“Soren come back, this was a bad idea,” Callum moaned as he struggled to free the frayed end of his cloak from a prickle bush. Ahead of him, Soren let out an exasperated sigh.
“Seriously? I thought you were like the biggest nerd for magic and Xadia junk. How are you complaining this much about going to see elves?”
“You didn’t say anything about sneaking through the forest to do it,” Callum grumbled as he gave a great tug, finally freeing his cloak, but not without the accompanying sound of fabric tearing. He sighed. “I was doing just fine, you know. Staying in my room was working out great.”
“Uh huh,” Soren said as he continued trudging forward without slowing, his lantern swinging from his belt while he used his sword to cut through the brush. “And were you just planning on staying in there for the rest of your life? I’m pretty sure you would’ve had to leave at some point.”
Callum held tight to his hood as a low-hanging branch threatened to yank it from his head. “I’m not scared of Claudia. I would have been perfectly fine.”
“Right, which is precisely why I found you moping all by yourself. Look, I promised to cheer you up and that’s what I’m going to do. So just shut up and let me take you to the cheer.”
Callum’s shoulders slumped a bit. Soren had a point. Sitting in his room looking at his old drawings wasn’t going to change the fact that Claudia didn’t like him the way he liked her. He didn’t regret overhearing her conversation with her father. It was better that he knew something like this now before he made a big mistake. However, that didn’t mean it hadn’t stung to hear her say that she didn’t want to marry him.
Callum sighed and kicked a loose pebble into the grass, the sound frightening a bluejay that had been resting in a nearby bush. The bird trilled in irritation before flying off to presumably find a quieter place to spend the night. He watched it with just the slightest hint of envy. How nice it would be to have wings to carry him away from his problems.
Instead, he had Soren to whisk him away from the castle to distract him. Callum chuckled a little to himself as he looked up to see the off-duty crownguard shove past a particularly strong branch. Despite his teasing and torture during sword fighting lessons, Soren really was a good friend.
Callum might as well try to take his mind off his disaster of a morning and move on. Besides, wasn’t Harrow always talking about improving relations between humans and the elven refugees?
Yeah, that would surely go over well as an excuse if they were caught outside the castle in the middle of the night.
Soren continued hacking a path through the brush until they finally emerged onto a remote trail. Callum spent a moment picking burs and leaves from his cloak, stopping them once more as he pulled a surprisingly-large twig from his boot.
They trudged forward, the thick branches above their heads keeping them relatively dry as a fine mist fell from the clouds. Spring was only days away now and Callum was relieved to finally be feeling some relief from the bitter cold. The air around them was still brisk but it also carried the crisp scent of budding plant life. Despite his initial complaints, Callum had to admit it felt good to get some fresh air.
After another ten minutes of walking, the trees ahead of them started to thin and Callum saw the ground sloping downward into a hill. As they approached the crest, Soren turned to him once more, a bright smile now proudly decorating his face.
“Alright, Your Highness, welcome to Tenebris.” Soren gestured down to where the hill tapered into a valley. At the bottom were perhaps a dozen small, ramshackle houses arranged in no discernable order. A dirt road weaved between them and a few thin streams of smoke rose from chimneys. From this angle, he could barely make out a few figures dotted among the houses.
It would have looked like any other rural outpost or settlement if it weren’t for the tiny balls of light slowly circling above it like leaves caught in a breeze.
Callum’s eyes widened as his feet carried him down the slope ahead of Soren. As they approached, he could see that the lights were little balls of pure fire, suspended in the air without aid. They cast a warm, orange glow on the buildings, illuminating the imperfections in their construction, yet somehow also making them appear all the more inviting. It was beautiful and Callum could feel himself already forgetting his argument for returning home.
At his side, Soren was trotting along, gleefully keeping an eye on his expression. “See? This is much better than your room.”
Callum nodded deftly, his heart rate increasing as he caught sight of a few silhouettes. While some looked completely human, others were leaner with pointed ears and horns jutting up from beneath unusually colored hair.
There were real-life elves. Callum could hardly believe it. He’d read about them in books since he was a child and in the last year he’d caught glimpses of them here and there at the market. But he’d never seen one up close.
“Come on,” Soren said, tugging at his sleeve as they approached the first building. “This isn’t even the best part. Don’t forget to keep your head down, step-prince.”
Callum followed, his boots occasionally sliding on the damp earth, though he was a bit too preoccupied to notice. A lively tune had reached his ears and was growing louder as they moved into the little town.
There were more humans than he would have expected. In fact, Callum saw far more humans around him than elves. Many of them looked much like Soren, crownguards free of their armor and off duty for the night. Most also had tankards in their hands, ale sloshing while they laughed and sang boisterously. Soren had told him that Tenebris had managed to become somewhat of a hub for nightlife in recent months. Even so, there was an ease here that Callum hadn’t been expecting.
They rounded a slight corner and Callum’s eye was suddenly drawn to an imposing woman with skin like melted cocoa and hair like burgundy. She was a sunfire elf, he noticed as she passed by with a severe look. The golden markings that ran along her brow creased perfectly with her glare.
His eyes snapped to the left as another elf emerged from one of the small homes. This elf was clearly a moonshadow, with his long silvery hair and purple face markings. Callum had read that moonshadow elves were unparalleled in the ways of stealth and deception. There was even documentation that they could vanish entirely beneath the light of the full moon. Although this elf looked just as domestic as any other townsperson. In one hand he held a bucket while the other gripped a sack of what appeared to be potatoes.
Callum’s hands, meanwhile, were itching for his sketchbook.
Soren continued to lead the way deeper into the settlement, raising his hand in greeting to a few of the humans they passed. Eventually, he brought them into what seemed to be the equivalent of a town square. It was fairly small, with assorted barrels and crates arranged in a semi-circular fashion. A few large kegs of ale were being kept busy as the humans filled and refilled their tankards. Above them, the little balls of fire continued to cast their warm glow. A sizeable crowd of humans had gathered, their eyes fixed on the center of the square. Through the crowd, Callum struggled to see what they were looking at, his view obscured by the tops of heads and boisterous humans who had drunk too much to remember the limits of personal space.
He did however, catch sight of a pair of elves sitting on some rickety boxes nearby, their hands occupied by strange-looking instruments. A moonshadow man was plucking rapidly at the strings of an ornate harp that rested between his legs. To his right, was a sunfire woman playing some kind of flute that somehow sounded like a quartet all on its own. The music they created was rich and lively, their feet tapping in time with the beat.
A few men parted in front of him and Callum was finally able to see what was holding the crowd’s attention. A group of six moonshadow elves were gliding across the ground in perfect time with the music. Their bare feet skipped and weaved around each other as backs arched and hands extended. Callum felt his heart give a great shudder. They were captivating.
His experience with dancing was limited to the parties he attended as a prince of Katolis. The affairs were usually pleasant, if not a little dull. More often than not, Callum would find himself dancing with some nobleman’s daughter in a modest waltz as he attempted not to tred on her feet.
The elves danced, not with carelessness, but with a kind of surrender that was fascinating. They spun on the very tips of their toes, let their hair fly wild as they spun and paired off to grasp each other’s hands. They wore what he could only assume were traditional Xadian outfits -- a stark contrast to the ball gowns and tailored tunics he was used to seeing dancers wear. They wore form-fitting clothes in shades of black and green that hung from their bodies like second skins.
Callum felt warmth gathering in his cheeks.
As they circled, he caught sight of one of the smaller dancers in the group. She looked like she could have been around his age and her eyes were the color of Duren violets. Those eyes were alight with pure joy as she moved with her partner, their palms pressed tightly together. Callum watched as her muscles flexed with each movement, her body truly that of a dancer.
His other thoughts faded away as the last note of the song echoed out into the chilly, March air and the woman and her partner sprang away from each other. She balanced on one pointed foot while her back arched. She kept one hand on her partner’s shoulder as he dropped to a kneel. The other couples mimicked the pose on either side of them as their performance came to an end.
Callum’s breath disappeared entirely when the eyes he’d been admiring found his.
For a brief moment, their gazes held firm to one another and Callum took in every possible detail of her face. Her cheeks were flushed and he could see a small glisten of sweat shimmering on the dark purple markings that curved like claws beneath her eyes. Her white hair was a bit disheveled, save for a small section that had been braided and tucked behind her right ear.
She was incredibly beautiful.
Before he was prepared, the musicians struck up another, much slower tune and the elf girl turned away from him, but he didn’t take his eyes off her as the group began its next performance. It was full of soft, steady movements and impeccable balance and Callum hoped that when her eyes drifted back over toward his section of the crowd, they were searching for his once again.
It was only when Soren clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder that the spell was broken.
“What do you think, buddy? Pretty great right?” Soren asked with a wink.
“Y-yeah, she-they, they’re amazing,” Callum winced as he watched Soren catch his little slip.
“See? I told you there’d be lots of pretty elves to distract you from my sister,” he said, a sly grin spreading across his face. “You stay here and enjoy the show, I’m gonna go track down some drinks.”
Soren didn’t spare him another glance as he retreated toward one of the nearby kegs and a group of people apparently knew. Instead, Callum wandered around to the opposite end of the circle where the crowd was thinner and there was a precarious barrel for him to sit on. His sketchbook was out and his charcoal in his hand as soon as he sat down. The dancers, the crowd, the ambiance, everything had an air of casual revelry that he’d never experienced in the castle. He wanted to capture it all.
At home, there were the quiet halls and expansive library that he loved, but they were often weighed down by the heavy burden of politics. Royalty didn’t have time to dance for fun. They danced to maintain appearances and broker deals.
This place was different and he wanted to remember it always.
His hand flew around the page as he first outlined the landscape followed by the small huts. He smiled when he finally began to sketch the people. The dancers quickly emerged as the focal point, the young elf with the violet eyes smiling in the middle. A semicircle of mostly-human spectators surrounded them, their hands raised in applause. Callum would fill in the details later but he was pleased with his start.
The scene had just begun to really come to life on his paper when the sound of actual applause made him look up. The dancers and musicians appeared to be stopping for the moment, much to Callum’s disappointment and the crowd was tossing a myriad of coins in their direction. He grinned and reached for the coin purse on his hip and pulled out a gold piece.
He waited until the young woman was looking back in his direction and flicked the coin as hard as he could. Much to his relief, it made it to her feet and he was pleased to see her eyes widen in surprise as she picked it up. She looked up at him and Callum offered a little wave, silently wishing he could lower his hood just a little more.
She eyed him with curiosity before another elf with long hair and harsh eyes whispered something in her ear and captured her attention. Callum hoped she would be able to keep his coin for herself, she deserved it after that performance.
As the crowd began to disperse, Callum turned his attention back to his sketch, wanting to make sure he got the positioning of the dancers just right. Soren returned briefly to deposit a tankard of ale by his side before quickly disappearing once again.
Callum quickly forgot about the drink as he continued his sketch. The outlines of the people were complete and now he was fully engrossed in capturing the moonshadow woman’s face. It took him four tries before he was satisfied with the curve of her markings and her horns were also proving difficult.
So engrossed was he that Callum didn’t hear the soft padding of footsteps rapidly approach him. It was only when a familiar gold coin was dropped unceremoniously onto the page that he jumped, nearly sending his pencil skittering across the drawing. He looked up and once again experienced the spontaneous disappearance of oxygen in his lungs when he saw the woman standing in front of him, her arms crossed over her chest.
She looked even younger than he initially thought, perhaps even just a couple years apart from him. She’d changed out of the distinctly-Xadian clothing she’d performed in and was now wearing a plain set of men’s trousers and a green tunic with a length of cord knotted around her slender waist. Callum would have thought her even more beautiful if it weren’t for the deep frown she was also wearing.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” Her accent was incredibly new to him. She dropped the hard “t” and “ing” sounds from the ends of her words and there was a slight roll to her “r”s. He also didn’t miss the twinge of malice in her words.
“Excuse me?” He asked as he picked up the coin and closed his sketchbook. He was beyond confused.
Her eyes just narrowed. “I don’t know who you think you are or what you’re expecting to get from me for this kind of money, but you can forget it. Despite what you and the rest of your soldier friends seem to think, we’re not a bunch of whores waiting for a human to come along and fix all our problems,” she said, moving her hands to her hips.
Callum was stunned, both by her choice of words and what they were implying. He felt heat creep up his collar.
“I wasn’t trying to...proposition you,” he said, whispering the last words.
“Really?” She asked, her expression suggesting that she didn’t believe him in the slightest
“Really!” Callum replied emphatically, standing up to look at her face-to-face. He was surprised to find that she stood about an inch taller than him. He held the coin back out to her. “You’re a great dancer. That’s all this was about, I swear.”
She glanced between him and the gold, her lips pressed into a tight line. “Let me make this abundantly clear,” she said, her voice lowering to a frightening octave. “If I take this from you now, at no point in the future will I owe you anything.”
“Perfect,” Callum said, still holding out the coin. He let out a little breath of relief when she finally moved to take it from him. He watched as her four-fingered hand brushed slightly against his as she took it, sending a shiver across his shoulders in the process.
“Thank you,” she said carefully, slipping the gold into her pocket.
Callum nodded and offered her a small smile that she didn’t return. Instead, she continued to eye him appraisingly, glancing down at the torn edge of his cloak then back to his hood-covered face. He shifted uncomfortably beneath her gaze.
“Um, am I allowed to ask you a question?”
She glared in response, her hand dipping back down toward her pocket.
“No, no no! It’s nothing weird, I swear! I just wanted to know your name.” Callum’s hands shot out defensively. He had a suspicion that if he were to see that coin again, it would be hurtling toward his head.
She paused, her lips quirking upward in what might have been a smirk.
Callum’s eyes widened, a little shocked she’d actually given him her name, before his face relaxed into another smile. “I’m Callum,” he said, extending his hand out to her.
After only a few seconds of hesitation, Rayla accepted his hand and shook it with a firm grip. Her skin was surprisingly rough and Callum was fascinated to see just how much his own hand dwarfed hers.
“So, you’re obviously not a crownguard,” Rayla said as she pulled her hand back. “How did you find your way to our lovely home?”
“I’m friends with one,” Callum nodded over her shoulder to where Soren was now very loudly flirting with the sunfire woman who’d been playing the strange flute. His cheeks were flushed from ale.
Rayla’s nose wrinkled. “Can’t say you’re getting any points for your judgement of character,” she said with distaste. “Your friend over there certainly likes to try and proposition elves around here.”
Callum winced. “I’m sorry, I’ll talk to him. Soren’s a good guy, he can just get a little…”
“Perverted?” Rayla said dryly.
“I mean, I was going to say ‘misguided’ or something more diplomatic. But you’ve probably earned the right to pick the word,” he said.
Rayla’s laugh was a sound Callum immediately knew he wanted to hear more of. It was light and boisterous, a far cry from the tentative giggles he often heard from the women at court. Rayla laughed like she didn’t care who heard.
“Personally, I think I’ve earned the right to kick his ass, but we can negotiate that later. In the meantime, come with me. Your gold’s gonna buy us something better to drink than the piss your soldier friends like to tote around,” she said, gesturing to his untouched tankard still sitting in the dirt.
Callum held his breath before doing as he was told. He felt his heart thrumming in his throat a bit as he watched the way the firelight reflected off her hair. This was perfectly normal, he told himself. Following an elf he didn’t know to apparently get a drink was totally fine.
Soren caught sight of them as they passed and he shot Callum a decidedly un-stealthy thumbs up, sloshing a bit of ale dangerously close to the sunfire woman at his side. Callum pulled the sides of his cloak down a little further and continued walking.