“No,” he said furiously, for about the twenty-seventh time. “No, look, that is not how we diplomacy. Not how we diplomatise. Not how we do things, okay?”
He was mad enough, and also terrified enough, that he was doing words wrong. So far, only Luke Sunborn had ever had the distinction of actually causing Elliot to do words wrong, and doing it more than once was an outrage, and also kind of impressive, and Elliot would, perhaps, scold him about it someday.
Someday when Elliot was generously inclined, and also when Luke was here with him and not abducted by bloody-minded mermaids.
He felt Serene’s hand slip into his, her calloused fingers strong and warm. Elliot was grateful for it; his own hands were ice cold.
“Give them back,” Serene said, coldly, to the mermaids. “Give back what is ours, and then we will talk.”
The mermaids, both of them, drew back their lips and bared their sharp, sharp teeth. Not too long ago, Elliot would have said that lake mermaids were the most terrifying and most beautiful beings he had ever met, but sea mermaids were different. These ones were speckled like seals, their shimmering skins mottled green, brown and dark grey. Their hair was coarse as rope, their faces narrower and their teeth more pointed than those of the mermaid he had met before.
They were signing amongst themselves and uttering occasional sibilant noises, which made Elliot really wish he’d had more time to learn mermish. He and Golden had had a good go at the message stone he’d found by the Border camp river, but there was a serious dearth of reference works. So far they’d only got as far as determining that the first line of symbols said either, “Greetings, sun dwellers” or “Burn, scab-faced crabs.” And of course they had zero idea how to sign or say any of it in actual mermish, even if they had managed to translate it.
Before this, Elliot had been enjoying their gap year very much. Commander Woodsinger had not, at first, been exactly thrilled with the idea of letting the four of them “roam pointlessly about the countryside,” as she had unkindly phrased it. In the end, however, she had relented, because Elliot’s arguments were sound and irrefutable and not, as certain persons had rudely implied, because Elliot had stayed in her office talking for four hours until he had broken her.
So the four of them had been working their way through the Borderlands, with short-term postings at various forts and settlements. This approach would give them a more well-rounded understanding of their skills and options, allowing them to make a thoroughly informed decision about their permanent posting at the end of the year. It was an entirely sensible arrangement, Elliot had argued, and really he ought to go back to the Commander’s office and convince her to turn it into a formalised procedure for all cadets. Luke had stopped him by pointing out this argument would be more effective once they had completed the year with resounding success, and once the Commander had had a year to recover from Elliot’s verbal bludgeoning. Elliott conceded the first point and told Luke at length about how hurtful and fallacious the second point was, until Luke employed several unfair measures of a physical nature to shut Elliot up.
A month into their third posting, and here they were, in the harshly beautiful northwest. The land unrolled in endless carpets of moor and heather, its colour fading but still glorious in the late autumn sun. A handful of villages were scattered here and there, and everywhere there was water: long, deep lochs in the interior, lively brooks and streams and a thousand ponds among the heather, like shards of mirrors flung into the scratchy bloom. Bordering it all was the green and foamy sea, with its long fingers of restless saltwater reaching into the coastline in rugged, cliff-framed fjords.
Despite the growing autumn chill and a lack of amenities even more appalling than at the Border camp, Elliot had quickly grown to love it here. He enjoyed learning about medicinal plants from their current post’s refreshingly un-martial Commander, exploring the surprisingly well-stocked archive housed in an ivy-wreathed tower, and translating scrolls with Golden and Serene. On fine days, he made Luke fly him across the miles and miles of hills and heather while Elliot tried to update old maps of the area and spot useful herbs.
Even the villagers – fishing folk mostly – seemed much less xenophobic than Elliot was used to, happily going along with Elliot’s ideas to amend several territory disputes with the moorland dryads. Everyone was delightfully reasonable, in fact, except, it turned out, these boyfriend-nabbing mermaids.
Elliot took a deep breath and forced himself to act calm. “Look,” he started over. “Doubtlessly this is some sort of cultural misunderstanding. Maybe abduction is how you guys woo boys, in which case I’ll have to tell you these won’t keep underwater and also they’re ours and you can’t have them. Maybe one of them inadvertently made some gesture that means ‘take me away, I have grown sick of breathing’ in your language. Maybe-”
“If they are not alive and breathing,” Serene interrupted him, her voice tight, “I will destroy you.”
One of the mermaids had come closer, leaning far out of the rocks lining the bay. She eyed Serene as if she were a particularly tasty dish of seafood.
“You are angry,” the mermaid said. “What we took holds meaning to you, then? Good.” She cocked her head and sucked in her already narrow cheeks. “You need not worry; it yet breathes. We’ve taken what you’ll sorely miss,” she added, in a mocking sing-song, “The price for its return: a kiss-” She did not quite manage to finish the word, since Serene was already leaning in, framing the mermaid’s sharp-boned face with her hands and kissing her.
Elliot and the other mermaid watched with interest. It was not a short or inattentive kiss. Elliot wondered where he’d heard the little rhyme before. He should look it up.
Eventually, the mermaid broke away with a laugh, rolling back from Serene into the shallow water. “That was nice, but obviously it will take more than a kiss. Human,” she added, derisively. “So easy.”
“She’s an elf,” Elliot pointed out, and took a step closer to Serene in case he had to stop her from committing acts of violence.
The other mermaid, who looked a little older and a little more serious, cleared her throat. “She likes to jest,” she said, and ignored a shower of tail-flicked droplets hitting her head. “However, this is no jesting matter. Give back what you took from us, and we’ll give back yours.”
“What we took?”
“The human,” the younger mermaid said, gesturing accusingly at Elliot.
“Me? I haven’t taken anything from you. Have I? Serene, did you see me take anything from any mermaids? Or any bodies of water? Oh no, did we fish illegally?”
Serene was still glaring at the mermaids. “No.”
“Are you sure it was this one?” the older mermaid asked. The other one squinted. “I thought so. Though perhaps the thief’s hair wasn’t quite so… that,” she said, making a complicated gesture towards Elliot’s hair that did not look flattering even to his untrained eye. “Hm, also possibly the thief had breasts, now that I think about it,” she added.
Elliot took a deep breath. “Okay, as soon as we’ve got your written language figured out, we are sending you some basic pointers on how to tell humans apart. So, to recap, some human person, who was not me, and also presumably a lady, stole something from you and you’ve gone to the somewhat extreme measure of abducting-”
“Not something!” the younger mermaid hissed angrily. “Our…” Her mouth made a shape but whatever she was saying was clearly not meant to be vocalised on land, as it only came out as a sort of throaty gurgle.
“Spawn-sister,” the older one supplied, frowning as if that was not quite the right word. Elliot made a mental note to research mermaid reproduction habits. “The thief took her, by moonlight, in a boat.” She gestured towards where the fjord snaked away inland, narrowing towards the far end. “To where they dwell, in dust and rock and scalding air.”
This was starting to make more sense. There was a fishing village at the edge of the fjord. Perhaps the locals were less mellow-minded than Elliot had supposed. Every movie about captured mermaids Elliot had ever seen flashed before his mind’s eye: mermaids bound and deprived of water, locked up in labs, mermaids stuffed into too-small aquariums or bathtubs. And the Borderlands didn’t even have bathtubs. Elliot shuddered. The best the poor mermaid could expect was probably a barrel.
Serene had apparently come to similar conclusions. She straightened her shoulders and gripped her bow with a tense air of purpose. “Fine. This is what will happen,” she told the mermaids. “Elliot and I will go to the village and make sure they release your spawn-sister back to you. You will then immediately – immediately – produce the men you’ve stolen from us. Agreed?”
The sisters exchanged another quick series of gestures and then nodded. “We will wait here.”
Serene indicated with a certain rigid formality (only recognisable to her nearest and dearest as a very strong violent urge held very tightly in check) that that would probably be best.
It turned out they did not have to go all the way to the village.
At the far end of the meandering length of the fjord, they found a ramshackle fishing hut huddled against the bottom of the cliff. In a shallow tide pool halfway up the beach, a mermaid – attractively mottled, with sunlight glinting off her gently swishing tail – and a human girl – red-haired and very much en déshabillé – were enthusiastically kissing, oblivious to their approach.
“Ah,” said Elliot.
Serene nodded. “This explains a lot.” She cleared her throat, loudly.
After the ensuing explosion of tail-induced splashing and furious outcries, it turned out the runaway (and swimaway, respectively) canoodlers were very adamant that they had done nothing wrong.
“Excuse you,” the fisher girl, who’d reluctantly introduced herself as Rosemary, snarled while pointedly tugging her soaked dress into place. “We’ve done nothing wrong. My family know. They don’t mind. They let us have the hut. They’ve met Keenua and everything.”
“Uhm… your girlfriend’s name is Quinoa?”
Rosemary shot Elliot a withering glare. Thankfully Elliot had a lifetime’s experience in skilfully ignoring withering glares. “Keenua. What’s your problem?”
The mermaid, who looked to be the youngest of the spawn-sisters, cut in. “My love cannot pronounce my real name, but I was named after the underwater volcano that humans know as Keenua.” With her magnificent tail coiled around herself and her dreadlocked hair drifting on the water, she managed to look haughty even within the confined space of the tide pool that forced her to look up at them. “I have consented to be addressed thus.”
Elliot nodded. “Neat. However, you guys and your stealthy elopement have caused all manner of mayhem. Not that I disapprove of mayhem in the name of love and all that, but not when other people are getting harmed.”
Rosemary spluttered. “We are not harming anyone! If everyone could just calm the hell down about the interspecies thing and stop being biased for two seconds...”
“You little fool!” exploded Serene. “We have no interest in your relationship-”
“She doesn’t mean that,” Elliot cut in hastily. “We’re rooting for you girls. Totally.”
“Be quiet, Elliot. What I mean is I do certainly understand the irresistible maelstrom that is two women’s desires combined, to which all other forces must bow in defeat or be destroyed…”
The girls looked alarmed and drew closer together, Rosemary reaching out to rest one hand on Keenua’s shoulder. Elliot mouthed maelstrom to himself to make sure he wouldn’t forget it.
“…but is Keenua’s family aware of your little love nest here?”
They both squirmed and avoided eye contact with anyone.
“I thought so.” Serene sighed. “Look, you will need to tell them. They think you’ve been abducted by humans and therefore they have captured humans in turn” – “Our humans,” Elliot interjected indignantly – “to enforce an exchange.”
“They what??” Keenua erupted, much like the seamount she was named for, and rapidly fired off a volley of mermish curses that made everybody’s ears hurt a lot and that Elliot fervently wished he could memorise.
Things gained a certain momentum after that. Keenua grudgingly promised she’d make sure the hostages were released, murmured something about tying her sisters’ tails together and stringing them up for shark bait, and then launched herself furiously into the water.
Elliot, who usually considered siblings to be something fun and enviable, based mostly on his experience of Louise Sunborn, revised his opinion.
While the three of them waited, Elliot sidled up to Rosemary. “I have a lot of questions about mermaid anatomy,” he said. Serene’s hand clamped suddenly on his shoulder. “But I just realised they’re all incredibly inappropriate,” Elliot continued hastily, “so I should probably not ask them, huh?”
Rosemary was watching him with an expression of wary apprehension. “Yes. No. You shouldn’t.”
“Right. Never mind. As you were,” Elliot said, and let Serene drag him back. He would have to wait for Luke so he could consult with him on all the questions.
It didn’t take long for Keenua to return with both her sisters. They appeared to be having an almighty underwater row that above the surface manifested mostly as a lot of irritated tail-thrashing and water-churning and a distorted echo of sounds that resembled whale song, if whales had battle paeans.
More importantly for Elliot and Serene, the mermaids were dragging behind them an ancient, seaweed-draped boat, from which a sleek blond head – still perfectly coiffed – lifted as they drew near the shore.
Serene let out a relieved sigh and waded into the surf to help drag the boat to shore. She flung her arms around Golden as he clambered out, lifting him clear off his feet for a moment. “My love. I was so worried about you! Are you alright?” Golden, who was still uncomfortable about showing affection in public, held her awkwardly and murmured something in her ear. He looked tired and the tiniest bit bedraggled but otherwise none the worse for wear.
The boat, left to its own devices, listed gently to the side. It was not a large boat. It certainly was not large enough to conceal something the size of a half-harpy, however cunningly hidden. “Where’s Luke?” Elliot demanded.
The mermaids broke the surface, and Keenua rolled gracefully inland. The sisterly melee was still ongoing, with Rosemary now chiming in. None of them seemed to be holding back on their opinions or volume. Serene was examining Golden for injuries and Golden was telling Serene he was fine and had had a plan for his own rescue all worked out. Nobody was paying any attention to anything else.
“Where’s Luke?” Elliot repeated.
Everyone shut up and stared at him. Elliot realised he must have shouted. He didn’t care. “Well?”
Serene was the first to rally, casting a quick glance around and then grasping for her knife. “Yes. Where is he?”
“Luke is missing?” Golden asked, confused.
The oldest of the sisters blinked at them with her strange, foam-coloured eyes. “What is a Luke?”
“My boyfriend. The other human you took.” It was very, very difficult to speak calmly.
The mermaids looked affronted. “We only took the one. One of yours for one of ours.”
“You didn’t even get the correct species!” Serene accused.
“You’re very hard to tell apart!”
“We said them,” Elliot pointed out furiously. “We said men. Plural was definitely used.”
The middle sister gave an exasperated huff that sounded absurdly human. “Your language makes no sense. Man, men. It all sounds the same to us. In any case, we do not have this Luke person.”
“They do have some trouble with plural,” Rosemary cut in. “When Keenua and I first met, she told me I had a beautiful eye. I spent days fretting about which was the ugly one.”
At any other time, Elliot would have sympathised and appreciated the difficulties of being a non-native speaker, especially when your mother tongue had developed in a different element altogether. He might even have tried to arrange a mutual exchange of language lessons. However, his heart was pounding with a dark, dangerous terror, and all he really felt capable of doing was panicking, or possibly yelling some more.
He was about to do that when Rosemary cleared her throat. “Er. Does he have wings?”
This got her everyone’s attention. Elliot swung to face her. “Yes! Wings, blond, irritatingly good-looking, mispronounces words a lot. Have you seen him?”
Rosemary coughed and looked like she wished she could be literally anywhere but here. “I’ve… well, if it’s the same guy-“
“You get a lot of half-harpies flying about these moors?”
“Right, no… so in that case I’ve seen him, I think…”
“…but you’re not going to like it,” Rosemary added apologetically.
Serene spoke while Elliot was still drawing breath for a frustrated scream. “Just tell us, please.”
Rosemary shrugged, as if to say on their heads be it. “The Black One took him, of the Mawly River.”
There was a long silence, broken only by the mermaids whisper-gurgling amongst each other.
“I can’t tell if you’re being racist right now,” Elliot said through gritted teeth, “but I’m going to need more information than that.”
Rosemary tilted her head at him. “The Black One of the Mawly,” she repeated, more slowly. “Have you not heard of him? He is the most dangerous of them all.”
“Of all the what?!”
Golden made a soft, dismayed sound. He spoke before Rosemary could. “Of the kelpies. The water horses.”
The mermaids, all three of them, drew back their lips. It looked like they were smiling, if you didn’t know that mermaids didn’t smile. They hissed in unison, an eerie, unpleasant vibrating sound.
Elliot tried to keep his jaw in place. “There are water horses? Proper ones, like, with the shape-shifting and all that?” he demanded, fascinated for a second. Then he flapped his hand. “Sorry, carry on. I’ll acknowledge the awesomeness of his existence later. What’s he done with Luke?”
“If you could let her talk, Elliot,” Serene said, with deceptive mildness.
“You’re very strange folk, and I say that as someone who’s dating a mermaid,” Rosemary said bemusedly. “Anyway. It was yesterday. I was coming the long way from the village because one of our cows had gone wandering on the moor and I’d had to fetch her home, so after that I went by the far side of the Mawly River to check if the fence still held, and I saw them. The Black One and the winged lad. They were all the way down by the Mawly Craw – the whole river goes sideways there, deep into the rocks and caverns, and no one goes near it, on account of the rapids, and also the kelpie.”
“And you’re not in the habit of warning newcomers about this? Keep out, murderous water horses, or something?” Elliot complained.
Rosemary shrugged uncomfortably. “There aren’t many of them left, and I suppose people prefer to forget there’s any. The Black One used to dwell in Mawly Lake, and make his way through the underground caverns to the sea and back. Lately, he’s been sticking to the upper reaches of the river. Nobody comes that way.”
“Evidently that’s not true. Again, I recommend some signage. What happened then?”
“First they were fighting. The winged lad had a sword, and the kelpie, well, he’s got teeth, hasn’t he – and then they were talking, which is more dangerous than the fighting really, because they draw you in that way. And then…” She hesitated.
“Then what? You can’t stop there! Stop stopping for dramatic effect!”
Rosemary was studying the cliff face behind Elliot with extreme interest. “Well, then he took him down. The kelpie did, I mean. Pulled the lad into the Mawly Craw.”
There was a ringing noise in Elliot’s ears although the mermaids had stopped hissing and were merely listening with rather too much glee. Serene’s hand had tightened painfully around his. “What?”
“You mean he drowned him?” asked Golden with horrible practicality.
Rosemary half-shrugged, half shook her head. “Not right away, I’d guess. He’s dangerous, and he’s killed folks, yes. Not for ten years or so, not since… but usually there’s something before he kills them. A challenge, like, or a test. He only drowns you if you fail. And eats you, I suppose – they’re flesh eaters, kelpies are,” she added helpfully.
Elliot’s ears were still ringing but he forced himself to think. About solutions, and not about carnivorous water horses eating people. “Okay. Okay, tests and challenges we can work with. Luke’s ridiculously good at challenges. Right, Serene?”
“He always had uncommon martial talent for a man,” Serene agreed.
Elliot took a deep breath. The possibility – no, the extreme likelihood – of Luke’s survival if placed in a challenge-type situation made his panic recede enough to be able to think more clearly, and also to start feeling a bit cross about the whole thing.
“This is incredibly thoughtless of him, you know. How did both these idiots – sorry, sorry, Golden, I mean how did you and that idiot get yourselves abducted on the same day by two different water-dwelling parties, anyway? Did you enter some kind of damsel-in-distress competition?”
“That’s a good question, actually,” Serene said with a frown.
Golden sniffed. “I was merely choosing a more secluded bay for swimming. How was I to know that observance of proper modesty for those of us who have no wish to witness certain shocking displays of undress amongst their peers would lead to my capture and prolonged sun exposure?” He mournfully fingered his nose, which was the tiniest bit pink.
“No one is blaming you for that, my love,” Serene said hastily. “But why was Luke out by himself near some clearly ill-reputed river anyway?”
“Because of poor signage?” Golden suggested. “I thought we covered this.”
“No, but why did he go out there in the first place?”
Elliot realised, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, that he actually knew the answer. “Oh. Oh, no.”
Elliot squirmed. “I was going on about gelderdown. It’s a medicinal plant that the Commander told me makes a great coagulant. Which is a very useful thing to have when your best friend and your boyfriend are forever getting themselves into dangerous, bleeding-conducive situations! I may have been telling him about it – a lot. It… supposedly grows near riverbanks.”
He could see it all too clearly: Luke, out before Elliot had even woken up, flying for miles to some stupid cursed river to find some stupid plant because Elliot had talked his stupid mouth off over it and Luke, with sweet and infuriating ease, did things to make Elliot happy.
“I guess I’m going to go kick some kelpie arse,” Elliot mumbled, not looking at anybody. “Metaphorically, because I don’t condone violence even in extreme situations.”
“We cannot challenge a kelpie without some kind of protection,” Serene pointed out. “They do not sound like something to be trifled with.”
“I don’t have a great track record with mythological horses, it’s true,” Elliot agreed, vividly remembering the unicorn. “So what currency do kelpies accept as valid protection? Presumably it’s not virginity, or sugar cubes.”
Rosemary and Keenua had resumed their argument with Keenua’s sisters, so the three of them retreated a little further up the beach to strategise. Serene proposed that an arrow to the hamstring was highly effective in both humans and horses. Elliot counter-proposed a bit and bridle. Serene suggested that Elliot could seduce the kelpie as a distraction while she freed Luke. Elliot suggested that while he was flattered at how highly she apparently rated his theoretical Mata Hari skills, he did not share her confidence, and also Luke would not appreciate being rescued by means of prostitution. Serene asked what a Mata Hari was. Elliot started to explain at length.
“I do not see how this is useful information,” Golden interjected, which Elliot thought very rude because all information was useful. “There are some elvish scrolls that contain instructions on protection from various species, I believe,” Golden continued. “They are rather old, so I’m not sure how reliable the information is but-”
“That’s nice,” said Elliot gloomily. “If only we had them here.”
“I would not mention impertinent lore,” Golden retorted peevishly, digging around in his pack. “I do believe I brought them.”
Elliot brightened immediately. “I like you,” he told Golden fervently. “I like you so much.”
“Won’t they have got wet?” Serene asked.
Golden shot her a scathing look as he tossed his pale hair back over one shoulder and pulled a tightly-wrapped bundle from the pack. “Of course not. I wrapped them in oilskin and also wove a water-proof mesh for the whole pack. Does yours not have one?”
Serene shook her head sheepishly and he sighed. “Women. You have no sense of practicality at all.”
Serene was too distracted to argue, eyeing the fine parchment in Golden’s hands with growing suspicion. “Ah, my sweet… where did you bring these from, exactly?”
Golden was too well brought up to look shifty, so he settled for haughty. “The library at finishing school, of course.”
“Not the restricted section, surely!” Serene exclaimed in horror.
Golden shrugged with supreme unconcern. “Nobody will miss them. I replaced them with a few illustrated volumes of erotic literature.”
“Oh, it’s alright. I was done with those.” Golden smiled a small, extremely smug smile.
Elliot was already leaning over Golden’s shoulder to peer at the scrolls. “Don’t listen to her,” he told Golden. “You are a true and stalwart friend and I treasure your book-thieving ways almost as much as your styling tips.”
Golden cast a quick, pained glance at Elliot’s hair. “Yes… quite.”
The scroll, Elliot quickly determined, was not exactly what one might call an unbiased or particularly well-researched source. Whoever had written it also seemed to have dedicated more effort to rhyming couplets than scientific accuracy. “Speak but your piece, then let them go, their minds too small for what you know,” Elliot read out loud. “Well, that’s a load of rubbish, isn’t it? Trolls aren’t stupid. They’re just literal.”
The other instructions were not much better, lecturing about the gold-greed of dwarves and the flighty nature of dryads. Elliot perked up when they reached a section on mermaids.
“‘They like not sounds of brass or bone; Play steady and sail safely home.’ Ugh, unclean rhymes.”
“That might be true, though,” Serene interjected. “I’ve found several ancient reports in the archives about ships that employed a bone-flute or horn player when in dangerous waters.”
“Well, good to know not all of this is bollocks. We should ask Keenua and her sisters when they’re done screaming. What’s this one – whoa, is this one for humans?”
“Ah,” said Golden, delicately.
“Oh my god. It is, isn’t it? ‘Children of earth know only might; Once met, they are best killed on sight.’ Seriously, guys? Seriously?”
Neither of them would meet his eyes. “As I said,” Golden murmured, “Rather old scroll… bias of the time… cultural differences in an, uhm, historical context…”
“This is awful,” Elliot stated darkly. “Elves are awful. I can’t believe I ever let myself be ensorcelled by your pointy ears and shiny hair and mellifluous archaic diction.”
“It was a long time ago, Elliot. We’ve learned since then. Well, some of us have,” Serene amended, with a sigh.
“Look,” Golden interrupted strategically, pointing at the scroll. “This one must be for kelpies, surely? There is a drawing of a horse, and these squiggles must be water. ‘A bough of ash, an iron blade, a vow of truth, in good faith made.’ What do you suppose that means?”
“An iron blade is easy,” Serene said. “Iron is meant to ward off evil fairies. And Luke would have had his sword with him, of course.”
“And his pocket knife, and his throwing knife, and his hunting knife, and all his other knives,” Elliot agreed. “And a bough is a twig, isn’t it? Or a branch? Or some other tree-related implement?”
“Ash, ash,” mused Golden. “It must mean mountain ash. As in, a rowan tree? They’re meant to aid against dark forces, in the stories.”
“Oh goody. If only we knew what a rowan tree looked like! Is anybody versed in botany?”
Golden stared at Elliot as if he had just started stripping naked in public, and pointed past him. “There’s one right there on that hill behind the village. Whatever do they teach boys in your world?”
“Tenets of the patriarchy, mostly, but we’re working on it,” Elliot said absentmindedly, staring at the tree on the hill. “Okay, that’s excellent. I can get a branch of that, and Luke will have his thousand iron murder weapons, and we can work out what this vow of truth business is about when I get there.”
“When you get there?” Serene demanded archly.
It took a lengthy and occasionally loud discussion to get her to agree to let Elliot go alone. She eventually relented after Rosemary came over and pointed out that the Black One had only ever appeared to lone humans, never groups, and after Elliot pointed out that he was a keen (“Incessant!” said Serene) and experienced (“Compulsive!” said Serene) negotiator (“Blabbermouth!” said Serene) and that things were less likely to escalate if Serene and her own assortment of weapons were not there. Elliot suspected that what really swayed her was the fact that Golden, though gamely announcing his intent to come on the mission and not to abandon a comrade, one for all and all for one etc., looked pale and drawn at the prospect of another water-related mission. Elliot couldn’t blame him; he wasn’t feeling exactly chipper himself as he eyed the stylised drawing on the ancient scroll, showing a horse that looked ever so slightly wrong, with pallid eyes and lips drawn back to show sharp, pointed teeth.
“In the meantime,” Golden told Rosemary, “perhaps you will allow my betrothed and I to address Keenua’s sisters on the issue of your attachment. You see, we too have known the sting of our families’ disapproval. Sometimes an exchange of perspective can help in these matters.”
Rosemary looked over her shoulder at the bickering mermaids, and then back at Golden. She suddenly looked exhausted, very young, and tentatively grateful. “That would be… uhm, sure, why not. Thanks.”
Golden nodded. “Also, I am very well versed in the phrasing of pre-marital agreements and contentious points of co-habitation,” he added proudly, at which Rosemary went back to looking alarmed.
“Pre-marital… uhm, we’re fifteen.”
Serene coughed to hide a smile. “Perhaps we will merely start with family visits and a policy of mutual openness.”
Elliot, who was carefully rolling up the elvish scroll, watched the arguing spawn-sisters with the squirmy tug that strong family connections usually elicited in him. True, they looked absolutely ready to murder each other, and the unpleasant pitch of mermish out of water was starting to give him a headache. But they were screaming at their sister because they cared, because they were worried about her. There’d been a time when Elliot would have given a body part (okay, a small one) to have his father care enough to argue with him.
With a shake of his head, Elliot turned away, deliberately banishing the brief wash of melancholy. He had Serene; he had the Sunborns. Family was more than flesh and blood; it was a choice, and he’d been lucky in the ones who’d chosen him back. It was that simple.
Serene walked with Elliot to the top side of the fjord, where the moor stretched away in fading purple glory. She helped him pick a bough off the mountain ash (“Any one will do, I suspect,” was her helpful contribution) before they hugged goodbye. “Bring him back, Elliot,” she whispered fiercely in his ear.
He wrapped a hand around her nape and touched his forehead to hers. “I will,” he promised.
A little further on, a sparse line of stunted trees ran along the river. A fence of some sort ran parallel to it, not new by the looks of it; the rusty posts tangled with withered tree branches. If it was meant to keep livestock away from the dangers of the river, it couldn’t be doing too great a job, Elliot thought. Some of the gaps in it were definitely cattle-sized. Rosemary’s cow had been lucky.
A hundred yards or so downstream, the river changed. From the slow, flat stream, the Mawly turned abruptly into a lively, fast-flowing brook between large, mossy boulders, the dark water churning with peat-yellowed foam. Elliot carefully picked his way onto one of the boulders, trying not to slip on the wet moss, and leaned to peek down at what Rosemary had called the Craw.
It was about as sinister as a rivulet of spring melt, with the friendly, broad steps of the boulders going right up to the edge. From there, the Craw was so narrow that it would be easy to jump across.
In fact, jumping across looked quite tempting. There was more flat rock to walk on on the other side, and the leap would not nearly require the advanced level of fitness Elliot had been unfairly manoeuvred into acquiring. It would pretty much just take one longish step.
Elliot leaned over a little further, gauging the ridiculous non-distance. Beneath the yellowish foam, the water was dark and swirling, its constant gurgling rush almost soothing in his ears. It couldn’t be as deep as all that, surely? If he looked closely, he could probably see the bottom. He craned his neck.
“I wouldn’t,” someone said from behind him, in a voice as darkly hypnotic as the water below.
Elliot yelped, promptly slipped on the wet rock as he whipped around, flailed his arms, and just barely managed to not fall into the Craw. His balance regained, he looked up. “Oh, it’s you,” he said crossly, although his heart was hammering.
The name “The Black One” had apparently been nothing more sinister than literal. The kelpie was sleek and black as tar, his long mane and tail in constant, rippling motion as he stepped neatly on the moss-slicked rock, his slender hooves apparently unbothered by the precarious footing.
“You must be Elliot Schafer.” It was somewhat absurd to hear his name come out of a horse’s mouth, murmured with an odd, crooning emphasis. “I have been waiting for you.”
“Where’s Luke?” Elliot asked immediately.
The kelpie tilted his head, a strangely human gesture. “Impatient,” he chided. “He is alive, for now.”
Elliot wanted to demand details, to launch into some choice words about kidnappers, to initiate hostage release negotiations, but his mind suddenly felt strangely thickened, as if somehow the speed had been dialled way down on his mental functions. The black horse was approaching in a graceful sideways prance. His eyes were odd; too light-coloured and not very horse-like. Elliot noticed other subtle differences as well: a strange fluidity to his movements, joints bending in subtly wrong ways, the long white teeth, not quite fangs but decidedly tapered. He did not have the bulk of a normal horse, either; his body was narrow and almost too slender, with lean muscle shifting under the black hide.
The kelpie had, somehow, come very close. Elliot resisted the urge to step back; there was nowhere to back off to but the dark water. He found it hard to meet the water horse’s pale eyes, and at the same time felt a compulsive urge to do just that, like the pull of vertigo he’d sometimes felt at the top of cliffs.
He had to say something. There were things he had to ask, to know. “What… what’s your name?” he heard himself asking. It was not the thing he’d meant to say, and his voice came out weird and dreamy. He realised that something was going on that he should probably be alarmed about but found he couldn’t muster any actual alarm.
The kelpie’s lips lifted in something that might be a smile or a sneer. “I am not in the habit of honouring mortals with the offer of my name,” he said silkily. Another step brought him within inches of touching. “Perhaps later,” he added, “if you prove yourself worthy of it.” He shook out his sleek, wet-looking mane.
Elliot blinked to avoid being mane-flicked, and the strange heaviness on his mind cleared a bit. He tried to rally. “Sorry,” he said, “I get that there’s a whole sexy deal about centaurs, I do, but the buff horse thing doesn’t really do that much for… oh, what… oh, no… oh, hello.” A ripple had distorted the shape before him, rendering it a blur of darkness in motion for a moment before it shifted and resolidified.
The kelpie, in human form, was stunning. His hair was black and windswept, his skin was pale, and his eyes were the colour of freshwater pearls, iridescent and gleaming, shifting from ivory to green to silver, and back. He was long and lean and mostly bare, a tangle of netting draped carelessly about his hips, dark water plants plastered enticingly against the pallor of his thighs.
He also had some serious abs. Elliot reluctantly reconsidered the whole sexy horse thing. Evidently it worked if you had a cheat code.
Then he noticed the slow ooze of blood from a long gash down the kelpie’s side, and a lot of the sexiness evaporated.
“That looks nasty.”
The kelpie shifted so his arm covered the wound. “Pay it no regard,” he said, with an undertone of irritation that Elliot instinctively pounced on.
“No? Looks like a sword stroke,” Elliot commented offhandedly. “Must be painful. Especially if you don’t like iron.” Which reminded him of the bough of mountain ash he carried – tucked away in his knapsack, naturally. He silently berated himself for not carrying it in his hand. It was doubtful the kelpie would politely stand back and let him fish it out.
He raised his eyes from the kelpie’s abs – and wound, remember the wound, not sexy, not sexy – back to his face, and startled at the dark fury that met him there. Not irritation or annoyance at having had a weakness pointed out, but something wilder, purer. Elliot had been told frequently and by a wide variety of people that they were going to kill him if he didn’t shut up, but he had never, until this moment, been confronted with the very real possibility of being casually murdered for verbally poking at someone’s sore spots.
It lasted only a split second, then the kelpie’s face smoothed over and he smiled again. “It’s very sweet of you to be concerned.”
Elliot wanted to tell him that sweetness and concern were not natural elements of his character, but he was having trouble thinking again. I shouldn’t have looked at his face, he thought, but now he was looking, trying to resist the subtle pull. The kelpie’s mouth was moving. Elliot watched it, fascinated by the precise, delicate curve of his lips, enjoying the murmur of his voice without taking in any of the words.
A shimmer wreathed the kelpie’s face, something as delicate as spider webs glittering with dew. It seemed to move when Elliot let his gaze go unfocused, dancing and beckoning at the edges of his perception. I know what this is, he thought dreamily, and then realised he actually did. He let the kelpie’s voice roll over him and forced himself to wait for the word to come to him instead of grasping for it and startling it away.
A glamour. That was it. Elliot’s gaze sharpened as he tried to get his brain to work through the haze of allure. The kelpie was rocking an actual, honest-to-god glamour. Elliot had read about them in the fairy stories of his own world, although…
“But that’s magic!” he blurted, his excitement great enough to cut through the kelpie’s voice, and also the tingle of slightly drugged attraction. “Your glamour! Magic! Proper magic! I thought there was no magic!”
The kelpie smiled, a lazy, white-toothed smile. “There’s magic in all the worlds, although in some it’s old and buried.”
“Everything I’ve been taught is a lie,” Elliot murmured darkly.
The kelpie had somehow moved closer, without seeming to have taken any actual steps. “There’s even some magic left in your own world, Elliot Schafer, albeit running thin and tired in these cold days of reason.”
Reason is good, Elliot wanted to argue. Do not be dissing the reason. But once again it had become hard to form words, with the kelpie so near and his voice so low and purring. He reached out to place one fingertip into the hollow of Elliot’s throat. The kelpie’s skin was smooth and cool, but where he touched, Elliot’s skin felt feverish and restless; he wanted to back away, and he wanted to lean in. The kelpie’s smile, so close now, deepened.
Elliot swallowed, trying to fight the strange, glittering flicker in the kelpie’s light eyes, like sunlight dancing on deep water, dizzying him. His skin burned under the kelpie’s feathery touch. It was a sensitive spot. Luke loved to kiss him there, tracing a soft path along the collar bone, his lips warm with his smile and his breath behind it. A gentle warmth, though, not like this.
Elliot’s brain momentarily felt a little less foggy, the kelpie’s gaze not quite so enticingly iridescent. Thinking of Luke seemed to have helped somehow, so Elliot did some more of that.
Luke, listening patiently while Elliot tried to puzzle out the linguistics of a foreign language or held forth on the virtues of e-books.
Luke in the morning, bed-mussed and sleepily affectionate, tangling Elliot up in wings and legs and kisses.
Luke looking for him first in any crowded room, and minutely relaxing when their eyes met.
Luke pinned beneath him, laughing, not in the least bit threatened or resentful, giving himself over to Elliot’s control without hesitation, his eyes dark with trust and arousal.
Luke in the quiet moments, making of every silence a shared comfort rather than an airless wait for a blow to fall.
The kelpie withdrew his finger. His silvery eyes had narrowed.
“I see,” he said, and his voice was less hypnotic than before. His finely drawn brows had knitted into a slight frown, and Elliot could see him clearly now, though he could tell the glamour was still there. It tempted and flickered in his peripheral vision like fen fire.
Elliot fixed his eyes on the kelpie’s, and filled his mind with Luke.
“What have you done with him?”
The kelpie cocked his head a little, regarding Elliot with narrowed eyes. With the glamour dimmed, he was still beautiful, but mostly Elliot saw again how very dangerous he was, and how very careful Elliot would have to be.
“Is he yours, then?” the kelpie asked.
Elliot frowned. “That is a very antiquated and unhealthy way of looking at it. He’s a free human being with an independent will.” The kelpie’s face darkened; apparently he did not appreciate Jane Eyre. Elliot decided to change tack. “Yes, I suppose in a manner of speaking he is mine, actually, and I would like him back now, please and thank you.”
The kelpie nodded. “I will take you to him.”
“You will? I mean, you will. Excellent. About time. Lead the way.”
The kelpie lifted a hand – it exposed the wound in his side again – and made an oddly formal, after-you sort of gesture.
Towards the Mawly Craw.
“Uhm. I know you lead a very secluded kind of life here, not that much contact with other species and such, but surely someone has told you humans do not make great water-breathers.”
“It’s not too far,” the kelpie said carelessly, as if he was proposing a brief stroll through a meadow of frolicking lambs instead of a plunge into a river with an estimated death rate of 100%. “You will need to hold onto me, though.”
Elliot snorted. “Yeah, so you can drown me!”
The kelpie looked amused at that. “I shan’t drown you, Elliot Schafer. You have my word on that.” He straightened and tossed his midnight hair, which started to flicker and lengthen before Elliot’s eyes into a mane. “Hold tight to me,” the kelpie said, “and don’t let go.” Another breath, and the tall black horse stood on the slippery rocks again, watching Elliot with impatience in its light, un-horse-like eyes.
Elliot was not entirely sure how much he trusted the word of a more-than-averagely murderous water creature, and he very much did not like the look of the churning waters below them. But in the end there was nothing for it. He sighed, and slid a hand into the long wet mane.
“Okay. If I drown over this, tell Sunborn I am very cross with him.” He sucked in as much air as he could and held his breath.
The kelpie leapt. Elliot got the briefest glimpse of the underside of the moss-grown rocks, the terrifying undercut that gave way to nothing but water. Down, down they went, into the green-brown Craw. Immediately the undercurrent grabbed them, tugging at Elliot’s limbs with cold and relentless force. Elliot squeezed his eyes shut against the peat-dark water and dug both hands into the kelpie’s mane, hanging on for all he was worth. There were no rocks, no logs, no riverbed. Nothing but currents twisting like a nest of snakes, threatening to rip him in two. His lungs panicked before they actually ran out of air. He struggled to calm down, to remember that he was on a rescue mission, not a swift descent to an ignoble demise he had, like an idiot child, agreed to.
One of the currents flung him harshly against the kelpie’s side. He felt the sleek, powerful body pressed against him, the long legs stretched behind, not kicking, but somehow still propelling them smoothly through the buffeting currents. Physiologically, a horse’s physique must be among the least suited to a waterbound existence, but the kelpie dove down like an arrow to its target.
Elliot’s eyes had flown open in the jostle. His last precious reserves of air left his lungs in an astonished gush when he realised that he could see. Instead of peat-choked darkness, there was a greenish glow beneath them, a wholly improbable glimmer of underwater light. It was distorted by the steady train of bubbles rising from the kelpie’s mane like the tail of a comet. Unable to stop himself, Elliot breathed in, knowing it was the beginning of the end, and gasped when instead of dark water, bubbles streamed into his lungs: pure, precious air.
Wow, he thought, exultant, it’s proper, freaking magic, and breathed deep.
Within moments, they were into the luminescent green and suddenly calm waters, and then they broke the surface.
“Elliot! Wake up! What are you even doing here, you utter lunatic? I can’t believe you are so stupid! Please, wake up!”
Elliot shoved his soaked hair out of his face and blinked up at Luke, who was white-faced and damp and furious.
“Oh, you’re alive,” said Elliot. “That’s good.” He tugged at the arm that was currently being dragged, and by some miracle managed to actually pull Luke off balance so he tumbled down to his knees and within pouncing distance. “Hi, loser,” he said into Luke’s damp neck and reassuring leather smell. “Came to rescue you.”
“I didn’t need rescue,” Luke grumbled, holding Elliot so tightly it hurt.
“Oh, no? Had a plan, did you? Everything sorted out?”
Luke, who was actually terrible at lying, said nothing, and Elliot patted him on the back. “Thought so. Don’t worry, darling. I’m here now. Everything will be fine.”
Luke pulled back to give him an extremely scathing look that Elliot chose to ignore. “Are you okay?” Luke demanded, already patting Elliot over for injuries.
“Nope. I’m bruised from this stupid river rock, I think my lungs have some sort of delayed oxygen withdrawal syndrome, and I do believe I have a horse kick here, look,” Elliot said plaintively, holding up his leg.
Luke examined all the indicated spots and brusquely declared, “You’re okay,” with altogether too much callous military buck-up-soldier-you’ll-be-right disdain. Elliot did not press the issue only because at the end of the examination, one of Luke’s hands ended up resting against the side of Elliot’s neck, the thumb smoothing over his cheek, and Elliot leaned into the caress for a blissful, exhausted moment.
“Hi, you,” he murmured, unable to help the way his voice sounded, low and defenceless and so, so relieved.
Luke exhaled a shaky breath. “Hi yourself,” he said, voice scratchy, and leaned in. His lips were cool, but the kiss was not.
“Don’t let me interrupt.” The kelpie’s voice cut silkily through the murky air, and Elliot felt Luke’s muscles stiffen under his hands.
They drew apart to find the kelpie draped insouciantly against a tumble of rocks, one leg drawn up, an elegant bare foot propped on dark stone. The posture made his abs quite prominent, despite the ghastly gash, and Elliot dragged his eyes away from the peripheral flicker of the glamour, to take in their surroundings. They were in a cavern of some sort, piled with damp rock and illuminated by the eldritch green-gold glow that seemed to have no visible source. Not far from the rocky ledge they perched on, the water of the Mawly Craw, deceptively smooth, licked at the lip of the rock.
At the sound of kelpie’s voice, Luke had flung himself back from Elliot with a soldier’s instinct and scrambled for something behind him. When he sat back up, he clumsily clutched his sword.
The kelpie rolled his freshwater-pearl eyes. “Oh yes, do let’s be pedestrian,” he drawled. His gaze lit on Elliot. “Get yours out, too, why don’t you?”
“Uhm,” said Elliot. “I’d hate to be accused of being sexually disadventurous-”
“That’s not a word.”
“Hush, Luke – but I do generally require at least some sort of indication that you like me as a person before I whip out my bits in front of strangers.”
“You’re terribly amusing and sexual quips are an extremely novel type of humour, I am certain,” the kelpie assured him, sounding bored. “Bring out the mountain ash. I know you carry it. I felt it tingling in my blood.”
“I’ll assume it wasn’t a good tingle,” Elliot grumbled, and pulled out the bough of ash. The twisted length of wet wood settled gently across Luke’s sword as if they were long-lost twins; there was between the straight-edged blade and the gnarled branch a kind of outlandish synchronicity that hummed at the edges of Elliot’s mind.
The kelpie flinched, and turned his face aside. “Oh, very well,” he said crossly. “So you’ve done your research.”
“I am so good at research,” Elliot agreed, somewhat smugly.
He saw, in the corner of his eye, Luke nodding fervently. “He’s unbelievable. He’d bring a stack of books to bed if you’d let him.”
“You do let me,” Elliot felt compelled to point out.
Luke turned to meet his eyes, and there was something tentatively wicked about his smile. “Well, yeah. I like a challenge.”
Across the narrow cavern, the kelpie sighed, more audibly than strictly necessary. “Yes, fine. You read an old book. Congratulations. Shall we have the rest of it, then, and be done with this mawkish display?”
Elliot felt Luke tense beside him, heard him say, “The rest of what?”, and realised, belatedly, that he had never, in over five years of knowing Luke Sunborn, seen him grip a weapon with anything approaching clumsiness.
Luke’s wings were out, drooping sodden and water-darkened to the ground. Elliot knew that Luke could control them now, for the most part, so it was entirely possible Luke had brought them out simply to be prepared for a chance of escape. On the other hand, Luke’s shirt was in tatters, which these days only happened during times of extreme arousal or extreme distress. Luke had learned quickly to control the former, mortified by his mother’s merciless teasing whenever he requested new shirts to be sent from home, and Elliot did not think Luke was the type to be enticed into a state of wingus erectus even by the kelpie’s most persuasive glamour.
There was also the fact that Luke was holding his sword in his left hand and that a strip of his torn shirt was wrapped around his blood-soaked right upper arm.
“Oh my god, you’re hurt,” hissed Elliot, facing Luke and grabbing at his arm. “You’re hurt!”
“It’s nothing,” said Luke, trying to fend him off although his face was pale and his arm was bleeding.
“Nothing, my arse,” seethed Elliot. “He bit you, didn’t he? He bit you, oh my god this is disgusting, I think I’m going to be sick.” He’d rapidly unwound the makeshift bandage and now wished he hadn’t; there was an actual chunk of flesh missing from Luke’s biceps and the square teeth marks in the ragged edges were blunt and horsey and dark with crusted blood.
“Don’t be sick,” Luke said, alarmed, and gripped at his shoulder. “It’s okay. It was stupid. I fought him, and he bit me. I’m okay.”
“Nothing about this,” Elliot declared, faintly, “is okay.”
“The rest,” said the kelpie, lazily, as if the blood and teeth marks and ragged flesh and general abduction vibes didn’t matter in the least; as if it didn’t concern him. “A bough of ash, an iron blade; a vow of truth, in good faith made. Get on with it. Pledge yourselves. Give me your vow, and swim free, little mortals.”
Elliot, cradling Luke’s mangled, blood-crusted arm in his hands, turned a furious gaze on the kelpie. “What. The hell. Are you talking about.”
There was something wild and eerie about the kelpie’s laugh, something too much like despair to still pass for disdain. “The verity of true love, firebrand. What else? Come on. It’s not too high a price, is it? To escape from this place and live to boast of it?” A pause, precisely calculated and malicious. “Unless he doesn’t hold your heart, of course.”
His meaning sank in slowly. Elliot turned to meet Luke’s eyes, which were stoic and blue and unreadable. Luke probably would have no trouble making some stupid vow of eternal love at eighteen, with nothing but the force of one seriously mystifying infatuation to back up his personal convictions. It wasn’t the Sunborn way, but it was 100% the Luke way, easy and noble and entirely veracious, something that Elliot, who’d spent his lifetime patching up gaping holes with sarcasm and tempestuous defiance, could not live up to in a million years.
He saw Luke’s soft lips part, and swung to face the kelpie.
“No,” he said, furiously. “No. You know what? Fuck you. No.”
Elliot was good at words. Words made up all the things that had moored him throughout his life: stories, lyrics, science, history, languages, reason. When you had nothing left, when you were all alone and desperate and hurt beyond repair, you could still hurl words at the people who hurt you, and sometimes, if the edges on the words were honed sharp enough, you could make them stop, or at least hurt them back as they hurt you. Forget weapons and armour. Nothing made peace like words could, dismantling the madness of war; nothing cut through all your defences and sliced you to ribbons like the right words, placed just so.
And Elliot knew, with utter certainty, that he would rather drown than let even the coolest mythological creature – and honestly, how cool were freaking kelpies! – shackle him, or Luke, with words that neither of them was ready to say.
“Elliot,” Luke said, and he sounded a little bit afraid. “It’s okay. We can just-”
“No,” Elliot repeated, growling, gaze fixed on the kelpie’s glimmering pale eyes. “We can’t just. I’m not vowing shit to you, Heathcliff, or in front of you, or in your general vicinity. You know why? Because it isn’t yours to demand, and if you’d rather kill us, have a go. We can talk sensibly about an arrangement when you’re ready but this is not a fairy tale, our feelings are not bargaining chips, and this is not the kind of magic I believe in. You want to make something of this, by all means. Take it further.”
For an endless, suspended moment, the kelpie’s water-flicker eyes held his; then the long dark lashes lowered, and the kelpie’s harsh smile flashed in the green-gold underwater glow.
“I’ll give you till the morning,” he crooned, already mid-transformation. “Think it over.” A black horse pranced for long seconds on the rocks, then took a magnificent leap into the water and disappeared.
When Elliot turned, he caught a strange expression on Luke’s face. He was frowning a little; his shoulders were tense and his mouth compressed into a grim line. For a moment, he kept staring at the spot where the kelpie had disappeared. Then he lifted his eyes to meet Elliot’s gaze, dropped his shoulders with a sigh, and smiled wryly.
“Well, fuck,” he said, enunciating carefully. Elliot, his limbs turned to water, patted at him shakily.
“You really should not adopt my swear words, Sunborn. Serene won’t recognise you.”
He had to tear a strip from the bottom of his own shirt for an impromptu bandage, which did not improve the temperature situation, not to mention he didn’t think he could pull off a crop top even at his best. At least the horrid bite was no longer bleeding. He squinted more closely at the wound. “What’s that green gunk? Shit, is that gangrene? Are you going to lose the arm?”
Luke snorted. “Never become a medic, please. You’d kill patients with your terror. No, it’s this.” He pulled something out of his pocket: a plant with long, dangling roots and thick bluish-green leaves covered in a pale fuzz.
Elliot stared at it. “You actually found the gelderdown?”
“Yup. And you were right, it is pretty good at stopping bleeding,” Luke added, smiling faintly. “Although I’m not convinced it needed to be tested like this.”
“It really didn’t,” Elliot said, with emphasis. “I’m going to make you promise that the next time I talk your ears off about wanting something, you’ll say That’s nice, babe, and completely ignore me.”
Luke scrunched up his nose. “Babe?”
“Just trying out new things. No?”
“Definitely no to babe. And also no to ignoring you. I like you talking my ears off.”
“You have some really masochistic kinks, just for the record. Here, this should hold. Does it hurt a lot?”
Luke shrugged. “It’ll be fine.”
“It had better be. Oh my god!” Elliot sat up straight. “Oh my god, what if it’s a transformative bite?”
“What if you turn into a pegasus?”
Luke blinked at him. “Into a what now?”
“A pegasus! How have I ended up as a permanent resident of a world that doesn’t even have Greek mythology? Aren’t dryads Greek? Stop laughing at me, this is really serious!”
“I’m not laughing,” said Luke, professional if incompetent liar, and tugged at Elliot’s arm to get him to settle back down. “I’m also not going to turn into whatever winged horse you’re presumably imagining right now.”
“You are both smart and pretty,” Elliot told him, just to see the slow spread of Luke’s blush across his cheekbones, “but why not! How do you know!”
“I don’t think kelpies work that way,” Luke said mildly. He was clearly not treating the possibility of his imminent equine transformation with the amount of gravitas it deserved. “They’re not like werewolves, are they? It’s about your jean tick.”
“This really isn’t the moment to be lecturing me about contraband denim, Luke Sunborn.”
“No, I mean… jean-ticks? I read about it in that book you shoved on me about inter-species reproduction, which, by the way, you really should have warned me about the illustrations. I’ll never be able to look my mother in the eyes again.”
“Genetics, argh, you may actually have some kind of pronunciation-related dyslexia. Oh, but, do you think?”
“Yes,” Luke patiently reassured him. “I won’t turn into a Peggy Sue.”
“It’s called a Mary Sue,” Elliot said automatically, snickering despite himself. “I mean, a pegasus. And you did that on purpose.”
“And it worked.”
“Made you laugh,” Luke pointed out, grinning. He reached out to brush some of Elliot’s hair out of his forehead, which must be for reasons other than actual grooming. Elliot’s hair was naturally groom-proof.
“Hmph,” Elliot said, but when he settled back against Luke’s side – carefully so as not to jostle his arm – he did feel a little better. “We should get some sleep. Wing me?” He hadn’t quite finished saying it when feathers settled, damp but warm, across his back.
“Sing something,” Luke asked him, a bit later, so Elliot sang his way through all the Queen songs that he could remember, making up the lyrics he’d forgotten, trying to fill the freezing cavern with the warmth of his voice.
Laughter gusted warm and familiar against his neck as Luke rolled to face him. “Shockingly, no.” He looked tired in the witch-light, the skin under his eyes paper-thin and his mouth drawn tight with pain held close. Still, he was smiling, and genuine with it, and looking so irritatingly beautiful that Elliot could have kicked him.
“What a weird coincidence. Okay. Then we can be awake together,” Elliot declared, and kissed the side of Luke’s neck.
Luke, noble idiot that he was, hesitated for a second. “Should we…?”
“It’s an extremely natural response,” Elliot told him in between nibbling at his ear lobe. “You know. Extreme adrenaline, post-traumatic something-or-other – I guess it’s mid-traumatic in our case – survival instinct frequently manifesting as libidinous-”
“Please shut up,” Luke said, and reached down.
Elliot groaned, and grabbed at Luke, careful to avoid the injured arm. There was one thing to be said for leggings: they were more easily undone than jeans.
“Do you think,” Elliot said, into Luke’s onslaught of kisses, “that pervert is watching?”
Luke growled, nipping at his lip. “Let him. I don’t care.”
“Luke,” said Elliot, impressed, and pulled up one leg to wrap it around Luke’s hip.
Natural response or not, their options were somewhat limited, given Luke’s injury and the uncomfortable rock, their mortal danger and the possibility of prying eyes. They settled for facing each other, lying on their sides, kissing and kissing in the perpetual fen fire light, bringing their hips into alignment. Elliot followed Luke’s hand and entwined his fingers with his own. He had admitted to himself on more than one occasion that he might possibly be addicted to the way Luke responded to his touch: gasping and sloe-eyed, transported by utter, unselfconscious abandon.
He moved that way now, the blue of his iris almost obscured by the darkness of his pupils, his fingers guided by Elliot’s. His wings arched above them, aureate ivory, untouched by the luminescence of the cave. Elliot felt held safe within their curve, invincible in the knowledge that he was chasing Luke Sunborn towards the verge of pleasure and holding him poised on the very edge, flesh to aching flesh. Their hands tightened, and sped up together. Elliot flicked his thumb, and Luke cried out his name as if it was a plea, his whole body arching into Elliot’s.
Elliot kissed him hard and breathless, catching the desperate moans off Luke’s gasping lips as they thrashed gracelessly together over the precipice.
“An extremely natural response,” he mumbled into the sticky, muffled aftermath, and barely caught Luke’s breath of voiceless laughter against the side of his neck.
He squinted through ruffled flight feathers into a pale, amused face that shone and shimmered seductively at the edges. “Sleep well?”
Elliot blinked himself all the way awake. “Stop glamouring at me! It’s so rude and non-consensual.”
The kelpie shrugged, which somehow made his abs tighten. Stupid abs. “It is my nature.”
“Your nature is highly irritating,” Elliot told him in a low-pitched hiss, “and trust me, coming from me, that’s saying something.”
“I have no interest in your assessment of my character,” the kelpie said coolly. “Now. About that vow?”
“Screw you, Heathcliff,” Elliot growled, rolling free of Luke’s warm wings as gently as he could, and pulling up his jeans. “Your stupid river dive is not that long. We could just swim for it, with our two thirds of effective protection, and we’d probably make it. If we end up on the wrong shore, well, your little murder river is narrow enough to jump across, or hey, my boyfriend can fly, asshole.”
The kelpie laughed, a disconcerting, desolate sound. “Sweet fearless mortal. You’d not even have to bother. There’s another bridge downriver, above Mawly Lake. You should make it back quite comfortably.”
He was leaning against the rock without the least indication of threat, and Elliot paused in doing up his zipper. He recalled, with sudden clarity, the bridge that he had crossed upstream. A simple footbridge, solid and mundane, in an area where no humans lived, or had need of a bridge. Dark and reliable, so easily crossed unless you were somehow bothered by-
“Iron,” Elliot said wonderingly, testing out the power of the word. “An iron bridge upstream and one below. Those fences by the river are not fences, are they? Not to keep anything out, at least.”
The kelpie did not reply, but Elliot did not need him to; he was all made of water and ancient magic and real, terribly vulnerable flesh.
Elliot told himself the whole of it, casually, as if it were a story of no substance. “They were afraid of you. They fenced you in with iron and ash, and anytime that anybody ventured near, they gave you a vow of truth to complete the circle of protection, and you had to let them go. Iron bridges on the river, iron spikes into the soil, rowan boughs stuck between them. Does it work underground, I wonder? Does it confine you here, inside your creepy caverns? You poor bastard,” said Elliot, and saw the kelpie flinch from his pity as from cold steel.
“And so?” the kelpie said at last. “Give me the vow of verity, or you shall drown here like the others, without food or succour but each other.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Give it to me,” the kelpie hissed, “or you shall die before me, at the least.”
“The iron,” Elliot said slowly, working it out as he spoke. “Is it… going to kill you?”
The kelpie’s brows knit; the corners of his lips lifted in a garish smile. “Not quickly, firebrand. Our kind are old, and do not perish easily. First it will bind me, as it has these dozen years: a flame of iron to burn my flesh, a darkling smother, like rowan roots drawn tight, then tighter. Pulling me back to these caverns, fifty yards by ten, with the rust poisoning my waters. It will hold me tightly, keeping me from the fresh sweetness of the lake or the salty, endless fathoms of the sea. I shall fade away in these caves, bound by the drip-drop toxin of iron in the deep. Slow it will be, and painful, and none shall sing of it that are now living, for there is no grief for monsters in this world or any other; does not that please you, mortal child?”
“Not really,” Elliot said; there was a sick dropping sensation in his stomach, and his eyes were burning. The kelpie was ancient and deadly and really super-fucking-weird. He was also the loneliest creature Elliot had ever seen, injured and cornered and lashing out with words because they were all he had left, and a part of Elliot understood him perfectly.
The kelpie’s full lips lifted; it was more snarl than smile. “Then you shall hurt for my passing, and I shall die more pleased for it.”
“Is there no other way?” a hoarse voice asked from behind them.
Elliot startled; he had not noticed the exact moment when Luke had wakened, but he was present and all accounted for now, his sword held in his left and the rowan branch, lightly, in his injured right.
“No way that we could reach, by bridge or rope or pulling tide,” the kelpie proclaimed, his voice triumphant and dire, and Elliot was thoroughly sick of his maudlin dramatics.
Apparently he wasn’t the only one. “That’s stupid,” Luke said calmly. “All of this is stupid. Why don’t you just let us go?”
The kelpie looked at him as if he’d said something utterly incomprehensible. “You walked into my realm. What little there is left of it. You carried iron to my river, and you challenged me.”
“I defended myself,” Luke corrected, “but okay. Fair enough.” He lowered himself to one knee so he could put the sword and branch down. Elliot almost warned him not to, then scolded himself for a hypocrite. Being a pacifist had to mean rejecting weapons even when they were raised in his defence. Weapons almost always made things worse.
Luke stood again, slowly. All he held now was the uprooted gelderdown plant, which he’d pulled out of his pocket. He nodded at the kelpie’s torso. “Is it still bleeding because it was an iron blade that cut you?”
Following his gaze, Elliot saw that Luke was right. The wound in the kelpie’s side looked as fresh as it had yesterday, slowly oozing blood.
The kelpie made a disdainful gesture. “Do not flatter yourself. It may heal slowly, but our kind-”
“Do not perish easily.” Luke nodded. “I heard. Even so…” He approached the kelpie, walking slowly but without signs of fear. “Here. This will help.” He held out his hand, which was dripping green juice. He’d crushed one of the fleshy leaves into a green pulp. “May I?” The kelpie, staring, did not answer. Luke bent down a little and smoothed the pulped leaf, with unhurried and efficient motions, over the oozing gash.
Elliot thought the only reason the kelpie wasn’t tearing out Luke’s throat must be because he was genuinely caught off guard, or perhaps because Luke was acting like it was the most natural thing in the world to put his hands on a murderous water horse. He realised he was holding his breath, and let it out when Luke took a step back, surveying his handiwork with a satisfied nod. The trickle of blood, mixed with the crushed green ooze, slowed, then stopped.
The kelpie wasn’t looking at it. He was looking at Luke, his forehead slightly furrowed, as if he was trying to make sense of something utterly perplexing. It reminded Elliot of his own early days of knowing Luke, when he had assumed that because Luke looked a certain way, or enjoyed certain things, he could not be kind, or smart, or vulnerable. It was not a flattering memory, and made him want to verbally eviscerate anyone who made the same mistake. He swallowed down that urge and took a step forward, brushing Luke’s shoulder with his own. He felt a flutter of feathers against his skin.
“This stupid vow of yours. Truth, verity, love, what the hell ever,” he said brusquely. “Would that save you?”
The kelpie transferred his gaze from Luke to him. His silvery eyes sharpened. “It would safeguard your escape. Beyond that, I make no covenant with mortals.”
“That isn’t what I asked, Heathcliff.”
“Why do you call me that?” the kelpie demanded irritably.
“Eh. Tall dark bastard, lots of brooding and wuthering and so forth. Don’t worry, it’s not a compliment.”
“Elliot,” said Luke, and Elliot waved him off. “Well?” he demanded.
The kelpie shrugged. “It would not alter my fate, no.”
“Okay. So that’s, like, no use whatsoever. What about, instead-”
“I do not bargain with the likes of you,” the kelpie stated darkly.
“Yes, no, I got that part,” Elliot said impatiently. “But say, hypothetically, if you let us go despite our absence of vows and all that, and if we so happened to persuade the locals to remove those bridges and spikes – for aesthetic reasons only, you understand, they do look rather too Industrial Revolution for these parts – in other words, if a satisfactory outcome for all parties could be achieved without a strictly formalised covenant or stipulated conditions-”
“Does he always hold forth thus?” the kelpie asked Luke.
Luke snorted. “You should hear him going on about the yew-tube.”
“I don’t really know. But apparently you must never read the comments.”
“Excuse me, I was constructively hypothesising!” Elliot cut in, irate.
“Yes, do carry on, mortal boy. You are strangely diverting.”
“Thank you, I’ve been told that. So if the above-mentioned situation were to completely naturally arise, do you think you could maybe see your way to not killing people just because they happened to be wandering near your river?”
“Perhaps,” said the kelpie, after a long pause.
“Excellent. Good show. Let’s pull some spikes.”
A small workforce was deployed to remove the iron spikes and rowan branches from along the river. Rosemary had also enlisted Keenua and her sisters, who had reconciled with a bit of diplomatic intervention (“Meddling!” said Elliot) by Golden and Serene. The mermaids had made their way from the sea through the underground cave system and volunteered to pull down the two bridges (mermaids were apparently unbothered by iron).
Elliot and Luke were watching the whole thing while huddled under blankets on a flat riverside rock. They’d offered to help, but Serene and Golden were not having any of it. After another terrifying passage up from the Mawly Craw, Luke had been allowed to fly to the village while Elliot stayed behind as collateral. Along with Serene and Golden and the workers from the village, he’d brought back dry clothes for Elliot and himself, but their friends still insisted that they needed rest and warmth.
So they sat and watched while Serene and Golden and the villagers knocked over iron spikes that were then loaded into a waiting oxcart, and the mermaids flung iron bridge parts out of the water with a fine disregard for occupational safety.
The kelpie, too, was watching. He was lounging on a boulder near where Elliot and Luke were sitting, and observed the whole operation with a bland expression of mildly bored indifference, as if it had nothing to do with him at all.
It didn’t take long; the fenced-off area was appallingly small. Before long, all the iron and rowan branches were piled on the cart and the villagers watched from a safe distance while the kelpie bestirred himself to rise, glance over the freed-up river and shores, and nod briefly. “That is much better.”
He turned his head in the general direction of the villagers, but looked somewhere above their heads while he spoke. Elliot was not sure if he was being disdainful or actually considerate of the effects of his glamour. “I shan’t harm you if you come near my river, mortals,” he announced coolly, before adding immediately, “but I’d really rather you didn’t.”
This heart-warming speech delivered, he turned away without further ceremony.
Luke and Elliot had got up as well. “That went well,” Elliot said brightly. “Did that not go well? I thought that went well. Even though you never got that vow. Sorry about that, Heathcliff, I just really don’t respond well to emotional blackmail.”
He felt Luke’s hand tightening around his in warning. “Elliot,” Luke said softly.
Poised on the slippery green rocks at the edge of the Mawly Craw, the kelpie turned and showed Elliot the glinting blade of his smile.
“Little firebrand,” he said, with his voice like silk, “I got your vow the moment you proved able to withstand my glamour. Else you’d both be dead by now.”
A flash of black and silver, and a dark horse plunged into the churning depths and disappeared.
Elliot blinked. “Well. I’m glad I didn’t know that beforehand. What a sneaky, vow-stealing rascal. Still, did you see those abs?”
Luke cleared his throat. “Uhm, so… do we need to talk about that?”
“The abs? I don’t know, I think they rather spoke for themselves, didn’t they?”
“No, I mean… what he wanted. The vow thing,” Luke clarified, flushing slowly.
Elliot made a face. “Oh, that.”
“I would have-”
“I know,” Elliot cut in quickly, “and I didn’t want you to.”
Luke swallowed and nodded gravely. “Right. I just wanted you to know that… well, that that’s okay. If you don’t want to… call it that.”
“A vow of freaking verity? Damn right I don’t want to call it that. Does anyone?”
Luke was glaring at him, although the corners of his mouth twitched a bit. “What I mean is… I don’t want you to feel pressured. If you’re not ready or have got issues with… you know, saying it – that’s fine. I’m not-”
Elliot, belatedly realising what Luke thought his resounding refusal had implied, grabbed for Luke’s hand, and tilted his face to meet his eyes. “Luke, no. When has saying things ever been an issue for me? Come on. In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m in love with you to an embarrassing degree and I have no problem telling you that, loser. I just didn’t want to be made to say it by a misanthropic carnivorous water spirit under threat of death, that’s all. Or for you to say it that way, either. It’s personal, it’s ours, and he had no right to hear it first, the horsy creep.”
“Oh.” Luke looked a little stunned, although a smile was starting to light up his entire face, as if something large had run him over but he was weirdly happy about it. “Okay. That makes sense. Er. I love you too, you know.”
“Yeah, I had gathered. What with all the bizarre me-specific things you are apparently into. But, uhm,” Elliot added hastily, and felt his own face break into a smile, “It’s… that’s still really nice to hear.”
He felt a little run over himself. In a good way.
Luke leaned in to kiss him, murmured, “Guess that’s settled, then,” and swept him up into the sun-flecked morning sky.