A bridge stood at the far side of the village, little more than a single footpath across the dangerous river, but ornate in the way elves did all work. Glyphs were carved into the columns rising up to a roof, and at night the bridge glowed softly.
The guardian was supposed to keep anyone from crossing over into the fae world, which stood on the other side, behind a veil of moving colors so no human ever saw those lands. Tall, ancient and ageless, he had kept the post for as long as humans had been settled on the other side of the bridge. He might have been made of stone; magic kept him powerful and unchanging, and he never left his post, standing there in his eldrich armor, only the bare hint of his face seen beneath the helm.
He said nothing. He did nothing. He simply waited and if anyone moved to cross the bridge he stopped them. Some said he'd killed a few brave (or very stupid) men who had tried to cross to raid the elf lands about fifty years ago. No one had made a serious attempt to cross since then.
Things had changed.
Drusina stood by her brother. Behind them gathered no more than forty others, the last survivors of Elfbridge Village. And behind them rose a wall of flame as everything they knew was destroyed by the barbarians.
"Kill us or let us through," Drusina said. She held her sword in hand, ready for the fight. Although she'd trained to be a warrior she had no illusions of winning this battle. However, she couldn't win against a horde of barbarians, either, and this was better than facing the evil behind them. They couldn't cross the wild, raging Green River that surged below the bridge and they couldn't retreat in another direction away from the village because they'd be captured, tortured and slaughtered.
There was only one place left to go. Drusina took the next step forward, putting her feet firmly on the bridge as she brought up the sword.
The guardian moved; with a single fluid flick of his arm and a twist of his body and he had a sword in hand as well. Somehow she had hoped --
"Dru, you can't," Idenis whispered next to her. He was not a warrior, but he had a sword in hand. "This won't work."
"We have to cross," she said. The flames were starting to die behind them. The barbarians would be coming through soon.
So she walked up to the guardian, her sword ready. "We have to cross," she said again.
She looked into the elven face; the eyes blinked, which hadn't in so long she had truly thought of him as a statue, not anything alive. The face looked human, taunting her to expect a human reaction from the plight they faced.
His sword moved to match hers. She leaned in closer.
"Kill them quickly," she said softly. "Don't let them be captured and tortured. You are, truly, our only hope."
He blinked again and when she swung her weapon, he barely brushed the blade aside. He focused past her and she could see the reflection of flames in his eyes.
Then he turned his head and looked over his shoulder towards the fae lands. She could have killed him then, but she had never killed anyone except in a fight, face-to-face. She had not intended to kill the guardian at all.
A child cried in terror and she glanced back to see the first of the barbarians coming through, trying to grab a woman with her child. The attackers were human, but they didn't look it with their wild eyes, shaved heads and filthy clothing.
"Please -" Dru began.
He lowered his sword. "Go past. All of you go past."
For a moment she didn't believe he had truly spoken. Then she shouted and began to wave to the others. If the barbarians had not been coming through, they might have disbelieved as well. Instead, faced with the gruesome deaths they would get from their fellow humans, they dared to hope and rushed across the bridge, frantic and afraid. The guardian stepped aside. They were quick to go, at least, and in the end, only Dru and the Guardian fought back the barbarians. He killed dozens, but she did her share until the enemy finally retreated, deserting the ruins of the village and rushing off to some other place.
She and the guardian crossed the bridge, stepped through the veil and to . . . emptiness. The elven village had gone to ruin, the lovely walls crumbling.
"They left a long time ago," the guardian said softly. "They thought they were too near the humans."
"But you stayed?" she said, stunned.
"I . . . was left behind." His head came up. "I did my duty, but this is a new age. I shall keep the barbarians away. You will be safe here."
He walked back across the veil leaving them to the new village.
She helped others get settled. There was wild food growing nearby, and fresh water. Someone found a horde of old blankets and another some pots and pans. Stunned to be alive, and some grieving for those they'd lost, they settled in and began to think of the future.
Late that night, Dru crossed back over the bridge. The guardian looked at her, surprised.
"My turn to take the watch, friend," she said. She dared to put a hand on his arm and felt a slight tremble beneath the armor. "Go and rest for a while. Meet the others."
He looked at her, confused and troubled. "This is my place."
"No. This is your duty -- but we won't abandon you here. We won't forget you."
She saw a new emotions cross his face: hope and loss, pleasure and fear. He bowed his head and walked back to the place that must have once been his home.
They would all have a different future.
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