Kyr watched the Fae soldiers from the shelter of an abandoned, partially bombed convenience store, his rifle held ready. Torin knelt beside him, breathing carefully but steadily, the muzzle of his gun swinging gentle from one soldier to the next as they moved back and forth. The patrol had appeared suddenly as Kyr and Torin were taking a break to eat lunch and enjoy the warmth of the spring sunshine, the only warning of their presence the cloud of dust that had risen from their trucks. They’d been forced to hide so quickly that they’d left the truck out in the open. The Fae soldiers seemed puzzled by it, milling around and looking for its owners, though only in a half-hearted way; as though they were just bored and waiting for something more exciting to come along.
“Permission to light them up, sir?” Kyr murmured.
“No. We’re not here to pick a fight, and there’s more of them than there is of us.” Torin moved slightly, adjusting his position. “We wait.”
“What if they take the truck?”
“Then we walk. Good exercise.”
“Good way to get our heads blown off,” Kyr muttered. “I bet Lokan did this on purpose to get us killed, so he wouldn’t have to do it himself and upset Solan.”
“You’re paranoid, Kyr. If Lokan really wanted to put a bullet in your empty skull he’d do it, and fuck anyone who tried to stop him.”
“You really need to get over this hard-on you have for him.” Kyr shifted restlessly, trying to find a semi-comfortable spot on the dirty tile. “Anyone would think you were fucking him or something.”
“Shut up, they’re moving.” Torin swung his rifle to cover the apparent leader, eyes narrowed against the glare of sunlight on the truck’s hood.
The Fae patrol spread out, covering the area around the truck, and their leader cupped her hands around her mouth to yell in the Fae language. Kyr glanced at Torin and saw his mouth moving as he silently translated to himself, then looked back at the Fae. Their leader was a fierce-looking woman with pale colouring and blood-red marks over her face, and Kyr tried not to think about stories of torture and cannibalism as he watched her.
“She recognized the truck,” Torin said, sounding surprised. “She’s calling for Ceridwen and Lokan, or if it’s not them, telling us to come out of hiding.”
“Yeah, so she can eat our brains,” Kyr said.
“Hardly a snack in your case. Sit tight. I’m not quite stupid enough to risk surrendering and trying to tell her we were sent this way by Lokan.”
Kyr made a noncommittal noise in response, watching another Fae soldier jog up to the woman. She listened intently then called her soldiers back in, waving them towards their own trucks and taking a last look around before following. Kyr started to get up as soon as they were out of sight, if only to ease the ache in his knees, but Torin caught his arm and held him down.
“Not yet,” he murmured in Kyr’s ear. “Wait a little longer.”
Kyr nodded, inwardly wincing for his knees, and heard the sound of approaching engines only a few minutes later. A whole convoy came into view and passed by them, truck after truck filled with Fae soldiers and weaponry. Kyr watched them go by, dimly aware that Torin was still gripping his arm almost hard enough to hurt, and let himself breathe again only when the last truck had rumbled by. They stayed where they were for nearly ten minutes more before Torin released Kyr’s arm, took a steadying breath, and got cautiously to his feet. He offered a hand and Kyr took it, wincing as cramped muscled protested the movement of him getting up.
They moved quickly to the truck and swung themselves in, keeping their heads low as Torin started the engine. Kyr tried to watch everywhere at once as the truck bounced back onto the main road, expecting hidden Fae to leap out at him at any moment. He only realized how keyed-up he was when Torin tapped him on the shoulder and nearly made him jump out of his skin.
“Relax.” Torin propped an elbow on the open window, driving with one hand. “How much further?”
Kyr squinted at the land around them, scarred and twisted by bombs and gunfire. “By dusk if we keep on straight through. And if we don’t run into any more Fae patrols.”
“I hope you know that now you’ve jinxed us.”
“Shut up and pay attention to the road.” Kyr leaned back in his seat, the rifled cradled in one arm, and tried to relax as Torin drove on towards Arian Mawr.
They passed no one else either on the road or by the side of it, and entered the outskirts of Arian Mawr just as the sun was setting, drifting down in an orange ball behind the horizon. As they passed the first scattered houses, Kyr felt a sharp pain in his ear, around the cuff, and reached up to touch it, wincing; for a moment he felt heat there, in both the cuff and his skin, then it was gone and the pain went with it. He glanced at Torin, who was frowning slightly, then turned his gaze back to the town. He kept his rifle ready but though he saw a few unfriendly faces, no one attempted to stop them from reaching Solan’s parents’ house.
He took a deep breath before getting out of the truck, grabbing his pack, and moving around the truck to join Torin by its nose, feeling as though it had been ten years since he’d last been here instead of three. Torin gave his arm a squeeze then walked up onto the front porch, looking over his shoulder and motioning for Kyr to join him. When Kyr did, Torin knocked on the door and they both waited in silence for it to open.
Kyr’s first thought was that Solan’s mother was still beautiful, even obviously stressed, her face lined with worry. She looked at them without comprehension for a moment then her eyes brightened and she pulled Kyr into such a tight hug that he squeaked a little, making Torin snort laughter. At the sound Mrs. Yorke released Kyr and cautiously looked Torin over, as though trying to make judgement on him.
“This is Torin. Torin Espenson,” Kyr said, feeling a little defensive of Torin and willing Solan’s mother to like him. “He’s my Sergeant, or he was, ‘til we kind of... committed treason and deserted.”
She tilted her head slightly, smiling. “Then you had better come in. You can tell me all about it.” She glanced over his shoulder, a little hesitantly. “Have you...?”
“He’s on his way.” Kyr managed a smile in return. “Part of that really long story we’ll tell you all about.”
She relaxed and stood aside to let them into the warm house. “I have some stories of my own.” She led them into the kitchen and put the coffee on to boil, bringing them a plate of cookies where they sat at the kitchen table.
The plate was empty and they’d had at least three cups of coffee each by the time stories had been swapped and they were all caught up on each other’s lives. Torin stayed quiet for most of it, drinking his coffee and watching Solan’s mother with that measuring look Kyr recognized from war meetings; the look that said Torin was coming to his own conclusions. Solan’s mother glanced at him occasionally, her own expression unreadable, and clapped her hands once the stories had all been told, making Kyr jump.
“You both look exhausted and it’s getting late,” she said. “Go upstairs, have showers, and go to bed. Hopefully Solan will be here in the morning.”
“And Lokan,” Torin said.
Kyr saw an expression that was almost rueful pass over her face. “Yes, and Lokan, of course. Mustn’t forget our wild king.” She nodded to the stairs. “You know the way, Kyr.”
Kyr nodded and pushed himself up, snagging his pack from the floor and waiting for Torin to join him before leading the way upstairs. He showed Torin to the bathroom and went to quietly push open the door to Solan’s room, which looked barely changed from the last time he had been there. There were even fresh sheets on the bed and he sat for a moment, just breathing in the clean smell of the room and the house.
He showered once Torin was done, taking his time under the hot water and scrubbing his skin until it went pink. He got out only reluctantly and dried off with a fresh towel, then went to join Torin in Solan’s room, changing quickly into a clean pair of PJ pants. They crawled under the blankets and spent a few moments in a friendly wrestling match that almost knocked Kyr right out of the bed. When Torin had stopped laughing, he moved over to let Kyr curl up against his side, settling an arm around him.
“Hopefully she didn’t think I’m your new boyfriend,” Torin said, grinning.
“Please. She knows I have better taste than that.” Kyr pinched his side and laughed when Torin yelped. “Much as I love you, Tor.”
“I know you only want me for my body.” Torin went silent for a few minutes, his fingers stroking gently through Kyr’s hair. Lulled by the motion and the warmth under the blankets, Kyr was almost asleep when Torin added, “Love you too, Kyr. In case I don’t get a chance to tell you again later.”
“Don’t start talking like you’re going to die. We’ve survived this long.” Kyr poked him in the ribs.
“Asshole.” Torin gave him a squeeze and fell silent, and after a few minutes his breathing deepened out into sleep.
It took Kyr a little longer to fall asleep, and when he did he dreamed of a great field stretching out endlessly to the horizon, its tall autumn gold grasses stained red by an ocean of sticky blood. Solan knelt in a flattened patch, leaning forward onto his hands, his head hanging so that his loose hair obscured his face. Colours swirled across the bare skin of his back and arms; blue and red and green and white. Above him stood a great stag, bristling with half a dozen arrows and flecked with sweaty foam, its sides heaving as it panted for breath. The tines of its antlers dripped with gore and there was a terrible blankness dulling the violet of its eyes.
As Kyr stepped forward, the bloody grass rustling against his legs and leaving streaks of red behind, the stag swung its head menacingly, the sharp points of its antlers coming perilously close to Solan’s unprotected back. Kyr stopped and called Solan’s name in a low, desperate voice, but Solan didn’t so much as twitch. The stag pawed in restless agitation then suddenly jerked its head down and around, driving the points of its antlers into Solan’s side, up under his ribs towards his heart.
Kyr woke trying to scream and unable to do much more than struggle to draw in air, making choked helpless noises. Strong hands grabbed his arms and pulled him up into a sitting position, and he turned in towards Torin’s chest, clinging to him until his heart slowed down from its jackhammer beat of terror.
“Bad dream?” Torin asked, stroking his back.
“Yeah. Really bad.” Kyr reached up to rub at his ear, where the ear cuff seemed to digging into his skin, and looked towards the window, where the first pale light of dawn was creeping in through the curtains. “I think I’m going to go have some coffee. Want some or do you want to sleep a bit more?”
“Put the pot on, but don’t wait on me.” Torin gave him a squeeze. “Unless you want me to come sit with you?”
“Nah. Just a dream.” Kyr hugged him then pushed himself out of bed and went downstairs to make himself a steaming mug of coffee.
He heard the sound of a deep, rumbling engine halfway through his mug. Picking it up to take with him, he went to the front door and opened it, stepping out onto the front porch to watch the military truck make its way slowly up the street and pull into the driveway behind the one he and Torin had come in. The relief that went through him when Solan stepped out of the truck nearly made him drop his coffee and he set it down on the porch railing, tucking his hands up under his armpits and telling himself that he was only shaking because the morning was still chilly enough for light frost. Solan spotted him and lifted a hand in a wave, jogging up onto the porch and sweeping him up into a hug.
“My mom up yet?” he asked. “I’d rather warn her Lokan’s here before they come face to face again.”
“Fortunately for you,” Solan’s mother said from the doorway, “Kyr warned me he was coming last night.”
Solan jumped then gave her a sheepish smile. “Morning.” He pulled away from Kyr to hug his mother. “No fighting.”
“Hadn’t you better tell him that?” Mrs. Yorke kissed Solan’s temple and nodded to Kyr. “Morning, Kyr.”
“Morning.” Kyr tried not to feel apprehensive as Lokan and Ceridwen approached the porch. Ceridwen came right up to join them but Lokan stopped at the bottom of the steps, looking up at them. Kyr glanced quickly at Solan’s mother and saw her expression change to sympathy as she looked Lokan over.
“My lord Lokan,” she said after a few beats of silence. It could have been a cruel thing to say, Kyr thought, but he didn’t think she meant it that way and he saw Lokan smile slightly.
“May I come in?” Lokan asked, inclining his head, so that the jagged remains of his antlers showed through his hair. Kyr saw Solan’s mother wince slightly, but she bowed a little in return and held the door open for Lokan to go inside, followed by Ceridwen.
“Phew.” Solan let out a breath, shaking his head. “Thought they’d fight, after the stunt Lokan pulled last time we were here.”
“She pities him.” Kyr slung an arm around Solan’s waist. “We should go—” He stopped at the sound of running feet and they both turned to see a boy with the pointed ears and fine features of a Fae sprinting towards them.
“Tell your mother,” the boy panted out when he was close enough. “Tell her they’re coming.”
“Who?” Solan asked.
“The army.” The boy gasped in another breath. “The humans are marching on us.”