Chapter Six: Mettle

FYNTOLOMAH’S Alehouse sat deep beneath the market district, and though it had a bright yellow door, it was not easy to find. Anyone who visited it for the first time had been led there, or they chanced upon it after following a maze of narrow streets. Windowless and damp, the space was lit only by the bluish glow of enchanted lamps. The effect made its patrons look surreal, like underwater spirits.

Old Fyn, an ancient elf, sat in the corner each night, keeping an eye on the crowd of transient merchants. Trouble rarely broke out, in large part due to the fact that he prohibited magic. Spells did not mix well with drunkenness. Despite this rule, he still made a small fortune off the cheap ale. At least, that was what he claimed kept him in business. Callum had watched the old elf make quiet deals with merchants for many years. In exchange for not ousting Fyn’s questionable operation, the Valor enjoyed as much free ale as he desired.

“Look at that,” Callum said, tipping his mug toward Fyn’s corner. “Does that look like Elder Kavyn to you?”

Beside him sat Cyn, the Yewolyn who had carried Pyri to the healing wards after the attack in the Hy Borea. One of the youngest Yewolyns, Cyn had few marks to boast, but his extraordinary swordsmanship had helped him earn his elk cloak two years prior. Charming and cavalier, he loved entertaining dren women with grandiose stories.

“That’s a couple of old elves, but that’s no Elder Kavyn,” Cyn said, having leaned across the table for a better view.

“No?” Frothing ale sloshed over the rim of Callum’s mug as he spoke. “The resemblance is there—the beard! Look at it. Hanging like a snake.”

“Plenty of elves braid their beard like that.”

They stared hard at the elf who sat across from Fyn. His back was turned to them, and all they could make out was a braided cord of hair tossed over his shoulder. Fyn slid the mysterious elf a package beneath the table.

“Can’t be him,” Cyn concluded. “You think Elder Kavyn would come to a place like this?”

“No! You’re right. The smell alone would scare him off, and if that didn’t do the trick, Fyn’s manners would.”

The two Yewolyns roared with laughter. As they settled back into their drunken ramblings, Cyn looked up to see Alish drifting toward them. “Here she comes,” he said, not bothering to hide his words from her. “Alish, lover of all!”

“All but you.” Quick to defend his friend and brother-in-arms, Callum got to his feet. “Off with you, Alish! We’ll have none of you and you none of us!”

She sat down across from the two all the same. “I’m not here for you,” she said even as she gave Cyn a sly wink. “I’ve only come to hear what happened in the Hy Borea.”

Tempted by an audience, Cyn snapped his mug back onto the table. “Ah, you’ve heard rumors, have you?”

“I’ve heard Pyri is in grave shape,” she said, lowering her voice. “And I heard Tyg turned a human boy into a—what was it?”

“A brush pig! It was incredible, really. It was the most graceful transformation I have ever witnessed, more so than …” Cyn’s words trailed off. Tyg stood at the end of the table with her arms crossed and head cocked to one side, daring him to go on.

“Right,” Callum said and sat himself back down. “Have a drink, my love.”

“You must be pleased,” said Alish with narrowed eyes. “A bound human will be so nice to have around the house.”

Frowning, Tyg sat down next to Callum and took hold of his mug. Then, unceremoniously, she downed the whole thing. Cyn watched with wide eyes as the Magus wiped her mouth on her sleeve.

“Leave, Alish. I’m in no mood for your gossip,” Tyg said.

For once, the dren woman had the good sense not to argue. “Another time, boys,” she said, biting her bottom lip as she eyed Cyn.

Once she had swaggered off, Callum turned to his wife. “She’s right, you know. I don’t think either of us care for housework. Might be nice to have the dust—dusted?”

“You’re drunk,” she said. “And Alish is an idiot.”

“This may be so, but you’re the one who stopped me from declining our queen’s gracious offer.”

“Yes, with good reason. When I met with her in the conservatory, she asked that I watch over the girl.” Tyg rubbed at her forehead as if she endured a terrible headache. “Apparently, she had a dream about this little Nor you dragged back to Tirnan.”

Cyn leaned across the table. “Callum mentioned the queen has been babbling nonsense.”

“It would seem so,” said Tyg. “She spends more time dreaming than she does governing, and then there’s Aygriel. I fear her influence. Innes listens to her without question. Mark my words, she will be trouble when the queen crosses.”

“Cree’s will is all that matters,” said Callum. “Aygriel is wise enough to know that.”

“Would Cree have willed such a weak ruler as Innes?” Tyg’s voice became venomous. “The elemental fae have been left unchecked, and there is talk of the outlying sylvn clans gathering their strength, attacking merchants, and stealing from our villages. This is no time to dwell on such ridiculous notions of peace. Innes has left the farthest reaches of Mysanhal unguarded while we run petty errands. We should be securing our borders, not overseeing the resettlement of the Cedar Clan.”

“You are too hungry for battle, my dear. This peace is welcome. The fae of Mysanhal are glad for it. It is diplomacy that has strengthened Mysanhal, not war,” said Callum.

Her fingers curled tightly around the empty mug, and her words came out clipped. “The fae of Mysanhal have grown ignorant. The sylv have never wished for peace. Have you forgotten why King Odharan began the war?”

Callum sighed. “I haven’t forgotten at all, but the sylv have no strength left. Their country was laid to waste. Their god is dead. The outlying clans are starving, and they have no one to blame but themselves. It takes but a few Yewolyn mages to put them back in place.” He spoke with unyielding calm even as his wife seethed. “Besides, the smart ones have pledged their fealty to Mysanhal and live good lives within our borders. There is no reason to provoke them.”

Tyg shook her head and went on, her voice rising. “I don’t think they would agree. They live in filth. Eventually, the sylv will grow restless. The queen might have allowed them into Mysanhal, but she has done little to ensure their loyalty.”

“We have given them refuge.”

“Refuge from what?”

“The Wastelands, of course.”

We created the Wastelands. We have given them refuge from us! We should have finished what we started, but no, Innes ended the war prematurely. Because of her, the sylv are still a threat. They should have been stamped out along with their god.”

“Tyg, my love,” said Callum with a nervous laugh. Her raised voice had turned a few heads.

Cyn lifted his mug and downed the rest of his ale in a few gulps. Then, he slammed it against the table and said, “Enough of this. It’s no time for such grim discussion. Let us celebrate our return!”

Tyg’s stony expression did not falter, and Callum reached out to touch her arm. “You are wise to be concerned,” he said. “Your counsel has always been heard. If a greater threat arises, our Yewolyns will be there to meet it. Let us discuss these matters tomorrow, though.”

“Very well,” she said, pulling her arm away. “Tomorrow.”

Talk of politics and old enemies quickly faded into reminiscing. By the time they emptied their last mugs, all three could barely walk straight. Even Tyg’s mood had lightened. They leaned into each other as they made their way along a cobbled road, not caring if they woke everyone up with their boisterous chatter.

Once they turned a corner, they parted ways. Callum wrapped his arm around Tyg’s waist and said, “You’re almost too sweet when you’ve had this much.”

“Too sweet?” Her head wobbled back with a laugh. “How could I be too sweet?”

“I’m used to my wife’s sharp tongue is all.”

She jabbed at his side. “I’ll show you a sharp tongue.”

The playful threat reminded him of the early days of their courtship and how he did in fact love her once, in the silly, thoughtless way a young dren would. He stopped in front of their home. “Truly, if you don’t wish to have a human in our house I—”

“You said it yourself. The dust needs dusting.” She unlocked the door with a spell. “The girl will be useful.”

Callum heard the rush of feet retreating down the hallway as they stepped inside. Perhaps the girl had some fear in her after all. Amused, he called for her, eager to test out the name. “Ora! Draw us a bath.”

“What? A bath?” Tyg rubbed at her forehead. “It’s late, Callum.”

“That hardly matters. A bath sounds refreshing. And perhaps you can show me that sharp tongue while we’re at it.”

As Ora crept back down the hallway, Tyg shrugged away, once again her normal, bristly self. In no mood for his drunken, boyish romance, she headed for the stairs. “I’m going to sleep. No need to draw a bath, Ora.”

Before the girl could return to the spare room, Callum beckoned for her. “Come. Get me some wine,” he said.

She went to the kitchen and began to rummage around. While he waited, he bent before the hearth and used a spell to light the fire. Then, he slid down onto the rug and slouched against the chaise to watch the flames. The pleasant buzz of ale made his body feel numb, and the warmth of the fire lulled him. He felt his eyes growing heavy, but then he heard soft footsteps approaching. In his stupor, he had almost forgotten about the girl.

Ora crouched beside him and held out the bottle. With her other hand, she had bunched up part of her layered skirt. “I couldn’t find a cup,” she said.

“No matter.” He ignored the wine and lifted her chin just as he had in the Great Hall. “You are pretty, especially for a human.”

“Do not touch me,” she said between clenched teeth.

“You have—what’s the Norrish word? Mettle?” He let go of her chin and traced the pearly-white scar on his forehead with his thumb. “Quite a lot of blood for nothing, don’t you think?”

She set the wine beside him but did not stand back up. “What would you have done?”

“I would have made sure my enemy was dead.”

“Would you bring your enemy into your home?” she asked, voice quiet. The change in tone made Callum pause.

Firelight and disdain danced in her black eyes. He knew her intention before she ever moved. Still, the girl was swift. She drew back the hand she had been holding her skirt with, and he saw metal. As she drove the knife toward his chest, Callum caught her wrist. In an instant, he had twisted the blade against her throat.

“Oh, you are fearless. If you were born fae, I’d make a Yewolyn of you,” he mused. “Do you have any idea how many battles I’ve seen?”

“It doesn’t matter. If I had a silver blade, all those battles would mean nothing.”

“I have lived five of your human lifetimes, but I have not spent that time learning spells. No, that’s Tyg. I prefer to fight without relying on magic, so if you think silver frightens me, you are mistaken. And if you think a—” He gave a short laugh and pressed the knife harder against her throat. “A dull blade like this is your best weapon against a Yewolyn, you are a fool.”

“You’re right,” she said, lifting her chin away from the cold metal. “It is dull.”

Half-grinning, he withdrew the knife. She scrambled back from him at once. “No wonder the queen has Tyg looking after you. You’re a fiendish little thing.”

She glared in answer.

“Don’t look so angry. There is no finer place in all the Ether than Mysanhal.”

“The Ether?” she asked.

“Yes, the Ether. Where else would our realms exist? Or did you think we fae lived in the same world, cowering in the shadows? You humans really do astound me with your ignorance.” He got to his feet and trudged toward the stairs. When he reached the banister, he paused. “And Ora … no more knives. Dull or not.”

Sarah Day ©2021