Elain hurried around the corner, the bouquet of flowers pressed against her chest, into a part of the manor where she typically didn’t go — the far corridor, near the woods, where the prisoners were kept. Graysen hadn’t specifically forbidden her from venturing there, though he’d mentioned that in the defense of the human lands, he and his father and their men sometimes had to do awful things, violent things, that he didn’t care to elaborate on.
She understood. After all, she’d grown up with the stories — she knew full well what dangers they faced, the lethal power that faeries could unleash. Ever since the Beddor manor was attacked, the inhabitants slaughtered, the whole region had been on high alert, and Elain was thankful that her husband and his family were stalwart defenders of humans in the face of the faerie threat.
Lately, Graysen and his men seemed to be spending most of their time patrolling the territory, grim faced, armed with ash arrows, occasionally dragging some screaming creature or man-shaped body, limp and leaking blood, to that far corner of the estate, never to return. Elain always took brisk steps to get away from such scenes, knowing her husband wouldn’t want her to upset herself over such goings on. Graysen could handle it.
And in any case, Elain had a manor to run. She didn’t have time to poke her head into places she didn’t belong.
But today she felt pulled towards the far wing — not because she heard or saw anything, but out of a feeling that she should just go see, go check on it. Maybe the men need refreshments, or fresh supplies, she thought idly, her steps quickening as she got closer. Maybe Graysen has returned early from patrol and will want me to—
Then she heard a roar, deep and primal, and broke into a run.
She should have run away, far away, for that roar was made by no human man, but a faerie.
Elain knew that not all faeries were evil and wicked. Her own sister, Feyre, lived among them, and said that her faeries were good and kind. Her true love was a faerie, a High Lord of Prythian, so she said. Elain hadn’t remembered the night the faerie came to their home, in his guise as a monstrous beast, to take Feyre away, but now Feyre was back in Prythian, hopefully living happily with him. It bothered Elain that she hadn’t had word since her sister crossed back over the Wall, but she knew Feyre was tough. If any human girl could survive amongst the faeries, surely it would be her youngest sister.
Or perhaps Nesta. But Nesta would have nothing to do with faeries, even Feyre’s true love. No, Nesta inhabited their new estate, tending to it while Father bartered and charmed his way across the continent. They took tea together occasionally, Nesta always asking pointed questions about Elain’s treatment by the Nolans, whether they were keeping her in sufficient dignity with enough servants and cooks and the like, whether Graysen was truly a gentleman with her. That was Nesta — suspicious, worldly, protective. Elain bore it as best she could. She knew her sister meant well. With Elain married, and Feyre presumably so, perhaps Nesta would now feel free to look to her own affairs.
Elain felt that she’d been dealt the best hand of the three of them. She was settled, happily married to her true love, the Nolan estate now hers to run as she saw fit. It was more than she’d ever dreamed, being the lady of the manor, soon to become Lady Nolan when the old lord passed away and Graysen inherited his title. She would never go hungry again, never suffer the anxiety of poverty, and she could even help others, giving work and alms to the needy, boosting the village’s simple economy, and offering the protection of Graysen and his men against the predators who occasionally crossed the Wall.
It was more than Elain ever could have dreamed.
Elain turned the last corner, the dungeon room looming into view, and she skidded to a halt.
A crowd of soldiers were wrestling a faerie male. Or trying to.
Elain had never seen any creature with so much strength, at least not one with the body of a man, and she nearly gasped aloud as one soldier, and then another, went flying across the room, sprawling onto the stone floor a good distance away. More guards poured in, footsteps pounding, their shouts turning frantic as their captive fought back.
“Just put him down,” the commander barked, barely audible over the grunting and cursing of the soldiers.
“Lord Nolan wants this one — alive — ow,” one of the soldiers gasped, withdrawing from the melee to stare at his arm. “He burned me!”
Elain shuddered at that. She knew faeries could have powers, could wield the forces of nature in ways that were almost godlike. She suddenly felt a spike of fear, wondering if this faerie could burn the whole manor down, incinerate them all in their beds.
“Pull back, we’ll have to use the ash arrows,” the commander snarled.
“The Lord said —“
“Don’t give a shit what the Lord said. The Lord can come get burned himself if this fucking beast is that important to him,” came the hissed reply.
Elain flinched at the vulgar language, though she should have been used to it, with the manor so full of soldiers always passing through, taking their orders from Graysen and his father. Elain knew she should be proud of her husband’s command of the men. Young though he was, he was already so important, so dignified. She wondered where Graysen was at this moment, if he would know what to do with a faerie who could wield fire like a weapon.
I should go. I should run.
But she didn’t. Instead she took a step closer, and then another. She had never seen a faerie up close before, not that she could remember, anyway, and she found that she was curious about what such a creature must look like. It must be huge and monstrous, like the beast Nesta had described.
Finally, one of the foot soldiers seemed to notice her. “Miss Elain, this ain’t no place for a lady,” he said, abandoning the fight to rush over to her. “You’d best get back to safety.”
Elain smiled graciously, recognizing the soldier as Graysen’s faithful servant. “I’m all right, Marlow,” she said serenely. She was always careful to learn the men’s names, to address them as such whenever possible. It bred loyalty, that’s what old Lord Nolan had told her once, when he was instructing her on the ways of running a manor. And he’d been right. Marlow straightened, bowing gallantly to her. She dared to ask, “What’s all this about, anyway?”
“Caught it sneaking around town, poking about,” Marlow told her, shooting a distasteful glance back towards the throng of fighting men, surrounding the faerie opponent she couldn’t see. “Said it’s on official diplomatic business, whatever that means.”
Elain thought of her sister and her High Lord, and said, “Dear me, that sounds complicated.”
“We was bringing it in for questioning,” Marlow went on. “Wasn’t so bad til it seen the ash trees on the compound, then it flipped. Ash kills ‘em, you know.” Elain didn’t know, but she nodded sagely. “It took one look at all that and started to fight.”
A yelp, and then the stench of burning flesh, told her how the fight was going.
“Anyroad,” Marlow said urgently, ghosting a hand near her elbow, as if afraid to actually lay hands on her, “you’d best depart. Won’t be safe here til it’s restrained proper. Maybe not even then. If you asks me, we shoulda killed it on sight.”
Elain took a few halting steps toward the door, but blinked at the idea that faeries had to be killed on sight. It was what all the stories suggested, but her sister’s faerie lord wasn’t like that, was he?
“Marlow, to me!” the commander roared, and Marlow dashed back towards the melee, where the commander was twisting and screaming, trying to get off the jacket on his back that was covered in flames.
Elain’s heart pounded as Marlow tackled the commander, pounding on the jacket to extinguish the flames, and then her heart seemed to stop beating altogether as the figure in the center of the throng became visible to her for the first time.
He was beautiful.
He was a handsome faerie male, tall and lithe and muscular, with long flaming red hair that rippled around his face and shoulders. Elain rapidly took in his trim, well tailored clothes — soiled and disheveled, but richly decorated and elegant, more suited to fine dinners and ballrooms than to battling with soldiers. But she couldn’t tear her eyes from his face, from the brutal scarring down one side of it, and the intricately carved golden eye that sat among the scars. His other eye blazed with a hint of the fire that she’d seen him wield to such devastating effect, and she knew she should be terrified, should run from that destructive power, should let the soldiers handle it.
But she stepped forward anyway, drawn towards this strange male who’d stopped fighting entirely, who was now staring at her with both of his beautiful mismatched eyes.
Murmurs went up amongst the soldiers, who had all gone still, watching the scene unfold.
“Miss Elain!” Marlow saw her, and ran towards her. “Get away, before you’re hurt!”
The faerie snarled, a low rumbling sound that vibrated right through her, and Marlow cursed and stepped back.
“It likes her,” one of the soldiers chortled, then cursed as a burst of flame flickered his way. The faerie hadn’t even turned around.
Dangerous. Lethal, even.
Elain could suddenly understand why all the stories made faeries out to be such formidable opponents, to the point where mortals had no chance of defeating them. None of these trained warriors could even get close to him, not with that power at his fingertips.
Another soldier stepped closer, and the faerie raised a hand, fire sprouting from his fingertips. Elain gasped, dropping the flowers she’d forgotten she was holding. To her surprise, the flames banked, until only wisps of smoke were trailing from his fingertips, wafting into the silent air.
“Talk to it,” Marlow urged her, his voice full of wonder. “Make it understand we’re not to harm it. We just need our questions answered, that’s all.”
The commander snorted, but quickly cleared his throat when Elain turned to look at him. “Tell it just that,” he said, his knuckles white as he kept his hand wrapped around his sword.
“I can hear you, you know,” the faerie said, his voice rich and lilting, sliding across Elain like a caress. His lips were curled into an amused smirk as he beheld the nervous crowd of soldiers, but something in his eyes gleamed more brightly when he looked back to Elain. His gaze was intense enough that it made her flush.
Elain opened her mouth to speak, but suddenly, from across the room, a bow twanged.
Elain screamed as an arrow plunged into the faerie’s chest.
She ran forward, but the soldiers crowded in around him, and she backed up step after step, her gut twisting. Then she turned and fled, sobbing, as the faerie’s roar chased after her.