There was little left of the walled fortress, but what remained suggested the simplicity of a working village, something vastly different from the fanciful spirals and white marble of the royal city. For some reason that pleased him.
He tried not to hear the echoes that haunted the ruins—exploding magic, burning timbers, the clamor of battle and the screams of the dying—and turned his attention to the two living elves who were busily prying a block of soot-blackened stone from the remains of the bailey wall.
He dismounted and walked over. “What are you doing?” he asked, more in curiosity than challenge.
The older of the two, an elder who’d seen centuries come and go, glanced up. “Building a sheepcote,” he said shortly. “Want to help?”
Thaile needed no second invitation. He shrugged off his fine cloak and accepted a long metal bar from the older, smaller elf. The three of them worked together to chip away the mortar so they could get their levers far enough under the block to tip it onto an old sheet of sailcloth. Once the feat was accomplished, the old elf produced a wineskin from his pack. They sat on the broken wall for a while and passed it around.
“You did well enough, for a lad that’s all legs and elbows,” the elder said.
Thaile beamed, recognizing the words as high praise. “If you’ve a bit of rope, we could tie the sailcloth to my horse’s saddle and drag the stone where it needs to go.”
He whistled for the horse, which promptly trotted over. The northerners’ eyes widened as they took in its fine lines and the distinctive light gray coat that shone like silver and moonlight.
“That’s your horse?” asked the younger of the two in a voice that rang with consternation. “A Pyrito stallion?”
“It is,” Thaile admitted, giving himself a mental head-slap for not anticipating this reaction.
The Pyrito breed was a favorite of the royal family and common enough in Leuthin, but such horses were seldom seen outside the royal city and the country estates surrounding it. Thaile’s appearance was distinctive enough, for few elves outside of his family had eyes the color of amber. If he wished to travel anonymously, this was no way to go about it.
Their gazes turned to Thaile, and he saw the shock of understanding on their faces.
They rose, for no elf sat in the presence of his lord unless invited to do so. Both elves extended their left hands, palms upward.
“My name is Osinor,” said the old elf. “I knew your grandsire. I sailed with him, fought beside him. He knew my son here. In his name, make it quick.”
A moment passed before Thaile understood what they were offering, another before he absorbed the reality behind the stories of ancient times and barbarous ways.
“You are not thieves,” he said firmly. “What you took was freely given. And even were it not, we northern elves are a practical people. Dressed stone is better employed in a sheepcote than a ruin. Two hands are better than one.”
Relief and disappointment vied for a place on the older elves’ faces. “You don’t mean to rebuild, then?”
“I do,” Thaile said. “But when that time comes, new stone will be cut from the black sea cliffs, as was done in times of old.”
The elves exchanged a glance and a small, approving nod. “May that day come soon,” said Osinor.
“It will,” he said with more confidence than he felt. “Show me what needs to be done now.”
A few hours later, Thaile stood at the mouth of the dragon cave, one hand holding a torch and the other itching for the feel of a sword he was not yet ready to claim. Entering the cave without the dragonlord magic his family sword would give him was foolhardy, but he saw no other option.
He’d had no idea things were so bad in the north. He should have realized that other elves had lost everything in the invasion that had left him a homeless orphan, the last of his line. This failure shamed him. A good lord thought of his people first.
His people were hardy elves, tough and proud and practical. They’d fought well against overwhelming odds, and those who’d survived had rebuilt as best they could. But so much had been lost—their homes, their flocks, their ships, most of their sea captains, many of their skilled crafters, and all of the giant looms upon which they’d woven the finest, lightest, and most durable sailcloth in this land or any other. The greatest loss, however, was an entire generations of children, for no elf would deliberately bear a child they could not care for.
Growing up as he had in the sprawling royal household, Thaile was accustomed to the noisy, messy jumble of camaraderie and conflict large families enjoyed. The villages had none of that. Of all the sobering things he’d seen and heard this day, it was this empty silence that most haunted him.
This will not stand, he vowed. He was an elven lord. He would do whatever was required to ensure that his people could live good lives, safe and prosperous and happy.
He squared his shoulders and prepared to enter the cave.
A short, sudden gust extinguished his torch with a sound very like a child blowing out a candle. Thaile spun and found himself face to face with small, winged woman.
The little fey was plump and rosy, with an abundance of white hair and tiny apple cheeks. A web of laugh lines surrounded her ageless black eyes. Busy gossamer wings kept her aloft, and each movement sent glittering motes of light into the deepening twilight—a sign of amusement or pleasure, according to the tales. Thaile was not reassured by this evidence of good humor. Few of those stories had ended well.
Still, it was possible to have an encounter with the fey that did not entail disaster, provided one followed certain unwritten rules. Thaile inclined his head politely. “Good evening to you, my lady,” he said with careful courtesy.
“An elf with manners!” she exclaimed in a surprisingly rich, deep alto. “Rare as a blue unicorn, that is. Seeing who you are, though, that’s no real surprise.”
The notion that a fey woman might know of him was both disturbing and intriguing. “Have we met, my lady?”
“I knew your granny. Fine woman. Too tall, of course, but that’s a common failing among elves. You have her eyes.”
Thaile drew in a short, startled breath. His already-speeding heart began to pound in hopeful anticipation. “You… You knew my grandmother?”
“Great grandmother, or maybe two greats more, on your mother’s side. Oh, but she was a fine, wild lass! You like to run, I suppose?”
Thaile’s brow furrowed in puzzlement at this abrupt change of direction. “Well enough.”
“Well enough? We’ll see about that, won’t we?” She thrust two tiny fingers into her mouth and blew a short, shrill blast. The nearby bushes rustled and two small, winged men fluttered over.
“You, Florin, go fetch Milandra’s amulet. The wolf carving that hangs over the mantle,” she elaborated.
The little man bowed and disappeared as abruptly as a soap bubble. A moment later, he popped back into sight, carrying what looked to be a fey-sized wooden plate. He fluttered over and dropped it into Thaile’s outstretched palm.
Thaile held up the little disk for closer inspection. A carving of a wolf’s head, simple and stylized, surrounded by an open circle. He could almost feel the power radiating from it.
“This belonged to my fifth-mother?” he said reverently. “The Lady Milandra?”
“Did I not say so? Put it on.”
Thaile produced a spare bootlace from his bag of sundries and threaded it through the amulet. He tied the ends securely, looped it over his neck, and looked expectantly at the ancient fey.
“With that amulet, Milandra could take wolf form as quick as thought. Let’s see you try.”
Thaile blinked, astonished by the fey woman’s matter-of-fact approach to an artifact of such power. Magic was an important part of Thaile’s studies, but he had no experience with such items.
“I’m not sure how,” he admitted.
The fey rolled her eyes. “You elves love to complicate things, don’t you? Make up your mind to do it, is all. No fancy words or hand-wavings, else how would anyone change back? Wolves don’t have the wherewithal for magecraft. Close your eyes. Breathe deep and slow. Think wolfy thoughts.”
Thaile wasn’t sure what that last bit of advice entailed, but he brought to mind an image of a wolf, one with pale silvery fur and gold eyes. With his third breath, a complex, intoxicating perfume exploded through his senses—layers and layers of scent, a thousand notes, each one distinct and fascinating. His eyes flew open, and his startled cry came out as a yip.
He howled, just to see if he could.
“Knew you had it in you,” the fairy said approvingly. “Go for a run, if you like. Your granny was a great one for running.”
Suddenly, there was nothing he wanted more! He spun away from the cave and galloped into the forest.
Running on four legs rather than two was pure delight, as natural as breathing. And the scents! Spicy goldfern, the soft musk of a hiding rabbit, sweet-tart blackberries, a hint of deer scat, a mushroom that smelled like danger, and so much more. And he could see so clearly! Not much color, to be sure, but to his wolf’s eyes, the moonless night seemed as bright as twilight.
Some time later, he padded back to the cave, his tongue lolling happily. The fey woman sat on a redcap mushroom, swinging her bare feet. She looked up and smiled as Thaile trotted into the clearing.
“Had fun, did you? Might as well, eh? Changing back is just as easy. Think yourself an elf, and you will be.”
It happened just as she said. Thaile was gratified to learn that the transformation left him fully clad, down to his boots and dagger. Leaving his gear behind with every change could be inconvenient, not to mention expensive.
The thought of riches he did not possess returned him to his purpose. He nodded to the fey woman—one did not thank a fairy, not ever!—and turned to the cave.
“What are you wanting in there?” she inquired.
“Emeralds,” he said candidly, because lying to a fairy was as dangerous as thanking one. “My people need things I can’t give them. I have lands, title, an ancient family. When I come of age, I will inherit a sword of legend. What I don’t have is money.”
“Elves,” she scoffed. “You can’t make coins out of shiny green rocks.”
“You are wise,” he agreed. “Emeralds are not money, but they can be traded for it. A lot of it.”
“Hmmm.” She thought this over for several moments. “Your granny never mucked about with dragons, you know.”
He did know. The family sword was passed down from one generation to the next, either by blood or marriage, but Milandra had not been one of its wielders. Her son had inherited, and the line of dragonlords continued unbroken. No wielder in recent generations had actually trained as a dragon rider, but then, many centuries had passed since the sleeping dragons had been called to service.
“I don’t intend to wake the dragon,” he said.
“You might do so whether you want to or not,” she said briskly. “Dragons don’t much like wolves, and you’ve got the scent of one. I’ll send my people in.”
Despite long pouring over old tomes and maps, Thaile was not entirely certain the gem-studded tunnels beyond the dragon’s den were anything more than legend. The gain was uncertain and the risk enormous, but speaking of danger would be a deadly insult.
“The location of the emerald mines is a secret,” he said, considering this the safest route to take.
The pixie scoffed. “From the elves, mayhap. If it’s greenstones you want, greenstones you shall have.”
She whistled again, and her two guards promptly appeared. She laid out the quest and bid them gather the clan. “A grand tourney,” she concluded, “with feastings to honor the fey who gathers the most!”
The words had barely left her mouth when the clearing came alight with dozens of winged fey, flickering like excited fireflies.
“Dim your lamps,” their queen cautioned. “The tourney starts….now!”
Thaile sat at the cave’s entrance for the rest of the night as the fey came and went, darting about as they piled gemstones into small, individual cairns. When the night sky began to fade to silver, the fey queen called a halt. The piles were judged, the winner announced. Every fey burst into loud, happy cheering, for no matter who the winner, a fairy feast was cause for celebration.
Or so the old tales claimed, and so far Thaile had found no reason to doubt them. He filled his coin purse with emeralds and emptied his bag of sundries to make room for the rest.
“Seeing to kin and clan,” the fey woman said, watching him with approval. “Well done. You would have been a good lord.”
Her choice of words puzzled him. He was a lord, and had been since he was a babe in arms.
“Dragons don’t much like wolves,” she said.
Thaile thought he understood. The magic of the amulet must be used sparingly if he wished to claim his inheritance. As tempting as it might be, he could not risk another transformation.
“I thank you for the warning,” he said gravely.
Too late, he realized his mistake: Never thank a fairy!
A storm cloud settled over the fey woman’s face. She hissed like an angry cat. “Get you gone, before I forget I called your granny my friend.”
No fool, Thaile did as he was bid.
He’d left his horse in a nearby meadow. The stallion seemed to sense Thaile’s mood, for he galloped northward as if he had a pack of wolves on his tail—or worse, a flight of angry fey.
When they neared the village, Thaile reined his horse to a walk and checked the contents of his bag. To his relief, the sack still held emeralds, and not owl pellets or angry beetles or something even less pleasant.
The scent of wood smoke and baking bread greeted him. Several elves were busy removing loaves from a large communal oven. Thaile suspected that the stone used to build the oven shared a history with Osinor’s sheepcote.
He looked around for his guide of the day before. The elder broke away from a small group of elves and strode over, hand extended in greeting. “My lord Thaile.”
The young elf swung down from his horse. He walked over to Osinor and poured emeralds into his outstretched hand.
Silence, deep and total, fell over the busy scene.
The elder shook his head. “We can’t take what isn’t earned, my lord, not even from you.”
“It’s not a gift,” Thaile said briskly, “but an investment. I expect a good return.”
“Go on,” Osinor said cautiously.
“The sailcloth is key to the northland’s fortunes. That means increasing the flocks, building new looms, teaching the old skills to young weavers. We will need ships for trading once there is stock to trade, and sturdy fishing vessels now. There must be weapons and training for the young, for what business can enjoy success without a surety of safety? Magic is also a weapon; the young will need to be tested for tower training.”
From the corner of his eye, Thaile noticed the bright hope dawning on the face of an elf woman who wore her hair in bridal braids. She reached for her husband’s hand. Young though he was, Thaile understood the look that passed between them.
“I propose a five-year building period,” he said. “After that, I will expect a tenth of the profits. And there will be profits.”
“Aye, there will be,” Osinor agreed. He gestured with his emerald-filled hand. “I’ll be needed a sack to put these in. The one you’re holding will do fine.”
A ripple of laughter spread through the listening elves. Thaile grinned and handed over the gemstone-heavy bag. He accepted the offer of breakfast, and was swept away to enjoy a meager but merry repast.
Osinor listened for a while, but he found himself unable to sit still. He slipped away and walked toward the shore, his mind awhirl with plans for a brighter future than he’d dared dream possible.
“He’s no dragonlord,” announced a deep female voice behind him.
The old elf whirled, biting back a rude exclamation when he realized to whom he would be speaking.
“My lady,” he said, bowing to the fey woman who had alternately befriended and bedeviled his clan for generations.
“That one carries Melindra’s blood. He’s wolfkin.”
Osinor’s heart sank. There’d been rumors about old Lady Melindra, but as the centuries passed and none of her offspring had shared her dual nature, the old stories had been all but forgotten. Wolfkin seldom mixed with the one-natured, in no small part because their young bred elven. To have a wolfkin lord appear now, after so many generations, was a possibility no one had considered.
“Does he know?”
The fey waved one hand in airy dismissal. “I decided not to tell him. You can, if you want.”
He couldn’t, and well she knew it!
“Why so distressed?” she said merrily. “It doesn’t matter.”
“With respect, my lady,” he said carefully, “if Lord Thaile’s magic doesn’t match that in his family’s sword, trying to claim it could kill him. There’s no dishonor in leaving a sword for the next generation, but claiming and failing could destroy the lad.”
She shrugged and flitted off. “Dead or disgraced, doesn’t matter. He’s not the lord you wanted.”
The sound of hoof beats drew Osinor’s gaze to the shore road. Lord Thaile rode south on his too-fine horse, his thin young face shining with purpose.
“Maybe he’s not,” the old elf conceded softly, “but by the gods, he’s the lord we need!”