The Fae soldiers stripped him efficiently of his gear and weapons and sat him in a corner with his arms tied behind his back, leaving one of their number to guard him while the others moved back into the darkness. In the distance Kyr thought he heard shouting and the flat report of gunshots, but though he held his breath to listen, the noises didn’t repeat themselves. His guard, a tall woman with dark hair and a greenish tinge to her skin, looked bored to be guarding him, her eyes distant. He shifted position slightly, already thinking about bolting, and she immediately pointed her rifle at him.
“Stay still, human. I got no problem blowing your head off.” She raised a dark eyebrow at him. “Stay.”
He settled grudgingly back against the wall, working his wrists carefully back and forth to try and loosen the ties. More footsteps sounded down the hallway and his guard straightened up, settling her rifle back on her shoulder. The Fae approaching them had to move hunched to keep his antlers from scraping across the roof, and when he stopped Kyr recognized his cool violet eyes and the broad set of his shoulders. Anger flashed through him and he lunged up to his feet, ignoring the painful jab of the guard’s rifle as she jammed it into his ribs and threatened to pull the trigger.
“Leave him.” The antlered man waved a hand and the guard reluctantly stepped back.
“Where’s Solan?” Kyr snapped. “Give him back.”
One dark eyebrow arched. “Why is it that I keep being accused of stealing people?” He nodded to the guard. “Go help hunt down the others.”
The guard frowned, her pale green eyes flicking suspiciously towards Kyr, but she only nodded and left, her footsteps fading away into silence. Kyr drew himself up and glared at the antlered man, expecting the man to draw his sidearm and carry out an execution now that they were alone. When the man instead sat down on nearby rubble and pulled out a cigarette, he deflated a little, feeling confused.
“My name’s Lokan,” the man said around the cigarette he’d lit with just a touch. “And you would be Kyr.”
“I’m not telling you anything.”
Lokan rolled his eyes. “Very brave. I already know who you are so you don’t actually need to tell me anything. What I want to know is what you’re doing here.”
“Take me to Solan and maybe I’ll tell you.”
Lokan gave him an amused look, blowing smoke in twin streams out his nose. “Don’t be stupid. Even if I had any intention of allowing you to distract him, I can’t take you back to camp with me. I don’t want prisoners and your presence would be a danger to Solan himself. Try to at least think a little before you open your mouth and let your brains fall out.” He picked up his radio as it squawked and slipped smoothly into the Fae language for a few minutes before hooking the radio back to his jacket and getting to his feet. “Come, angry human. We need to decide what to do with you.”
Kyr walked reluctantly down the broken hallway, moved along every time he hesitated by Lokan’s hand on his shoulder, firm and insistent. He blinked as he came out into the sunlight, squinting a little until his eyes adjusted. Lokan pushed him stumbling over to a clear spot where Akiva sat, his hands just as bound behind his back, guarded by the woman with the green-tinged skin. Kyr sat awkwardly down beside him when Lokan gave him a push and they exchanged a nervous glance before Kyr looked back up at Lokan and the guard.
“Two more being brought in, and one dead,” the guard reported, giving Lokan a slight bow. “Think that’s all of them.”
“Five soldiers sent all the way up here, for what?” Lokan glanced down the street, towards where tall figures were muscling a pair of soldiers forward, followed by another Fae dragging something wrapped in a tarp. Kyr caught a flash of blond hair in the sunlight and relaxed slightly, relieved that Torin was still alive.
He didn’t look at the tarp-wrapped bundle when the Fae dropped it on the ground nearby, trying not to think of Yao’s broad face and ever-patient expression. Torin was shoved roughly down beside him and then Mikael on the other side, leaving them in a row staring up at their captors. Lokan lit another cigarette and waved the other Fae back, settling comfortably on his heels in front of Torin and checking the bars on his collar.
“I’m not that well-versed in human rankings, but I believe you are now in charge,” he said. “What’s your name?”
Torin hesitated slightly and Kyr knew he was thinking about rumours that the Fae could use a name to cast spells. Then he shrugged and said, “Lance-Corporal Torin Espenson. Sir.”
“You know who I am?”
“Yessir. The wild Fae king.” Torin took a deep breath. “I have a favour to ask, sir.”
“Do you?” Lokan looked amused.
“Let them go.” He nodded to Kyr, Akiva, and Mikael. “Keep me if you have to, but not them.”
“I’m not letting you—” Kyr started.
“Shut your fucking mouth or I’ll shut it for you,” Torin snarled, giving Kyr a brief but hard glare. Kyr closed his mouth so fast he nearly bit his own tongue, blushing angrily at the burst of snickering from the Fae guards.
Lokan barely blinked, just studied Torin thoughtfully. “You do realize we’re at war and you all snuck into our territory?”
“Yessir.” Torin smiled a bit. “Because we’re at war, sir. It’s kind of what soldiers do.”
“Fair enough.” Lokan got to his feet and drew Torin up, removing the ties from his wrists. “Do you smoke, Lance-Corporal?”
“Sometimes, sir.” Torin rubbed at his chafed wrists and accepted the cigarette handed to him, sticking it in his mouth and leaning forward a little to let Lokan light it. He glanced at Kyr briefly, his expression too neutral for Kyr to read anything in it, then looked back at Lokan. “Are we negotiating?”
“I don’t negotiate.”
“No hope of a truce then?”
“Do you want a truce?”
Torin hesitated and smiled again, flicking ash from his cigarette. “At this point in time, sir, I just want my men safely on their way back to camp. If I can go with them with my head still on my shoulders where it belongs, that’ll be a bonus.”
“All right. I’ll even personally escort you back to the border.” Lokan’s voice stayed pleasant but Kyr saw Torin’s half-smile drop away, and when he raised his hand to take another drag, his fingers trembled slightly. They looked at each other a moment longer before Lokan nodded slightly and turned to speak to his companions.
“You okay?” Kyr murmured, leaning in against Torin’s shoulder when Torin dropped heavily down beside him. “Think it’s a trick?”
“No.” Torin took a last drag and stubbed the cigarette out in the dirt.
“Then why are you so shaky?”
“It’s like asking a tiger to let you go when he’s caught you for a meal. He might say yes or he might tear your throat out. And you still know that he’ll be hunting you again, and next time you might not be so lucky. He’s making a fucking point here, Kyr, and I’m not entirely sure why.”
Kyr glanced at Lokan, who was listening to his companions argue his decision and looking decidedly unimpressed. “He’s taking us alone? There’s four of us. We can overpower him—”
“No. We play this straight, if only because I don’t think we can overpower him. I don’t know what he’s up to, but if he’s going to let us go alive right now, I’m going to take it. That’s a direct order, Kyrianos. Nobody touches him.” Torin glanced at Akiva and Mikael as he said it, raising his voice just enough for them to hear too. Kyr saw Akiva scowl, but Mikael just nodded, his narrow face drawn.
His attention was drawn back to the Fae when Lokan said something sharply in their rolling language, staring down one of the soldiers until the man dropped his eyes and looked away. Lokan continued to watch him for a moment then nodded slightly and walked back over to them, gesturing for Torin to get up again.
“Your friends stay tied.” He glanced at Kyr and his upper lip curled slightly. Kyr glared back at him but kept his mouth shut. “Get them up and come with me.”
Torin only nodded and helped Kyr to his feet first, then Mikael and Akiva. One of the Fae soldiers trailed behind them with Yao’s tarp-wrapped body slung over his shoulder, and deposited it in the back of the heavy pickup Lokan led them to. Torin helped Mikael and Akiva climb awkwardly into the back with it and gestured for Kyr to join him in the front beside Lokan. Gritting his teeth so hard his jaw began to ache, Kyr did as he was told, flinching back a little from the Fae soldier slamming the passenger side door nearly on his foot.
He kept working his wrists back and forth as Lokan silently pulled out onto the road, unsure if he actually felt some give in the ties or if it was just his imagination. His shoulder bumped Torin’s and Torin gave him a pointed look, punching him hard in the thigh. Kyr glared back then slumped as best he could with his hands tied behind his back, staring sullenly out the window.
“Can I ask why you’re doing this?” Torin said after a few more miles had passed in awkward silence. “Not just... letting us go and even taking us to the border, though I gotta admit I want to know that too. This whole war. Coming down from the mountains just to declare war on us.”
“You take it for granted that you should own the world instead of us,” Lokan said. “We’re just taking back what’s ours.”
“Why don’t you just move somewhere else, where the Fae are welcome?” Kyr asked.
Lokan gave him a cold look. “Why don’t you?”
“You do have a point.” Torin held up one hand in a peace gesture and shoved Kyr’s shoulder with the other. “You could try to work something out instead of this constant back and forth bitching at each other.”
“When you lay down your weapons and come to me on your knees, then I may listen to your peace talks.” Lokan took a corner hard enough to throw Torin into Kyr’s shoulder and smiled a little. “But that will never happen, will it?”
“You’re a giant asshole.” Kyr shook Torin’s hand off. “I’m really going to enjoy it when somebody blows your fuckin’ head off.”
“You’re not doing a very good job of even coming close to that.”
Torin clapped a hand over Kyr’s mouth before he could respond. “Drop it. Let’s just... get to the border. Save the fighting for the battlefield.”
Something in his expression, a kind of bone-deep exhaustion, made Kyr shut his mouth and sag back against the seat, looking out the window again so he wouldn’t have to look at Lokan. The drive seemed endless despite Lokan’s speed and stops made only briefly for bathroom breaks and something to drink, if not to eat. Lokan drove through the night without rest and they reached the border towards dawn, pulling off the road just out of sight of the patrols.
“This won’t happen again,” Lokan said without looking at them. “I brought you here as a favour to a friend, and now my favour is done. If we meet again, I will kill you.”
“That’s fair.” Torin reached across to open the door and gave Kyr a little shove to get him out of the truck, but instead of following he shut the door again. Kyr tried to listen to what he was saying to Lokan—who turned to look at him, one eyebrow arched in a look that was both arrogant and amused—but the truck’s heavy-duty windows muffled their words. He saw Lokan smile slightly and incline his head, then Torin opened the door and slid out, closing it again behind him with a muffled thump.
He freed Kyr’s hands first, for the first time since their last roadside break, and took a brief moment to help Kyr massage some feeling back into his fingers before moving to untie Mikael and Akiva. Together the four of them heaved Yao’s body out of the back of the truck and set it gently down on the ground, moving back to allow Lokan to turn the truck around. Kyr watched it until its taillights winked out of sight over a hill, still absently rubbing his chafed wrists, then turned back to help his friends take Yao’s body over the border.
They were spotted almost immediately and ordered to stop, surrounded by hard-eyed soldiers who only gradually lowered their weapons. Kyr let Torin take over the talking and just went along with the whirlwind of explaining what had happened, handing over Yao’s body, and being shipped back to their base camp. They were met at base by their platoon Captain and brought in for debriefing in front of a panel of high-ranking officers, all of whom looked grim and unhappy. When the panel was finished with them and they were sent out to catch some rest before they dropped dead of exhaustion, Kyr hung back a minute to talk to the Captain.
“Sir.” He hesitated a little, watching Torin up ahead. “You’ve been doing this a while, sir, and I just... What does it mean? That he let us go?”
“I don’t know,” the Captain said after a moment. “But of the four teams we sent up there, you were the only ones to return.”
Kyr thought of the coldness in the eyes of the Fae soldiers and swallowed hard. “Do you know what happened to the other teams?”
“Slaughtered.” The Captain squeezed his shoulder briefly. “They were all slaughtered.”