Soil slid between her hands, fitted in gloves made for a man’s, and calloused from years of hard toil. Her shirt clung to her skin, sticky with sweat, and she panted hard as she dug up yet another root of chamomile. Her only reprieve was the early morning breeze that carefully ran its fingers through her hair. Blades of grass swayed to it like a placid melody. She knew she was supposed to be inside, resting; the protests of her bulging stomach were a reminder enough.
Xena Aurentum had been up since dawn to greet the sun as it triumphed the horizon. Muted hues glistened with dew like the faded paints of a storybook. The air was moist and the earth damp from the previous night’s rain. Whittled whispers echoed from the woods beyond the clearing. Squirrels’ cries rang out up above, followed by the rustling of leaves, and the occasional sparrow’s squawk.
She sat back, wiping the sweat from her forehead and just about done with the day’s work. If she were lucky enough, she should be able to prepare a salad for her and Theraviel before the high noon sun found them. It was about time she broke him out of his steady diet of meat and ale. Maybe she’d toss in a few pieces of the fowl Theraviel had hunted yesterday, just so he didn’t get too cranky about it. He’d already be disgruntled enough about her not staying in bed. Xena couldn’t help it; she loved the stern yet endearing look in his scarlet gaze as he cradled her in his arms and ran his hands over her belly. “My mate,” he’d say it like a prayer when she finally won him over, eliciting a rare moan from her. She was more than his lover; she was his torch against the night, his eyes when he couldn’t see, his voice of reason when he could find none. She was his, just as much as he was hers. And together, they would raise a child molded from the breath of dying stars. Xena rested a hand on her stomach, wincing as it lumped up where the unborn child yearned to be let out. “She’ll be a feisty one,” Theraviel would always chuckle, his voice rumbling and sonorous. It had always been a wonder to her why he was always so certain the baby in her womb would be a girl.
They lived together, in the middle of Primwylde forest, strangers yet not, and it sounded like something out of one of the erotic romances Theraviel sometimes caught her reading. A soft smile touched her lips as she recalled how he’d come over and read to her. A growl would creep into the warm cadence of his voice when he got to the parts that were secretly her favorite, if only because he mimicked the words as they were read.
No stranger should’ve been able to find them, unless the wind carried the sound of her quiet humming so far away. She’d made sure of that; the cottage was near enough to a cool stream, but not so much that someone would spend too long looking for them; and it was near a lichen and moss-infested cliff. On the rare occasions Xena revisited Aubwiel for supplies, she never made herself known. Her ramshackle home had been inhabited for generations by the women of her line, but none of them had been nearly as reclusive as Xena herself. Anyone would be if a wounded man covered in what looked like liquid silver had stumbled into the clearing near dusk. She hadn’t thought about it then, of course. He was hurt and he needed her help, she’d ask questions later, and then he’d be out of her hair. Days stretched into weeks, and then months in which she and Theraviel had gotten to know each other. Years later, she would look back and decide that she needed to straighten out her priorities.
At the first sound, she knew she should hurry back inside. The crackling of branches sounded towards her from a dense thicket; it could very well be a fox. But then she heard it: grunts of pain, a little too loud, but utterly devastating. The voice was repeating a single phrase over and over again: “Help me,” the stranger rasped as he staggered into the clearing. He caught her arm, holding himself upright a he stared at her with raving mad eyes. His hands were coated in grime, his nails painfully sharp and bleeding crimson. He was panting, his face reddening to match his flaming hair. Xena yelped as she was dragged down by his weight, which seemed to increase with every passing heartbeat. “H-Help me. Please. I-I’ve got me a w-wife back home and she’s expecting,” he croaked, his voice wavering.
His grip on her arm was painful. She bit her bottom lip as she tried to pry his fingers off as gently as she could. “What happened?” she asked. Even tired, sweaty, and mildly surprised, years of practice around crumbling patients allowed her to maintain her composure.
“H-Hunting. Hungry, mushrooms...” His voice went hoarse. Xena glanced back towards the cottage as he began hacking coughs. She reckoned Theraviel was near. Lunch would have to wait. The man was shaking now, hanging his head as his skin began to grow red all over. She put a hand to her mouth. This—this isn’t like any mushroom I’ve ever seen, she thought, feeling panic claw at her throat. If what he said was true, that he had wife back home to return to who was going to give birth to a child soon, she had to save him.
“If you’ll follow me, sir, my supplies are inside. Come and I’ll take a look.” She began urging him towards her cottage, but the hulking man didn’t budge. Was it just her imagination, or had he grown? He’d stopped shaking, now stood stone-still, and the veins in his muscles were bulging. When he looked up at her, she would’ve stumbled at his eyes if it weren’t for his iron grip on her arm. He continued to smile as she tugged against him, pounding on his shoulder. “Let me—oomph—let me go!”
He chuckled, and she felt terror douse itself on her skin at the cruelty in his voice. “Now, my dear, there’s no need for any of that,” he drawled. He wrenched her towards him, and for the first time she realized that the red on his hands wasn’t blood. They were diamond-shaped scales, viciously sharp and glinting like garnets. They spread down his wrist, rows of bloodred scales emerging from beneath his skin where she thought there had been rashes before. His sharp fingertips dug into her flesh, glossing his already red scales over with small splatters of her blood. The stranger gave her a saccharine smile, clearly enjoying her struggles. “You... filthy imbecile,” Xena ground out, She kicked him in the shin, but was met with a layer of tough scales beneath his trousers. Biting back a cry of pain, she then attempted to knee his groin, but he caught her before she could. She used the momentary distraction to throw a punch at his sculpted face, the only part of him that wasn’t covered in scales.
She’d aimed for his temple, but both of their eyes widened when he suddenly turned his face up to meet her fist. There was a crack as she struck him on the nose, her hands coming away covered in blood. Silver blood. Xena stared at him, agape. The stranger reached up, attempting to wipe it away with a scaly hand, but he only succeeded in smearing it across his cheek. Maybe that was what he’d intended though; it certainly made him look more intimidating, beastly, inhuman. Something she knew too well, yet didn’t. A malicious smile twisted his lips as he stared the silver liquid on his arm. The next thing she knew, his deep voice rumbled across the vast expanses of her mind.
I can see why he chose you.
His hand—no, claw—circled her waist and round belly, lifting her with ease. She found her feet hovering above the ground, level with the roof of trees around them. Rows of yellow teeth from a gaping maw sneered at her frailty. She was met with a hulking frame, blazing crimson scales catching the light as he flicked his tail. The rank odor of flesh swarmed her as the winged beast stared her dead in the eye and chuckled softly. He’s always liked your kind, hasn’t he? Delicate humans that he can protect. The way the creature said that sent a chill down her spine. His last wife was a human, too. The poor thing fell ill and broke his heart. He didn’t sound at all sympathetic. It was as though he was enjoying this.
“Who are you?” she asked, hating the way her voice quivered. She swallowed when he leered at her, his eyes glowing with the light of an animal that wanted to play games with its prey before ending its short life. Something about his voice sounded awfully similar to Theraviel’s, except it lacked the fierce warmth and protectiveness of the latter’s. It was dripping venom and colder than a steel blade through the heart.
Theraviel’s never told you about me, has he? I shouldn’t be surprised, though I am hurt that my brother hasn’t told you the story of how hard I fought for my throne. His grin widened, his nostrils flared, when her eyes grew to the size of ceramic plates. He could’ve been king, and perhaps you could’ve been his queen. But he was weak. Falling head-over-heels in love with you humans. I’ve always loved the sound of your brittle bones snapping. He only tensed his claw around her torso for the briefest second, but he managed to send the air rushing out of her lungs. She gasped for air, now trembling in his grip.
Theraviel couldn’t be related to this... this monster, she thought.
But the memory of seeing him for the first time, covered head-to-toe in what looked like liquid stardust, flashed across her vision. Her mind was reeling with questions. What is he? Who is he? Where did he come from? And, the loudest voice of all, How could I have been so stupid?
I always knew he was unfit to rule, but of all the vegas he could’ve made the queen dragon, he chose a human for a consort. And when she died and he couldn’t get over his heartbreak, I gave him one last chance. But then that wretched daughter of his went on to prove even worse a monster than her father. His grip tightened once more. Xena wheezed, pounding her fists meekly against his scale plating.
“P-Please,” she rasped, hating that she had to beg. “Please, don’t d-do this. I haven’t done anything.” She couldn’t look into his ruby eyes. Eyes that looked so much like her mate’s. “I—please, sir, I have...” She trailed off. She could see that, from the way he was eyeing her stomach, he already knew what she was going to say before even she did.
He scoffed, but she could tell by the way his muscles hardened that he felt threatened. And look here, he’s sired himself another child to come fight his battles for him. Xena couldn’t help but draw back as far away as she could as he learned forward and pressed his snout into her shirt, breathing in the scent deeply. Another daughter! This one will turn out just as mad as her sister. I’ll make sure of that. His last words were nothing more than a low rumble, but they somehow sounded the most menacing of all.
Xena couldn’t help it; her breaths hitched as sobs threatened to rack her body. “Please. Theraviel, anyone,” she murmured. She wished she’d brought a dagger, a vial of flame, anything, with her. Not that they would’ve helped much, inn her current situation, but then she wouldn’t appear so helpless. “Please, do anything you want with me, but just—"
“DON’T HURT HER.”
The voice sounded so unlike the Theraviel she knew, and yet it was unmistakably him. She could’ve sagged in relief. She wanted to cry out and throw herself into his arms. I should never have left this morning, she wanted to tell him. Craning her neck, she spotted him charging towards them from across the garden. He leaped nimbly over stones and shrubs, his lithe, muscled figure moving with a purpose she seldom saw. And the raw rage smoldering in his eyes would’ve made an entire army turn tails and run.
The beast before her didn’t appear at all fazed. He was smiling as though he were an urchin plotting to snatch purses from unsuspecting passersby. Like all of this was a mere distraction, and like she was just a mere inconvenience. So you’re done hiding, big brother? he taunted, sneering at him with malice. Theraviel slowed his pace, but didn’t flinch as the massive beast lowered his gaze and exhaled a bulbous plume of smoke in his path.
Her mate stepped right into it, and the smoke drifted apart like a curtain call. “Put her down, Belgrath.” He ground out the words between gnashing teeth, clenching his fists to keep them from shaking. The air between them buzzed like the atmosphere before a lightning storm. When Xena looked at him, she couldn’t see any trace of the gentle stranger who’d found her a year ago. He was all lethal, hard edges, and somehow the revelation that he wasn’t who she thought he was shook her to the bone. “She has nothing to do with this.”
The beast—Theraviel’s brother, Belgrath—huffed what sounded like a derisive chuckle. This human woman is carrying our potential princess in her womb, and you have the audacity to tell me she has no part in this?
“I said put her down." Belgrath reared back and snarled, slitted pupils narrowing to a sliver as his brother’s tone shifted. When Theraviel stepped fully out of the smoke, his arms were mottled with splotches of obsidian. They glimmered with a dark sort of beauty as they spread all along his skin, coating his hands and shoulders and scalp and half of his face. When he bared his teeth, they were pointed and almost blinding. He didn’t just look like some monstrous king—he spoke like one. The voice that had just uttered those words didn’t come from the Theraviel she knew. Just the sight of him made her stomach clench.
Despite his words, Belgrath appeared to shrink further with every step his brother took. Keep up the act, brother, his disembodied voice said. It took all his will to keep it from betraying the sudden rush of panic that doused his veins. You’ve been away from you kin for far too long, and the last they ever saw of you was a bleeding, broken fraud they called king. Xena could tell that he chose his next words very carefully as he spoke in a slow, deliberate tone. I had been merciful, brother, to banish you instead of condemn you to a slow and torturous death. Even if I were to spare you now, you can never return to us. No, the only way you can come home is if I were to die here, now, by your talon.
Theraviel blinked, a little piece of the mate she knew returning to him as the full meaning of his brother’s words dawned upon him. He stopped in his tracks, hesitating. He didn’t want to hurt his brother, no matter what Belgrath had done to him in the past. He’d been willing to leave that all behind for Xena. She puzzled as she slowly put the pieces together. In spite of his exile, of his title being stripped from him by his own traitorous brother, and despite Belgrath’s flagrant contempt for him, Theraviel still loved him. She didn’t know whether to admire him for it, or to curse him for a fool.
“Fine. Go home and keep your throne, I don’t want it.” The words tasted acrid on his tongue, but he hardly cared. He was looking at her, at the golden flecks in her sapphire eyes and the russet hair he’d so often combed his fingers through. Xena knew she should tell him to defend himself and put his brother back in his rightful place, but a selfish part of her held back. She knew he was fighting for her, even before he said his next words. “Put her down and nobody gets hurt. Please.” The way his voice trembled on the last word sent splinters down her heart. Those romances have taught him well, she thought.
The two locked eyes for a moment that felt like it could’ve lasted until the sun burnt itself out. The spell didn’t last. No, I think I’ll keep this one for myself, thank you. At his brother’s words, the veins in Theraviel’s neck bulged. You’ve grown soft, but I never thought anyone could make you so weak. Maybe I’ll finally find out what keeps you running back to humans. Belgrath’s next words were directed at her, and she could feel his hot, wet breath brushing her skin like tongues of flame. She shuddered. I heard your kind tastes particularly sumptuous when dipped in fear.
Xena gripped his crimson scales so hard her palms began to bleed. Oh, don’t you worry yet! You’ve still got at least two months to stuff up. I want to see how much the little heiress loves her uncle. Tears pricked at the edge of her vision again, but this time it didn’t hurt so much trying to hold them back. She’d rather confine herself in a cellar for the rest of her life than hand herself and her unborn daughter to him. She seethed silently as she writhed, using what little space she had. The mocking pout could be heard in Belgrath’s voice as he said, Shame, I liked you much better when you were begging. No matter. I’ll simply deal with you later. Theraviel roared and advanced on him, but it was too late. All it took was a simple flick of the wrist, and suddenly Xena found the ground rushing up to meet her.
It knocked all the wind out of her lungs. She wheezed, landing on her wrist with a horrifying crack. Her mind barely registered the pain, though; she immediately pulled her legs up, the tears finally streaming down her face as she wrapped her arms around her stomach. No. No no no no no. She screwed her eyes shut, wiping against her furious tears. Her ears rang as her head filled with the rushing sound of her heartbeat and the blood that rushed to her head. Every sound was distant. Every rumble of the earth was dulled by her roaring feelings. Numbness. Shock. And then, when the pain finally found her, she thought molten iron surged through her veins.
She opened her eyes, the gold in her sapphire eyes making all other colors appear pallid in comparison.
Her eyes found the Belgrath first, with scales as red as roses and his yellow teeth suggesting something much more violent. A storm of desperate claws and snapping jaws, the two beasts tore at each other. She caught her breath as she took in the smaller one of the two, with scales and wing membrane like a night sky quilt. It—no, he—looked like a midnight incarnate himself. A pair of crimson eyes stood out like studded gemstones. He darted about with quick yet deadly movements, lashing out when he could and drawing back when Belgrath made any move. He had the grace of a cat and the ferocity of a wolf. Xena stared at their maws, both dripping silver blood that created small dollops like stars. Belgrath may be bigger, stronger, faster, but Theraviel had Xena. He had his love, his mate, who he’d dragged unknowingly into this mess. She deserved better, so much better. As did their daughter. He would fight for it with every ounce of strength he had.
And then he realized that he wasn’t just fighting for his family; he was fighting for his kind, his throne, his years of exile at the hands of the one he called “brother.” He fought for his life, for to save himself, he’d have to kill a part of his soul.
Belgrath was getting frustrated, weariness eating away at his bones. But as he lumbered closer, Theraviel’s steps began to falter. His mouth twisted into a triumphant smirk as he dragged his claws along the dirt. Our kin loved you so much, but even they won’t remember you when you’re only dust and bones. What could father have possibly seen in you? He chose you to rule over us all and look where we are now. He put another leg before the other. Theraviel silently urged him to just come the tiniest bit closer. I, powerful and poised, and you—it came so fast, he hardly noticed it. Belgrath’s talon came rushing down, tearing a gash in his chest. Scales mingled with spraying silver blood, a galaxy in reverse, as it oozed down his front. You, rotting here, finally the shadow I always was.
He’d barely finished his sentence when Theraviel shot up, swifter than a viper, and snapped down on his brother’s throat with vicious vengeance.
A spray of silver was the last thing Xena saw as she forced herself to turn away, ready to retch as her gentle mate tore Belgrath’s throat from his neck.
Xena thought she knew pain, but the rebellious glass embedded in her cracked and blistering skin like crudely shaped jewels told a different story.
She thought she knew a lot of things, but the events of that day had proven that the world she’d grown accustomed was only a tiny slice of the messy world beyond forest glades and whistling woods. She told the woman sitting beside her as much, and in the midst of her work, the woman chuckled.
“You call our world messy? Mm, I prefer the term ‘eclectic’,” Lynore said, her voice lilting as though she were singing. Behind them, their impatient stallions nickered.
Xena couldn’t quite believe her eyes. The burn marks and cuts marring her skin were fading away. Blisters receded, patches of dead skin were replaced with its softer, younger counterpart. Pinpricks shot up her nerves as the Lynore picked glass from her hand. They left only blood in their wake, but even the droplets faded away as the Lynore, the High Lady, whispered a few expert words. “Mạu, dóng. Acérí." The tiny red lines on her flesh sealed. The sensation of buzzing like fine wine, of shivers like liquid metal, coursed through her veins. She could almost taste it on the tip of her tongue; it was intoxicating in a way the weight of a crown was.
“What—What was that?” Xena found herself mumbling, leaning against the back of her chair. Afternoon light filtered through the small window carved into the wall, highlighting motes of dust as they found their homes in corners and nooks. The sharp aroma of cloves and ginger wafted from a mortar on the table beside them. She focused on these little details, but they couldn’t keep away the image of the serpentine eyes like molten gold that had ingrained itself into her mind.
“You were wise to carry the bottle of firebrew with you,” was Lynore’s only reply, “even if your tactics were, ah, awry at worst.” Xena nodded as she tore her eyes away from the mess that was her hand. She knew that firebrew was not just any normal type of flame. It was volatile and acted upon its own will. It was rumored that it was really a trapped spirit in a bottle, unleashing its rage on anyone it wished when finally released. Most were like raging wildfires; easier to put out, but they spread at an alarming rate. The other few lashed out with deadly, decisive precision, curling tongues of flame that weren’t as destructive as its counterpart but hot enough to melt iron with a single touch and, in rare cases, melt even the special glass crafted for this purpose. She kept from shuddering as she remembered the feeling of her skin flaking off as lumps of hard liquid pelted her skin, burning into her wounds and melding with her blood.
“...a Ssyn. They have the tendency to be ruthless at first, but I suspect it’s because they’ve been misunderstood for so long,” the High Lady said. She got some paste from the mortar and slathered it across her skin before wrapping a thin layer of gauze around Xena’s hand.
Right, because she didn’t just try to kill me, she thought. “You might want to close your eyes for this part.” Xena did as she was told, gnashing her teeth together when she suddenly felt needles of something cold dig into her skin and mold into her flesh, her tendons, her bones. It wasn’t painful, not quite, but it was definitely uncomfortable. Lynore must have noticed her sudden profusion of sweat, but as if it didn’t deter her, she began to work faster. It felt like there were threads pulling her cells in every direction and it itched horribly. She didn’t know when she’d started humming, but when the feeling finally subsided and Lynore told her to open her eyes, the High Lady added one last remark, “You have a lovely voice, you know.”
She reached over to remove the bandages, but Xena began working at it first. There were parts of her hand she could feel, and there were parts that were dead to her. Dread coiled at the base of her stomach as she took note of the stiffness she felt beneath the layers of gauze and salve. It was hard, awkward, and—crystalline. “What did you—what did you do?” she breathed in both awe and horror as the last of the bandages came off.
Lynore spoke as though she were trying to soothe a caged animal. “You would’ve lost the use of your hand otherwise. You know firebrew is no ordinary fire. We would’ve had to amputate it, which would be a much bloodier process,” she was saying, but Xena could barely hear her words. Glass, webs of it, cracked through her flesh like lightning. She could trace it from her lower forearm all the way to the tips of her fingers. And when she touched it, the areas where glass and skin made contact were perfectly smooth. There were no creases, no bumps. It was as though someone had sculpted her hand from clay and diamonds. “It’ll take some getting used to,” the High Lady continued when she tried to move her fingers. Come on, just the tiniest twitch—anything.
Nothing moved. No one breathed. Xena slumped against the chair, the room spinning at an awful speed, and the only static thing was her hand. A weight tempted to crush her lungs, and she wanted to scrub at the glass in her hand until it was raw and aching and gone like her heart was. She wanted to smash it all against the table and watch the shards and blood rain on her fury. The tears and snot that should be running down her face weren’t coming. She could only slouch there, hollow and numb and tired.
She knew she could sit there, hollow and numb and tired, until the sun went black and smoke blotted out the stars like a shroud. She knew she could lay down and stay there, a stagnant stream that once ebbed with life, and count the seconds until the darkness found her. But all she could hear was a calling that came in the form of high, piercing wails. Lynore’s hand left her shoulder as she pushed herself to her feet, ignoring the wooziness that came with it, and headed towards her daughter’s insistent cries.