Margaret v’En Carter watched from the treeline as the man inspected her camp. She’d drawn an invisibility and redirection weave around it before she’d set off to fish nearby Lake Dorian for her breakfast, but somehow this man had broken through. He appeared strong, with broad shoulders and a trim waist clad in a simple tunic, his well-muscled legs encased in simple leather leggings. A fighter of some kind, for he had a shield strapped to his back. But if he were some scout, he was a long way from his regiment, with an overflowing rucksack to show for it. No short distance-runner would carry such a heavy pack.
So, he was alone then. She’d yet to see his face, hidden by a cowl. But he was straight-backed and moved with the ease and sureness of youth. And now he was examining her things, bent over the pan she’d left by the fire to prepare her food. Her anger sparked to the surface, and she had to clench her hands tightly to keep herself from sending a powerful blast of Air to force this man from her campsite. Patience was not her strong suit, but she would try to wait him out. She wanted to learn how he’d slipped past her defenses, first. He’d seen through her weaves, but he hadn’t sensed—or hadn’t cared about—the warning she’d placed, which alerted her while she was heading back. If he knew of the alarm and decided against disarming it, that meant he expected someone to find him in this camp. It meant he expected a fight.
Patience was her plan, but then the man turned to the small pack that held Peggy’s most valuable possession in this world. She could no longer stand it, and launched herself out of the cover of the trees and onto his back. She left her blades sheathed, but wove a quick spell of Air and Earth to propel herself forward with more force and move the ground beneath the intruder’s feet so he fell to his knees. He gave a cry of surprise but recovered quickly, rolling onto his back and away from her as he called magic of his own to force her hands from the straps holding his shield. They were each back on their feet in an instant, crouched low to the ground, ready to crash together again, when Peggy met his eyes for the first time.
It was like being doused in ice and fire at the same moment. Suddenly all the barriers she’d constructed around and within her mind slammed open and a blindingly bright light flashed before her eyes. Peggy fell to her knees and across from her, the man did the same. As quickly as it began, the light receded, but as it did, Peggy felt a new presence within her mind. She could sense the consciousness of the man in front of her in a way that she had never sensed another being before. His name was Steve. Understanding stole her breath. “Shei’tan,” she whispered.
He raised his bright blue eyes to her gaze and they flashed as he answered, “Shei’tani,” before they rolled back into his head and he passed out.
“Who are you?” Her mate was on his feet almost the instant he regained consciousness. She studied the beautifully drawn lines of his face. With his cowl thrown back, she could see that he appeared mortal, though he was an uncommonly beautiful one, and there was something Elvish about his eyes. Was he an Elf traveling in disguise, then? That would explain how he’d broken through her weaves so easily. No mortal man could have stumbled into her campsite.
“I’m known as Peggy,” she said simply. “And you are Steve.”
He narrowed those piercing eyes. “Did you invade my mind? While I was unconscious?” His hands went to his belt, where Peggy could see one blade sheathed. From his stance, she guessed there were at least two more on his person. That was good. If he truly was her mate, he’d need to know how to defend himself.
“No, I’m sorry.” She spun a gentle weave of comfort in his direction, but rather than calming him, he stiffened.
“Don’t do that.” He pulled at the front of his tunic. “And don’t use your magic to read my mind, either.”
The Peggy gave him a wry smile. “It seems hypocritical for an Elf to command a Fey not to use her magic, even if that Elf is my shei’tan.”
Steve flinched. “I am no Elf, lady, and I have no true command of magic.” He picked up his pack, but looked uncertain what to do with himself. Confusion and frustration rolled off him in waves, beating against the protections Peggy kept locked around her mind at all times. The protections she had been unable to hold when she first looked in his beautiful eyes. “This must be your campsite I stumbled upon. Forgive me for intruding and allow me to bid you farewell.”
No! A part of Peggy, the feral part of herself she’d learned to keep locked away, beat at the walls she’d spent centuries building around it. Outwardly, she only allowed herself to blink in confusion. “You would leave me here?”
Steve sighed. “Look, I don’t know who you are or what just happened, but I’m not safe to be around. You should let me pass.”
“Do you truly want to leave?” The desperate part of her soul, the part that had just recognized its mate, howled within her, urging her to go to him, but Peggy stood fast.
He blinked at her and her heart skipped a beat as she noticed how long his lashes were. “No, I do not.” He sharpened his gaze upon her once more and Peggy felt the intrusion of Elvish Sight into her consciousness. Her mate, who claimed to have no magic, to be wholly mortal, was trying to See into her. “Are you working some kind of spell on me that I cannot detect?”
Now Peggy blanched. “Among the Fey, it’s known as Truemating. Have you never heard of it?”
He shook his head, his eyes wide with shock. She thought she could feel how he wanted to reach for her, but he kept his arms locked at his sides.
Peggy felt the answering call within herself to go to him. She pushed it down and forced herself to tell him the truth of what was between them. “Our souls called to each other just now. It is shei’tanitsa, the truemate bond. We are two halves of the same soul. If you try to leave, the uncompleted bond will eventually drive us both mad.” She watched the fear dawn over his face, followed quickly by anger. “I’m sorry, Steve. I would not have chosen this for myself, either. I’ve lived alone for centuries. But the gods have decreed this match. If you search within yourself, I think you will find my words ring true.” Steve sat down heavily on the log Peggy had dragged near her campfire.
She sent a weave of Earth into the ground across from him, and made herself comfortable on the flat-topped rock she called up from beneath the dirt. A quick weave of Fire, the elemental magic Peggy was strongest in, set the charred remains of last night’s fire aflame once more.
After a long while, while Peggy kept herself from reaching out to him with both limb and mind, Steve stirred. “So you are my...wife?”
“The Fey word is shei’tani. It’s what you called me, just before you passed out. But yes, it is not unlike a mortal marriage bond, in some ways.”
Steve nodded. “Right.” He clasped his hands together, studying them. “And this bond, it’s the reason my arms seem to ache at the thought of holding you?” His voice shook and Peggy saw the strain it caused him to hold himself back. She could feel it echoed in her own limbs and could not tell if the feeling started with him or her, but the feedback within her soul grew stronger with each moment she kept herself from going to him.
“As mine ache for you, my darling,” she allowed herself to whisper. Her words seemed to break something in him. Steve launched himself at her and gathered her into his arms, burying his face at the join of her neck and shoulder. She trembled at the feel of his skin on hers, and the feral creature within her soul quieted at last. For the moment.
“I’ve never felt anything like this before,” he murmured into her skin, his dazed fulfillment in touching her rolling over her in intoxicating waves.
Peggy laughed. “Nor I.” She pulled back to study his face again. “My apologies, but I’ve not met an Elf so ignorant of Fey before.” Or one who could truemate with Fey, she thought to herself.
He cleared his throat. “I insist, I am no Elf, great lady, at least not that I know. I was adopted by a mortal man in infancy. It was only a year ago, at the Battle for Heartslea, that I realized there is magic within me.”
She started. “But how can this be? Your powers are not those of a mortal man.” Reluctantly, she took a step back, the better to study him, and removed her hands from him. The connection forged by touch shuttered immediately. He looked human, it was true, save for the startling brilliance of his eyes. But Peggy had felt his attempt to use Sight on her just now, a power that belonged only to the Elves and their kin. “Wouldn’t your true nature have been shown to you long before then?”
Steve gave a self-deprecating shrug. “Thus far, they only manifest when there is true danger threatening me or my bond-family.” A sad half-smile flitted across his face, and Peggy felt the deep well of pain he was hiding beneath it. He did not know, then, when he was using Sight. He had said he had no true control over his magic. “Though perhaps that is why my parents abandoned me in the Greatwood.”
“The Greatwood?” Peggy knit her brows together in confusion. It was so far from Elvia.
Steve nodded. “There is a practice in Celieria, you must have heard of it. When a child is malformed or possessed of uncontrollable magic, it’s left in the woods—”
“Winding.” Peggy was familiar with the ruthless custom of the mortals in this country. “You were left to the elements. Left to die.” Her anger rose just at the thought. In the Fading Lands, all life was treated as precious, most especially those of Fey young. These mortals bred so easily, like rabbits, but that was not the case for the Fey.
“Yes.” Steve met her gaze and Peggy felt the answering spark of his own anger. “My bond-father thought I was just another abandoned Celierian child, and he took me in and raised me as his own. When my magic rose, we believed it came from being exposed to all the power that has yet to fade in the North, from the time of the Mage Wars. I’ve never been able to control it.”
Steve wanted to believe, somehow, that this beautiful Fey woman, so fierce and composed, with skin that seemed lit from within by silvery moonlight, told the truth about their bond. He’d heard that Fey never lied, but Steve had lived in this world long enough to know that didn’t mean they had to speak the entirety of a truth if withholding something benefited them. He accepted her offer to share the fish she’s brought back to camp, and watched her move about her belongings with a powerful grace.
The compulsion to be by her side, even as close as he already was, nearly overpowered him. He clamped his hands on his thighs and forced himself to stay seated. He could not help but follow her face as she moved, though, like a flower following the sun.
She cast him a sidelong glance and Steve averted his eyes, embarrassed to be caught staring. “Forgive me for staring, but you are uncommonly beautiful.” He suddenly felt as shy as he’d been as a young boy and resisted the urge to twist his fingers in his lap. He took a breath. “Are all Fey women possessed of such beauty? I have never met a woman of your kind before.”
Peggy held back a derisive snort. “I can assure you, I am thought the least beautiful of my people. Though it is true I do tolerably well when compared to mortal women.”
She set the fish aside and stared into the fire. “You have never seen a Fey woman before because they rarely leave the Fading Lands. Only a powerful truemated shei’dalin will leave our borders on a diplomatic expedition to one of your mortal kings. The Fey offer the gift of her wisdom and Truthspeaking to any king that would wish to make use of it. She travels in heavy veils and never reveals her countenance in public.”
Steve snuck another glance at Peggy, taking in her practical traveling leathers. If they had just...truemated, didn’t that mean— “I am an outcast of my people.” Peggy sighed. “All Fey women are supposed to do is heal the warriors and bear more Fey children. They are supposed to be too delicate—their sense of empathy too strong—for them to fight in battle alongside their men.” She tugged at the belts of wicked-looking fey’cha knives that crossed over her chest. “I am no shei’dalin. I am more like the Fey warriors, more tairen than tame, and for that, I have been shunned.”