by Chrystalla Thoma
Beyond the sea of Bara lay the land of exiles – human and troll cities, merchant harbors, thieves and whores. I was supposed to be there, leading a life of nostalgia and pain, languishing in Queen Syrana’s memory.
But here I stood, well within the forbidden borders – forbidden only to me – of the human-elf coalition, polishing the tables of this accursed inn with a wet rag, and glaring at the hooded human about to grab my hip – again.
I slapped his hand away, and struggled not to punch him. That would be a man’s reaction, not a woman’s, and I had to keep my disguise. “Did you want something?”
“What’s a pretty wench like you,” his voice slurred, “doing in this godsforgotten place?”
What indeed. I finished redistributing the dirt on the table surface – filthy human race – while I thought about the question, keeping one eye on his wandering hands. Only a fool would come back against the elven King’s wishes, as I had. But I had sworn on Melekarth’s name to revenge Syrana’s death, and I had a plan.
If you could call it that. It was more of a purpose, a desire, an urge. A burning need that sustained me, kept me alive.
“My name’s Jonder. What’s yours?” He sounded like an old man, his voice rusty and shaking. He made another pass, at my waist this time, and missed. “Hey. I’m talking to you. I asked you yer name, wench.”
I sighed. “Indra. My name is Indra.” I’d found out the hard way that not answering only made them more persistent. Then again, using my true name helped me remember who I was. “Now let me work.”
The inn stank of sweat, sour ale and stale breath, but it was no worse than others I had frequented. I had worked my way from the harbor to this very spot, inn after stinking inn, insult upon insult.
My rage was contained like lightning in a glass, my magic buried so deep it gnawed at my guts. I disguised my gender with my clothes, half-hid my ears under my long hair, and hoped nobody became too curious or too suspicious. Maybe I would get lucky for once.
“So slender for a wench.” Jonder grasped a handful of my skirt and to my dread it began ripping at the seams. I grabbed his hand. “And what is that silver tattoo on your arm?” He cocked his head to the side.
I twisted out of his reach and checked my skirt. It would hold a while longer. I picked up the jug and poured him some more warm ale. That usually distracted them. “Just the brand of my previous master. Here, drink. Anything else I can get you?”
He leaned over the table. “That master of yours, he the one who taught you to talk all proper? If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were high-born, some lady raised in a palace. A princess.” He cackled.
A chill shook me. The fear of being discovered jolted my magic, burning and seething, up my chest and arms. I fought it back down, to the safe place inside my body. Melekarth’s balls. I thought I blended in. My fault, for talking so much. No more talking from now on, not till I attained my goal.
So I just nodded.
The man raised his head. Under the hood, over the salt-and-pepper beard, his eyes glinted like polished black obsidian, Syrana’s favorite stone. He was not a dwarf, not an elf, but suddenly I doubted he was human.
“Did you know, lass, that the elven King is passing through here?” he asked.
I fought to hide a gasp. I shoved off the table, schooling my face. “Is he?”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Of course I am.” I was. How did Jonder know? I wiped my sweaty palms on my skirt.
“Well, they say he’s on his way to the Forest of Ydes. There’s great magic and power there. But why would the elven King need more power? He hasn’t come this way in hundreds of years.”
Why was Jonder watching me like that, as if he could see through me? And why was he telling me all this? I shook my head, letting my hair fall over my face and cover my expression. Maybe it was some old ritual King Esh had revived. Even though I was of the royal line, I had never aspired to the throne, never thought about all it entailed. Perhaps elven Kings had to visit the magical forest, pay their dues.
All I cared about was that King Esh was coming here, into my waiting arms. My blade was thirsty.
Jonder focused his attention on his ale. Turning my back, I resumed work. I did my round of the tables, carried trays with bowls of stew and chunks of bread and ale in clay jugs. I kept busy, kept my mind empty of fear.
The men grabbed at my ass, missed when I twisted and turned, shouted about all the things they wanted to do to me, vile, unheard of practices. I longed to give them pain, make them beg for mercy, shut their mouths at long last, and stop their taunting. I was weary, and sorrow weighed heavy on my heart, ever since the day Syrana died. Syrana the beautiful, who had been betrothed to the King of Fairy, Syrana, my lover.
The drakes killed her on her wedding day, and so killed my heart in one stroke.
I’d destroy the drakes, kill them to the last. But first…
I slipped between the men’s arms like water, avoiding grasping hands and booted feet laid out to make me trip. I sidestepped them without really looking; I served food and poured ale, my mind whirling.
As I turned to wipe another table down, shiny metal flashed. A big knife tumbled across my path.
I flinched but snatched it in midair by its gem-encrusted hilt. I raised it, my pulse soaring. How the light played on the polished blade. I had not held a weapon since I left the Fairy Court.
I laid it flat on the table. “You dropped this,” I said.
“Not a bad move for a dainty lass. Not bad at all,” Jonder said in a voice devoid of emotion.
I blinked and took a step back. My breath came out in a hiss.
Jonder grinned. His teeth were strong and white, not an old man’s teeth at all.
“Who are you? What do you want?” I asked, my mind frozen.
“I want the same as you.”
I backed away, but my legs tangled in my skirts, and I fell in an ungraceful heap. How did women walk in the accursed things? Swearing, I hauled myself to my knees, using the bench for support. He loomed over me, a dark shadow, the long knife gripped in one gnarled hand.
The human men gathered to watch this new game, their beards waving over me like banners in a country fair.
“Leave me alone,” I said again, forcing my jaw to unclench, trying to sound nonchalant. “I told you, I just work here, and I do not—I don’t know what you mean or what you want.”
“Really.” It was not a question. Jonder raised the knife and I cowered before the cold iron blade. He avoided my flesh, though, instead choosing to run the tip over my bodice, never on bare skin, as if he knew the effect that particular metal would have on me. “What do you hide under these long skirts, wench, I wonder.”
The men laughed, a raucous sound, they clapped and cheered. If only they knew. I clamped my legs together. Just how bad could this evening get?
Shouts rang from the door and I turned, trying to see something, but the burly bodies of the bystanders blocked my view. At least their attention was off me now; even Jonder moved away, his blade glinting in the torchlight.
“The elven King is here!”
Oh, Melekarth, already, tonight? Joy, effervescence, anger, rage, sorrow. I schooled my face, my thoughts. At last.
Keeping a hand on the bench for balance, I rose and smoothed my skirts. My fingers sought my silver weapon tattoo. I traced the symbols, inserted my fingertips and pulled the dagger out of my flesh. The blade slipped out, making me shiver with delight, and I held it out – a knife like a sliver of light, slim enough to throw.
But maybe, hopefully, I would get a chance to get closer.
King Esh had yet to appear, but his power slithered inside the inn, coating the walls and floor, growing like a vine. The benches and tables rattled, the goblets revolved madly, the leftover food bubbled inside the cracked bowls.
The Glamour spread in violent, widening circles. It slammed against my skin, and pierced me until I thought it would draw blood. I kept from breathing, from allowing my power to even twitch, petting it like a big, savage cat until it purred, vibrating inside my body. I didn’t use Glamour for a reason, and now it was more important than ever to avoid using it. I didn’t want the elven King to know I was here. I didn’t want anyone to know.
The crowd in the inn stood or sat, frozen in place, eyes wide, mouths hanging open. Whispers rushed on the air, urgent mutterings.
The Fairy Court rarely passed through the humans’ lands, even less often since the drake attack on the wedding feast and the death of the bride, a death King Esh had allowed, had failed to stop.
Syrana. She’d had to marry Esh. But she had loved me.
Following on the tail of his power, King Esh came though the door. The moment he entered, a collective gasp went through the small crowd. Music of flutes and strings twirled on the air currents, and the King raised his dark head with the tall crown of silver. His pale eyes held everyone in thrall; the humans bowed and scraped and parted to let him through.
I curtsied, to keep my disguise. It wouldn’t do to bow, though I itched to do so. I longed to be myself once more, to stop pretending.
The King threw one end of his white mantle over one shoulder; crystals sparkled in his hair, a diamond drop rested on his high forehead.
Without the use of my Glamour, I was affected by the King’s, like a mere human. His face was a beacon, snaring my gaze; his every movement caught my breath. The magic swirled around him, clung to him like viscous, scented oil, distorting the surface, imbuing everything with a faint glow.
I licked my lips, swallowed my speeding pulse. Stay, my heart; do not leap.
On silent feet, I circled the humans who stood like statues frozen in a dance, some kneeling now, some bowing, arms outstretched to touch and feel. I hid behind their still forms, just as the King’s entourage walked into the inn.
Elven princes, dressed in pale velvet, peacock wings on their backs, long dark hair draped like mantles over their tall bodies as they sidled after King Esh.
Elven princesses in blue silk and satin, their flaxen hair so long it hung to the ground, woven with pearls and feathers. They stifled laughter behind their white, narrow hands, and shook their heads so that stardust fluttered to the floor. White foxes and weasels followed them, white ravens sat on their heads like crowns, and balanced with spread wings, crowing.
My chest ached. I thought I had overcome the nostalgia, that I was well guarded from the pain this sight brought – but I was wrong. I looked down at my feet, my dirty clogs peeking under my grey, stained dress, and I longed once more for fairy beauty beyond human understanding, beyond imagining, for the heart-rending allure of fae.
But one cannot go back. Time can only roll forward, even for me.
Determined, I held the dagger at my side, still hidden behind the wall of human bodies, all possible outcomes crowding my mind.
The King headed to the long table near the hearth, his long mantle dragging on the floor. His fairy courtiers flicked their fingers, sending waves of Glamour to shove the sluggish humans off the bench and to the floor. The elves stepped over the humans’ bodies, shoved them lightly with their pointy shoes as they passed, rolled them over like pet animals.
The King took his seat at the table’s head. I weighed the advantages of facing him, but then I shook my head. No, better keep up the disguise longer, go from behind, yes, like a coward – but I had underestimated the King’s power before, and look what happened to me. Stripped of my privileges, without a trial or reason, I’d been evicted from the Fairy Court and exiled, never meant to return.
No, this time I would kill him.
A hand clamped on my shoulder, another found my mouth and stopped my startled whimper. “Don’t move, wench.”
Jonder. I struggled, but could not sway him. Then splinters of raw magic pierced my skin and I gasped against the saltiness of his hand. That was no fairy magic, but I could not quite place it. Magic dark and cold, sharp like a fang where it touched me. What was he? I had never felt anything like it. When I slumped in his arms, he allowed me to turn and see his face.
I fought to escape his hold. A drake, a dragon-human spawn. His kind was our nightmare, our terror in the long nights.
He watched me with a faint smile, the scales on his cheeks gleaming white and iridescent like mother-of-pearl. He released me in a slow movement and drew back his hood, revealing short horns on a head covered not in hair but bare blue skin. Iron hoops hung from his ears.
Drakes and their love of iron, both our bane.
He grabbed my hand and I gulped. “Easy now,” he said, pulling his hood back on, hiding his true nature. “Are you going to kill your King, elf? How did he wrong you?” He raised his iron knife and I staggered back.
“He let Syrana die,” I whispered. “He cared naught for her, did not stand up to protect her, did not take her place. I want revenge.”
“Ah.” His breath sighed out, a smile curved his thin lips. Beyond, the Fairy Court sat along the table, their fey animals riding on their shoulders, on their heads. A tall elven man was strumming a lute. The notes glided on the air, crystal jingling bells.
Jonder squeezed my hand. “Revenge, eh? Then I was wrong. We don’t want the same.” He shrugged. Even his speech had changed, his voice, his tone. A master of disguise. “I don’t want revenge, though it would be sweet, after the vicious attacks on my people, the whole drake nation, and the unjust slaughter of innocents by your people. The elves have been avenging your bride’s death on us ever since the attack. But, as I said, I don’t want revenge. I want only justice and truth.”
Bewildered, I stared. Justice? Innocents? Anger bloomed in my belly, rose like a flame, till it filled me up. I held my dagger out to keep him far from me, because I yearned to kill him, and that would draw others’ attention. A really bad time for this.
His eyes flickered over my dagger, clearly dismissing it.
“Melekarth damn you, drake, your kind did kill Syrana,” I breathed. “One of your kind did attack us, riding on your great lizard, and in the mayhem killed her. You are guilty. And I will execute you for it.”
He turned to look at the King, as if he did not fear I’d do it. “Guilty? One of us attacked. Not all of us have to pay for one drake’s moment of madness. Besides.” His jaw clenched. “Our drake didn’t kill the elven bride.”
His words rolled on my mind, refused to sink in, and when they did, they dropped like stones to my core.
“You mean she is somewhere, alive?” Hope threatened to make my knees buckle. I took a deep breath.
“Oh yes, alive.” He tapped his knife blade on his thigh. “Very much so.”
“Why… how…” Words deserted me. I glanced again at the King. He sat, head cocked to the side, listening to the music. Around his neck he wore a pendant with a single black stone. Syrana’s pendant. The sight of it made me angry again.
The humans bustled around, though slow as if wading through mud. Glamour affected them so.
“Were you in love with her, fairy boy?”
This time the dagger fell from my fingers, and I bent to retrieve it. My mind filled with white noise. “How did you know I am no girl?”
“The way you caught my knife before, the way you carried those heavy trays, the way you move.” He chuckled. “You’re good, but then I’m good too.”
I let my hair fall to hide my eyes. “After Syrana was gone, King Esh sent me away. He did not even deign to face me. Just gave the order and I was thrown out of the Fairy Court like a mangy dog.” I felt again that bitterness that had filled me, that had almost killed me. “I am sure now he knew Syrana had given herself to me, that she loved me more than him. She did love me more!”
He nodded. “Calm down, boy.”
“He did not even let me see her body.” My heart twisted again in pain. “Not even that.”
“Get a hold of yourself. I told you, she’s not dead.” He smacked my arm. “Your power is leaking all over the place.”
I tried to rein in the Glamour magic, but I had kept it in check too long. It blared out of me like a war song, breaking plates and strewing food on the floors. Shards flew, struck my skin, glanced off and hit the walls and ceiling.
The music stopped. Every face, elven or human, turned to me. Too late to sneak behind the King, to hold him on my dagger’s point and ask for answers.
In one movement, I tore off my skirts and bodice, remaining in my undergarments – plain, woolen leggings. I kicked off the clogs. The Glamour rose around me like mist. The royal born among us Elves used it all the time. I had not used mine in over a year. It swirled around me, turned my undergarments to silver-plated armor, turned my dagger into a longsword, turned my socks into tall boots, the cap on my head into a helmet with swan’s feathers.
“I challenge you, King Esh,” I said and advanced. “You did not protect Syrana, you hid behind her like the coward you are when the drake attacked the wedding party, and so let her die. You never loved Syrana, not like I did. You sent me away without a reason or a proper trial, to be an exile in far away lands. I challenge you, for you cannot right these wrongs. I challenge you to pay for your deeds.”
He rose from the table, mantle shimmering around him like a silken cloud, long hair fluttering, as dark and long as hers was.
Just like Syrana’s.
I lost my last vestiges of control. With a howl, I sent the magic through my silver blade and it caught him in the chest. He staggered backward and raised his hands. The room darkened, wavered, and pitched like a ship on rough sea. The King of the Elves wielded more magic than I, and I did not try to strip it off him, for male on male magic could obliterate the inn and everyone in it. I sent my magic chasing his around, like a cat after the snake’s tail, trying to distract him enough to approach more. His magic could snap me like a twig.
I felt the King’s power flare, pull tight like a skein of wool thread as I closed the distance, and I threw my sword like a spear. It flew true, loaded with death.
The King raised a hand and stopped it in mid-air, just as my magic became entangled with his, trapped, melded. I hissed. This should not be happening, not with male Glamour. The blade of the sword quivered.
Then the drake’s cold magic rose, frosting the air, solidifying the magic threads. They criss-crossed space like golden rays, like strings one could strum.
With an abrupt raising of his hand, the drake broke them, smothered the magic, and with them, the Glamour shield.
My sword thudded into the King’s chest. His Glamour trembled and thinned, began to flake like the oils on an old painting. His mouth opened wide to scream. The elven princesses shrieked. The floor shook. The Glamour weakened, shivered, withdrew.
The drake rose behind the King, and moved his hand as if drawing aside a curtain. The drake magic swirled, a dash of earth and a stroke of lighting, and the King’s Glamour dissolved and dissipated in the air.
Melekarth! I took a step forth, then another, until my knees gave way and I fell. No. No, my eyes are lying.
“Observe.” The drake’s voice dripped like warm water. “See the truth. Here is your bride.”
I stared into Syrana’s lovely face and wanted to howl with rage and grief and joy. She is alive!The drake was right. She was there all along, hidden behind the King’s persona. No drake had killed her, no drake had stolen her.
Syrana had lied to us all. But more importantly, she had lied to me.
Without the drake’s magic, his ability to dissolve the royal Glamour, I’d never have known. I’d have remained in the illusion of her death forever.
“Indra,” she whispered, and I am not sure anyone heard but I.
“So that is why you were going to the Forest of Ydes, Queen Syrana. To obtain more power, to continue fooling everyone,” said the drake. He moved back, glanced at me with his glittering eyes. “She knew that sooner or later, like now, an Elf with strong Glamour magic might sniff her out.” He turned to the elves who stared, claws coming out on their white hands, fangs protruding now from their lovely mouths. “I’m not the one who needs to be punished. The drake nation has been punished enough already through your military excursions in our territories. I’ve only showed you what’s real.”
The Fairy Court approached her with hesitation, hands held out as if to feel the truth. The white foxes sniffed at the hems of her robes. The silver sword blade was still embedded in her chest, the gilded hilt quivering.
“She will not die,” they whispered. “Silver cannot kill her. But it will leave a scar.”
“She will suffer for deceiving the Fairy Court,” said an elf of the High Council, a red-haired one I had not noticed before. “She shall weep.”
“Where is King Esh?” Still kneeling, my head spinning, I forced the jagged words out. “What did you do to him, Syrana? Why did you do this?”
Her clear eyes found me, struck my heart with new pain. “I would never marry him,” she said in that quiet voice of hers. “I did not love him and he did not love me. He was a cruel man. When the drake attacked, I saw my chance and took it. Would you not have done the same in my place?”
I lowered my head over my hands. I found her and lost her in one breath. “You had him killed? You sent…” My voice broke, and I straightened, my grief lost to anger. “You sent me away. Why?”
She inclined her head, her hands smoothing her robes as she knelt on the floor, the long table at her back. She never touched the sword that transfixed her. “I feared you would know the truth, had you stayed. You are, after all, a prince among us. You are powerful.”
I shook my head. Powerful. All this time, pining and hurting, avoiding the use of my Glamour, drowning in despair. My sword would not kill her, but it would leave a scar.
Not as deep as mine, though.
The Fairy Court gathered tightly around her, weaving like a wall of thorns and roses high and low, hands and feathers and animal muzzles, all gleaming eyes fixed on me. Golden shackles appeared on Syrana’s hands, golden chains around her white ankles. She was bound and her power broken.
“You only thought of yourself,” I said and trembled. “I loved you, and you sent me to wander the world in exile, my heart broken because I thought you dead. I fed on hatred and sorrow, slept on thoughts of revenge. And all the while you lived and ruled and did not think I loved you enough to keep your secret.”
“You would not understand.” She kept her gaze fixed on me, even as the Fairy Court tittered. “You are a man. I took a chance to change the elven world. You may have heard of these changes while in exile. Elven women have the right now to pray in our temples together with the men, to wear the sacred blue color, to own their own houses. Changing a society is a slow and arduous path. I wanted to make a difference. Nobody would have listened to a woman, even to a queen. I am satisfied with my work, even if I have no opportunity to finish it.”
I had not heard of those changes. Had not thought of these differences. “You think as a politician. I think as a man who has loved you.”
“I think as a woman denied any power in all her endless life,” she said. “And now you have put an end to my purpose. What more do you want?”
“I wanted you!” But I had never seen how limited her freedom had been. How had I been so blind? If there was a man who might understand her, that was me. I had gone under a female disguise long enough to know how hard it was to be a woman. “I wanted you,” I repeated, softly.
The courtiers bowed and curtsied to me. I was Prince Indra, next in line to the throne, unless Princess Korana who preceded me found a husband within the year.
Was that fair for her?
I could not draw enough air. What if Syrana was right? I was a man, raised in a society frozen in time. I would not have understood her anger, her need to be a real queen, not a pawn in her husband’s hands. Any husband’s, Esh’s or mine.
But now she was dead to me, and I was not sure anymore if I was alive. “What am I to do now?”
“Have I your word, Fairy Court,” asked the drake, walking to stand before Syrana, “that you will leave the drakes to live in peace from now on?”
The red-haired elf stepped forth again. “You have our word, drake. Syrana will be punished for killing King Esh, and your kind will not be harmed again.”
Syrana would be punished. Melekarth, I had come to avenge her, and I destroyed her instead.
“Good.” The drake turned to me. “Come,” he beckoned, “let us go.”
I stood there, an elven prince with no purpose, no desire to live or act. At least Syrana did what she thought was important. I spent all my thoughts, all my energy and actions on revenge, and now I was empty.
“Go where?” I asked, not caring.
“Find another inn to sit and drink.” Jonder gripped my arm.
“I cannot just leave.”
“Yes, you can.” His grip tightened. “Listen. I did what I came to do. The truth is in the open. My people won’t be hunted by the Elves anymore. And you, you did what you came to do. You killed the King,” he shrugged, “or found out about his death, and brought the bride you loved back from the dead.”
That almost brought me to my knees and I was glad for his grip that kept me standing. Syrana was staring at me, her gaze a knife between my eyes. “Because of me, she will be punished.”
Syrana smiled, but her eyes were sad. “You really do love me, do you not, Indra? You say you understand me. If so, then finish what I started.”
I could not breathe. What was she asking of me?
Jonder shook me. “She will be punished because of her actions, not you. Because of elven customs, not you. Come with me.”
Elven customs, old and rigid, customs she had been trying to change.
“If I become King…” I held her gaze. “I will change things.”
She drew a sharp breath. “Will you?”
A long path, she had said. I could see it now. “I shall,” I vowed and saw the doubt in her gaze.
“Do not think it is easy,” she said, shaking her head. “Fare well, Indra.”
“Come.” Jonder tugged at my sleeve. “Now is the time to drink and forget about truth and justice for a while, for they are harsh things, too harsh for sanity.”
I nodded, my vision blurry. He pulled me away. I staggered. I tried to turn back, see her face one more time, but he hauled me outside, into the cold night air. The stars were bright, the village quiet. Stardust glimmered on the street, where the Fairy Court had passed.
Pain seared my chest. My eyes burned. A star fell in a glowing arc. “Our people will meet and sign new treaties.” I closed my eyes. “King Esh is dead.” Oh Melekarth, so is she too, if I fail. “I swear it, drake, I will change my world.”
Jonder nodded, a small smile on his lips, slipping back into his old man persona. “Well, I’ll certainly drink to that, fairy boy.” His eyes glinted. “Lead on!”
But my heart was heavy. I hesitated. “Do you think she ever loved me?”
He took a long time to answer, but when he did he was still smiling. “She didn’t kill you when she had the chance, did she? Love stayed her hand.”
And that, strangely, lightened my heart, and I followed him beneath the dark skies.
Chrystalla Thoma is permanent resident of fantasy land, complete with angels and demons, elves, vampires and werewolves. A Greek Cypriot, she lives in Cyprus with her husband and her vast herd of books. When not reading or writing, she works as the European countries officer and Magazine editor for the Thalassaemia International Federation.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I am a fairy tale and fantasy lover. I get ideas from folklore, mythology, old rituals and religions – but also from songs, movies, and everyday happenings.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I write because I must, because I need to rework all that happens to me, all I desire and cannot have, all I wish and hope for, into stories – so that I can explain the inevitable and the terrible, transform the nightmare into a happy ending.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
As all stories, fantasy stories require strong characters, a motivation, and obstacles strewn in their way. But in fantasy, a vital element is the mystery of the symbols, the magic, the swift and unexpected transformation, the crossing between the worlds of the dead and the living, the power unleashed that equals no other, and the mythical structure of the fairytale.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre?
Fantasy allows us to dream and travel free where reality does not allow. Fantasy is religious, ritual and transcendental. From ancient times, around the fires in the caves, man explored the unknown through tales of magical power. Man has not changed. We still need these tales today.
What advice do you have for other fantasy writers?
To read all that is fantastic – myths, folktales, riddles and religious texts. To set their mind free from all constraints. Theirs is the chance to truly escape from reality and into magic, and to help their readers along.