In the evenings, around the hearths of home, mothers regale their children with stories of how the world was before the arrival of mankind. Tales of when there was only one Fae Court, when the sky was full of dragons, and when brethren lived free of fear.
Stories of the merfolk walking unafraid on the land, a vast network of Fae and elvish cities on every continent of the world, and sirens in every coastal village.
They speak of when mankind came, weak and lost in our lands, and how the brethren took pity on them, showing them how to live amongst us, welcoming them into our cities and our homes. But mankind was prolific, and although their lives burned through in a fraction of the brethren’s, they swiftly grew in quantity, until they outnumbered us.
In a short time, the brethren were pushed out of the majority of lands, and still that was not enough for mankind who feared and envied us. They began to hunt us down, cutting down our vast forests, and driving many species of brethren into near extinction.
A bitter war arose amongst the Fae, between those that believed there remained goodness in mankind, and those that wished to eradicate them, resulting in a division in our people, and the forming of the Court of Light and the Dark Court.
Now the brethren cling to what they have, maintaining strong rules to prevent further trespass against us, for we have learned that giving any ground to mankind, results in misery.
We paused in the roots of a mighty tree, crouching low and close together so that Akyran’s breath stirred my hair. I could feel his body heat and smell the chypre scent of sandalwood and oakmoss from his soap.
The moonlight cut through the leafy canopy, dappling the ground, and bringing the night flowers to bloom. The air was heavy with their decadent perfume. Night-time creatures moved through the undergrowth with caution, aware of the predator in their midst. The fragile light of the nocturnal fairies merged with the glow-bugs that rose from the disturbed foliage.
I heard the rustle in the undergrowth and met Akyran’s eyes, the silvery moonlight stole the blue I knew them to be. He inclined his chin and indicated with his eyebrows that we should edge to the front. We bellied around the base of the roots, the soil moist beneath our hands and the rotting leaf matter clinging to our cloaks.
In the moonlight, the manticore’s barbed tail thrashed as it tore into the flesh of the deer it had felled, the sound of bone cracking beneath the mighty teeth loud and the rip of meat wet. I could smell the blood, as well as the heavy musk of the beast itself, dark and fetid.
Through the foliage, I could see the shift of other Fae hunters, closing in on the beast, their movements disguised by the noise of its feast.
Akyran fisted his spear and raised his eyebrows at me. I raised mine back at him in challenge. He grinned, a quick flash of white teeth, before he launched into his attack. I threw my spear, and saw it embed in the manticore’s neck, deep enough to stick, as Akyran rammed his, with his body weight behind it, into its chest. I heard the wooden handle crack and was not surprised when he danced back with half of the broken shaft in his hands – he has struck the bony chest plate of the creature.
The beast roared, rearing back onto its powerful hind legs, and striking out with its claws.
Akyran ducked its strike, using the broken shaft to ward it off.
I registered the yells and movements of the other hunters, and saw arrows strike the beast.
“Don’t tear the hide! Aim for the chest and neck.” Akyran protested.
In the flurry of arrows, the manticore did not know where to strike, and then it focused on Akyran again as he reached for the broken shaft of the spear. I ran in, seizing my spear and pulling it free, distracting the snapping jaws inches from Akyran’s head.
The manticore screamed and redirected its attack to me as the spear ripped free of its flesh. Blood sprayed in spurting crimson across the composting leaf matter. My initial throw had hit the jugular, but the spear’s lodgement had prevented the blood loss. Akyran saw the spray of blood and he met my eyes again as we danced back out of the reach of the beast.
“Good shot,” he yelled to me. “Kill shot.”
The manticore shook its mane in confusion. It was feeling its death approaching, but it flailed out as the hunters continued to hound it, fighting to the very end. I drew my needlepoint dagger, and leapt onto its back, driving my blade into the spear wound, widening the spray of blood, and rolled free as it sighed out its final breath and sank onto its kill.
“Well done,” Akyran panted as he offered me his hand and lifted me to standing. “The kill goes to Ecaeris,” he told the other hunters.
They clasped my shoulder and congratulated me.
Akyran and I sat on a root to catch our breath. He removed a boot to shake free some annoyance.
“I have to go to the Court of Light tomorrow,” he told me casually as he pulled his boot back on.
I took the flask from my hip and lifted it to my lips, taking no more than a sip of the alcohol within, to chase the chill of the night from my bones. The burn was strong, and I grimaced, breathing through my teeth.
He took it from me as I lowered it and took a larger swig, hissing against the bite of the spirit. “My parents are actually thinking of intervening in this bloody war, and I need to talk some sense into my father.”
“Will you be gone long?”
“As long as it takes,” he looked over to where the hunters and servants butchered the manticore, his strong profile lit by the moonlight.
Did he know how beautiful he was? I wondered. He never seemed to notice the attention of the ladies of the court except for the convenience of ready bedfellows, and he never paid much mind to his clothing, choosing simple, dark colours and cuts for function rather than accentuation.
He had stolen my heart with a kiss when we were both still children and had never returned it. However, aside from that one mischievous peck, he had never shown any further interest in me, treating me much as he did my brothers, as if he had forgotten my gender somewhere in the intervening years. We were each other’s best friends, and that friendship was entirely platonic, much to my dissatisfaction.
I had dreams where he came to see me as a woman... But I just had to meet his eyes to know that they were just dreams. There was no heat in his gaze when he looked at me. Warmth, and friendship, yes. But lust and desire? No.
“Come with me,” he said suddenly.
“What?” I was startled out of my admiration of his profile.
“To the Court of Light,” he said with light-hearted exasperation. “Pack a couple of pretty dresses and portal over with me in the morning. Having you there will keep my parents happy.”
They aspired for him to marry me. I exactly fit the requirements for Akyran’s bride – my family was pure brethren, having never mingled our blood line with mankind, and were well placed and influential in the court. Our parents had been friends for centuries, planning our union since my birth and we had been raised together, with the expectation that our friendship would become a marriage.
“I hate court,” I complained. We both knew I would go because he asked it of me. It was how our friendship worked, how it had always worked.
“Yes, but you’ll go for me,” Akyran grinned at me. He stole my flask off my hip and took another swig before replacing it, handling me with casual familiarity as he did so. His touch sent a heat through me the burnt fiercer than the spirits did. How I could be so affected, and he so indifferent, was a source of endless frustration.
I blew out a breath in mock annoyance – I was not as averse to going as I let on. I had a new dress, one that I was eager to wear. The ball at Court of Light would be the perfect opportunity. “Very well. But you’ll owe me.”
“Yes, but you never make me pay my debts,” he replied lightly, and stood to help with the manticore corpse. Its fur would go somewhere in his quarters. The barbs on its tail and various other parts of its body would be harvested for spell components. I would get my share, as I had felled it.
I watched him move amongst the hunters with easy camaraderie and grace. So beautiful this Fae prince, I through ruefully, tall and broad of shoulder, narrow of waist, long of leg and strong of arm, combined with the dark fall of hair and his blue eyes, and a face many bards had waxed lyrical over, he was many a courtier’s fantasy, something he took advantage of with regularity, keeping his bed warm and his heart cold.
When he had supervised the removal of the fur, Akyran returned.
“Let’s go,” he offered me his hand and pulled me to standing. “We can catch a few hours of sleep before tomorrow,” he decided, looking up at the moon speculatively as we made our way through the trees. The pages, squires and servants would deal with the rest of the corpse and bring it to the castle.
The Court of Light was crafted of white stone harvested from the mountains upon which it perched, and its beauty was lauded by poets and bards alike although I always found the polished veined stone and the gossamer fine curtains that drifted in the ocean breeze that drifted through the landscaped and paved terraces to be unapproachable and fussy.
I could never understand why a person would want to see themselves reflected in the floor, and the etiquette of undergarments beneath the flowing gowns of the courtiers was complicated and coquettish.
I much preferred the Dark Court. Named for the deep grey stone that it had been crafted from, the castle of the Dark Court did not amble along the mountainside, but stood rigid and firm on its clifftop perch, its curtain wall looking out across the land it guarded.
The castle was not a labyrinth of weaving corridors navigated by the art that decorated its walls, but a square formation, each level laid out exactly as the one below. Except for the ground floor, which was not given to accommodation like the levels above it, but to the business of the Court, with large audience rooms, and smaller meeting rooms, the kitchens, scullery, and other spaces where the servants laboured.
The way to the castle took us out of the forest, and up a well-maintained road, through the village walls, and the village itself. At the castle gates, we were waved in by the guards – we were well known to them, our comings and goings making us frequent passers-by and Akyran was, after all, the heir-apparent. We travelled through the second wall, into the gardens. An ancestor of Akyran’s had a penchant for roses, and the gardens overflowed with them, their perfume rich in the air.
We crossed through the gardens, our cloaks caught by the thorns, towards the side entrance. Akyran paused and plucked a night-blooming white Fae-rose, a bloom rare and highly sought after for its perfume and as spell components and protected in this garden by the king. Only Akyran would dare to pluck one of these blooms so casually. He pinched off the thorns and handed it to me.
“Part payment,” he said with a grin.
I laughed and lifted it to my nose, breathing in its aroma. He held open the turret door and we began the tight curve of stairs towards the top floor. Only the archers who watched over the keep from the upper turret chamber, the occasional page or servant running errands, and Akyran and I frequented these stairs.
With the King in attendance at the Court of Light, those courtiers who had not accompanied him had returned to their own estates, and the castle echoed hollowly as many of the chambers were empty, the servants taking advantage of the reduced demand on their time and sticking close to the comforts of the kitchens with their chores. Only Akyran’s and my squires and pages, manservants and maids attended the fourth floor.
If we were so inclined, Akyran and I could conduct a sordid affair with no one the wiser of it. But, of course, the closest we got was the occasional late evening drinking and gambling before the fire in one of our apartments and crawling into bed next to each other to sleep off the drink, still fully dressed. I had spent many such night imagining what would happen if only he reached out for me, or me for him, but the separation between us of less than an arm might as well have been that of the continent.
At my door, he paused, and tucked a lock of my hair back from my face. “Get a few hours of sleep. We won’t go until after the midday meal.”
“Fiena will need that long to pack anyway,” I said with a grin. “Good night,” I watched him continue down the hallway to the next chamber door.
His apartment and mine shared a wall between the bedchambers. He had me moved to these chambers when we had both reached adult hood. It was easier that way, he had said, to abscond with me on adventures in the middle of the night, rather than search me out in the lower levels. My parents had held hopes that the move meant he intended to take me as his wife soon after, but centuries had passed between with no sign of any inclination from him to do so.
I tiptoed into the chamber so as not to wake my maids who slept in the recessed bed in the dressing room. I stripped out of my hunting gear, leaving my clothing over the back of a chair, and crept into bed naked. Akyran would wake his manservant and make him pour him a bath and attend him whilst he took it, before he went to bed for the night - but I would let my maids sleep, and bathe in the morning.
Doing so also allowed me the luxury of privacy, and I closed my eyes as I slid my hand between my legs, imagining Akyran naked and bathing, the water running across his skin, sticking his dark hair to his neck and shoulders, his muscles moving as he... I found release and curled onto my side with a sigh.