The lights beneath the tent, strung in loops by invisible threads, glittered brighter than the stars in the black sky above, reflecting off the white silk of the tent’s walls and ceiling. Kith closed his eyes against them and lifted his face into a breath of cool air that drifted through from somewhere nearby, draining the last of the wine from his glass. The batch was too sweet for his tastes, sticking to his tongue and lips, and making him wish for even a sip of cool, clear water. He opened his eyes again and looked through the mingling knots of nobility filling the tent, all of them dressed in their brightly-coloured peacock finery. Briefly he wondered how much more he needed to drink to make speaking to them worth the effort.
“You look bored, Kith.” Slender fingers tugged gently on his hair, freeing it from its tie to spill down his back. “This is all for you, cousin. Shouldn’t you be happy?”
He looked up at Celina, the daughter of one of his many uncles, and waved a hand towards the crowd. “Happy for all this? They’re not here for me. They’re here for themselves.”
“I’m sure you could find someone willing to go into a dark corner with you. Wipe your pout away.”
“I’m sure my mother would be delighted if I did that.” He considered it for a moment, looking across the hard-packed dirt of the floor to where his mother held court with a number of her ladies, like a hawk among sparrows. “You’ve convinced me, cousin. Got anyone in mind?”
She snorted, tossing her long dark hair over one shoulder. “Make your own conquests. As though I have nothing better to do than get you laid.”
“You suggested it,” he pointed out, laughing. “Why say anything if you’re not willing to lend your cousin a hand?”
“I think you do quite well with your own hand, Kith.” She arched an eyebrow. “If you’ll excuse me, I do have other things to do. Enjoy your party, cousin.”
“It’s not my party,” he called after her as she ducked out of the tent and into the warm night air of the endless summer. Her exit briefly showed him a cloud of blue and green firebugs hovering by the tent and he remembered catching them in nets as a child, down by the mirror lakes.
He pushed himself up from his chair and made his way through the crowd, absently gathering his hair back into its tie to keep it off the back of his neck. The formal clothes his mother had insisted on—the black-and-silver breeches that had always been a little snug around his hips and the loosest silk shirt he could get away with even under an embroidered vest—only made him feel trapped and chafed, though elves didn’t do anything so crass as sweat. He’d rebelled enough to wear the comfortable pair of boots he hunted in—polishing them as a concession—but his mother had gotten her revenge by piling him with silver and opal jewellery. His rings alone could provide competition for both the lights strung overhead and the stars outside.
The girl who crossed his path, drawing his attention away from his worsening mood, barely came up to his shoulder when he stopped her, though the elaborate upsweep someone had twisted her black hair into added another few inches. Her violet eyes were almost too large for her narrow face, fringed by the longest, darkest lashes he’d ever seen. He would have been more impressed by the intricate layers and lacing of her midnight-blue dress if he hadn’t already been thinking of the difficulties of getting it off her.
She curtseyed, looking up at him through her lashes. “Lord Kith. A pleasure.”
“I was hoping it would be.” He gave her his most charming smile and got only a slightly arched eyebrow in return. “What’s your name?”
“Would you like to go for a walk, Morwen?”
She smiled suddenly, a flash of white teeth. “To your bed? My husband might object.”
Kith followed the direction of her nod and saw a tall young man he vaguely recognized, watching them steadily from beside one of the long tables bearing wine and fruits. Pale skin and flame-red hair made him stand out among Kith’s people, who tended to be dark of hair and skin.
“I’d hardly invite you and not your husband,” Kith said after a moment’s contemplation. “The more the merrier.”
She snorted and beckoned her husband over with the point of her chin. “Lord Kith, my husband Corvin.”
Kith reached out to gently twist a lock of red hair around one finger. “Perhaps your mother should have named you Robin instead.”
“A joke I don’t hear nearly often enough,” Corvin said dryly.
“Fair enough.” Kith offered one arm to him and the other to Morwen, and when they accepted, led them from the tent into the fresher air outside. The firebugs swirled around them, flickering messages through the darkness, and he heard a burst of laughter that sounded a lot like Celina’s from the shadows down by the nearby stream.
A faint sense made him look back at the tent just before they reached the bend in the path that lead up to his family’s mansion. A group of old women, their faces and hands still unlined but their hair turned the clean white that marked them as crones, stood clustered at one corner of the tent and he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were watching him. Their few apprentices stood quietly to one side, waiting to be commanded, slim shadows in dark clothing without ornamentation. The disquieted feeling in his chest only grew stronger when he saw his mother standing with them, but Morwen and Corvin drew him around the bend and he lost sight of the women.
His distraction lasted only as long as it took them to get inside his personal apartments, and then his attention was fully occupied by the frustratingly tiny buttons and thin laces on the back of Morwen’s dress. By the time she was a bare, warm weight in his arms, her mouth on his and her husband’s teeth in his ear, he had better things to think about than a group of old women.
He woke suddenly in the darkness before dawn, his breath caught in his throat and fear tight in his belly. Corvin and Morwen still slept on either side of him, both of them turned away and curled up. He took a deep breath and listened intently but the silence was broken only by the first sleepy noises of the birds outside. Gradually relaxing, he was about to close his eyes to try and go back to sleep when he saw a firebug near the window, flickering blue in the shadows.
He moved from the bed to his feet in one smooth motion, pulling free the knife he kept hidden in the bedpost, and grabbed a handful of shirt in the shadows by the window. One hard yank brought the girl stumbling into the dim light leaking in under his door from the hallway outside and he shoved the knife up under her chin, close enough to prick her skin.
“I’ve lived long enough to know it’s never a good thing to have a crone lurking in my bedroom, even an apprentice one,” he said pleasantly. “What are you doing here?”
“The, uh, the knife, Lord?” She pushed at his wrist and then dropped her hand when he didn’t move. “I came to warn you, actually.”
He waited a moment then prompted her with, “About what?”
“The crones have ordered your death.”
“If they sent you here to do it, they really need to rethink their recruitment policies.”
“I said I came to warn you. They’ve let it be known that they no longer find you useful, and so has your mother.” She spread her hands. “So you might want to leave.”
“Nothing like a mother’s love,” Kith muttered. “All right. Thank you for the warning. I suppose I’ll make myself scarce for a while.” He glanced at the sleeping pair still in his bed. “What about them?”
“Uh, what about them?”
“Are they in on it?”
“I highly doubt you’re talented enough for them to keep from killing you while you slept.” She swallowed carefully when he raised an eyebrow at her. “Or maybe you are, I don’t know. But I don’t think they were sent to kill you.”
“Good. That would’ve definitely ruined the mood.” Kith dropped the knife but kept his grip on the girl’s shirt, pulling her over to the carved wooden chest at the foot of the bed. “Sit.”
She did and he quickly dressed, keeping an eye on her the entire time. Tossing more clothes and a few other items he didn’t want to leave behind into a pack, he slung it over his shoulder and gestured for the girl to stand then to walk in front of him towards the bedroom door. Her hand was on the doorknob when he heard the bed creak behind him and turned to see Morwen sitting up, her loose hair tumbling down around her bare shoulders.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, looking from him to the pack and back again.
He debated lying then shrugged. “My mother and the crones want me dead, so I got a sudden craving for travel. Want to come?”
She laughed, tossing her hair back. “An adventure. All right.” She shoved Corvin awake and got out of bed, hunting her shift out of the tangled pile of their clothes and pulling it on. A quick explanation to Corvin got him on his feet and dressed, and the four of them stepped quietly out into the hallway, moving down it single-file.
Kith led them to the stables and wasn’t surprised to see Celina already there, currying the gleaming white coat of her mare to an even higher gloss. The stable’s lights glinted off the tip of the mare’s wickedly sharp horn and when she pawed at the cobbles, sparks struck from her unshod hooves.
“Mother wants to kill me,” Kith said.
“I’m surprised it took so long,” Celina replied without looking up from her work. “I wanted to kill you as a baby, cousin, but I suppose you grew on me.” She leaned around the mare’s shoulder to speak to the stable’s groom, lounging on a glass bale of silver moonlight. “Cato, saddle,” a brief glance at Kith and his companions, “Kith’s mare and three others, as well as your own. Find something bumpy for our apprentice crone.”
The sun was streaking the black sky with pinks and deep reds by the time they filed out of the courtyard and away from the mansion. Kith turned in his saddle briefly to look back at the home he’d been born in and found he wasn’t much bothered by the thought of leaving it behind. He lifted himself in his stirrups and raised an arm to wave goodbye to it, the remaining ring on his finger catching the first light of the rising sun.
He heard the whistle an instant before the arrow caught him in the shoulder, punching through his thin shirt and the flesh underneath to come out his back. He grunted and fell back into the saddle, almost pitching out of it as the red mare he was riding lunged forward. Grabbing the reins in the hand that wasn’t hanging uselessly down by his side, he ducked low in the saddle and let the mare have her head to carry him past his companions and away from the danger. Behind him he heard the steady chime of fine hooves on the path as his companions followed him at a gallop.
They rode until the sun was bright overhead and Kith was sure they hadn’t been pursued, then he swung his mare towards a glade of tall silver-green birches and nearly fell out of the saddle under their welcoming shade. A quick check of his shoulder showed the blood had almost dried around the arrow, sticking his shirt to his skin. Gritting his teeth, he snapped the head of the arrow off and yanked it from the wound with one swift motion, tossing it aside. Fresh blood ran hot down his back, and he looked up to find all of his companions except the apprentice crone watching him with bright-eyed amusement.
“I did warn you,” the apprentice crone pointed out.
“I didn’t think it was that serious,” Kith muttered, letting Celina take care of cleaning and bandaging his shoulder. “I thought it was their way of telling me that I needed to leave the nest for a while.”
“Or permanently,” Corvin said, scooping up the arrow and showing them the owl-white feathers fletching the end. “Crone colours.”
“What in Cernunnos’ name did you do, cousin?” Celina asked, tying a knot in the bandaging hard enough to make him wince.
“Nothing.” He heard her snort. “That I haven’t been doing for years. Either way, the further we get from them, the better. I hear there are some interesting festivals across the Strait. Cato, a hand?”
He let Cato pull him back to his feet and accepted a boost back into the saddle, settling his arm carefully into the silk sling Celina had tied behind his neck. There wasn’t much pain but little caused him or his people serious pain except smith-forged black iron, and even crones wouldn’t resort to that.
Not unless they were really angry.
The Strait was visible on the horizon, a glitter of deep blue water under the sun, when he felt a tingle run down his spine. He pulled his mare to a stop and looked around, sniffing at the air. It felt charged suddenly and when he looked towards the Strait again he saw a haze hanging in the air, warping the golden hills that led down to the water. Celina pulled up beside him and they exchanged a glance, then Kith kicked his mare into a gallop and charged towards the haze, letting out a whooping cry that was echoed by his companions.
Heat washed over him as he hit the hazy area and he closed his eyes against the sensation of being stretched as thin as a sheet of paper, gripping his mare’s thick black mane with his good hand. Something popped, inside his head and out, and when he opened his eyes again the mare was flying along the bottom of a deep gravel pit, throwing up sparks of light from her hooves. He twisted to look behind him and saw Celina appear out of the haze over the gravel pit’s murky pool of water, her hand twisted in the reins of the apprentice crone’s donkey. Morwen and Corvin followed her side-by-side and Cato brought up the rear, the tip of his mare’s tail just clearing the haze before it vanished.
Kith brought his mare to a prancing walk and rounded them into a group, looking up at the blue sky overhead. The colour wasn’t as bright as the sky in his home and the air didn’t smell as sweet, but there was a charge to it that made him grin. He threw back his head and whooped again, then stood in his stirrups and pointed to the path that lead out of the gravel pit.
“Up there’s freedom.” He looked back at his companions and flashed another grin. “Welcome to the upper world.”