“Lokan, come on, we’ve been at this—” Solan ducked a swing aimed at his head, stumbling backwards and almost tripping over his own feet. “Hey!”
“I said, again.” Lokan raised an eyebrow. “Now, Solan.”
“What the hell,” Solan just barely blocked another swing, “is your problem—shit!”
He landed hard on his back after Lokan kicked his feet out from under him, smacking his skull against the wooden floorboards hard enough to send a burst of red light through his vision. For a long moment he just lay there, struggling to regain the breath the impact had knocked out of him, until Lokan grabbed him and hauled him to his feet, holding him up on his tiptoes by a handful of his shirt.
He shoved at Lokan’s arm, feeling the muscles corded beneath the skin, but it was like shoving at solid steel. Anger flashed through him and he kicked out as hard as he could, driving his heel into Lokan’s thigh. Lokan grunted and stumbled a little, dropping him, then caught him hard across the chest, bringing them both back down to the ground in a struggling heap. The struggle lasted only a few moments before Solan found himself flat on his back again, held there by Lokan’s heavy weight and the strong fingers wrapped around his wrists, pinning his arms to his chest.
Fear stole through him at the shadows in Lokan’s eyes, banishing the anger. He took a deep, unsteady breath, gingerly flexing his wrists in Lokan’s painful grip. “You’re hurting me. Lokan? It hurts.”
He didn’t think Lokan had even heard him at first, then Lokan’s eyes cleared and his grip relaxed. He frowned slightly, his eyebrows dipping down into a shallow V, and looked away, releasing Solan’s wrists and pushing himself back to his feet in a smooth, easy movement.
“Go.. find Ceridwen.” He ran both hands back through his hair. “I need to be alone.”
“Fine with me,” Solan muttered, pushing himself to his feet and limping for the door. He paused there to look back over his shoulder but Lokan was still turned away, the set of his back stiff and unyielding. Shaking his head, Solan left him there and went in search of Ceridwen.
He found her sitting at a camp table set up in the main mess hall, her feet up on the table’s scarred surface and a beer bottle in her hand, chatting with a couple of the higher-ranking officers. She smiled at him in greeting but her smile quickly faded and she got to her feet, setting her beer aside to take him by the shoulders in a gesture so reminiscent of his mother that he felt momentarily sick.
“What’s wrong, little Fae? Did something happen?” She looked him over critically, sliding a hand down to raise his wrist and study the bruises forming there. “Come on, I’ll get you some ice.”
He followed her out of the hall, trying to ignore the whisper of conversation behind him, and trailed along at her heels over to the medical station, where she found him some icepacks to put against his wrists before herding him to the relative privacy of their bunk. There she pushed him down onto his bunk and settled her hands on her hips, raising an eyebrow at him.
“Talk or I’ll tickle it out of you, little Fae.”
He laughed a little, absently flexing his fingers. “Lokan’s in a mood.”
“He’s been in a mood since he came back from that little outing to Aldeen. I don’t suppose he told you anything about it?”
“He was too busy beating me up.” He reached back to touch his head and found a painful lump. Wincing, he moved one of the icepacks to the back of his skull instead. “I don’t know what the hell his problem is.”
“Me neither, but I’m going to kick his ass if he doesn’t snap out of it.” She sat on the bunk beside him and checked out the bump on the back of his head. “Won’t kill you, though I bet it’s painful. Tell me exactly what happened.”
Sighing, Solan did as he was told, starting with Lokan coming to fetch him for hand combat practice and ending with Lokan telling him to find Ceridwen after a gruelling few hours of harsh sparring. When he was finished Ceridwen made a ‘hmm’ noise, sitting back and chewing on her bottom lip as she thought. Solan waited as patiently as he could, trying not to fidget.
“I know he gets in moods sometimes,” Ceridwen said finally. “Something’s pissed him off. I just don’t see why he’s taking it out on you. He doesn’t usually take it out on people who don’t deserve it. You piss him off lately?”
“No. And he wasn’t even this bad when I was actively pissing him off, like when you guys first kidnapped me.” He grinned slightly at the look Ceridwen gave him. “Nope, still not letting that go.”
“You’re a little shit.” She punched his shoulder lightly. “I guess I could go try and talk to him. Even though he’s being a bitch and not telling me things lately.”
“He’s not exactly telling me anything either. He’s been... weird since we went to see my mom.”
“Still pissed she got away, probably.” Ceridwen heaved herself to her feet. “Well, I’ll go see if I can figure out what’s up his ass before summer gets here.”
“Need me to do anything?”
“Sit here and look pretty. And keep that ice on your head.” She gave him a little wave and left the barracks.
“Great,” he sighed, letting himself sprawl out on his bunk and trying to get comfortable with all the aches and bruises making themselves known throughout his body.
He dozed for a while, lying on his side with his arm under his head, and woke to find he was drooling on himself. Sitting up, he swiped a hand across his mouth and swallowed a few times to try and get rid of the bad taste in the back of his throat, glancing around. By the dusky orange light crossing the floor, he judged it to be near sunset, and the sudden rumbling growl from his stomach confirmed that it was dinnertime. He picked himself up and examined the bruises encircling his wrists like bracelets, then tugged his sleeves down over them, picked up his rifle, and went outside to walk down to the mess hall for some food.
It was later than he’d thought and only a handful of soldiers were still gathered around the tables, chatting over their meals. He returned a few greetings, ignored a few more glares, and took his plate of overcooked chow to a table in the corner to eat alone. The mess hall gradually emptied out and the last few stragglers suddenly found something better to do when Lokan walked in; in the past few weeks since he’d returned from Aldeen, he’d been making his displeasure known more frequently in every aspect of the camp.
“Can I sit down?” he said when he’d reached Solan’s table.
“It’s your territory, you can do whatever you want, remember?” Solan saw the flat look in Lokan’s eyes and sighed. “Yeah. Sit.”
Lokan pulled up a chair and dropped into it hard enough to make it creak, leaning his elbows on the table. For a few moments they just sat there in silence, while Solan stirred what was left of his mashed potatoes into a rubbery mass and tried not to squirm under Lokan’s steady gaze.
“Ceridwen tell you to apologize?” he said finally.
Solan tried to stop a snort of laughter and failed. “You’re such a prick.”
“I am sorry, Solan. I shouldn’t have pushed you so hard. You all right?”
“Just some bruises and a headache.” Solan held his hand up, letting his sleeve slide down to show Lokan the bruising around his wrists, and couldn’t help flinching slightly when Lokan reached out to take hold of his arm.
Lokan’s eyes flicked up to his face briefly then down again as he turned Solan’s hand over and gently ran a thumb across the inside of his wrist. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’ve been... distracted. And I think you—” He stopped at the sound of someone outside calling his name and glanced towards the door before releasing Solan and getting to his feet.
“You think I what?” Solan asked, but Lokan just waved a dismissive hand at him and headed for the door. Muttering under his breath, Solan got up and followed him.
“Sir.” The soldier saluted briefly, barely sparing Solan a glance. “The humans are on the move. They’re marching north but they’re not coming this way. We don’t know why.”
“I do. I’ve been waiting for it.” Lokan glanced over the camp. “Sound the alarm. I want us moving within the hour.”
“What’s happening?” Solan asked, trying to keep up with Lokan’s long stride as he headed towards the trucks. “You know what they’re doing?”
“They’re going to try and draw us out.” Lokan caught hold of his shoulder, pulling him out of the way of a troop of running soldiers before continuing on. “They’re not marching on us because they know it’s useless. They’re marching on Arian Mawr instead.”
Solan fell back a few steps then hurried to catch up, pulling back on Lokan’s arm to force Lokan to face him. “They’re attacking Arian Mawr? My mother—”
“Can take care of herself. In fact, I’m counting on it.” Lokan stopped and studied him. “You should stay here.”
“Fuck you. You are not leaving me behind this time, Lokan. That’s my hometown. My mother.”
To his surprise Lokan actually smiled and reached out to ruffle his hair in a motion that was a little awkward and oddly affectionate. “Watch your ass then. And get moving. If you’re not ready when I am, you’re not coming.”
“Whatever you say, Dad.” Solan grinned at the look Lokan gave him, and kept it until Lokan turned away to shout orders at someone else. When Lokan was out of sight, he leaned against the truck and took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his pounding heart, and nearly jumped out of his skin when Ceridwen clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“Breathe.” She arched an eyebrow at him and shoved a pack into his arms. “Put that in the truck and help me pack the rest. About time we did something other than sit around here with our thumbs up each other’s butts.”
“I don’t need to know about your sex life, Ceridwen.” Solan put the pack into the back of the truck and ducked her friendly swat. “They’ll be okay, right? We’ll get there before the town’s attacked.”
“We’re closer,” Ceridwen said, and walked away before Solan could protest that she hadn’t really answered his question.
They were on the road barely half an hour later, their truck leading a long snaking line of other vehicles. Solan sat in the back and tried to calm his heartbeat, eventually drifting off into a light and uneasy sleep full of dreams of everything he’d grown up with burning down. He woke every time the radio in the front crackled and by the time they were approaching Arian Mawr just before dawn, he had a pounding headache and a bad crick in his neck. As the sun rose, he sat up and watched the familiar countryside roll by, then looked at the front when Lokan halted the convoy just out of sight of the town.
“What’s happening?” He shifted forward, leaning against the back of Lokan’s seat. “Why are we just stopping here?”
“Stop talking.” Lokan picked up the radio and spoke in rapid Faerie. Solan caught enough of it to know Lokan was ordering the rest of the convoy to spread out and surround the town, but not to make any move down towards it.
“You’re going to have to tell me something at some point,” Solan snapped. “I’ve been with you guys how long now? Nearly two years and you still won’t tell me shit.”
Lokan looked at him in the rearview mirror. “Don’t make me gag you, little Fae.”
“Tone down the flirting, you two,” Ceridwen said. “Think she knows yet?”
“She knows.” Lokan opened his door and got out. “Ceridwen, you’re in charge. Solan, come with me.”
“Oh for fuck’s sakes,” Ceridwen muttered even as Solan slid out to follow. “Stop thinking with your dick, Lokan.”
Lokan gave no indication that he’d heard, waving Solan up beside him and leading him a short distance from the trucks. They stood together at the top of a gentle rise that gave them a good view of the town down below, still sleepy and quiet in the early morning light. Solan shifted his weight impatiently, struggling not to start demanding answers, and was just on the verge of opening his mouth anyway when the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. At almost the same time the skin under the tattoo on his back seemed to almost shiver, making him inhale sharply and jerk his shoulder back as though he could pull away from the sensation.
He saw the dust of the approaching army before he saw the first trucks, approaching the town at an angle. Just beyond the outer borders of the town, and just as Solan was about to demand Lokan do something, the first trucks suddenly spluttered and died. Beside him Lokan laughed a little, the sound so surprising that Solan turned to look at him, raising both eyebrows.
“Don’t look at me. Watch.” Lokan turned him back towards the town and the human army, which had stopped completely behind the first few trucks. Soldiers ran back and forth, too far away to see their faces, and Solan wondered briefly where Kyr was among them.
Movement, a flash of something white at the edge of town, caught his attention and he looked automatically, jerking forward an unconscious step when he recognized the woman walking unarmed towards the trucks. The wind stirred the hem of her sundress—a dress he’d seen her wearing a dozen times in the past few years—and brushed her long dark hair back from her face. Swinging his rifle down to a ready position, Solan headed towards her, until Lokan caught his arm and pulled him back before he could go more than a few steps.
“Watch, I said. Don’t interfere.”
“They’ll kill her! You brought me here to watch my mother die? Help her, Lokan, please.” He fought against Lokan’s grip, breathing so hard he was almost sobbing. “Lokan!”
“She doesn’t need or want my help. There are many things you don’t know about your mother, little Fae. If you can’t trust me, then trust her.” He nodded towards the tableau down below, wrapping an arm around Solan to keep him still. “Do you really think your mother is so stupid as to walk out against an entire army unarmed and defenceless?”
Solan slumped against him, trying to catch his breath, and watched his mother stop a few yards from the nearest soldiers. They aimed at her uncertainly, obviously unsure what to do, and she raised a hand, fingers spread. Sudden bright light arced between her fingers and overhead the sky clouded over so suddenly with looming black thunderheads that it seemed Solan barely had time to blink before it happened. The crack of thunder scattered the human soldiers back towards their trucks, though a handful of them stood their ground and fired at his mother.
She ignored them and their rifles, tipping her head back and spreading her arms out. Even from a distance Solan saw white sparks dance through the black river of her hair, glowing against her skin. The nearest truck exploded suddenly into a ball of fire, leaping up into the air like an ungainly rabbit before crashing back down to the ground in a smoking heap of melted steel. Overhead the clouds opened up and poured rain and hail, though it did nothing to stop more of the trucks from going up in a series of loud bangs that almost drowned out the roar of thunder. Wide-eyed, Solan dug his fingers into Lokan’s arm and watched the human soldiers turn tail and run, abandoning the wreckage of their vehicles.
“Now,” Lokan said into the radio clipped to his jacket. In the distance engines started up and their own trucks leaped down the roads towards the fleeing humans. Solan barely noticed, pulling away from Lokan while he was distracted and bolting down towards where his mother still stood, her white dress whipping in the powerful wind.
She caught him with one arm and pulled him against her side, reaching up to stroke his hair though her eyes—glowing a green so brilliant it obscured her pupils—remained fixed on the battle playing out before them. Touching her was like touching a live wire, humming with electricity, but he hugged her fiercely anyway, knowing it wouldn’t hurt him.
Gradually the wind died and the rain lessened to a gentle cleansing mist, putting out the last of the fires in the wreckage. The clouds tattered away to reveal blue sky again after a last few grumbles of thunder and when Solan looked up he saw his mother’s eyes back to normal, if narrowed. She looked over him and lifted her chin, and he followed her gaze to see Lokan standing a respectful distance away, his arms crossed over his chest.
“I knew—” he started, then she flung a hand out and hit him in the chest with a burst of pure power, throwing him back a good ten feet. Snarling, he picked himself up, and overhead thunder boomed again.
“Stop it!” Solan put himself between them, blinking against the sudden increase in rain. “Don’t you fucking dare fight each other. Not now, not ever.”
“If you use me or my town to further your agenda ever again, I will kill you, Lokan. That is a promise.” Thunder punctuated her words and faded away into a grumble as she straightened out her dress with quick, methodical movements. “Watch your mouth, Solan.”
“Sorry.” He glared at Lokan until Lokan stopped curling his lip like a dog getting ready to bite. “You did this on purpose.”
“I took advantage of a situation.”
“Don’t give me your bullshit, Lokan. You knew this would happen.”
Lokan shrugged. “Yes. This is war.”
“Not here. This is not your playground.” He met Lokan’s eyes and tried not to breathe an obvious sigh of relief when Lokan looked away first.
“As you say, little Fae.” He bowed slightly. “My apologies. It won’t happen again. Meet me at the truck when you’re finished here.”
Solan watched him walk away before turning back to his mother, only to find her studying him thoughtfully. “What?”
“You have a lot of power over him, Solan,” she said after a few moments of silent scrutiny. “A surprising amount. Use it wisely.”
“I don’t have any power over him.” Solan laughed. “He does what he wants, when he wants, because he wants to.”
She kissed his forehead. “I’m your mother, Solan. I know what I see. Even in the short time since I saw you last, I can see how your relationship with him has changed. Or maybe I saw it before and dismissed it.” She looked him over again. “I don’t think you realize how you could change the course of this entire war.”
“That’s just motherly pride talking.” He tried to laugh, glancing up towards the truck. “And when were you going to tell me that you could do... that?” He gestured towards the mess.
“When you needed to know. Go back to your wild Fae, Solan.” She smiled slightly. “I need to clean up here, and you know how hard it is to get our beloved mayor to do anything. Go.”
He kissed her cheek, knowing she was just putting him off and unwilling to push the matter, and jogged back towards Lokan and the truck.