Kith felt the mage as soon as he rode up out of the gravel pit, like blood and bones buried deep under the ground, holding the earth together. A glance at Celina’s tight expression confirmed she felt the same thing and he dropped back a little to give her the lead. The mage’s magic filled the air, centered around the little town—full of human lives—he could sense not far from the pit, and spreading out around the entire area. Underneath it, sharp and fresh, was the tang of another mage, similar but not the same.
“We won’t have freedom for long if those mages get wind of us,” Corvin murmured.
“Then we better make sure they don’t.” Kith raised a hand and tweaked the air around them just enough to cloak them from view as they approached a wide black road marked with yellow lines. When that brought nothing down on his head, he relaxed back into the saddle. “There’s a town nearby. We find somewhere to settle in and let the townspeople come to us.”
“Cato thinks the mage isn’t here,” Celina said. “The mage who owns this territory. The other one...” She looked at Cato, who gestured with one hand. “This isn’t his place. He won’t be watching.”
“Even an inattentive mage is a danger until we have a hold on this land,” Morwen said, tossing her hair back over her shoulder.
“Yes, but think of the challenge in taking this land from right under its guardian’s nose.” Kith gestured the apprentice crone up to walk her donkey beside his mare. “You—what is your name anyway?”
She raised an eyebrow slightly. “San, Lord Kith.”
“Your opinion on our chances?”
“You aren’t exactly known for keeping a low profile, Lord.” She shrugged. “It’s been a long time since any of our people came here. They’ll have forgotten how to look and how to protect themselves. If no one stands in the street and outright announces who we are, and if the mage stays gone long enough, then I don’t see why we would fail.”
“If the mage stays gone long enough,” Kith said thoughtfully. “I’m sure we can arrange that.”
It didn’t take them long to find the farm they wanted, on the outskirts of town but still close enough for their presence to influence the people there, and even less time to convince the family already living there to gladly give it up. By evening the first visitor had arrived, flustered and uncertain as to why she had come, but already offering to bring them milk from her dairy farm. By the next morning, they were well-supplied with fresh food and willing service for everything from cleaning the house to cooking to maintaining the farm. Gifts piled up on the front porch, until Kith had to have a path cleared just to get outside.
He took Morwen into town the next day, riding the motorcycle that had been one of the gifts, and let her off on the main street to explore while he himself went to speak to the town’s mayor and council. The appearance of the mage, coming out of the store behind Morwen, startled him until he realized the boy had no idea what they were. Coaxing him closer was simple; though he could feel the magic behind the boy’s wide green eyes, it was tamped down and ignored.
Annoyance flashed through him when Morwen gave away his name so he gave away hers, and smiled when the boy told them his without hesitation. Inviting the boy to the farm was half a whim and half done to irritate Morwen, as he helped her back onto the motorcycle behind him. She said nothing until they’d left town, then leaned forward to hiss into his ear, “That is hardly keeping a low profile, Kith.”
“He was as drawn in as the rest of them.” Kith swung the bike off the highway and onto the gravel road that led to their new home. “If nothing else, it could be entertaining. And we’ve learned the mage that owns this territory is his sister. Humans get strange about family. He can be a bargaining chip.”
Morwen snorted. “Yes, until he decides to send us back himself. I like it here, Kith. I don’t want to leave it just because you have no sense of self-preservation.”
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t.” Kith pulled up in front of the big white farmhouse and cut the engine, steadying the motorcycle to allow Morwen to get off. He watched her walk up the path, admiring the sway of her hips, then took the motorcycle down to the garage.
As he came out of the garage, he met Celina coming up from the stables, sitting astride her big white mare. She lifted a hand to him, then grinned and asked, “How’s your shoulder, cousin?”
“Even the scar will be gone in a day or two.” He nodded to the bow and arrows slung across her back. “Going hunting?”
“I have a craving for rabbit. The storm will hide us, I think.” She pointed towards the dark clouds massing on the western horizon.
“Good luck.” He let her pass and went into the enclosed porch, but leaned against the window there to watch the storm come in.
Corvin joined him after a few minutes, leaning on the windowsill at his side. A flash of lightning reflected in his pale eyes, turning them almost silver, and a moment later the rain began to drum down on the roof above them. Kith breathed in the scent of the storm as the rain turned to hail and smiled a bit when Corvin leaned over to nuzzle underneath his ear.
“Morwen says you saw the little mage.” Corvin nipped at his skin. “And you invited him here?”
Kith smiled. “Did she send her husband to fight her battles for her?”
“Like most husbands, I’ve learned that it’s often better to do as my wife commands.”
“How very human of you.” Kith felt Corvin’s muscles stiffen and laughed, turning to face him and sliding a hand across the back of his neck to keep him in place. “I’m kidding. Though marriage is such a... mortal custom.”
Corvin shrugged, glancing out the window at a sudden boom of thunder. “My father’s wishes, mostly. I suppose he sees it as extra protection for any children, giving them the name of two families.”
“Generous of him. And of you, I suppose.” Kith studied his face for a moment, then grinned. “And now I remember where I’ve seen you before. My mother and I attended your wedding, though I admit I didn’t stay long. One of your cousins proved much more interesting.”
Corvin arched an eyebrow slightly but didn’t take the bait. “The mage, Lord?”
“Not going to be a problem. His eyes are dazzled just as much as any other human’s.”
“Inviting him right to our home is cocky bordering on arrogant.” Corvin laughed. “So we should have expected it from you, really.”
“Your faith in me is appreciated.” He pulled Corvin in and kissed him, deep enough that Corvin was breathing hard when he let go again. “You and Morwen are, of course, welcome to leave. I’ll even give you a few hours’ head start before I set Celina and Cato on you.”
“I’m insulted you think we need that long.” Corvin pushed him back against the window, which rattled under another burst of thunder. In the dark sky outside, brilliant white lightning lit the clouds and was followed by a rolling crack that left Kith’s sensitive ears ringing even as Corvin captured his mouth again.
The storm moved away slowly, the thunder gradually dying down to a mutter in the distance. As the clouds tattered away, sunlight swept over the house, warming the glass in the window Kith was leaning against. He twisted away from Corvin’s mouth on his neck to look out over the wet grass where it glimmered in the sunlight and saw Celina leading her mare up the driveway, both of them limping. The mare’s fine white coat was striped and spotted with red blood, and more blood covered her horn almost down to her forelock.
“Stop a moment.” He pushed Corvin away and leaned down to scoop up his shirt, pulling it over his head as he went outside to greet Celina. “Back already, cousin? They must have very big rabbits here.”
“Not rabbits.” Celina held up a fistful of bronze feathers longer than her arm, tied at one end with string. “There’s a gryphon here.”
“Does it belong to the mages?” Corvin asked, coming up beside Kith. “Did you kill it?”
“No, and no. I think it was sent here after us.” Celina handed the feathers to Kith and rubbed her mare’s blood-speckled neck. “We drove it off, though. If I had been expecting a gryphon, I might have done a better job of bringing it down.”
“Next time, cousin.” Kith examined the feathers, stroking his fingers down one. “Perhaps we should all go hunting tomorrow.”
“Perhaps you should think very hard about what you might have done to make the crones so angry,” Celina said. “This can’t just be a matter of you bedding everyone who shows any remote interest in you.” She grinned. “Unless you turned down a crone, of course.”
“I would never turn down anyone, I promise you.”
“Ask the apprentice,” Corvin said. “She knew enough to warn you, so she must know why.”
“I think she would have offered the information by now, but I suppose there’s no harm in trying.” Kith pressed the feathers to Corvin’s chest. “Keep those somewhere safe. I’m sure I can find a use for them.”
He went back inside and found San in the small room the previous owners had been using as a study and library. She was curled up in an armchair in the corner, in a patch of sunlight, and barely looked up from her book until he said her name twice.
“What reasons did the crones give for ordering my death?” Kith asked, taking the wooden chair from in front of the desk and spinning it around to sit on it backwards.
San blinked. “I don’t know, Lord. I only overheard them send out the order. I assume you made them angry somehow. Not living up to their expectations of you as your mother’s heir.”
“So declared one of my cousins the rightful heir and I’ll gladly give them control over our dominion. Only a fool would want it in the first place.” The thought of being locked onto the dominion’s throne for the rest of his life made Kith shiver, and only partly for dramatic effect.
“The crones chose you at birth. They don’t like to be wrong.” San dropped her eyes back to her book. “Better to erase the mistake entirely.”
“Is that your job, apprentice?” Kith smiled a little. “Will you put the knife in my back?”
“I only want to read, Lord.” She glanced up again, raising one dark eyebrow.
“Hint taken.” He pushed himself up then paused. “Celina says there’s a gryphon loose here in the upper world. We’re going to hunt it tomorrow if you wish to come.”
She winced slightly. “You gave me an ass to ride. Not exactly the best mount to fight a gryphon. I think I’ll stay here instead.”
“Suit yourself.” He left her to her reading and went to find Cato to discuss the next morning’s hunt.
They left before dawn, riding silent and single-filed behind Celina as she led the way towards where she had encountered the gryphon the day before. An early-morning commuter slowed down to stare at them as they walked along the gravel shoulder of the highway, trailing along beside them until Kith reached out with a touch of magic and stopped the car’s engine cold. They crossed the highway shortly after that, their mares’ hooves ringing gently on the asphalt, and made their way through a field of tall hay still damp with dew. The mares barely disturbed the stalks and the dew slid off both their gleaming coats and their riders’ clothes and skin.
They came to a stop a few kilometres further on, at the edge of a circled flattened in the middle of another hay field. Dark blood still streaked the trampled hay and Kith’s red mare snorted at the heavy, musky scent of the gryphon, laying back her ears and digging a gouge in the dirt with one front hoof. Kith calmed her with a hand on her muscled neck and pulled his bow from its bindings across his back, nocking an arrow but not drawing the string back yet. Excitement coiled in his belly and he glanced up at the cloudy sky, scanning for movement in the quiet grey light of dawn. The last time he’d had a chance to hunt a rogue gryphon, he’d been barely more than a child, still pampered and protected by his uncles. They’d allowed him to cut the gryphon’s throat, but by then it had been dying anyway, stuck with so many arrows it looked like a pincushion with wings.
“There.” Celina pointed to a hazy shape in the distance. “That hill’s the tallest thing around here. It’s probably built itself a nest up there somewhere.”
“Waiting for us?” Corvin asked.
“Maybe. Cato?” Celina waited for his nod. “All right. Lead the way.”
They were only halfway to the hill when the gryphon dropped out of the sky in a heavy downdraft of wind and bronze feathers. Morwen swore impressively as it attempted to knock her from her saddle and wheeled her black mare away, giving Kith a straight shot at the beast as it awkwardly attempted to regain the air and put itself out of reach of the other mares and their shining horns. Kith hesitated barely long enough to aim, but at the last instant the gryphon swerved and the arrow took it in one feathered shoulder instead of in its throat. Screeching, the gryphon launched itself away from them with a powerful snap of its banded wings and continued up into the sky until it was little more than a speck among the clouds.
“Damn.” Kith shaded his eyes to look up and sniffed the air. The muscles in his back still felt tense and tight, and he shifted irritably in his saddle. “This is why hunting gryphons is such a pain in the ass. And there’s another storm coming, I can feel it in the air.”
“There’s a lot of instability in this area,” Morwen murmured. “From us coming through, or were we able to come through because it’s unstable?”
“Does it matter?” Kith slung his bow across his back again and tried to relax when his mare hunched her back in warning against the pressure of his legs. “I’m not going to chase it until it gets the drop on us or until someone open to possibilities spots us and causes a panic. Better to go home and plan a trap. And get a net.”
He turned the red mare’s head away and started back through the hay fields, and a moment later he heard them follow. The only one to look at them twice on the ride back, despite the steady traffic, was a little girl with her hair in pigtails, sitting in the back seat of a car jammed full of suitcases. Her doubletake was hard enough to nearly give her whiplash and her eyes got so big Kith idly wondered if they would fall out of her head. He lifted a lazy hand as they passed, knowing her parents would never believe she’d really seen five elves on unicorns, riding along the side of a Canadian highway.
He rubbed his mare down when they arrived back at the farm and handed her over to Cato to be turned out into the paddock, his irritation already fading despite the nagging sense of the incoming storm. When he heard the rumble of an approaching engine, he turned towards the truck coming up the driveway and smiled. The sense of magic—muted by the metal exterior of the truck—struck him first as the driver’s side door opened, and a moment later Jesse Morgan slid out, one hand raised to shade green eyes against the hazy light of the sun.