Words flowed around him in the rhythms of conversation and incantation, sometimes weaving in and out of each other. He struggled to concentrate on them but even when they came clearly to him through the grey cloud he was floating in, they didn’t make any sense. Warm fingers stroked his forehead during one of these times and he opened his eyes enough to see a dark blur above him, backlit by a bright light. A woman’s voice said something he didn’t understand, and a man answered her, then he slipped back into the cloud.
He woke again briefly some time later and found his vision had cleared enough to let him take a dazed look around him. He was lying in someone’s bed—not Kyr’s, though that was his first thought—and the walls around him were rough wood. The ceiling above was wood as well, bare except for the light hanging down from its middle, off now in the grey winter daylight. He stared up at it for a long moment, trying to remember why he hurt so much, and was just on the verge of it when his eyes fluttered closed and the grey cloud claimed him once again.
When he woke the third time, someone was sitting at his bedside, stroking his hand soothingly. He thought first of Kyr, then of his mother when he smelled faint perfume, but the woman sitting beside him was too tall to be his mother. He squinted at her in the dim light, trying to make her out clearly, and squeezed his eyes shut when she got up to turn on the light.
She said something in a language he didn’t know and he felt her fingers gently stroke his forehead. Warmth extended out from her touch, slipping across his cheeks like a blush, and he felt tense muscles relax, easing the pain in his shoulder and side. He opened his eyes again gradually, waiting until he’d adjusted to the light before looking at her fully.
She was easily two inches taller than him and powerfully built beneath a hip-length tunic and leather pants shoved into heavy winter boots. A broad belt encircled her waist and he saw a gun on one hip; a long sheath hung on the other, the intricate silver handle of a knife jutting out from it. Her long dark red hair had been twisted into cornrows around her head and then left free to tumble in curls around her shoulders. A scar marked the dark skin of her left cheek and he could see more scars roped around one forearm, below the rolled-up sleeve of her tunic.
He tried to ask where he was and what had happened at the same time and stumbled over his own tongue, trailing off into an embarrassed silence. She laughed and stroked his hair back with one callused hand, and in heavily accented English told him to lie still and rest.
“Wait,” he managed when she turned to leave. “Who are you?”
“My name is Ceridwen, little one. Yours?”
“Solan,” he said after a slight hesitation.
“Sleep well, Solan,” she said, and gently closed the door behind her.
He didn’t sleep at all for a while, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling instead. His memory was gradually coming back, though it exhausted him just to think about it, and he wished he knew if Kyr was okay. He wondered if Ceridwen would know, and if she would tell him anything if she did, and slipped back into a dark sleep still trying to decide if he would ask.
He woke again when the door opened and Ceridwen stepped inside. Smiling a bit, Solan started to greet her, then stopped when he saw she had a companion, a man even taller than she was, who had to duck through the door both because of his height and because of the foot-long antlers spiralling out of his shaggy blue-black curls. Solan stared at him, unconsciously gripping the blankets in his fists and feeling very exposed lying on a bed too weak to get up, with his bare chest bandaged so tightly it hurt a little to breathe.
“Well,” Ceridwen said, “you’ve already managed to scare the shit out of our pretty little city half-breed.”
“Hush, Ceridwen,” the man said absently, still looking Solan over, dark brows drawn down over violet eyes. He wasn’t handsome—his nose had been broken at least once and healed crookedly, and something had badly scarred the right side of his jaw and neck—but power came off him in waves, even while he was slouched to avoid scoring the ceiling with his antlers. He spoke with the same accent as Ceridwen and Solan recognized the deep rumbling voice from his time spent in the grey cloud.
“Hush yourself, old man,” Ceridwen said, grinning. “Never seen a true wild Fae before, little one?”
It took Solan a moment to realize Ceridwen was speaking to him, and he dragged his eyes away from the man. “No. I, uh, I heard stories, but...”
“But seeing one isn’t the same as hearing stories, is it? Well, this is Lokan. He’s as fierce as he looks, but he likes strays. You’ll be safe with him.” She clapped the man on the shoulder hard enough to stagger him despite his height, and left again.
Lokan glanced over his shoulder at the door then looked back at Solan, his frown deepening. Solan realized he’d been staring and hurriedly dropped his eyes, trying to push himself up to a sitting position. Sudden pain throbbed through his shoulder and he collapsed back again, hissing through his teeth.
“Don’t undo Ceridwen’s work,” Lokan said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Solan laughed a bit. “I really need to pee. Can I just... Can you help me up?”
Lokan eyed him, expressionless, then came over and slid an arm under Solan’s back, helping him first sit up then get unsteadily to his feet. Solan stood for a long moment, taking shallow breaths and leaning gratefully on Lokan’s arm, then limped out into the hallway and down to the bathroom. At the door he felt steady enough to go in and do his business by himself, though when he went to wash his hands in the rusty sink, he had to brace himself against a sudden wave of dizziness.
In the spotty mirror over the sink his face looked drawn and gaunt, his skin nearly as white as the bandages drawn snug over his shoulder, chest, and ribs. He checked to make sure there was no blood staining them, then made his slow way back over to the door and opened it. Lokan was still waiting outside for him, leaning against the rough wall with his arms crossed over his chest, and supported Solan back to the bedroom without a word.
“You don’t talk a lot,” Solan said just to break the silence as Lokan helped him sit back down on the bed.
“Don’t have a lot to say.” Lokan retreated to the chair and sat down, his bulk making it creak warningly. His steady gaze was disconcerting enough that Solan looked down at his hands, folded in his lap, and twisted his fingers over one another.
“Can you tell me what happened?” he asked finally. “How I ended up... wherever here is?”
“I found you in the snow, half-dead. Ceridwen insisted we bring you with us.” Lokan shifted his weight and the chair creaked again. “I would’ve left you.”
“Thanks a lot,” Solan said, stung. “Don’t worry, soon as I can walk by myself, I’m going back.”
Solan looked up at him, frowning a bit. “Why?”
“You were shot and left for dead.”
“Yeah, but...” Solan shook his head. “I have parents in Arian Mawr. And my boyfriend...” He hesitated a little. “I have to make sure he’s okay.”
“Arian Mawr?” Lokan leaned forward in his chair. “Is it still ours, or have the humans taken over?”
“Still ours, I guess. Nobody’s all that happy about the humans living in town. What are you doing here? Didn’t all the wild Fae... go north?”
“Scouting trip.” Lokan brushed thick hair out of his face, revealing a long twisting scar that ran up the bottom of his forearm like a seam. “We’re going back north.”
Solan looked at him, feeling his stomach drop, and swallowed hard. “To... form an army?”
“To rejoin the army.” Lokan pushed himself to his feet. “Rest. We’ve wasted three days on you already.”
“Thanks.” Solan offered a smile and got a raised eyebrow in return. “For wasting any time on me.”
“You’re welcome.” Lokan ducked his head in a movement almost like a bow and let himself out of the room.
Solan settled gingerly back on the bed and tucked his legs back beneath the blankets, absently massaging his chest. His thoughts went immediately to Kyr and loneliness stabbed him suddenly, the pain almost as physical as the pain in his shoulder and side. He rolled over onto his side and curled up as much as he could, blinking back hot tears, and eventually he slept again.
He spent the rest of the week regaining his strength, sleeping a lot and eating the hot food Ceridwen brought him when he was awake. She was willing to sit and chat if he asked, though she wouldn’t give him more information on the army Lokan had mentioned, but he only saw Lokan again when Ceridwen pronounced him ready to travel, as long as he stayed bundled up. He asked if they would take him somewhere safe, a place where he could make his way back to Arian Mawr first and then to find Kyr, and she bit her lip then offered him an arm and led him out to where Lokan was loading up the back of a rickety-looking old van.
“Our little Fae wants to go home,” she announced.
Lokan glanced over his shoulder, angling his head so his antlers wouldn’t catch on the van’s rear door. “No.”
“What do you mean, no?” Solan asked, swallowing hard against fear. “Thanks for helping me, but I need to go home.”
“Too dangerous.” Lokan slammed the van’s door down. “For you and for us.”
“I need to—”
“You need to sit down and shut up.” Lokan faced him fully and Solan took a step back, tightening his grip on Ceridwen’s arm.
“Be nice, old man,” Ceridwen said mildly. “There’s no need to scare the boy. Just explain nicely that we can’t risk going back into human territory now, and we can’t risk you telling anyone about us.” She held up a hand to forestall Solan’s protest. “Teenagers, in my experience, do not keep secrets very well. We won’t keep you forever.”
“And if you try to run, I’ll hobble you,” Lokan said, ignoring Ceridwen’s glare and pushing past her back into the cabin they’d been staying in.
“He’s only joking,” Ceridwen said. “Probably.”
“You don’t understand, I need to get back. My parents are probably worried sick, and my boyfriend was grabbed by the cops when I ran. I need to make sure he’s okay and they’re not going to toss him in some dark cell for helping me.” He met her eyes. “Please.”
“I can’t. But tell me his name, and I will find out what happened to him. It’s all I can promise, little Fae.” She brushed his hair off his forehead in a gesture that reminded him so much of his mother that he had to squeeze his eyes shut for a moment.
“All right,” he said finally. “His name’s Kyr. Kyrianos Damascus. He lives in Aldeen. It’s a city—”
“Yes, I know it.” She ushered him back inside. “You’re shivering. Sit a moment and warm up.”
He sat on the sagging couch in the living room and wrapped his arms around himself, watching dully as she and Lokan crossed back and forth, packing weapons and other gear into the van. When they were done he obediently got up and followed Ceridwen out to the van, accepting her help into the back seat. He watched out the window as Lokan drove, trying to place landmarks in his mind so he had a hope of getting to safety when he snuck out, and managed to smile and talk to Ceridwen when she asked him a few questions about himself.
Night had fallen by the time Lokan stopped, pulling into the driveway in front of another ramshackle cabin, this one half-covered in snow and ice. The further north they’d gone, the deeper the snow had become, until Solan saw drifts taller than he was in some places. Exhaustion made him stumble as he tried to get out of the van and Lokan caught him, holding him easily until he managed to get his feet under him and stumble into the cabin. Sprawling out on the couch instead of going to the extra effort to find a bed, he closed his eyes and fell deeply asleep.
He woke briefly when one of them draped a blanket over him and heard them talking in their strange language as they walked away, their voices receding down what he’d briefly seen was a hallway. He fought to stay awake and listen until they were asleep, then sneak out, but instead he fell asleep again and didn’t wake until just before dawn.
He pushed himself up stiffly and limped to the front door, holding his side with one hand. His eyes were still heavy with sleep and all he wanted to do was curl up under the blanket for a few more hours, but instead he slid his feet back into his boots and carefully eased the door’s latch up. Something creaked towards the rear of the cabin and he froze, but it didn’t repeat itself and eventually he slipped outside and carefully shut the door behind him, pausing a moment to settle the latch fully down.
“You can try walking out of here,” Lokan said from behind him, “but they probably won’t even find your body until summer.”
“Shit,” Solan managed through the fear that had sent his heart somewhere up in his throat.
“Ceridwen didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to try but me, I know better. Go back in before you freeze.”
Solan risked a glance over his shoulder, half-expecting Lokan to be standing there with one of the semi-automatics he’d seen them loading, but Lokan was only leaning against the van’s side, smoking what looked like a hand-rolled cigarette. He blew smoke out into the air and followed it with steam from his breath, dropping the cigarette into the snow and crushing it out with the toe of his boot. In the pre-dawn shadows he didn’t look quite real, only his outline clearly visible, like something from a storybook.
Solan thought about trying to make an excuse then just sighed and turned all the way around. “I just want to go home.”
“That’s what we all want.” Lokan straightened up and moved closer, becoming clearer as he did, though it did nothing to dispel the sense that he wasn’t entirely real. “Inside.”
Solan did as he was told without protest, toeing his boots off again and going back over to the couch to wrap the blanket around himself until he could stop shivering. He watched Lokan take off his own boots and hang his coat on the hook beside the door, then go into the kitchen, flicking on the light as he did. A few moments later he heard the dull fwump of the gas stove coming on, followed by the sizzle of something frying. His stomach gave an interested growl and he got up, the blanket still wrapped around his shoulders and trailing behind him like a cape, to go see what was for breakfast.