The Autumn Court had arrived with no warning. The king of Sarelia paced in his throne room with trembling hands, ornate lions staring down at his tired, stress-lined face with marble eyes from their high perches. Only moments ago he’d received word from the guards at the gate to the city that the Autumn Court was waiting. Time had come to choose his successor. Never had he felt his advanced age more than he did at this moment. The arrival of the elves meant his death was close, whether he felt it or not. They had a way of predicting things that most people would prefer to remain unknown, and they were not sympathetic or discreet about it. The envoy of elves at the gate was a message to everyone in the land that the King of Sarelia would not last much longer. It felt like an open invitation for his enemies to attack his kingdom, knowing it would soon be without a king. Within a year he would be dead, it was always the same. It had been that way for his mother. Almost a year after the elves arrived and chose him as her successor, she had passed away in her sleep. King Arryn leant wearily against the back of his throne, his hands shaking. He had called for his two children the moment he had heard the Elves were on their way. In some ways, he was grateful that the elves would choose his successor as this meant he did not have to choose between them himself. In honesty, he had not spent enough time with them to know them as well as he should.
Moments later, the door to the throne room creaked open. A beautiful young woman swept in first, wearing a deep red gown and a sense of entitlement. The sight of her aging father clinging to his throne as if someone was about to take it from him brought a knowing smirk to her porcelain face. Behind her was an equally beautiful young man dressed in the Sarelian colours of scarlet and silver. Upon seeing his father, the young man’s expression was one of concern. He stepped past his twin sister, his eyes fixed on the king.
The king looked up from his throne and regarded his children. He wondered which one would be taking his place, and if he would be alive to see them crowned or if his death was simply that imminent. He took a deep breath and made himself stand up straight.
“A delegation from the Autumn Court has arrived. We must prepare accordingly,” he said, his voice slightly shakier and weaker than its normal powerful commands. Lycia, his daughter, did not seem shocked at all. In fact, she looked rather pleased with the news and the King suspected she had known before he did as she had a way of knowing everything. His son, Aryian, was more concerned about what that meant for his father rather than himself.
“Father, are you not well?” he asked, the pain clear in his voice though he tried to hide it. The king looked fondly at his son, something he didn’t do enough.
“I do not feel unwell, however the elves will always know better than I,” he said.
“Shall I send for the court physician?” Aryian asked. Lycia laughed cruelly.
“I think it’s a little late for that, dear brother. The elves are already here,” she said, tossing her long, blonde curls over her shoulder. Aryian did not turn to look at his sister, instead he kept his blue eyes fixed on his father. The king shook his head and tried to stand straight.
“Your sister is right, Aryian. Do not worry about me, go prepare yourselves for the ceremony. I will send for you when the elves are ready,” he said. Lycia gave the most fleeting of bows before turning and leaving the throne room with her handmaids in tow. Aryian hesitated before bowing deeper and following his sister out of the hall. The king sank into his throne and rested his head in his hands. The weight upon his shoulders had never felt so heavy. The door creaked open again to reveal Ewain, Captain of the Guard.
“Sire, the envoy from the Autumn Court has arrived at the castle. They will be waiting in the main hall on the hour,” he said. They had less time to prepare than he would have liked but that was the way of it.
“Very well,” he said, rising from his throne. “Have your men secure the castle.”
News of the Autumn Court’s arrival had swept through the kingdom like wildfire. At the edge of the forest surrounding the city, a sorcerer sat against a tree trunk and fixed delicate feathers to the ends of sharply tipped arrows. His skilled fingers gently tied the feathers in place whilst he listened to the commotion going on within the city walls. Moments ago he had seen a group of slender, cloaked figures ride through the gates on the backs of huge ash cats, and the voices from inside the city confirmed his suspicions. The Autumn Court had arrived at last. Before he could decide if he should investigate for himself, a bugling sound echoed through the forest behind him. The deafening sound was followed by a very familiar earth shaking thud. The sorcerer set down the arrows he was fletching as a young girl walked out from the tree line. Her long, messy brown curls were full of twigs, leaves and other forest debris, but she had a huge grin on her face.
“Hey, Jet! Look what we found!” she sat down clumsily beside him and shrugged off her quiver. Jet pulled a leaf out of her hair.
“What is it?” he asked. The girl rummaged around in her pockets for a while before producing a strange blue jewel on a long silver chain.
“One of those strange cloaked people dropped it. Sky and I were watching them and she saw it sparkling on the grass. Isn’t it pretty?” she held it out to Jet, the jewel slowly swinging from her hand.
“Ariella I hope they didn’t see you,” he scolded before looking more closely at the jewel. His breath caught in his chest. He knew this jewel. It was a strange shape because he’d cut it himself for someone he used to know, a long time ago. Someone who had belonged to the Autumn Court. He pushed the jewel back to Ariella who was in the middle of telling how they wouldn’t have been seen because she and Skymeria were gliding in the canopy.
“Keep it. You can wear it to the feast tomorrow,” he said. Ariella grinned and slipped the chain over her head.
“Feast?” she asked, twirling the jewel in her fingers, making it reflect the dappled sunlight.
“The champion’s feast. Remember? Oh you never listen,” he playfully swatted at Ariella’s head as she stuck her tongue out at him. “The Autumn Court are here to choose the next successor and there will be a grand feast for whoever is chosen,” he said.
“Oh yeah, I know all that I just didn’t realise we got to go,” said Ariella, letting the jewel drop against her red tunic.
“Well I fancy a drink and it’s about time we had some other human company,” said Jet, bundling up the arrows he’d been fletching. “Oh and I made these for you. Try not to lose them so quickly this time!” He put them in the quiver with Ariella’s recurve bow. It was well used and very well loved.
“Thank you,” she said, running her fingers along the feathered tops of the arrows. Jet looked at Ariella and his heart ached at how much she was beginning to look like her mother. Though she still had quite a baby face for her age, her high elven cheekbones were becoming more defined and she had the same cat-like grin. She rested her head on Jet’s shoulder and looked out at the city wall. Jet put his arm around her. Though he was not her father, he had raised her from a baby and protected her against all the dangers of the world. But he could not protect her from what had walked through the city gates and it terrified him. Before he had much time to dwell on his fears, Ariella laughed.
“Skymeria says she’s hungry,” she said. Jet rolled his eyes. That dragon was always hungry.
“Tell her to catch another deer, I will go into the town and get some bread,” he said. Ariella smiled and wriggled out from under his arms.
“I’ll go with Sky. Don’t take too long!” she said as she got up from the floor and disappeared back into the forest. Jet rested his head against the tree and closed his eyes. He knew this day would come eventually, but so soon? Ariella was still too young and he had still not told her. With a sigh, he got to his feet and pulled on his black hooded cloak. His emerald eyes flashed gold and his face changed slightly as if a veil had been pulled over it. None of his features were distinguishable, allowing him to blend in with the crowd as he walked towards the city.
When Jet reached the castle, people were being ushered out of the palace doors hurriedly by the guards. Taking advantage of the confusion, Jet pulled his hood over his head and swept past the soldiers guarding the doors. They didn’t even look at him as he walked past, smoothly weaving between the servants and nobles being made to leave. It was typical of the Autumn Court to cause such upheaval. They never announced themselves and just expected everyone else to drop everything for them. As Jet walked further into the foyer, he felt a horrible creeping sensation and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He turned round. Coming down the stairs was the Autumn Court envoy, a group of fourteen elves all dressed in intricately patterned silk and velvet. There was a mixture of both male and female elves and they all looked impossibly beautiful with their high cheekbones, large doe eyes and pointed ears. Jet turned his face away from them but not quickly enough. One of the male elves looked right at him and Jet felt like he’d just been punched in the chest with a fist of ice. He fought the temptation to look back at them as they passed, the instinct to bow to them almost pulled him over but he stayed completely still. They were heading towards the great hall, presumably where the king and his children were waiting for them. After they’d gotten far enough away, Jet hurried up the stairs they’d came down and walked quickly down the corridor leading to the balconies in the great hall. He walked with complete certainty of where he was going though he had not set foot in the palace for many years. The creeping feeling stayed with him no matter how hard he tried to shake it off. He gripped the strip of leather around his wrist that covered his branded skin. It was long ago, he said to himself. Don’t think of her.
As he approached the door leading out onto the balcony, a guard stepped in front of him.
“I’m sorry sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave,” said the guard, holding out his hand in an attempt to stop Jet from going any further. But Jet, who was rattled from his encounter from the elves, wasn’t going to let that stop him.
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” he said before striking out with snake-like finesse and knocking the guard out with the heel of his palm. The man slumped to the floor and Jet stepped over him.
“Should always wear a helmet,” he muttered to the unconscious guard as he walked through the doorway. He crouched down behind a part of the railings that was obscured a large scarlet banner bearing the silver lion of Sarelia hanging over the side. He peered around the edge and watched the scene below. King Arryn was stood at the far end of the hall with Aryian and Lycia stood either side of him and about fifty guards stood along the sides of the hall. Clearly Arryn didn’t like or trust the elves as much as he pretended to, and the leader of the elven delegation noticed this also. He was stood at the front of the formation of elves and wore the finest silks. His long, black hair was intricately braided by his temples, pulling away from his sculpted face. He seemed to take in every single detail of the hall before turning to the human king and bowing so low Jet thought he was going to snap at the waist. The other elves did not move, they kept their eyes fixed on Arryn as if he was prey.
“My, you are heavily guarded, your majesty. Is there an imminent attack we should be prepared for?” the elf asked in a sickly sweet voice. Arryn gave him a false smile.
“Nothing to worry yourselves about, they are here for precaution only. We want you to leave here in one piece as you arrived, of course,” he said. Jet bit his lip to stop himself from laughing at the strain in the king’s voice. The elves kept their composure and stayed perfectly still.
“We thank you for considering our safety,” said the elf. “Now, to the matter of which we came to discuss.” Four elves – two male and two female – stepped forward from the rest and stopped 10ft away from Aryian and Lycia. “If your children could present themselves to the mages, we can begin our exploration.” Jet nearly wet himself at the look of panic that crossed Aryian’s face as the elf said “exploration”. Lycia, on the other hand, continued to look only mildly interested. Both siblings stepped forwards to the elves waiting for them. First, the male elves stood in front of the siblings and raised their hands to touch Aryian and Lycia’s temples with their slender fingers. Both Aryian and Lycia twitched slightly as the elves reached out with their minds and invaded the deepest parts of their conscious. Arryn watched with a nervous expression as the elves walked through his children’s minds. Jet did not miss the feeling of having someone unfamiliar poking around in his brain and he had long since learnt how to defend his mind. This went on for several minutes until the elf reading Aryain dropped his hands. Without a word to the prince, he walked back to the elf at the head of the envoy and whispered something into his ear before returning to his original place in the group. Aryian rubbed his temples and looked over at his sister. The elf reading her had a strange expression on his face. A few moments later the elf let his hands drop and returned to his position amongst the other elves without speaking to the envoy leader.
“Interesting,” said the leader. Then the female elves took their places in front of the twins but this time they placed one hand on their chests, above their hearts, instead of on their heads. Aryian and Lycia exchanged glances but Jet knew the routine. One elf would check the mind and the other would check the heart. Female elves were more in tune with the emotions of humans, just like animals, so they would listen to the hearts of the potential successors and learn what they wanted most. At the same time, it allowed them to learn the health of the humans they were testing. This time, it was the elf listening to Lycia who finished first. She returned to the envoy leader and whispered in his ear. Jet could not see his reaction to what she said, but the atmosphere in the room had shifted. A fair while later, the elf listening to Aryian let her hand drop. She put her hand over her own and bowed her head to the prince.
“Thank you,” she said to him before returning to her place amongst the other elves, leaving Aryian looking confused. Jet raised his eyebrow. He’d never known them thank a human before, let along during the trial. His leg began to cramp where he had been crouched for so long but he couldn’t risk moving and making a noise in case the elves heard him. The envoy leader bowed again to the king.
“We shall retire for the afternoon to consider our decision. Thank you for being such gracious hosts,” he said. Arryn visibly fidgeted. It had been a very uncomfortable affair and he’d run the risk of offending the elves by not offering any refreshments or even hanging the Autumn Court banner alongside his own. Not a very wise move on his part as it was always a good idea to keep elves happy, no matter how uncooperative they were, because they could get very nasty. Jet had always wondered why Arryn had been chosen over his younger, brighter sister as the monarch of Sarelia, but then again Syrrl had been a very sickly child and had died three years into a childless marriage. So while she might’ve been a better queen, she wouldn’t have been a better queen for long. Jet waited in his crouched position until the elves had finally left the hall. He expected the king and his children to leave with them but they stayed at the top of the hall. Now the elves had left, Jet shifted position and felt the blood flow back into his leg. Swiftly followed, of course, by the sensation of pins and needles. He cursed under his breath and tried to stretch out the offending limb without making himself seen. In the hall below, Aryian and Lycia were talking over their experience with the elves.
“I don’t know, I expected more,” said Aryian.
“More what?” asked Lycia. “And what did that elf thank you for anyway? I’m surprised she didn’t vomit at all your “peasants are important” feelings,” she teased, prodding her brother in the ribs. Aryian batted her hand away.
“I don’t know why she thanked me,” he said, obviously choosing to ignore his sister’s comment. “And I guess I just expected there would be… just more.”
Lycia shrugged. “When they’re done wasting our time, send for me,” she said before turning and leaving the hall without a word to her father. With Aryian and Arryn facing the opposite end of the hall, Jet took the opportunity to sneak out before he got caught. He closed the door to the balcony behind him and was about to pull his hood over his face when an arm came out of the shadows and caught him around the neck. Jet struggled and his body instinctively began to change. His nails lengthened out into claws, his jaw dislocated and lengthened, forming a snout where his teeth grew longer and sharper. He snarled and snapped his jaws as his body shrank and twisted, fur sprouted all over and soon his assailant was no longer holding a man but a large wolf.
“Ah, now you look like yourself,” hissed a voice in Jet’s ear. Jet broke out of their grip and landed heavily on the floor. He turned round, snarling terribly, to see the envoy leader looking down at him. He bared his terrible teeth at the elf, but the elf didn’t seem phased.
“That’s enough, dog, I am not afraid of you. I could smell you hiding behind that banner like the pathetic animal you are. The stench of your betrayal reeks stronger than you know,” said the elf. Jet stopped growling. He suddenly remembered the elf’s voice now it wasn’t dripping with fake sweetness. Seemlessly, he transformed back into a man dressed in black and stood up to his full height which was a hair taller than the elf.
“I remember you. How dare you call me betrayer after the part you played in her murder, you foul cockroach,” Jet growled, his eyes growing darker. The elf’s beautiful face suddenly turned dark and angry.
“How dare you speak to me like that, dog!” He raised his hand to backhand Jet across the face but Jet was too quick for him and caught his wrist.
“You forget I am no longer your slave,” then he called the elf something very rude and he nearly exploded with rage.
“Worthless rat! I know you are hiding her abomination. I will find it and do what should’ve been done years ago!”
Jet grabbed the elf by the throat and pinned him against the wall. The elf struggled against him but Jet’s race had been designed to be stronger in order to protect them, which had been a good idea when they were bound to the elves but Jet was no longer under their rule. His eyes turned black and his canines lengthened though he stayed in his human form.
“You dare go looking for her and I will rip your limbs from your torso and make you watch me burn them one by one before I choke you with your own ashes,” Jet threatened, his voice echoing darkly. His grip on the elf’s neck tightened as the thought of any harm coming to Ariella pushed him towards the edge.
Jet released the elf’s neck and spun round as he recognised the voice. An elf lady stood before him, her ginger hair twisting in perfect curls around her freckled face. Jet’s rage disappeared in her presence.
“Tamrielle,” he breathed. “It was you who dropped the jewel in the forest.” The elf lady nodded, her large hazel eyes looking at him like he was a prayer answered. He forgot the elf he’d been threatening behind him stepped forwards to embrace Tamrielle. They wound their arms around each other and held on tight. She was the last fond memory he had left of the life he used to know. She looked just as she had done seventeen years ago. Still beautiful and still so much like her cousin. As they let go of each other, a tear slid down Tamrielle’s cheek.
“Oh, Jet. I thought for so long you were dead. I’ve been carrying that jewel with me for years, every time we come to Amarina. I’d almost given up hope. I thought when she…” she stopped to take a deep breath to compose herself and Jet cupped her face in his hands.
“She let me go, Tam. She made me go,” he said before kissing her gently on the head. Tamrielle sighed happily.
“I am glad she made you go,” she said. “Now I know there is still someone alive who loved her as much as I did… as much as he did.” Though he was happy to see her, Jet wished Tamrielle would stop talking. He lived with the demons every day, he didn’t want to talk about them as well. Behind him, the elf had recovered from nearly having his throat crushed.
“How can you embrace him like one of your own, Tamrielle? He is nothing but a traitor,” the elf scorned. Tamrielle shook her head.
“He is more dear to me than you are. Now leave us,” she ordered. Unable to ignore a direct order from her, the elf slunk away to join the others. She turned back to Jet and smiled weakly.
“Though it is true you are still dear to me, I’m afraid the majority feel the same way he does. I am sorry it has to be this way. I have missed you so,” she said, embracing him once again.
“I know, Tam, I understand. I’ve missed you too,” he said, brushing the auburn curls from her face. He was grateful he had been able to see Tamrielle one more time, but his exile from the Autumn Court still stood firm and not even the niece of the Crown of the Autumn Court could keep away all those who still called for his blood. He and Tamrielle said their goodbyes for the last time and Jet left the castle feeling older and very tired.