Trying to wrap his tongue around the Fae language was hard enough without Ceridwen sitting across from him, biting her lip against giggles every time he mispronounced a word. He’d managed to pick up most swear words after an entire summer spent with the army, but he was struggling with simple sentences like asking for a glass of water and asking someone for directions. Sighing, he ran a hand through his hair—almost long enough now to tie back if he wanted to—and tried again, blushing at Ceridwen’s muffled snort of laughter.
“Like you learned English instantly,” he said, sticking his tongue out.
“Your accent is atrocious.” She looked up at the sky, where the blue was shading towards purple speckled with stars. “Lokan’s probably going to be back soon, unless the council ate him.”
“Too much muscle, they’d have to make him into stew.” Solan stretched his legs out, automatically checking to make sure his rifle was within easy reach. He and Ceridwen were sitting in front of their truck under the shelter of a net canopy, and had been for most of the day as Lokan spoke with—argued with, as Ceridwen said—his council over their next steps.
Ceridwen snorted. “Like you don’t check him out. I’ve seen you, little Fae.”
“I do not.” Solan rubbed at his hot cheeks.
“Hey, there’s no shame in it. He’s a good-looking man, if you like them big and emotionless.” She stretched, arching her back. “I’m sick of sitting here though. My ass is going to be flat as a pancake soon. Let’s go for a walk.” She got to her feet and offered him a hand, which he took after a moment, scooping up his rifle with his other hand as she pulled him up to his feet.
They walked through the camp, watching fellow soldiers clean gear, nap, scuffle in the dust, and argue over anything that came into their heads. The camp as a whole was restless after a day spent doing nothing much at all, despite the weeks of marching and fighting before that. Their group had split off from the main branch of the army and marched further to the southeast, towards the human base at Camp Daniel, while the General led the rest of the Fae against the majority of the human army. Solan knew there must be some sort of plan in the making, but he’d become used to being kept out of the loop most of the time, unless Lokan was feeling particularly talkative.
“Did you call your mother yet?” Ceridwen asked, breaking into his thoughts.
He grimaced a little. “Not exactly. I called Bran and told him to let them know I was still alive. He said he was going to anyway, called me a fuckhead, and hung up on me.”
“Making friends wherever you go, little Fae.” She squeezed his shoulder. “Call your mother in person. If you were my kid, I’d beat your ass into the ground for pulling this kind of shit.”
“It’s complicated.” He ducked away from her hand and glanced across the camp at the sound of someone yelling. “Think that’s for you.”
“If someone’s managed to set something on fire again... Wait for me here, we’re not done yet.” She nodded to him and headed towards the yelling man.
Solan leaned against a nearby truck, rolling his shoulders absently to try and work the kinks out, and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath of cooling twilight air. Flicking the safety on, he pressed the butt of the rifle into the ground and leaned it against his leg, trying to let himself relax. Distantly he heard someone yell and a following burst of laughter; and off to his left he heard quiet conversation and the familiar sounds of a gun being disassembled, cleaned, and put back together. He could smell smoke from a handful of campfires, mixed with the smell of dirt and machine oil and gunpowder, and somewhere someone had managed to catch something edible, judging by the sudden scent of roasting meat. His mouth watered and he licked his lips, then nearly bit his own tongue when something gave him a hard shove.
He caught himself awkwardly and grabbed his rifle before he even opened his eyes, looking up into a familiar wide and toothy grin. He remembered how the boy—a man now, even bigger and thicker through the chest—had unhinged his jaw before his startled brain supplied him with the name Elio. Unconsciously shifting his grip on the rifle, he squared his shoulders and met those same muddy green eyes, trying not to flinch when Elio’s smile broadened beyond the limits of comfort.
“Look at you, all dressed up like you mean something.” Elio sniffed at him like a dog. “You still smell of human.”
“Look who’s talking. I didn’t join the soccer team.” He rested the rifle over his shoulder, the movement deliberately aimed to attract Elio’s attention. For a moment muddy green eyes narrowed in something like real hate.
“Just watch yourself.” He bared his teeth and glanced over his shoulder. Solan followed his gaze and breathed out a silent sigh of relief when he saw Ceridwen walking back towards them. “You won’t always be the pampered pet.”
“I’m not a pet,” Solan snapped, but Elio had already slipped away into the darkness.
“Hey, shake your ass,” Ceridwen said when she got close enough. “Lokan wants us.”
“For what?” he asked, falling into step beside her.
“Apparently they’ve finally reached an agreement. You’re going with him, I’m marching these assholes towards Daniel.”
“For an attack?” Solan swallowed hard, forcing all thoughts of Kyr out of his mind.
“No, for a tea party.” She smacked him lightly upside the head. “Don’t say stupid shit, little Fae.”
“Sorry.” He lifted a hand in greeting when a shadow detached itself from the darkness and became Lokan, his rifle slung over his shoulder and his eyes tired even in the dim light.
Lokan nodded to Ceridwen, then took Solan’s arm and walked him over to their truck. “You’ll be driving us back.” He gave Solan a slight push towards the passenger seat.
“Where are we going?” Solan asked, climbing in. “And why won’t you be driving back?”
“Later.” Lokan swung himself into the driver’s seat and started the engine, easing the truck through the camp until they reached the road.
He drove down the road for a few minutes before swinging onto a side road Solan hadn’t even noticed. The ground steadily rose up before them and when he glanced out the window going around a curve, he saw the camp down below, bustling with activity as the soldiers packed up and prepared to march despite the late hour. He watched for a while, until the road curved again and he lost sight of them behind the growing bulk of the hill they were steadily climbing. Three quarters of the way up, Lokan turned again and the road flattened out again.
An hour passed and Solan closed his eyes when they started to feel heavy, dozing to the steady rumble of the engine and the sound of the truck bumping over the uneven road. He slept for nearly another hour and opened his eyes again when the truck slowed to a stop, sitting up and rubbing at his sore neck. He glanced at Lokan but Lokan was already getting out of the truck and stretching. For the first time he realized that Lokan wasn’t carrying his rifle, and debated leaving his own on the seat when he got out, but just before he shut the door he grabbed it again, settling it in its familiar place against his shoulder.
They were parked on a lip of ground just below the crest of the hill they’d driven to, hidden from the other side. At Lokan’s signal, Solan hiked up a grassy trail behind him, slowing when they topped the rise and he saw Camp Daniel spread out before him, little more than lights twinkling in the darkness.
“We just going to watch?” he asked after a moment, looking up at Lokan.
“No. I’m going to show you some real wild magic.” Lokan looked up at the sky, where the stars gleamed and the big hunter’s moon lit his profile in silver light. “It’s going to wipe me out though, which is why you’re here. When I’m done, drive us down to meet Ceridwen and the troops. Don’t interrupt me while I’m casting. Just wait.” He glanced at Solan. “You can do that, right?”
“Yessir.” Solan hesitated a little. “Is it dangerous?”
“For you, mostly. A little bit for me.”
The corner of Lokan’s mouth crooked up slightly in a smile. “For me, yes. You should be fine. Stand and watch, little Fae.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. For a few moments nothing happened, then Solan felt the hairs all over his body stand on end. A tingling sensation settled into the tips of his fingers and the tips of his ears, and he rubbed at them uncomfortably, shivering in the teeth of a sudden cold wind. Overhead clouds formed out of nowhere, scudding across the sky and building up into a towering mass directly over the camp. Lightning flickered purple and white in its depths, and when the thunder rolled Solan felt it in his bones.
The wind grew steadily louder and he saw the lights below flicker, a few of them snuffed out by the approaching storm. Beside him Lokan breathed out unsteadily and when Solan glanced over, he saw sweat beading at Lokan’s temples and dampening his hair. Moving on instinct, he laid his rifle down and slid an arm around Lokan’s waist, supporting him as the storm grew in intensity. Lightning snapped out of the sky in a trident of blistering white light and thunder bellowed, shaking the ground beneath them. Solan saw the clouds begin to twist and writhe, stretching out dark tendrils in unsteady motions towards the ground in the stutter light of the lightning.
Lokan swore softly and grabbed at the back of Solan’s shirt, pulling it halfway out of his pants. He braced himself to take more of Lokan’s weight, feeling the heat of him even through their clothing, smelling ozone and something bitter and astringent. The clouds swirled again but didn’t seem to be forming together until Lokan suddenly slid a hand up under Solan’s shirt, the coldness of his fingers startling. He rested his palm against the tattoo on the back of Solan’s shoulder and the clouds twisted down into a funnel so huge it seemed to stretch for miles.
Solan watched it wide-eyed as it roared across the camp, scattering heavy trucks like toys and shredding everything in its path. He could feel Lokan trembling against him, his breathing harsh and heavy, his fingers digging into Solan’s shoulder. Risking a quick glance over, Solan saw he was still standing straight, his eyes open now and glowing violet in the flashes of lightning. Something about the expression on his face and the way he looked in profile sent a jolt straight through Solan’s belly, and he hurriedly looked away, feeling the tips of his ears burn with a blush. Fidgeting with the waistband of his pants, he looked back at the tornado, flinching a little as it tossed an armoured truck and smashed it down onto the ground again.
The tornado began to die eventually, leaving a swath of destruction behind it. As it shredded away into clear sky, Solan felt the ring on his finger become so hot it almost burned. Lokan’s hand slid down his back and he arched, then jerked away, breathing hard and trying to work the ring off his finger. The heat vanished as quickly as it had come and after a moment’s hesitation, he just shook his hand out and left the ring alone, turning back to make sure Lokan wasn’t about to collapse on him.
He put a hand on Lokan’s arm, a little frightened by the clear exhaustion on his face, and got a tired smile in return. Lokan’s hand came up to cup his face, the fingers trembling a little, though the warmth had come back to his skin. Solan looked up at him, trying to read his expression and failing; even after months spent in Lokan’s company, he still couldn’t even guess at what he was thinking the majority of the time.
“Need to talk about that tattoo,” Lokan said, then his eyes rolled back in his head and he sagged forward, his weight nearly knocking Solan over.
“Shit.” Solan flinched away from antlers suddenly too close to his face for comfort and caught Lokan around the waist, easing him down onto the brittle grass. For a few long moments he was stuck there on his knees, supporting Lokan, until Lokan shook his head slightly and looked up, eyes dazed.
“Truck.” He nodded to it and got up with Solan’s help, leaning heavily on Solan’s shoulder as they made their way over to the vehicle. Solan got him into the seat then went back to fetch his rifle. When he returned he found Lokan passed out with his head resting against the window and checked to make sure his breathing and heartrate were still steady before climbing into the driver’s seat.
He drove slowly, taking his time on the unfamiliar roads and keeping a close eye on Lokan. Dawn broke and he saw smoke billowing into the air in front of them, gradually getting thicker the closer he drove. It took another two hours just to get around the hills and down to the front of the camp, and by then it was all over. He drove carefully through the tattered remains of the camp, carefully avoiding bodies, and nearly jumped out of his seat when Lokan quietly directed him to park beside some of the other trucks. He glanced over quickly and was glad to see Lokan looked more alert, if very pale and drawn.
Other than the bodies scattered around, there was little sign of the human army. A passing Fae soldier, his shoulder bloody, told them that the remaining human forces had retreated, running back south to the bulk of their army. Lokan nodded and let the soldier go, resting a hand lightly on Solan’s shoulder as they walked through the mess. Solan kept his eyes ahead, unwilling to see anyone who knew lying dead in the carnage; afraid he would look around and see Kyr. They met up with Ceridwen near what was once the command post and Lokan straightened up to talk to her, waving Solan away with an almost impatient gesture of one hand. Feeling stung and not sure why, Solan started back towards the truck to get a drink and rest until somebody told him what to do.
He heard Elio before he saw him, a nasty rasping laugh followed by something said in Faerie. He picked out the word ‘human’ and braced himself before rounding the corner, stopping dead on the path when he saw what Elio and a companion were doing.
They had found an injured human soldier, a broken and bloody man, obviously dying. Even as Solan froze, Elio twisted the man’s broken arm, bringing a low sobbing whine of pain. For an instant Solan saw Kyr’s face instead of the stranger’s and his hand moved to the gun on his hip before his brain even engaged. He caught a flash of gratitude in the stranger’s eyes before he fired a bullet that took all traces of light out of the man’s face and slumped him forward in Elio’s grip.
“You cocksucker,” Elio snarled, then drew back when Solan aimed the 9mm unwaveringly at his face.
“Don’t try me,” he said quietly. “Turn around and fuck off before I shoot you too. You touch anyone else, and I’ll kill you.”
Elio’s companion had slunk off as soon as Solan had fired the first shot, but Elio still hesitated a moment, his broad mouth twisting hatefully. Solan gestured with the gun and after another snarl, Elio turned and walked away, aiming a vicious kick at one of the bodies lying by the path. Solan watched him until he was out of sight, aware that people were staring, then holstered the gun, walked all the way back to the truck, ducked behind it, and threw up until his stomach cramped and all he brought up was burning bile.
Cool fingers stroked the back of his neck and held his hair out of the way until he was finished. Wiping at his mouth and grimacing at the burning taste of vomit, he sat back on his heels and looked up at Lokan, struggling to offer even a small smile. Tears pricked at his eyelids at the sympathy in Lokan’s eyes and he looked away, rubbing at his eyes with the heels of his dirty palms until he felt calmer.
“Here.” Lokan handed him a bottle of water and settled back, heedless of the mud they were kneeling in. “Feel better?”
Solan pressed the cool bottle to his cheeks and forehead before twisting the cap off and drinking. “No. I feel horrible.”
“Good. Means you’re still sane.” Lokan reached out to brush damp hair back off Solan’s forehead.
Solan caught his wrist, but only enough to rest his fingers against Lokan’s skin, studying his face again. “What’s the point, Lokan? Of this whole thing? I mean, you can conjure a tornado...” He laughed a little, not quite sure he wanted to believe it had happened even though it had, and right in front of his eyes.
“You think I can do that in battle, little Fae, or against a whole army? I almost didn’t manage it this time, and it wipes me out. Passing out does shit for morale.”
“I just feel...” He hesitated, trying to work out his own feelings. “Bad. It feels like cheating. Feels like they never had a chance.”
“They didn’t. This is war, little Fae.” Lokan curled his fingers in and dropped his hand. “As for the point of it, we have split the country in half. The north is ours.”