“Kinley’s, if you’d please,” the warrior says quietly. He shifts the copper piece towards the middle of the table and gives me an appraising look as I reach down to gather it up.
His gloved hand touches mine as I draw it away, and for just one moment I glare at him. It had been on purpose, I’m sure. He’d been a moment from gripping it and pulling me closer. His coin in hand, I sigh and turn to head back up to the counter. I can feel his blue eyes laughing at my back.
Ignoring the man, I take the copper to Joesa. “A pint of Kinley’s.”
Joe’s eyebrows shoot up, then narrow. “Is he sober?”
“I assume that’s why he wants the Kinley’s,” I reply and then sigh. “I don’t understand why he needs me to get it. He has legs, right?”
Joe shrugs his thin shoulders, and those knowing brown eyes meet mine. “Probably to watch you walk, Tam. I can’t imagine anyone actually likes the drinks here. Nowadays I think they must just come here to watch your hips.”
I’d blush, but I’m still thoroughly put off by the soldier in armor back at his table. “Funny. Give me the damn pint so he can forget all about me.”
Joesa shrugs again, reaching under the counter and slapping a tankard of the thick brew down in front of me. I pick it up and bring it over to the soldier. He’s the only one in the Inn right now aside from me and Joe. The quip about him forgetting me was mostly a joke. I know when I look at him that as he looks at the table he’s already mulling over taking me to his room for the night. I don’t bother looking enthusiastic, either, as I set the tankard down on the table and as, once again, his hand touches mine.
This time, however, it lingers, and cursing myself for an idiot, I stay.
“Is there a problem, sir?” I ask in my there-is-a-problem voice. I don’t recognize the coat of arms on his plate, but I do recognize the bloodstains on his mailed arm. I’ve seen enough soldiers to know when one has seen too much.
This man isn’t like that. I can tell when his blue eyes flash amusement, when his mouth opens and his white face brightens. He has brown hair somewhere under that helmet. I can see wisps of it hanging in front of his face. “Tam, right?”
I know my face is blank. I don’t bother voicing it. Of course that’s my name. Everyone in the town knows my name.
“Would you like to go for a ride?” He asks, in what might just be the worst pick-up line I’ve heard in years. Either that or he’s serious. I stare at his expression for a moment. Before I even know what’s happening, I nod.
It occurs to me, as I walk back to Joesa and he rolls his eyes, that I don’t really know for certain what he meant. Joesa hands me an apple, which I slip into the pouch I always wear at my side. “You might get hungry,” he says dryly. “Riding can take it out of you.”
I just give him a blank stare, and he shoos me away.
I walk right back to the table. The wooden floor creaks under me. Really I need to get rid of the squeaky boards one of these days. I don’t think Joe can even lift a hammer. I wait until the soldier is done sipping his pint of Kinley’s before I even open my mouth.
“Outside, on my horse,” the man interrupts me, answering my unspoken demand for information before it passes my lips. “She’s a good one. I promise she won’t bite. I can pay you for your time.”
His face is without any facial hair whatsoever and smooth but for a jagged scar that runs from his cheek down his chin. His eyes are sparkling blue and mischievous. There’s blood on his armor, and it’s some kind of metal I’ve never seen before. It shines like silver. I have a dozen questions, and I open my mouth to spit one of them out, but somewhere in my head the signal gets lost and instead I just nod and walk out the door into the outside, trance-like.
His horse is outside. It isn’t tethered or anything. It’s just standing there in the fading light of evening. That’s another thing to wonder about. Who goes for rides this close to dark?
It’s an immense horse. It isn’t barded with armor either, and doesn’t have a saddle or anything. It shifts its head to look at me. I hear Joesa shout something out at me. Something like ‘Have fun’, I think. The horse’s skin is black as true midnight- or would be if it weren’t striped with white. I have never seen a mare this large. Its hooves are near the size of my head.
I hear the clatter of boots on the wooden floor behind me. “Not going to stand there all day, are you?” he asks, his voice gentle. “I thought you wanted to go for a ride.”
I step out and around the horse, wondering if I could even mount the thing. Wondering also how I could go about it. She stamps a great hoof into the dust and snorts, as if reading my mind and laughing.
Then I watch the soldier vault onto her back.
“Saddle?” I mumble weakly.
“She won’t wear one,” He replies, grinning. “I won’t let you fall.”
He reaches down for me. The part of me that trusts in common sense slams its head against its mental prison as I grasp his hand and let him pull me up in front of him. I’m honestly glad I wear breeches and not a skirt. The metal of his armor is cold against my back- through the blouse. I shiver. He reaches around me to grasp the reins. Now my arms are cold too. I don’t know where to grip without a saddle. I can feel the muscle of the mare under me ripple. Her skin is soft as I reach down to stroke her mane, but I’m not even really thinking about it. I brush her neck, and one of her ears flicks. She looks back at me, rolling an eye to stare.
Her eyes are intense enough to drown in. They’re silver- true silver, like the truth of the midnight skin she bears. It’s a little disconcerting how intelligent she feels.
After a moment, though, she turns back and I hear a clucking noise near my ear. Without so much as a tug of the reins, the mare starts to move. I cling to the mane without even meaning to, but I don’t know why I worry. The horse moves with enough grace that it’s almost like floating as she picks up speed.
In a moment, the world I know is spread out before me. In another, it’s falling behind.
I watch the Inn recede for the first few minutes, as we continue down the road away from the town. It takes me a moment to understand exactly what I’m seeing, and a few more minutes of my conscience jumping up and down screaming to get my attention.
I squeeze the horse’s neck. “Stop!”
To my utter amazement, the man tugs on the reigns lightly and the horse slows down- not completely, but to a steady walk instead of a canter.
“Is there a problem, Tam?” the soldier asks me quietly.
I look around, feeling awake for the first time and very conscious of his metal presence behind me, the coolness of steel and that odd metal against the too-thin fabric of my blouse. “Where are we going?” I demand. “Where are you taking me?”
By this time the Inn is a dot back behind us and the haze of the town on the plains is barely visible. Ahead the road becomes a crossroads.
The plains stretch on to either side of us, but the dark brown blotch of a forest is visible along the left path of the upcoming crossroads, and along the right I recognize an old shack rumored to be inhabited by a witch. It sticks out starkly from beside the road.
“To that hut over there. Is that alright? It won’t take long.”
His words should trigger all manner of alarms, but instead they make me shiver, and not from the cold. I don’t like the sound of it at all, but I don’t complain again. My conscience finally just stops talking. It’s obvious my mind isn’t about to listen to the last vestiges of my reason.
The horse doesn’t pick up the pace. It’s eerily silent, and I wonder at how a horse can make so little noise. The only real sound is the clink of the soldier’s armor clattering together every once in a while.
After another minute of the walk, the shack is growing closer, now quite visible and obviously abandoned. The warrior clicks his tongue agan. Muscles ripple under me as the horse steps off the road and then stops completely. We’re still a little walk away from the shack.
The armored man slides off, lifting a plated leg over his horse’s back and dropping down onto the dry, dead grass. I follow suit. Dismounting I can do. I’m not a complete idiot.
Finally, now that I’m off of his magnificent horse, I realize what I’ve forgotten. “Who are you?” I ask.
I feel like he might be ignoring me at first, but then he shrugs, still facing away from me. “Sar’Neal.”
“That’s a gnome name, isn’t it?” I ask. I can’t see what he’s so hesitant for. He nods once, shortly, and that’s the end of it. I should be relieved I guessed right, but I get the feeling I could have said anything and he’d have nodded.
Sar’Neal approaches the hut and beckons me after him. I notice that he keeps his hand on the hilt of his weapon where it rests in its sheath. The dead grass is thick around my legs, tugging at me, almost like it actively resists my feet. I push on through though. It’s then that I notice Sar’Neal stepping over it, through it without the slightest difficulty. In fact, the dead grass which seems like it tangles me, presents him with no resistance at all, almost recoiling from his shining metal boots. A tingling starts at the base of my neck and works its way down to my butt. Something isn’t right. Why should metal boots make him immune?
We draw closer to the shack. It’s truly run down. The wood is rotten, the windows smashed and the interior is unlit and abandoned. The whole thing is covered in dust. We make our way to the front of it, and that’s when Sar’Neal turns to me.
“I need your help,” Sar’Neal says slowly. His voice isn’t as deep as it was in the tavern. I don’t know why I notice that, of all things. It makes the tingling worse.
I stare at him. “Huh?”
He unclips his sheath and hands his sword to me. For a moment I just stare at it, open-mouthed. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. It’s not too heavy, after lifting tankards and waiting on people most of my life. It’s a short sword, too, I can tell because the sheath is small. Joesa has a proper sword, a memento from one war or another, battered and scarred and longer than my whole arm. I couldn’t even lift that one. This one is light. I almost wonder if it’s made of metal, and I draw it out of the sheath awkwardly to check.
It shines like his armor can’t. I was wrong. The armor is like wrought iron in comparison with this blade. This is true silver, like the horse’s eyes. It glitters and shines, sparkling intensely in the dim light of the evening. I have to screw up my eyes to even look at it directly, and I fumble with it. I don’t drop it– grim determination and too much experience with spilled drinks helps there– but I come damn close to stabbing myself in my own foot.
Finally I get it back in the sheath. Sar’Neal hands me a belt, too, pulling it from a pouch on his belt. I don’t comment on how he managed to stuff a belt in such a small bag. I’m familiar enough with magic to know it when I see it, and I don’t bother gawking either. Instead, I fasten the belt around my waist and attach the sword sheath. The weight of it is weird on my hip, but it makes me feel just a tiny bit better about myself. I feel a glimmer of silly pride. It isn’t even my sword.
The soldier smiles at me, but his face turns serious as I finish and look up at him. I bet without his boots he wouldn’t be so tall. He’s only a couple of inches taller than me with them on.
“Underneath that shack is a woman no man can slay,” Sar’Neal says quietly. “She holds power over all those who have known the pleasures of a woman’s touch. Whether she is sorceress or witch or malignantly possessed, no one can say.”
I stare at him dubiously. “So you want me to kill her.”
He laughs. “No. I want you to distract her so she can’t bewitch me. I’ll deal with her directly. Like I said before, I can pay you for your time.”
I hesitate a moment. A tiny voice in my head whispers, When will you have the chance to do this again?
I open my mouth to say never, and catch myself just in time. I close it again and, resigning myself to looking stupid, just nod. Sar’Neal pats me on the shoulder reassuringly. “Follow, then.”
He brushes past me and opens the door to the shack. It seems like it should fall apart in his fingers, but it opens and, as he takes a step inside, he vanishes.
I hesitate a moment longer before I make up my mind and follow after.
It’s like walking through a hundred spiderwebs. Something of it clings to me, and the world spins around me a moment. When I get my bearings again, I’m staring at the inside of an earthen room. There’s a tingling and then a light, piercing pain in my ears for a moment. I swallow, and the pain recedes, leaving me with a headache. The earth seems to press all around here. The walls to the room bear roots and are composed of brown and black soil. I turn- there’s a blazing light from behind me to act as a torch. It flickers frantically.
I look down with a sense of foreboding. Sar’Neal is nowhere to be seen, but there is a ring of speckled red mushrooms around my feet. On a suspicion, I slip a hand into the pocket of my breeches and, removing the apple Joe gave me, I bite a piece of it off for comfort. Acting on intuition, I toss the remaining whole of it outside of the ring. It falls too fast and the white of its flesh turns brown with age in a mere moment. Well.
That explains where Sar’Neal went. I wonder if he even noticed time accelerating or the flicker of the light?
I step out of the fey ring of fungus, swallowing my bite of apple. As I walk out, I make sure not to look back, instead bending down and picking up the apple I’d tossed. Well, no getting out this way again. Not without terrible luck– barring the ceiling collapsing and flooding this place with natural light, I can’t think of any way to rid myself of it right now, either. My only choice is to move forward.
On closer inspection, though the exposed flesh of the fruit is browned, it isn’t rotten. It can’t have been that long. There isn’t any time for relief, though. On the far side of the room is a veiled doorway. Beyond, flickering shapes dart here or there. I feel like running, but I force myself to move slowly. My intuition saved me once.
Before the doorway stand two pedestals. On top of one there is a necklace of silver that glimmers in the glow from the doorway I’d entered from. On the other is a ring of metal that seems to be like the armor Sar’Neal wears. I already have a necklace on. I finger it thoughtfully. It’s not made of silver, but hardwood. It has a symbol of fertility attached to it in the form of the faerie queen, given to me by my granny before I left to help Joesa with the Inn. I think she wanted me to have children with Joe. Or maybe just anyone. Hard to tell, with granny.
The symbol is said to bring the queen’s favor.
My hand hovers over the other necklace where it lies still on its pedestal. I pull it away suspiciously. It’s my intuition again. I have a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach just thinking about putting it on, or even taking it off its pedestal.
I decide to listen to it this time, too, and I leave the necklace where it lies. The ring is too much to resist, though. I take it from its resting place and resolve to give it to Sar’Neal next chance I get. Or at least show it to him. I’m curious as to what the metal is.
Pocketing the ring in my pouch, I push the veil aside from the door and pass through. A chill runs through me as I step into the hall beyond.
It’s pitch black. The glow behind me is gone.
No, not completely black. Flickers of light flit about here or there like lightning bugs, but not brightly enough for me to see consistently. I lift my hand in front of my face, but can’t even make out my fingers. There’s a smell here, like old hatred and decaying plants. It overwhelms and stifles me, almost oppressive.
“Sar’Neal?” I ask the darkness. It swallows the sound greedily, drinking it down and giving nothing back.
For a few moments, I am left entirely in silence. Then a shout echoes through the dark, bounces behind me, and disappears into nothing. “Tam!”
My heart goes cold. It sounds like Sar’Neal’s voice. And it sounds like he’s in trouble.
I hesitate, staring into the blackness a moment. I could trip and fall. I could stumble into a pit. I could be struck by any number of traps. Intuition is useless in the dark.
I take a few steps forward, trying to edge along the wall of the hallway, feeling the earth under my shoe’d feet give way into a yawning pit not even a span from where I started. I gulp, grip the wall, and slide around the edge of that terrible gap. With each shuffling step I’m sure I’ll fall in, sure that at any moment the wall will be too wide, or turn into an overhang instead of a flat surface and push me right off, sure the whole world is spinning. I simply can’t see- only the occasional mad flicker of light shows where my feet are, or where the hole in the earth is.
After an eternity of hell, edging one foot after the other, I reach the other side and plant my feet carefully, one after the other, down the hall. It’s then that I hear Sar’Neal’s cry again. It seems nowhere as deep as I remember it. There’s something almost- musical to it that I don’t quite understand.
Intuition be damned, I run down the hallway. I can’t see at all– until I remember the sword in its sheath, and I stop, leaning against the wall to try to catch my breath. I fumble for it, find the hilt, and draw it out awkwardly. As soon as it’s free of the scabbard, it flares into brilliance, and the hallway is filled with light.
I recoil from the wall. The ‘earth’ I’d been touching is dried blood, and the floor is soil and bone. Shaking and shivering, and somehow feeling more vulnerable than ever, even with the light to see by, I hear a scream echo down the hall from Sar’Neal. Outrage. Pain.
My legs are shaking, and now my conscience screams at me to flee, even as every other part of me urges me forward.
I make my way down the hall again, shutting down my conscience’s fears, even as it whispers that anything strong enough to hurt Sar’Neal could certainly deal with a stupid barmaid with delusions of heroism.
I grit my teeth and run to drown it out, sword in hand. I know I’m holding it wrong and don’t care. Its glimmering edge is being used as nothing more than a light source for now. It seems to take too long, even running. Twice I stop, panting, gasping for breath and walking for a while before I run again. I try to pace myself, but for some reason it’s difficult. Thoughts of Sar’Neal in pain put an ache in my chest and a terrible, frantic rhythm in my heart.
Then, without warning, I burst through a veil and into another room. I have no time to gather myself.
Immediately a woman, nude to the waist with fire-red hair and long, sharp talons in place of fingers, turns to me and locks her gaze with mine. My feet freeze in place. Goddess forgive me but I can hardly move a muscle. It’s like every part of my body is frozen solid. The cold is merciless, seeping into my heart, slowing me down to a standstill. Without even thinking I drop my hand into the pouch. Slowed by the invisible winter raging through my body, I manage to grasp the ring and slowly, so slowly, curl my hand around it.
I’m not sure what my subconscious expected to happen, but even though I can feel the strange metal in my hand, it doesn’t do anything unexpected. Frigid and shivering uncontrollably, I struggle against the magic’s influence as the woman, several spans away, approaches me. Dimly I note someone chained to the far wall, and with a sick shock I realize that it’s Sar’Neal. There are no signs of a struggle.
As the talon’d woman stalks closer to me, I realize that I can move the hand wrapped around the sword’s hilt still. Intuition begs me to keep my hand still, but I can’t help but roll my wrist once experimentally. I must pray for her not to notice- and I pray too loudly, because when she reaches me, her hand snakes out and, grasping my wrist, bends it. She bends it down until my fingers scream in sympathetic agony, until I can feel the tendons threatening to snap and the bones grinding in my arm. One by one, my fingers lose their grip on the useless sword, and it drops and slaps into the dirt.
Its influence was all that was keeping her magic from affecting my hand, too. Now most of my body is frozen. I can barely move anything except my eyes. My whole body feels either sluggish or like cold, dead stone.
My hand though, hurts terribly after she lets go of it. I wonder if she broke it.
With a disdainful sniff, she disregards me at first, looking me up and down and shaking her head. She seems like she is about to turn away when her eyes settle between my breasts, where the fertility charm rests. They narrow, and she reaches out and tweaks the charm away from me, snapping it right off its chain and giving me a cruel smile. Her features are far from perfect, but she has a fey grace to her that the cheap copper of my necklace won’t burn. A sure terror grips me, irrational and unchecked.
“Do you know who I am?” she asks, and for a moment the cliché is enough to make me want to puke. It’s quickly overwhelmed by terror as her hand drifts up and rests against my throat.
“The Lady,” I whisper. I don’t know why I bother. I doubt screaming would even make her flinch.
“So at least you knew whose visage you wore at your throat. Yet here you are, stumbling into my lair, trampling on my rings and evading my pitfalls and traps, braving bone and blood– and for what? That?“
A flick of her elegant wrist indicates Sar’Neal where he lies chained against the wall. He lifts his head and stares at me. Perhaps he’s wondering how I could be affected by the Lady. Of course, he’d meant me as nothing more than a distraction. More likely he thought that, after I’d been gone and trapped in the faerie circle, I’d gone back to the Inn rather than accompany him. More likely he’s shocked that I followed him here.
“You don’t even know it,” she purrs. “Yet here you are trying to rescue it. Cute.”
I’m about to answer, but she interrupts me. “And what’s this? Another weapon, maybe? One it gifted to you?”
The Lady reaches into the pouch at my side. Her fingers clasp mine. I keep a rigid grip on the ring– not that I have much choice, frozen as I feel– because there is no way in hell she is taking this from me too. As she digs her fingers into mine and pries them away one by one, I can’t help but let out a whimper as hot pain runs up my wrist. “Stop-” I hiss. “t-that’s mine-“
As soon as her fingers touch it, however, she yelps and pulls her hand away. Suddenly, I can feel my hand. And I can feel the warmth of the ring, and my intuition screams that I must- no, I need to put it on. The Lady takes a step back– it’s not fear in her eyes, but rage. Something in her image ripples.
It ripples and breaks, and for one still second, I see her for how she really is, and I wonder how I could have been frightened of her at all.
Somehow I manage to get my warming digits to pull the ring onto my index finger. Heat runs through me, surrounds me like a cloud, warming my veins, filling me with fire. Before I can think, my hand is out of the pouch and I’m ducking down, grabbing the dropped sword by the hilt, holding it out in front of me. Before I know it, I’m baring my teeth in a grin.
I don’t know what this feeling is. It must be the ring. I can’t think of any other explanation. To my own astonishment as much as the Lady’s, my feet move of their own accord, and I feel my body settle into something that’s either in preparation for an awkward dance step, or a fight. If my only dance partner available is the Lady, I think I might prefer the fight.
“Where did you find that, girl?” the Lady snaps into the still air. Her eyes are fixed on the ring on my finger, but after a few moments they find mine and glare at me steadily.
“My name is Tamara,” I hear myself whisper. “This? It was just lying around.”
I stare the faerie queen down. Her green eyes stare me down. That red hair frames a face twisted cruelly, but emotion leaves it like a passing storm. Her eyes narrow. “You can have the charm back, if that’s what you’re after. I was only borrowing it anyway.”
My eyes flit from the Lady to Sar’Neal and back. I bare my teeth again, the grin back without humor, without thinking. “I don’t give a damn about some stupid charm.”
She doesn’t get it, and never will. Since when have faeries felt anything but greed? “You want gold, then? Some trinket?”
I shake my head. A small part of me is acutely aware of how plain I am in comparison to her. Of how graceful she is.
But… then I remember the way that image had wavered when she’d touched the ring, how it had wavered and shattered and broken into a million pieces for a second, leaving an old woman, frightened, those pointed ears and that wrinkled face.
“I wish three things,” I say slowly.
“Name them,” the Lady snaps. “While still that ring bears power.”
“Sar’Neal is to be released to me, unharmed, with all of his possessions.”
“Done,” the Lady replies instantly. Her eyes are still narrowed and sharp, like arrows as they bore into me. I don’t even feel them. Whatever spirit has possessed me is one I would pray to if I had the voice.
“Secondly, the two of us are to be returned to the surface the moment this deal is struck, likewise unharmed and in the same time we entered here. I don’t care to jaunt about for years and years, thank you very much.”
The Lady gazes at me impassively for a moment. “Done,” she says, after thinking it over. “One more, girl. You should make it good.”
“Third, you and your kind are to leave within a hand’s span of days and never to return. This shack is to be abandoned. Find another portal to rule. This area is mine.”
The queen of faeries grits her teeth, and when she speaks her words are a musical snarl. “Done! Are you quite through?”
I think for a moment, wondering if I am. I stare at the ring, then look up at the Lady and nod.
“Then begone with you. The deal is struck. Take your inhuman lover and leave.” The Lady turns, and my world flashes, spins, and vanishes around me with a dull ‘thump’.
I regain my senses to find Sar’Neal already awake and clothed. I can feel grass underneath me, so I assume that I’m out of that chamber under the earth. The Lady kept her word.
I push myself up, sitting up shakily. Sar’Neal catches sight of me awake and comes to sit down next to me.
The sword is still in my grip. I still feel like I know how to use it, too. I let go of it suddenly, let it drop to the grass.
Sar’Neal stares at me, frowning. He reaches over and grips my hand, then lifts it to his lips to kiss it.
His lips are soft and warm against my skin. I’m shaking. I know I’m shaking, and I hate myself for it.
“Who are you?” I whisper. “Why did you lie to me?”
He hears me, somehow. “I am Sar’Neal. I told you that already,” He says quietly. “You are Tamara, and you are incredibly brave.”
“Don’t give me that,” I hear myself snap. “If I’d known we were attacking the Lady, I wouldn’t have even gone. Are you insane? Now she has a grudge against me– she knows who I am because this damn ring made me tell her my name-“
My body is trembling, as if the chill never left it. “Do you understand? The faeries could hurt Joesa or burn down the Inn now. She’s the queen. She can do what she wants. Joesa is all the family I have left– if he dies…”
Sar’Neal’s eyes catch mine again. Piercing blue washes over brown. He squeezes my hand. “I won’t let that happen. And neither will you.”
I open my mouth to speak, and he sets a finger against my lips.
“Show me that ring.”
I bring my left hand up and offer it out. The ring that had been my damnation and salvation at once shines in the evening glow of the sun.
“Do you know what this is made from, Tam?” Sar’Neal asks, his voice low. I shake my head.
His finger brushes the metal, and it is then that I see it. His- no. Her ears. Pointed. Her smooth face, the scar that wavers and disappears. Her armor replaced by leather and furs. How could anyone mistake her body for a man’s? Her full breasts are barely hidden– and why should she when she can project such an illusion?
Her skin is fair and paler than any I’ve ever seen. Free of blemishes. It almost seems alien, but I know it to be fey.
I feel sick to my stomach and fascinated both at once, and the emotions rage within me. What had the Queen said? She’d called Sar’Neal an ‘it’.
All this flashes as the glamour fades. Sar’Neal does not let it rise again. Instead, she squeezes my hand and does not meet my eyes. “Do you know now?”
“Starshine steel,” I murmur quietly. “Metal from the heavens.”
“Yes,” she says. She stands, then, turns and moves towards her beautiful horse. “Come. We can go back to your Inn now.”
I catch her by the shoulder. “No,” I breathe. “No.”
As she turns to face me, I throw my arms around her shoulders and pull her into a kiss, closing my eyes and mashing my lips against hers as fiercely as I can manage. I curl my fingers against her back and press my body to hers, heart pounding in my chest. Her legs are partially crossed and it is my desire to see them open.
At first I feel her stiffen. She keeps her arms at her sides and won’t hold me. As I draw back from the kiss, though, she chases me as my eyes open again. Her lips find mine again, then kiss my cheek, my neck. Fire runs in my heart and pushes through my veins. Every touch is a tingle, every breath she spends on my skin a starburst of sensation.
I find a gasp parting my lips, find her hands on my back– and on my hips. For a moment, I stand there, dumbstruck- for as she presses close in return, as she pushes at me insistently, I feel something rigid standing erect against my thigh. I’m about to look down when she cups my chin and guides my eyes back to hers again.
“Later,” Sar’Neal whispers, her voice like sweet nectar. “For now, feel.”
She draws me down into the grass with her. For a time beyond time, love is all we are.
I lie with her under the stars, in the grass near the shack. We are both naked, but neither of us care. I look at her, at her body, elfin and odd, seeming to shimmer in the starlight, like the ring that catches the light from those beads of fire in the sky and reflects it as if it were burning on its own. The ring on my finger.
Her hair is brown and wavy and long, but her ears are pointed, and her body is lithe and strong. I’d worried a bit about becoming pregnant, at first, but the worry was overtaken by desire quite quickly. I feel that burn still, a smolder in my belly, but now that worry takes me again. If she were to leave, would I be left to care for the child alone? Will there be a child at all? Is that possible?
I wonder too, idly, if she is of elven or gnomish or human kind. I voice these thoughts to the open air, for her to hear.
“I am of both elf and human worlds,” she says softly. “That is why your ring does not burn. That is why I may love, as well, for I have half a soul.”
“You are more than half a soul,” I reply quietly, and I roll over to prove it to her, roll over on my belly and brush my hand down between her breasts and to her thigh, tracing a circle there once. “You are two souls, two people, man, as I saw you then, woman, as I see you now.”
“But not just woman,” Sar’Neal whispers. “Not just.”
“No,” I agree quietly. “More than that.”
“No more than you, though,” she teases, turning over to meet me now, trailing a finger across my cheek in such a way that I shiver. “Brave Tamara.”
I feel a blush creeping up through my body. Of all times it could be, I’m glad it is night. Then, even in the darkness, I notice Sar’Neal’s ear flick. A moment later, I perceive voices on the edge of hearing. Their musicality seems plain to me, and they are familiar- like Sar’Neal. Unlike her, they are not aware I am here.
“She said the Inn is just up the road,” one says.
The other voice answers cheerfully. “I can’t wait to play with the maid. I’ll take the ring off first, I think, and have some fun with her feet so she can’t run away.”
“I may leave her there after and kill that half-breed in front of her. Do you think that’s enough?”
“You’re joking, yes?”
Laughter follows, like the whisper of wind through trees and tinkling silver.
Then the voices move on down the road. Audible the entire way is the sound of horses’ hooves, unshod and unfettered by the clink of saddle or harness. We remain silent, my half-fey lover and I, still in the grass as the hoofbeats fade. Neither of us dare to breathe.
My heart freezes in my chest, and my gaze meets Sar’Neal’s. “Joesa,” I whisper. “He’ll be killed!”
Sar’Neal is white with rage, but her voice is calm. “Didn’t you hear what they said? They will play with him first. We have time to think, and we should. We heard hoofbeats, but elven horses do not make noise. Only two were talking, and they were talking loudly. We need to think about this before we act. It may well be a trap.”
“We cannot do nothing,” I say, because it must be said. “Trap or not, we must go.”
“Yes,” Sar’Neal agrees. “We must go.”
We wait but a moment before we rise to our feet. We dress, together, one helping the other, me refitting the shining silver blade at my side. Her struggling into her armor’d leather and fur with my aid.
As I draw back, she dons her glamor again, the illusion covering her body in plate. This time, however, she does not hide her elfin features, but wears them proudly. She does not change her voice, either.
Sar’Neal moves towards her horse, mounts her, and then pulls me up in front of her again. I cling with my thighs and the mare snorts once, then settles. My half-fey love urges her into a trot, then a canter, then a gallop. Back towards the Inn.
“Those hoofbeats we heard– they were from human horses?” I ask. “What does that mean?”
“It means that it is not merely one or two elves. It means they brought human servants as well. It may be that they have enthralled a few rogues or villains to assist them,” Sar’Neal replies. “If that is the case, there will be more than a small fight when we arrive. We are likely to be outnumbered.”
I frown. With but a sword between us, I’m not sure what we can do. If it concerns Sar’Neal, she doesn’t show it. I can’t see her face, but her breathing is as steady as ever, and her arms around me are firm, her grip on the reins determined.
“A glamour is what makes an elf dangerous,” Sar’Neal whispers in my ear. “Without it, they are as weak as their forms would suggest. Break their glamours and I know we will win, dear Tamara. We will save Joesa and the Inn.”
Brave words that fill me with something like hope.
We gallop up to the door of the Inn. It hangs off its hinges, and voices ring out from inside. Laughter, too, and an old, calm voice that I immediately recognize as Joe’s.
We dismount from the mare, who tosses her head. I meet her eyes for a moment, and see silver light within them mirroring my anxiousness.
I take a deep breath. We approach the Inn, keeping as quiet as we can. Sar’Neal makes no noise at all with her every step. By comparison I feel clumsy and hideously loud– but the elves are too intent to hear us. Joesa’s calm, quiet voice says something, drowned out by the laughter of the faeries within.
“Break his fingers,” comes a sylvan command.
“Do what you want. Tam is safe, and that’s what matters,” I hear Joe say.
Sar’Neal and I are on opposite sides of the doorway. I watch her lean over just a bit and look inside. Then she looks across at me, and for a few heartbeats, there’s nothing. I wonder what she’s waiting for, my heart pounding a terrible rhythm. Then, as there’s a crack and a cry of pain from within, she nods at me and runs inside the Inn, dropping pretense.
I feel my heart freeze, but I run into the Inn as well, a mere second behind her.
I step through the doorway.
Sar’Neal runs a man through with a blade, short and dark. He’s human, and blood drips down his chin from his mouth as he falls, folding around the dagger in his heart as my love backs away. Two other men rush her. I recognize them as regular patrons, but to my vision they shine silver. My eyes dart around for Joesa, and I see a blonde haired man holding him with an arm around his neck, staring at me wide-eyed. An elf standing by the man, nocks an arrow to a bowstring that shines gold. The other elf, however, steps in front of me, blocking my view of Sar’Neal.
The elf wields an axe in one hand. To my eyes it flashes between stone and cold metal, the image flickering as it brings it up and around towards me.
Raw fire flashes through me, unfamiliar and– right, somehow. The ring empowers my hand. I draw the silver blade faster than a blink. The elf’s hand comes down, and mine rises. I grasp its hand with my outstretched bare one, gripping his wrist. There’s a noise like crashing glass and the faerie screams, its visage rippling- before an imposing figure with proud pointed ears and metal armor impenetrable, now it is armored only in furs and leather. Without thinking, I know what to do. I don’t hesitate a second, and the truesilver blade passes through the elf’s middle and cuts its heart in half as I slide it up and then out.
I release the faerie’s hand. The creature falls in a heap as I draw my sword out and away. I stand there, struck dumb for a moment, the hilt shaking in my grip. It feels like I’m holding a firebrand by the tip.
Another man, who had been standing by the doorway before, lifts a club behind me. I can feel him there, and I round on him. The silvery influence covers him as well. As he swings the cudgel down towards me, I step aside and forward, slam my palm into his ribs, the ring pressed against his clothing. It doesn’t stagger him much, just makes him reel a moment. I watch the silvery magic crack and shatter.
I feel the sword lift and chop down on the arm with the cudgel as he lifts it again. Searing heat burns through my arm and waves of sickness spread from my belly up to my throat, filling it with bile as the floor is splashed with red.
The burn leaves me weak, and I hear a twang from across the room, look up in time to see an arrow, glowing bright, burn through Sar’Neal and smash into my chest, sticking there. I reach up automatically and grasp the shaft. I fall to my knees. Blood is welling up between my fingers. The glow around the arrow is gone, but the shaft remains between my breasts. It is no illusion.
The world darkens in my vision, in and then out of focus. I hear nothing. My arms are heavy.
Then pain, like lightning, like fire of a different sort, thunders through me. It stabs through lungs and heart in a hot, aching wave. I can’t breathe. Even trying is like pulling in nothing, like drinking from a dry cup. There’s nothing to pull in and my sight dims. All there is- the floor and me. Feathers are coarse against my fingers. I need to pull the arrow out. Tugging blinds me with pain, whiteness on black. I can’t breathe.
The sword slips from nerveless fingers.
I can’t breathe.
A snapping noise, a roaring in my ears and a cough bring me back, a painful, shattering cough. My lung burns and stings and screams as I draw in air, and blood flecks my lips, I’m sure. Something is being wrapped around my chest, someone is wrapping something around my chest with deft, elfin hands. The stench of the dead and vomit assaults my nostrils. I cough again helplessly, and those arms hold me through it, clapping me on the back lightly. Blood and bile both are expelled.
Sar’Neal rubs at my back gently as the fit passes, and then she cries.
She cries for a long time. Her hands are stained with blood– some of it silvery and sylvan, some of it definitely human. Some of it is even mine, I know. An arrow shaft lies next to me.
“I’m here,” I whisper weakly. “I’m here now, okay? Don’t cry.” I’ve never been that good at soothing anyone. I wrap my arms around her, wincing a little. Breathing is a chore.
But I can breathe.
“It’s Joesa,” she whimpers. “I did everything I could, Tam. Everything, but when you went down, the elf shot him– shot him through the man who held him– I couldn’t do anything to help… I’m so sorry….”
A sort of numbness passes through me a moment, but I shake my head, half-smiling, even as tears form in my eyes. We’re in the Inn’s topmost room. “He died, right?”
She nods, and I struggle to gather my thoughts. Oddly enough, I’d known it would happen. I’d known it when I’d first given my name to the Queen of Elves.
Known and ignored it. Known and hoped it wouldn’t happen.
Later in the day, when the sun is starting to set and I can move, we bear the stench of the recent dead and move to bury them. The elves Sar’Neal wishes we could leave to rot, but I won’t have it in the Inn. It’s my responsibility now, after all.
After I’d gone down, Sar’Neal had killed the last elf. No humans but the one I’d injured with my blade survived, and the irony is lost to tragedy. Three innocent lives were lost– the one I’d injured was a mercenary, not under the elves’ direct influence, which is why he had attacked me even after it had been shattered.
We speculate together, Sar’Neal and I, on what the ring’s actual effects are. Being made of starshine steel allows it to dispel sylvan illusion. What grants me my fighting ability, however, is likely nothing short of witchcraft. I find myself praying I never need to use it again, though I know otherwise. Taking even the elf’s life had been sickeningly easy. Sar’Neal shrugs helplessly when I tell her that.
“All things die, Tam,” she says quietly, voice choked with tears. We stand in front of Joesa’s grave, wooden and poor as we’d always been, as I’m sure he’d like it. Joesa had always been simple.
I don’t mean to cry, but the tears come quickly and flow hot. There’s so much I wanted to tell him. I’d wanted to show him Sar’Neal, too. Now that chance is gone. Sar’Neal hadn’t even had a chance to know him properly. She cries more for my loss than for her own.
But my half-fey lover is right all the same. All things do die, and though Joe is dead, I know he isn’t gone. He’s next to the Inn, where I know he’d have wanted to be for the rest of his days. The tears come until they can’t anymore, and I leave it at that.
The Inn is mine to care for, and I resolve to leave it standing, painful as it is to remember. But I don’t think I could stay here if I wanted to anymore. The Queen will not stop hunting me, or sending her allies to find me. To protect the townsfolk, I know I will need to leave. Let them sort out who owns it, and may it bring better fortune on them than was granted poor Joesa.
As to where I’ll go, I think that’s something I can decide with Sar’Neal. Perhaps there’s a place where the Lady won’t find us, and perhaps there isn’t. Whether there is or not, we’ll search.
If and when she finds us, we’ll fight against her, for we are silver and steel.
Silver and steel, and united we’ll stand.
©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)