Chapter 1


The Irrego Sea, south of the elven lands

The last rays of sunlight slowly hit the darkening sky, streaking it gold and gleaming out over the vast blue of the sea the ship was crossing, turning the quiet waves a sparkling violet. On deck stood NoaAerial Illevar, whom it was carrying across. She was a tall and slender woman, almost ethereal and quintessentially elven in shape, with the high cheekbones and full lips that marked her as House Illevar. Her long blonde tresses fell expertly controlled but deceivingly free off her shoulders, crowned by a delicately wrought tiara. Her simply cut, white silken dress actually had hundreds of little white pearls sown onto it. Even if the only ones who could see her were the humans carrying her across, who daren’t even look at her.

There was a coolness about her as she stood watching the sun sink away, as if it did so only to taunt her. Her elven guards were lingering behind at a respectable distance from her, but she could feel the same unease in them as well. The elves depended on the light, needed it to live almost bodily. She felt slightly philosophical tonight. She realised that her people were both melancholy and pragmatist. They all felt the loss of light, but did not look forward to its return because they were secure in knowing it always would. It weighed on her mind that there was no anticipation in her people. They longer for what was past, instead of putting sight towards the future.

Perhaps it was why she found herself in this peculiar state of mind, knowing none of her kind would be able to relate to it. She was feeling this anticipation. She was on her way to be married, to a human. He was their king, Anrim Lethri. She did not know, now that she truly examined herself, how she felt about it. Of course she had seen the sense of it when the suggestion was brought to her, and had readily agreed to it. NoaAerial came from a long history of noble kings and queens, and was brought up with that knowledge. Her duty was to her people and their interests.

If he was to be human, his lifespan so much shorter than hers, then that would be so. But she did feel, betimes leading up to this moment, that she should be more passionate. It was not in the way of the elves to be such. They were pragmatic. Maybe unforgiving in their honesty, but always hospitable. Maybe proud, but always respective of others. She had never been accused of being cold, as her mother had been, but she felt as she was about to become part of human society, that she should be more passionate. It was their way.

She wondered if it would change her to live among them. She worried that she would equally as much as she worried that she would not. She felt that she could have those emotions, even if she had not before now. If was to be their queen, she had to be able to relate to them and they to her if she was going to be a good one. She had never had these thoughts before, but now that she was inching closer to their lands and a new life that she simply could not fathom, the questions remained no matter how much attention she gave to them.

What was expected of her from her own people, at least, she knew. She was the first of her kind to return to the human lands for good. She would become their foothold where humanity was concerned. The rumours of their increasing tolerance of Rydden’s People had worried the elves. They knew what the dark and unnatural creatures were capable of. NoaAerial was a scholar. She had read the reports, done research herself, and had found for herself that the humans were increasingly blinded by Rydden’s People. If the humans and the elves would remain safe in their own world, they had to make sure the dark creatures would stay where they belonged, and could do no harm. The elves had decided to return, to give their aid, to make sure that light shone instead of darkness reigning. Rydden’s People had done to themselves what they had become, and the elves would ever prevent such a renewed making with fervour. Thus to strengthen the bond between their people, they had suggested to the human king an alliance by marriage. The human lands covered the largest bulk of the mainland, all of that which lay west of the mountains. Ennion, as it was called, bound all humans to the same king. There were some outer provinces under a slightly autonomous control still, but all were honour-bound and willing to answer to their liege lord, king Anrim Lethri of Ennion. Although she suspected she knew far more about her future husband and human politics than he of her and the elves, he had nevertheless immediately consented to their proposal of union.

A soft scraping of the throat took her from her reverie, turning around to find the human captain approaching her. He bowed to her. ‘I apologise for disturbing, your highness, but I was led to believe that you would appreciate to know of our progress. I expect we will be arriving in the Ennion harbour tomorrow early in the afternoon.’

NoaAerial smiled, inclining her head. ‘It is indeed very kind of you to tell me so. I have been anxiously awaiting our arrival.’ she answered cordially. The captain appeared unable to imagine someone of her tranquil race to experience anxiousness at all, but with his usual respectful demeanour he hid it well enough. It was not, after all, his fault that the humans’ emotions were so easily read from their faces. But then again, curiously enough, nor did they seem to mind that flaw at all. They were a strange people to her eyes, more so in the small differences than the large.

She frowned as she saw something on the horizon that hadn’t been there before. She tried to make it out, realising it was another ship. A dark ship, like a black stain coming nearer in the falling darkness, now that it was almost completely night. She did not know why she thought that all of a sudden. Just that the ship felt ominous to her, like a thunderstorm threatening a sunlight day.

She startled at a sharp screeching sound, made by a whistle. She turned around to find that the crew spurting into action with a startling speed. At first she could not find out what, if there even was one, the goal of it was. But in the apparent chaos the sharp lines of long practised order appeared and she realised they were taking up battle positions. Fear stirred her heart. Before she knew it, the captain of her elven guard appeared at her elbow. ‘Your highness, you must go inside now, please.’ Although he phrased it as a suggestion, from Eshamon Eve’tean she knew it was not.

He was not a man whose advice was to be taken lightly. As her people were inclined to say, once Eshamon Eve’tean was moved to open his mouth, sense left it. He ushered her to the door leading inside. She looked over her shoulder to look at the dark ship again, now obviously closer to them, and that same shudder ran across her spine again. ‘What is happening?’ she asked, having no desire to stay outside if those better suited than her to make that assessment, thought it unsafe.

‘It is precaution at this point, your highness, we can assume no more.’

‘What sort of ship is it?’ NoaAerial repeated her question, not inclined to let go until she had gotten the answer she had asked for.

‘Rydden.’ Eshamon Eve’tean answered, stone-faced.

She paled. He bowed his head as if to apologise to utter the profanity enclosed in those words to a person of her birth, and conducted her into the bowels of the ship. Their retreat to the safety of her hut was secured by the other elves in her guard, even though the ship was not yet even within hauling distance. They set up positions outside and inside her hut, leaving the humans to defend their ship. Of course, they were guards, trained to protect one charge in close quarters, not battle on sea vessels.

NoaAerial was unsure of how to handle herself when the door locked and her guards positioned themselves. As she found herself lacking purpose in following their example, she realised that there was absolutely nothing she could – or even must – do. She had to sit down and wait. It did not feel right, but there was not an alternative. If Rydden’s People boarded, it was because she was their purpose. They would either want something with her, or desire to kill her. She hopefully assumed it was the former, and in that case she would start from a better vantage point if she cooperated.

She had to be realistic. She had been trapped on this ship from the moment she had come aboard. The windows of her hut could not be opened and even if that was not the case, there was nowhere to run for. There was no place to hide that would not eventually be found and she doubted that the ship would go into a harbour before she was. She had not been trained in the fighting arts and she had no doubt she would be grossly outnumbered when they got past her well trained escort of guards. She would fight, she assumed, unskilled and all, but it would be pointless. Counter-productive even. NoaAerial found the powerlessness of her situation… Perhaps it was due to her earlier thoughts of undertaking the task of life among humans, adapting to their alien ways, but the fact that she could not think of a word to describe whatever it was that was stirring her, made her feel off-balance. She was afraid, she admitted silently to herself.

As the fighting sounds that had been right outside her door suddenly quieted – a violent silence that was followed by the loud pounding of the wooden door being forced – she jumped up from her seat despite her thoughts, ready to defend herself. Two remaining members of her guard rushed at the created hole to block it, and Eshamon Eve’tean positioned himself right in front of her, cutting off her line of sight.

‘Your highness, be ready to move quickly at my command.’ the elven captain told her. She suppressed asking what good it would do and where to, but once again she was not the expert on their situation, and this was not the right time for a debate or an explanation. So she deferred to his experience, keeping herself focused and ready. The thought that she should have been conferring this with him beforehand, when she was sitting down and doing nothing except waiting, ran through her mind.

Her elven guard was pushed back and members of Rydden’s People entered her hut, which seemed a lot smaller now. NoaAerial backed away instinctively, closer towards the wall. Eshamon Eve’tean guided his team to let Rydden’s People in, and engaging them away from the door. Once the way was sufficiently clear, he turned his head to NoaAerial. She responded to that faintest of signals by hurrying along the created path that led clear to the door. She climbed through the hole where her door used to be and looked both ways, disoriented from the fighting. She went towards the outer deck, instinctively choosing the open air over hiding deeper within the ship.

Behind her she could hear the very real sounds of fighting, and she realised there was no one left to protect her at her side, she was alone if she encountered another of the enemy. Eshamon Eve’tean had sacrificed immediate safety for an opportunity to achieve the greater one by ending the fight with her safely out of harm’s way. For as soon as they got hold of her, the battle would be over, and not in the elves’ favour. Behind the door she was going for, she could hear noise and scraping, and she stopped in her tracks. Quickly she tried a door on her right and when she found it opening, hurried through it. She closed the door as quickly and quietly as she could, locked it and stepped away. She did not take her eyes off the door, and when no other sounds but those of the continued fighting added to the sounds, she began to relax slightly.

She was in an unoccupied passenger room not unlike her own, only smaller. The linen for the unmade bed laid neatly folded in the cupboard, together with the same cutlery, silver platter and ceramic washing bowl that had been prettily put out in hers. She ran silk gloved finger over the cutlery. Silver could seriously wound Rydden’s People; it was one of the ways with which the humans had been able to drive them out of their lands. But what good, objectively, would a dinner knife do her? It had a blunted tip and was small. She could easily miss when trying to strike a moving target, and holding on to it for longer than a minute would be very difficult against trained men who were now busy defeating the humans and her elven guard.

Behind her a determined crash hit the door. On instinct, she grabbed the silver platter by the cloth laying over it, shaking. For all she had accepted her limitations, capabilities of defence and her better chances with cooperation, she simply could not sit down and wait until they grabbed her. She surprised herself with her own courage when she moved closer to the door, positioning herself so that she could surprise the first person coming through that door. With however many they were, the doors were small in frame, and they could only enter individually through it, which would be to her advantage. Whatever good that would do in the end.

Accompanied by the sound of tearing wood, the door was smashed open. She gathered all her strength and swung the heavy silver platter at the first man coming in. He was tall, with long dark hair that fell straight, but he was slender still and had small shoulders. He was definitely not human. She was familiar with their physique, and when they were tall, they became bulky. The men had broader shoulders, the women more generous curves. This man looked remarkably elven, but somehow all wrong. The dark hair, the unbelievable speed and agility… it was unnatural. She hit as hard as she could, swinging the silver platter straight into his face.

He went down, a reaction she found a bit intense, but then she realised that he had cuts and abrasions on his face, probably from the fighting on deck. They healed from normal wounds fast, but it was not within minutes and it depended on how deep the original cuts had been. The silver had hit him right where he bled, coming in contact with the wound. She would not be so lucky with the next one, but she lifted up the platter nonetheless, backing away to have more room to wield it.

Behind the second one to come in, however, another man appeared. He laid his hand on the second one’s shoulder, who stepped to the side to let him through. The man stepped forward through the door into the hut, and showed a slight, amused smile around the corners of his mouth. He looked completely at ease, walking up almost leisurely. ‘I do like tenacity in a woman, but I don’t enjoy hurting one. So put down the silverware, princess, before I have to.’

Being sincerely offended by his use of ‘princess’ as an obvious endearment rather than a title, she straightened her back with no intention of backing down. At least she would have the chance to hit him with it too, which made for a satisfactory image. She had not ever imagined that she would possess such crassness, but something about his cool and self-assured arrogance antagonised her. ‘I will not.’ she said, deciding against better judgment. She found herself simply incapable of admitting defeat to such a person, who did not display even the simplest decency.

The man, so obvious a specimen of Rydden’s People – a vampire –, came up to her. He was quicker than she had anticipated and it belied his earlier leisure, but not as quickly as he was capable of. He ducked controlled as she swung the platter, and startled her as he grabbed her wrist, righting himself. He gave it a sharp tug that threw her off balance, and the platter fell clattering out of her hands and onto the floor.

‘No!’

He grabbed her chin and forced her eyes onto his, lifting it. She gasped when she looked into them. She felt compelled even without the mind tricks she knew vampires could perform. Instead of the dark eyes she knew all members of Rydden’s People had, his were the unique colour of melted gold, hinting towards brown. She had never even seen such a thing before. They, and he, were very dangerous. She had studied every race that lived on the same earth as the elves and although the elves too were capable of making suggestions, hard to ignore, to humans, it was nothing like the abrasive mind control the vampire sub race of Rydden’s People could perform.

As the rest of her kind, NoaAerial looked down on Rydden’s People and the vampires in particular. Not only because of their muddy and shady origins, of which she had never been able to find a single verifiable fact, but because they had no standards. She believed that with a greater power also came responsibility. The people inferior to you did not stand a chance if you were not integer. The humans were not capable of using their minds in such a manner and could be controlled. It was one of the reasons why she was crossing to form an alliance with them. Rydden’s People were in a perfect position to take absolute advantage, and they were unaware. The humans needed to be protected, since they were unable to protect themselves from the danger they had once again allowed in their lands. Although NoaAerial was intrigued by them and their nature, she had always viewed the humans as children. Too unevolved, too trusting. And she distrusted Rydden’s People in the same manner as her kind did, as a dangerous adversary. Once they were through with the humans, they would undoubtedly set their sights towards a bigger prize. It was no secret that Rydden’s People hated the elves in turn, and they had become too numerous. It would become a long and dragged out war that could destroy all of them. The elves had no choice but to return to an active role in this world. Thus, NoaAerial was sent as an ambassador, hopefully before it was too late. The elves fully believed in the freedom of choice, and as they would never take advantage of their disadvantage, neither would they sent a battalion to make the choice for them. NoaAerial would convince her future husband of the threat that Rydden’s People posed in the natural way; by showing the humans evidence.

But if the decision lay in the hands of this vampire, all that would end here. She and her people should have known that they would find out and an ambush would be laid, they should have planned for it. But they had been a peaceful race for too long, and had dwindled knowledge of the arts of war. It was why they would lose in battle to Rydden’s People, if it came to that. NoaAerial tried not to look into those eyes, but she saw them rimming with red when the vampire ordered her: ‘Stop fighting me.’

It took her a fraction of a second, but she realised nothing happened. Two possibilities ran through her mind. To continue fighting – and lose. Or to pretend and have another chance at cooperation. If he forced her not to fight, then that meant they were intent on kidnapping her, not killing her. If she continued fighting, they mind change their mind. She would not win, to that conclusion she kept coming back. And perhaps, maybe, it was possible to find an advantage in playing along.

So she ceased all resistance, forcing her muscles to relax and stand idle. She forced herself to keep looking into his eyes. One corner of his mouth curled up in a smile, while she was silently trying to understand why only humans were impervious to their compulsion. This vampire himself had not known for certain whether or not he could compel elves, considering his reaction now, and neither had she. There was no earlier encounter on document. Perhaps because the elves were capable of a slightly similar form, that their minds could not be forced because they were in control themselves of that part of their mind.

‘Come with me.’

He let go of her chin and stepped aside, making an almost polite and courteous gesture towards the door. She tried to keep her face as blank as possible, while walking towards the door and although her heart was beating violently in fear, she let herself be led outside. When she saw the bodies of dead human sailors and a section of her elven guard splayed across the wooden floors, she stopped cold. His hand closed painfully hard around her arm and he forced her to keep walking. When she nearly stumbled, he kept her upright with the same rigidness that bore into her flesh. NoaAerial realised in the silence that no one on the ship was left alive but her, and she started trembling.

The vampire who was holding her, and who seemed to be the one in charge, turned ever so slightly towards her when they reached the plank connecting the two ships. They had stopped before crossing, and he looked over her head at something else, but his quiet words were for her and her alone.

‘Do not do anything that you will regret, and believe me, you will. I am fully aware that I did not compel you, and I assume you did so in order to create for yourself an honourable way out, so you will not surprise me by making any sudden moves. It will only result in me hurting you. I do not want to do that, but I will not hesitate to force you across. Do you understand me?’

Shocked, her eyes met his, and she found him already having shifted his gaze to look directly at her. It was uncanny, those eyes, and the cold golden glare made her believe every word. She revisited her thoughts on that smile he had showed earlier. Had he believed for a moment it worked? Or had he simply laughed at her attempt to make him believe it? Another shudder went down her spine.

‘I do.’ she said.

His eyes warmed again as he said, contemplating: ‘You are an intriguing woman, very calculating.’ He did not let go of her arm as he stepped out of the way to let her go first. ‘Now, get on the damned ship.’

She did as she was ordered to, and he let go of her only when they reached the other ship. She was given a hand on the other side as she climbed on. Safely on the other side, she suddenly felt a rising surge of desire blow through her, and she backed up immediately, yanking her hand free. She realised that the woman who had grabbed her hand was a succubus. The woman grinned, turned around and went back to work preparing the ship for their voyage back with other Rydden’s People. NoaAerial could feel her heart pounding. She did not understand this race with its multiple subspecies and she was frightened of them.

‘Don’t worry, I saw that. There will be better discipline for the duration of your stay both here and in Rydden. We certainly would not want you to feel unwelcome.’ The vampire was back at her side and his hand closed around her arm again as he uttered his words with an inflated air of courtesy. He marched her inside, moving towards the bow and a chamber with large bolts on it. He opened the door and gave her a little push into the room with a more elaborate gesture than was actually necessary. She turned around at him and took no effort to hide the contempt from her face. His incessant need to be condescending at her expense angered her. He bowed mockingly.

‘Just sit tight now, princess. We will be in Rydden by tomorrow.’

She opened her mouth to finally address it, having reached her limit, but he had shut the door already. She was left with feeling frustrated, and emotionally off-balance as a result. There was no reason whatsoever except his own amusement to treat her in this manner. She might be a hostage, but she was also a princess of the royal line. Her people had always treated high born prisoners with respect and what she had seen from human history, they did as well. But then again, Rydden’s People seemed to always manage to do the exact opposite of the elven moral code.

NoaAerial looked around the room she was housed in. It was firmly secured and there was only a very small window that also had bolted bars. There was a thinly mattressed bed, a chair and a small desk. No paper or pen. Was she expected to do nothing but sit and wait until tomorrow evening?

She had no choice but to do exactly that.

She walked over to the chair and sat down. She looked around the room again and her eye fell on the small window. She felt slightly unwell because of the lack of sunlight it would allow come day. She pushed down the anxiety by keeping firmly in mind that it would only be for one day. Elves needed the sunlight, another reason why they distrusted the vampire subspecies more than the others of Rydden’s People, and it was only them who were bent on re-entering the human lands. The werewolves and succubi were content to stay where they had fled. NoaAerial saw the world in absolutes. Light meant good, and darkness may be a necessary part of life just as death was, but it was to be mastered, not embraced. As an elf, it was unnatural for her to revere darkness. She shuddered to think that these were the people that now held her life in their hands.

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