0 What Happened Before
88 Years Ago
Zetheus led Xanther to the iron grate.
It was easy to find, even in the blackness of night. Not only had he been here previously, carefully chiseling away at the stone wall for hours until the grate became loose, but the darkness couldn’t hide anything from his eyes, nor from his brother’s.
Xanther pulled the grate free with soundless ease and set it aside. The general looked different without his armor—Zetheus had hardly seen him without it since he’d been given his position—but with it he wouldn’t have fit into the vent shaft that let air down into the dungeons. Even now, he made for a tight fit. Zetheus slipped down somewhat more easily behind him, followed by their small team of Elites.
Their target tonight was the Light General. Infiltrating the castle itself like this was beyond dangerous, but it didn’t frighten Zetheus. He felt nothing but excitement as the first dungeon guards fell before him, before they were even aware of their enemies’ presence.
* * *
Lilia sat up in her bed.
She’d been awake for the past hour, listening to…nothing. The castle was so quiet tonight, it seemed almost unnatural. Surely any moment she’d hear the faint creak of a door, or the footsteps of a passing guard. Perhaps murmurs of a late-night conversation in an adjacent room.
Nothing. It made her feel anxious. It made her remember that the enemies of her people could move without a sound.
She got up and began pacing on the cool floor. She didn’t want to enter the realm of dreams, not with thoughts of them on her mind. She’d never even seen a dark elf in person, but that didn’t stop her from imagining them, from imagining their death-pale hands gripping cell bars in the dungeons two floors beneath her. Their dark eyes, penetrating the gloom and seeing everything.
They were mockeries of the light elves, creations of the Adversary of Aemuz. They had just enough in common to be comparable—lithe figures, long, pointed ears, and long lifespans—but aside from that, the difference was like night and day. Light elves were good, pure, and kind, while the dark elves…
It was said they were as evil as the One who created them. They reveled in death, fed on the flesh of innocent creatures, and worshiped their Lord under the moon.
How terrifying they must be to behold.
* * *
General Xanther snapped the neck of the last dungeon guard. The castle proper awaited him.
The bodies hidden, he led the way through the Esthian fortress. Any encountered sentries were disposed of with silent efficiency, and before long they’d made it up to the third floor.
One more floor to the royal wing. One more floor, and the king’s brother, General Amidus, would be within his grasp. That blasted elfman had savored his victories long enough. Xanther wouldn’t let his people fall before his sword any longer.
* * *
Zetheus crested the top of the last staircase, just a step behind his brother, and heard a sound that froze the blood in his veins.
The long, loud call of a light elven horn.
“Blast,” Xanther said under his breath, and Zetheus agreed with his sentiments. They were close, so close to their goal, but that horn could only mean one thing: the Esthians knew they were here. If they pressed on, they’d never make it out of the castle alive.
“Retreat, quickly,” Xanther ordered, and his team obeyed, slinking back down the stairs on swift feet. The Light General would have to die another day, and Zetheus had no doubts his brother would find a way to make it happen.
Even before reaching the bottom of the staircase, echoes of hurried footsteps reached them from below. “Weapons ready,” Xanther commanded, drawing the broadsword from his back. Zetheus drew his own sword, and when his feet hit the polished stone of the third floor, there was already a wave of sentries rushing to meet him.
“Get out any way you can!” Xanther shouted, charging forward to take out the unfortunate guard who reached them first. There were too many to stand and fight, so the dark elves split from each other, running for any avenue available to them, slashing at anyone who got close enough. They were Elites; Zetheus trusted them to take care of themselves.
And yet in a stroke of misfortune he found himself overwhelmed. Just as he took down two of the sunlings, another charged him from behind. He turned just in time to avoid being stabbed in the back, but his arm took the full brunt of the hit, the blade sliding hotly through his flesh.
Zetheus cried out, his sword falling uselessly from his grasp and clanging on the floor. Xanther came seemingly out of nowhere, downing Zetheus’s attacker with a great sweep of his weapon.
“Go, quickly!” he said. “I’ll keep them off your back.”
“Thanks,” Zetheus replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll meet you outside.” With a salute and a strained smile, he turned and ran with all his might.
* * *
Lilia peered out of her door, listening to the shouts that echoed through the castle. The night wasn’t quiet anymore.
There were screams of pain, and Lilia couldn’t ignore them, not even if there were enemies in the castle. She mastered her fear and left her room, heading for the stairs to the floor above where the clamor seemed to be originating. If people were hurt, she could help them. She could save lives. She—
She froze. Someone was crouched in the alcove at the base of the stairs, gripping his arm, and he wasn’t a light elf. He spotted her, and she gasped.
“Don’t scream!” he begged, raising a bloodstained hand in warning. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Lilia only gaped at him. How could she scream? She had no voice. The elfman’s eyes were even more frightening than she’d imagined, black where they should be white, the irises a piercing purple. His skin was pale as a corpse, his hair black as pitch, all exactly like she’d heard, and yet…
Her eyes roved to his bleeding arm and the red puddle underneath it. “You…you’re injured,” she managed to say.
“How kind of you to notice,” the Drispellian replied. He laughed, but she could see the wince he tried to mask.
“I’m a Healer,” Lilia said, taking a tentative step forward. “I could…but you’re a—”
“I said I wouldn’t hurt you,” the dark elf told her. “You have no obligation to Heal me…but I admit it would be nice.” He chuckled again and smiled at her, prompting Lilia to stare at him for another long moment. He was indeed terrifying to behold, but that smile…it actually seemed sincere. And he was undoubtedly in great pain.
She took another step forward, and soon she found herself kneeling in front of him. “Will you promise me that if I do this, you’ll leave immediately without harming anyone?”
“You have my word,” the dark elf vowed, carefully lifting his arm and holding it out to her. “Though…you could get in trouble for this, you know.”
“I know,” Lilia said, placing her trembling hands on either side of his injury. “But you’re badly hurt. Dark elf or not, I can’t stand to see someone suffering.”
She took a steadying breath, and closed her eyes. As softly as she could, she began to sing, letting her magic flow out from her. She could feel the warmth of it, running down her arms and leaving her body.
She was almost afraid to open her eyes when she finished. She very well could’ve found a knife pressed against her throat, but she didn’t. The Drispellian was just kneeling there, staring at her with what could only be described as awe.
“H-how does it feel?” Lilia asked, averting her eyes self-consciously.
“Oh,” the dark elf said as though he’d forgotten his injury entirely. He moved his arm, bending the elbow and testing out the shoulder. “No pain at all,” he assessed, “and no sign of the wound either. That’s incredible.”
He smiled at her again, looking right into her eyes, and Lilia knew she hadn’t mistaken his sincerity before.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Y-you’re welcome,” she replied.
“It’s getting quiet upstairs. I have to find a way out of here,” the dark elf said, standing and looking around.
“This way,” Lilia found herself saying, and she rose and hurried toward a passage that would get him access to the outside.
“Wait, you don’t have to—” the elfman began, but she didn’t stop to heed him. “You’re rather crazy, you know that?” he said when he caught up.
“I suppose you’re right,” she answered, “but you’re my patient now. I didn’t Heal you just so you could be caught and killed afterward. Here,” she said when they reached the outer hall. “This window leads out to the gardens. Can you jump that far?”
“Absolutely,” the elfman answered, climbing up on the window’s ledge. He turned once more to look at her. “My name’s Zetheus, by the way.”
“I’m Lilia,” the light elf replied, surprised how unfrightened she was to give him her name.
“What’s going on here?” a voice called out from the end of the hall, and Lilia turned to find two guards approaching.
“Go!” she exclaimed. Zetheus wasted no time and leapt from the window, landing in the garden below.
“What are you thinking, girl?” one of the soldiers yelled, grabbing Lilia by the arm. The other looked out the window.
“Blast,” he said. “The night-worshiper’s already out of sight.”
1 Harvest Song
The sky was golden over the city of Esthia.
Sunlight painted the clouds and set the autumn treetops ablaze with its warmth. Elysia, princess of the light elves, gazed out from her balcony, thinking of the evening ahead of her.
The one evening of the year when she would be outside at night.
“You still haven’t told me how your marriage interview went earlier.”
The comment came from her cousin, sitting behind her, cleaning an already polished-to-shining saber.
“It wasn’t a marriage interview,” Elysia said. “Not a formal one, at least. Lord Kallon just happened to be in the thronecity for the holiday and requested to meet with me.”
“Hm,” Aerin said, inspecting the hilt of her weapon. “I do wonder what his motivations could’ve been.”
Elysia gave her a wry smile, and Aerin continued. “So what did you think of him?”
“He was fine.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘boring’.”
“Aerin,” Elysia chastised, but she couldn’t disagree, nor could she keep a small grin off her face.
“General Dathan will be glad to hear it,” Aerin said. “I heard he drilled the troops particularly hard this morning.”
“And what does that have to do with anything?”
“He’s jealous, of course. The thought of you meeting with another elfman…” The green-eyed maiden shook her head dramatically, blonde braid waving behind her.
“Now stop that,” Elysia said. “He was not jealous.”
“At least half the city would say differently. I’m not the only one who’s noticed his interest in you.”
“How can you even tell? He’s always so…serious.”
“Well, he has to be, given his position. But I swear you’re the only one he smiles for.”
“Legends say no one has ever heard his laugh, but I bet you could be the one to get that out of him, too. Can you imagine how handsome he would look, eyes lit up in laughter?”
Elysia gave up trying to control her cousin, and chuckled. “No,” she said, “I can’t. And even if he does have some interest in me, nothing would ever come of it. My father doesn’t want me marrying anyone who spends time on the battlefield.” The princess’s smile faded at her own words. “No,” she said, “if he wants his children to live long, happy lives, he won’t have us associating with anyone like that.”
“Ely…” Aerin said. “Listen, why don’t we call for Fallas and your escort? It’s about time to leave anyway.”
Elysia sighed. My escort. When had those words become so distasteful? Aerin could refer to the royal guards as friends, but to Elysia they were just an escort.
“What is it?” Aerin asked, finally sheathing her sword. “Your brow’s all furrowed, right here.” She gently poked Elysia in the forehead, and the princess smiled again.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s just…I guess it would be nice to leave the castle—or even my rooms—without constantly having an entourage of guards. I know I shouldn’t complain, but it’s a little stifling.”
“Elysia,” Aerin said, growing stern, “don’t talk like that. You need those guards. You never know what could happen, even while the sun is up.”
The princess knew all too well what she meant. Dark elves hated sunlight, were even pained by it, but there was one occasion when they’d withstood it long enough to attack during the day.
“I won’t mention it again,” Elysia said. “I’m sorry, Aerin.”
“It’s fine. I just want to make sure you’re safe. That’s why I’ll be sticking close to you this evening, too,” she said, patting the sword at her side.
There was a rap on the door of the princess’s chambers, and Fallas entered. “My Lady,” he said, “it’s time to depart.”
* * *
“The trees here are so beautiful,” Zenia trilled, dancing in the golden leaves that fell from above.
“Do you know how many times you’ve said that today?”
Zenia stuck her tongue out at her cousin in response, and bent to pick up a handful of the autumn foliage. “Can I take these back with me?”
“No way,” Vekter said. “If your father sees those, he’ll know where we’ve been. Besides, their color will fade in a few days anyway.”
“And then they’ll look just like our leaves back home,” Zenia said, letting the pile of orange and yellow fall in disappointment. “Ooh, can we go up to the ridge and see the towers of Esthia, like last time?”
“No. It’s a holiday, remember? Even the ridge could be dangerous today. Everyone will want a good view of the sunset.”
“Bah, those blasted light elves. They’ve got it all wrong anyway. It’s the moonrise that marks the beginning of the Harvest, not the sunset, and it was last month.”
“Don’t curse them because they believe differently,” Vekter said. “Maybe it’s the dark elves that have it wrong.”
Zenia turned her eyes on Vekter, violet sparks surrounded by midnight. “Father was right; you are a bad influence.”
“Perhaps you should return to him, then.”
“No, no! I was only joking!” Zenia protested, pulling on Vekter’s arm. “Come on, let’s walk a bit farther, please? You said we could stay and hear the singing!”
“All right, all right,” Vekter said, chuckling. “Just don’t blame me if this bad influence manages to wear off on you.”
* * *
Truly, any light elf should understand the need to be amongst the trees.
Most of the time Elysia only viewed the Golden Wood from her balcony, but something about walking underneath the colorful boughs, watching the leaves float down around her, made her feel at home. The Harvest Sunset was one of the few occasions she could walk out this far, and she never tired of it.
The princess, her escort, and Aerin reached the hilltop shortly before the day’s end. As was tradition, her mother and father would be watching from the hill north of her, and her elder brother on the next one in line, forming a crescent of peaks above a clearing that gave them a striking view of the horizon. With her keen eyes, Elysia could see her family members from a distance as they arrived.
“The sky is perfect this evening,” Aerin said. “Just the right amount of clouds to light up the sky without obscuring the view.”
Elysia nodded and smiled, watching the sun dip lower in the distance. She listened intently, waiting for the Song of Harvest to begin. Her mother, Queen Isdriel, would start the song of thanksgiving to Aemuz, and the voices of all the light elves gathered on the hilltops and in the valley would join in as the melody reached them.
Elysia heard the sound, very faint at first, then growing exponentially in volume, swelling until it reached the place where she stood. She began to sing, and the land around her erupted with music, the grateful voices of her people accompanying her. They sang as the sun passed behind a layer of clouds, dipped below the tree line, and finally faded from view entirely, offering only a faint glow on the horizon. The sound faded with the light until all was silent.
Thank you, Aemuz, the princess prayed, for another year of life, and for Your constant provision.
“Shall we go, My Lady?”
Elysia took a last deep breath of the evening air. It bothered her to leave so abruptly after the Song, its harmonies still thrumming in her chest, but darkness would spread quickly now. She nodded to Fallas, and their party began to retreat down the hilltop, back under the canopy of yellow leaves, now dim ghosts of the hue that had glowed in the sunlight.
* * *
The princess’s group walked for a time, silent as possible in the dusk. Fallas and the other guards held lanterns aloft, lighting their way through the forest. They were still some distance from the walls of the thronecity when the lanterns suddenly shattered.
A shrill cry split the night, and Elysia’s escort pressed in around her.
“Stay close, My Lady,” Fallas warned her. The princess couldn’t see anymore, not with the afterimage of the lantern-light still dancing before her eyes. She could tell Aerin was beside her, though. She heard her sword slip from its sheath.
There was a sound off to the right, drawing everyone’s attention in its direction. An instant later, something shot at them from the left, several small somethings, eliciting gasps and shouts from Elysia’s guards.
“Stay low, Ely!” Aerin yelled, crouching protectively in front of her. She cried out a moment later, and stumbled to her knees.
“Aerin!” Elysia said, clutching her cousin. She could feel something jutting out of her back, the slick handle of a small blade. “No…Aerin, hold on!”
The words were barely out of her mouth when Elysia was ripped away from her cousin, sticky hands and pointed claws raking over her. “Let go of me!” Elysia cried, and then something sharp pierced her neck. She gasped at the pain, somehow hot and cold at the same time, and her assailants tightened their grasp while she was too stunned to struggle.
“Aerin!” she shouted. “Fallas! Please!”
She couldn’t escape the creatures that carried her, and so she shouted with all her might, twisting even though claws ripped at her skin and clothing.
“Aerin!” she shouted once more, straining to see if anyone followed after her. All she could make out was a chaotic churning of shadows and flashing of silver in the place she’d stood moments before, already alarmingly far away.
Worse than the sight of the blades in the moonlight were the sounds, as her comrades’ cries rose and faded into the night while Elysia could only listen. Soon she was too far to hear even that anymore.
After hearing the Harvest Song, Vekter and Zenia began their journey home.
As always, the singing had been beautiful, even muffled as it was by the distance. Vekter had ventured closer some years, but with Zenia accompanying him he’d had to play it safer, especially since neither of them wore disguises. The Esthians would be returning now to their city walls, and it was best he and his cousin put as much distance between them as possible.
“It was pretty,” Zenia said as they walked.
Vekter knew what she meant, but he wanted to hear her say it.
“The singing. It was pretty.”
The elfman smiled. “I told you it would be, didn’t I? Perhaps now you will—”
There was a sound behind them, and both Vekter and Zenia turned to look.
“Vekter?” Zenia asked, a note of hesitation in her voice. The sounds were multiplying. Leaves being kicked about. Goblin squawking. And a scream.
“Zenia, take my pack and go ahead to the bridge.” Vekter instructed. “Wait out of sight, and I’ll catch up to you.”
The young elf nodded and obeyed, running off with hardly a sound. Vekter appreciated that she didn’t put up a fight. She knew the rules well; if she traveled with Vekter, she had to do as he asked.
The elfman took off running in the opposite direction, back the way they’d come and straight toward the sounds of struggle. As he grew nearer, he tucked his hair back away from his face and threw the hood of his cloak up over his head.
He stopped and concealed himself behind a tree when he caught sight of something up ahead, straining his eyes in the darkness. It was a carriage, if one could call it that, drawn by two beasts that snarled and kicked at the leaves impatiently. How on earth had it gotten here?
A small host of goblins arrived as he watched, carrying something—someone—in their midst. The fresh moonlight gleamed brightly on the person’s hair as she was forced inside the back of the carriage, and Vekter understood. They had captured one of the Esthians.
Well, Vekter thought, let’s see what we can do about that.
* * *
Princess Elysia’s head swam as the tiny carriage began its mad drive through the forest. She didn’t understand how the thing could possibly navigate through the trees, especially at this speed, but she had greater problems to worry about.
She was bound, gagged, and tied to a post in the center of the ramshackle cart, at least five goblins squeezed in there with her. They all stood behind her, screeching and squawking in a frenzy while she faced backward toward the door, her stomach already churning. It was nothing compared to her neck, however. The hot-cold pain seemed to be abating, but it was still present, and she squeezed her eyes shut, biting into the cloth the goblins had stuffed in her mouth.
It was so noisy in the transport that Elysia was almost surprised she heard it, the faint clunk coming from the door in front of her. Her eyes snapped open, and she glanced back at her captors. They all stared straight ahead, shouting at the animals that pulled the cart, or at each other. It was hard to tell.
She looked back at the door just in time to see it crack open, and she froze. It opened farther, and a tall figure swung himself inside, dressed fully in black and obscured by a hooded cloak.
Elysia thought her panic had already hit its peak, but she was wrong. As bad as goblins were, dark elves were worse.
The newcomer crouched to the floor and crept closer. The princess pulled her knees in tight to her chest, trying to keep every part of her as far away from him as possible, but she knew it was pointless. What could she do, tied to a post? Would he kill her immediately? Or take her back to his den of wickedness, the dark city of Drispell?
He reached her, put a finger to his lips, and tugged back his hood just a little. The glow of moonlight caught his face, and Elysia stilled.
His eyes were blue, and clear. They weren’t nighteyes.
He wasn’t a dark elf.
But then…why was he dressed in black?
His lips were curved in a smile, but when his eyes dropped to her neck, the smile disappeared. Gently, he pulled aside her ruffled collar, looking closer at the place from which her pain emanated. She winced, the wound throbbing even though he hadn’t touched it.
The stranger drew forth a knife, giving Elysia yet another jolt of fear, but he only cut the rope that bound her ankles, then moved to cut the one on her wrists. She felt it give way just as a goblin shrieked behind them, and she turned to find its clawed finger pointing in their direction as it spewed its harsh words.
“Time to go,” the stranger said, and Elysia yanked the gag from her mouth just in time for him to scoop her up in his arms.
Realistically, the princess should’ve known what was coming next, but she still wasn’t prepared when the elfman leapt from the moving carriage, landing in a spray of leaves. He took off running without any pause, zig-zagging between the trees, and all Elysia could do was cling to his neck and pray.
She clung tighter when the crack of splitting wood filled the night, and she knew immediately what had become of the goblins’ carriage.
* * *
Vekter continued sprinting through the forest, stealing glances behind him whenever he could. So far, no goblins had followed, so he slowed, opting for stealth rather than speed, and looked for a place to hide. He found it in a little hollow sheltered by surrounding trees, and set the maiden down to take a critical look around them, listening hard for any signs of pursuit. As far as he could tell, he’d lost them, but they wouldn’t be able to stay put for long.
Then a voice spoke from behind him, and Vekter remembered something important: He’d just carried a light elfwoman through the forest, and she was only two steps away from him at this very moment.
“Have we escaped them?” she asked through gasping breaths. “The goblins. They were goblins, weren’t they?”
Vekter lost himself for a moment and stared. Even with hair disheveled, clothing torn, and face flushed, she was stunningly beautiful.
“What is it?” she asked in distress, and Vekter recovered himself.
“Yes, they were goblins, and we seem to be in the clear for the moment. Are you all right?”
“I’m away from the goblins, at least, thanks to you,” the elfwoman said. “I owe you my life.”
Something warm spread through Vekter’s chest, but he didn’t let himself get carried away. “Don’t thank me just yet,” he said, carefully approaching the Esthian. “Here, let me see your neck.”
“They pierced me there with something,” the maiden said, pulling aside her collar so Vekter could see. “It hurts, though not as badly as it did at first.”
Vekter examined the wound grimly. The cut itself was small, but the brownish-green streaks emanating from it were a sure sign of trouble.
“You’ve been blighted,” he said.
“What? But that’s—”
“Not good,” Vekter finished for her.
“It’s terrible! Not even our Healers can cure goblin blight. It’s going to spread, isn’t it? What can I do?”
“Shh,” Vekter said, trying to calm her hysterics. “It’s all right. You just need an antidote.”
“But only goblins have the antidote!”
“Perhaps their allies have access to it, but getting it from a dark elf isn’t any better an option!”
“Listen, milady, I know someone who can help,” Vekter assured her. “If you come with me, I promise I’ll get you an antidote and see you safely returned home.”
“Truly?” the elfwoman asked. That finally seemed to calm her, but her eyes remained wary. “Who do you know that has the antidote?”
“It’s…hold on a moment. You’re wearing a crown.” Somehow he hadn’t noticed the delicate tiara tangled in the maiden’s hair until now, distracted as he was by other things. “Don’t tell me you’re the princess. Princess Elysia?”
“Of course I am,” she said. “You rescued me without even knowing who I was?”
“I saw those goblins taking a light elf captive. That was all I needed to know.”
Vekter put a hand to his forehead, trying to process this new information. The princess. Stars above.
“All right,” he said, “all this means is that it’s even more pressing that I get you help. We should move now. Are you able to walk?”
“Yes, but my cousin, and my escort,” Elysia said, standing, “they were all injured when the goblins attacked. I need to help them, to know if they’re all right.”
Vekter shook his head. “You can’t go back now.”
“I must! Aerin had a knife in her back!”
“Listen, Princess. The goblins are still out there searching for you, and I doubt those in the carriage were the only ones around. Your people will take care of your friends; we need to focus on your safety for now.”
Elysia cocked her head at him, suddenly studying him more closely. “What do you mean my people?” she asked. “Who are you?”
“Ah, well…” Vekter said. How to go about addressing this? There was no easy solution.
“Guess it’s best we get this out of the way now,” he decided. “My name is Vekter,” he said, bowing low, and as he rose up again, he pulled back his hood. “At your service, My Lady.”
* * *
“Aerin, can you hear me?”
General Dathan stooped over the maiden. She was still alive, though not in good condition. “Is there a Healer nearby?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m here!” came an elfwoman’s voice, and a white-clad figure emerged from the gathering crowd. She knelt before the king’s niece, spreading her hands over her and singing the Healsong. Aerin’s wounds were closed, and she sat up with a start.
“Elysia!” she shouted. “They’ve taken her!”
“Calm down, Aerin,” Dathan said. “Tell us what happened. All that you can remember.”
When the general had first been called to the scene, he’d expected a dark elf attack. Who else would risk a maneuver like this? But the darts and short knives that littered the forest floor had indicated otherwise, as had the goblin corpses behind him. The elven guards had gone down fighting, and it seemed only Aerin had come out of it with her life.
Still, just because goblins were the assailants didn’t mean the dark elves weren’t involved. Their alliance was no secret.
“We were heading back to the city, on our designated path, just as planned,” Aerin said, looking frazzled, her braid half undone. “The goblins struck so suddenly, and there were so many of them, we couldn’t respond in time. They…they pulled Elysia away from me. I couldn’t stop them.”
Aerin began to weep, and the general stood. “If they’ve taken her alive, then we’ll recover her,” he said. “They’re even dimmer than we’ve thought if they expect to get away with this.
“Someone take Aerin back to the castle,” he ordered. Turning to his soldiers, he said, “With me. We’re going to find them.”
* * *
“A dark elf!” Elysia yelped, staggering backward until she pressed up against a tree. “Stay back! Stay away from me!”
The elfman who’d saved her from the goblins stood before her now, hood back, jet black hair revealed. He stepped closer to her—quite the opposite of what she’d demanded—with his hands raised amenably. “It’s all right, Princess,” he said. “I’m the same person I was a moment ago. You trusted me then.”
“I didn’t know you were a dark elf!” Elysia shrieked. “You were tricking me from the start!”
“I was not,” Vekter stated. “I didn’t want to frighten you, true, but more than that I didn’t want the goblins to mistake me for a dark elf. I’m not looking to start more conflicts.”
“Mistake?” the princess asked, pressing tighter against the tree. For some reason she couldn’t will herself to run.
“Like I said, there was no trick,” Vekter continued, taking yet another step closer to her. “I am not a dark elf.”
“But your hair—”
“Look at my eyes.”
Blue. In the moonlight, she could clearly see his eyes were blue, surrounded by white. Normal, just like her own. His skin was fair too, like someone of her kind, but then—
“What are you?” she asked. “If you’re not a dark elf, or a light elf…”
“I’m simply an elf.”
Elysia shook her head. Could someone like him even exist? Regardless, she couldn’t trust him, and she had to find some way to escape. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm herself, then began to sing.
The Sleepsong was the only spell she knew. She would’ve used it on the goblins, had they not gagged her before she’d had the sense to do so, but this elfman hadn’t taken the same precautions. He was wide open.
She finished singing the spell, opened her eyes, and found Vekter standing there, smirking at her.
“That was a lovely song, Princess,” he said, “though I can’t say I appreciate you trying to cast a spell on me.”
“What—why didn’t it work?” Elysia sputtered.
“I don’t entirely understand it myself,” Vekter said, “though it seems to have something to do with having both light and dark blood in me. I’ve been immune to magic my whole life.”
Elysia couldn’t even finish. If her spell wouldn’t work, she only had one other option: the knife concealed in her dress, though she’d never had to wield it against anyone before. To make matters worse, the elfman wore a sword at his side. She hadn’t paid it much attention before, but now she eyed it warily. He was probably a skilled fighter.
Even so, she had to try something. She brought forth her knife, gripping it with both hands. “Please,” she begged, “just leave me alone and let me go back to Esthia.”
As she feared, Vekter drew his sword from its scabbard, though he made no move to strike with it. “Princess, we’ve already discussed this,” he said. “It isn’t safe for you to travel through the woods right now. Moreover, you’ve been blighted. It might not be bothering you terribly right now, but within a week you’ll be dead. The pain will probably become unbearable sometime before then. You’ll want it treated as soon as possible.”
Elysia didn’t want to hear this. In desperation she lunged toward him with her knife, but he knocked it aside with his sword with ease, sending it spinning off into the darkness.
That was it. Her last defense.
“I’ll find some other way to get an antidote,” Elysia reasoned, hands shaking. “The goblins must’ve taken me for ransom; they’ll be willing to bargain.”
“And what do you think the cost will be?” Vekter asked. “With your life on the line, they could ask for anything. Can your kingdom afford that weakness? I hate to say it, but your fear of dark elves isn’t entirely unwarranted in this matter. They could easily take advantage of it.”
He was right. Blast it all, he was right. Elysia already felt useless enough to her kingdom, little more than a royal treasure to be protected. She wouldn’t let herself fall farther and become a liability to them.
Vekter returned his sword to its sheath, and held out a hand to her. “Please, Princess. Let me help you. I promised to return you home safely, remember?”
Elysia stared at his hand, but wouldn’t take it. Instead she nodded minutely. “I have no other choice,” she admitted.
Vekter relaxed and smiled at her. Before he could say a word, however, their heads were turned by a snarl somewhere behind them in the forest.
The goblins were getting closer.
“Right then,” Vekter said quietly. “Let’s be off.”