The Aurora Borealis twisted and writhed in the night sky, a vivid green undulating ribbon of light. Its meandering dance witnessed only by the mountains and me, as I lay in the grass of the low hillocks at the base of the looming peaks. I rested a hand behind my head, watching the smoke I exhaled mingle and disappear in the stars, the point of a cigarette resting easily between my fingers glowing as I brought it to my lips for another drag.
My mind began to wander as I stared up at the show above me and frowned. There was no point dwelling in the past, and no point in staying out here any longer. I lifted my head and sat up, took one last drag before extinguishing and burying the cigarette in the damp ground next to me, and stood. I turned toward the encampment that had been my home for the last 20 years and made my way towards it, knowing I had no other choice.
The morning brought rain, mud, misery, and a sense of foreboding. The air was thick with it, humming with electricity and danger. My hair stood on end. Or at least it would have were it not completely drenched from the rain, and me along with it. The only good part about the torrential downpour was that the moment I got covered in mud, it washed off as if it had never been there. The bad part was everything else. My rough linen tunic and trousers clung to me, rubbing and chafing with every move. There was no part of me that was warm, and I wasn’t even sure I remembered the feeling. The sound of my tools against the rock beat in my brain, relentless, reminding me of my plight with every clink of metal on stone. I looked down at my hands every few minutes just to make sure they were still there.
My tools fell out of my clumsy, numb fingers, and progress was slow. At noon, I hadn’t met my quota. “Where’s the rest?” the guard, a young and ruthless recent addition to the camp, looked into my nearly empty bucket and spat, kicking it over and scattering what little my frozen hands had collected. It was a slow, painful extraction process, and today I was not meeting expectations. Today, I’d had enough.
Twenty years ago, the Southerners conquered the North and enslaved its people after a long and bloody war. Before the invasion, the North had been a land rich with resources and filled with magic, including creatures of all kinds. Since then the magical population had gone nearly extinct, slaughtered mostly for the anti-aging properties of their blood as well as fear of their varied abilities, and the few humans left were forced into slave labor in the camps, mining the precious resources of the rich Northern lands. But those, too, were becoming increasingly scarce due to the voracity with which they were extracted.
After watching my parents slaughtered and crucified at the age of five I was sent to a mercurium extraction site. No one knew what the Southerners were using mercurium for, but they seemed to need a lot of it. The site, which had originally proved to be fruitful, was quickly becoming depleted and dangerous; it was not unheard of for the cliff walls of the quarry to shear off in sheets and crush anyone unfortunate enough to be too close.
“Probably still in the ground,” I gave a slight bow but maintained eye contact deliberately, defiantly, “my lord.” I smiled, overcome with a delirious recklessness.
While still in my bow, he caught me off guard and backhanded me with one gauntleted hand. Stars exploded in my vision as my head snapped to the side, my body following, sprawling across the mud. Taking the quickest mental survey of my condition and deciding that my jaw was not, in fact, broken, I flipped myself over onto my stomach and attempted to crawl away. “You gave me your version of a joke,” he jeered, grabbing my ankle and dragging me backwards toward him. Something sharp caught my side and I felt my skin tearing, intense pain followed by a dull ache. “Now I’ll show you mine.” Sick settled in the pit of my stomach as I glimpsed the trail of red left behind as he pulled me closer towards… something. What?
The horses. Oh, gods. My heart beat against my chest with such ferocity I could practically see my sodden tunic flutter. This is not good, an understatement, I knew, even as he lifted my foot and tied it to a stirrup, his lips curling and the triumphant gleam on his face sickening.
“Please, wait,” the words escaped my throat in a breathy panic as my fingers sank into the sucking mud. I felt dirt pooling under my nails, pushing its way in as my breath came out in short, harsh gasps. My side was starting to burn, the blood flowing freely. He was going to kill me, and if he didn’t I would bleed to death anyway.
“You’re not laughing yet,” he grinned as he cinched the knot, looking directly at me. “Just wait for the punch line.” Time slowed. I watched him raise his hand to slap the hind quarters of the horse, and I watched the muscles of the animal twitch as it wound up to run. The horse whinnied. The rope went taught. With inexplicable calm and clarity, I closed my eyes, my shallowed breaths deepening and slowing. My heart beat once, twice. I knew I was going to die.
The scream burst from my throat, high and piercing, and I realized I wasn’t screaming. The guard’s face, once arrogant and sneering, was contorted in pain, mouth open and eyes bleeding. And then the light came: a blinding, brilliant, white, green flash of light. It emanated from me in all directions, filling my mouth with the taste of copper and my nose with the stench of sulfur and burned flesh. The rope snapped, the horse ran, and the guard’s scream echoed in my ears. He raised his hands in front of his face and I saw them, I saw them disintegrate.
Everything went silent save for a single, high, thrumming note that hung in the air like smoke from an extinguished candle. Then it, too, quieted. Ashes floated lightly through the air before being caught by the rain and mingling with the mud and blood.
Sound returned to me first, the rain a steady hum. The wetness on my face, an earlier nuisance, was now a welcome feeling. I stood, hunched and shaking, my hand at my torn and bleeding side, fighting the waves of black dizziness trying to overcome me. As I took a tottering step forward, I stumbled. Fell.
It felt like paradise. Wherever I was, I didn’t care, because it felt like paradise, and I wasn’t about to leave.
Until, of course, the memories came flooding back and I sat up too quickly, pulling at my stitches and gasping with pain as I went. Wait – stitches? My hand flew to my side as I opened my eyes, scanning the room. I was in a bed, well, more of a sturdy cot, really, in a tent. There was a table with papers scattered on it nearby, another smaller table with a decanter and two goblets, a wash basin, a large trunk, nothing of note. I was, in all likelihood, still in the encampment, perhaps in a medical tent or the overseer’s quarters. I was clean, warm, and dry, wearing what looked, and felt, like brown cotton trousers and a cream cotton tunic. Cotton! Not linen! The softness of it felt incredible against my skin. I lifted my shirt and inspected my side. The gash was large, a few inches, but it had also been cleaned and dressed. I pulled back the bandages and revealed a row of neat stitches holding the skin closed. It would leave a nasty scar.
I rose gingerly, sore and dizzy, and hobbled to the table to inspect the papers. I knew how to read though I couldn’t say how I had learned. I took the opportunity to learn as much as possible about my current situation and sifted through the various documents, knowing full well they would not have left me alone with anything they did not want me to see. None of it made much sense. There were words about magic, blood, and a drawing: concentric circles, a jewel in the center, lines connecting them, and smaller circles scattered throughout. A star chart? Planetary guide? I didn’t know and couldn’t tell.
The slight noise of a throat being cleared startled me, interrupting my thoughts, my head snapping up in search of the source. A tall, dark-haired man stood at the entrance. All the air went out of me and my surroundings began to swim. This man, I knew. This man, I would never forget. His unruly dark hair fell into the same cold, stone gray eyes set in the same handsome face I had last seen twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, when I had seen him sitting astride his horse, watching my parents die. His eyes still lacked any semblance of pity, but there was danger in them now, as well as wry amusement. “Hello again, Rowan,” he said, voice calm, deep, and smooth, as he took off his gloves and tossed them easily onto the paper-laden table.
We gazed at each other across the short distance, waiting to see who would make the first move.
It was me. I lunged towards the exit of the tent, ignoring the agonizing pull of the sewn skin at my side. But he was faster and didn’t have thirty-some-odd stitches in his side. Within moments he had his arms around me, pinning mine down as he lifted me neatly and easily off the ground.
“Let me go,” I hissed, squirming as best I could, considering my still very present injuries.
“I can’t do that,” he whispered in my ear, his lips barely brushing me. “You’ve gotten yourself into a bit of a mess, you see.” At this, I stopped struggling. “If I let you go, will you behave?”
I gave a short nod of my head. He lowered me until my feet touched the ground, let me go, and stepped away. The sudden departure of his body heat made me shiver and I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling small and frail.
“Now let’s try this again.” His voice was calm as he picked up the decanter and poured two goblets of wine. Handing one to me, he flashed a dazzling smile. “Hello again, Rowan.”
I reached for the goblet with trembling fingers but did not drink. “Hello, Eric.”
“Was that so hard?” He drank, peering at me over the top of the glass. “I would ask how you’ve been these last twenty years but…” his voice trailed off as he arched an eyebrow at me.
“But I’ve been in the hell you sent me to after you helped butcher my parents?” I offered and took a drink of the wine, warming immediately.
A brief expression of distaste, lips pressing together, flashed across his features before settling on mild indifference as he shrugged. He hadn’t aged a day in the last twenty years and now, as he stood before me, I took him in meticulously. He had a very lean build, shoulders and chest broad and clearly strong. A soldier’s build, very utilitarian. He wore all black save his burgundy belt and bits of silver in the sword at his right side. I took note that he must be left-handed.
There was not an ounce of fat on him. Or me, I thought to myself wryly, acutely aware of my own physical condition. I had somehow fared better than most at the camp, who were no more than walking skeletons. I hadn’t wasted away. I still had muscle. And all the while I knew, had known, it was strange and impossible.
“Now that we have our pleasantries out of the way,” he said, voice light as he looked directly at me, his stony gaze contrary to his carefree tone. “You killed a man today.” I swallowed slowly, took another sip of wine, but didn’t say anything. Instead, I held his gaze steadily, purposefully. “There was nothing left,” he continued, his eyes giving nothing away. “Did you know?”
“That I killed a man? Yes.”
He waved a hand impatiently. “Not that. That’s not important. Did you know that you are Fae?”
My eyes widened and I could feel the color ebb from my face. It was as if he had slapped me. “You shouldn’t joke about that sort of thing,” I whispered, heart racing and bile rising. This was not something to joke about. The accusation alone could cost me my life. The blood of magical creatures was coveted. The blood of Fae was worth its weight in diamonds. I had heard fables of the old Fae-folk being found and kept. Bled. Too valuable to kill. I shuddered.
Without another word he put his goblet down, reached for something, and held it in front of me. “Look.” It was a mirror, and I saw my adult face clearly for the first time. It was a remarkable face with flawless skin, high cheekbones, and full, pink lips.
But my eyes! They were startling. Where my irises were once blue was the night sky: swirling ribbons of blue and green in a sea of navy darkness, punctuated by tiny, glittering stars, the pupil a gaping black hole in the center. Anyone who looked at me must have known I wasn’t human.
“How did no one notice this?” I was baffled, overwhelming fear gripping me as I held the table for stability. Knives of panic were shooting through my skin and cold, clammy sweat clung to me.
Eric put the mirror down and reached for a small box set next to the decanter of wine. “It doesn’t manifest immediately. It has to trigger.” He opened the box but its contents were turned away from me. “Fae folk used to be commonplace, you know,” he said, his hands working, movements hidden behind the open lid of the box. “But you were hunted into extinction, or so we thought. You’re the first we’ve come across in a hundred years.”
“What do you mean a hundred years?” I stopped. Processed. “You’re not Fae…” he took a step towards me, iron bracelets in his hands, the fresh smears of blood bright against the dull gray metal.
“No. I’m something far older and far more dangerous.” In two long steps he closed the distance between us and stood directly in front of me. Close. Too close. I stepped back, reacting without thought.
“What are those?” I began to ask, tilting my head up to meet his gaze, but he didn’t give me a chance to finish. He bent his head and kissed me. I was shocked into paralysis and in that moment I felt him slide something wet and heavy onto each of my arms. So I did the only thing I reasonably could in this situation. I bit him.
Eric pulled away from me at once, hand at his laughing, blood-stained mouth. I had time to see the last traces of the iron bands he had slid onto my arms disappear into my skin, leaving an intricate, geometric pattern burned into the flesh just under my elbows. I expected pain, but there was nothing of the sort, just a faint humming like a single note of a stringed instrument had been plucked, reverberating in my head until it disappeared. The pattern stayed. I had been branded.
Panic welled inside me and that primal fight or flight instinct was screaming. “What have you done?” The words came out clipped and breathy.
He smirked, picking up his wine glass and taking a drink before responding. “I’ve bound you to me,” he said, all traces of blood gone from his mouth. “It was either that or being bound to Desmond. I took the liberty of making the choice for you.”
“How noble of you,” I quipped, the loathing I felt dripping from my voice.
“You’ll thank me later.”
I sincerely doubted that, but didn’t say it. I had heard much about him over the years. He was a brilliant strategist, the best swordsman, Desmond’s right-hand-man, and quite the womanizer. But he was callous, merciless, and not human, I suspected. I watched him and wondered what would happen next and if I would manage to survive it.
“It’s time we were on our way,” he said.
I didn’t ask him where. I knew. We were going to meet Desmond. Maybe then another piece of the puzzle would fall into place. Maybe then I really would be thanking Eric for sparing me the choice and perhaps, in so doing, saving my life.
But then again, maybe not.
Two months. It had been two months. Two months of zero progress, zero information, zero anything. I preferred being beaten into submission over the overwhelming boredom that seemed to accompany my new situation. After our brief and uncomfortable palaver, Eric had taken me to Desmond’s castle fortress. With a mountain range at its back, a wet moat, a dry moat, and walls at least eight feet thick, the fortress was impenetrable. I would need a plan and an opportunity, and I very much doubted either of those would be easily forthcoming
After Eric had unceremoniously dumped me in this place, I hadn’t heard from him. I hadn’t met Desmond, either. In fact, no one had seemed overly concerned with my presence here. I had been given a small but decent room with a bed. Tapestries featuring some sort of ancient battle with the vampires in the Kilgore Mountains to the north hung on the walls and the small window on the south-facing wall revealed rolling green hills and a dark forest in the distance.
I also received two meals a day which were brought to my room from the kitchens. The meals were simple; bread and cheese in the morning, bread and stew in the evening with a glass of wine. Sometimes roast fowl was involved. I relished every bite, savoring it, and often taking an unreasonably long time to finish my meal. All in all, I couldn’t complain, except for the persistent nagging feeling that things were very likely going to get complicated quite soon. I had many questions which were unanswered: What did it mean that I was Fae? What were the ramifications of being bound to Eric? Why was I allowed to roam the castle, and why hadn’t anyone bothered with me?
When the days had turned to weeks with no word, I started to explore the castle. The halls and rooms were smaller than I’d imagined they would be as we had approached, but then again the walls were thick, as evidenced by the windows, which were few and far between, and small resulting in dim rooms. A majority of the spaces were lit by candles, and must have been for centuries if the black streaks of soot in the walls were any indication.
But there was beauty to be found even in the darkened hallways as the vaulted ceilings came to delicate points and the supporting columns carved to look like trees, branches extending and melding with the vaults of the ceiling. Even the catacombs held their own beauty: serene faces of dead long-passed and forgotten decorated the tombs. I walked those halls, studying each sculpture, until even the sculptures disappeared and the tunnels turned dark, dank, and ominous. The torches on the walls were lit, I noticed, but it looked like no one had been down here in quite a while. I walked until I reached the foundations of the castle and could go no further: there was nowhere else to go.
In my explorations, I had tried to find potential avenues for escape. I walked every path in the catacombs I could find, always meeting a dead end. I even followed the rats, but rats could squeeze through spaces I couldn’t. Feeling brazen one day, I tried walking out the front door, politely asking the guard to lower the drawbridge for me. He, equally politely, declined my request, but would not tell me why. Going through a window wouldn’t work, even if I could make it across the wet moat, the dry moat would have thwarted any attempts to cross it via its sheer size and my inability to scale the walls effectively.
So I tried to use my powers. In the fables that I’d heard, Fae folk had a mastery over the elements. I had no idea how to tap into this power, or if the legends were even true. Legends had a way of twisting the truth, after all. But it was a good a place to start as any. I took a candle and tried to light it. It was a simple thing, a single candle. I set it in a holder and placed it on a small table in my chamber, sitting across from it, focusing intently. I felt the stars in my eyes swirling and focused on the gliding smoothness, sensing it was the right thing to do. I concentrated on that blackened wick until it was the only thing I saw. There was nothing else in the world. Just me, and that wick.
Frustrated, I inhaled slowly, taking a deep breath through my nose and letting it out through pursed lips in an attempt to refocus and calm myself. The wick smoked and my heart stopped. I moved closer to the candle, holding my breath. Then, lips held together as if in a kiss, I blew, gently, willing flame. The candle smoked, the wick glowed, I continued to blow. Flame blossomed from the wick like a blooming rose. I felt the heat of it on my face and moved away, sitting back in the chair, bewildered. Elated. Breathless with exhilaration and wild disbelief at what had just happened. What I had just made happen.
I felt the smile on my face, wide, genuine. This I could work with. Or so I thought. I was breathing hard, liked I’d just sprinted a mile at full speed. My heart throbbed in my ears and my vision blurred. Exhaustion and nausea crashed over me in waves and I barely managed to drag myself to the bed before I passed out.
The next morning I woke with a pounding headache. What good were powers if lighting a candle took everything out of me? I looked for solace in the library: a maze of rooms with shelves stacked floor to ceiling, filled with books and scrolls. It smelled of leather, old paper, and the smoke of centuries of candles pipe smoke, all things I found strangely comforting. I sought knowledge about the Fae. Although the books seemed deliberately vague about our powers, there were two things on which all the books agreed: one, Fae blood was extremely powerful (though on the subject of how and why they were silent) and two, the eyes of a Fae change only once the power is activated, which explained why no one had noticed my eyes before.
Of course, no explanation of this activation was forthcoming, but I assumed an event had to occur in order for the powers to be triggered. In my case, a life-threatening event. The books were very sparse on the subject of Fae. I found more on the subject of magic, confirming that novices to the art regularly experienced exhaustion and blackouts. But that could pass with enough practice and fortitude, depending on the natural abilities of the conjurer.
I continued my forays into the library, studying maps, memorizing every lake, mountain, and village large enough to be charted. I looked up spells and memorized those, too, and within a fortnight I could light a candle and only feel slightly winded. Progress was progress, after all.
I spent my nights walking the allure of the castle, seeing the occasional light flicker in the distance, watching the Aurora illuminate the snow-capped mountains as the first snowflakes of winter began to fall. It was both lonely and comforting. The wind from the mountains brought the scent of ice down and the flicker of the torches on the walls danced like demons worshipping the night. I could almost feel magic in the air on those nights.
That’s where I found myself tonight. Snowflakes settled gently in my hair as I wrapped my arms around myself, my breath coming out in white plumes. It was a dark, moonless night. Not even the Aurora peeked out from behind the thick snow clouds I knew to be overhead. Just the frost, the wind, and the quiet sound of my feet treading softly on the cold stone of the thick walls, when I felt something in the small of my back that caused me to turn and look out over the black fields. Something was coming closer, far beyond my physical field of vision. I stared into the inky blackness seeing no other lights than what the castle gave off.
I felt ridiculous. No one in their right mind would be out here, riding in the dark. Horses were too valuable to risk a broken leg, and there were things out there far more dangerous than wild animals or bandits. There were things darker than the night.
But there was something, someone, out there. I could feel it. And then I knew. Eric was back.
There was no mistaking it. I looked down at the burns in my arms. They were glowing ever so faintly like the embers of a fire. I could hear the sound of horses’ hooves, riding in the night, no torches to aid them. I’d had my suspicions before, but now I knew he wasn’t human. He couldn’t have been.
By the time the men were close enough for me to make out their shapes in the darkness they were almost here. I heard a whistle, then a yell, the sounds of the drawbridge being lowered. I followed their progress and watched as they filed in. Eric, maybe two dozen armed men, and someone I had not yet met. Someone I knew could only be one man.
Desmond had arrived.
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