Solan opened his eyes to find Ceridwen leaning over him, one eyebrow arched and her hands planted on her hips. Behind her it was still dark, though the horizon was shading towards the first dishwater light of dawn. Still half-asleep, Solan squinted at her then sat up, forcing her to move back so they wouldn’t smack heads.
“Only lay down,” a quick check of his watch, “47 minutes ago. Something wrong?”
“Lokan wants to talk to you. I just wanted to see how good your senses were asleep.” She grinned. “You suck, by the way. I could’ve cut your throat three times before you opened your eyes.”
“Next time, do me a favour and do it,” he muttered.
“We’ve made you so cynical and cranky, little Fae.” For a moment she did look concerned, and reached out to brush his hair back. “You holding up okay?”
He fought the urge to lean into her touch. “Yeah, I’m good. Better once I find out what Lokan wants and go back to sleep. We still moving refugees?”
“Quiet right now, but there’s probably gonna be more once the sun comes up.” She kissed his forehead. “Tell Lokan you won’t be any good to him without any sleep.”
“If I thought he’d listen, I would.” Solan ran a hand back through his hair and headed for the truck.
Lokan was sitting in the driver’s seat with the door open, one long leg drawn up to help balance the paperwork he was looking through. Solan waited awkwardly beside the truck, trying not to fidget like a little kid, until Lokan finally looked up.
“Good, you’re awake.” He pushed himself out of the truck, breath steaming in the chilly early morning air.
“Kind of. Ceridwen says to tell you to let me sleep more.”
“You can sleep when you’re dead. Walk with me.” He set off and Solan kept pace with him, waiting almost patiently to hear whatever was on Lokan’s mind.
They walked past the rows of heavy trucks and light armoured vehicles in silence. Solan idly watched the camp gear up for morning, soldiers trotting back and forth on various missions. The border was still quiet but he could see activity in the distance that indicated more refugees had been spotted. Lokan had given the order that no one who was not actively threatening was to be harmed, and reinforced it by stripping a few soldiers of their weapons and setting them to digging latrines and other backbreaking unpleasant tasks. Elio had been one of them, after Ceridwen had given him a tongue-lashing up one side and down the other that had turned him red as a brick and included a threat to hang him by the short and curlies until he could be called a real man. There was still a tension in the camp that got worse during the flood of humans running down south, but after the first few fights nobody dared risk Lokan’s—or Ceridwen’s—displeasure again.
The camp and the border faded into the distance as Lokan continued walking steadily, leading Solan away until they were alone in a field that was surprisingly still green, if fading into the colours of autumn. Lokan led the way to a pile of rough stones big enough to sit on and sank down onto the biggest, leaning his rifle between his legs and gesturing for Solan to join him. He offered Solan a cigarette and after a slight hesitation, Solan took it and inhaled a quick drag before passing it back.
“Tell me about your tattoo,” Lokan said finally, after they’d sat for a few minutes longer in the warming sun.
“It’s… a tattoo. It’s based off something my mom painted and I got it last winter, while I was stuck in some little town somewhere after a blizzard. My birthday present from Kyr.” He realized suddenly that his nineteenth birthday had passed at some point in the past week and shook his head, shoving the thought away. “That’s all it is. Just a tattoo.”
“Done by Fae or human?”
“Hu—” Solan paused a moment. “I assumed she was human, but who knows. I didn’t look very close. It’s my design though, she just inked it. What are you leading to, Lokan?”
“That it’s not just a tattoo. There was something there for me to draw on when I created that storm, and I don’t think it was you alone.” Lokan looked at him thoughtfully. “Let me see it again.”
Shrugging, Solan pulled his shirt off and twisted a bit on the rock to let Lokan inspect the tattoo, trying not to shiver at the touch of Lokan’s fingers on his skin. He felt Lokan trace along the lines of the circle then lay his palm flat against it, the broad spread of his hand nearly covering the entire tattoo. Out of the corner of his eye Solan saw Lokan hold out his other hand, palm up, and form a ball of flickering fire the size of a baseball. Heat rushed through him and he squirmed, flexing his shoulder under Lokan’s hand and trying to keep his breathing calm and even.
“Interesting.” Lokan closed his hand and snuffed the fireball out beneath the weight of his fingers. “Ceridwen has a theory that your mother painted a symbol of power, which you copied. But since you can’t use any magic yourself, it’s up to others to use magic through you.”
“Great. So I’m a giant magical spice container, here to season your spells.”
“You’re the one who got the tattoo,” Lokan said, sounding amused.
Solan rolled his eyes. “Well, the tattoo’s not even the same as the painting. And why would she even paint something like that?”
“Let’s go ask her.” Lokan took his hand away and stood up, stretching before he picked up his rifle. “I need to go to Arian Mawr anyway.”
“What, seriously?” Solan yanked his shirt back on and hurried to catch up as Lokan walked away. “I haven’t… I haven’t even called them yet.”
Lokan gave him a cool look. “Then you can talk to them in person.”
Solan fell back a few steps, trying to shake the feeling that Lokan was annoyed with him for reasons he didn’t understand, and trailed in Lokan’s wake back to camp. He was left by the truck with instructions to be ready to move out within the next hour, and spent the first few minutes packing gear before sprawling out in the passenger seat to nap.
The sound of Lokan sliding into the driver’s seat woke him up and he gave Lokan a bleary look, straightening up in his seat with a wince for his sore neck. Lokan ignored him, backing the truck out of its space and rolling it slowly through the camp until they reached the road. The guards there let them through with crisp salutes and soon all trace of the camp disappeared behind them, leaving them alone to drive through abandoned countryside. Solan could almost pretend that there was no war, until they passed through the remains of what had once been a village and was now little more than scattered rubble.
Lokan drove in silence for most of the morning before pulling over around noon so they could eat lunch. Watching him surreptitiously, Solan attempted to get a read on his mood and found it as impossible as ever. As soon as they were finished eating, Lokan herded him back into the truck and started driving again, and after a while Solan closed his eyes and napped again.
They reached Arian Mawr by nightfall, driving slowly through streets that looked deserted. Solan swallowed hard against the nervousness in his belly and directed Lokan to his parents’ house, not sure if he was relieved or not to see lights on inside when they parked on the street opposite. He looked up at the house’s neat front and took a deep breath before getting out of the truck, picking up his rifle automatically then catching himself and putting it back down on the seat. Lokan walked behind him up the little path to the front door, brushing a hand briefly across his shoulder before stepping back to let him ring the doorbell.
It hurt a little to see the expression on his mother’s face when she opened the door; stress and painful relief and more than a flicker of anger. She hugged him tightly, heedless of his bulky body armour, then drew back and shook him by the shoulders, like she had when he was small and had done something dangerous.
“I love you, Solan, but if you ever pull anything like this again, I’ll disown you. What were you thinking? And how dare you come back here and leave again, and tell someone else to let us know you’re still alive?” Her lips thinned into an angry line when she looked over his shoulder at Lokan.
“I’m sorry.” It sounded pathetic and he winced a little. “I really am. I meant to come back and tell you I was okay, but things happened… I’m really sorry.”
“You had better be. You have a lot to make up for, Solan.” She looked at Lokan again. “And you have a lot of nerve coming here.”
“This is my territory,” Lokan said quietly. “I will go where I please.”
“Your territory?” She stepped around Solan, the wind already whipping her hair around her head. Solan tried to catch her arm but she shook him off. “Arian Mawr is still neutral territory, whatever games you play outside it. And tell me, Lokan, are you proud of yourself, stealing my son?”
“Your son came back to me. And you can thank Ceridwen that he’s even still alive for you to yell at.” For a moment Solan thought he saw real anger in Lokan’s eyes. “Even after you walked out on us.”
Solan saw her upper lip curl just before she punched Lokan, putting her whole body into the swing and driving him back a step even though he was nearly a foot taller and almost a hundred pounds heavier. Lokan licked at his split lip and caught her fist when she tried again, then Solan shoved him, putting himself between his mother and Lokan.
“Don’t touch her.” He met Lokan’s eyes, not quite challenging him but coming close. “Did you come all this way to fight with my mother, Lokan? How do you two know each other and what the hell is going on here?”
Lokan bowed slightly, his shoulders stiff. “I’ll let your mother explain it to you. When you’re finished, I’ll be waiting in the truck.”
Solan almost asked him to wait but instead said nothing, watching him walk back to the truck. The slam of the door set someone’s dog barking and he winced a little at the noise before turning back to his mother and hugging her, suddenly and tightly. She stroked his hair then led him into the house, closing the door firmly behind them.
“Your father went south to stay with relatives,” she said as they walked into the kitchen. “We both thought it would be safer.”
He wondered if the little girl Lokan had rescued had gone south as well, and the woman he’d taken her to with her half-breed grandchildren. “The country’s really been split apart, huh?”
“You tell me,” she said, putting a pair of mugs down on the counter with unnecessary force. “You’re the one out in it.”
“Are you ever going to forgive me?”
“I don’t know, Solan.” She put the kettle to boil and turned around to look at him, crossing her arms over her chest. “I don’t think you really understand how much pain you’ve caused me and your father. And to come here with Lokan, of all people.”
“How do you know each other? At least tell me why you don’t like him before you start yelling at me about it.” Solan clasped his hands together on the table to keep them from trembling, not sure if he was angry or nervous.
She closed her eyes for a moment, as though steadying herself. “I grew up in the mountains, with the wild Fae. I still remember when Lokan was born, and the celebrations people held for this little baby.” She shook her head. “He was arrogant then and he’s arrogant now. When I met your father and decided to leave, Lokan told me that if I did, he would find some way to punish me. He stood there, this gangly teenage boy with hands and feet too big for his body and antlers too big for his head, and told me he would hurt me for falling in love. And when I laughed in his face he only smiled and turned away, but he’s done it. He’s stolen you.”
“Nobody’s stolen me.” Solan got up and went to wrap his arms around her, startled and scared to feel her trembling. “I just... I don’t know. He said they owned me but he let me go and I... went back. Because I think it is important and because I’m tired of having to hide everything I am. I mean, come on, even Dad went to hide. It has to end somewhere.”
She gave him a slightly bitter smile. “You even sound like him. I swear the first word out of his mouth was ‘war’.” She sighed and pulled gently away to answer the kettle’s whistle, pouring them both a mug of hot tea. “Don’t think he doesn’t own you, Solan. If you asked to leave again, he would say no. If you hadn’t gone back, he would have come for you. Lokan is very... possessive.”
“You and him, um...” Solan trailed off, unwilling to come right out and say it.
She looked confused for a moment, then suddenly threw her head back and laughed her big genuine laugh. “There was nothing romantic between us. He does nothing out of a misguided sense of romantic jealousy. He’s just a giant asshole who thinks because he’s a genetic freak, he has the right to tell every Fae alive what to do.”
“Not big on the whole antlers equals kingship?”
“Kings are outdated.” She reached out and stroked his hair again. “Stay with me, Solan. Let these fools fight their battles and stay safe where you belong.”
“I don’t think this is where I belong anymore.” He said it as gently as he could but she still flinched. “I need to see this through.”
“Of course you do.” She wrapped both hands around her mug and sipped at her tea. “Kyr was looking for you. He stayed here for a while, called me once or twice, then disappeared.”
“He joined the human army.” It still stung to say it and he swallowed hard. “I haven’t... I check the lists and the news. His name isn’t there.”
She tried to smile. “Some good news. I wish we could all go back, but I suppose we can’t. I love you, Solan. Remember that.”
“I know.” He kissed her cheek. “We did come here for something, but I need to talk to Lokan first. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He could see the doubt in her eyes. “I promise. I won’t just leave without telling you again, ever.”
“All right. He’s not staying here though. I won’t have him in my house.”
“Okay,” he said, just to avoid an argument. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
The truck was dark when he got back outside but he found Lokan stretched out in the grass beside it, looking up at the stars overhead. Solan sat beside him quietly, stifling a sudden inappropriate laugh at the thought that they were sitting on someone’s front lawn, and looked around at the dark street. Under the dim glow of the streetlights, it looked nearly deserted, though he could see lights on in a few of the houses and the shadow of someone passing behind the curtain in the house behind them. Somewhere a frog belched and in the distance he heard a snatch of music, almost enough to make him forget that outside Arian Mawr it seemed the entire world was at war.
“How long have you known?” he asked finally.
“The old woman,” Lokan said after another moment of silence. “I didn’t know when we picked you up, but she told me your mother’s name when I asked her what she Saw.”
“She told you I’d destroy you too. Getting even with my mother meant more?”
“I can’t say that wasn’t part of it at first, as well as the reasons I have already given you. After...” Lokan shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you, little Fae. I got used to your presence, I suppose.”
“And if I try to leave now? You said you wouldn’t protect me if I changed my mind. You’d brand me a deserter and hunt me down?”
“Are you asking to leave?”
“You’re not answering my question.” Solan leaned over him, trying to force Lokan to meet his gaze. “What would you do if I left now?”
Lokan looked up at him and smiled a little. “Then you would leave. As far as anyone else was concerned, you would have died in an ambush, which is a terrible shame but expected in times of war. You would be forgotten, little Fae. Quietly and thoroughly erased from all records.”
“Heh.” Solan ducked his head a bit, trying not to laugh. “You’re a son of a bitch, Lokan.”
“I’ve been told.” He reached up and brushed his knuckles briefly across Solan’s cheek. “Am I right in assuming your mother would rather swim with crocodiles than allow me to defile her home?”
“Something like that.” Solan studied Lokan’s face a moment longer then sat up, glancing towards the house and hoping he didn’t look as flushed as he felt. “I don’t know how long you were planning to stay.”
“Long enough to ask her about the painting and tattoo. Unless you’re staying.”
“Give me a day? I can probably convince her to let you stay the night.”
Lokan snorted. “I’ll sleep in the truck. It’s probably safer. Go, little Fae. I’ll speak with you both in the morning.”
“Thanks.” Solan impulsively leaned in and kissed his cheek, then got up and hurried back to the house before Lokan could get annoyed with him.
He spent the rest of the evening catching up with his mother, both of them carefully avoiding the topics of war, Lokan, and Kyr. They went to bed early, after Solan had called his father and spoken to him for a few minutes, but Solan lay awake in his bed for a long time, watching the moonlight create patterns on his ceiling through the branches of the trees outside. When the clock ticked past midnight, he got up and walked silently to the window, leaning on the sill to look down on the street below. He wasn’t all that surprised to see Lokan’s dark shape leaning against the side of the truck, or the cherry glow of a cigarette, brightening briefly as Lokan inhaled. He watched for a few minutes, debating whether or not he should go down, but eventually went back to bed and slept.
He got up early the next morning and went downstairs to make coffee, bringing a mug out to Lokan and arguing him into at least coming to sit out on the front porch. They sat in silence, drinking their coffee, and watched the sun rise slowly. People passing by on their way to work or herding their children to school glanced uneasily at them, and more than one child stopped to stare at Lokan, mouths hanging open in identical expressions of astonishment. Solan glanced at Lokan to see what he made of it and relaxed a little to see the corner of Lokan’s mouth curved up in his usual half-smile.
“Kids stare,” he said, though Solan hadn’t spoken. “They’re city-bred, they don’t understand.”
“You don’t mind being stared at?”
“Little Fae, I’m nearly seven feet tall and I have a pair of antlers on my head. No, I don’t mind being stared at. I’m used to it.” He bumped Solan lightly with one arm and added softly, “Your mother is awake. Best you go say good morning and find out if she wants me off her porch.”
“Don’t fight with her, okay? Be civil.” Solan pushed himself to his feet and went back into the house, where he found his mother taking bacon and eggs out of the fridge and warming up a frying pan.
“Will we be eating out on the front porch?” she asked without looking at him.
“It’s a nice morning.” He set three plates out without waiting to be asked. “We... well, Lokan has to talk to you. You know that painting in the front hall?”
“What... is it?”
“My legacy to you, though I suppose it’s worked in ways I didn’t think of. Wild magic can be like that.” She cracked eggs into the pan and added bacon strips. “I didn’t think you’d really need to know any more than the fact that it’s a painting. Though I do find it odd that Kyr reacted to it when he first saw it.”
“We saw each other a couple of times in dreams.”
“Yes, he told me.” She turned the bacon over. “Lokan and I will talk when breakfast is over. Alone.”
“You mean fight?” Solan asked, but shut his mouth in the face of her glare and just made more coffee.
They ate outside in silence, Solan sitting uncomfortably between his mother and Lokan. After they’d finished, he was given the plates and sent inside to wash the dishes, and no matter how hard he tried to eavesdrop through the door, he didn’t hear more than the murmur of their voices as they spoke. He gave up after a few minutes and went to clean up the kitchen, humming under his breath as he washed the dishes and wiped off the counters. His mother came back in just as he was sneaking a handful of chocolate-covered raisins from her stash and he gave her a guilty look, relieved when she just snorted at him.
“Lokan and I have come to an agreement of sorts. I will allow you to make your own choice, and he will look after you when you make it.” She took him gently by the shoulders. “Take care of yourself, Solan. Don’t let anyone force you into anything you don’t want. As for the painting, I think I’ll destroy it before it does more than put an idea for a tattoo into your head. Bad enough you have a similar mark on your skin.”
“Were they right, about it being some sort of power thing? I’m not going to accidentally cause a storm or set anything on fire, am I?”
“No, I don’t think so. Your talent was in creating it. Lokan’s is in using it. I mean it, Solan, don’t let him force you into anything. He will take advantage of anything that might let him win this war.”
“I’ll be careful.” He kissed her cheek. “I better get going. He’ll probably want to get back.”
“Call me. Write me letters. Don’t make me wonder if you’re still alive again.”
“I won’t.” He pulled her into a tight hug and only reluctantly let go after a few minutes. “Love you.”
“Love you too.” She walked him to the door and kissed his cheek again, murmuring in his ear, “Don’t give up on Kyr just yet. Don’t replace him with Lokan.”
“I’m not.” He looked at Lokan, standing by the truck, and added again, almost to himself, “I’m not.”
He spent most of the drive looking out the window and dozing so that he was well-rested when they reached camp. Ceridwen dragged him away almost as soon as he’s gotten out of the truck and he fell back into the routine of camp so quickly it was as though he’d never left. He didn’t see Lokan much until winter came and the refugees stopped trickling over the border. The human army moved further down south even as they moved up further north, leaving only a small fraction of their forces to continue guarding the border. Lokan directed them to take over one of the small towns some distance from the border and there they stayed to wait out the wild winter storms and deep snow.
When spring came the border patrols started reporting more attacks from the enemy, but when Solan asked if they were going to move back down and go back on the attack, Lokan only shook his head.
“Not yet, little Fae.” He didn’t look up from the rifle he was oiling, his fingers moving in quick, sure movements. They were sitting alone in the living room of the house they’d taken over, while outside the first storm of the season tried to decide if it was raining or snowing. Ceridwen had gone to visit a friend and had been vague when asked when she would be back.
“Are we waiting for something?” Solan leaned back against the couch behind him and stretched out his legs, wiggling his toes in their thick socks.
“You could say that.”
“You’re not going to tell me shit, are you?”
Solan sighed and gave up, wriggling down until his head was supported on the couch’s cushions. He closed his eyes and dozed a little, half-listening to the sounds of Lokan reassembling and reloading his rifle, and only got up when Lokan shook his shoulder and told him to go to bed. The days continued to stretch out as the snow steadily melted, moving into a damp and dreary spring. Solan woke one morning to find Lokan gone, taking a couple of trucks and a handful of soldiers with him. When Solan asked Ceridwen, she just shrugged and said he was moving down south to have a look at things and inspect a few of the abandoned cities for any pockets of human resistance. Solan almost asked why he hadn’t been taken along then tried to dismiss it and went about his duties, shoving the thought that maybe Lokan no longer trusted him out of his mind.