Counterpoint - Inventory Clearance Paperback!
It is the twilight of mankind. Depleted by generations of war with a race of dark beasts, humanity stands on the brink of extinction. The outlands are soaked with the blood of the fallen. The midlands are rotting with decadence and despair.
Elfkind, estranged by past crimes, watches and waits for nature to run its course.
And then the two collide.
Ayden’s life has long been guided by two emotions: love for his sister, and hatred of all things human. When he’s captured in battle, he is enslaved in the service of a human prince, Freyrik Farr. Freyrik’s always known elves to be beautiful and dangerous, but never has one affected him as deeply as Ayden. Teetering on a dagger’s edge between duty and high treason, Freyrik discovers that some choices can change a life, and some an entire world.
Between prejudice, politics, pride, and survival, Ayden and Freyrik must carve a new path, no matter how daunting. For nothing less than the fate of both their peoples rests on the power of their perseverance—and their love.
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Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:explicit violence
This novel features realistic battle scenes and cultural misogyny.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), abuse, alpha/alpha, angst, bisexuality, enemies to lovers, hurt / comfort, interracial/multicultural, interspecies, military, power imbalance, protection, slave / capture (actual)
Ayden awoke to wrongness.
He shoved his furs aside and tuned his inner ear to the forest’s song—the bass hum of the trees, the trills of insects—a thousand points of sound merged in near-perfect harmony. He sniffed the air as he listened, detecting nothing but a faint whiff of last night’s cook-fire, the loam of the forest floor, the comforting scents of the massive red cedars and the stream running by his campsite.
And there was the wrongness, the faintest whisper of jagged notes worming through the forest song. Had a human dared to cross into their lands?
Ayden’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a grin entirely void of humor.
Time for a hunt.
He unwove the branches of his shelter with an impatient mental hum and stepped out into the first light of day. A second sound reached his ears then, a physical one this time: dull hoof beats and snapping branches, faint but rising by the moment. The approaching racket might be nothing more than an animal on the hunt, but he dare not take that chance.
He stooped to grab his kit, lashing his furs to his satchel and slinging it and his fighting sticks across his back. Then he dropped a sleeping dart into his blowpipe and once again cast both inner and outer ears to the ruckus rushing closer, closer . . .
And sighed, relieved, when he recognized the sound for what it was: a pair of wild boars tearing down the path to his campsite. He lowered his weapon and tuned his other hearing to the boarsongs, churning crescendos of urgency and blind rage. They were almost upon him already. Ayden spun a soothing melody in his mind, a half-forgotten lullaby, and sent it to weave through the boars’ frantic tempos—
The two boars emerged into the clearing, drawing to a halt not two feet before him, heads bent and hooves pawing at the earth.
“What haste, fierce ones?”
Of course they couldn’t understand him, but it felt good to use his voice again.
Not surprisingly, the boars responded about as intelligently as most people would: one snorted, and the other one squealed.
The squealer took a hesitant step forward and to the side, then stopped again. Its gaze shifted from Ayden to the path beyond and back. Ayden closed his eyes, tried to hear what the boars were hearing, what was driving them forward so urgently. And there it was again, the wrongness, just a whisper yet but a precursor, he knew, of a powerful wail to come: the Hunter’s Call, summoning beasts to twist with hate before siccing them upon the human realms.
“Ah.” Ayden opened his eyes and nodded at the boars. “I’d not discourage you from such a noble task, but you must know the humans will kill you?”
The squealer took another step forward. This time, the snorter joined him.
Who was he to argue with that?
He stepped aside. Freed of his influence, the boars bolted across the clearing and disappeared back into the dense wood.
Ayden took off after them at a hard run. He followed them for hours, even though he knew with fair certainty where they would go. Indeed, they did not disappoint.
The sun had crested the sky by the time they reached the boundary between the elven and Feral lands, where a foot-wide crack cut through the forest like a fatal wound. No life grew near the fissure for twenty paces, the very earth scorched into volcanic rock and great sheets of muddy glass. No elf had crossed the fissure for nearly three centuries. The boars, however, trotted over without pause, drawn inexorably by the Call that wailed like death in Ayden’s inner ear.
Ayden stopped short, loath to set foot or toe upon the deadened earth.
Instead he found the tallest tree at forest’s edge: a massive red cedar, its trunk as big around as twenty of him and its lowest branches a good dozen paces overhead.
“I don’t suppose you’d offer me a hand up?” he asked, placing a hand upon the trunk and trying to coax a branch to bend within his reaching.
Alas, this tree had sung its melody unchanging for over two thousand years, and it had no interest in shifting for a whelp such as he—never mind that he’d seen a century or eight himself.
Ah, well. He hadn’t really thought it would. He fished his steel bearclaws from his satchel, buckled them onto each boot and hand, and started up the trunk the hard way.
Long minutes later, sticky with sap and quivering with fatigue, Ayden broke through the canopy. He dug his farseer from his satchel and peered through the lens. From this new vantage point over a hundred paces high, he could see south across the cultivated human lands for nearly three leagues, and the same distance west across the forest canopy of the Feral lands into the Myrkr Mountains. A few leagues southwest, in the direction the boars had gone, he spotted a dozen crowned eagles gliding over a low mountain peak. No, not just gliding . . . they were circling as a pack, wingtips splayed like fingers on a massive hand.
Crowned eagles never flew in flocks, could barely tolerate each other even when mating. He could hear the wrongness pouring from them in pounding, discordant waves.
Command would wish to know of this. Ayden balanced himself between the trunk and two narrow branches, letting them take his weight, and focused his mind on forming a signal cloud. ’Twas no easy feat for him, a naturally adequate musician at best, to hear the cloudsong so far away and amongst so much noise from the forest below, but at last he detected faint threads of it, high notes jittering chaotic and fast in the upper sky, and he shaped them with his mind into clear lines and measures. Above him, three clouds merged into two and formed the symbol for Ferals and a navigational marker.
He held them as long as he could, gritting his teeth against the strain. But his clouds drifted quickly, and a moment later he gave up, panting, and let them scatter. No matter, though; Command would have seen the signal immediately and understood.
The Surge was building.
Having done all he could for now, he turned his thoughts to a meal, and water, and setting up camp for the night.
Climbing down the massive cedar was, to Ayden’s chagrin, nearly as taxing as climbing up it had been, and it didn’t help that the Call was growing more strident by the hour. Halfway down, a small herd of caribou bucks in full rack raced by his tree and crossed the border. As he reached the ground, a squirrel whizzed by, and he could not help but wonder what harm such a harmless creature could possibly inflict. But the Hunter’s Call would not draw it for nothing; surely it had some purpose.
’Twas not his concern, though. His empty belly, on the other hand, was very much so. Fortunately, he knew these woods well, and before an hour had passed he’d gathered a feast of mushrooms, huckleberries, wild onions, miner’s lettuce, and hazelnuts. There was no water source nearby, but ’twas easy enough, even for him, to draw it from the moist air; he untwined the dewsong from the airsong and guided the trickle into his upturned mouth until his thirst was slaked. He drew more to fill his canteen, then climbed back up to the first branch of the cedar he’d scaled before and unrolled his furs. If he slept on the ground this night, he might very well be trampled. Besides, ’twas best to be prepared should something go wrong: should the Surge for once flow into elven lands, or should the humans, in their desperation or foolishness, try to cross the border themselves.
Ayden woke early and alone, wondering what was taking the others so cracking long. Had they not seen his signal? Or were they simply too lazy to travel through the night?
Regardless, he would be well prepared when they arrived. He emptied his bladder, foraged a quick breakfast and a large store of extras, and packed his kit before the sun had cleared the horizon.
Back atop his cedar, he coaxed the leaves and branches to weave into a hunting blind large enough to camp in. From this perch, he had a clear view of the nearest human village a league to the south, and several leagues of their land beyond it. To the west, he could see a few leagues across the Feral woods until the ridgeline cut his view. He spent the morning watching them both, enjoying the solitude and the late summer weather, the many-layered forest song drowning out the worst of the wrong.
He was jarred from his peace round noon by the urgent clanging of bells to the south, and he snapped his farseer toward the human village, where both the temple bell and the bell atop the Surge fortress were ringing madly. The human occupiers of that sorry patch of borderland were dropping tools and baskets in the fields where they stood and scrambling toward safety. Half a league to their west, a mismatched couple of Ferals—a caribou buck and a wolf—were racing toward them. He couldn’t hear the humans screaming this far off, but he liked to imagine that they were.
The Ferals were gaining quickly on a man and a woman who’d been working a distant field; the humans with their two weak legs could never hope to outrun the four-legged Ferals, but they were certainly trying. The man’s longer stride carried him ahead of the woman, but he paused, ran back to grab her hand, pulled her forward again. How foolish and sweet: they’d die together.
From the east rode two archers on horseback, but Ayden doubted they would make it on time.
And indeed they did not. The woman faltered up a steep hillock, and the Feral wolf caught up with her. She crumpled beneath its lunge without a fight, and Ayden gave the wolf a silent cheer for meting out swift justice.
The male—the stupid fool—stopped again, looked back. Probably screamed the woman’s name. Ayden couldn’t make out his expression or hear his song from here, but clearly he was torn. By the time he realized there was no helping the woman and began to run again, the Feral buck had gained on him. The man took but ten steps before the buck, as large in its twisted form as a plow horse, gored him through the back and tossed him aside. The man hit the ground with the grace of a soldier and rolled to his knees despite the gaping hole in his chest. Ayden watched him pull something from his belt—a knife, he thought, from the glint of sunlight—but the man died before he could use it.
The Ferals trampled his body as they charged past, but didn’t savage it. Instead they raced toward the two riders, then veered off to tackle a man who stood paralyzed in the fields. Ayden fastened his farseer onto him and cursed. ’Twas only a scarecrow. He could see that even from here; how did they not? The cavalry was closing in on them from behind, and he found himself waving the Ferals along—he would have called out to them if he were closer, foolish as that was—but he had no hope of swaying their course. The Ferals charged, leapt, knocked down the scarecrow and sent its head flying.
Then the mounted archers reached their range, and they felled the wolf with two shots through the head that even Ayden had to admit were impressive from horseback. The Feral buck turned and rushed them with lowered antlers—gods, Ayden hoped it wouldn’t hurt the horses—but the riders re-nocked their bows in time to take it out.
It was over.
Or not: a third creature, so small that Ayden had missed it before, took a flying leap and scurried right up the leg of a rider. It was on his face before the man could reach for his knife, and he fell from his horse, batting wildly at his head. The other soldier dismounted and killed the Feral rodent, but his companion lay unmoving now, either unconscious or dead. Hopefully dead. That made three kills to three for the Ferals—a definite win. After all, wild animals bred much faster than humans.
The excitement died down after that. The one surviving soldier rode back to town, the bells stopped clanging, the humans returned to work, and a group of men built a pyre for the dead. A lone Feral hawk watched them all as carefully as Ayden did, but none of its friends came to join it.
Speaking of friends, Ayden was growing rather impatient with the tarrying of his own. He gathered his strength to form another pair of signal clouds, just in case, then settled in to wait for the next attack.
The scouts arrived about an hour later. Ayden couldn’t see them—they must have been muting their lightsong—but he could hear four of them moving through the forest long before any sound reached his bodily ears. He climbed down to greet them, and found them waiting for him by the time he reached the ground.
Except they were still invisible.
Ayden looked directly at the space where he knew the one in the lead to be, and a grin crept up his face despite his best attempts at annoyance. “I can hear you, you know.”
The forest before him rippled into the shape of a familiar, smiling elf.
“Afi Kengr,” Ayden said, grasping forearms in greeting. “By the fallen gods, what took you so long? And where are the rest of you? Or does the Council not deign to concern itself any longer with such business?”
Afi smiled back. “Always so impatient, you are.” His three companions, still invisible, spread out to form a perimeter. “Do you know how far we had to travel? And we daren’t ride with the Call so strong—’twould be a shame to have our horses go running right out beneath us past the Crack.”
Ayden conceded the point with a chuckle.
“Anyway, the rest aren’t far behind. But you’re right about the Council, they have grown complacent. I have toenails older than some of the boys and girls they’ve sent this time. But tell me: how far have the Ferals progressed?”
Ayden reported what he’d seen so far, then invited Afi up his tree to take a look. For Afi, of course, the tree bent its first branch. Ayden shot him a dirty look, but stepped up beside him all the same.
“Fret not, my friend,” Afi said, slapping Ayden on the back. “Another few hundred years of practice and they’ll bow for you too, I know it. Shall we race to the top?”
Though Afi didn’t wait for an answer before leaping to the next branch, Ayden grinned and cried, “You’re on, old elf!”
He beat Afi to the top by half a dozen paces.
Once in his hunting blind, they sat back, scanning the landscape and waiting for the rangers to arrive. To the west, a wake of vultures had joined the eagles on the updrafts over the Myrkrs.
“Gods, how can you stand the noise?” Afi asked, pressing his hands to his temples as the Call ratcheted up another notch.
Ayden shrugged. “You get used to it.”
“The view is worth the price, though.”
“Indeed. Will you stay?”
The old scout shook his head. “Command has other plans for me.”
Ayden knew better than to ask what they were. Instead they settled into companionable silence, one eye to the Ferals and the other to the woods behind them.
Their waiting ended half an hour later, when the clutch of junior rangers arrived in a hail of stomping boots and rattling foliage and nervous chatter.
“Ah, younglings.” Afi sounded fond.
Ayden pulled a face. “I was never that green.”
Yet Afi’s clamped, twitching lips told a different story. “Come, greet them,” the old scout said, cutting off Ayden’s indignant response. “’Twould do you good. You’ve been out alone for too long, my friend.”
Ayden snorted. “Climb down a hundred paces for the pleasure of their prattle? I thank you, no.”
Afi shrugged. “As you wish.”
“Signal if you need me,” Ayden called to Afi, who’d started his way to the forest floor. Afi threw a teasing wave, the kind that said he’d have no need of young whelps, and continued on his way down.
The treetop seemed very quiet when he disappeared into the foliage below.
Four days in, and Ayden’s little nest had become quite cozy. Below, the greenwood rangers grew ever more restless, their nerves scraped raw under the constant barrage of the Call. They worked hard to conceal it, Ayden credited them that: they whiled away the waiting with stick fights and patrols, blowpipe competitions for range and accuracy, and anxious bets on when the Surge would finally crest. Ayden sparred with them only once, for after he routed all challengers, none would face him again. Afterward, he ventured down only in short bursts to gather intelligence and food. The invitations to stay aground he ignored. The one trembling, brave request to join him in his blind he glared into a stuttered apology.
He probably enjoyed that more than he should have, but the chatter and bravado of novices a quarter his age frayed his patience more than even the Hunter’s Call could. Ella would have disapproved. Crack it, Ella would have presided over their silly contests and stroked their pride and soothed them with songs at night. He snorted at the idea, but he couldn’t quite erase the smile at the thought of his little sister.
So back into his blind he went, blissfully alone, watching Feral birds arc across the western sky when he detected a hint of deep familiarity above the wrong.
Ella! What was she doing here?
In the face of his sudden urgency, the cedar branches bent and shifted beneath him, passing him to the ground in moments. Ella was waiting for him with a soft smile that belied—and nearly disarmed—his concern. Still, he gripped her by the shoulders and asked, “What’s wrong, sister? What brings you here? Is everything all right?”
She plucked his hands from her shoulders and held them in her own, shaking her head indulgently. “Always thinking the worst, Ayden.”
“For good reason,” he said, thinking on that other time she’d come to find him on patrol, nearly three centuries past, with the news of their father—
Ella poked him in the belly, and when he glared at her, she flashed him that cracking cheeky grin and asked, “The new rangers, how do you find them?”
“Young,” Ayden said.
She smiled as if expecting his rancor. “Do be patient with them, brother. No doubt they will learn much from you.”
“Yes,” he drawled, “perhaps in the next hundred years I might succeed in teaching them the value of silence, but I am not hopeful.” And speaking of silence . . . “You never answered my question. What brings you here?”
Ella straightened up. “Why, my love of you, of course.”
“I see. And the real reason?”
“I’m going to see Chaya.”
“What, now?” He gripped her shoulders, scarcely resisting the urge to shake her. “The Ferals are gathering; you’d be a fool to—”
She knocked his hands away. “They never hurt us, you know that.”
“But the humans are on high guard now, and they would hurt you.”
“Not Chaya,” Ella insisted, thrusting forward into his space. He wondered if she realized the challenge she was issuing. Probably not. “She’s my friend and I trust her.”
Ayden covered his eyes with his hands, held them there until she tugged them away.
“I am not blind nor a fool, thank you very much.” Her indignation gave way to sadness as she added, “The human I go to see is dying, not dangerous.”
“That is what mortals do, you kno—” Ella eschewed the usual belly poke for a halfhearted belly punch, cutting him off. He scowled at her. “Your presence won’t change a thing. Go home, Ella.”
He tried to turn her round, but she held her ground. “No.”
“Ella . . .”
“I said no, Ayden. I’ll not let her die alone.”
Ayden let loose an exasperated sigh. Wherever had she learned such stubbornness? He realized that short of binding her, he would not be able to stop her. Though he had to admit, that idea did have its merits . . .
She poked him in the belly again. “Stop that. It’s not for you to command me, brother. I am not one of your rangers, if you’ll recall.”
“Yes, how silly of me to have forgotten.” But in fairness, it seemed he had; she would go with or without his permission, so they might as well part on amicable terms. He offered her a resigned smile.
“I forgive you,” she said, perfectly grave, though a smile was twinkling in her eyes. She stood on her toes to kiss both his temples. Then she was gone, off at a trot toward the human-elven border as if ’twere perfectly harmless: nothing more than some scribbled line on a disused map.
“Come back before the Surge crests!” he called.
“I will,” she called back, not even bothering to turn her head.
“And don’t forget to mute your song!”
Her laughing response was a blast of notes so loud that every ranger in his seeing winced—she’d have blazed like the sun to a human’s eyes—but then she went virtually silent, and he trusted her to stay that way for the duration of her foolish excursion.
He watched her go until he could no longer discern her through the trees. As he turned back to his cedar, he saw where she’d been standing a single small flower, pink-petaled and perfect, reaching toward the sun. Just like Ella, he thought: always grasping for things she could never have.
Back in his perch, Ayden tracked Ella’s progress through the human lands with his farseer. Between the clamor of the Call, the forest song, and Ella’s deliberate muting, he’d expected to lose all sound of her, and was pleasantly surprised to discover himself attuned enough to track her all the way to her human’s house. He kept watching and listening even when she disappeared inside. From time to time she emerged—fetching water from the well or wood for the stove—a bright, distant figure in the powerful lens of his farseer. A farseer that, strictly speaking, should have been trained on the gathering Ferals . . . Ayden resisted the twinge of guilt between his shoulder blades and kept watching the village.
And for that he thanked the fallen gods in a great, panicked rush when he spotted a pack of human soldiers, spread out a league beyond the village and heading straight for it.
Only centuries’ experience with conquering battle rage held him back—and just barely—from hurling himself down the tree and into action. Instead, he readjusted his farseer with shaking fingers. Ten men at least, though from this distance ’twas difficult to discern one from the next. They were slinking through the far field, making faint ripples in the wheat, their steps slow and measured. But that worked to his advantage: he could try to head them off before they reached the village.
Of course, they might not be coming for Ella. The Ferals were on the prowl, after all, and the humans were responding in kind.
But if they were coming for her . . .
He mapped a quick path and memorized the landmarks, then scrambled down from branch to bowing branch. As soon as his feet struck the forest floor, he was racing toward the border and across it for the first time in over two hundred and fifty years.
Ayden ran as he’d never run before, the forest parting a trail before him. He stayed within its safety for as long as he could, but soon the trees thinned and made way for fields of wheat and soy. Before stepping out into the open, he spent precious moments calming his mind and clamping down upon his song until it faded to the softest of whispers; humans could not hear elfsong, but they perceived it as a soft illumination that would betray him. He despised the sensation of binding himself, and the world round him seemed somehow less, but ’twas nothing compared to the thought of a world without Ella.
Even muted, he still possessed the use of all his hearing, and he cast out his senses in search of the soldiers as he sprinted across the fields. He found excitement, eagerness, hatred and anger, confidence and a touch of fear: men on the hunt for a dangerous trophy. Ayden bared his teeth. They had no idea how dangerous their hunt had just become.
He reached the muddy outskirts of the village and slowed to a stop amongst a copse of apple trees near the human’s home. Ella’s song was wrapped round the dying human’s like a swaddling blanket, soothing even to Ayden, though he dared not let it calm him. Instead he cast out his senses once more, his blood rising in his veins as he noted how close the soldiers had come. Too late to head them off, and no time to warn Ella without exposing them both. But surely she’d sensed him by now, and could hear his fear.
Hide, he thought. She might hear it and understand.
Then the time for thoughts was over.
He climbed the tallest tree in the orchard, a measly ten paces to the top, and braced himself to balance without his hands. Through his farseer he spotted the soldiers a hundred paces off, moving quietly down the dirt road. Closer now, he counted nineteen men.
He grabbed a fistful of darts—the lethal ones, not the sleepers—dropped one into his blowpipe, and put it to his lips. Eighty paces. He begged the tree for all he was worth to hide him well, for once the soldiers spotted him, he would lose his main advantage. The leaves and branches rustled softly, closing him in.
Ayden blew the first dart, aiming for the rear line in the hope that the soldiers ahead wouldn’t notice. The man slapped a hand to his neck, and Ayden planted darts in two more soldiers before the first one even hit the ground. A fourth soldier folded a second later, but then a cry went up and the whole contingent crouched behind their shields, shouting amongst themselves to find the marksman. Ayden took out two more before a sharp-eyed soldier spotted his perch, and before he could reload again, a hail of crossbow bolts chased him from the tree.
Discovered now, he unleashed his bound song with a satisfied growl and called up a fierce gust of wind, but the bolts were too fast and heavy to be swayed much. One skimmed his left arm as he ducked behind the trunk, ripping a burning furrow into his flesh.
He heard shouts of “Elf!” and “Get him!” and “Watch out, sorcery!” as he dumped his kit and jumped to the ground, wondering how by the fallen gods he would best thirteen men armed with crossbows now that he’d been seen. He sang to the wind for a greater gale and it complied, kicking up pebbles and debris and hurling them in violent spirals.
The soldiers shouted in fear and huddled behind their shields again. But this parlor trick wouldn’t hold them at bay for long; he needed to act quickly before they flanked him.
Storm, he thought. He’d show them a real storm.
As another salvo of bolts thunked against the tree that sheltered him, Ayden sucked in a breath and sought out every sizzling, snapping note in the air around him, in the dirt at his feet and even within his own body. He summoned them together into a tight, sparking ball of sharp notes and frantic tempos and hurled it at the soldiers.
Panicked screams, then shrieks as his ball lightning burst through the front soldier in a crackling fit of fire and smoke, arced off to a second and a third, regrouped and attacked a fourth. Ayden fought for all he was worth to hold it together, but he couldn’t stop it from flowing through the fifth man’s feet and into the dirt.
Six dead from his darts, five from his lightning; that left eight more between Ella and safety. He sang out to summon a second ball, and two soldiers turned tail and fled. But the remaining six found their courage and charged him.
His lightning was building too slowly. Desperate, Ayden pulled his daggers and threw, felling the two men in the lead from ten paces out.
He was running out of weapons. He whipped up the airsong round him into a smoldering crescendo, too hot for the humans to press through. Their fear screeched like untuned strings in the music of the battle as they fell back again. The grass round him caught fire, and he let it burn as he struggled to call together the charged notes once more.
A second ball lightning coalesced in his hands and surged forward with a clap of thunder, stopping the heart of the soldier it hit. Ayden urged it on, but his mind-voice cracked and the lightning went directly to ground.
He had no strength left in him to form a third. His legs buckled beneath him and his vision swam, but even as his knees hit the ground, his hands found a dead branch and snapped it in two—he’d dropped his fighting sticks with his kit, so these would have to do. His left arm throbbed where the bolt had grazed it, and his hand was slick with blood, but he had nearly eight centuries of practice on these vermin and if he could just . . . get . . . up . . . he knew he could take on the three who remained.
He was just getting one foot beneath him when something sharp slammed into his back. It knocked him face down into the dirt, ripped the air from his lungs. His first thought, before the pain hit, was of Ella; he prayed like he’d not prayed in over two hundred years that he’d bought her enough time to reach safety. His last thought, before the world went black, was that he’d miscalculated: there had been twenty men, not nineteen, and he’d overlooked the one who had scouted ahead.
Not for the first time this week, Freyrík wished his brother were here. Well, not right here, right now, in his bedchambers with—
“Oh, Highness!” Lord Jafri threw his head back, planted his palms on Freyrík’s belly and sped his rocking across Freyrík’s hips. He was lovely, Freyrík had to admit, with those dark round eyes and black hair, bronze skin slick with sweat, sculpted arms trembling with exertion . . .
Arms, Freyrík reflected, that had earned their beauty wielding the sword. Not even sons of Earls were spared from the Surge Wars. At least Jafri would command his own company this time—
“Just like that, Highness,” Jafri breathed.
Freyrík wanted to comply but didn’t know what that referred to, since Jafri was doing all the work. Oh, he wanted to want the man, to lose himself in the tight, eager body atop him and the silk sheets below. To forget, just for a moment, the darkness and death encroaching upon his people. Only in scattered skirmishes yet, but not for long—he would have to mobilize the army soon. And as if that weren’t trouble enough, the contingent in Akrar had captured an elven spy, though not before the creature had single-handedly killed four-fifths of them. His men could barely hold one front against the darkers; if elvenkind meant to rekindle aggressions, Farr Province might not survi—
Freyrík snapped back to the present and realized that Lord Jafri was staring down at him, worry pulling at his lips and creasing his forehead. He’d stopped moving. Freyrík’s member had gone limp inside him.
“Are you well, Your Highness?” One hand slid up Freyrík’s chest and settled hesitantly over his heart. “Is it . . . have I displeased you?”
Freyrík sighed and curled his hand over Lord Jafri’s, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Of course not,” he said. Then, because he could ill afford to worry about the easily-wounded feelings of someone who’d given their arrangement more meaning than it deserved, he tugged Jafri off his lap and said, “’Tis just the war. I find it hard to attend my own pleasure when so many lives will soon be lost on my orders.” Or lost to my errors. He’d dispatched scouts and soldiers to the elven border, but he could scarce afford to divert them from the fight with the dark beasts. Had it been the right choice?
“You worry overmuch, My Prince,” Lord Jafri said.
Freyrík shook his head. ’Twas impossible to worry too much when the entirety of his brother’s kingdom—and all the Empire beyond—stood so very near the precipice of extinction.
Lord Jafri knelt at his hip and leaned in, looking up at him with dark eyes made darker by the low light and his desire to please. His breath ghosted over Freyrík’s member. “If you would permit, Highness, I would ease your tensions . . .”
He bowed his head, mouth open, but Freyrík nudged him away and stood. “My thanks, Jafri, but I must rise and meet the day.” He felt compelled to add, “Perhaps tomorrow,” though he knew he shouldn’t have. Tomorrow would be no less taxing.
Jafri bowed his head and stood. “Shall I fetch your groom?” he asked, sorting through his clothes and carefully avoiding Freyrík’s eyes. Upset, then, though for wounded feelings or foiled ambitions, Freyrík knew not.
And what beneath the great shadow of the gods had planted that thought in his mind? Most people desired him for their own ends, true, but Lord Jafri had never shown . . .
Freyrík poured some water into his washbasin, splashed it across his face. “Yes, thank you.”
“. . . Shall I leave?”
“That might be best,” Freyrík said, but kept his tone kind. “If you would summon my secretary on your way, I’d be most grateful.”
Freyrík heard Jafri’s footsteps on the carpet, and his bedroom doors open and close. Only then did he allow his worry to surface. ’Twould not do to air his fears in the presence of his people—not even a paramour. But he could share his worries with the Aegis. He could ask for an emergency recruitment from the inland provinces; he was certain the Aegis Exalted could draft at least a battalion for him. Or rather, for his brother.
He would write Berendil, then, and ask him to appeal to the Aegis in person. ’Twas why his brother spent so much time at High Court, after all; that it pleased his third wife, a daughter of the Aegis, was but a secondary gain. Yet on days like this, Freyrík wished he weren’t alone in the outlands, with a regency on his hands and a Surge on the brink of cresting upon his borrowed lands.
But he would manage, as he always had. He had his brother’s confidence, his people’s confidence—befang it, if one listened to the clergy, he had a godly right. And Berendil would be home in another month and back on the throne where he belonged.
His groom returned from what Freyrík suspected was an interrupted breakfast to bathe, shave, and dress him. He felt poorly for having recalled the man so soon after dismissing him, and gave him ’til evening to spend as he wished. Then he settled into his private study to write the letter, but he had barely penned his opening salutations when his secretary interrupted: the elf-catchers had arrived with their prize and were awaiting his pleasure in the Great Hall.
Freyrík entered the hall through the antechamber behind the dais, his secretary in tow, and took a moment to compose himself in the private alcove. Even from there he could see the abandoned tables, still strewn with the interrupted breakfast of the court. The guards had cleared the room, or else his guests and relatives had retired to safety of their own accord. The flock of servants darting round the edges of the hall, removing half-eaten dishes to personal trays, seemed to vacillate between terror and awe. Freyrík’s enmity for the elven warrior deepened at the sight of his court in such disarray, and he found himself eager to confront the creature. He strode out into the Great Hall proper.
And froze halfway down the dais stairs, nearly tripping over his own feet.
There beside the runner at the bottom of the stairs, shackled and flanked by two soldiers, stood a creature of stunning beauty, made even more so by the glow of elflight. Freyrík should have expected this—he’d seen his share of elven slaves serving at High Court and sold off in the markets—but nothing in his past could have prepared him to see, at this moment, a female elf.
Particularly one so young and small, a wispy maiden as light and lovely as dandelion down and surely no more threatening. She could not have killed sixteen of his men; the idea was preposterous.
A young sergeant stepped forward and clicked his heel in sharp salute. “The elven prisoners from Akrar, Your Highness.”
Prisoners, plural? Yes, the elven woman’s eyes were fixed upon a male across the runner, hanging bloody and beaten between two soldiers, his head slumped so low that all Freyrík could see of him was messy dark hair and a crossbow bolt jutting from his shoulder blade.
Freyrík turned back to the sergeant. “You call this one elf? There’s no light about him.”
The sergeant flushed but said, “He is, Your Highness.” He grabbed a fistful of the elf’s hair—nothing but cowlicks, Freyrík noted with amusement, for all the gravity of the occasion—and jerked the prisoner’s head up. “Glow for your prince!”
Freyrík’s breath caught as he looked upon the creature’s face, so very like the female’s: his eyes the same shade of green, his cheeks and lips and chin the same dazzling arrangement and shape. He was harder than she, in the lines about the jaw and brow, and darker as well—black hair to her red, bitterness and rage to her fear. And he stirred something within Freyrík that the female never could, that his sometimes-lover had just failed to, something immediate and hot and primal in a way he could never permit.
The elf blinked, squeezed his eyes closed, pried them open and turned them upon Freyrík. His exquisite face—too pretty by half to be human, surely—twisted into a sneer. He licked blood-caked lips and growled, “He is not my prince.”
“Ayden, don’t!” the female cried—apparently she had more sense than her companion—but it came too late: the sergeant slapped his open palm against the crossbow bolt and shouted, “I said glow!”
The elf threw his head back and screamed, and then suddenly he was glowing, much brighter than the female, so bright that Freyrík had to shade his eyes even as his personal guards rushed to shield him with their bodies. The soldiers holding the elf dropped him with startled yelps and cradled their hands to their chests. Freyrík smelled burnt flesh. Guards and soldiers trained blades on the creature, and one of the scalded soldiers kicked him hard enough to flip him onto his side.
“Enough!” Freyrík roared.
Every mouth in the hall fell still and every human head bowed in supplication. In the new silence, he could hear the female weeping “Please, stop!” over and over. Sometime during the uproar, she had torn free of her guard and knelt beside the male, who now lay curled as tightly as one could with his hands shackled behind him. He was bleeding all over the fine mosaic floor, his face twisted with pain so profound that Freyrík wondered if he even realized the female was there, focused upon him as though he were the entirety of her world.
He motioned his guards aside with a nod and added, calmer, “We are not brutes. There will be no more violence in this room today—” he looked pointedly from the soldiers to the guards to the elves and back, “from anyone. Is that clear?”
He was answered by a grudging chorus of “Yes, Your Highness” and a desperate, longing “Please!” from the female elf as a soldier dragged her back to her feet.
Another moment, and the struggle went out of her. She turned watery eyes to him and said in a voice watery to match, “Please, Sir Prince, he’s badly hurt. He needs my help.”
The female’s distress seemed to rival even her companion’s pain. “What is your name, child?” Freyrík asked, despite the distant certainty that this “child” had outlived him many times over.
“Ella,” she said, and then with a little sniff, “Daell.” Her companion shuddered, moaned, and her eyes darted back to his bloodied form. “Please, Sir Prince,” she begged, “’tis my fault, all of it. Ayden was only protecting me. Please, let me go to him.”
And truly, how anyone could ever deny this creature a single thing he had no idea, for he found himself nodding at the soldiers to let her go despite vague thoughts of sorcery and sixteen dead men.
The soldier holding her looked imploringly at the sergeant, who in turn looked at Freyrík. “Your Highness?”
It seemed his soldiers feared the same: lethal magic unleashed upon their heads. Yet if she were capable of such, would she not have struck already? A lifetime of war made it difficult to remember that not everyone had it in them to kill.
He looked upon Daell, so full of compassion, so very feminine in every way, and said to the soldier, “Let her go.”
The instant the soldier loosed his grip, Daell threw herself to her knees beside her . . . brother? father? husband? Gods, does it matter? Ayden, she’d called him; beside Ayden. She coaxed him onto his stomach with soft words and shackled hands. For a moment, Freyrík wondered if she were a healer, but ’twas quickly evident from her wide-eyed faltering that she was no such thing. ’Twas equally evident that if love alone could mend bones, Ayden would be whole again in moments.
Daell closed her eyes, and the glow about her intensified. The soldiers retreated a step, and the guards who’d hastened to shield him earlier made to do so again. Freyrík stopped them with a curt wave. He would wager his life that the only harm on Daell’s mind was the harm that she meant to undo.
She opened her eyes, the green half-lost behind a blazing silver aura, and wrapped trembling fingers round the blood-slicked bolt. Even through the elflight, Freyrík could see her blanch, and he stepped forward to catch her if she swooned.
She bent her head to Ayden and whispered, “Forgive me, brother”—well, that answered that question—and wrenched the bolt free.
Ayden screamed, and Freyrík shuddered in sympathy, wanting to hold him too, to silence his cries with a kiss and soothe away the blood and the hurt.
He stopped himself by main force of will, turned sharply, and took the throne.
Daell clamped her hands atop the gushing wound, her elflight growing brighter yet, and Freyrík could have sworn he’d heard . . . music? But then Ayden screamed again, and Daell cried out, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I don’t know how it’s supposed to sound!” She wiped at tears with the back of her wrist but still left a bloody smudge on one perfect cheek. “I can’t . . . I don’t know the bonesong, Ayden. I can’t fix it if I—”
She fell silent at that single hoarse whisper, and no wonder, Freyrík thought, for though it brimmed with pain, he heard strength there to match. Ayden flexed his fingers behind his back until Ella—Daell—calmed slightly and grasped them in her own.
Freyrík, and indeed all his wary men, were held in such silent thrall by the unfolding scene that the elf’s rasping voice seemed to echo through the hall: “Peace, Ella. Listen to the other one.”
The meaning of this conversation was lost on Freyrík, but it seemed that Ella—Daell, befang it—understood, for she nodded and laid her head against Ayden’s uninjured shoulder, closed her eyes and breathed deep for several long moments. “I hear it now,” she whispered, her lips curling into a soft, secret smile that Freyrík suspected most men would kill to own. “I hear it.”
Then she sat up and placed her hands atop Ayden’s wound, and the both of them blazed so brightly that Freyrík saw spots clear through his clenched eyelids.
When he felt it safe to open his eyes again, brother and sister were sitting side to side, Ayden hunched over Ella’s lap and Ella leaning upon his back, each looking for all the world like the only thing keeping the other from falling. Freyrík startled at the sight of Ayden’s shoulder through his rent shirt, smooth skin lying whole atop sculpted muscle.
His gaze turned disbelievingly to Ella’s hands, then to her face, where it stuck and would not come loose. She seemed too exhausted to speak, but she made known her gratitude with shining eyes and a graceful nod.
It occurred to him for the first time to ask, “And what of you, child? Are you hurt?”
Even as she shook her head, the sergeant stepped forward and bowed his own, saying, “No, Your Highness. I took great care to see her unsullied for you, though ’twas quite the test of forbearance, if one may say.”
Freyrík clenched his teeth, and Ayden tensed in his sister’s embrace, but Ella herself showed no signs of dismay. The innuendo seemed to have sailed right past her, gods be thanked for small favors.
He relaxed his jaw enough to say, “You showed wisdom, sergeant,” and bit back the following Else I would have extracted payment in flesh and blood and seed.
The sergeant grinned wide beneath the perceived praise. “She’s of fine stock, Your Highness, and never to grow much older. If one may be so bold as to wish you many a year of her pleasurable services, or the joy of the healthy coin she’ll fetch at High Court . . .”
“One may not,” Freyrík said curtly. He knew the man was angling for a reward, but that didn’t stop his anger from rising, nor Ayden from sitting up and turning horrified eyes upon him.
“Sir Prince?” Now Ella was looking at him as well—not with fear, but with the shocked uncertainty of someone who’d not considered their future. “You mean to hold us in your service?”
The word, polluted by the sergeant’s innuendo, sounded profane upon her lips.
Freyrík shook himself and set to explain that no, of course not: they were to be sold to the midlands, where the nobility had time for such frivolities as elven slaves; he had a war to fight, you see.
But somehow, the word “Yes” fell from his lips.
Ayden’s stare felt as sharp as a blade at his throat.
“I understand,” Ella said—except she obviously didn’t—“You have spared our lives, and shown mercy. I would show my gratitude—”
Ayden’s voice, low and whip-crack sharp, drew Freyrík’s gaze to him. The elf gazed back, his eyes clear and nearly free of the pain that had crippled him before. Freyrík shuddered under that stare as a warm, buzzing trickle formed in his chest and sank deep into his belly, where he stopped it by sheer force of will. But he knew that Ayden had seen through him; the revulsion on the elf’s face was shadowed only by his desperation.
“Please, Prince,” he said, and Freyrík heard how much it had cost him, to address him with such respect. “She doesn’t know what she’s saying. Please, let her go. She has done you no harm.”
“No.” Freyrík shook his head, more to clear it than to deny the request. “That is beyond my purview.” And beyond his will, truth be told; ah, but he could tell the elf was seeing through him again.
“Then I beg of you,” Ayden said, anxiety giving way to resignation, “whatever service you demand, demand it of me. If you—”
The elf paused, swallowed hard and dropped his gaze to the floor. Freyrík waited, spellbound, with a patience he’d never afforded his own men. When Ayden looked back up, there was steel in his eyes of a kind Freyrík knew well: a warrior’s commitment to a hopeless battle.
“If you keep her safe,” he continued, “I will do anything you ask of me. Anything. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Freyrík breathed, his head bobbing of its own accord despite all the blood fleeing from it in a rush. His hands clenched on the armrests of the throne. “Yes.”
He cleared his throat and turned to his guards, fixing his gaze upon them lest it wander and lead him astray. “Take Daell to the north tower. See to her needs. She is to be accorded every hospitality as befits a lady.”
Ella startled and sought out her brother’s eyes, even as a palace guard tugged her from the floor. “Ayden?”
“It’s all right, Ella. Go.”
The bleakness in his tone made Freyrík glad he’d taken care not to look at him. He made the mistake of looking at Ella, though, and found her pleading eyes fastened upon him.
“What of my brother, Sir Prince?”
“He will fare well as long as he honors his promise,” he said, keeping his tone deliberately soft to mitigate the harshness of his words. “And as long as you mind your conduct.”
She seemed to believe him, for she nodded, and made no objection as the guard saw her off. Two more guards peeled away from their posts to follow. Freyrík bit back an imprudent chuckle: an escort of three was at once insufficient and far too cautious.
The sergeant reclaimed Freyrík’s attention by clearing his throat. “Apologies, Your Highness, but . . .” He hesitated, bowing deep. “Isn’t that a terrible danger?”
Freyrík exhaled sharply through his nose. Patience. Not everyone had the benefit of High Court education. “Those rooms were built of cut stone centuries ago,” he said. “She cannot work her sorcery within their walls. ’Tis nature that answers to elven magic, not that which has been molded by human hand.”
And oh, how the High Court gentry reveled in that fact.
“Besides,” he added, “she would not risk her brother’s life. And you—” he turned to Ayden, quenching his desire with an iron fist. “Soldier-killer. Your sister’s life lies in your hands. Do take care not to murder anyone else if you can help it.”
“Then do not give me a reason,” Ayden growled, and though still he was slumped on floor, he reminded Freyrík of nothing more than a darker wolf.
Freyrík chose to ignore him, turning instead to the guard at his right. “The elf and I have much to discuss. Bring him to my chambers. See my attendants removed to safety, and post guards. I’ll be along shortly.”
He turned back to Ayden, taking measure of the pride in his eyes. “There will be no need for irons now; am I not right, elf?”
He’d meant it as a challenge, a test—one he’d expected Ayden to fail. Yet to his surprise, Ayden merely nodded.
The guard clicked his heel and hauled Ayden off the floor, much less gentle than his counterpart had been with Ella. Ayden winced, and Freyrík snapped, “Careful. He belongs to me now; I am the only one to decide if he is to be harmed.”
“Apologies, Your Highness,” the guard said, deferential but grudging. This once, in memory of the sixteen dead, Freyrík overlooked his tone.
Lord Commander Hákon entered the Great Hall with fresh guards in tow. Had Freyrík truly been so enthralled that he’d failed to notice the Captain of the Guard slipping out? Regardless, he was grateful for the reinforcements; with a flick of his wrist, he dispatched four of them to escort the elf.
With both elves gone from his sight, he once more deemed himself in full possession of his faculties. He nodded to the waiting soldiers, who were clearly disgruntled by the turn of events, and called forward his secretary.
“Lord Lini, see to it these men are rewarded for their courage: six months’ pay, and a year from their conscription. Find out which of the dead had wives, and send two years’ pay to the widows, along with my condolences.”
Lord Lini acknowledged the order with a slight nod of the head and a “Yes, Your Highness.” Beside him, the soldiers’ bitterness gave way to elation: they chorused their thanks and clicked their heels in salute like a herd of stomping bulls.
Freyrík pressed his hand to his forehead, hoping to still his thoughts in the ruckus, but ’twas not to be. Finally he said, “Leave, all of you. Lord Lini, I would not be disturbed until morrow.”
He retreated to his public office off the Great Hall, nodded to the attending page to shut the door, and sank into his chair. Thank the gods, solitude at last. He poured himself a glass of wine and peered into its depths, swirling it round and round without drinking.
What beneath the great shadow of the gods had he just gotten himself into?
Freyrík struggled over his map table for a long hour, deploying and re-deploying figurines of the contingents he hoped the Aegis would send. A scattering of red pebbles represented the recent darker attacks: small groups of twisted animals that had terrorized some outlying village before dying at the hands of a patrol or some eager farm boys. Soon there would be more beasts—hundreds, thousands, breaking in a great wave upon his lands. The numbers wouldn’t square no matter how he moved the figurines. Men would die in force.
Gods, he needed more troops. And not some hastily drafted merchants’ sons, but practiced soldiers. Warriors like Ayden.
Now there was a fearsome weapon, if only he would strike where Freyrík pointed him. The creature had slaughtered sixteen trained men within moments; if he were unleashed upon the witless darkers, what grand devastation might he wreak? He would resent being used, true, but his sister’s wellbeing would make fine incentive. Freyrík grimaced as he measured that gambit against the virtue of honor, but the numbers on the map table decided him. He would do what he must.
And what of the threat of a second elven war? He was inclined to believe what little he’d heard of Ella’s tearful story. After all, his garrisons had received but this one alert of elven trespass, and only because some sharp-eyed grain merchant had watched the fair visitor since boyhood and never seen her age. That the merchant also claimed Ella had spelled his widowed neighbor, perhaps even brought about her death, Freyrík was less inclined to believe.
But the fact remained that an elf had been stealing regularly into his villages for decades at least, and another had just crossed over in open hostility for the first time in over two and a half centuries. Perhaps ’twas wishful thinking to believe that Ella and Ayden really were alone, and not the heralds of new hostilities between elves and humans.
Well, there was only one way to find out.
The four guards posted outside his rooms saluted sharply as Freyrík approached with his own personal guard of four. He stopped a hairsbreadth from his door and took a fortifying breath. No matter what greeted him beyond, he must keep his faculties tightly reined. The elf would be a challenge. Already he knew Freyrík’s weakness toward him, and if he were anything like Freyrík, he would exploit it quite thoroughly.
Perhaps, then, he should delegate the interrogation to someone else, someone less involved—
No. He recognized this for cowardice and sliced its head clean off. This was his duty to perform, and if anything remained sacred in this befanged age, ’twas duty.
A protested command and a sharp rebuke saw that his personal guard, who would gladly shadow him into the befanged privy during his annual spell as prince-regent, remained in the hall. Then, feeling a bit ridiculous with eight armed men at his back, he threw open his doors.
And was greeted with an almost comic sight.
Ayden was sitting stiffly in a highback chair at the center of the drawing room. Around him, six more palace guards stood bristling with drawn weapons, their eyes glued to the elf as if he were a darker snake poised to strike.
Freyrík’s military instincts reared. He scoured the elf with a stare, but all he saw was an exhausted, wounded creature, sitting straight through force of pride alone and masking his tension with a strained sneer. Some far-sighted guard had washed the blood and filth from him, or rather doused him with a few bucketfuls of water, from the looks of it. He’d been given a fresh pair of breeches, thank the gods, but no shirt—so much for Freyrík keeping his thoughts in check. All that expanse of fair skin, that lean, muscled torso . . .
The guards snapped to attention when they realized who had entered. Freyrík yanked his stare from the elf and turned it to them, but he spared them no words, merely raised an eyebrow and waited. One by one, the guards sheathed their weapons sheepishly.
“Leave us,” Freyrík said when they were done, and at their obvious hesitation he added, “Wait outside.” With the other eight guards, he thought, and clamped his lips tight; the Prince Regent did not chortle.
But the sight of Ayden’s thin amusement sobered him. He caught the elf’s eye with a hard stare and said loudly, “If he harms me, kill the girl.”
Ayden’s amusement disappeared with the twitching of a muscle in his jaw, the clenching of hands in his lap. Rage and fear subsumed the bravado in his eyes, but otherwise he made no move. In his mind, Freyrík offered him a quick bow of respect for his restraint.
When the room emptied, Ayden slumped in his chair, unwilling or unable to keep up the pretense anymore.
Freyrík surveyed him for a long moment. “You look like a man convinced he’s about to be tortured.”
Ayden’s eyes narrowed. “Aren’t I?”
“The choice lies with you,” Freyrík said, though he could hardly imagine this creature choosing any but the most difficult path.
Ayden held his stare a moment longer, then bowed his head—less an act of contrition, Freyrík suspected, than a shielding of expression. He wondered what hidden emotions had graced those rich green eyes, for they blazed only with suspicion when Ayden looked up again.
“What have you done with Ella?”
“Her needs are being seen to, as with any guest in this house.” In fact, a battalion of footmen and maids were still busy transforming two officers’ rooms into a lady’s apartment in the north turret; Ella herself was asleep in a third room, so soundly that even the bellow of a darker bull wouldn’t wake her. Freyrík knew; he’d tried before coming here. “I am a man of my word, elf. Your sister shall not be harmed as long as you obey me.”
Ayden’s nod was nearly too slight to see. He sank further in the chair, and for a moment Freyrík feared he’d spill to the floor. He stepped closer unthinkingly, knee to knee but not quite daring to touch. Ayden tensed under his shadow and pressed back against the chair, hugging crossed arms to his chest. The motion called Freyrík’s attention to a soaking bandage on the elf’s left bicep, and he reached for it with a frown, but in the space of a blink the elf had captured his wrist in a startling grip, fingers digging into the tender space below his thumb.
Freyrík just barely swallowed a shout for the guards. Now was not the time to show fear or weakness. Nor was it the time for a flexing of sword-arms; pride would quickly turn this bloody. Nay, he would campaign on the battlefield of wit and will instead.
“Thus fares the promise of an elf,” he said, forcing a wry smile despite the growing threat of his thumb coming out of joint.
Ayden bared his teeth in a quick, silent growl, but a moment later he let go of Freyrík’s wrist. He still flinched when touched, but did not object when Freyrík pulled his arm up to examine it.
The elf’s skin seemed to smolder under Freyrík’s fingers as he carefully worked loose the bandage, exposing a gash that no longer bled but still looked raw. When he leaned in, the scent of the elf hit him like a lance to the chest: blood and sweat and the roads, yes, but also a strong hint of forest loam and fallen leaves riding in on his quickening breath.
Only when Ayden squirmed did Freyrík realize he’d closed his eyes and nearly touched his lips to the elf’s shoulder. He straightened up to see Ayden panting hard through his nose, teeth clenched, head turned resolutely away.
Freyrík cleared his throat. “Is this my men’s doing?”
“Yes,” Ayden spat, but before Freyrík’s anger could flare at his guards’ disobedience, Ayden added, “When they captured me.” He glanced back with an echo of his previous sneer. “Your men have poor aim, Prince.”
“Hmm.” Freyrík was more concerned about his own discomfort as he tried to rebind the wound without touching skin to skin, grateful for the many layers of formal clothes he wore. ’Twould not do for Ayden to think he was aroused by the sight of the wound, when in fact it was the wiry muscle, the smooth skin, the intimate angle between shoulder and neck that fascinated him so—
And shouldn’t he be interrogating the elf?
“Does it hurt?” he asked.
At this Ayden jerked away from Freyrík’s hold. “Why would you care?”
Well asked, Freyrík supposed.
He took a subtle step back, putting some distance between them to clear his head. ’Twas a blessing the elf could not know how disconcerted he truly felt, or how reluctant he was to ask his next question, which would almost certainly lead to . . . unpleasantries.
Another moment of silence, and Ayden sat up straight and defiant. “I grow weary of you, human. Ask your questions, do with me what you so clearly wish to do, but gods be cracked, hurry up. Even I grow old waiting for you to come to the point.”
Freyrík huffed, amused despite himself. “Very well. As you’re so eager to oblige, you may start by telling me who you are.”
Ayden blinked. And blinked again. Squared his shoulders and said, “I am Ayden barn Vaska barn Alarra barn Oneisi barn Hilmir barn Tívar the Blessed.”
Freyrík gave him a mock bow. “Your recital does honor to your forefathers.”
“Foremothers, you tone-deaf imbecile.”
Mothers? Truly? Or was the elf merely taunting him?
“Well, human? We are introduced. Are you satisfied?”
“Not so easily,” Freyrík said, feeling his groin tighten at the double meaning. “Tell me more.”
“What more would you know?”
You, Freyrík thought, and Everything, but his mind got hold of his tongue in time, and instead he said, “Start at the beginning.”
Ayden’s eyebrows arched high above his wide green eyes. “Do I look a storyteller to you? Choose a better question.”
Freyrík bit back a smile. He had chosen his question carefully; surprising, really, how few could answer it without fluster. But, “You forget yourself, elf. ’Tis not for you to command me. I will have your answer.”
“I’ve no answer to give.”
Freyrík unsheathed his dagger and held it up to Ayden’s eyes. “Then you leave me no choice but to carve it from you by blade.”
He had anticipated a number of different responses to this threat—including the possibility of attack—but it had never occurred to him that the elf would simply throw his head back and laugh.
“Oh, human,” Ayden said, pushing the dagger away as if ’twere a child’s toy, “you cannot lie to an elf! I can hear your feelings!”
Startled—nay, rattled to his very core at the mere possibility of such power—Freyrík stiffened as his mind raced through everything he’d felt since he’d entered the room. Amusement, arousal, anger . . . no doubt the elf could sense his current agitation, too, if the creature spoke true. He wanted to punch the smirk clear off Ayden’s face, but ’twould be foolish to let the elf strip him of control. No, if Ayden could truly see through him, he would simply have to match emotion to action.
“You hear my feelings?” he said quietly. Then he lunged into Ayden’s space, grabbed him by the chin and pressed the tip of the blade between his collarbones, just hard enough to draw blood. “Then hear me when I say that I will do what I must to protect these lands. You will tell me who you are and why you’ve come here, and I will know if you lie. Do you hear that, elf?”
Ayden held his stare as a single drop of blood rolled slowly down the dagger’s blade, and Freyrík cursed under his breath, bracing himself to follow through.
But then the elf jerked his head away, sagging as if the tiny puncture wound had drained him of all his fluids and air. “Fine. You may have my story; it is of little consequence. But I will allow you to kill me and Ella both before I betray my people.”
Freyrík nodded his understanding, one warrior to another. Then he took a step back, resheathed his knife, and settled against the sofa to listen.