Cress coughed, blood dripping onto the hay. His sky-horse remained curled up beside him – all Cress had to do was give the command, and he would attack, but that probably wasn’t the best strategy at the moment.
Lizin stood before him, the pacing of his steps were enough to make anyone nervous. But Cress had stopped being scared of him a long time ago. Kes stood at his side, fist ready to strike Cress again. His wings were pressed uncomfortably against the barn wall, the chains slowly grinding at his wrists.
It was just plain metal – not iron. That meant Lizin didn’t intend on killing Cress.
Not yet at least.
Cress awoke to hoof beats in the distance. His faerie ears were sensitive, and being a hunter, that skill was useful. He kept his bow across his back and daggers in his boots. One of his wings was bent awkwardly from the way he had slept.
Cress snapped it back into place.
Most people didn’t notice his wings – they blended into the air. He stomped out the remaining smoke from last night’s fire, and roused Kalana from her sleep. She snapped up, swords at the ready; there was never time for drowsiness.
“We have to go,” Cress said. “I think they’re catching up.”
Kalana just gave a nod, pushing back her thick curls, and swiftly mounted her horse, Malaia. Cress whistled for Xaotan, who liked to hunt in the early morning. Common folk called him a sky-horse – tian’ma, which Cress had never understood. His appearance was more akin to that of a large white dog with a black head, pointy ears and a mane like a lion.
His bark sounded in the way that wind howled. Sky-horses were timid around humans and exceedingly rare, but Cress had raised him since he was a pup.
Xaotan came dashing through the bushes, a dead rabbit in his mouth. He padded over to Cress and laid it by his feet, looking proud of himself. Cress ran his hands through Xaotan’s mane. “Thanks, buddy, but we’re going to have to save it for later.”
“Which direction should we head?” Kalana asked.
Cress looked up, and saw the way she was atop her horse in her leather armour. She was a woman now. When was Cress going to stop being shocked at how she had grown? It seemed like just yesterday that she was a little girl carrying around a sword that was the same height as her.
Cress shook his head. Now wasn’t the time to be thinking about that. “Into town,” he said, as he climbed onto Xaotan’s back; he rode the sky-horse without a saddle, which was the faerie way – some habits couldn’t be changed. “We can blend in with the people.”
“So you went into town, and thought you could escape from us,” Lizin sneered, his bi-coloured eyes glinting like the underside of a knife.
“You were getting close,” Cress said, his cracked bones aching. The rustic tang of blood was bitter in his mouth. “The only thing we could do was hide.”
Lizin shoved his face close to Cress’s. “I’m tired of this beating around the bush, faerie boy.” Of course, that old nickname. “Where were you and that bitch girl heading?”
Cress’s head was woozy, his vision doubling. He mustered a few last shreds of his energy, and spat a glob of bloody saliva into Lizin’s face. “Maybe we were just sick of everything,” Cress said. “Being a hunter isn’t for the faint of heart.”
Lizin wiped the spit from his face. “I have seen you, boy,” he said. “You look at corpses without blinking, you tear your arrows out of them, then kick them aside, that heart of yours is stone-cold, so you think you can fool me?”
“My heart is stone-cold? Really?” Cress said. “What about your heart, Lizin? Your heart made of gold?”
Lizin seized Cress’s neck, fingers digging into his jugular. “You think you are funny, faerie?”
“Yes,” Cress said. He forced his lips up into a smile, his teeth red. “Very.”
Another punch knocked him out cold.
The easiest place to hide was a tavern – drunkards didn’t take much notice to people around them. Kalana found a table in the corner for them, and sat down.
“Whiskey?” she offered. Cress declined. Even after spending the better half of his life around humans, he still couldn’t stomach their alcohol. “Something on your mind?”
“Are you certain you want to do this, Kal?” Cress asked. It is not too late to turn back.
She set the whiskey bottle down a little too hard; the liquid splashed onto the table. “I thought you of all people would know just how certain I am.”
You’re not, Kalana. I can see it in your eyes. Cress had known her since she was ten – he had basically raised her from there, being only fifteen himself; taught her everything she knew. He had witnessed how her exterior toughened, how the traces of that shy, timid, curious little girl disappeared.
But Cress knew more than anyone, the things that frightened Kalana; the look in her eyes when she was scared.
He saw it now.
“I know you think this is what you want,” Cress said.
“It is what I want,” Kalana said, her hands tightened into fists. “I want to stick my sword through that whoreson and make him pay.” Her words trembled.
Revenge does not ease your pain. Trust me, I know. “Sometimes killing may seem justified, especially as we are hunters, but the one person your actions will affect the most… is yourself.”
Kalana had unsheathed her dagger and was pointing it across the table. Cress stared at the blade. “Save your words of wisdom for someone who cares.”
It felt like a thorn was digging into Cress’s heart. In all respects but blood, Kalana was a sister to him – at the time he met her, he thought he could never give that much care to someone else again.
He had been wrong.
“I just…” don’t want you to get hurt, because you know that it would hurt me too, “want you to be cautious about it.”
“You’re trying to talk me out of it.” Her teeth were gritted. She only did that when she was holding something back – choking down a weakness that couldn’t be seen.
“I told you because you had a right to know,” Cress said. “That is all.”
“Right, and what did you think I was going to do? Cry about it and then get over it? That is not how I work.” Her eyes were piercing as she looked at him. That was what had frightened Cress about humans – that stinging intensity in their eyes that just spoke of what they would do to you, dare you disobey them.
Until one morning when he caught his reflection in the stream, and found that same intensity in his own yellow eyes.
That was when he knew he had become one of them.
Cold water splashed against his face. Cress’s eyes shot open. His chest spasmed, forcing him to take a large gulp of the icy air. His hands were tied behind a tree. How wonderful.
“I thought if I brought you closer to your much-loved nature, you would finally start talking.” Lizin tossed the rusted bucket aside. It fell with a soft clang onto the bark, a thin trickle of water leaked out.
Lizin wasn’t wrong about that. Faeries’ connection with nature was what humans could never understand. Their very essence of being was connected to the nature around them.
Growing up, Cress had lived beneath the shade of a large willow tree. When he went to sleep at night, he tried to remember the sturdiness of the tree’s spirit, how the leaves breathed their life; sometimes, if he focused hard enough, he could almost feel how the rivulets of water climbed up the roots, seeping into the limbs.
Not only that, faeries were extremely sensitive to emotion, especially those of their loved ones. If their heartbeat increased in fear, Cress’s too would begin to jump. If they were in pain, he would feel that pain as his own.
On his first few nights with the hunters, Cress had felt his brothers’ worry – he trusted that they could feel his too. But he had been away from them for too long, and overtime, his pain became entirely his own.
“Now you’re giving me the silent treatment?” Lizin poked at Cress’s chest with a stick.
Cress looked beside him, feeling the familiar weight of Xaotan pressed against him. However, the sky-horse wasn’t moving. Cress’s heart tumbled into his stomach. “What did you do to him?” His franticness was hidden behind the aching of his bruised jaw, that made his words slurred.
“Relax, I gave the beast some herbs to put him to sleep,” Lizin said. “It was the only way we could move him.” It wasn’t until then that Cress saw how Lizin was holding his left hand awkwardly – it was wrapped in a haphazard bandage, blood soaked through it.
Xaotan must have given him one hell of a bite.
“He’s not going to talk, Liz,” Kes said from beside him. She was a tall woman, even amongst the hunters, with copper skin and a wide mouth. “He’ll protect the girl no matter what.”
“I should have kept her away from you,” Lizin said.
Cress remembered finding Kalana in the back alley of the palace. She had ran there chasing after a ball. “You have wings,” she said. Cress had been surprised that she noticed them. “You’re a faerie.” Her face was filled with the awe of childhood curiosity and fascination.
“Yes,” he replied.
There was nothing he could do about his appearance. If the wings didn’t give it away, then his pointy ears would, or his eyes, or the way he spoke. There was no escaping his faerie identity amongst humans.
He had tried so hard to erase those parts of himself, that one day he realised, if he were to return to his brothers, they wouldn’t accept him as a faerie anymore.
“Cress!” Lizin had shouted from behind. “Do you have the girl?”
“Yes,” Cress said. Kalana was standing completely still, clutching onto her ball. “I’m sorry.” He grabbed her, and slung her over his shoulder.
“Let me go!” Kalana screamed, beating at Cress’s back. “Help! Help me!”
Nobody had come.
His first week with the hunters had been spent in a cage. Helpless as humans flocked around him, trying to catch a glimpse of their new pet faerie.
A hunter named Jai had finally let Cress out. She took him into the abandoned farmhouse and sat him down on the hay. “Look out there,” she said, pointing at the hunters in the field, some were wielding swords, brawling fist to fist, shooting at targets suspended from tree branches. “All of them, all of us, have been exactly where you are.”
Cress hadn’t believed it then. But when he saw Kalana huddled in the corner, it was almost like he was seeing a ghost of himself from those years ago.
So he sat down beside her, and said, “Look out there…”
“You told her, didn’t you?” Lizin said. Cress knew he was trying to sound threatening, but his tone betrayed more of his fear.
“I did,” Cress said. “What are you going to do about it? Kill me?”
“Kes will be happy to slit your throat in a heartbeat,” Lizin said.
“Except you wouldn’t,” Cress said. “Not until I tell you where we were going. Although, from the information I told her, I don’t think it would be very hard to figure out.”
“She’s going to the royal wedding,” Lizin said. “Now that is just plain madness.”
“If you are going to go and stop her, it might just be a bit too late,” Cress said. “There is not a chance you could ride to the emperor’s palace in time.”
Cress could see Lizin’s rage filling up to his eyes, like a cauldron about to boil over.
“You are dead, faerie.”
Cress found Kalana in the stables, brushing out the tangles in Malaia’s mane. Xaotan was laying by the horse’s hooves, munching on a bird he had caught. The delicate bones snapped between his teeth.
Cress stood there for a while, not sure what to say. Kalana set the brush down. “Do you need something?” she asked, a dangerous edge in her voice.
“No,” Cress replied. “I just wanted to say… that I know how you are feeling.”
“Really? Your father also paid hunters to kidnap you because he didn’t want you anymore, and then told them to keep that a secret for nine years?” The hurt in her eyes was still fresh – a wound that hadn’t even begun to heal. “All because he didn’t want his throne to go to a girl, and he didn’t have the nerve to just kill her.”
“I’m sorry for what happened that day. I tore you away from all that you had known. Your family, your friends, a world that was familiar, and brought you to a place filled with dangerous strangers.” Cress sighed. “I’m not trying to talk you out of it, I’m just trying… perhaps a bit too hard, to protect you. Because in my mind, I still see that little girl standing in the alley, how she screamed and screamed. Right then, I swore I would protect you, Kalana.”
Cress was afraid he would start crying, because his eyes were beginning to water. “And I failed. Over and over again.”
“I don’t need protecting,” Kalana said quietly. “But I’m glad you came with me this far, Cress.” She bit her lip – a nervous habit of hers. “I’m sorry for saying I didn’t care, because I do. You’re a brother to me.”
Cress’s heart warmed. It wasn’t like the both of them to get sentimental – yet, here they were. “I grew up with four brothers. I was tied in second place with my twin. We were quite different from each other, but we were inseparable. He knew me more than I knew myself.”
He hadn’t thought about Linden in years, couldn’t even bring himself to say his name.
“You speak of him in past tense,” Kalana said.
“Because he’s dead,” Cress said. “Lizin’s right-hand man at the time, Lian, ran his sword right through him. I held him as he bled on my lap. Then, they dragged me away, and the last thing I saw was his limp body.”
“You got your revenge, didn’t you?” Kalana said.
“I stuck my sword in him and watched as the life faded from his eyes,” Cress said. “It did not take away that hole my brother had left in my heart.”
“Look, I know what you are telling me,” Cress could see that Kalana was choosing her words carefully. “But this is something I have to do. I want him to see me, the person I have become, and I want that to be the last thing he sees.”
Xaotan let out a growl, low and threatening. He could probably smell that the other hunters were finally here.
“We should probably go now,” Cress said. He opened the stable doors slowly, and sure enough, he could see Lizin riding on that spotted stallion of his. Kes was beside him, the others following firmly behind.
“We should have left ages ago,” Kalana said. “Now it’s certain that they’re going to catch us.”
“They won’t catch you,” Cress said. He retrieved her cloak from the ground. “Put your hood up and exit through that door. Once you leave this town, ride like the wind.”
“I don’t understand,” Kalana said, grabbing Cress’s arm. “What about you?”
“If I ride with you, Lizin will just keep chasing us, all the way to the palace,” Cress said. “They can capture me, and I’ll keep them occupied. It is the only way.”
Kalana was completely still. “You dare give yourselves up to them? They will kill you, Cress.” Cress could feel how her fear ran through her entire body. “I don’t care if they chase us to the palace, I don’t care. I won’t kill my father, we’ll give ourselves up together.”
“No, Kalana,” Cress said. “Go to the palace, see your father. Show him that you have grown to be a strong, powerful woman. No matter how he reacts, show him that your surety in yourself is the only thing that matters. That will bring you more solace than revenge, I promise.” He placed a kiss on her forehead. “Don’t worry about me.”
A tear slid down Kalana’s cheek.
Nine years. And that was the first time Cress had seen her cry.
“Would you like to know what I do to traitors, boy?” Lizin said.
“I am a lot of things,” Cress said. “But traitor is not one of them. Betraying you would mean that I was loyal to you in the first place.” He tried to shrug, although his binds made it slightly difficult. “Surprise, surprise, I never was.”
“It’s almost nightfall, and you’re in the middle of a dark, scary forest tied to a tree. I wonder what I will find when I come to check on you in a few days-time.” He had that smirk on his face – the one that Cress hated more than anything. “Goodbye now, little faerie. I knotted the rope extra tight.”
They turned and walked away, shadows stretching as the sun began to set.
When it came night, Cress heard the howls of wolves in the distance.