“Is that an appropriate way to greet your mother, Kith?”
Kith smiled, all teeth and no real humour. “The mother that thinks I should be dead, yes. What are you doing here? There are mages here. They might notice you.”
“And they haven’t noticed you?” She raised an eyebrow over cool eyes the same golden colour as his. “You are not subtle, Kith. We followed your path, to answer your question. Your mages will not even know we are here until too late.”
It took an effort not to look towards the top of the gravel pit and he hoped Jesse had had the intelligence to run, even if he doubted Jesse actually was that smart. There was too much magic in the air for him to try and sense Jesse’s presence. “Oh? And what would you want here in the upper world?”
“The same thing you do, you silly child. Show us to whatever home you have here. We would like to get settled in.” She looked at Celina, beside him, and snorted. “I expected better of you, niece.”
“Did you?” Celina asked, smiling. “You are becoming slow in your old age then.”
Kith saw his mother’s eyes narrow, but she said nothing, only pushed past to let her mare walk up the slight incline to the top of the gravel pit. Hesitating only slightly—long enough to recognize another of his cousins, ambitious Kellyn, and her ever-present trio of bodyguards, waiting by the white-haired crones—Kith swung his mare around and hurried to catch up to his mother. At the top of the pit the magic of the gate and the presence of so many elves and their mounts faded enough to let him feel Jesse, somewhere nearby. He kept his eyes resolutely ahead and almost thought he’d gotten away with it when one of Kellyn’s bodyguards whistled and slid off her mare, striding into the long, wet grass.
She reached down and came up with Jesse, dragging him struggling to his feet and prodding him onto the road. Jesse dropped to his knees suddenly, breaking her grip, and lunged towards the other side of the road, only to have his path blocked by the mares ridden by Kellyn’s other bodyguards. The mares rolled their eyes wildly but their riders held them firm, and when Jesse whirled around to try another escape route, he was blocked again and herded into a circle of restlessly shifting unicorns. Breathing hard, Jesse stood still and wrapped his arms around himself, obviously shivering in the cool night air.
“Is this one of your mages?” Kith’s mother asked, laughing. “Something of a pathetic specimen.” She gave Kith a smile. “And you stink of him, child mine. Haven’t I told you not to get too close to your pets?”
Kith shrugged, pretending that he needed a moment to get his mare under control. “There is a saying here about keeping friends close, but enemies closer. I would rather have a mage at my beck and call, than have him constantly trying to undermine me.”
“True,” his mother said, studying Jesse thoughtfully. “On the other hand, it’s much easier to just kill them outright.” She nodded to one of the blue-painted bodyguards, who took a knife from the sheath at her belt and stepped towards Jesse.
“Stop.” One of the crones pushed her way through the crowd, one hand on San’s shoulder though Kith knew that none of the crones actually needed the support. “There is another mage here, the one who owns this territory. The child tells me it’s this one’s sister. Keep the boy alive for now, until we are more settled and can deal with both of them at once.”
Kith’s mother bowed graciously in her saddle, though Kith knew her well enough to see the anger simmering beneath the courtly veneer. He caught San’s eye and nodded slightly, not even sure himself if he would have dared interfere if San hadn’t. The bodyguard returned her knife to its sheath and pulled a length of fine golden rope from her saddle, using it to tie Jesse’s hands in front of him. When she swung onto her mare’s back again, she tied the other end of the rope to her pommel and clucked her mare forward, forcing Jesse to stumble along in her wake.
It was nearing dawn by the time Kith managed to get away from finding room for thirty squabbling elves inside the house and in the barn. It gave him just enough time to pull Corvin aside and send him in search of where Kellyn’s bodyguards had put Jesse, before he and Celina were forced into a meeting with his mother, Kellyn, and the three crones, who brought San in with them. Kith sprawled in one of the deep armchairs in the corner of the room, more relieved than he wanted to admit that Celina stood guard beside him, while the crones fussed over seating and his mother gave the entire room a disapproving look.
“Am I still under death sentence?” he asked when they had finally settled, trying to keep his tone light.
“It has been waived,” one of the crones said. “For now. Perhaps you are not so useless as we thought, though we imagine any successes you’ve had here have been blind luck. You are, however, stripped of any rights to your mother’s dominion. The honour will go to your cousin Kellyn.” She smiled at Kellyn, who sat prettily attentive on the couch beside Kith’s mother, hands neatly folded in her lap. “And the dominion will be moved here, to the upper world.”
“The mages here might have something to say to that,” Celina said. “They tend to be possessive.”
The crone snorted. “Yes? And have we seen one yet, besides the boy? Your magic has been woven into this land. No mage will be aware of anyone but you until we wish them to be aware.” She nodded to the door. “You are dismissed. We have much to discuss.”
Stung by the dismissal, Kith got to his feet and started for the door, then turned back. “Are you safe here, San?”
She blinked but recovered her poise quickly, dropping her eyes. “I have been forgiven.”
“Because you were forced into coming here?” Kith glanced at the crones, whose unlined faces gave nothing away. “You cannot fault her for that.”
“We can fault whoever we like for whatever reason we choose,” another of the crones said irritably. “You were dismissed, Kith.”
“So I was.” He swept an elegant bow and left the room, just barely resisting the urge to slam the door behind him like a petulant child. Unsure what else to do, and unwilling to stay inside the crowded house, he went outside, ignoring the humans already beginning to creep onto the property to pay homage to the new elves.
Corvin caught up with him just past the barn, leaning in to quietly say, “They have him locked in the root cellar beside the house, under guard by those triplets of your cousin’s. I wasn’t allowed in to see him.”
“I doubt they’ll want to let me in either.” Kith turned and headed for the cellar. “Fortunately I don’t care what they want.”
The triplets—he knew their names were Emsel, Elmine, and Envesy, though he had never bothered to find out which one was which beneath their blue face paint and matching armour—straightened up from their lounging positions when he approached, spreading out to block the door. He stopped and held up his hands, offering a smile that was met with completely neutral expressions.
“No one but crones allowed in,” one of them—possibly Envesy—said.
“What harm will I manage to do?” Kith asked, arching an eyebrow. “You can come in with me if it matters that much to you. You have a choice here. You can let me in, or I can make a fuss the likes of which you have never seen in your lives. Don’t forget, it is by my magic that you’re here, and if I begin to cause trouble, the mage who owns this territory will come running, and with backup.”
They exchanged looks, then the one that was possibly Envesy nodded to one of her sisters, who unlocked the door and gave Kith a sarcastic bow as she gestured him through. He thanked them with all the charm he could muster and stepped through, pleased with himself right up until the door swung shut again behind him and he heard the distinct click of the lock. He paused, swore under his breath, then made his way down the steep, dark stairs to the rough dirt floor.
He found Jesse sitting with his back to the corner of the cellar that wasn’t blocked off by shelves of preserved jams and bottles of wine, knees drawn up and his bound hands resting on them. He’d obviously been trying to free himself; the skin above and below the rope was chafed red and raw, and he flinched when Kith crouched down next to him and gently took hold of his wrists.
“Not quite the way I expected meeting the parents to go,” Jesse said, mustering a smile.
“Hush.” Kith worked at the knot on the rope until it began to loosen, then unravelled it and removed the rope from around Jesse’s wrists. “Why didn’t you fight?”
“Fight that many elves at once?” Jesse snorted, rubbing gingerly at the welts encircling his wrists. “They would’ve landed on me like a ton of bricks.”
“It would have brought your sister.”
“Yeah, to find me flat as a pancake. I kinda like being alive. I’m surprised you still are, though, since you said they wanted to kill you.” The look Jesse gave him wasn’t quite accusing but it came close.
“Apparently I’ve become somewhat useful again, at least until they no longer need my presence to hide them.” Kith pulled Jesse’s phone, quickly snagged from the master bedroom when he was showing it to the crones, from the pocket of his jeans. “Call your sister.”
“You’re a genius.” Jesse kissed his cheek, quickly, and unlocked the phone, only to lose his smile as he stared at the screen. “We’re underground. No reception.”
Kith leaned on his shoulder and squinted at the phone. “Well, that’s completely useless.”
“It was a good idea though. Maybe... They’ll let you out of here, right?”
“Here.” Jesse opened the messages and tapped out a quick message to his sister, hit send, then held the phone out to Kith. “When you go back up, it should send once it gets reception again.”
“All right.” Kith slid the phone back into his pocket, resting a hand on it briefly.
“So what now?”
“Wait, I suppose. Though I could think of a few things to occupy our time.”
“I bet you could.” Jesse leaned against him, resting his head on Kith’s shoulder. “Are they going to kill me?”
“Probably, once they’ve taken over here. They’ll use you to weaken your sister, because they know humans aren’t like us. She will stand back to try and save your life. Once you both are dead, this will become a new dominion and they will start to expand outwards, to take over as much area as they can before your mages get organized to stop them. I imagine the Magia will eventually defeat them, but it will likely be a long and bloody battle first.” Kith settled an arm around Jesse, feeling him shiver. “Regular humans will likely become involved, to the point where the world learns of our existence, and then you will not only be battling elves, but also those under our glamour. World leaders—”
“Kith, shut up.” Jesse’s voice sounded strangled and he cleared his throat. “So what do we do?”
“Get rid of them before they can take over. Send them back home or kill them.”
“Easier said than done,” Jesse muttered. “You know Jules will just want to send you home too? Get rid of all elves?”
“Would you try to stop her?” Kith asked, honestly curious.
“No. Sorry. If that’s what it takes to keep the people here safe, then I’ll support her.”
“If we actually cared anything about saving lives other than our own, I would say you almost sound like an elf.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. San saved your life, didn’t she? And mine. And you’ve been protecting the others, I’ve seen it. So don’t tell me that no elf cares about any other elf.” Jesse gave him half a grin. “Unless you’ve become a little more human than you want to admit.”
“Humans kill each other too. I don’t know if I would have saved you, if San didn’t.” Kith chewed absently on his bottom lip, thinking it over. “I don’t think I would have.”
“I guess I should at least be glad you’re honest.” Jesse poked him in the ribs, making him jump. “You brought me my phone, so you’re putting some effort into helping us get out of this mess.”
“Yes, for my own benefit. I want to stay here, and I don’t want my mother to turn it into just another extension of the lower world. Or kill you, I suppose.”
Jesse laughed. “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“You need better standards.” Kith kissed his temple. “Sleep. Take what rest you can get.” A trickle of magic eased the tension in Jesse’s muscles and he relaxed against Kith’s side, his eyes slipping shut. Listening to his steady breathing, Kith tipped his head back against the cool stone of the wall behind him and closed his own eyes, letting himself drift into a doze.
He woke sometime later to the sound of the cellar door being opened and footsteps descending down the stairs. Shaking Jesse awake, he untangled himself and got up, moving between Jesse and the triplet coming down the stairs without putting much thought into the movement. She ignored it completely, gesturing for him to follow her back up the stairs. After a last glance at Jesse’s pale face, Kith did, stepping out into the hot afternoon air and trying not to squint in the bright sunshine.
“The Lady requested your presence,” the triplet said, nodding to her sisters, still on guard at the door. “Come.”
“Which one are you?” Kith asked as they walked across the lawn to the back door of the house. “I can never tell you or your sisters apart.”
“Good,” she said, opening the door and standing aside to let him in.
He stepped inside and found Kellyn waiting for him, sitting in a chair at the kitchen table as though it were a throne. She gestured for him to take a seat and he did, warily, keeping an eye on the back door—where the triplet still stood guard—and the entrance into the hallway that led to the living room and the stairs to the bedrooms. “Cousin.”
“What are you keeping back, Kith?” she asked, giving him a shark’s smile that didn’t reach her pale yellow eyes. “Why are you and the apprentice so attached to the boy-mage?”
He blinked, trying to keep from thinking of the phone in his pocket and the text message he hoped had been sent. “Do you see it as an attachment? San only told the crones information they needed to know. It was their choice to keep him alive.”
“Don’t play games with me, Kith. I know you too well for that. Is there something special about him? The crones wish to examine him to find out, but I’d rather you just tell me. As you know, their examinations can get a little too... enthusiastic for delicate humans to endure.”
Kith shrugged. “He’s a mage. Not a very good one, but the power is there. I’ve kept him around for the same reason you haven’t marched immediately on his sister, or the other mages in the area. When we first come through, we are too weak for it. Too easy to uproot.”
She eyed him, her expression saying she was unconvinced. “I don’t want any hidden surprises when I come to power. Your mother may have indulged you, but I will not.”
“Is indulgence what you call it?” He flashed her a smile. “I have no interest in controlling the dominion, either here or there. You are welcome to it and good riddance. I only want my life.”
“Which you have.” She didn’t need to add ‘for now’; it was evident in her tone.
“Your generosity astounds me,” he said dryly. “The crones will find nothing if they examine him.”
“You don’t think they should?”
“I think it would be a waste of time and effort. And tearing him apart would count as killing him, which I imagine would upset his sister at least a little.” Kith tried not to think of the one time he’d seen a victim of the crones’ examination, a sight that had turned his stomach then and made him feel even worse when he imagined Jesse in the victim’s place. “Humans don’t do well in cellars, by the way. They need the sun.”
“I will keep it in mind.” She waved a hand at him, dismissing him.
Kith got to his feet and left the kitchen, passing Morwen in the hallway. She didn’t look at him but brushed his shoulder with hers as she walked past him, her lips barely moving as she murmured, “See Celina in the barn.”
He watched her go into the kitchen, to be greeted warmly by Kellyn, then headed for the barn, nodding casually to the elves that he passed. They all seemed to be on their guard and restlessly angry, squabbling with each other like spoiled children. Only a few were warriors; the rest were the pampered nobles of his mother’s court, accustomed to getting their own way with a minimum of effort.
He found Celina and Cato in the back of the barn, by the door that led out into the large paddock where the unicorns grazed. Celina looked up when he arrived and beckoned him closer, keeping her voice low as she said, “I’m glad to see you still whole, cousin. Corvin says the mage is locked in the cellar.”
“True. Our dear cousin Kellyn has been making threats of letting the crones take him apart to see how he works.” Kith glanced over his shoulder and slipped Jesse’s phone out of his pocket, relieved to see the text had gone through. “She doesn’t know yet that they no longer have the element of surprise.”
“Either way, better to get the little mage out of here sooner rather than later.” Celina nodded to Cato. “Cato thinks that if we can get him up here, the unicorns will protect him.”
Kith considered it. “You’ll release them from the paddock?” He waited for Cato’s nod. “We’ll need to run with him. It’s likely we won’t be welcomed by his sister, regardless of the circumstances.”
Celina shrugged. “A risk we’re willing to take. If we prove we’re on her side, she may still be willing to let us stay.” She looked at Cato, who made a gesture with one hand, and laughed. “And as Cato says, I suppose we’ve all grown somewhat fond of Jesse. The only hard part will be getting him out of the cellar.”
“Morwen’s working on it,” Corvin said from behind them. “She and Kellyn were... close in their childhood. She said she will try to get Jesse out of the cellar by sunset.”
“Until sunset then.” Kith nodded to them and left the barn, taking the trail that led away from the house to try and clear his mind with fresh air, hoping that he would get some sign that Jesse’s sister had received the message.
He came back an hour before sunset, still feeling restless and beginning to get a little annoyed that there had been no response from Jules. The wind had picked up, bringing a welcome coolness to the hot, muggy afternoon, but it also brought heavy black clouds along with it, threatening more rain. The humans still at the farm, most of them preparing a meal big enough to feed so many elves, seemed nervous even beneath the dazzle of the glamour and he learned from Corvin that there had already been a fight between two of the members of the court.
“Let them fight each other,” Kith said quietly. “Better they fight each other than us.”
Corvin nodded, then put a hand on his arm, gesturing slightly to commotion at the front of the house. A few moments later Kellyn emerged, tugging Jesse along by the golden rope now tied around his neck, followed by the triplets and a handful of giggling members of the court. Jesse’s eyes widened when he saw Kith and Corvin, and he gave them a pleading look before Kellyn pulled him down the driveway, laughing when he stumbled and nearly choked himself.
“Now,” Corvin said, so softly that Kith almost didn’t hear him, and a moment later the sound of pounding, chiming hooves swallowed all sound.
The herd swept down from the open paddock gate, a heaving mass of gleaming bodies and shining horns. They charged straight for Jesse, knocking down anything in their way, and surrounded him and Kellyn, blocking even the triplets from getting through. Kith, already moving to get behind the herd, where he’d spotted his own red mare, heard Kellyn yell, her voice tight with rage. Kith felt magic tingle along his senses and recognized it as Jesse’s specific signal, a blast of power that freed Jesse from Kellyn’s grip and allowed him to shoved his way deeper into the herd.
Grabbing the red mare’s mane, Kith used her bulk to help him push through until he reached Jesse, then boosted him up onto her back, swinging up behind him. He could see Celina and Cato already disappearing down the driveway on their own mares, and Corvin fighting to get his silver out of the fray. A glance back showed Kellyn had freed herself and was ordering her guards to shoot them, providing more than enough incentive for Kith to put his heels into the mare’s side and send her running down the driveway.
An arrow whistled past his ear and he jerked to the side, swearing, trying to hold on to both the mare and Jesse, who had both hands tangled in the mare’s long mane so tightly that the tendons stood out in his wrists. Kith risked a glance a glance back and saw that behind them a handful of other mares followed without riders, but most of the unicorns had been caught so that their riders could mount. More arrows filled the air and he shoved Jesse down against the mare’s neck, using his greater height to cover him.
They were almost out of range when something punched into his back, hard enough to knock the breath out of his lungs. He slid to the side and lost his grip, tumbling off the mare’s back to hit the rough ground hard enough to drive gravel into his shoulder. Searing pain flashed through his chest and he choked back a scream, rolling over onto his side and scrabbling at his own back to find the source. His fingers touched the shaft of an arrow, driven so deep into his back that barely two inches showed before the fletching, and he knew by the painful, almost electric sting of it against his skin that it was made of black iron.
He managed to push himself up onto his hands and knees before his muscles threatened to give out. Breathing hurt so much that he had to settle for shallow gasps and his head spun, making the ground tilt beneath him.
“Kith!” Jesse landed on his knees beside Kith, putting an arm around him. “Shit, you have to get up. Come on, they’re coming.”
Kith tried, biting his lip so hard he drew blood as he struggled to get his feet back under him. Weakness swept through him and he would have fallen again if Jesse hadn’t ducked under his arm, taking most of his weight with a grunt of effort. The red mare milled nervously beside them, her ears swivelling back and forth, listening to the approach of the other elves. Steeling himself, Kith stumbled to her side, dimly aware of Jesse casting a spell that threw up a shower of dirt and gravel in front of their pursuers. It took almost everything he had left just to get himself back up onto the mare’s back and his vision blurred as he did, turning his stomach over in a slow somersault. He barely kept his balance when Jesse scrambled up behind him and the mare began to run again, and gladly let darkness creep over him, spinning him away from the pain.