Three pieces of king’s copper?” Billington asked, as his unruly gray eyebrows rose in skepticism. “For a handful of pixie wings?”
For years, he’d trekked from the castle through the forest to this local bazaar, which only happened each new moon, in the heart of the nearest village. Though small, it boasted a select array of horticulturists, butchers, and peddlers who offered goods from far beyond the land of the elves. He loved to get lost in the aisles of hanging meats, thieves’ vinegar, nuts of fortune, seeds of fate, dragon skulls, jewelry made of mermaid’s tears, and other rare elements that were not easy to source anywhere else in the realm, for his experiments.
Billington had never seen this peddler before, a handsome woman with stunning amber eyes intensified by long lashes and thick black brows, her hair neatly hidden under a bright red scarf.
“Mavis, this newcomer is trying to charge me tenfold what these wings are worth,” Billington chuckled, gently setting the wings back down between a few jars of gilded fairy dust and a thoughtful arrangement of giant’s nail clippings.
Beside the peddler, Mavis, the good wife of a notable dairy farmer who fermented Billington’s favorite cheese curds, cackled with glee.
“It’s no use trying to fleece him, Cora,” she advised the woman in the red scarf. “That’s Mortus’s magician. He magicks for the king of the elves. Old Bill probably knows what you’re about to think before you even think it. Or at least everywhere you’ve been, and maybe where you’re going.”
Mavis was right, but Billington didn’t reveal that truth with even a flicker of his features. He’d never waste his powers on a stranger showing no sign of threat. But it didn’t hurt for folks to assume he would. Usually, he thought ruefully.
Billington lifted his chin, narrowing his eyes for effect as Cora sized him up. He was tall, taller than most wizards, or elves for that matter. His skin shone a dark mahogany, pierced by the light in his deep-set brown eyes, while his grizzled hair fell past his shoulders in twisted locs. His sharp features were softened by a sprinkle of freckles and the unkempt beard that rode his jawline. He looked less like a court vizier and more like a mad druid, clothed in wrinkled linens and a tired gray robe, with a beat-up staff he held effortlessly in his hand. It was an appearance he courted for its effect, but this time, it didn’t seem to work in his favor.
“The king’s magician?” the alluring peddler said, arching her eyebrows so they became one. “Like the king’s stallion or the king’s hound?”
Billington grinned. “I see you make up for your high prices by your extraordinary politeness,” he countered.
“I assure you, they’re worth every piece of king’s copper in your purse,” Cora said, as she cracked her own bright smile.
Since she was so insistent on their worth, Billington took a closer look at the wings. He caught the faintest glimmer of rare fluorescent red pigmentation, an indication that some ancestor of the pixie could have mixed with another species, a rarity for such creatures.
Still, the price was outrageous.
“I’ll pass,” Billington said, and turned to walk away.
“Wait,” Cora said. Suddenly, a cool breeze whipped through the air. “These wings, you’ll need them.” Around them, the wind began to pick up.
“Really,” Billington said, and turned back. “How do you mean?”
“You’re a magician,” she said smoothly. “You’ll find out.”
Against his better judgment, Billington drew three pieces of king’s copper from his leather satchel and tossed them on her stand. He knew he was overpaying, but there was something reassuring in her smooth voice, and he liked her quick tongue – or was it her amber eyes?
She pocketed the copper and her gaze slid away from his. He lifted the pixie wings, which glimmered a radiant purple and green in the soft morning light, his mind racing with possible experiments.
Billington had been testing, trying, and failing for the better half of one hundred years to create an immortality elixir for King Mortimer and then his successor, his son, King Mortus. When he was a much younger wizard, Billington had begrudgingly accepted a lifetime offer to work for King Mortimer, after the king had learned that Billington was the first and only wizard to successfully use alchemy to create gold, silver, and copper. In fact, there were rumors that Billington had hidden a great sum of wealth somewhere in the realm before accepting the offer. These rumors, of course, were true.
Overhead, the storm clouds that had been threatening the skies since sunrise collided with a huge crack of thunder.
Billington turned back to Cora, but she and her assortment of fanciful ingredients had vanished.
The bazaar crowds scurried for cover as the thunder growled again, unleashing a downpour of warm rain. But when lightning struck just beyond the Cardinal Castle in the distance, gasps arose from under the tarps where everyone sheltered.
They hadn’t seen lightning in a very, very long time.
“Dearie, dearie!” Mavis shouted, waving a package in the rain. Billington had never left the market without an order of freshly baked cheese curds, flavored with the herbs of the season: his favorite treat to enjoy with a cup of wine. She’d wrapped it for him before he even asked.
Billington raised his staff and drew a circle in the air, creating a clearing above his head, as the rain continued to pour down around them. He fumbled in his pocket for another piece of copper, but Mavis just batted him away, her deft hands already busy dismantling her tarp and table before the wind carried them off. “Next new moon, my dear,” she said over her shoulder. “You can pay me back then.”
Billington situated the warm package of cheese, next to the most expensive pixie wings in all of Vale, in his leather satchel, adorned with silver buckles and branded with the royal crest. Then he wielded an arid spell with his staff, creating a shelter of his own from the rain, and headed for the forest, just a few spans away.
Rain now wailed across the market, but when he stepped inside the majestic forest, the canopy of oak trees draped in moss that hung over the ancient path was thick enough to shield him from the worst of the weather. Around him, steam rose from the warm ground. He lowered his staff, releasing his spell.
He’d spent more time in the market than he would have liked, and the day was already waning. As he pressed through the woods, the sky darkened from the storm and the shadows in the forest deepened until it seemed as if he was stepping into true night.
As he reached the heart of the woods, daylight vanished completely.
And then something told him to run.
He froze, gripping his staff as he scanned the unwavering forest. Silence echoed through the cool breeze, but something wasn’t right.
He stepped off the path into a patch of purple Lavandula. His nostrils flared subtly as he inhaled deeply, seeking a scent in the muggy air. The witch blood that pumped through his veins heightened his senses, making them keener than those of an elf or mortal.
He dug his staff deeper into the ground, squeezing the hardwood of the black oak stave until his knuckles blanched.
At the harsh and discordant notes of a raven’s caw, Billington straightened. He closed his eyes and took another deep breath.
Behind him, just off the ancient path, he heard the soft babble of the stream that ran along it, but almost always just out of sight. He heard the wind dance through the clapping leaves.
What was that scent?
He shifted his satchel and took his staff in both hands.
Then he saw it.
Coming down the path was an elf, perhaps a little smaller than most, but otherwise completely unremarkable—except for the fact that he was cloaked in the hide of a Malus grimm, which masked his scent, with daggers strapped across his chest and a sword at his waist. He crouched, walking almost silently with a drawn bow and arrow, ready to strike at a moment’s notice, but oblivious to Billington, who watched him with a practiced eye from the shield of greenery he had hidden in.
When the next elf, who stood over a head taller, came into view, Billington understood why the first elf was poised to strike. Only Sleuths hunted through the woods like that: the most formidable bounty hunters in the Elf Kingdom, and more dangerous than any of the beasts of the forest. For the right price, they’d track anything, dead or alive, but their specialties were rare magical beasts and army deserters.
Twenty huge, gray, wiry-haired grimms followed them into sight. Lanky, yet larger than most men, they walked on all fours, claws digging into the ground, fangs dripping with saliva, black beady eyes searching for their prey, ready to kill on sight.
The pixie wings. Billington grasped his satchel. If they caught sight of him, the Sleuths would certainly search his bag. Were the pixie wings more valuable than they seemed, as Cora had promised? Were they something else entirely? And what would the Sleuths do to him if they discovered them?
Quietly, he wrapped his cloak over his head and covered his body, keeping one eye exposed. Then he crouched down to the ground and transformed into a one-eyed boulder. Less than a moment later, a jade arrow shot through the air where he had just stood. The Sleuths and their hounds approached the clearing, slowly, silently, searching for tracks.
He waited stock-still, masked in his cloak, conjuring his shield of silence and obscured vision, until the Sleuths and every one of their hounds crept past. When their subtle echoes had faded from the forest, he waited for the mutters of the night birds to return to their usual woodland hush.
Then he uncloaked, his senses still sharpened and his power sparking all around him, aching to break out at the next sign of danger.
He shook his head to clear it. Stupid, he thought. To come so close to a confrontation.
Thunder cracked again in the skies and the rain, heavier now, began finally to pour down through the forest canopy, which masked the thunder of hooves in the distance until they were almost on top of him.
“In the name of Astra,” Billington cursed, as the sound of a creature galloping through the woods roared towards him.
It had been the scent of real danger he had caught in the air, then. Not just the approaching Sleuths.
Blood. It was the smell of blood, he finally realized, as the hooves pounded towards him. Whatever was crashing through the forest, it must be what the Sleuths were after.
“Breath of air surrounding, I hear danger sounding. I beseech your power and glory. Release the winds of fury,” he muttered, and lifted his staff to call his power from the wind. The air thickened, circulating around his staff and causing the trees around him to tremble.
Then the drooping moss that hung from the nearest oak began to whip from side to side as if caught in a high wind, and an enormous creature, five times the size of a noble stag, burst onto the path and stopped dead in front of him.
A centaur. Billington hadn’t seen one since he was a young apprentice. Most of them had been hunted or taken captive by nobles, and now their breed was close to extinct. But they carried an ancient magic, no longer practiced by most witches—even Billington.
The centaur’s blunt, long-featured face was framed by a wild tangle of beard and an unruly mane that cascaded down his heavily muscled human torso. Its stallion’s body was covered in ragged cuts and bruises, smeared with blood.
“Neim callah baet!” the creature bellowed, as it towered over Billington. Its deep voice boomed through the forest and reverberated through Billington’s whole body.
But the creature’s dark eyes were full of fear.
Billington lowered his staff. This creature was not a threat to him. It was being hunted by the Sleuths.
The centaur had been clutching a bloody bundle to his chest. Now he held it out.
Billington eyed it cautiously.
It was an infant, swaddled in a handwoven blanket steeped in dark blood. The babe was tiny and appeared even tinier in the centaur’s enormous hands.
“Is it hurt?” Billington demanded sternly, looking up at the centaur with disapproving eyes. “Where is the mother?”
“Take her,” the centaur said. His voice was a low rumble now, almost pleading. He glanced over his battered shoulder.
Billington thought of the Sleuths. What were they hunting, the centaur, or this infant?
The child hung between the two of them in the centaur’s bloody hands, but Billington made no move to take her.
The centaur’s eyes narrowed.
“Billington,” he said.
Billington’s skin crawled at the sound of his name on the lips of a creature he’d never, to his knowledge, met.
“This child is your charge,” the centaur said, almost spitting the words. “She is yours to guard. Protect her.”
“On whose authority?” Billington shot back. He stabbed his staff into the wet ground. The earth below them quaked.
The centaur’s ears perked and his eyes shifted as if he’d just heard a sound out of the range of Billington’s hearing. He stamped his hooves with impatience.
“Take her,” the centaur commanded again.
When Billington didn’t move, the centaur gave a quick shake of his head.
“Innetco eternum in mortem ustum liyablis,” he said, speaking the words of the binding spell almost reluctantly. “Tie forever. Tie ’til death. I bind this child to you, protected in your guard until final rest.”
“No! Forge a shield so I am concealed. Hold strong ‘til I command to yield. Impenetrable to curse and spell. Against this door, they shall repel!” Billington cried, swinging his staff above his head to create an invisible barrier between him and the creature, but it was too late. The centaur’s magic had bound him. A deep tingle of warmth rose from the magician’s feet to his navel and locked in his heart.
Billington released his own spell, evaporating the barrier between them.
The centaur dropped the tiny bundle like a stone through the air between them.
And against his will, Billington caught her.
His arms tensed, but he was surprised by how light she was. He slowly drew her to his heart, embracing her warmth. His arms tightened around her vulnerable little body, shielding her from the dangers in the woods. A pair of large gray eyes looked back up at him with a solemnity that matched his own. The wizard sighed.
The baby waved its arms with the spastic, jerky motions of a newborn. Its skin was so fair it was nearly translucent. He could see dark blood as it pumped through the little veins.
Then he noticed stitching, in a coarse thread, on the blanket near its face. He smoothed the blanket flat against his hand, revealing a single word: “Francis.”
The centaur dug its hooves into crimson mud. As it wheeled to leave, Billington caught sight of a deep wound in his side that drained blood down its legs to drown in the dirt.
“There is no time,” the centaur said. “They are coming for her. And now they are coming for you.”
“Who? The Sleuths?”
“Run!” the centaur commanded.
Billington slammed his staff into the ground, readying a spell to hold it in place until it answered him, but it was too late.
The centaur leapt a fallen tree and plunged out of sight through a mesh of branches, racing for the deep forest.
Billington looked back down at the infant in his arms. She was still gazing calmly up at him.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” he asked her. “What have you seen?”
He had half a mind to start rummaging through her memories with his magic, although he’d never probed a mind so young before.
Instead, he readied a gag spell for silence. The centaur was right. He couldn’t afford to wait any longer in the woods. Not with the Sleuths so close. The spell would capture any sound the babe might make, trapping it in an invisible dome surrounding them, so that her cries could bounce around within it yet never meet the ears of any forest creature, including the Sleuths.
As he whispered the words of the spell, her large gray eyes began to droop, as if he was singing her a lullaby.
Inside him, something shifted.
At that moment, he knew two things.
The first was that if anyone ever wanted to take this child from his protection, they were going to have to kill him.
The second was that if King Mortus had sent Sleuths thrashing through the forest in search of this child, keeping her was almost certainly treason.
He waited stock-still on the path, listening for any signs of danger until the complaining mutters of the night birds had settled down.
Then he set off into the dark woods.