(Currently with beta readers! Coming before December 21, 2020.)
Wrath consumes him as the dark does the night… Until she rises. But can she chase away his darkness?
Most would say the “sweet” and “quiet” Signorina Arabella Belmonte has lived a quiet life as a young noblewoman in her family’s castello. But little do they know she pens treatises criticizing the realm’s warmongers… and now there’s a price on her head. As she struggles to hide her seditious activities, a chance encounter with a unicorn leaves her with four hooves and a horn of her own--and a form she can’t control. The dark-elf queen has offered her a chance to acquire that control… if Bella can find the unicorn who turned her.
Prince Dhuro of Nightbloom has never met a problem he couldn’t solve with his fists--that is, until he fought his sister for a place in the army’s elite forces and lost. When the light-elves defeated them and his father was executed, Dhuro’s inner demons laid claim to the whole of him. Now Immortal beasts are growing in power and threatening his people.
Dhuro has a chance to help his people win, but his mother, the queen, sends him on a fool’s errand instead--helping a human newly turned unicorn find her sire, and asking the impossible: whether the Elder of the pacifistic unicorns will stand with them against the beasts ravaging his people. Making things worse, Bella challenges his every decision, argues with him, infuriates him… until beneath the full moon, she shifts to her human form... and enchants him.
A war is raging, Dhuro must marry for political advantage, and only Bella’s sire can help her... And when the bounty hunters hunting her find them, Dhuro and Bella’s worldviews collide like life and death. But can he be the answer to helping her control her form, and can she chase away his darkness? Can they find a way to be together and fight the war threatening to devour the land… or will it swallow them too?
Readers are saying if you like the fantasy and romance of Grace Draven’s Wraith Kings and a Swan Princess tale with unicorns, Bright of the Moon will lure you into its world and not let you go.
Preorder Bright of the Moon today to journey into a medieval world of magic and Immortals, trials and trysts, blood and passion, and a love lasting far longer than forever…
Her breath sharp like knives, Bella ran through the forest as fast as her booted feet could take her.
Flashes of white darted among the verdant grove of chestnut trees, glimpses just barely visible in the distance. Low-hanging branches grabbed at her dress like desperate hands, but she dared not slow down. Not if she wanted to catch up to it.
She weaved through the slender trunks, her steps crunching on twigs. Her cloak pulled at her neck, caught on a bough, and she unclasped it. No matter. The late-winter bite wouldn’t bar her path.
All her life, she’d silently searched for others like her, who believed in the sharpness of ingenuity over that of the blade. And if unicorns were real, she’d meet this one face to face. Maybe it could help save this land from itself.
She leaped over a fallen tree. Her boot slid in the deadfall, but she caught herself with a gloved hand on the ground.READ MORE
Precious time. She was losing precious time.
But the magnificent white coat shone immaculately just ahead, in stark relief to the green foliage and ash-brown bark.
It had stopped. It was waiting.
She slowed, testing her approaching steps cautiously. Chasing it had been one thing, but running toward it now? She couldn’t risk spooking what she had admired for so long. Not now. Not when she was so close and, for once, her idol so real.
Tarquin, Luciano, and Mamma would never believe her, but it didn’t matter. The only thing the Belmonte family believed in was war. But as “Renato”—her pseudonym and secret political alter ego—she could introduce Silen to an entire society that had renounced war eons before this kingdom had even crowned its first king. With the help of the unicorns, she could change the course of not only the Belmontes but all of Silen.
As long as she could avoid the assassins chasing the price on Renato’s head. The price on her head.
Now that she had slowed, her face burned. She struggled to remain upright as she sucked in breath after life-giving breath. With any luck, her wheezing, grunting, and panting like a constipated barbarian wouldn’t frighten it. Writers, perhaps, were not always the best of runners. Or breathers.
But it just watched her, flicking its tail, feathering long, wavy silken hair in the breeze. Although horse-like, calling it—him—a horse wouldn’t have been right. He had a loose, open bearing, and gave a curious tilt of his head. A slight toss as if to say hello. There was a surprisingly human quality to his body language.
What did unicorns know of human society? Everything she’d ever read of them had suggested they were reclusive, isolated, kept to themselves, some even preferring solitude entirely. Wouldn’t their communication—verbal or otherwise—reflect that?
But other sources had guessed at telepathic abilities. Had he read her thoughts?
Perhaps the two of them would be able to communicate? All the better.
Some thirty feet away, she met his eyes, a bright violet, magical and alluring, as if the world’s most coveted priceless jewels had been made flesh and given intention, and then—
The world blurred around her, a sweep of greenery. Her chest tightened as though she were falling, but her feet found the dirt beneath her.
The unicorn stood before her, his face level with hers, his horn a mere inch from her forehead. Violet. Brilliant, breathtaking violet—
She gasped. A shiver trembled through her shoulders and down her spine. Magic. It was magic.
The horn—long, twining, and sharp—would be daunting on any other creature but the father of peace. Still, she dared not move but to breathe, and slowly, his gaze drew her in.
Those eyes were limitless, the boundless skies of another world, where the wind flirted through the endless summer grasses studded with vibrant wildflowers, where a herd of unicorns swept past, manes swaying, horns gleaming, beneath a warm sun…
Warm… and she was like them, her heart filled with quiet, the kind of peace lost on other worlds, but this one… This one was the dream. Where no one fought, no one killed. Where her family’s armies had never killed her only love, Cosimo. Where she’d never been too blind to see it coming. Where battles were waged with words, and victories were bloodless. Where unicorns ventured out of their isolation and met the world with warmth and quiet hearts.
Their dream. Her dream.
If only she could become—
A pinprick heated her forehead. She blinked at deep eyes shrouded with long, dense lashes.
The unicorn stepped back, bowing his head, his gaze never leaving hers.
His horn—it... the tip of it was red.
Frowning, she blinked again. Red rolled down the winding horn, a swirl of bright ribbon against pearlescent white.
She raised her fingers to her forehead, and they came away red, too. Blood red. All her research had said they were peaceful. They were, weren’t they? But then, what was this?
And before her was no longer just the unicorn.
A herd of them. The herd.
There had to be at least two dozen. How—?
The world blurred around her again. He had to be taking her somewhere. But where? She turned in place, spun, but everything only blurred more, more and more and more…
She missed a step and fell, descending like a feather on summer air, gliding down to the forest floor. She fell through piles of leaves and colorful flower petals, through visions of the sun soaring across the sky, and then the moon rising, violet eyes and violet eyes and green ones and blue, her gloves slipping off and flying away, the satin petals against her skin and cool grass, the sun, the moon, the sun…
And then the blur sharpened, slowly, brushstrokes of color coming together into the shapes of chestnut trees and fresh spring leaves in the predawn light, and the magnificent unicorn peering down at her, all of it framed in the most beautiful palette of glowing prismatic hues.
In this world, it is only a dream. You must make it come true, Arabella, a firm, soothing voice said to her.
She tilted her head, but something tickled her nose. As she reached up to scratch it, a hoof rose beneath her.
Her arm wouldn’t cooperate—her arm—her arm…
Her heart racing, she looked down at herself. At her long, immaculate white legs. At her hooves.
At her hooves.
With a gasp, she backed up, shaking her head. It wasn’t possible. There was no way. She couldn’t be—
But you are, the voice said.
Violet eyes. The voice—it was him.
Her legs continued to back up, without her intention.
There’s nothing back there for you, the voice said gently.
Mamma, Tarquin, Luciano… Were they all right? Had something happened to them? This wasn’t real. This wasn’t—
Past the grove of chestnut trees and far into the expanse of northern Sileni hills, Bella scrambled home, the cold air stinging her teary eyes. This wasn’t happening. It was some spell of the unicorn, some illusion, or… or she was still in that dream. It had to be. Merciful gods and empyreal Veil threads, it had to.
Once she was with her brothers and Mamma, it would all break. She’d be reminded of the real world and rooted in it, and whatever spell or dream this was, it would end.
Just over the hill, the olive orchards stretched across the Belmonte castello and its city of Roccalano, and she bolted among the thin trees for the open gates of the city. The staccato of hooves against the cobblestone invaded her ears, beat further and deeper. No, it was a dream. The sound was unreal, just as it all had been.
The few citizens outside in the hour before dawn gasped and gaped, jumping out of her way, unlike their usual smiles and warm greetings. Every look prodded at the dream, challenged its fiber, but she shook her head and ran faster, up toward the castello gates.
Shouts rang out among the guards, but she made it through and into the courtyard, charging straight for the nearest door, paying no heed to the chaos building in her wake.
She reached up to knock, but hooves hit the mahogany wood, sending splinters flying.
Mamma! Tarquin! Luciano!
Try as she might, no voice would come when she called. Please, someone! Anyone, hear me!
She hit the door again and again, and if the gods could but spare her a mercy, Mamma or one of her brothers would hear.
A bellowed order—Captain Sondrio and a squad of guards closed in on her with polearms. A stormy scent dominated the air.
Captain, it’s me! Please!
But the squad only advanced, and she leaped away from the pointed blade tips, tinted the sage-green of magic-nullifying arcanir. Pottery shattered and flowers crunched beneath her as she scrambled past a window. The shutters hung open, and inside, Tarquin stared back at her, his reddish-brown eyes wide.
Tarquin, she breathed, her heart soaring. He would see her, dispel whatever this was, set everything right. Help me!
His hand reached for a sword that wasn’t at his hip, not this early in the morning at home.
She tapped the glass, but it shattered, sending shards flying.
“Is it Bella?” Mamma’s frantic voice called from deeper within the house. Light footsteps pattered nearer.
A darkness passed over Tarquin’s face as he shook his head. “Mamma, stay back,” he called over his shoulder. “It’s one of the Immortali beasts.”
Beast…? Tarquin, it’s me! Mamma!
Mamma stood beside Tarquin, scowling as she clenched a fist. Her reddened eyes teared nonetheless, a grim match for the dark circles shadowing Tarquin’s gaze. What had—?
A prick of white-hot pain seared her side.
She staggered backward, avoiding the points of the polearms. One of the guards lunged toward her, but Captain Sondrio held out a hand to stop him.
Her stomach clenched. Gods above, they would kill her.
“Captain!” Tarquin’s voice boomed. “To bows! Someone get me a blade and get that beast out of here!”
That beast. That beast. How could this happen? Why?
But as her heart slowed, every hair of her mane stood on end. It was true. Gods above, it was true.
If this was a dream, shouldn’t she have awoken by now?
Arcanir. If this had been some spell, the arcanir blade of the polearm would’ve broken it.
But below her were still hooves.
Shuddering, she retreated, eyeing the guards, the shattered window, the shards of glass and smashed pottery. Broken. Everything was broken.
An arrow clanged onto the cobbles just before her. Reinforcements.
She spun, faced with blades at every turn except the exit, and with a wound stinging her side, she bolted for it, back down the streets of Roccalano, weeping.
Whatever the unicorn had done to her, it wasn’t some dream or spell that could be easily reversed.
They had always been described as pacifistic beings, ambassadors of peace, so why had this happened? Why had he done this to her? And if everything that had happened was real, then he’d made it clear she’d have nothing to return to.
But he was wrong.
She didn’t always see eye to eye with her family, but she loved them and they loved her. And she’d find a way to get through to them, to make them see it was still her in this body, and they would look past the physical and find her in dire need of their help. Together, they’d uncover the answer to all of this.
She’d just have to keep trying… and pray Tarquin wouldn’t order the guards to attack with lethal force.
Bella returned to the castello again and again, at all hours of the day and night. Her family had to know she was missing, so it would only be a matter of time before they linked the unicorn constantly infiltrating their property to her disappearance, right? Once they concluded it could be her, they’d all work on reversing the change somehow.
She made a habit of interacting with things they would associate with her—nosing the courtyard bench where she’d often done her reading, pawing the soil of her small vegetable garden, nudging the unicorn statue Cosimo had sculpted for her, even tapping the windows between her chambers.
Something would inspire the epiphany she needed them to have. She just had to keep trying.
It was the second or third visit that she touched the tip of her horn to a lock, wishing it open, and found her wish came true. She willed doors open and windows, and arrows not to hit her. That much worked, if not any wish that she be heard or seen as her true self. But she’d go to her chambers, knock over her favorite things... If she just gave them enough clues, they’d understand it was her, wouldn’t they?
Tonight, she willed away a part of the stone fortifications surrounding the castello and walked right through. Per her usual, she headed for the windows beneath her chambers, hooves clopping softly on the courtyard’s cobbles.
But a familiar scent clung to the air, like the fresh, earthy smell after a storm, but—spiced, somehow.
Metal clinked, and she bucked. Chains wove around her legs, and a heavy net landed on her back. The sting of the metal was instant and painful, burning into her skin like a brand. She screamed.
Tarquin! Mamma! Luciano!
All she wanted was for someone to see the real her, just one person, and help her become herself again. One. Just one.
“Capture it alive!” Captain Sondrio commanded.
The chains and the net tightened, and although she leaped and kicked, guards closed in around her, multiple squads pulling the chains taut.
Stop—please! It’s me, Bella! She tossed her head, her horn scraping against chainmail, and one of her kicks landed with a squelching crunch.
A hit landed on her back, and another and another. Wooden clubs beat her to the ground. The burning chains closed around her legs and threw her off balance.
She landed heavily on the cobblestone with a thud, pressing the searing metal deeper against her skin. It burned with agony—the metal, sage tinted. Arcanir.
Crying out, she fought and struggled to rise, but the hits didn’t stop until she went still, and the burning didn’t stop at all, not even for a second. Weights pressed her down, one after another, the guards sitting on her as she rebelled, cheering and laughing to one another.
She searched the courtyard and the windows for a sympathetic face, just one, any one. Her window glowed golden with candlelight, and in it stood Tarquin, his arms crossed, brow furrowed, peering down at her. The way he looked at her wasn’t with the warm eyes of the brother who loved her, but… but cold, hard, like a lone bronze statue in an empty courtyard. He watched it all coldly, wordlessly.
He doesn’t know. If he knew…
Her entire body blazed with arcanir, pain so white hot it blinded. With the weight of the guards pressing down at her, she tried to breathe but every breath was a battle, each harder won than the last, until finally the evening sky and all around her turned to black.
Four Months Later
A screech came from the tall summer grasses. Darting beneath the scant light of the stars, Dhuro found the fallen harpy writhing in the murky water and sedges, its broken wings flapping in futility.
And now you die.
Pinning its remaining arm, he slit its throat with one deep cut before burying his vjernost blade in its heart. Its sage tint glowed for a moment until the light left the monster’s eyes.
As the night breeze swept away its death rattle, he searched for any remaining threat among the marshland’s swaying grasses. One of the kuvari rose from their concealment, wiping the blood off her blade in the quiet. Her innumerable braids, beaded with amber, brushed over her shoulder and down her back. Kinga.
She met his eyes across the undulating spikes and, as she sheathed her blade, gave him a slow once-over, twirling a white braid around her finger.
“Is that all of them?” his oldest sister and living bucket of cold water, Vadiha, called out.
“Yes, Vadiha,” he called back, standing up as he cleaned his blade. As the strongest warrior among Mati’s Quorum, Vadiha had been given charge of their home’s defense—a duty that required increasingly more attention these days.
“I was asking Kinga.” Vadiha approached him and, hand on her hip, sized him up dubiously. “What are you even doing here? Shouldn’t you be with the volodari?”
“I was,” he gritted out. “I was in my hunting blind when I heard the fighting.”
Her golden eyes narrowed. “You should’ve stayed there. As you can see, we didn’t need your help.”
She never did. He held back a scoff.
“You’re welcome,” he deadpanned, walking past her and shrugging off her oh-so-kind attitude. It wasn’t enough that she’d kept him out of their army’s elite forces when they’d been at war with Lumia. No, she needed to keep him out of every battle and skirmish she could.
He raked a hand through his shoulder-length hair, shut his eyes, and heaved a sigh. Vadiha never missed a chance to shove his face into the sand.
“Dhuro,” she shouted.
Darkness, what else? He looked back over his shoulder and grunted.
“Mati has summoned you.”
Had she tattled to their mother? At least it gave him an exit out of this pleasant conversation. “Well then, I’d best not keep her waiting.” He gave Vadiha a reluctant nod.
Next to her, Kinga raised her eyebrows at him in a look he knew well. Nothing stoked the blood like a good fight. And oh, he’d answer that look later. Although he’d spent many years among the humans with his best friend, Dakkar, and his father, he hadn’t forgotten Kinga. Not how she’d used him to climb the ranks, and... not how she used to climb him either.
With an inward grin, he crept through the marshy rushes, sweeping aside their hollow stems to make his way to Heraza Gate and their home, Nozva Rozkveta.
Kinga wasn’t the only one, and never had been. All women wanted something, whether it was just a night’s pleasure or a stepping stone to his mother and queen’s inner circle, the Quorum. No matter what it was, as long as they kept the emotional mess out of it, he didn’t care. Considering how brilliantly that emotional mess had worked for his star-crossed parents, as well as for his brother Zoran and his decade-long doomed love affair with Gavri, that was just another entry on the long list of things he never wanted or needed.
At the Gate, he beat the entry rhythm on the door, and it creaked open.
“Your Highness,” two kuvari—Gavri and Danika—said by way of greeting. They barred the stone after him.
“Do you know where my mother is?”
“At the training grounds, I think,” Gavri answered.
With a nod, Dhuro headed down the tunnel toward Central Cavern. What had that near-decade of emotional aching been for? Zoran had left to become Queen Nendra’s king-consort in Dun Mozg, and his so-called beloved had been left behind. If they’d been wiser, they would’ve kept it simple.
These days, he stayed out of it. No one took his advice anyway, so it was a waste of breath; everyone seemed determined to learn the hard way. Even Veron had fallen for his human bride, and although they genuinely seemed to love one another, it wouldn’t end well. It never did. He inhaled deeply and shook his head as he entered Central Cavern.
Ah, home. He never tired of it. On the stalactites above, bioluminescent mushrooms lit the realm beneath with a lavender glow, mingled with the radiance of the white glowworms. The shimmering tangle of roza vines had sprawled and thrived since the Rift, their glittering red blooms dotting the stalactites with crimson stars. Nothing in the sky realm could compare to its beauty.
The Stone Singers still worked tirelessly to restore the gleaming, mirror-like blackstone outbuildings, where glistening streams fed fields of green sprouts fighting their way out of the fresh cave soil. Deeper into the heart of Nozva Rozkveta, most of the dwellings along Central Cavern’s interwoven pathways had already been stone-sung, and its most precious jewel—the palace—blossomed in black crystal perfection, ringed by the shining teal waterway that tumbled down into the Darkness below.
The black stone paths were empty and quiet today, unlike just a couple weeks ago when Veron had married his human princess, Alessandra. Although the violence from the human Brotherhood had dwindled to nearly nothing, the Immortal beasts had begun attacking with unusual fervor.
Was that why Mati wanted to see him, to give him a position with the queendom’s defense? Maybe Vadiha, for once in her life, hadn’t complained about him to their mother. Vadiha had defeated his challenge once, only once, and it had been thousands of years ago now. There had to be some limit to how long her victory could shackle him.
With renewed purpose, he headed for the palace’s black crystal spires, passed the four kuvari at the entrance, and strode down the side corridors to the training grounds.
The vykrikovati shouts echoed—short, loud, and forceful—and he had to fight back a smile. It had been a long time since he’d been among them, alongside Dakkar, but not long enough that his body didn’t remember this. His instructors had made a warrior out of him, out of all the dark-elf children; with every strike, he’d abruptly focused his abdomen, forcing the shouted breath out to generate as much power as possible. What had been sheer joy as a child had been the terror of the battlefield, as dark-elf legions had struck fear into the hearts of their enemies.
Two glaive-bearing kuvari stood aside as he entered. “Your Highness.”
With catlike grace, Mati sparred with the young novices in her white silken peplos, haloed by her voluminous, beaded cascades of platinum hair. She held back just enough to check the novices’ skill, and as expected, they were fierce. After all, this motley troop of youngsters represented the future of Nozva Rozkveta.
Mati met a strike with her vjernost bracers, and a smile cracked her diamond-shaped face. The smile met her amber eyes, and then she turned to him. The sparring stopped, and as she stepped away, the novices resumed their training with one another.
He bowed his head to Mati. “They look strong.”
“They’ll get stronger.” She brushed his arm and, with her bare clawed feet on the black stone, led him alongside the training rings, amid the novices’ vykrikovati and the instructors’ shouted encouragement and orders. “The kuvari have informed me you took part in the battle.”
Tattling it was, after all. Thanks, Vadiha. Mati had said it matter-of-factly, but he knew better than to trust that.
If Mati wanted to make a point, then trouncing him here amid the children would accomplish that, far harsher than he’d earned.
“Your ambition is relentless.” She paused to watch another group of novices spar.
He joined her. “I take after my mother.”
A flicker of her gleaming amber eyes, and then she returned her attention to the sparring. “We can handle the beasts. We always have. But while there will be humans among us building the library, we must take additional precautions.”
His people had always been skilled fighters; they built their lives around martial prowess. But if more winged creatures like today’s harpies attacked, they couldn’t keep the land above their domain safe from invasion, not entirely. And one human fatality would be all it took to reignite enmity from the humans. Darkness forbid it would be Alessandra.
If Mati wanted his help in the defense, she’d have it. And then he would be free tonight to go find Kinga. “I await your orders.”
Her even expression didn’t waver as she continued watching the novices. A pair of girls sparred, then wrestled each other onto the sand while the instructor barked reprimands at them. “You’re familiar with the unicorn among us.”
How could he not be? She stood out like a unicorn among dark-elves.
“When we exiled the leader of the Brotherhood, he agreed to go quietly.” She clasped her clawed hands behind her back, her shoulders stiffening. No doubt she’d wanted to rip Tarquin Belmonte’s head off his body, but exile had been more palatable to the humans and likelier to lead to a lasting peace. “Part of the terms involved aiding his sister, which we do willingly.”
Belmonte’s sister, a human turned unicorn, was safe here, learning more about her kind from Noc, a fey horse and friend to him and his brothers. The unicorn had saved his brother Veron and had helped stop the war with the Brotherhood, which despite her questionable familial ties, set her apart from the trash Belmonte had led.
“Although she’s learned much in her time here, she needs to learn control of her Change. Our scouts have returned with information about a herd of unicorns near Dun Mozg—probably Gwydion’s—and we must move swiftly. I’m sending a team to take her to her sire.”
It wasn’t a long journey through the tunnels; he and Dakkar had traveled it countless times. “Dun Mozg isn’t far.”
“The team will go by land.”
Frowning, he tipped his head up. Roza blooms studded the bioluminescent vines sprawled above, consuming the stalactites and the ceiling. It hadn’t been so long ago that his people had suffered a food shortage, but with the human alliance, they’d come back from it stronger than ever, and that bounty had been shared with Dun Mozg. The neighboring queendom had no compelling reason to cause them harm. And considering Zoran was king-consort, and Dakkar, not just his best friend but a prince of Dun Mozg, had been fostered here, their ties were nigh unbreakable.
He eyed Mati. She didn’t suffer questioning, but if he wasn’t to take the tunnels, there had to be a reason. It would be better if he knew what he was getting into rather than proceed blindly. And ignorantly.
She sighed. “These beast attacks aren’t random. There’s a leader, assisted by a dark unicorn. These attacks are their strategy to keep us at bay. They’ve joined forces to conquer the humans.”
A few months ago, he would’ve said Let them. But as much as it galled him, when his people had been most in need, it had been the humans who’d extended their hand. And his sister-in-law, Alessandra, wasn’t so bad. “Why aren’t the humans handling it?”
Mati’s mouth tightened to a grim line. “They don’t know who’s in charge. And they must not know.”
Then information didn’t flow so freely in this new alliance.
“The dark unicorn is Gwydion’s responsibility, so he must be made aware. And Arabella’s sire will likely be among his herd. You will take her there.”
He nodded. If that’s what Nozva Rozkveta needed, then he’d see it done. And with Gwydion’s help, these malcontents would be disbanded. Unicorns possessed the rare ability to induce calm, even among a bloodthirsty army of beasts and rebels… if the unicorns could be persuaded to enter a conflict. Something Mati was tasking him with.
Mati cleared her throat. “Whatever Gwydion wants in order to forge the alliance, give it to him. Seal it with an Offering between you and one of his line.”
“What! Why?” he blurted. Darkness, she would sacrifice him as she had Veron. Deep, Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael, of all the—
“Because the leader of this rebellion is our responsibility, and he must be stopped before the humans discover he’s a dark-elf. And he will be stopped, with Gwydion’s help.”
His head spun. “The dark-elf rebel leader… Who—?”
Mati turned to him, facing him squarely, and grabbed his shoulders. “Dakkar of Dun Mozg.”
Following the dark-elves, Bella trudged through the marshland alongside Noc, their hooves splashing in the fetid waters. They’d been proceeding in the daylight under dense tree cover, but the bareness of the marshes meant journeying by dark, such as tonight.
The dark-elves traveled almost exclusively via their tunnels. It was strange that they weren’t doing so now, but no one had thought to tell her anything other than it was time to go.
Noc flicked his tail next to her, shaking off the brackish water, and neighed.
I’m sorry, Noc, she said to him telepathically. I’m glad for your company, but you really didn’t have to come along.
He eyed her incredulously, shifting his forelock as he bobbed his head. My glamour might prove useful.
True enough. In case of danger, fey horses could cast illusions that might help them.
Besides, as a newly turned unicorn, you’re little more than a child. You still have a lot to learn, and even if you didn’t, I’m not about to leave you in Dhuro’s hands.
What’s wrong with Prince Dhuro’s hands? she asked him.
A laugh echoed in her head.
You’re being facetious, she chided.
You catch on quickly, youngling. Noc nudged her gently. As I said, you have much to learn, and Dhuro can be… indelicate.
Hmph. She could handle indelicate. But she couldn’t argue with Noc's assessment of the prince.
She raised her head and looked to the front of their cavalcade, where a tall, hulking, brooding dark-elf led them, his every booted step a vexed assault upon the earth. As he raked clawed fingers through his shoulder-length white hair, his slate-blue skin—a shade or two darker than his brother’s—fell into dusky relief against the night sky.
Dhuro, one of the princes of Nightbloom—Nozva Rozkveta. One of the dark-elves’ hunters, he’d been absent from the subterranean queendom more often than present. The times she had seen him, he’d been training with the queen’s guards or his brother, whenever Prince Veron wasn’t working on the new library building project with his wife. Although Queen Zara’s people appeared very industrious, Prince Dhuro pushed himself. A lot.
Still, she could imagine rabid bears less grumpy than said fair prince. She’d seen him brooding and stomping around, always beneath a black cloud, full of thunder. With a sweet personality like that, his fangs and claws really had to be purely ornamental.
Prince Dhuro glanced back over his shoulder.
She ducked her head. Gods above, had she said that to him telepathically? Noc had been teaching her, but she still didn’t have a solid grasp of it.
Afraid he saw you? Noc teased.
Her heart beat faster, but she ignored it and pushed the bravado. I’m rather hard to miss in this form, aren’t I?
Noc blew a raspberry and tossed his head, his laugh echoing in her skull.
Prince Dhuro was undeniably handsome and everything she couldn’t stand, so he was perfect for her. Ever since Cosimo had been killed, she’d kept her entanglements light, and that had worked well for her. And someone like this bitter prince, so bitter she could never love him, was completely her type.
But there was the small, tiny, minuscule matter of her being stuck in unicorn form. That made entanglements… difficult. She sighed inwardly.
Besides, the dark-elves had exiled her brother Tarquin and probably didn’t have the highest opinion of her either. A fighter for as long as she could remember, Tarquin nevertheless had gone quietly into exile. Warm, caring, he had spent his entire life trying to protect her, looking out for her, and if anyone had told her he’d spend months letting her be tortured by his men, she never would have believed it. Not until three and a half months ago.
When she’d run from her unicorn sire, it had been to return home—to Mamma, to Tarquin, to Luciano… her family. None of whom had recognized the four-legged creature bearing down on their doors and windows, desperately trying to communicate with them. The mercenary irregulars of the Belmonte Company had taken it upon themselves to capture her, and not knowing it had been her, Tarquin had let them.
For so long, so many had been killed in the name of his mission to find her while his men had tormented her, not recognizing her in unicorn form. Countless senseless killings, all for her cause, and it had taken everything she’d had to Change the night of the battle with Nozva Rozkveta, just to try to stop it.
Once he’d learned the truth of her identity, after Princess Alessandra had freed her, Tarquin’s warmth hadn’t reappeared. He’d castigated himself, punished himself, retreated into himself, and she hadn’t known how to communicate telepathically yet.
And now he was gone—who knew where—and she might never have the chance to tell him she loved him, she forgave him, and that he could rise above what he’d been if he only wanted to.
Noc took another step and stumbled, nearly tripping into the marshy water.
This is ridiculous, she said to him. I’m going to ask the prince why we can’t take the tunnels.
Queen Zara wouldn’t have sent us on this route if there weren’t a good reason, Noc replied, struggling out of the dip.
At least then we’ll know why we’re stumbling all over the marshes. She didn’t wait for a reply as she moved up through the cavalcade, nosing her way between horses and dark-elves.
Excuse me, she thought to Prince Dhuro, but he didn’t react, so she trotted to catch up to him. Excuse me!
A dark look over his shoulder. Gleaming golden eyes raked her over, narrowing, and for a moment, the scent of fresh water and mountain stone cut the marsh’s odor. “What?” he said, more of a grunt than a question.
She jerked in her head. His lovely tone really shouldn’t have surprised her. Why aren’t we taking the tunnels?
“If you needed to know, you would’ve been told,” he replied, his voice low. He held her gaze, as if challenging her to talk back.
It seemed she wouldn’t be the only surprised one here. I demand to know. This terrain is very difficult for Noc and me, and the last thing we need is for someone to get hurt.
He scoffed. “Don’t hide behind Noc. He’s been through rougher terrain than this. If you hate getting your little hooves wet, princess, then just admit it.”
Princess? Her eye twitched. Had he just called her “princess”? Listen here—
Bella, Noc interrupted, don’t mind him. He’s not—
“No, how about you listen?” Prince Dhuro leaned in, his voice cold. “You got yourself turned into a unicorn and stuck in your form. We’re taking you directly to your sire, whom we should reach in a few days. No one wants to be here, and your complaining won’t improve circumstances for anybody.”
Complaining? All I asked for was an answer, she replied. But I can see now that verbal communication isn’t one of your precious few skills, Your Highness.
His handsome face contorting, he opened his mouth to argue, but she turned away. He could argue all he wanted, but he could say it to the back of her head.
An arrow darted between them. Prince Dhuro shoved her aside.
One of the guards drew her sword and batted the arrow away. She shouted something in their language, and the dark-elves sprang into action, fanning out and taking cover while Noc sidled up to Bella.
“Stay with Noc!” Prince Dhuro gritted out to her before he joined his allies.
Remain in contact with me, Noc said to her. I’m casting a glamour.
Doing as bidden, she let him urge her into the shadows, onto dry ground. When he froze, so did she.
More shouts, and metal clanged ahead. A battle?
No. No, no, no—
What is it? Noc asked. Are you all right?
She most certainly was not. I can’t let a single person more be killed for my sake. Not again. Not ever again.
Before Noc could stop her, she ran toward the sounds.
With both swords drawn, Dhuro crept through the shadows cast by the scant trees. Steel flashed in the moonlight, and he chased the skirmish. Whoever it was, even Dakkar himself, he wouldn’t allow them to endanger his home or this mission.
Blades danced beneath the night sky as Gavri and her squad fought five women—light-elves. What were they doing here?
A fifth lunged at him—a man. Dhuro parried and counterattacked with his second sword, cutting the light-elf’s thigh. Blood spattered the mud.
The light-elf hissed and retreated before advancing once more with renewed vigor. As they fought, enormous black shadows blotted out the moon.
Roaring cries rent the air.
With enormous wings and eagle-like heads, griffins descended. Strong gusts pushed against him from heavy flaps of those feathered wings.
“Gavri!” he shouted, blocking a strike from the light-elf.
“I know!” With a sharp vykrikovat, she slashed down the arm of her opponent, who rolled away with a yelp.
A huge beak snapped shut next to him.
He lunged aside, facing off against the griffin and the light-elf, who smirked.
Although their talons were dangerous, griffins had weak points at the wing and neck. He could handle this.
The light-elf’s gaze flickered to his abdomen. With his vjernost blade, Dhuro blocked the strike and then evaded the flash of talons.
The ground thundered with galloping hooves from behind him. Now what?
He pivoted and leaped away as the stark-white unicorn raced toward them. Arabella Belmonte?
Darkness, what was she thinking? These griffins would tear her apart—
Stop! her shrill cry commanded.
And everything on the battlefield froze.
The light-elves, the griffins, his forces. Him.
Leave! she ordered, and with a few retreating steps, the light-elves mounted the griffins. With a few beats of their massive wings, the griffins took flight, soaring into the dark sky.
Blinking up at them, he stood, unable to move, to speak—Darkness, barely able to think. His people only eyed him, no doubt feeling the same.
What had this fool of a unicorn just done? If any more enemies emerged, he and his people could be killed.
You can move now, she said, slowly approaching them, her hooves clopping in the shallow water. Can’t you…?
If he could move, he wouldn’t be standing here doing his best impression of a rock.
Her head bowed low, she inched closer, blinking over large, shining green eyes.
Gods above, you can’t move, can you? She looked over her shoulder at his people, and then back at him. I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to undo it.
She’d charmed him and his team, leaving them exposed and unable to defend themselves, and she didn’t know how to undo it.
Deep, Darkness, and Holy Ulsinael. She had the Darkness’s own good fortune that he couldn’t move right now.
Noc, he thought, if you can hear me, for the love of all things dark, talk some sense into this unicorn. He’d tried to speak the words, but all that had emerged sounded like a snarl.
Arabella’s ears turned back, and her gaze darted about uneasily, but she quickly raised her head and inhaled a steadfast breath.
Noc trotted in behind her, eyeing him with an amused glimmer before facing Arabella. She squeezed her eyes shut, shook her head, and pawed at the mud.
Noc, Darkness help me, she can undo this, can’t she?
Craning his head around, Noc stared at him pointedly. I can either guide her through this, or commiserate with you. Do you have a preference?
Dhuro rolled his eyes. At least he could still do that much.
Thought so, Noc replied, before turning back to Arabella, who fretted and made a great show of trying.
Darkness, was she this insufferable as a woman, too? A woman after Vadiha’s own heart, involving herself in others’ affairs, thinking she knew better. She made him want to just—
She peeked around Noc, her sparkling green eyes meeting his, and lowered her head, flicking her tail. With a quick look back to Noc, she approached.
What was the plan? End this idiocy and stab him through the face with her horn?
She stopped just before him, her head—and its pointy horn—a hand’s breadth from his own. Darkness, that... that wasn’t the plan, was it?
Closing her eyes, she rested her face against his chest and took several deep breaths, and for a moment, he could’ve sworn the sweetness of spring had replaced the marsh’s pungent odor.
The top of his head tingled, as if stroked by the gentlest touch, and then his face warmed. His shoulders relaxed, and that touch feathered down his arms, down his chest, his abs… until his fingers and toes sparked.
She stepped away, and he fell forward, just a step before he caught himself with a hand on her shoulder. Her eyes met his, but she didn’t waver or pull away, not until he withdrew his touch.
Then, without a word, she backed away and headed toward Gavri, repeating the same touch and release process with her and his remaining people.
Once they were all freed, she returned to Noc, bright eyed.
Ah, she thought that was the end of it.
Dhuro narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms.
How wrong she was.
Bella faced the prince squarely, holding her ground in the sludge that was this terrain. If he thought he could glare at her and make her feel ashamed for stopping needless loss of life, he was wrong.
The arrow had been aimed at her. These assassins were after her. They’d somehow learned of her transformation; members of the Brotherhood must have spread the word.
These assassins were after Renato, her pen name, and the bounty out on “his” head. Hers. If Prince Dhuro thought he could dictate their fate, then he was about to face reality.
The other dark-elves took one look at him and headed back toward their previous path.
Good luck, Bella, Noc said, slowly moving to join them.
Thank you for your help. I couldn’t have undone that without you, she answered. She owed that to Noc, and a lot more. In just a couple of days, she’d have the narrow window of the full moon, the night before, and the night after to try Changing into her human form, and Noc had been instructing her on how to do it stably. Hopefully it would work.
Noc bobbed his head before departing.
And then it was just Prince Dhuro, staring her down as though she’d left him bound on an anthill and covered him in honey.
He stalked up to her with quiet fury, his mouth a grim line. “I don’t recall giving you permission to charm me,” he bit out.
She raised her head. I don’t recall giving you permission to kill the assassins after me.
He scoffed coldly. “The assassins after you?” He met her at eye level. “You think everything is about you, don’t you, princess?”
There it was again. Princess! That’s adorable. You’ve met one human woman who’s a princess, and you think we all are. You know, if you want to learn something, I heard there’s this library being built—
He raised a hand. “Don’t change the subject, princess. You are not permitted to control me or my people in any way. So don’t try it again.”
She stamped her hoof. I didn’t intend to freeze you the first time! It hadn’t been a question of intent but inexperience. And I’m not going to allow anyone to be killed on my account. The price is on my head, not yours.
He tilted his head, peering at her. “There’s a bounty out on you?” For a moment, he raised his eyebrows before turning away, a muscle working in his jaw. “You didn’t think to mention that vital bit of information?”
She stared into the dark water, finding a shade of her reflection. I didn’t think they’d recognize me. I look, you know, a little different? And I wasn’t sure they’d traced my publications to my identity. But... I suppose they have.
He stepped into the water reflecting her image and crouched. “They haven’t. Those fighters were light-elves and likely have nothing to do with you. They probably just”—he combed his clawed fingers through his hair—“shot at you first because of your capabilities. Removing the biggest threat to them before eliminating us all.”
Her power… She’d been able to wish things to happen when she’d first returned as a unicorn, and this had been an extension of that power. She hadn’t thought of its use in battle, but… he was right. It seemed possible that—if she gained better mastery of these abilities, of course—she could stop battles.
A giggle escaped her, but it sounded more like a whinny.
Dhuro quirked a thick eyebrow. “Something funny about this to you?” he gritted out.
She shook her head. No, just… Unicorns really can stop wars, can’t they? With just a thought, they can stop loss of life.
With a long-suffering sigh, he hung his head. “You’re missing the point.” He glared up at her with that same grumpy face, then rose and headed back toward the path, with her following. “Don’t do that again, and we won’t have a problem.”
“Don’t do what again?”
“Use your power.”
Never use her power again? She’d most certainly never use it on him and her allies again, but never at all? Not even against their enemies? Not even if she trained more with Noc?
Walking alongside him, she ducked under a low-hanging branch. As a prince, you must be accustomed to everyone doing your will. I’m sorry this won’t be what you’re accustomed to.
His face twisted. “That wasn’t a request. If you don’t obey, I’ll have to—”
His golden eyes flared, bright in the moonlight for a fleeting moment, then he clenched his jaw and looked away.
I’m certain your queen wouldn’t approve of hurting me or killing me, so… I don’t see how you can stop me?
He shook his head with a bitter laugh. “You’re not the first determined woman to step into my path, Arabella Belmonte.”
Nor the first to succeed, I’m sure, she replied smugly.
His knuckles cracked as he balled his hands into fists, but they slowly relaxed. “You think that by trying to stop others from killing, you’ll be saving lives? You don’t even realize what you could’ve done.”
She hadn’t intended things to go the way they had, but was he this upset that she’d taken control and saved everyone? Despite the enemy light-elves and griffins—griffins!—no one had gotten killed. Could he say the same if she hadn’t intervened?
“The griffins flanked us as we were fighting the light-elves,” he said, nodding to one of the dark-elves as they rejoined everyone on the path. They headed deeper into the wilds to set up camp. “After you charmed us all, what would’ve happened if more enemies had ambushed us?”
Her mouth dropped open, but she closed it with a click. I would’ve stopped them, too.
He exhaled an amused breath. “I just spent half an hour frozen in place because you couldn’t control your power.”
Well, that… That had been different. When she felt strongly in the moment, things just happened. Impassioned, she’d wished the fighting to stop and for the aggressors to leave, and it had happened. But once the danger had been over, it hadn’t been so simple to make wishes come true.
“We could have all died. And you would’ve been responsible.” His eyebrows drawn, he speared her with a piercing gaze.
She shifted her shoulders. Yes. Things could have gone badly. She'd been so desperate to prevent any more deaths that she could have caused more bloodshed; he’d made that clear to her.
But only a fool could miss what she had done. Her charm had frozen the entire field, and because of it, no one had died. If she figured out how to control it, she, herself, could be a weapon for peace, and she was not about to walk away from that.
The answer isn’t to give up on trying to save lives. It’s to continue improving the method, she answered. And that’s what she’d do—work with Noc until she could control her abilities. She wouldn’t charm Dhuro or the other dark-elves again, but once she trained more with Noc, she would use it on their enemies if necessary to prevent deaths.
Wrong? She sniffed. If he was set on taking lives, and she was set on saving them, then he left her no choice but to be at odds. There was nothing left to say to him. She split away to bed down next to Noc.
As she chose a dry, grassy spot, Prince Dhuro approached with a bedroll under his arm. He laid it out next to her, descended, and rolled up his cloak before stuffing it under his head.
What was he doing? She couldn’t help but stare.
“You think I want to sleep here, Arabella Belmonte?” He grimaced, jerking his head toward a female guard who gaped at him blankly. “My queen tasked me with getting you to Gwydion’s herd, and so shall I do. I’m not about to let you get yourself killed by some human assassins and ruin everything.”
Ruin…? But he’d already closed his eyes.
Lying there, handsome and muscle bound, with his eyes closed and—more importantly—his mouth shut, she could almost understand what that female guard saw in him. Almost.
He didn’t agree with Arabella Belmonte about much, but at least they were out of the dreaded marshes. Ahead, the Altobelli Mountains towered over green hills, their staggered gray peaks biting into the high-noon sky. He wouldn’t relish how long it would take to travel the meandering mountain path, but...
The air at that altitude would be fresh, crisp, a welcome respite from the stink he’d breathed in the marshes. Before the Sundering, he’d spent a lot of time topside, both as a boy with his ata and Dakkar, and then as an adult, scouting, hunting, guarding spice caravans. He’d come to know humans well, a few very well, enough to learn never to trust them. Given the Sundering, it seemed he’d been right.
With a grunt , he led the way up, keeping a careful watch for any sign of enemies, whether they be the dark-elf rebels or Arabella Belmonte’s alleged assassins.
When she’d mentioned the bounty on her head for her “publications,” he hadn’t asked her about the nature of them—he’d never give her the pleasure of knowing he cared enough to be curious. But still, he had been curious, so he’d asked Noc instead.
Nonviolence. A woman whose people worshipped war, whose family lived and breathed it for coin, wrote about the alternatives of nonviolence, their potential to resolve conflicts, and their implementation in other cultures, both human and nonhuman. And with the humans’ magic, the methods she supported weren’t ridiculous but reminiscent of the Dragon Lords’ preferred style of rulership over all Immortals before the Sundering.
The peasants who fed into military recruitment would probably entertain her arguments... if they could read. And the nobility who benefited from constant skirmishing and raiding should have laughed her little treatises away… but they hadn’t. Someone had cared enough to put a bounty on her head, which meant her little treatises weren’t as inconsequential as he’d have assumed. They had merit, enough to make her a threat to fortunes made by nobles and their instruments of war.
He beckoned the cavalcade on toward the mountain path, and when his eyes met Arabella’s, she huffed and turned her head away. Ah, thank the Darkness, she wasn’t speaking to him. It had never failed to amaze him that human women believed the silent treatment was a punishment.
No, the true punishment had been taking her constant barbs and needling. If not for the four legs and horse body, he might have sworn she was a dark-elf woman. Except the sharp repartee that took place between two dark-elves usually led to the Ring… or the bedchamber. He didn’t need that kind of frustration from a unicorn.
And guarding her so closely had meant those loaded looks from Kinga had gone infuriatingly unanswered.
Whatever. At least Arabella had taken to pestering Noc all day. About what, he had no idea, but better Noc than him.
Blowing out a breath, he clenched his jaw and moved on ahead, scouting their trail. Fortunately, the mountain path felt sturdy beneath his booted feet, its packed pinkish dirt and rocks a firm foundation. Its width would suit even the more equine members of their group, because if he had to hear one more complaint about how difficult the marshy terrain was, he would—
In the distance, a gray mound of stones blocked the path. He squinted, evaluating the extent of the rockfall. Large boulders made up much of the mass.
A dead end. A Darkness-damned dead end. How many things had already gone wrong? How many more would follow?
Inhaling lengthily, he squeezed his eyes shut and threw his head back, wanting to roar at the top of his lungs, but instead he heaved a long-suffering sigh.
“The sky realm hates you.” Gavri’s voice was pitying.
He opened one eye. “Tell me there’s another way through these mountains.”
With a tight smile, she gave him the slowest of shrugs.
He groaned. It had to be this route. Any other would take them too far out of their way or far too close to the Lumia, the light-elf queendom. Mati hadn’t wanted them to risk that, and he wouldn’t. Especially not after what Lumia had done to his ata.
Darkness, what else? Were the clouds going to open up and pour a storm down on them?
Noc and Arabella approached, and she craned her long neck to see around him and Gavri.
Was this the wrong way? she spoke into his mind, with the barest hint of a lilt.
He grimaced at her. “This is the right way,” he shot back, taking a step into her space. “This must have happened recently.”
She raised her head, her iridescent horn luminous even in the gray sky’s dimness. I’m sure you know what to do. She gave an encouraging nod. Was it really? Or just another barb, veiled a bit better than the rest?
Clenching his jaw, he looked away, grinding his teeth together. What he needed to do was to send scouts into the wood to assess the threat level, but after the attack by the light-elves, he needed all the kuvari he could get in case of another one. And considering the hostility of Lumia, if the light-elf queendom wasn’t officially involved, he could provoke conflict with Nozva Rozkveta just by ordering a dark-elf to even set foot in the wood. And that conflict would stoke ancient enmity anew.
The only real option would be to trace the foot of the mountain alongside the lake, trapped like a cave salamander against the stone. To attack them, Lumia would have to assume the risk of provoking hostilities… But who attacked first only mattered if anyone lived to tell the tale.
The rockslide could have been calculated, a move by Lumia to force them on the path against the foot of the mountain.
Arabella poked his leather pauldron with her horn, nudging his shoulder back. What’s the plan?
He grunted. “Come nightfall, we’re taking the lake route.”
Gavri, twirling her long braid, paused and opened her mouth, but when he jerked his head toward her, she shut it and gulped audibly before looking away.
No, he did not need to hear all about its drawbacks from her, too. At least once night fell, his people’s advantage of seeing in the dark would afford them more warning if Lumia did try to ambush them. The light-elves did love their radiant little crystal trinkets, after all.
Why are we waiting until night? Arabella asked, wiggling her muzzle in a way that brought to mind wrinkling one’s nose. What are we going to do until then?
“We’re going to camp somewhere safe,” he gritted out, nodding to Gavri to lead them back down the mountain, “and ignore any more questions from you.”
As he passed her by, scanning the periphery for threats, she snorted. Because of course she did.
The queen who’d granted her protection had given him and his team this mission, and it had been guano from the first day. And she not only wanted to pester him with complaints but also to question his every move and demand constant explanations. Those answers involved information that had to be kept secure to protect his people. He wasn’t about to prioritize indulging her inquisitiveness over their safety.
As they made their way down the mountain, Noc trotted up to him and shoved him none too gently toward the stone.
She’s just trying to understand you, Noc said to him pointedly, with a misstep that seemed a lot like a hoof attempting to crush his toes.
I don’t need her understanding, he answered. This journey wasn’t about making friends. He was still bleeding from the ones he already had stabbing him in the back, most of all Dakkar. He didn’t need any more, much less some unicorn he’d never see again after a few more days.
Ever since the light-elf attack, she’s been asking about you and the others, and about dark-elves, Noc continued, his voice gentler. Ever since the attack, she’s been contemplative.
Good. Maybe she could contemplate not interfering next time and risking his whole team’s lives.
I think she’s been imagining how things could have gone, Noc added.
How things could have gone? What, if they’d all been killed when she’d charmed them?
He scoffed. If she felt bad, then she’d think twice before acting next time.
But she was asking questions about him and his team? He cleared his throat and lowered his gaze to his boots, where the pinkish mountain dust caked the tips. What’s she been asking?
What you love to do, what your dreams are—
What I love to do? Dhuro blurted out.
Each of you.
He raised his eyebrows and swallowed. Of course. Not just him. What did you tell her?
That you love to help. That your dream is to improve your people’s lives as much as you can.
He paused. The answer had been like a firm palm to his chest. He... loved to help? He’d never quite heard it put that way, but… he supposed it was true. He did want to improve the lives of everyone in Nozva Rozkveta as much as he could. Even Vadiha’s.
What else had Noc told her about them? The possibilities were many and... a good many weird. He smirked to himself. Did you tell her Gavri loves that weird tea Alessandra brought from Bellanzole? She takes that stuff with her everywhere.
Noc huffed, and a laugh rolled through his mind. That, and butter.
Who could forget? If no one stopped her, Gavri would eat that stuff by the handful. Literally, with her hand.
His smile slowly faded. If she wanted to know all those things, why not ask everyone?
Ask everyone who could’ve died because of her actions? Noc shook his head.
Breathing deep, he looked away, popping his jaw. He’d laid all that weight on her, and she’d taken it all. All this quiet from her, it hadn’t been the silent treatment but reflection. Space. She’d waited, probably hoping he’d cool off, and then when she’d finally spoken to him again, he’d ripped her head off.
He gnawed on the inside of his cheek. So what did it matter if he’d gotten things wrong, if he’d upset her? Once she was with Gwydion’s herd, she’d never see him again and would forget all about this.
You’re known for having the emotional range of a cave troll, but I know that you’re just hiding behind that, Noc said. Perhaps we should examine why you’ve been so cold?
Dhuro sighed. No.
Then perhaps we should examine your refusal? If Noc had had more expressive eyebrows, at least one of them would’ve quirked up judgmentally.
Go away. Dhuro crossed his arms. The last thing he needed was Noc trying to pick apart his past and attempting to make him a… a kinder, gentler cave troll.
Noc whipped his tail, catching Dhuro in the back. Just remember, even cave trolls pause in their rage from time to time to give a care about something. You can do at least as well as that.
Dhuro sketched an amused smile that swiftly faded, then shooed Noc away. Enough of this gooey, sticky emotional mess.
I know that Janessa—
He turned on Noc, glaring. We do not discuss her. Not now. Not ever.
Arabella passed them by, her head hung low, and without another word, Noc accompanied her away.
Dhuro smoothed back his hair, watching Noc and Arabella walking side by side. Noc gave her dropping head a nudge, and she perked up a little, if only briefly.
Dhuro drew in a deep breath, fighting a twinge of conscience. All this time, she’d given as good as she’d gotten. Things weren’t different all of sudden just because guilt had finally displaced her fit of moral superiority.
As long as there were no more charms during battle, it didn’t matter what she thought, and he didn’t need her to think well of him. If that meant he had the emotional range of a cave troll, then... whatever. He just needed to do the job Mati had given him, and do it well for the sake of Nozva Rozkveta. That was it. And right now, it meant finding a secure campsite.
The early-afternoon sky had only grayed further, and he wanted some shelter while it was still dry.
Just then, the first droplets of the storm began to fall.
Arabella glanced beside her, and that bitter porcupine of a dark-elf was close. Far too close. Huddled together in a mountain crevasse should’ve been better than being out in the storm, but if it meant getting some distance from him, then the rain, the thunder, and the lightning began to feel inviting.
Noc took the rare opportunity to nap, leaving her to stand around, unsure where to rest her gaze.
Arms crossed, legs crossed, Dhuro leaned against the stone, his head bowed, staring intently into the space before him. Eyes couldn’t strangle anyone—she was fairly certain—and yet anyone who’d intrude into Dhuro’s line of sight right now wouldn’t be ridiculous to wonder.
He didn’t like to be challenged. Was that it? Or was he still angry over her charm during the battle?
In the heat of the moment, she’d misunderstood, and he knew that. She’d tried to make peace between them, but she certainly wouldn’t force her presence on him. If he didn’t want to forgive, then the remainder of this trip would feel all the longer, but that was his choice.
All eyes meandered to the outside from time to time, just as hers did, anxious to get out of these tight quarters, no doubt. The sun was setting, and it would soon be dark. Dhuro and his team had taken so many precautions, but if his reaction after the ambush had been any indication, they hadn’t known about the bounty out on her.
So which enemies had they been so prepared to face? He wouldn’t tell her anything, but she’d have to find out, somehow. If only to know what she was walking into out there.
All he’d said of their attackers was that they were light-elves that probably had nothing to do with her… Then, who were they? If Dhuro’s people had some previous conflicts, why not share that? It wasn’t as though she had anyone to tell.
Even more curious had been the griffins’ involvement. From everything she’d learned, griffins were high mountain creatures, and light-elves made their home in the lowland woods. The peculiar partnership had to mean more, especially since it had etched that ever-present furrow on his brow even deeper.
When darkness finally settled outside the crevasse, Dhuro jerked his head to the dark-elf with the long braid—Gavri—and she gathered up the team.
Bella nudged Noc awake. Seems we’re heading out.
Noc nodded sleepily, then as the dark-elves leaned in together, he turned an ear toward them.
Can you hear them? she asked.
He craned his neck toward them a little, but when they dispersed, he made a show of looking around.
Dhuro narrowed his eyes at him before tipping his head in the direction of the exit. “Time to go.”
Although he faced Noc when he said it, those golden eyes stole the briefest of glimpses at her before he strode away.
She shifted from hoof to hoof, turning to Noc. Well?
Something about watching out for the light of the crystals. They must be wary of light-elf attacks… We are very close to Lumia’s territory.
Lumia? These might be the answers she needed. She followed the dark-elves out alongside Noc. At least it had stopped raining. Is it a particularly aggressive queendom?
Noc hesitated, picking his way carefully through the rocky dirt. There’s bad blood between Nozva Rozkveta and Lumia. At the end of their last war, the light-elf queen killed Queen Zara’s partner, Mirza.
Bella’s heart fumbled a beat. Queen Zara’s partner? Was he Dhuro’s father?
Yes, Noc answered somberly.
Dhuro had lost someone he’d loved to war, too. Being so close to Lumia had to put him on edge, worry him—
She gulped a breath. This wasn’t about what scars they shared.
Whatever he’d been hiding, was Lumia somehow involved? The attackers had been light-elves, after all. Was there another war brewing? If so, how did taking her to the unicorns figure into it?
That night of the battle, when she’d charmed everyone, had come with a realization: Unicorns could stop wars.
It was clear from Dhuro’s every stomping step that he’d like nothing more than to paint the mud red with his enemies’ blood. But Queen Zara, perhaps, had another strategy in mind to deal with threats to her queendom. Would returning a wayward unicorn to the herd grant the dark-elves some sort of favor?
Skirting along the base of the mountain, the dark-elves ringed her, a few leading the way. Their wary eyes traced the woods, pausing at the night’s sounds. Owls hooting, wolves howling, the wind rustling the trees…
I’m their pawn.
Noc turned his head to her abruptly. What?
Her breath caught. Oh, I… Um… Sometimes she still didn’t manage to keep her thoughts to herself. I meant to think that to myself. She laughed self-consciously.
He half-laughed. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re still learning.
She bobbed her head, although she didn’t agree. Because of her stance on the mercenary business, all of her family relationships had relied on her ability to keep her thoughts private, and because of her writings as Renato, when she’d spoken to strangers, her family’s lives had depended on it. Becoming a unicorn hadn’t only taken her body from her, but her mind, too. Her privacy. Perhaps even her ability to keep her family safe.
As a human, it had seemed so magical, so wonderful, the idea of becoming this symbol of peace, this magnificent being.
And in parts, it was. Speaking into others’ minds, charming violence away, stepping into a world most humans hadn’t even dreamed of…
Yet with every new blessing she could think of, every new way this change should be wonderful, she only wanted to cry, more and more. Cry for her hands and her feet that were hooves. Cry for her face and her hair that were muzzle and mane. For her words that were neighs and whinnies. And for her private thoughts that were now the free air.
Once upon a time, the feel of a quill pinched between her fingers had been so natural, so common, just writing and writing and writing. But now, as she tried to pinch her fingers, her hoof only pressed deeper into the dirt. Even if she did Change back into herself, would she remember how to write again? Would she have to practice? Relearn?
She stepped over a puddle, catching a glimpse of her equine form.
Could she ever go back to her life as it had been?
Stop feeling sorry for yourself, she thought, splashing a hoof into her reflection.
Now, when she was so close to reaching the unicorns, was no time to stumble. The night before the full moon, she would try to retake her human form, and she would learn how to control its Change. That was only a couple days away.
And as for being a pawn, at least now she understood the dark-elves’ motives. Her return to the unicorns would either be the overture to negotiations or part of the bargain. Dhuro had probably been commanded not to share the details with her. And why should he, when she might refuse to play a part in their dealings or complicate matters?
Little did he know that in pursuing the unicorns’ help, they were of the same mind. She would always lend a hand—or hoof, as it were—if it meant peace instead of war. Even to someone who loathed her as much as Dhuro seemed to.
With his gaze trained on the deep woods, he led them around a stacked formation of boulders.
As she picked a path behind it, he lunged to block her path. She stopped short, nearly running into his chest.
He held up a fist, and the other dark-elves kept low to the ground. He met eyes with the warrior who had amber beads in her innumerable long braids, then waved her forward along with Gavri.
Bows drawn, the two of them crept toward the woods.
Bella craned her neck past the boulder, but Dhuro shoved her head back behind it.
A light. Her heart beat faster.
The faintest glow of light had shone deep among the trees.
Keeping Arabella behind the boulder, Dhuro drew one of his blades in the dark and listened. Both Kinga and Gavri had whistle-tip broadhead warning arrows, and they were his best warriors. If he needed to get Arabella out of here, he’d hear that sound. Soon.
If these were Lumia forces, his small squad would have no hope of victory. And considering their path abutted Lumia’s vast territory, there was little hope of escape for them all either.
Every kuvara who’d come on this mission had done so knowing it might be her last in service of their queen. And as much as it galled him, he could be forced to retreat with Arabella and deliver her to Gwydion himself.
Is it—? Arabella began, but he hissed out a shh. Right now, Kinga and Gavri needed his full attention.
Arabella stiffened, although she didn’t say anything more.
The white light glowing in the woods grew brighter, larger, closer.
His heart pounded, thudding in his chest. Had the enemy killed both Kinga and Gavri before either of them could fire off a warning arrow?
He glanced to Valka, who crouched low with her bow ready, and she gave him a grim nod. Behind her, Marysia did, too.
Darkness, he’d need to send in the rest of his squad just to cover Arabella’s retreat. His and Arabella’s retreat.
I can cast a glamour, but it won’t cover us all, Noc said to him gravely. My speed can take you to safety.
Dhuro kept his eyes on the approaching light, clenching his jaw. Before the light-elves got to within a hundred yards, he’d have to make the decision, no matter how much he hated it.
Worse has come to worst, my friend, he thought back. Everything inside of him screamed to stay and fight, but he had his orders.
The light, maybe two hundred yards out, didn’t change course. It was now or never. He nodded to Marysia, who mirrored the gesture and dug in.
“We’re leaving,” he bit out to Arabella, his voice low, and looked to Noc for permission before mounting up.
Leaving? What about Gavri and Kinga? Arabella raised her head, catching his eye as he sat on Noc’s back.
They are serving their queendom, as am I, Dhuro replied soberly.
By running away? Arabella chomped down on the hem of his coat. I can charm the light-elves. We can all survive this.
“No,” he hissed, his heart racing. She couldn’t control it.
There was no time for this.
He drew his blade and cut away the piece of coat she’d held. “You can come with us and help the queendom that saved you and spared your brother. Or you can stay here, and spit in Queen Zara’s face for her mercy.”
Arabella stared into the wood.
Valka thumped her foot on the ground, catching Arabella’s attention. “Go,” she whispered, and the other kuvari joined her.
Her ears flicking back, her head drooping, she followed as Noc led the way, picking up the pace along the mountainside.
I’m casting the glamour, Noc said to them, and the air tingled ever so slightly around them.
Dhuro held on for dear life as the wind battered his face, as Noc’s hooves tore up the ground, only glimpsing behind him every so often for Arabella. She charged up next to them, glistening trails falling from her weeping eyes.
If you’d just believe in me—
He shook his head vehemently. And get us all killed?
She forced a harsh breath through her nose.
Darkness, Gavri and Kinga could be dead. His squad was sacrificing their lives to cover this retreat. And she still pressed him on this?
All the belief in the world, he thought to her fiercely, as the woods went by in a blur, wouldn’t change the fact of your inexperience. Accept that. And honor their sacrifice.
Wordlessly they ran, Noc and Arabella kicking up the rocky soil. If the Darkness was merciful, they’d make it far enough to find another path into the Altobelli mountains.
Dhuro checked behind them, hoping against all odds that his squad had defeated the light-elves.
The light glowed at their position—
And sped right here. Faster and faster, picking up speed.
Mounts. They had to have mounts.
“Noc,” he said breathlessly, “we need to lose them—”
I know. Both Noc and Arabella raced at a full gallop, but trees crowded the path ahead. It was dark. And even Noc wasn’t always surefooted, let alone a new unicorn.
The light gained on them, closing the distance.
He needed to negotiate with Gwydion, but there would be no negotiation without Arabella’s safe arrival. She needed to survive, at all costs.
And someone else could negotiate.
“Take Arabella to Gwydion, Noc. And send word to my mother when you get there,” he said grimly. “I’ll stay here and slow them down, give you two as much time as I can.”
Wait, Arabella began, please—
“Don’t slow down for anything,” he shouted to her. Then, to Noc, “Let me off.”
I’ll protect her, Dhuro, Noc replied as he came to a stop.
Dhuro leaped off, drawing his blades as he faced the nearing light.
A few yards away, Arabella had stopped too, lingering and hesitating.
“Go! Now!” he roared, jerking his head to her. Noc ran to her and urged her onward, but she shuffled on her hooves.
Dhuro, it’s tiny! She spoke in his mind with a rising hopeful pitch.
The size of their light-elf crystal—?
He was about to shout for her to run when the light closed the gap.
Dhuro, it’s Tiny! Bella thought to him, but he didn’t waver until the pixie flew just out of range of his blades. Her name was Shrelia, but all the dark-elves and Princess Alessandra knew her as Tiny.
Dhuro’s shoulders went slack, and he tilted his head, squinting past their new arrival. “A pixie…?”
I told you, she said gently, approaching with Noc by her side. It’s Tiny, the pixie who helped us against the Brotherhood.
Dhuro’s face snapped toward her, his mouth falling open. She nearly giggled. At least no words were coming out.
Chiming angrily, Shrelia landed on the back edge of one of Dhuro’s blades, pointing a finger at him. Silly dark-elf! I’m trying to help you! Which is difficult when you’re running away!
Despite being a tiny, winged, pink-haired woman the size of a butterfly, there seemed to be good odds Shrelia could verbally sting like a wasp. And Dhuro would be getting the entirety of that stinger.
Bella snorted, and Shrelia flitted up to her.
And you, unicorn! You should’ve heard my hails from far, far away! Shrelia planted her minuscule hands on her hips and glowered at Noc. Haven’t you been teaching her anything, oldster? Or is she that terrible a pupil?
Noc eyed Bella dubiously. I… am exiting this conversation. With a toss of his tail, he trotted past a dumbfounded Dhuro and back toward the squad.
Thank you for the vote of confidence! Bella called after him with an inward sigh. She hadn’t eluded being stung after all.
Shrelia zipped back to Dhuro, flying right near his nose. He staggered a step backward, waving a hand in front of his face.
Tell this silly dark-elf I’m not a bee! Shrelia demanded, flailing her arms. And that his brother is here!
His brother? Bella blinked. Which brother would that be? Veron, or…?