Death was no barrier. Not to Naitachal.
He let the ghost of Charina fade into quiescence. Not gone, she wouldn't go no matter how much he coaxed her to pass beyond the dark border where not even necromancy could follow. With Kevin the bardling watching, Naitachal couldn't bring himself to force her to go.
Charina. Poor, doomed niece to Count Volmar, killed by her uncle so that the sorceress Carlotta could take her place and hide in plain sight as she plotted against King Amber. Now Charina stalked the Greylands that cushioned the border between Light and Dark, between Life and Death, only seen to eyes like Naitachal's
Dark Elf eyes. Necromancer's eyes. He closed them against the real world, the minstrel camp where they'd found shelter and healing after Carlotta's attack. The howling Greylands pulled at him. So close. Kevin stood at the edge, waiting. A steady light, a warmth, a song to call him back from death. Naitachal's anchor. Charina was as laid to rest as she was going to be. Naitachal should return.
But he had been lying when he said he would. He'd not come here for Charina. She was the excuse, the lie he told himself. He pulled his tattered dark cloak close about his body, turned his back on the outside world, the bardling's little light, and let himself sink beyond reckoning into the Greylands.
Eliathanis? The world shaped itself differently here. Sounds bled into under-saturated colors, scents took shape, and Naitachal's call draped around him like a mist, an apparition that took the form of a memory.
Naitachal sat in a forest glade, watching starlight catch on sunglow hair, on the pale skin and silvered blade of the Enemy. He touched his senses to dead wolf bones buried under the mulch. Death licked at his hand, eager as a puppy to serve him should he have need.
Don't ever point a weapon at me, he told Eliathanis, a silk-covered threat. The White Elf had no notion that the leaves beside him didn't stir due to wind, no notion how close death truly was. Always. Not unless you intend to use it.
But the bardling, Kevin—a child himself—mocked them for their childish quarreling. Eliathanis sheathed his blade. Naitachal released his tentative hold on the wolf, and everyone bedded down as though death had not just been narrowly averted.
That was the night Tich'ki taught him her Twisting the Aces card trick.
Naitachal stepped past the ghost-memory. It rippled the air, but it wasn't real. Everything in the Greylands was ephemeral until a necromancer came to give it shape.
But ephemera could be tracked, as Lydia had tracked the missing Charina's false trail. Naitachal sought out the next shimmer, deeper into the Greylands, closer to the dark border that led beyond, where not even necromancers dared tread. Naitachal wanted to pass the memory by—he had little time and less patience for such things—but what if it was no memory? What if Eliathanis was seeking him? The White Elf knew what Naitachal was, what Power he wielded. Perhaps he had gone to his death hoping that Naitachal would come for him.
It was more logical than the senseless alternative, that Eliathanis had sacrificed himself because… why?
The memory engulfed Naitachal as he dithered.
Travel and more travel following the trail of Charina's kidnappers. Sniping all around, especially from bawdy-minded Lydia. Pretty as salt and pepper shakers, she'd called Eliathanis and Naitachal, as though the two sworn enemies were a pairing by virtue of being elves. And blade-tongued Tich'ki was even worse, with her constant innuendo about the lines between love and hate.
But then Naitachal was in a ravine, a natural ambush point on the road to Westerin. The sun shone too bright above, always too bright, but he was surprised to find he welcomed Eliathanis' warmth at his back. Naitachal had never fought thusly, never trusted his back to anyone. Among the Nithathil, it was a sign of weakness, or an invitation for a dagger.
Not to Eliathanis. He wielded his silver blade against the bandits, and he only grunted when Naitachal conjured his own black blade from the darkness winding through his soul.
It made Naitachal brave. It made him foolhardy. And when a bandit overwhelmed their silly young leader, it made Naitachal forget the prejudice that was a Dark Elf's legacy as much as obsidian skin or silver hair or necromancy. Naitachal didn’t hesitate. He reached past the dirk bearing down toward Kevin's throat and drew the life from the burly human bandit. In moments, the human was reduced to bone and ash.
Naitachal fed the energy to his soul-blade, and it was only when the dark weapon slurped greedily at that life and keened its pleasure that he realized his mistake. He banished the blade to perdition, but it was too late. The others had seen. Perhaps Kevin would be too naïve to understand, and Lydia and Tich'ki too pragmatic to care, but Eliathanis…
Finally, he had earned the White Elf's hatred. He was, after all, everything that Eliathanis thought he was.
But Eliathanis didn't lay scorn upon him. He spoke, hesitantly, of misjudgment, his pale face washing pink. He pressed palms with the Enemy. Naitachal's fingers tingled with the memory of Eliathanis' hand pressed to his.
Naitachal tore away from that tingle. He was a necromancer. He knew better than to trust visions seen in the Greylands. They were lies, weakness, distraction. A necromancer filled with doubt was a sorry thing, indeed.
"These are my memories, not yours," he hissed. The Greylands took his words and turned them into serpents that slithered away beyond the impassable dark border. Naitachal's blue eyes flared red. He cast after them with his Power, death calling to death. "Where are you?"
The answer slammed into him, knocking him down so hard he lost his bearings.
"Now, this looks promising," Eliathanis murmured, stopping before several traveling caravans circled around a colorfully striped canvas tent. A painted wooden sign hung above the tent flap, depicting a curvaceous maiden with clouds of dark hair, very little clothing, and an impressive range of flexibility.
Truly, the human city of Westerin was nothing like the labyrinthine cities of the Nithathil.
"And you believe that this is the best use of our time?" Naitachal asked wryly. He had followed Eliathanis because, despite his brave words to the others, he felt exposed here. He tugged his hood lower to hide his obsidian skin and snowfall hair, and he cleaved close to the golden-haired elf. Strange, how acceptance could turn enemies into unwilling allies.
"I'm just going to question them," Eliathanis snapped. He hadn't been best pleased by the second shadow he'd acquired. "Dancing girls get around, and everyone talks to them. But feel free to chat with the shadows and the spiders. I'm certain they have all sorts of gossip to whisper." Eliathanis' grin reminded Naitachal of a crescent moon—light to cause trouble by, the Nithathil liked to say. Ae-ye, this was folly, but he followed the White Elf into the tent, keeping to the shadows near the entrance. Out of sight.
Whatever other trade they might ply, the girls were excellent dancers. They decked themselves in filmy skirts and veils and flashing paste jewels, but underneath was strength. Grace. Control.
The dancers were all human, and all muscle—heavy, no matter how light they might look—but one girl lifted her partner aloft as though she was raising a downy feather, the lifting dancer's smile never wavering at the strain. And the girl who'd been lifted gave all her trust to her partner. She spread her arms like wings, her legs posed right down to her pointed and painted feet, as if she wasn't a wobble away from crashing face first to the hard ground below.
When the ladies finished, Naitachal joined his applause with the rest of the audience. He'd been raised to believe things like dancing and music served no purpose. That they were weak. But Kevin's music had power, and these dancers… there was no weakness here.
Were there other things that he had always believed that might not be so?
Naitachal didn't have time to muse over that thought. Most of the crowd had dispersed, trailing past the Dark Elf hiding in the shadows and out the tent flap. A few men remained, approaching the girls onstage, where they were led through another sort of dance. The girls flirted and swished their veils and skirts about, but they never let any of their admirers too close.
And Eliathanis… sat. Observing. Neither leaving nor approaching.
This was pointless. Naitachal caught the flap as one of the final patrons left, intending to brave the human city to see what he could find, when a delighted squeal made him pause and turn.
"Ooh! An elf! I looooove elves!" purred a redheaded dancer with freckles sprayed like kisses over her creamy skin. Slender by human standards was still a curvy armful by elven ones. She plopped into Eliathanis' lap and draped her arms over his shoulders. "Do you want me to dance for you, elfy-welfy?"
Her strawberry lips brushed close to the delicate point of Eliathanis' ear. Naitachal expected the White Elf to cringe—like he was—but Eliathanis just sort of reddened. And quivered.
"Hey! Naitachal!" buzzed a voice near Naitachal's own ear. Tich'ki. He drew back outside, let the tent flap close before the fairy could catch sight of Eliathanis' shame.
"Why hello, Tich'ki. Have you picked all the purses in the city already? I am impressed."
"Hah! No, I started at the top."
That boded ill. "And the top… noticed, I take it?"
"Not through any fault of mine," the fairy grumbled. "Our fearless leader is calling us to gather. Do you know where Eliathanis went?"
Naitachal strode away from the tent, swiftly, so that the fairy woman wouldn't catch sight of the wooden sign. "Oh, I imagine he's off somewhere, forging new alliances for Elvenkind." Silly, to be protective of Eliathanis like this. Naitachal supposed it was because the White Elf was his to torment.
His elfy-welfy, he thought, and silenced Tich'ki with his own crescent-moon grin. "What trouble has our bardling led us into this time?"
The answer turned out to be quite a bit of trouble. What had started out as a simple search and rescue for Count Volmar's missing niece Charina was becoming… complicated. Complicated enough that they had only one option for escaping past their pursuers and out of the city.
And thus, they ended back at the tents of Eliathanis' dancing girls.
"Oh! I'll take the pink!" Naitachal exclaimed. He snatched his hand back with a yelp when Lydia smacked him.
"Hands-off, grabby. You don't have the necessary endowments to fill that bodice."
The dancers' tent had been cleared of benches, but it was filled with dancers and costumes and spangles and laughter as the troupe decked out Eliathanis and his friends to help them make their escape from Westerin.
"But pink matches my new complexion," Naitachal said, nursing his hand, which the dancers had slathered with creams and set with powder so that his skin was now more of a tawny brown than obsidian.
He was having too much fun with this, but the alternative was to be miserable, and one look at Kevin and Eliathanis, both squirming under the make-up ministrations of Tich'ki and several tittering dancers, made Naitachal realize that since it had to be done, he might as well enjoy doing it.
Besides, every time he practiced a titter or exclaimed how lovely everyone looked, Eliathanis' hand twitched as though he wished his sword was still strapped to his side.
"Here, sweetheart. Try this one," said an older woman when Lydia sauntered off with her frilly pink prize. Steel ran through the woman's dark hair, and up her spine, and under her kindly tone. Anna, she called herself, the mistress of the troupe. She was taller than any of the girls, and wiry with muscle, though she claimed she no longer danced. She hadn't been impressed by Eliathanis' looks, but she had eventually been swayed to help by Lydia and Tich'ki's ill-won coin.
She handed Naitachal a swirl of gauze and spangles, a deeper, truer red than blood, with gold trim that caught the light in the tent like sparks in a firestorm.
"I danced Oretta in that. For King Amber's coronation after he defeated that usurper Carlotta." She untangled a few spangles. "It doesn't fit any of the girls, so we may as well see if it fits you. I only keep it because… old woman's vanity, I suppose."
"Oretta?" Naitachal asked, not sure how to respond to the rest of her musings. Elves didn't age as humans did, and he had no experience with listening to them fret over it.
"Hm? Oh, it's an old tale. Bardling! Straighten those shoulders. Dancers do not slouch like that. Do you know Oretta and Eurosy?"
Kevin snapped his shoulders back at Anna's barked reprimand, though he still pouted at the indignity of being made into a girl. Naitachal resisted the urge to tell the bardling that the pout only made him look more feminine.
"Uh. You mean when Bard Eurosy ventured beyond the dark veil to bring back her sister?"
"That's the one. Can't beat the classics." Anna fingered the red material in Naitachal's arms. "Before Oretta dies, she's supposed to be full of the fire of life. She wears a flimsy old shroud for the rest of the piece. Much less fun. Hm." She eyed Eliathanis, whose yellow bodice sagged and managed to make him look sallow. "Speaking of less fun. Molly, get that off him."
"It's the smallest we have for someone his height," said Molly, the freckled redhead.
"Nonsense," Anna snapped. "Come help me."
Naitachal took advantage of the lull to sidle up to Eliathanis. "You seem less taken with her now," he murmured.
"I only comment because her ardor doesn't seem to have cooled for her… elfy-welfy."
Eliathanis' jaw tightened. "If I hadn't already hidden my sword on the pack mule—"
"You'd… what? Bespoil my tender bosom?" Naitachal splayed a hand across what tender bosom the girls had been able to give him with creative shadows and highlights.
Whatever answer Eliathanis was about to growl was lost when Anna and Molly returned carrying a cloud of ice-blue tulle between them. Anna held it up to Eliathanis' face. With his hair against the blue, he looked like a wintry sun in a pale sky.
"Perfect," Anna declared. "Oretta, before and after."
That diaphanous confection of blue and silver was supposed to be a shroud? Naitachal snorted. Clearly, humans needed a more thorough schooling in the necromantic arts.
"Molly can help you put it on," Anna said, giving Eliathanis' cheek a motherly pat, nevermind that the elf likely doubled her in age.
"I'll manage myself," Eliathanis bit out, and snatched the tulle away. And then he had to snatch twice more, because there was so much of it.
Anna, Molly, and Naitachal watched him stalk off with as much dignity as a White Elf in a sagging yellow bodice could muster.
"Help him. Or at least make sure he doesn't rip my dress," Anna told Naitachal, in the same commanding tone she used to correct Kevin's posture.
Naitachal snickered. "Oh, gladly." Gathering up his own red frippery, he followed his fellow elf behind the makeshift changing sheet.
They escaped the city, past guards and Carlotta's hired mercenaries alike, but Naitachal found that an hour of tittering and riding a mule and making sure his borrowed finery didn't get damaged had taken its toll. He was exhausted, and all he wanted was to wash away the greasepaint and road grime and don his old, much more comfortable cloak. He was as grateful as any of their party when they finally stopped at a wooded lake to change and leave the cache of costumes for Anna and her girls to retrieve.
But then Naitachal caught Lydia looking while he washed, and he wasn't in the mood to give her anything more than a tired smile. He retreated to a more sheltered copse of trees to finish getting cleaned up.
Eliathanis was already there.
"Powers, can't you leave me alone?"
"It appears not." Naitachal draped his shirt, tunic, and cloak over a low branch and continued to towel away at the greasepaint that water wouldn't wash. Eliathanis hadn't needed more than a light dusting of powder, but he still scrubbed at his skin until it turned pink.
"I don't understand why you are upset," Naitachal said. "It was a good plan, and it clearly worked."
"You." Eliathanis bit off an elven curse. He swung about and thrust a finger into Naitachal's face. The Dark Elf stepped back. "You were having too much fun."
"Beg pardon. I lack much familiarity with this 'fun'. I wasn't aware one could have too much of it."
Eliathanis scraped his golden hair back. "You know what I mean."
"Or are you simply upset that Molly said I made a prettier dancing girl than you did?" Although on that point, Naitachal disagreed. Eliathanis had looked lovely in his wispy blue dress, like eiderdown caught on a capricious breeze.
But he didn't have the chance to make that observation aloud. Eliathanis snarled, green eyes flashing, and backed Naitachal against the trunk of a twisted old oak.
"That is not why I'm upset." He slapped his palm against the bark above Naitachal's head.
"Ah. I misunderstood. I assumed it must be because I usurped your dancing girl's affections. Should I make amends? Do you want me to dance for you, efly-welfy?" Naitachal asked. He even managed to copy the red-haired dancing girl's purr—except on that last bit, where his voice almost cracked for laughing.
He wasn't quite sure how he expected Eliathanis to react. One of Naitachal's own kin might scoff or turn to cruel mockery. Naitachal's other new companions in this strange little party would laugh and return the teasing. Kevin might blush. Lydia might take him up on the offer. Tich'ki would probably stab him.
Eliathanis did none of these. He tensed. His ears reddened. And he… quivered.
"I don't understand you at all," he whispered, pushing away from the tree and stalking from the copse.
Naitachal didn't understand himself, either, because he was sorry his teasing had sent the White Elf fleeing.
"Interesting." He bent to retrieve his tunic and shirt—
—and fell to his knees, dry heaving as the tide of memory passed over him and washed on. The Greylands swirled around him, a cold and dismal shock after the warmth of the memory.
COME BACK! He wanted to scream, wanted to chase down that moment and relive it always, the one he hadn't understood at the time, hadn't properly appreciated, but yearned for now. Eliathanis' arm braced above his head. The White Elf's bare chest, skin warm as sunlight, pressed against Naitachal's shadow. The reddening ears, the quiver.
Naitachal heaved again, a sob this time. Sorrow pricked across his skin like the skitter of a thousand spiders.
He growled and stumbled to his feet, thrust the weakening emotions away. He saw them now for what they were. Not Eliathanis seeking him out, but his own doubts and demons given form, trying to stop him from finding his friend and bringing him back.
If they kept him from his goal, then he had no use for them. He would rout and kill every last one of them.
Another wave approached, this one a shifting cloud of locusts. Naitachal's eyes flashed red, and he braced himself to be engulfed. He was a necromancer, puissant in his art. He would not let them devour his resolve.
Voices. So many voices. Hungry, desperate, promising. Their kisses brushed his flesh, cold bites that cleaved to him like snowflakes falling on chilled obsidian. So much Power here, so many uses for his Power. Death wasn't something he called; death was something he was. All he had to do was open himself to it, and it would respond to him like the sweetest lover.
Why was he holding himself apart, when death desired him so ardently?
"Take my hand," someone said, and Naitachal was no longer buried in a drift of ash and death.
"What?" He rode across a battlefield, an old one, but the bones here were strong, as if they were often called to do battle even after their deaths. Eliathanis babbled something about life and light and joy. Naïve young Kevin watched Naitachal's struggle with morbid curiosity, but Lydia and Tich'ki were wiser. The warrior woman's hand hovered near her arrows, ready to nock one if Naitachal turned, and the fairy had both tiny spears drawn. Sunlight glinted off one sharp tip.
Naitachal took Eliathanis' hand.
Later, that was what Naitachal remembered—what he chose to remember. Not the soul-locked battle with Carlotta's pet necromancer. Not the uncontrolled power that surged from Naitachal and burned the other man from within when Kevin distracted their enemy with a rock. Not the hours of unconsciousness and nightmares that followed Naitachal's deep exhaustion. He clung to Eliathanis' hand in his memory long after the White Elf had let go.
Until the bardling plopped a lute in Naitachal's hands instead. That distracted him.
Music. It was so strange to him. So alien. As alien as whatever was happening with this mismatched band that had been sent out to fail. Music shouldn't have magic, but it did. Even with Naitachal playing instead of Kevin, even though the bardling only showed him three notes, those notes came together to create… something. And that something wended its way through camp until his companions—still wary from the demonstration of the scope and awfulness of Naitachal's Power—relaxed. One-by-one, they joined in singing the bardling's silly song. Lydia. Tich'ki.
Naitachal's fingers nearly slipped off the lute. His gut tightened, and his mouth grew dry. It was all he could do to keep playing as Eliathanis' tenor sent a shiver down Naitachal's spine. He couldn't have joined in the singing then even if he'd known the trick of doing both at once.
The song rattled around in Naitachal's head long after his companions had bedded down. He sat alone on a deadfall log, touching burning fingertips to his thumbs and trying to puzzle out how something so simple as music could have such Power.
The power to bring even a necromancer to life.
"What is wrong?"
Naitachal started at the interruption. Eliathanis. He'd thought everyone was abed. He pulled his cloak closer about him, took comfort in the shadows of his cowl and the dryness of his response. "Would you prefer an itemized list of our troubles, or would a verbal one suffice?"
"You are brooding."
"I am of the Nithathil. Brooding is the only art we cultivate." Naitachal didn't know why he wished that Eliathanis would go away, nor why, contrarily, he was so pleased when the White Elf sat on the log beside him.
"I suppose that explains your skill at it. But why are you brooding now?" Eliathanis cocked his head, trying to peer within the shadows of Naitachal's hood. "Is it about the fight? Are you still upset over what happened to that other necromancer?"
Naitachal shook his head, hard enough that his cowl slipped back. He didn't bother pulling it up again. He didn't see the point in hiding behind shadows and façades. Or perhaps… he just didn't want to anymore. "No. I did not mean to burn him out as I did, but I am not sorry that it happened. No, it's… Lydia."
Eliathanis jerked, glanced over his shoulder as though the warrior woman's name could summon her. "In general, or something specific."
"Specific. Tonight. After you and I…" Naitachal swallowed. Why did his throat grow tight? They were just words. He cleared it. "After we agreed that we are… not enemies."
"Friends is the word you are looking for."
"Yes." Even that little reassurance made him feel better. Safer. He sighed.
Eliathanis nudged him, hip to hip. "Go on. What's this to do with Lydia?"
"Hm? Oh. She said something about kissing and making up."
"And we didn't. So it made me wonder—"
Eliathanis threw his head back with laughter. "It is just an expression." Naitachal dipped his chin at the laughter, and Eliathanis stopped. A pale hand rested on Naitachal's knee. "I shouldn't laugh. I also sometimes get confused by humans and their idioms. They rarely say what they mean. Or rather, they rarely do as they say."
"Ah." Naitachal relaxed. Gave Eliathanis a rueful smile. "And now you know the truth of me. Why I cultivate my air of mystery and sarcasm. It is so that I won't make a fool of myself."
Eliathanis' smile softened. "You? Who flirted and blew kisses at the gate guards while dressed as a dancing girl, are afraid of making a fool of yourself?"
Naitachal dipped his head lower, letting his silver hair serve in place of a cowl to hide his face. Eliathanis brushed the hair back, tucking it behind Naitachal's ear. Naitachal controlled a shiver. Barely.
"Foolishness is a type of weakness, and the weak don't survive long among the Nithathil. Which is why… when Lydia said…" He stopped. Shook his head. Now he was being foolish. He studied the tracery of veins, the silver pale dusting of hairs on the back of Eliathanis' hand. It was warm, even through the material of Naitachal's cloak and trews. "We don't… do that. Among my people."
"What? Act foolishly? Oh… kiss?" Eliathanis choked on another laugh, green eyes wide with disbelief. "Lord and Lady. You can't expect me to believe that the Nithathil don't kiss. Music. Dance. Fine. I'll even believe fun. But kissing?" He shook his head, denying the possibility.
"We… kiss. But not to make up."
"You should try it sometime. It is more pleasant than pressing palms."
Naitachal was no longer entirely sure where the conversation was going. Like chasing a runaway cart, it was all he could do to keep up. "I would find that an interesting experiment."
Eliathanis made a disgusted sound in the back of his throat. He twisted on the log they shared. "Naitachal, if you want to kiss me, just say so."
"I…" Definitely a runaway cart, and it had just gone over a cliff. "Do you want to kiss me?" It seemed impossible to him. As impossible as friendship had seemed a week ago.
Eliathanis grinned like the crescent moon—a light to cause trouble by. He grabbed the edges of Naitachal's cloak and pulled him close. "Stick with your air of mystery, my friend. You're better at it," he said, and pressed his lips to Naitachal's.
Naitachal closed his eyes on the kiss, but when he opened them again, he was confronted by a vast sea of grey, and the only thing pressing against his lips were his own fingers.
His hands curved into claws. "I know you are here," he spat. Each word hit the grey landscape, sending criss-crossing ripples out and back again. "I won't be put off." He stalked forward, ripping through the next memory without a care for what it might be. He caught an impression of laughter and warmth, but his Power tore through the ephemera before he could take back his violence.
What had he just lost? What little shred of his time with Eliathanis had he just destroyed? Panic washed through him. When the next memory surged. Naitachal dove into it. Please, let him not have destroyed…
Blue. Of course they would clothe him in blue. No color suited Eliathanis more. Oh, human folk were constantly trying to put White Elves in green, blind to the nuances of skin and hair tone, but Eliathanis strode alone into the antechamber adjoining the Great Hall, clothed in a blue as pale as a winter's sky. He tugged at his sleeves, as if enough fidgeting could transform his costume back into armor. Yes, Volmar's dressers clearly knew their trade. Naitachal should be grateful to the Count.
Grateful. To a man who might be under the sway of Carlotta, if Naitachal didn't miss his guess.
The cut of the long coat suited Eliathanis as much as the color, broad at the shoulders, tailored to the waist, before sweeping out into wide panels that were too stiff and structured to properly be called skirts. A line of silver clasps shaped like the moon in all her phases ran down the front of the coat to his waist, holding it closed over a silver waistcoat and dove-grey pantaloons and boots. More silver embroidery traced along the hem of the coat, as though Eliathanis had just come indoors from walking through frost. With his golden hair and green eyes, he was a Winter Lord just venturing into Spring.
Yes, Naitachal thought. Definitely grateful.
Eliathanis finally noticed Naitachal lurking in the shadows of the antechamber. His green eyes widened, and his breath hitched. Naitachal, who had tra-la-la'd and tittered in his dancing girl's garb without a moment of hesitation, shifted self-consciously. He wished now that he hadn't watched the other elf for so long. Fairness decreed that he should submit to a similarly lengthy perusal.
At least the dressing maids had known to put him in red. His velvet coat—a match in cut to the one Eliathanis wore—had more of a blue base than the true-red frock he'd borrowed from Anna, but the color suited Naitachal's natural skin tone better.
No gold trim for this coat, though. Instead, garnets and onyx spattered up from the hem like dark winking stars trapped in a red velvet web.
He'd drawn the line when they went for his hair. It hung free to brush past his shoulders—and hide his face if he had need of it. Apparently, he was a faster thinker than Eliathanis. The White Elf's blond locks had been pulled back on top, revealing the clean lines of his jaw and cheekbones, and the delicate, pointed shells of his ears.
Ears that even now were reddening the longer the two elves examined each other without speaking. Naitachal's lips twisted into a grin.
That broke their tableau. Eliathanis' hand fell to his side, where his coat split to give him access to his blade. "You would smile at all this. Madman."
Naitachal shrugged and stepped closer, emerging from the shadows. "I can't appreciate pretty things?" he drawled.
The red crept down Eliathanis' cheeks. Naitachal's smile grew. Let the White Elf wonder if he'd meant the clothes… or the person wearing them.
"Appreciate all you want, but none of this makes sense. We return expecting some sort of attack, and instead the Count's niece has been returned, and we're all being lauded as heroes? You know he's going to make Kevin a court-baron? Our bardling. A court-baron."
"It makes more sense if you assume the aim is to separate and confuse us." Not much more sense, but some. The question was: why bother?
"It's working. But how do we fight it? I can't very well draw my blade on folk who are cheering and toasting me."
"You can't? Why ever not?" Naitachal blinked, all astonishment.
Eliathanis did a double-take, realized the joke a moment too late, and smacked Naitachal's shoulder. "Tich'ki is a bad influence on you."
"Yes, because card tricks are going to be my downfall."
"What are we supposed to do? "
"We wait. We watch. We go to the feast. We don't cut anyone down, no matter how many times they try our patience by drinking to our health. And tonight, we meet up in Kevin's room to discuss our predicament. The others might have learned something we have not."
"Feast. Right." Eliathanis glanced at the doors to the Great Hall and raked a hand over his hair, mussing the dressing maid's hard work. Naitachal reached out to fix it. His fingertips were still a bit raw from the strings of the bardling's lute, making them more sensitive. Eliathanis' hair was soft as thistledown, and seemingly just as quick to catch a whisper of air and fly about. It caught the light of the lamps like spun gold.
Eliathanis shook. No… quivered. Naitachal tore his eyes from the play of light on gold and met eyes that had gone dark, only a faint line of green rimming Eliathanis' pupils.
"Are you having fun?" Eliathanis asked, his breath caught in his voice.
Naitachal took a step closer. The skirts of their long-coats brushed and swirled against each other, red entwining with blue. "Haven't we already established that I'm still learning about fun?"
Eliathanis licked his lips. "I… you… we…"
"All excellent pronouns," Naitachal purred, sliding his fingertips down the length of Eliathanis' ear.
A commotion sounded from the hall outside. Eliathanis jumped back. Naitachal stepped away almost as quickly in a swirl of red.
Lydia entered, looking lovely and entirely unlike her usual rough-and-tumble self in an amber gown, her dark curls caught up in a gold net. A cadre of guards followed in her wake and went to open the doors to the great hall.
She whistled her appreciation when she saw the two elves. "Now I know we're in trouble," she whispered, joining them. "Anything as pretty as you two always comes at a price."
"We'll discuss it later. Kevin's room at moonrise," Naitachal said, wishing the warrior woman and her guard could have dawdled just a few breaths longer. "In the meantime, have a care with the wine. Just because they're drinking our health with it doesn't mean it's healthy for us."
And with that cheerful warning, they trooped into the Great Hall to confront their doom.
Naitachal didn't catch more than glimpses of Eliathanis over the next several days, even though they were technically all sharing a suite. Kevin had realized that the girl they all though was Charina was actually Carlotta in disguise, but that didn't free the bardling from her constant attention. Eliathanis, Lydia, and Tich'ki had taken to watching Kevin in shifts, while Naitachal exhausted himself laying protective spells on them all and trying to figure out just what Carlotta and Volmar's game was.
Naitachal closed yet another useless tome spirited out of the Count's library by Tich'ki. Grabbing the pot of khafe, he tipped it over his mug, only to find it dripping empty. He groaned and raked his fingers through his hair.
"A shame we can't just sneak out of the castle dressed as dancing girls, hey?" said a welcome voice. Eliathanis' hand landed on Naitachal's shoulder. The count's finery was gone, replaced by a fine lawn shirt and a soft grey arming coat and trews. He wore neither mail nor swordbelt, which meant Eliathanis must be on a break from Kevin-watching.
"And let the King deal with whatever plot they're hatching?" Naitachal pretended to consider, then shook his head. "Sadly, I fear that's the sort of ruse one can only use once in a lifetime."
Naitachal twisted in his chair so he could look up at Eliathanis. "You just want a rematch on who is the prettiest."
"Oh no. I'd lose." Eliathanis touched Naitachal's chin, lifting his face to the light. "You're tired."
Naitachal's first instinct was to hide. He resisted. "So are we all. Shouldn't you be watching a clueless young human pretend to romance a half-fairy sorceress? I hear it's a show not to be missed."
"I asked Lydia to change shifts with me."
Why, Naitachal wanted to ask, but "Ah," was what he said.
"I was worried that you've been avoiding me."
That woke Naitachal up. He straightened. Eliathanis' hand dropped from his shoulder. "Why would you think that? The absurdity of Kevin's courting aside, we are all in danger for our lives. This is hardly the time to—"
And Eliathanis claimed that he didn't understand Naitachal! Affirmations were for after everyone was safe. Naitachal stood, grabbed Eliathanis' arming coat in two fistfuls of fabric and dragged him close for a rough kiss.
"I am not avoiding you," he muttered against Eliathanis' lips.
"Oh." Soft breath puffed on Naitachal's face, smelling of mint. "Well. Good then."
No, it wasn't just good. Now that he finally held Eliathanis close, Naitachal was not ready to let go. "You wouldn't prefer more proof?"
"Proo—oof!" Eliathanis grunted when Naitachal pushed him up against the stone wall beside the window casement. Naitachal pushed aside the collar of the arming coat and shirt underneath, his hands sliding behind Eliathanis' slender neck. A pulse fluttered like a trapped bird underneath Naitachal's thumbs. His lips hovered over Eliathanis', but though their breath mingled, their lips didn't meet. Instead, Naitachal dipped his head to catch the fluttering pulse in his mouth.
Eliathanis' hands slapped against the stone wall. A strangled sound escaped his throat, something between a sigh and a whimper. Naitachal grinned and nipped at the pulse point, earning a full mewl and a delicate shiver.
That was more like it.
"I thought…" Eliathanis cleared his throat. Took a breath again. "I thought your folk didn't go in much for kissing."
"To make up." Naitachal made quick work of the ties holding the arming coat and shirt closed. He spread the clothing wide, pulling shirt and coat down Eliathanis' shoulders and twisting them behind his back, effectively binding the White Elf's arms in his own clothing. "You never asked what sort of kissing we do practice."
"Clearly, I'm hoping for a demonstration." Eliathanis met Naitachal's eyes. "In the interests of… of… hum…"
Naitachal traced a finger down the center line of Eliathanis' chest, over the divot of his navel to stop at the waistband of his trews. Eliathanis' eyes fluttered shut, and he stammered to a stop.
Naitachal pressed his lips to the soft outer shell of Eliathanis' ear. "Stick with your slightly long-winded and overly-formal speech, my friend," he purred. "You're better at it."
His fingers slipped under Eliathanis' waistband, seeing out and finding the hidden hooks that held it closed. Eliathanis squeaked and struggled to free his trapped arms from his own clothes, but by the time he'd found his voice and his hands, Naitachal had pushed the fabric aside, freeing Eliathanis' cock.
They both stood still, unmoving. Watching each other. Afternoon sunlight streamed through the window over Eliathanis' shoulder, gilding his skin and setting his mussed hair alight. His chest rose and fell, more pronounced than their activities warranted.
"Well?" Naitachal asked, feeling just as breathless. Had he pushed too far?
Eliathanis licked his lips. "I'm noticing a dearth of kissing in this demonstration of yours."
Something fluttered and broke free inside Naitachal—not in his body, but in his soul—a withered shadow parasite that had cleaved to him for so long he'd almost thought it a part of him. Fear. It fluttered at his throat, and he almost swallowed it down out of habit.
Eliathanis stood bare and vulnerable before him, and yet no artifice or calculation shone in his eyes. Only acceptance and trust and a great deal of desire.
There was nothing to fear here. Not ever. Here was a friend. A lover. A brother. Naitachal released the ugly, fluttering shadow in an unsteady breath.
"Well then, allow me to address that lack." Naitachal's lips found the hollow at the base of Eliathanis' throat, and his hands wrapped around the warm shaft between Eliathanis' legs. He trailed kisses down a chest pale and soft as flower petals, hot as tallow. Eliathanis jerked when Naitachal's fingers found a sensitive spot at the base of his shaft, his belly bumping Naitachal's nose. Naitachal glared up at him with good humor.
Eliathanis grimaced. "Sorry."
"And that explains the flapping of your hands? You look like you're trying to fly away."
"I don't know what to do with them."
"A quandary indeed." Naitachal gathered his hair back, caught one of Eliathanis' fluttering hands and set it at the back of his head. "Perhaps if you'd be so good as to hold this?"
Eliathanis' fingers curled against Naitachal's scalp, twisting in his hair. His other hand came to rest on Naitachal's shoulder, tentative and yet possessive at the same time.
Naitachal sank to his knees. Eliathanis' cock was darker than the rest of him, the hair at the base a fallow gold instead of sunlight. But he was still pale, so strangely pale. Naitachal slid the cowl back and circled his dark finger over the pink head hidden underneath it. Eliathanis shuddered and sagged against the wall.
Kissing he'd asked for, and kissing he would get. Naitachal touched his lips to the tip, his tongue darting out along the seam. Eliathanis' fingers twisted in Naitachal's hair, sending tingles washing down his neck and back.
Naitachal twisted his head, increasing the torque against his scalp, and trailed kisses down to the base of the shaft and back up. He brought one hand up between Eliathanis' legs to cup the wiry hair and the heavy, tight-skinned sac it covered.
Eliathanis whimpered. His knees shook. Naitachal pressed his other hand against the jutting hipbone to keep him from thrusting into space.
"Enough kissing for you?" he murmured, and grinned at the garbled reply that could as easily have been a 'go to hell' as a 'yes.'
Naitachal decided that later would be as good a time as any to ask for clarification. He pressed his lips to the tip again, but then opened them, filling his mouth, wrapping his tongue around Eliathanis. Not even his hand, pressing Eliathanis' hip into the wall, could quite contain the other elf's spasm. Naitachal eased back, then surged forward again. His gaze flicked upward, past the flat, muscled abdomen that rippled with each shift of his mouth and the chest dewed with sweat and heaving in an unsteady rhythm, but all he could see beyond that was Eliathanis' chin.
A shame. He wanted to see green eyes flashing fire, and pink ears and cheeks, and quivering. Next time, he promised himself, and closed his eyes to savor the taste, the musky scent, the softness of Eliathanis' skin and the strangled noises coming from his throat. Fingers twisted and tugged at Naitachal's hair each time he sucked his way up to the head, but Eliathanis was careful not to force him. So careful. Too careful. Maybe the White Elves frowned on using pain to season their pleasure?
Next time. Naitachal was going to start a list.
Eliathanis stiffened, pushed feebly at Naitachal's shoulder, but Naitachal ignored him until he came, going rigid as a pale young birch tree. Naitachal took it all, life, love, longing. He drank it in. Eliathanis' fingers clenched and unclenched on his shoulder, in his hair. It was going to be as tangled as an orb-weaver's web back there before this was done, but Naitachal didn't care a whit. He slid his mouth away, letting Eliathanis' cock pop free. He rested his cheek against the hollow of Eliathanis' groin, fitting his cheekbone against that jutting hipbone, an interlocking puzzle finally solved. Eliathanis lowered his head, giving Naitachal a glimpse of more than just chin—green eyes, soft and lazy, lips pink from biting, floating golden hair that was the only sunlight Naitachal ever needed, and a scimitar smile that cut to his soul.
"You look a fright." Eliathanis murmured, long fingers brushing, trying to fix the tangles he'd created.
"Yes. Well. Your face is red," Naitachal drawled, delighting when that fair skin pinkened just a bit more. He traced idle whorls above Eliathanis' softening cock. "What is it? Faerie blood? Chameleon? I'm quite envious of your amazing ability to change colors. I have no such skill."
Pale fingers caught dark ones, drew them to those pink lips. Eliathanis kissed each one. "Good. I prefer you just as you are."
Naitachal stilled. No idle lovers' banter, that. He stood, cupping Eliathanis' cheek so the White Elf couldn't look away, couldn't dissemble.
"In the past, I have—" He choked on whatever thought he'd been about to express when Eliathanis pressed his hand to Naitachal's groin and stroked the hardness he found there.
"Just as you are," Eliathanis said with his crescent-moon grin.
A knock at the door interrupted their kiss. Naitachal groaned and raised his head and decided that, sadly, it was bad form to blast someone to cinders for the crime of knocking.
"Hey! Eliathanis!" Lydia's brash voice carried even when she tried to whisper. "Can we swap again? Carlotta's got Kevin in the gardens, and Tich'ki's afraid she'll set off Carlotta's fairy-senses if she gets too close. And I'm just not the sort of girl who takes a wander around gardens. Don't want her getting suspicious."
"Coming!" Eliathanis scrambled back into his clothes. He stopped Naitachal before the Dark Elf could disappear into the shadows.
"Later," he promised. "Tonight. There will be…"
"More kissing?" Naitachal drawled and lifted a brow.
Eliathanis laughed and kissed him again. "Oh, definitely. And perhaps I'll show you how to… make up."
"Oh, I should like to learn about that. I liked you in make-up the last time."
Eliathanis smirked. Shook his head, and rushed off, muttering about the madness that surely ran in Naitachal's blood.
There was never a later. Naitachal tore himself from the memory, stumbling so close to the black borders of death that frost crackled in his hair. He didn't need to see any more. Didn't want to. Not Carlotta's discovery and attack that drove them from Volmar's castle, not Eliathanis, eyes gone full green with fey-madness, racing against an entire barracks-worth of Volmar's guards. Naitachal didn't want to relive those moments: the rain of arrows, his own futile mad dash to recover his friend, or the blue fire he called from the sky to char Eliathanis' corpse and prevent himself from doing the very thing he was doing right now.
Death was no barrier. Not to a necromancer. Not to one as powerful as Naitachal.
Who cared if there was a cost?
"Why?" he called out, voice ragged though he hadn't been screaming—that he knew of. "Why these memories?"
"I don't know," said a voice. Not his, though there was something similar to it. A cadence, an accent, or perhaps just the effect that the Greylands had on all sound. "Why do you torment yourself with these memories?"
"So it would seem." Mist shrouded the other elf. Naitachal was reminded of Anna's dancing dress. This was what a proper death shroud looked like. "You look a fright, my friend."
"I came for you. To bring you back."
Naitachal steeled himself. He could be convincing. And if he didn't convince… well… then he could be commanding. The dead obeyed him. Death itself… obeyed. Such was the power of a necromancer. "It isn't as you think. It… doesn't have to be."
"Perhaps not. You know your art better than I do. But at what cost? I won't see your eyes go cold and empty. Not on my account."
A wind blew across the Greylands. It caught Eliathanis' shroud, spooled it out behind him in great whorls, like a typhoon to end the world. The edges disappeared beyond the dark border. Death's Veil, beyond which no known power held sway—not even a necromancer's.
"Don't go. Please."
"Why these memories?"
"They are all I have left of you."
"Why these memories, Naitachal?"
He didn't want to answer, because he knew that in his answer lay his defeat. "Please."
Eliathanis cupped Naitachal's cheek. His skin was bone-pale here, his golden hair a dull and tarnished silver, his touch cold as glass. Looking into his eyes was like gazing at a faded reflection in a window. Naitachal thought it was Eliathanis. He also wondered if he might be wrong.
"Life ends in death, but death is not the end, my friend. You have cause to know this more than most. I will wait for you in the fields beyond the veil, but you must not waste your life yearning for me." Eliathanis kissed him, but it was like kissing rain. Or tears. "Ask yourself: why these memories?"
Eliathanis' kiss drew the answer from Naitachal's lips. "Because I am not as I was." Weak. He'd become… weak. And now he didn't have the power to bring back Eliathanis even if he wanted to.
"Even so. You are not as you once were. You are not death. You must walk away from it. Live. Love. If you must bring me to life again, do it with heroic deeds. Do it with song. But don't pretend that bringing me back like this would be anything other than selfish."
"You were my first… friend."
"Don't make me your last. Nor your only. Kevin needs you."
"The bardling can go hang."
"You don't mean that."
Naitachal opened his mouth to argue, but no. He didn't mean that. Even now, he could feel the light, Kevin's light, hovering at the edge of the Greylands, flickering with concern. The bardling's voice came to him as from a long way off. Calling his name. Pressing something into his hands.
No! He wasn't ready!
But the grey was already receding. Eliathanis' shade disappeared beyond the dark border. Naitachal sat in the minstrel camp, on the edge of the circle he'd cast to enter the Greylands, to call Charina's shade and lay it to rest. He cupped something warm between his hands. A flagon, full of something hot and herbal.
He breathed it in. He drank. He closed his eyes, but there was nothing behind them. The Greylands were gone again, and he only had his own memories, thin and elusive.
He opened his eyes
Kevin bent over him, young brow wrinkled like an old man's with his concern. The boy needed some reassurance, even if the only comfort Naitachal could offer was another lie.
"Thank you," he said. " I was wise to name you an anchor."
And pray the bardling never found out how close a thing it was, or how useless his support had been.
Naitachal wandered the minstrel camp, restless. Lydia and Tich'ki had made themselves right at home with the merry, clanless elves, and even Kevin seemed to be getting along with their leader, Berak.
But once again, Naitachal was alone. Lonely.
He skirted the dead space where he'd conducted his ritual, and found himself drawn to the caravan of Seritha, the healer who'd tended to their wounds.
He realized why as he drew close. She sat on the steps of her wagon, body curved around the belly of a lute.
"Do you play?" she asked, noticing his notice. She held the instrument out to him before he could deny it.
And what could he do then, but take it?
He sat on the steps next to her, but he didn't touch the strings. "I only know one song, and it is a merry one."
"I am not in a mood for merriment."
She snorted, her shoulders shaking. It made him frown. He hadn't said it to be funny.
"Well, there's a song for just about everything under the sun. Or the stars," she said, nodding to the moonless sky. "What are you in the mood for?"
He favored the lute with a cynical smile. "Something to bring back the dead," he murmured. Useless, echoed the voices of his kin. Weak. That's what music was.
"Ah. Well I suppose you should ask your bardling about those songs. It's rare, but it's been known to happen."
Naitachal stilled. He hadn't been serious. He looked up at the healer, but her gaze was on the stars.
"You mean… necromancy?" But no. Why would a White Elf, knowing what he was, suggest a route that he doubtlessly knew better than she?
Seritha grimaced as though she'd tasted something foul. "Don't think Bardic Magic works that way. More like… even death doesn't mind a little music, and is willing to pay to hear it sometimes. There's all sorts of songs and legends about such things, bringing dead loved-ones back, even from beyond the dark veil."
Something niggled in the back of Naitachal's mind, a memory as fresh as a newly-dug grave.
"Like… Oretta and Eurosy?"
"Sounds familiar. As I said, your bardling probably knows more about such tales than I do."
"Does he?" And a full bard, like Kevin's Master Aidan, would know even more. Naitachal flexed his fingers, pressed them experimentally to the fretboard.
Time. It would take time to learn new magic. But he was an elf. Time, he had in abundance. He strummed a chord, one of the three he knew, and sang the song that went with it. The only song he knew.
As I was walking one spring day,
I saw an elf-lord fair;
Come gathering the fragrant may,
The lilac and the roses-o,
The daisies and the violets-o,
To make a pretty posy-o,
To wear upon his hair.
The only song he knew. For now.