“There!” Rinni’s voice echoes over mine. She’s at the entrance of the alley. Soldiers pour in around her, rushing toward us. The man has been brought to the ground. Hook’s jaw is clamped over his knee and the wolf refuses to let go.
Still, he raises his hands, laces his fingers, and brings them down on Hook’s head.
“Stop it!” I shout. The knights can’t reach us fast enough. He continues beating Hook until the wolf releases him, and even then, the horned man doesn’t relent. “I said stop!”
He reaches for me as I rush to catch his arms. The man draws a blade from his sleeve and yanks me close. The cool silver is underneath my jaw; the wicked, sharp edge bites into my chin.
“Don’t come any closer! Come closer and I’ll kill her.”
“Kill her and you doom us all, you fool.” Eldas’s voice comes from behind us and it is malice incarnate. It slithers across the ground, rising to fill the air. The shadows seem to lengthen. The air drops in temperature.
The horned man goes stiff. He goes to turn but he can’t. His arms unravel around me and I watch as his body slams limply against the wall opposite. Shivering, I look at his bloodied form, contorting and popping.
A hand hooks around my elbow. Eldas pulls me to him. His arm slips around my waist and my side is flush with his.
Protected. Safe. The Elf King looks out at the world with rage and writhing power. Yet I am the antithesis to it all. He clutches me firmly but gently.
“Eldas…” I whisper. “Don’t.” My eyes dart from the man to Hook. The wolf whines softly. Just the sight of my attacker beating him over the head nearly makes me want to take back my words.
“Luella, this is not your world,” he reminds me. I hear between his words, this man is not Luke. “This fae scum sought to harm you, and he will die for it.”
“If you—if you had given us our land…this wouldn’t have happened,” my would-be kidnapper wheezes. “Midscape is dying under elf rule. We won’t stop until we get what is ours and are free to control our own destiny.”
“He should be brought to justice—taken captive for trial.” I look up at Eldas, pleading with the statue of a man that has rage simmering behind his eyes—hotter than any emotion I’ve ever seen from him.
“This is justice. My justice.”
I avert my eyes, pressing my face into Eldas’s chest as a horrible ripping and tearing sound fills my ears. I may have let out a shout. Eldas’s arm tightens further around me and the world goes dark as he pulls me through the Fade with him.
Eldas delivers me to my room. Wordlessly, he summons a fire from nothing to crackle over the andirons in the hearth. I sit before it on the bare floor. A blanket is placed gently over my trembling shoulders. He murmurs that I will be safe.
He disappears and returns once more, this time with Hook cradled in his arms. Eldas lays the wolf at my feet. Hook whimpers and his usually bright eyes are distant and glassy. But he responds with a soft huff as I reach for his head.
I look back to thank Eldas for bringing me Hook, for ensuring my wolf’s safety, but he is gone. And I am alone with the wretched sound of a body twisting too far echoing in my ears.
Eldas. Civil, brutal, cold, hot, capable of kindness, but all too easily can reach for cruelty. He had called Midscape a harsh place when I overheard him with Rinni. I didn’t fully grasp it then.
This…this isn’t my world, I remind myself time and again. The rules I’ve always known don’t apply here. I was foolish to think those rules were just related to magic and the people who wielded it.
But it’s not just magic. Everything is different.
How could I possibly ever fit in here?
The sun has tracked farther across the sky when the Elf King returns. He doesn’t Fadewalk into my room. This time, he uses the door.
Eldas hovers just inside, waiting for something. I can’t even look at him. I don’t know what I’ll see. Will it be a killer? Will it be the man whose caress lights my flesh?
My hands are buried in Hook’s fur for strength. I press my eyes closed and take a shuddering breath. All I see is the face of a man—a fae—who was killed…killed by Eldas…
I stare at the fire, trying to burn the memories away. I don’t want to face this truth. I can’t handle things becoming any more complicated. The weight of Eldas suddenly appearing next to me jostles me from my trance. It isn’t until his arm timidly wraps around me that I even realize I’m still shivering. I lean into him despite myself. Part of me thinks I should fear him. The other part needs him and every bit of stability he can offer.
As if sensing this need, Hook warily raises his head, resting it heavily on my knee.
“I wanted to protect you,” he says quietly, finally. I jump at the sudden break in the silence I’ve been smothered in all afternoon. “That was why I told you to stay in the castle.” I can hear his voice wavering, as if he’s fighting with his own temper. But, for the first time since I’ve known him, he fights and wins. “Regardless of why it happened, I am sorry you had to endure that.”
“You’re right,” I whisper, continuing to stare at the fire. “I should have listened. I should have stayed in the castle. I just wanted to have a moment of freedom, something that was my own. But if I had done what you asked, then that man would still be alive. Because of me—”
“No,” Eldas says firmly, not allowing me to finish the thought. His touch is gentle in contrast to the word as his free hand rests on my chin—his soft caress replacing the memory of the blade held to my throat as he guides my face to look at him. “This was not your fault. I understand, Luella. Even if I wish you had heeded my warnings and not left. I understand wanting to escape this place.” I see desire and longing shining in the waters of a deep sorrow in his eyes. “That man died because he tried to attack the Human Queen.”
“Why, though? Why would he attack me?” I grab Eldas’s shirt gently, as if clinging to an answer that’s likely not there. “I don’t want to hurt people. I brought spring!”
“Not everyone loves the Human Queen,” Eldas says solemnly.
“Some see her—you—as an out-of-date notion. Some wish to be rejoined with the Natural World and conquer humanity.” I shiver and Eldas pulls me closer. I allow him to. Killer and protector, the two words circle in my head as my side is pressed flush against his. The motion seems to have been subconscious, because, for a moment, he’s as startled as I am by it. Clearing his throat, Eldas regains his focus. “Others have already sensed the line of Human Queens is fading. Each queen is weaker than the last.”
“My power really is weaker?” It always felt quite strong to me. Despite myself, Luke’s words about the Keepers even knowing the power of the queen was fading returns to me.
“You might find it hard to believe,” he admits, as if reading my mind, “but it is. Think of how the throne ravaged you the first time you sat on it. Moreover, nature in Midscape is not as stable as it once was and that is creating hardships as food becomes scarcer, and viable land is more prized than ever.”
I duck my head. “And they blame the Human Queen for the land’s plight.”
“They don’t understand the queen does all she can.”
I shake my head. “We must find a way to break the cycle.”
“I know.” Eldas shifts. He now wears a hardened but not closed off expression. He’s resolute, everything I would expect of a king. His eyes are heavy as he stares into the flames. I wonder what he sees in the dancing light. “We must for our world, and for future kings and queens. I fear you might be the last queen. But even if none of that were true, no one should have to endure what you have…what you will continue to endure. And no other king should—” He stops himself short.
“Should have to see their queen with a knife to her throat.” His gaze turns to me. It’s filled with an emotion I don’t dare name—an expression trapped hopelessly between desperation and desire.
My breath catches in my throat. “Were you…worried about me?”
He laughs airily. Our faces are close enough that his amused huffs wash over my cheeks and tease my hair.
“Of course I was worried about you. It’s my duty to protect you.” Eldas reaches up and tucks a wayward strand of hair behind my ear. The tender movement is in contrast with his utilitarian words.
A weight sinks in me. “Am I nothing more than your duty?” I don’t know what I want him to say. I regret asking instantly.
“You are…” His eyes narrow slightly, as if trying to see me better.
The pause is terrible. My brain can fill in a thousand words trapped behind his enigmatic eyes. I imagine him saying yes. I can hear him saying no. I straighten, trying to distance myself from him and the question.
“It’s all right,” I say hastily. “You don’t have to answer. I understand the weight of duty.” And my duty has me searching for a way to end this cycle. Ending it would be the ultimate help to Capton, wouldn’t it? And then I could go back and escape this land of wild magic.
Eldas eases the tension by changing the topic. “Hook seems all right.” He reaches to scratch behind the wolf’s ears. Hook allows it, though doesn’t move from his spot.
“Thank the Forgotten Gods.”
“You really care for the creature.”
“I care for all my friends.” I glance his way. I hope he hears what I’m implying—be my friend and I’ll care for you too. Eldas holds my eyes intently, as if he’s expecting me to say more. But my throat is too gummy. I look for an alternative, instead. “May I ask you something else?”
“You may ask me anything.” His sincerity startles me.
I quickly move past it. Talk of politics will cool the heat rising in my cheeks. “The creature was a fae, right?”