Using the Wind Elemental powers few know she has, she is able to subdue the man. But he is only a part of something much bigger—something that wants the destruction of her, her husband, and everyone she knows and loves.
Catrin li Ternadon was beginning to hate swords.
Too long, too narrow, with too unwieldy a blade—it felt like her long-fingered elf hands ought to be slicing a beef cow instead of learning some long-traditioned murder art. Especially with the sword Master-at-Arms Severn Treng had given her. Dull, heavy, and awkward, it had been the bane of her all month, and her shoulders, wrists, and back all burned and screamed at her in protest.
He, of course, made it look easy. Elegant. Graceful. A retired Sarasvatani army captain who had cut his career path in the bloody d’Enar revolution and subsequent border chaos, his light eyes, deep skin tone, and smooth, controlled motions stood out against the scenery—like a slash of old-world violence displaced into the peaceful, bucolic backdrop of Pemberlin Castle’s green-edged estate. The effect compounded double for her. At first, she’d thought him elf-blooded. Not full, like her, but at least part. Maybe from one of the northern Mora lines, as opposed to her own Sinya. He had the right build and color for it—lean and strong, his golden-brown eyes and dark skin wouldn’t look out of place among any of her people’s forest dwellers.
Until one put a sword in his hand. And watched him for any length of time.
As he slipped across the grit of the castle’s drive, his alert eyes piercing straight through her, each soft, purposeful step—like the quiet advance of a snake—sent a prickle of unease through her gut and made her itch for the rnari blades currently sheathed in her quarters.
But she hadn’t signed up to train with daggers. She was already good with them. Excellent, even.
She’d come here to learn swords.
And Severn Treng, former captain of the Sarasvatani Third Wing, was the perfect instructor for a rnari royal guard such as herself.
The rnari were an advanced unit, the pride of the Raidt. Part ranger, part bodyguard, almost every forest elf did service with them, though few made it past the first three or four Circles—just enough to give them basic defense, and perhaps pick up a few spells along the way.
The higher levels, like herself, had to cut their way to the top.
She’d been practically born into its ranks, and had fought tooth and nail to get into the elite Twelfth Circle. The evidence of her study showed in the tattooed patterns of several spells that adorned the skin of her shoulders and biceps. Her crowning achievement was the addition of the archaic summon spell that connected her with the ice deity Kodanh and allowed her to channel his power from the fey realm—a contract students of the Raidt hadn’t managed for the better part of a century.
She was also really good at fighting.
Just—not with swords.
She kept her blade raised—short guard, legs splayed in front stance, pommel held out from her crotch, the tip aimed at the exact line of his neck as she rotated, following his movement. A slow breeze lifted across the field beside them, bringing with it the smell of long, clumpy spring grass, wet soil, and tree sap. Goosebumps rose across her exposed skin, trailing under the padding of her shoulder guards and wrist bracers in a tingling wave. The sun, low in the sky, pushed the shadows of the nearby birch stand far over the lawn. It was early spring yet, their branches still little more than a mess of naked sticks, barely pushing out buds, and the glare of the sun, bleary though it was, dropped past the curve of his face and slid across his eyes.
They narrowed at the brightness.
A potential weakness, though she doubted it. He was too skilled for that.
She kept her face impassive. Loose. Relaxed. Giving nothing away as he stalked his circle, continuing to note the differences between them. Though she was taller than him, and physically stronger, each step and balance she made took thought and effort, whereas he held his own training blade as if it had been born in his hand, its tip balanced and precise as it floated a few inches above the gravel, tracking her position.
He calculated an advance, she a retreat, aware of the curve of the driveway behind her and the grass they would likely be crashing over soon. Her muscles shook. His did not. In fact, except for a slight hitch in his left hip—a result of an arrow hit during an early campaign—there were surprisingly few faults in his motion, despite his age.
She, meanwhile, was feeling the sore tenderness of a myriad of new bruises as a result of today’s series of beat-downs, along with a stiffness weakening her off side.
And a spark in her right-hand wrist was threatening to become something more serious.
But she mirrored his position with an exact focus, each step a careful response to his.
He studied her, the consideration and evaluation in his expression the only sign, apart from the dulled and beat-up excuse for a sword he held, that he was about to hand her ass to her as an instructor, rather than just for show.
“Hanging guard,” he directed.
She concealed her wince and switched the blade back to her right, knowing what was coming.
No sooner had she swung the sword down than he attacked.
She smashed her own dull training blade up to meet his, already stepping back, the clang of metal ringing through her sore joints and making that spark of pain flare. Her core muscles screamed.
Quick as a whip, he followed. Gravel rasped as he chased her across the drive, pressing his advantages—given her little experience, he had all of them—with a series of eel-smooth thrusts and cuts, barreling into her defense like a blood-scented Hermani hound after a kill.
For her part, she moved back smoothly. Only once did she slide into her usual rnari instincts, an easy pivot and strike that she cut almost as soon as it began, instead turning the motion into an awkward defense that made his blade rake over her crossguard in a blow that strained the already-battered tendons in her wrists.
Pain flared up from below her right hand again, angry at the abuse.
She recovered swiftly—he let her—and they resumed the swift chase-and-retreat across the drive, swords ringing and clanging, him driving her back as fast as she could without stumbling. They hit grass, swerved around the oval garden of the center, ground back onto thin gravel again.
Just before she was to hit grass once more, he sidestepped, brought his sword up, made for a different strike.
She moved in as he crashed his blade down, snapped her sword to meet his. Metal screamed, then rasped as she thrust upward, catching his blade with hers. Her strained shoulders burned with tired pain as she forced herself through the unfamiliar motion, sliding the hilt up and then around until she cradled the edge of his blade in her crossguard, struggling to bring his sword along the outside of her shoulder and trap it.
He fought her, pressing her with his size and strength. She resisted the urge to turn in, instead shoving forward with her lower body—her legs, at least, were conditioned to this.
But, just as she was about to bring the sword back out, threaten him with disarming, the pain in her wrist erupted, the spark bursting into screaming, white-hot agony.
The hold collapsed inward, smacking his blade into her shoulder and knocking her to the left. She yelped, turning in with her left to relieve the strain, teeth gritting.
The pressure came off almost immediately. He backed off, disentangled their blades with a quick slide, and gave a formal-looking salute—hilt down, flat toward her, upright to his temple, a Sarasi instinct to him—to signal the end of the spar.
She reversed her sword to her left, held it in a casual grip, and, at a gesture from Treng, lifted her right wrist for him to inspect.
“You’re getting better. Less knife tactics this time.” He had a smooth accent, clipped, but spoke Janessi with a fluency similar to hers. The blunt shortness of his sentences was a result of his character, not ability.
He took her hand and prodded the bumps of her wrist with military efficiency. She stayed still, breathing through the pain. After thirty seconds, he let up. “Broken.”
She snorted softly and extricated her hand from his, giving the injured wrist a cool appraisal. It throbbed steadily, the pain only spiking when she moved it. “I’ll get Doneil to do his dark elf magic on it.”
Doneil, the only other elf on the estate, was actually a forest elf, like her. But the joke slid easily.
He grunted. “Steal some bread, too. You’re skin and bone.”
She resisted the urge to contradict him. Right now, when he wore his serious expression, they were master and apprentice.
Plus, he wasn’t wrong. She’d been pushing herself. Pushing farther than she’d ever gone before. Though the muscles specific to sword use would need quite a few more months before they developed properly, she could already feel them filling out, and the rest of her was a taut, iron-clad package of hard muscle. Each morning, she practiced through three full sets of rnari drills, and each evening saw her run the lap of Pemberlin hold’s twenty-acre inner border. All the exercise had eaten away her curves into a straighter, long-packed figure. As a result, some of her bones stuck out more.
Which was fine. She was training.
If she wanted to be among the rnari bladesworn, those that served royalty, like her parents, she had to be lean and mean. Anything more was a distraction. A sign she hadn’t worked hard enough. A symptom of laziness.
And the dark hells knew she didn’t need that. Not right now.
“Abiermar tonight,” he reminded her. “Wear your rnari dress.”
She nodded. Abiermar, made for the spring god, Abier, marked the beginning of spring planting season. Although a god who saw a broad range of worship, presiding over fertility and wealth, local tradition called to him as a pacifist. No one could carry arms—technically, the actual edict was against drawing weapons, but a few centuries of both common and political sense had decided to remove drunken temptation and put a ban on carrying, at least in court-held celebrations—on the night of his feast. Instead, they all got drunk on special triskan wine, made from the tiny, star-shaped flowers traditionally picked on the first moon of spring, tied ribbons around the boughs of castle courtyard trees, and held a night-long series of dances that came with their own subset of courting traditions among the peerage that she had paid little attention to.
Still, no weapons. For the humans, anyway.
As a bloodlined warrior of the Raidt’s court, the edict clashed immediately with her rnari tradition that she be armed at all times.
She got a pass. A pass that Lord and Lady Stanek wanted to parade around.
It wasn’t often that one hosted a bloodlined royal guard in such a minor castle.
“Do elves…” Treng hesitated, a frown deepening the lines of his forehead. “Do you celebrate Abier at all?”
“Some do. Those closest to human lands and those with… lowland farms.” She tilted her head, considering. “There are different, more specialized deities for forest and tree field cultivation and the spirits that live therein. We have hienma on the—” She did a quick calculation between the two calendars. “—twenty-eighth.”
Treng also did a calculation. “The full moon?”
“Yes. The light plays a factor in rituals.”
“How about you?” she pressed. “What’s springtime in Saras like?”
“Very hot. We like to sleep during the day.”
“Lots of night-time dances, then?”
He slashed a wry smile her way, his eyes and mouth crinkling with memory. “One could say that.”
Some things remain the same across cultures.
Her lip curled as a memory slipped through her mind—the last time someone had wanted a ‘night-time dance’ with her. She tightened her grip on the hilt of the training sword.
His eyes tracked downward, noticing immediately.
Fortunately, before he could ask, an awareness flitted across the back of her neck and pressed like a shadow against her spine—her woodcraft sense. She stiffened when it the warning touched her mind, her head turning toward the source.
Southwest. Approaching along the road.
Beside her, Treng gave her a quiet glance over, then elected to dismiss the tight hand around the sword to cast his gaze curiously toward the far-off strand of trees where she was looking.
“What is it?”
“Magic. Artifact.” She frowned. A growl could be heard now, crackling like thunder in the trees, and the runes on her skin prickled in response to the approaching artifact. It felt like a line of ants had dipped their feet in ice and crawled over her shoulder and bicep. Several flocks of birds lifted off in the distance, marking the spot. After a few seconds, she began to see quick flashes of red past the skinny trunks and winter-bare undergrowth. She raised an eyebrow.
“Ah. Motorcar,” Treng rumbled. “I’m surprised he made it past Tindale, the roads the way they are.”
Her other eyebrow tipped upwards. “He?”
“Yes. Prince Nales Cizek, out of Lorka.”
Yes, she’d heard of him. She’d heard of all of them. It was hard not to, running in the circles she did—her parents functioned as a bit more than court guards; she’d been groomed all her life to run in the courts, to look for nuance that might hide a threat. Lorka was the capital of the Teilan, the human kingdom that both sat next to and partially encroached on Raidt elf territory, and the Cizek line had held its reign for close to a thousand years with a combination of deep familial loyalty, cutting ambition, and brutal enforcement.
And blood magic. That was the story they were most famous for.
Andalai, a demon-cursed sword that answered only to the chosen of the Cizek bloodline. It had once subjugated the Raidt elves. And they were still paying that price in servitude—superficially, anyway.
Given that the demonic plane had been sealed from their world, Gaia, for two hundred and fifty years, she doubted the sword was of much practical use now.
Its legend, however, proved enough.
Treng smiled at her look of shock. “Yes, that Nales Cizek, second son of King Drahomír Cizek. He comes out here every Abiermar. Lady Stanek is his mother’s sister.”
An aunt of a royal heir. Well, that explained how Pemberlin Castle kept so many connections with other kingdoms. It had taken her father only six letters to find this place for her—and he’d been looking at elf steads first.
As far as she knew, Pemberlin was only one of two human steads he’d contacted, and had been the first to respond back.
And she wasn’t the only elf it housed. Doneil had arrived nearly a year ago.
Her mood darkened as the growling red monstrosity drew close enough for her to spot the distinct forms of two people in its seats. It was open-air, similar to a chariot, except for the second set of wheels under its back—placed like a horse’s legs, she thought, albeit a very elongated horse. Narrow, too, with a series of half-exposed pipes and mechanical bits that looked to her like thinner, more delicate versions of train parts. She discerned that the artifact she felt—either goblin or human-made, definitely not fey—was seated at its front, where the contraption extended in place of a horse.
Most likely a power source.
She immediately spotted the prince in the passenger’s seat at the back. The man driving looked more like a guard. Tall, buff, with a dusting of sand-colored hair currently mussed by the wind, the gray and black monochrome of his double-breasted royal guard coat standing out against the deep red of the car’s siding. A wide grin split his face as he turned the vehicle in through the hold’s wide-open gates and crunched onto the pale gravel drive, and his teeth flashed as he said something to the back seat, belying a certain friendship between the two.
The prince, for his part, looked more subdued. Alert, she thought, though not unfriendly. He wasn’t as tall as his guard, and held a slighter frame—not weak, but certainly not that of the career soldier sitting in the front seat. He held a leaner, more compact build. Sat balanced in his seat, his posture at ease and correct, subtle beneath the coat he wore. With his dark clothes, black hair, and the deep olive tint to his skin, he provided a distinct contrast to his companion, and, from afar, reminded her a bit of the small, wiry, gray-feathered nuthatches that picked at the forest floor.
The distance made his expression hard to discern, but she got an impression of smooth, quiet features.
She felt the exact moment his gaze found her across the space, likely drawn to the unusual sight of a forest elf in training garb standing next to the castle’s Master-at-Arms. Between her height, darker skin, and the fact that she was a woman in practice armor, she stood out even more than Treng did. He, at least, was human.
Plus, her reputation had likely preceded her. No one gossiped like the courts did.
Their eyes momentarily locked, his far bolder than she had expected, and a shock ran through her. Anger. Aggression. A flash of memory, quick and dark, never far from her mind. A slice of torchlight against the shadows of a wall.
Her grip tightened on the training sword, but she forced her features to remain smooth and neutral. She dropped her gaze to the vehicle again and received some satisfaction to see that the shiny red paint along the motorcar’s sides had been marred with splattered mud.
As Treng waved to the two men, and the growling car began to slow—Elrya, it looked like they were stopping to say hi—she gave his elbow a quick tap, lifted her injured and now visibly swelling wrist, and gave a slight bow.
“I better go heal this.”
He gave her a pitying look that she knew had only a little to do with the broken wrist, then bowed his head and offered the traditional Abiermar greeting. “Merry and bright, Catrin.”
“Merry and bright, Master Treng.”
She bowed a second time, deeper, then left.
* * *
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