A warm wind blew through the trees around me, rustling the dead leaves with a sound like crumpled parchment. My whole attention remained fixed on the open arms of the fae before me. Ancel whinnied suddenly. The sound broke the spell and I blinked. What is wrong with me? I lurched backwards, quick as a spooked cat.
I stumbled on the stones beneath my feet. Catching at a low hanging branch, I felt the bark against my naked palm. Somehow, I managed to keep my feet. I stood there, staring at the two fae, my chest pumping up and down.
“Don’t… Don’t touch me.”
The fae – her specific species were known as moirae or Reapers – opened her arms wider.
“Brother.” She drew the word out, turning it into a moan.
“Don’t call me that!” My voice rose to a roar, panic colouring every inflection.
The moirae dropped her arms and turned her head, sharing a knowing glance with her sister – as if they were older siblings humouring me so as to better bring me round to their way of thinking. I felt my hackles rise. The look lasted a moment, then they turned and looked at me.
“What else should we call you, Brother?”
“Perhaps he doesn’t remember us.”
“It has been a long time.”
I looked from one to the other. Of course I remembered them. Aisa and Decima, the King’s two pet reapers. I especially remembered how that habit of sharing a sentence each used to drive me to distraction.
“What… What are you doing here?” I asked, trying to change the subject.
Aisa, the one who had tried to embrace me earlier on, sighed. “The Conclave has been called.”
“The King demands it.”
“Blood has been spilled.”
“And must be avenged.”
I frowned. A Conclave? I wracked my mind, casting back to the little time I had spent amongst the fae. A Conclave was…
“A… An assembly of fae? Here?”
The two looked at one another again, then turned back to me. “Assembly is an… adequate term.”
“We must gather to avenge the spilled blood.”
“So I gather. But why here?” From what I had learned in my time amongst them, most blood cases were tried by the King in the court at Fryr Ael Caerl. Of course, I had only witnessed one such case, and had been too busy pleading for my life at the time to note the details. “Why is the blood not being avenged in the Court?”
“The culprit fled.”
“He must be found.”
“He will be tracked.”
I felt disorientated following the back and forth between the two fae. It took me a moment to make sense of what they had said. Why would a fae flee to Caerlyons? I opened my mouth to ask the question, when the truth hit me. I almost choked.
“The culprit is mortal?”
Aisa bowed her head to me. “He is of the Wilting Kind.”
I was too shocked to react to the derogatory term. The implications were staggering. A mortal who had been left alive long enough to reach the Court of the Twinights was amazing enough. A mortal who had been able to get close enough to a fae to kill one was even more so. A mortal who had not only gotten away with murder, but had been able to flee the King’s wrath and get all the way back to Caerlyons was a miracle.
“He is an echo of a whisper,” Decima added, closing her eyes and smiling.
“We gather the whispers.”
“You gather the whispers.”
“You must come with us to the court.”
Like a cold bucket of water after a night of drinking, the words brought me crashing back to earth. How the hell had this conversation gotten so far off track? I looked up and as I had feared, both of the Reapers were looking at me expectantly. I shook my head.
“I can’t come with you. I told you back then. I won’t.”
“The whispers… They must be gathered.” The passion, the pain in her voice brought me up short.
“They must be returned.”
“Returned?” I asked. “Where?”
Again, Aisa stepped forward. She opened her mouth as if to explain, but before she could a haunting sound echoed through the trees, bouncing off branch and bark and trunk and stone. The deep lowing of a hunting horn, I could feel the sound in my very blood, stirring something in my core. I had heard the sound before, a hundred times, a thousand, echoing in the forests I had wandered so many years before. The call of the Wild Hunt was tempting.
Both Reapers turned away, faces raised as if soaking up the rays of the invisible sun, their eyes closed and smiles on their faces. The tone rose higher, the sound grew louder, then faded away. Both Reapers stayed that way for a few moments more, then they dropped their heads.
I spoke up, seeing an opportunity. “You should go.”
Aisa looked at me again. This time, though, she did not smile. Urgency soaked her words. “As long as you keep the whispers, you will be in danger.”
“They must be returned.”
She opened her arms, her hands clasping at the air. “Come with us, Brother.”
Decima followed her sister’s example, opening her arms and stepping towards me. “Join the Hunt.”
I took a step back, shaking my head. “I… No. Not now. I can’t.”
They had made this same offer so many times when I lived among them, begging me to join with them, to be taught by them. I couldn’t blame them – the two hands I kept hidden beneath my leather gloves had once belonged to their third sister, Nona.
Both of them allowed their arms to fall back. They shared that familiar smile again, tinged with a little sadness this time. They looked back at me, that smile still playing on their cracked lips even as their bodies began to fade.
“One day, Brother.”
Their forms faded into mist that wavered for a few moments, then vanished completely, leaving the echo of their whispers hanging in the heavy, afternoon air. I stood there for a moment, my eyes fixed on the spot where they had stood.
What had they meant? Why was I in danger? I shook my head, banishing the thoughts. I had been here too long already. Berating myself for a fool, I turned and scurried back to the safety of the Road. Moments later, I jumped astride Ancel and began riding for the end of the Woods.