Solan slept curled up in a ball under a thin blanket, hugging himself, his face pale and twisted even in his sleep. He dreamed and woke gasping, slid back under before registering much more than the dark walls around him, and woke again from another nightmare to the first dishwater light of dawn creeping in through the cracks in the barn walls. Kyr still slept beside him, rifle close to hand, but when Solan got quietly to his feet, he saw Kyr’s friend was awake, sitting against one wall and cleaning his rifle with sure, steady strokes.
“Leaving us so soon?” the man—Torin, Solan remembered finally; he hadn’t been listening well when Kyr introduced him—asked without looking up.
“Lokan came for me. He had no other reason to call for such a stupid attack. I need to get him out.”
“All by yourself?” Torin snapped the rifle back together with practiced ease. “I’ve met your Lokan once or twice. Whatever his reasons, he doesn’t strike me as a man who makes mistakes easily. So what is it about you that would bring a war-king like Lokan in a suicidal rush, and make Kyr give up everything he’s accomplished the past two years?”
“Why’d you give it up?” Solan studied his face. “You love him?”
“As a friend,” Torin said after a moment. “As a brother. Different kind of love, but just as dangerous.”
“Then you should understand why I can’t just walk away without knowing if Lokan’s even alive. Would you just leave Kyr like that?”
“My problem right now is that if you take off, Kyr’s going to go stupid going after you again. Then I have to go rescue Kyr and that’s really a cycle I have no interest in getting into. It’s idiotic and pointless. You want to find out about Lokan, fine, but grow some brains first and do it logically. Otherwise the only thing you’re going to manage to accomplish is getting your head blown off, and while I wouldn’t mind that much at this point in time, Kyr would be kind of upset.”
“Wow,” Solan said after a moment. “You don’t like me much, do you?”
“I really don’t.” Torin flashed a smile that was almost self-deprecating. “Ask me in a few days whether that’s fair or not. Meanwhile, go back to sleep. There’s nothing else for you to do now.”
Solan opened his mouth and then shut it again, trying not to get angry at the fact that he knew how much sense Torin was making. He said nothing and after a few seconds he went back to his blanket, curling up under it and hugging it around his shoulders. He thought about snuggling up to Kyr just for the warmth, and the comfort of contact, but he stayed where he was instead and drifted back into an uneasy sleep.
Kyr woke him a few hours later, shaking his shoulder and pressing a hand over his mouth to keep him from making any noise. Rubbing at his eyes, Solan sat up and pulled the blanket around his shoulders again, blearily watching Torin pace from the wall to the door of the old barn, his rifle held ready. The sunlight coming in through the walls was bright, laying heavy stripes of gold across the dusty floor. Solan listened, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and understood why a moment later: no birds were singing. He looked at Kyr and got a slight nod in return, before Kyr took his own rifle over to the door.
“Fae,” Torin said softly, peeking out through a hole in the wall. “Get over here, Solan, tell me who they are.”
“So you can shoot them?” Solan asked, but he got up and went to look, breathing out a little unsteadily when he saw Ceridwen leading the group. “That’s Ceridwen, Lokan’s second in command. Let me talk to her.”
“Yeah, right.” Torin caught his arm as he moved towards the door. “As soon as they have you back, it’ll be bullets for me and Kyr.”
“I won’t let anyone shoot you.” Solan grinned a bit. “At least, I won’t let anyone shoot Kyr, and Kyr won’t let anyone shoot you.”
Torin studied him for a long moment, eyes unreadable in the shadows, then let go of his arm. Solan nodded to him, took a deep breath, and walked over to the door, resting a hand on the doorknob. He glanced at Kyr, who was giving him a worried look, and offered a smile before pulling the door open and stepping out into the cool sunlight.
Rifles swung towards him but Ceridwen gave a sharp command, coming forward to pull Solan into a hug. He hugged her back, and murmured in her ear, “I have a pair of human soldiers in there. Swear to me you won’t hurt them.”
She tensed slightly then nodded. “I swear it. Tell them to drop their weapons and come out with their hands visible. And if either of them makes any sort of aggressive move, I will drop them.”
“Understood.” Solan pulled away and went back to the building, calling in through the door, “Drop your guns and come out with your hands in the air.”
The silence stretched out, then Torin stepped out with his hands on his head. Kyr followed him cautiously, looking warily between Solan, Ceridwen, and the little group of Fae she’d brought with her, who had all trained their rifles on Kyr and Torin.
“Tie their hands,” Ceridwen said in Faerie, nodding to the soldier nearest her. She glanced at Solan as she added, “They aren’t to be harmed, but they are prisoners.”
Solan watched the soldier tie first Torin’s hands and then Kyr’s, feeling curiously numb even when Kyr winced at the soldier’s roughness. He made to fall in with them as the soldiers prodded them away from the building, but Ceridwen caught his arm and held him back, giving him a warning squeeze when he opened his mouth to protest.
“People are pissed about Lokan,” she said quietly as they followed a few feet behind. “Nobody’s going to want to see any humans around.”
“You haven’t... Is he still alive?”
“We don’t know.” Ceridwen let out a breath in what was almost a growl. “You’d think... If he was dead, they’d be bragging about it. But this silence... It’s not a good thing either. They could be planning anything. You know I need to ask your friends what they know.”
“That’s Kyr,” Solan said instead of responding to the statement, pointing slightly. “Kyrianos Damascus. He’s... different from how he was.”
“And you aren’t, little Fae? Who’s the other one?”
“His name’s Torin, that’s all I know. I guess he’s Kyr’s friend or something.”
“Lance-Corporal Torin Espenson.” Ceridwen frowned slightly. “Lokan mentioned him. Said he might not be that high-ranking, but he’s dangerous. I wonder if we could trade him, or them both.”
“You can’t. Even if they accepted, which they won’t, Kyr and Torin got me out. They’ll be killed for treason.” Solan caught Ceridwen’s wrist. “You swore to me they wouldn’t be hurt, and that includes handing them back over to the human army.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do with them? If I keep them prisoner for too long, someone’s going to slip in and slit their throats.” She frowned. “I suppose once I’ve gotten some answers, I can arrange their escape. After that, they’re on their own.”
“Thanks. I owe you.” He squeezed her wrist gently and let go.
“What about you, little Fae? Are you going to go with them?”
“Not until I know what happened with Lokan. If he’s dead... then yeah, I’m going to leave. I don’t think you can hold this army together all by yourself, can you?” He managed a smile. “You don’t have the rack for it.”
She gave him a dirty look, but the corner of her mouth twitched up slightly. “No. We won’t be able to maintain enough cohesion without a king to hold us all together. He better not be dead.”
“Do you, uh... do you blame me, Ceridwen? He came for me, right?”
“Of course he did. Others blame you. Stick close to me when we get back to camp, and keep an eye out, because I know there’s some people who want to take your head off for this.” She rested a hand briefly on his shoulder. “But I don’t blame you, little Fae. Lokan’s always done whatever the hell he wants, whenever the hell he wants. That’s what makes him Lokan.”
“I know.” Solan smiled a little. “I’ll never forgive him if he’s dead.”
They reached Ceridwen’s truck without incident and Solan helped Kyr up into the back, trying to give him a reassuring smile before sliding into the passenger seat. It felt strange to be sitting in the front, with Ceridwen alone beside him, driving and speaking on the radio both, and no Lokan. The memory of Lokan going down made his stomach twist and he hurriedly shoved it away, concentrating on the crackly voices coming through the radio. As near as he could make out, there were still a few skirmishes between the Fae and the humans, but both armies had mostly pulled back to regroup and nurse their wounds. He listened until the reports began to sound all the same, but there was no mention of Lokan.
At camp he and Ceridwen fell in to either side of Kyr and Torin, moving them quickly past hostile glares and a few distinct growls until they could all duck into Ceridwen’s tent. Solan untied Kyr’s hands first as soon as they were safely inside, hesitating slightly before doing the same for Torin, and let them sit down. As they rubbed at red wrists, he brought them some water, watching Ceridwen out of the corner of his eye. She stood silently, arms crossed over her chest, until he was finished, then swung a chair up in front of them and settled down on it, leaning her arms on the back.
“Tell me everything you know,” she said. “Everything.”
Kyr opened his mouth but closed it again when Torin elbowed him hard in the side. “Why?”
“Why do you think?” Ceridwen arched an eyebrow. “Don’t try to play dumb with me. I’m the one keeping your asses from being turned into meat, and I’m the one who’s going to let you go. I promised Solan I wouldn’t hurt you but to be perfectly honest, I’m running out of patience. I am just barely keeping this army together in Lokan’s absence, I’m pissed off and stressed out, and I have absolutely no problem throwing you to the wolves if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
Solan kept his mouth shut with an effort, watching Kyr rock back a little in his chair, expression flickering from uncertain to nervous to a kind of resignation. Torin barely moved except to blink once or twice, but Solan saw sweat beading on his temples, dampening his pale hair.
“There’s really not much we can tell you,” Torin said finally. “Neither of us are that high-ranking. I can tell you...” He hesitated, glancing at Kyr, who nodded slightly. “I can tell you that if they haven’t killed Lokan, they’ll be trying to... harness him, I guess. Figure out what makes him tick and if they can use it against you. Like the storms you used against us.” For an instant anger flickered in his eyes. “Turnabout’s fair play, right?”
“If you could actually turn it about. You can’t just... cut us open and use our magic.” Ceridwen gave them a disgusted look, one that Solan sympathized with. “And we’re the monsters here?”
“Does it really matter right now? I can’t tell you any future plans because I don’t know them. You said yourself this whole army’s going to fall apart without Lokan. My advice is to give him up and leave, go back to the mountains before you’re completely destroyed.”
“No,” Solan said, trying not to see the frown Kyr shot him. “Nobody’s giving up on Lokan.”
“Be quiet, Solan,” Ceridwen said without looking at him. “You don’t really believe we will, do you, Lance-Corporal Espenson?”
“Not really,” Torin said after a moment, smiling slightly. “I don’t think either of us can stop until one side or the other is beaten into the ground. Kind of stupid, isn’t it? Can’t share so we’ll just destroy the country instead.”
Ceridwen studied him for so long, face expressionless, that Solan shifted uneasily, wondering if she was really angry and trying to control it. When she laughed both he and Kyr jumped slightly, and exchanged an understanding look. “I like you,” she said. “I can see why you caught Lokan’s attention.”
“Somehow that sounds ominous.” Torin flashed a smile of his own, slightly cynical but genuine as far as Solan could tell.
“Maybe.” Ceridwen glanced toward the tent flap as someone called her name. “Pretend your hands are still tied.” She got up and stepped outside, holding the tent flap closed with one hand.
“Solan.” Kyr hesitated a little, looking at Torin. “You’re... you like this Lokan?”
“He’s... it’s complicated.” Solan strained to hear what Ceridwen was saying, but both her voice and the messenger’s were too low. “Can we talk about it later?”
“When you leave with us?”
“Later, Kyr, okay?” Solan unconsciously tensed when Ceridwen came back into the tent, trying to read her expression.
She went to the table in the corner and flicked on the small TV there, adjusting it until it showed one of the human news channels. A reporter there was talking about going live to the command tent of the human army in just a few minutes, and warning viewers to send small children out of the room. Solan stiffened at that, and saw the muscles in Ceridwen’s shoulders tense as she crossed her arms over her chest again. The reporter announced they would be switching over and the view changed from the newsroom to a long, low tent full of tables and desks covered in paperwork. At one of the tables sat a number of humans, mostly men, dressed in uniforms and insignia that proclaimed them to be high-ranking members of the army.
The screen went staticky for a moment and Ceridwen slapped it with one open hand. The image fuzzed then settled back clear, just in time for a group of soldiers to muscle someone in and half-drag him towards the table. Solan recognized Lokan immediately, if only by his build; there was a dark hood over his head and something about the shape of it struck him as odd. The vaguely uneasy thought was almost wiped out by his relief that Lokan was still alive, if bloody and staggering. The soldiers shoved him down onto his knees in front of the table and held rifles on him, glancing towards their leaders.
The man in the middle of the table, the general by his insignia, looked directly at the camera, his pale blue eyes cold. “Let the Fae realize that they have lost their king and they have lost this war. We will accept surrender only in the next 24 hours, and after that we will annihilate any Fae caught within our territory. Again, you have 24 hours.”
He nodded to the soldiers and Solan went cold all over, suddenly sure that they would execute Lokan right here on camera. Instead one of the soldiers stepped forward and took hold of the hood over Lokan’s head, pulling it up and off in one smooth motion. Solan heard Ceridwen gasp and understood why the shape of the hood had looked so strange.
Lokan’s antlers were gone.