The night was alive with great power. The sky was full of the chill energy of the late season, when fires lit the sky and burned the leaves crisp and brown. It was the flash of life, snuffed out and crackling raw as winter came close to claim it silent. Eaves was familiar with this feeling, the tightness in his chest, the prickling of his senses, the racing of his blood as night sang through him.
He had watched young and old alike come alive, flush rushing across their skin to glow warm, eyes alight and reflecting the mad ache of things that could only be felt and never fully understood. They were compelled, dancing in this power, kneeling in the dirt. Some were driven to the brink of madness, and some lifted further still by Siren’s call moaning through the restless wind. Not all humans were struck, but the ones with remnants of the old blood were destined to answer the call tonight.
As for the beings brimming with the same blood, ancient as the night and the moon that ruled it, they joined their voices in wild chorus to fill the wind with the madness that only All Hollows Eve could bring.
Wild. Raw. Insane. Each chill breath stung Eaves’ lungs and set him free. Each long stride brought him deeper into the dark forest and away from the structure and bars that only humans could create. Each movement undid him. His humanity unwound from him like a cloak, stripped him of his order beneath his well controlled glamours. He’d known this feeling many times in the safety of his studio with a brush in hand and a large assortments of colors laid out before him, but never within the forest. He had never been so brash to travel here when the Ancients were calling. Tricksters, thieves, death dealers; this was their hour. Among them, Eaves feared it would be his as well.
Eaves did not fear the Ancients in the way the humans he lived among did. He had no false delusions of them either, like the whimsical daydreamers that would skirt the edge of the trees, looking for adventure with a stray nymph. Their dangers and their treasures were as clear to him as the stars in the cloudless sky. He had no fascination or prejudice for them. Of the supernatural beings that he had met, all had gleamed his indifference from his aura as simply as one smelling a scent and let him be. Tonight, he found, was not to be the same.
It was not a full shock, given the way his heart was aflame as dark settled around him. Eaves had never walked the woods when the madness had been so close, thrumming in his veins, pulsing in his throat as if its fiery burn had taken over what his heart once was. Perhaps it had. There were very few of what Eaves was, killed before a chance to grow to his twenty some years and impressive physical strength. He had no one to ask if the madness was to be expected as he walked the woods. The one before him might know, but to reveal what Eaves was would be to signal for an undesired death.
The elf stood tall and willowy even though the well fitted armor he wore was undoubtedly heavy. Eyes the crisp gray of a clouded morning, he had taken one shrewd look at Eaves from behind the torch he held in hand and had seen something no one else had noticed of the young man in his years of walking the Earth. With the intricate crest of the Autumn Guard flickering gold on his sword and chest plate, the sixth sense must have been trained in the elf the same way a child learns mathematics. Looking at Eaves, the elf could see numbers were not adding up.
“Your business,” the elf demanded with all the affluence of the high bloods speaking to dust that had ended up on their robes. The tone always made Eaves bristle, but tonight was not the time to indulge in mockery and most likely a scuffle with an empowered beanpole. Granted, Eaves was nearly the same impressive height but his time around the short humans had created a familiar vision of society he was hard pressed to replace with lanky, graceful snobs with familiar wildness in their eyes.
Honesty was Eaves’s nature, but annoyance and the sing of fire in his veins made him abrupt. “I have no business here. I am passing through.”
Cracking his long, dark braid forward, the elf glowered, piercing eyes accessing, judging. “None pass through Aurian, mortal. It is the forest’s choice whether to give you passage and tonight she is intent on celebration. You’ve chosen a poor time for travel. I suggest you return the way you came and wait it out like the rest of your kind.”
Eaves did not step back at the prodding of the elf, the tall creature’s mouth hardening at the realization that his intimidation had fallen short. The human traveler seemed more a wild jackal than a man, dressed in black with shoulder length dark curls unruly and windswept and a week’s worth of stubble rough on his jaw. He was built human, wide shoulders and thick thighs lacking the compact grace of the elves, even for such a tall stature, but there was something wrong about him. Something that made the elf consider the ease of which it would be to just slew the man before him now. The human’s eyes were light as sky, nearly winter’s color, and not belonging in any mortal’s face.
“Why have you come here tonight? Your dress is not worthy of our festival,” the elf said, taking in the mud stained traveling cloak, frayed boots, and unruly hair the man wore. “Or is it your intent to steal from the Autumn Prince when he will be preoccupied with merriment and ceremony? I am of his guard and will rightfully kill you now, if warranted.”
Eaves considered himself a cautious person, keeping his head down and mouth shut when needed. Elves were dangerous, and the one before him guarded a prince, making him deadly. Of course, the guard could have just run him through on principle alone, so in that regard, Eaves found him to be at the very least patient. Eaves would show similar restraint, even with the wind whirling his blood into a frenzy of wild energy.
Looking the guard in the eye, Eaves tried again. “I am passing through to Warden’s Path. Nothing more. I have no interest in your autumn festivals, only to be on my way. My sister has fallen ill and needs my assistance.”
Leaves rattled under the elf’s soft shoes, too slow to blow free from the swift predator. And predator he was for Eaves recognized his ilk deep within the gaze that was currently trying to deduce his motives. Elves were not all flowers and gentleness. The Autumn Guard especially were known for their wild ruthlessness, matched only by the frozen mercy of the Winter Blade. Eaves birth had fallen on the cusp of the two destructive seasons, autumn full of fire and passion, and winter an all encompassing eternity of cruelty. If Eaves had been of the elves, he would have been cast into the ether with the other wild entities that had no symbol to identify them, too raw for the complexities that life called for. Elves were not beings to be trifled with.
Eaves knew the elf noticed something in him but not what. Hopefully it would remain that way. He had never faced the Autumn Guard but he suspected that they would be the ones to kill him if he was recognized for what he truly was.
“You carry no medicine,” the elf finally pointed out, not exactly happy to allow the man passage. The festival always drew the worst of trouble as it was, and he did not like the idea of stray humans mucking up their elaborate ceremonies.
Eaves saw that he was winning and pushed his voice into something nearly warm. “I’m afraid I have little skill in healing. My brother-in-law has requested me because there is none other with the time to look after the children while he’s away gathering the last harvest. Time is essential, as I’m sure you understand. Winter is fast coming and the crops will be ruined if he cannot get to them.”
Somehow the circumstances only aroused more suspicion from the guard. “What sort of man are you, being called to care for children? Your wife should be at your side. Or are all your women prone to sickness? If that is the case, you should be with her, and not risking your life on such a night.”
“I am the sort of man that has no wife, nor wish for one,” Eaves snapped, raising his chin defiantly while internally cursing his temper. He was not himself tonight, tongue included. The elf met his glare, understanding flashing over his face before quickly disappearing within his emotionless expression. Eaves didn’t know, nor did he care to know, what elves thought of men laying with men. It was taboo enough among humans outside of his village, and he should have just kept his mouth shut.
“My sister is not prone to illness,” Eaves continued, hoping to change the subject to something less likely to get him slayed. “She is a hearty woman with a strong mind. Her family depends on her and I love her dearly. Nannying and weatherproofing their estate is hardly a lot to ask, even with the three days journey on foot. A journey I would like to continue,” he added tightly.
Eying him head to toe again, the elf responded, not in any way Eaves had expected. “I know a woman… a human. She is very delicate compared to my kind, and quick to dismiss my concerns.”
Realizing the elf was looking for some sort of assurance of his lady love, Eaves offered it reluctantly. He knew firsthand the tragedies that came from elves mating with humans, and had no interest in encouraging such a union. “We are a varied species. My sister looks nearly as fragile as a spring bloom, but she is still resilient and stubbornly willful.”
The bright moonlight revealed a softening of the elf’s features, although not completely lax. His guard was always up, which was why he was in the profession he was. “This is good. My love has been very quiet lately, the winter coming quickly. I fear her neighbors have been giving her grief for knowing me.”
Happy that the elf had finally lowered the hand that held his sword, Eaves was blunt. “I have heard of the results of such unions, usually with the woman cast out from her home and village, exiled out of fear and ignorance. Further East they will kill any woman known to have lain with an elf. Any resulting child does not last long.”
“Yes, I have heard of this too.” The elf worried his lip, his eyes darkening as shadows danced across his fierce features. “I want to ask her to join me and my people. She wishes for a child but my people frown on such an entity. I fear she will choose against it.”
Eaves almost asked if the elf would destroy any child he sired, human or not, but kept himself in check. “Get her a dog,” he said flatly, stepping smoothly around the tall intrusion. He had no head for conversation tonight, worry and the energy in the air making him want to move, and roar, and nothing more. The line of conversation was too personal and dangerous to indulge in anyways.
“A small beast to care for… That may work.” Eyes focusing, the guard found the man had gone. He whirled, a grimace on his face. “Hold! We have yet to decide the conditions of your travel.”
Sighing, Eaves paused and turned back. “What conditions would those be, good elf?” He asked with frustration clear in his voice.
“You are not to leave the main road or socialize with any of those attending the festivals, unless they have sought you out specifically.”
Eaves fought down a snort. As if he’d want to socialize with any of them! “Anything else?”
“Yes.” The elf’s eyes narrowed at the tone of disrespect. “I am called Gilroy. If you run across another of my crest, inform them that I have allowed you passage. If you run across any that are of a crest, but not of the Autumn Guard, I suggest you continue to run, for your life will certainly be forfeit.”
Taking a long assessing look at the brown haired, gray-eyed fae who looked to quietly manifest the madness singing in his own body, Eaves internally shivered at the implications. Elves battling for territory was not a place anyone wanted to be found in, especially when the battle would be with the oncoming Winter Blade. “I’ll keep that in mind. Now if you’ll excuse me.” He bowed briefly to the elf and turned on his heel, making his way down the path before another could try and stop him.
“Stay to the left fork, mortal,” the elf called as Eaves disappeared into the darkness.
Gilroy stared long into the dark, listening for sounds that did not come. The mortal was more a specter than a man, but he had not discerned any ill will. His instincts warned of the odd appearance of a human traveling alone on this of all nights with no weapon or power to protect him that could be seen. Only a fool would be so blithe, and the brief conversation had led Gilroy to believe the man was hardly dim witted. He hoped he would not find himself regretting his decision to let the stranger pass.