what happened," said Sandriel.
Looking behind them, Lauriel scanned the trees for movement, then gestured forward. The winds shifted and Lauriel became alarmed. She gestured to the sky and then mimed flipping an hourglass, before pointing to her mouth and her sister's ear. “What do you mean we’ll talk later?” asked Sandriel. She was confused and tired since they had just awakened. With her own confidence waning, she looked into Lauriel’s eyes and resolved to trust her.
A guttural, beastly growl from behind the trees drew the girl’s attention. Suddenly, movement to their right, movement to their left, in front of them and behind them. They were surrounded. Multiple wolves emerged encircling them. Sandriel's breath caught in her chest, she tensed and pulled her sister tighter, but Lauriel didn't seem fazed. She looked to each beast and cocked her head in thought before walking forward to the nearest wolf. The massive creature stood before her, its matted grey and black fur covered in blood. Sinister looking canine teeth bared as the wolf growled and pawed the ground. Unfazed, Lauriel simply brushed a hand through it, as if nothing was there.
Behind them, the same deep voice said, "Interesting. How did you see through my illusion child? Who are you?"
Stunned, Sandriel snapped to attention. "Illusion? Laurie how did you know that? And who are you?"
The man emerged from behind a large oak tree and replied, "My name is Cristianos. I am the protector of Devonshire Woods. I have been tracking poachers that are encroaching on my territory.” Terrified, Sandriel looked into the man’s eyes and feared the worst until he started laughing.
Now, in a more cheerful, higher pitched voice, he said, “Oh my gods, love. You should see the look on your faces. I’m just kidding. I mean, my name is Cristianos and I am protector of the woods but I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Both girls looked at each other confused, before Sandriel asked, “Why did you trap us? And what are you? I’ve never seen anyone like you before.”
Tapping his left hoof on the ground, he said, “Never met a satyr before? Well love, you have been deprived of the best company you could ever have. As far as trapping you, Devonshire Woods is a very special area because of the dryads that live here. Recently, their sacred trees have been stripped, for what we are not sure of, but killing those trees, in turn, severs the mystical connections of the dryad and drains their life force. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Curious that you took shelter in that wayward pine and the dryad never appeared. Either she was too weak to emerge or she recognized your need.”
Sandriel cocked her head and asked, “What is a dryad?”
Cristianos walked closer and leaned against a nearby tree. “What is a dryad? Do they not teach children anything these days? A dryad is a tree-fey, they are guardians of trees. I don’t rightly know where their Magic or the mystical connections comes from, but harming the tree they are connected to harms them.”
Lauriel listened intently never removing her eyes from Cristianos as he left the tree to stand right in front of them, bowing slightly before he asked, “Now that I have answered your question, a quandary for you. Who are you and how exactly did you escape my net?"
Sandriel stood hand in hand with her sister and, for the first time since fleeing, she doubted herself. "I...we are..." she stammered. "My name is Sandriel and this is my sister Lauriel. I don't know how we got here. Your net must be faulty, sir."
The man looked at her, with a quick sideways glance to her sister, before returning intently, his gaze seeming to bear into her soul. With a smile, he said, "Don't lie to me child. I can see the magical aura around you as clear as day. Your sister somehow burned through my netting and the next thing I know, I am on the ground and you were sprinting away at an impossible speed." He took in the look of shock on one girl while the other stood in quiet resolve.
Sandriel shook her head and replied, "Impossible, my sister doesn't speak. My father taught me specifically you need to speak incantations for spells to work."
Walking around the girls, Christianos frowned. "Not sure how she did it, but escaping that trap wouldn’t be possible for two little girls without magic. Your father taught you, where is he now? Why are you here in the woods alone?"
The mixed emotions of finding their father dying, running for their lives and being captured weighed on Sandriel. It was all too much for a twelve-year-old girl to process. She finally broke down and sobbed, "Our father is dead. We don't know who killed him but we have to get away. I have to be strong for us. I have to protect us."
Cristianos took a step closer. "Your father was killed? Tell me exactly what you saw." Sandriel recounts her sister's insistence on returning home, the unnatural darkness that surrounded their house, their father's last words to find a wizard named Nilrem and how they never saw anyone, but always had an uneasy feeling of being followed until they reached the woods here.
Deep in contemplation, Cristianos listened to their story before saying, "This shroud of darkness around your home, did it move? Were there pockets of light? You said it was sunset, did the edge of darkness move with the setting sun?" Lauriel shook her head no. "Curious. The same type of thing happens when the dryad trees are attacked and stripped. This can't be a coincidence."
Almost simultaneously, Cristianos’ and Lauriel's heads turn as a darkness descends around them. Lauriel grips her sister’s hand tighter. Cristianos' eyes begin to glow white through the supernatural darkness and his voice amplifies and deepens. "I will not be caught off guard!" The magical effect of solid darkness began to fall, as if a storm cloud washed it away and the blue skies of the mid-morning day returned.
"Tricky, tricky little Satyr," comes a husky voice from the treeline. "The girls are mine to take. This is none of your concern."
Sandriel pulls her sister to her as they stand back to back with Cristianos. Looking around, she sees five hooded figures surrounding them. We are going to die now, she thinks to herself.
Cristianos planted his hooves and says, in the same deep imposing voice, "These girls reside in the Devonshire Woods and I am its protector so they are under my care. Leave now and you may keep your lives. Take one step forward and I will claim your souls as forfeit." An arrow flies unerringly at Cristianos' chest, but bounces harmlessly off his breastplate. He cocks his head to the side and says, "As you wish." Cristianos howls and seconds later Sandriel hears movement through the forest.
“What was that?” asked one of the hooded figures. As he turns his head to the movement, Sandriel sees a shock of blond hair fall out of the hood. Just behind the men, she hears growls in all directions as a pack of wolves converge, leaping to attack. Two brush past Lauriel and tackle a hooded figure who screams as they begin biting. Two others run to Cristianos' left, attacking another. The last wolf plants itself in front of the girls as protection. Cristianos waves his hand at the two assailants on his right and they fall to the ground fast asleep.
"I don't need them to kill you Satyr," replies the husky-voiced figure. Raising a crossbow, he aims for Cristianos, but in an instant the satyr seemingly disappears. "Where are you?! Show yourself or I kill the children. I only need one alive anyway."
Changing his trajectory, the hooded figure searches for the satyr, but the second he isn't trained on the same spot Cristianos jumps into action. Staring wide-eyed, Sandriel realized that Cristianos never moved, standing perfectly still he blended into the background and only looked like he disappeared. She watched him cover the ten feet to their assailant with no issue before goring him in the face with his horns.
Swiftly, he removed his dagger and brought it to the man’s throat. “Who sent you after the girls?” asked Cristianos.
The man struggled against the satyr’s strength, but dazed from the horn assault, he just replies, “Do as you wish satyr. We are the first of many and our master won’t rest until he gets his prize.”
Cristianos flicks his wrist and easily slices through the man’s throat. Before he hits the ground, the satyr is already sprinting across the forest floor slicing the throats of the sleeping mercenaries. He walks over to the two remaining men, barely alive from the wolf attacks. Bowing to the wolves, he growls softly and they leave one man alone before dragging the others to the side.
"What just happened?" asked Sandriel.
Cristianos replied, "I gave them the opportunity to leave. This one love, we will question. The others will be a meal for the wolf pack." Throwing the barely breathing figure over his shoulder, his hood completely falls off and Sandriel sees he is a young man with blond hair and slightly pointed ears. Walking away, Cristianos says, "Follow me. We need to talk to Poppus. Maybe he can assist us with some answers."