Rella led her group of wild fae misfits through the groaning battlefield with a heavy heart. Now that the fighting was over, their work began. They’d save those they could and bring a swift end to those who asked for it.
Skirmishes between Casta and the Dark Emperor had grown fiercer and bloodier in recent weeks. The acrid stench of battle magic lay heavy in the air as they worked their way through the dead and the dying.
Moans of pain reached Rella’s acute hearing. Leaving her companions to administer to the dying, she sought out the injured fae. The iron scent of blood and the fizzling blue battle magic of a dying light fae urged her forward. The warrior hid in the undergrowth, his handsome, chiseled features given up to his agony. Glittering prettily in the mud, his silver and blue armor declared him a young lord. He wore three medals, all given for bravery in battle. One such as this would be deeply mourned. The wound to his abdomen gaped open, causing his innards to fall into the dirt. There was little help for him. “Have pity, mistress. I must live!” he cried.
Cases like this were always the most difficult—beyond help, but refusing to acknowledge they were dying.
“He knows you’re going to kill him,” said Beatty, an ancient mountain elf, short of stature, but with elongated hands and feet. His brown wizened features challenged her to refute his wisdom. “It would be for the best, I’m thinking.”
Rella looked into the dying fae’s bright blue eyes. She sensed his magic was strong, but he was dying. Soon his magic would desert him in painful spurts until, with a final flash of light, it would leave him and he’d be gone. The fae warrior was young and full of determination. If they had the skills to heal him, such willpower could see him live a long and useful life. Every life saved eased Rella’s guilt.
“What is your name?” she asked, kneeling by his side and taking his hand.
“Fedric, mistress, and I want to live. Help me,” he said.
Her heart sank. Fedric’s wound was beyond her considerable skills. “Do you know who I am?”
“You are the Dark Queen,” he said.
This was not the first time she’d heard that name applied to her. Rella glanced at Beatty, who shrugged and turned his face from her. He’d already given his opinion on Fedric’s chances, and it wasn’t good.
“Ask Gimrir to come.”
“He won’t like it. Are you sure?” said Beatty, sheathing his sword with a clang.
She whipped around to face Beatty, her speed a warning of danger to the mountain elf. “Just do it,” she snarled. Beatty left, muttering to himself. It was a difficult enough decision without him questioning her, but she understood why he did. Gimrir’s magic was ancient and only used sparingly. He was a spirit of the sacred oaks, torn from his home by the war she’d started between her brother’s kingdom of Casta and that abomination, the Dark Emperor.
Rella put her hand to the young light fae’s forehead and felt his will to live. “Do you understand what it means if we heal you?”
His eyes sought hers, and she saw a glimmer of fear wiped away by firm resolve. “Aye, I must go dark. I must join your army.”
“Nonsense. Whether you go dark or not will depend on how much dark magic we use to heal you,” said Rella, inspecting his wound. “I don’t have an army, and if I did, light fae would not be welcome. I don’t know where these ideas spring from.”
He grimaced. Rella moved her hand over his head, letting her dark green healing magic flow around him, giving him some relief from the pain. She dared not try to heal such a complicated wound on her own.
“I don’t care about the price. I want to live.”
Just then, Gimrir appeared out of the gathering gloom. Although he was almost seven feet tall, his beard reached to his knees, and he was dressed in homespun linen from head to toe. One glance proclaimed him a spirit-fae, for both he and his clothing were almost transparent. He was a dark fae so rare, few had ever seen his kind, and those who did saw no more than a momentary glimmer of light. Rella left her charge and went to where Gimrir stood under a clutch of rowan trees.
“Why do you want to save the boy, Rella?” Gimrir’s deep voice was soft with compassion.
“He wants to live.”
“Most creatures want to live, especially the young. That is not enough.”
Rella sighed. “He has an attitude, and maybe not a good one, but his will is strong.”
Gimrir lifted a questioning eyebrow as Rella struggled with a more satisfactory answer. “I don’t know, Gimrir,” she said, frustration raising her voice.
The spirit-fae leaned forward and patted her shoulder. “You’re tired. It’s been a long day for all of us. Very well, let me see him.”
“Thank you.” The spirit-fae had a reassuring way of making her feel that he always had her back.
Gimrir knelt by the young fae’s side. “I don’t know what I can do,” he said, focusing on the young man’s wound.
Rella saw Fedric’s hand try to grasp the old man’s sleeve. “I need to live,” he said. “I will pay the price.”
Gimrir looked into his eyes for what seemed like an age before turning to Rella. “We will try. I promise nothing.”
Rella nodded and left him to his work while she continued with hers. All wounded fae gradually lost control of their magic energy unless healing took place. It spurted uncontrollably from their hands until they died. To see so many lifeless bodies, their magic lost forever, was a tragedy.
Here and there across the fields and forest floor, shows of magic energy separated the dead from the dying. They managed to save four others that day and send them home. The price was always the same, whether they were dark fae or light fae. They each swore never to fight against Rella or her companions, known to all as the wild fae and made up of dark fae refugees and outlaws. No fae would break that promise for fear of rejection in the afterlife.
Unfortunately, Rella and her crew had to dispatch far more than they saved. It was always thus.
As they worked, Rella kept her guard up. She was sure the Dark Emperor’s army had retreated beyond this forest to the untamed lands at the foot of the mountains, but she was ever alert. If one of his scouting parties were to capture her, it would be a great victory for them, and all her plans would come to naught.
Recently, the light fae had not been so diligent at tracking her movements. She suspected they knew where she was, but weren’t eager to capture her and hand her over to the Dark Emperor. That would bring an end to the war. Which meant someone at the court of Casta wanted this war to continue. She refused to believe it was her brother, King Calstir, despite his betrayal.
Rella still blamed herself for starting this war. She would end it on her terms. To do so, she must kill the Dark Emperor, and so free the dark fae from his oppressive rule.
Rella and her companions made sure they left the battlefield before relatives of the dead arrived to claim their bodies. Sometimes the wild fae were late leaving. When that happened, they would have to hide and watch the recovery of the dead. That was hard on them. The keening cries of relatives when they discovered a loved one shredded their nerves. Especially if it was someone they had mercifully dispatched to the afterlife. Tonight, however, was a good night. They had saved those they could, brought mercy to those who asked for it, and taken Fedric with them. The healing he required would be too complicated for the battlefield. Perhaps she should have listened to Beatty after all.
Back at their encampment, Rella entered the dim interior of her tent and warmed her bathwater with a wave of her fingers. It had taken some time, but she was no longer reluctant to use her dark magic to its fullest potential. When she stepped into the warm water scented with rose and mint, she thought of Dagstyrr, and the bath they had shared before mating for the first time.
A mating that had bound them together, forever.
Where was he? Had he forgiven her yet for leaving him? She laid her head back, letting the warm water soothe her aching limbs. She imagined him at the prow of the Knucker, sailing fast and free with the wind in his hair toward Hedabar with Captain Bernst commanding the Mermaid and the Viper bringing up the rear. How many more, she wondered, had he managed to recruit in his mission to save the dragon Drago and his family?
“One hundred and sixty-eight dragons, not counting hatchlings or eggs.” She quoted the number of dragons in Hedabar’s dungeons. To free them all seemed an impossible task for any human, but Dagstyrr of Halfenhaw was no ordinary human. One day she would see the sky darken with the flight of dragons. When that day came, she’d stop whatever she was doing and go to him. For then, his promise to free Drago would be fulfilled, and they could be together. First, however, she must do her part and put an end to this war by putting an end to the Dark Emperor.
Emerging from the water and dressing in a simple tunic of unembellished forest green, she left her tent to walk the camp. In her imagination, Dagstyrr walked with her, and in her mind, she pointed out things of interest to him. She missed him far more than she would have thought possible. His absence was like a void deep within her psyche.
The wild fae camp was growing every day. She no longer had to recruit. Dark fae refugees flocked to her banner. Some were full of impossible hopes, but many were merely sick of living under the cruelty of their self-styled emperor.
Once the Dark Emperor was gone, the dark fae would return to the benevolent reign of their chosen queen, whoever she might be. With a Dark Queen on the throne of Thingstyrbol once more, peace would descend upon the world. Both light and dark fae would return to their homes and live in tenuous harmony.
The camp Rella walked through was a myriad of fae beings. She had not seen so many different fae since the prison cells in the citadel in Hedabar.
A woman approached. From the look of her, she was a dark fae halfling and worked hard for her living. Her hands were red and callused, her step heavy. “Mistress Rella, might I do your laundry? I do a good job. See here?” The woman lifted her basket to show off the snowy white linen inside.
Rella didn’t need a laundress. However, she did want to get to know the dark fae and halflings in her charge. “What is your name?”
“Polly, mistress,” she said with a curtsey.
“Very well. What can I give you for your services?”
“My daughter’s just birthed her first babe. I’d happily exchange a year of cleaning linen for a good knife. It is for his dedication ceremony.”
Rella smiled. She slipped a black knife from her belt. Chased in silver filigree, it was sharp as well as decorative. Perfect for a young dark fae’s dedication ceremony. “Will this do?”
Polly’s eyes widened. “I should think it will, mistress.”
“Very well. It’s a fair price. Where is the new babe’s father?”
At that, Polly’s eyes clouded. “Hedabar, mistress.”
“Take the knife, and save me a piece of cake from the dedication,” said Rella, walking away and wishing she could do more.
She and Dagstyrr were the only ones to ever successfully rescue family members from the prison cells of the citadel on the island of Hedabar. Because of that, people looked to her to free their relatives from the vizier, but she had a more urgent task. Besides, once Dagstyrr freed the dragons, the vizier’s reign would end, and the citadel would collapse.
Rella, born a light fae princess, had started this war when she broke the only law held sacred by the dark fae: she’d refused to pay the price she’d agreed upon with the Dark Emperor in exchange for her ability to walk unknown among humans. They should shun her. Yet they came in droves and swore allegiance to her. The dark fae were hard to understand, even if she was now one of them.
Startled out of her reverie by the tall figure of Gimrir stalking toward her, Rella watched as he passed silently between the tents and wooden shacks of her followers. He stopped and waved for her to accompany him. Rella caught him up in a trice. “Is it Fedric?”
“There is a decision to be made. Only you can make it,” said Gimrir, so solemnly her heart sank.
She followed him back to the base of an enormous tree where dryads occupied the upper branches, and Gimrir made his home at its gnarled base. “What is wrong, Gimrir?”
“The boy has only one wound. Which is strange after such a fierce battle. Nevertheless, that wound is very severe. The boy is strong, just as you predicted. I think his determination will indeed win through as long as I can piece his poor guts back together.”
“And can you?”
“Only with your help,” he said. “Your …very special help.”
A cold shiver ran down Rella’s spine. Gimrir was one of the few beings who knew of her strange magic. Born light fae and having chosen to turn dark, her bright blue flashes of light fae magic had given way to the billowing green magic of the dark fae. Then, an extraordinary thing had happened. The blue returned, and now it worked in concert with the green, a strange phenomenon that Rella wanted to keep quiet. There were enough ridiculous rumors spread about her. “Is there no other way?”
“I’ve already tried many times and failed. Guts are slippery and confusing to the likes of me. Your clever blue energy can show the way, while your green does the healing. I will keep him sedated. It is the only way.”
“I’ve never attempted this kind of healing. I have no experience.”
“I will help you. If we are quick, no one need know.”
Loath to risk anyone seeing her using both green and blue magic together, Rella glanced at the young light fae lying within Gimrir’s healing circle. His innards still lay exposed to the night air. “You know that with this much dark magic in him, his eyes will change color. He won’t be able to return to Casta. We’ll probably have to keep him here.” Rella struggled with the choice in front of her. If she helped, his life as he knew it was over. If she didn’t, he would be dead by morning. “Damn! I should have put him out of his misery on the field.”
“But you did not, and this is the consequence.”
A breeze whispered through the long grasses where Fedric lay. He was very young and handsome, a prime example of a light fae warrior. Rella sighed. It seemed to her that whenever she attempted a kindness, it went horribly wrong. “Very well, Gimrir.”