Prologue: Cairon

The announcement had been made shortly before the noon bells; his Royal Highness, Prince Tristan was to be married. The royal heir, infamous for his disinterest of all aspects of courtly life away from the training yards or the library, was engaged following the balls arranged in his honour. If the general populace was surprised at such behaviour from the young man who was well-known for his quiet and studious nature, then those from well-born families were doubly so, for having been present at the three balls in question, they had all remained unaware of any one particular maiden catching the Prince's eye. In fact, the vast majority had been unable to recall any show of interest or involvement on the Prince's part at all, comparing amongst themselves vague recollections of seeing the royal heir walking alone through the expanse of rose gardens or watching the revelry from the vantage point of his throne. Yet at some point the Prince must have met the woman of his dreams, although obviously far from the eyes of the court.

The noon bells did eventually chime to announce the commencing of the afternoon's work, yet their reverberating tones were all but ignored in favour of further analysis of the momentous revelation. More details were gradually brought to light. The lucky lady in question was not strictly of noble birth and had been working as a household drudge in the house of her stepmother. How she had managed to make her way into the palace for not one, but all three dances was a subject of great debate amongst the young men of the kingdom as they compared possible weak points in the security that surrounded the graceful columns and towers that arched high above the rest of the skyline. The women of the city were more interested in the girl herself, as they gathered in small huddles to discuss the concept of simply waking one day to find oneself in such an elevated position. Small children ducked and played between the gathered cotton skirts while their mothers and minders wondered over the qualities that the Prince must have seen in the girl to fall so suddenly and deeply in love. Those with higher stations in society remarked snidely about the demands of etiquette a royal position would require and the likelihood of a common maid being able to behave as required. The oldest of the populace simply sat in the many taverns and inns and reflected on the impending coronation the Prince's marriage would bring at long last.

And through all the throngs and crowds of people Cairon slipped by unnoticed. In all the bustle caused by the announcement, no one spared a second glance at the pale and slender man who hurried from shadow to shadow. And Cairon was extremely grateful for that fact. Pausing in a narrow alleyway between two rows of houses so high and close together that the upper storeys all but blocked any hint of daylight, the youth slumped against a set of wooden barrels and tried to catch his breath. The cobblestones beneath him were cold and somewhat damp, causing Cairon to rise to his knees and peer into the barrels behind them. Upon finding them filled with rainwater, he vigorously splashed at his face before scooping the clear liquid up in cupped hands to drink at thirstily. Footsteps approaching from the other end of the passage caused the youth to freeze before looking in the direction of the ringing footfalls. As the two figures appeared, deep in conversation with the other, Cairon spun to back behind the two barrels and sank to a huddled position, no doubt trying to blend in amongst the shadows. He wrapped his arms around his head and squeezed his eyes shut as the clattering tones indicated the strangers' approach.

"…thing to identify her of course. So when he found out that her foot fitted the shoe, he knew she was his bride."

"Can't be that unusual, to have a foot of a certain size though, can it? How did he know it was her and not one of half a dozen other girls with small feet?"

"Specially enchanted shoes from what I hear. Plus she had the other half of the pair."

The two men passed, their voices and footsteps gradually fading into little more than echoes. Still Cairon remained unmoving save to tighten his arms around his thin frame in an effort to still the shudders that ran through his body. When he finally raised his head to look down the alley, his face was drawn and pale.

Rising again to his feet, the youth stood swaying slightly, his face pinched in indecision. He had to leave the city as soon as possible, he told himself. He couldn't afford to linger any longer, hiding away and waiting to be found. If he could pull himself together for long enough to get some distance away, he had a fair chance of making it to the border. But cowering in back alleys was going to get him nowhere. Visibly coming to a decision, the youth began to walk towards the main thoroughfare at the end of the alley. After a few steps, he suddenly froze again, his hands rising to his face as his fingers registered the lingering traces of water on his skin. Cairon swore softly.

Washed clean of the build up of dirt and grime his face had previously sported, the youth's striking features clearly set him apart from the rest of the city's inhabitants. His skin was of a shade so pale it would have resembled a deathly pallor were it not for the unearthly glow that instead made his flawless complexion all but luminous. Combined with his long ebony hair that seemed to shine with purple highlights the colour of his eyes and the Fae aspect of his nature was impossible to ignore.

Even if the average pedestrian was unaware of exactly what his colouring indicated, Cairon knew his appearance would be remembered thereby making his movements easy to track for anyone who might be looking for him. And the Fae had little doubt in his mind that sooner or later people would indeed be tracing his movements and trying to work out exactly where he'd managed to escape to. Cairon narrowed his eyes as his hands nervously clenched and unclenched. A simple glamour would solve all his problems and allow him to blend into the crowds, but he couldn't cast any magic. It would almost certainly be noticed by the very same higher powers he was trying to avoid and simply bring them down on his head all the faster.

Visibly annoyed at himself, Cairon fisted his hands in his hair as he tried to gather his thoughts together for long enough to come up with some kind of plan. Magic was out of the question and a quick glance at the slither of sky visible above him confirmed that dusk and the additional cover of darkness was a long time away. Yet his absence was bound to be discovered soon, if it hadn't already, and remaining where he was would only make things easier for anyone who would come looking for him. Plus a message would soon work its way to the guards at the city entrance and then he'd have next to no chance of slipping out unnoticed. If Cairon weren't so concerned about giving himself away, he would have yelled his frustration. Damned if he didn't go straight from one mess to another.

"Focus, you worthless lump; focus," Cairon murmured to himself. Okay, so passing unnoticed amongst the crowds that filled the main routes out of the city wasn't going to work. That also meant that if he wanted to get past the impressive walls that circled the capital, he needed to either go over or under them. In other words; the rooftops or the sewers.

Just the thought of voluntarily heading underground made the Fae shudder in distaste. If the suffocating sense of being buried alive didn't drive him nuts, then the smell and gloom would render his sense of direction all but useless. And that was even before he took the iron ladder rungs and manhole covers into consideration. It might be the last route anyone tracking a Fae would think to check, but he honestly didn't think he was up to it.

That left the rooftops. Cairon paused to consider the option more fully. He was certainly agile enough to climb up without any great strain and running across the slanting roofs of slate and clay tiles would be child's play to anyone with a Fae's grace and balance. And who down on the streets below would think to watch the rooftops for moving shadows when there were pickpockets, vendors and other distractions at street level? Providing he found a section of wall far enough away from the main trade routes in and out of the city, dropping back down to ground level should be easy enough. His only concern was the arching spires of the palace towers. From their vantage point, his flight would be clearly visible and should someone be watching, it would be only too easy to conclude who he was and where he was headed. Plus the royal archers had extremely good range on their bows and an iron-tipped arrow wasn't something he'd recover from easily – even if it missed anything vital. Cairon scowled in brief indecision before heading towards the nearest drainpipe. He'd take the risk of arrows over the city's bowels any day of the week. Having been kept away from fresh air for so long, he wasn't just going to head back underground.

The climb would have appeared unnaturally fast and easy to mortal eyes, but Cairon was well aware of the fatigue in his limbs and general weakness. Silently cursing his current condition and the situation that had caused it once again, Cairon hauled himself onto the sloping surface and paused for a moment, bent almost double, as he caught his breath once again and tried to find his balance. His hands clenched once again in frustration as he wobbled slightly for a moment or two before he straightened slightly with visible effort.

"Look at yourself, what kind of Fae are you?" Cairon snorted in disgust. He raised his gaze to scan the network of rooftops as he mentally plotted a path to where the impressive city wall could be seen. Then he sprang into a light and nimble sprint across the rooftops, remaining hidden by the lengthening afternoon shadows when he could. It was probably unnecessary, after all there would be very few people actively seeking him, and only one of them would actually know the exact reason why he would not be allowed to leave the city, but underestimating the danger mortals posed him had got Cairon into this mess in the first place and he wasn't going to fall victim to that again.

Crossing the expanse between him and the city wall took less time than the Fae had feared and as he ducked between a chimney and bisecting rooftop, he took the opportunity to study the human traffic below him. It seemed the day's earlier announcement had caused much excitement within the walls, and the flow of people was mainly inwards as more learnt of the upcoming wedding and scrambled to hear more details or catch sight of the bride-to-be before the day itself. The guards at the gate didn't seem overly concerned with examining the crowds, but Cairon was pretty confident that the sight of him casually meandering past would raise a few eyebrows. Fae weren't a common sight for mortals anymore and Cairon didn't want to risk mixing too closely with mortals until he had some way of disguising his nature at least partly.

The shadows lengthened further as Cairon remained hidden in his vantage point. Finally his nerves started to get the better of him and the youth all but forced himself onto the wall's broad expanse. If he didn't move now, he'd stay sat there until it would be too late to get anywhere. With that thought foremost in his mind, Cairon crept along the city wall, looking for a suitable place to drop down to the other side. He finally found a likely spot where a nearby forest all but brushed against the stone walls and sprang down to land amongst the branches.

Or at least that's what he'd intended. Instead a sudden rush of light-headedness made the Fae fumble for a branch as he fell. Cairon felt the wooden bough brush against his fingers before he impacted against a lower branch, folding around the wood that hit his midsection and driving the air out of his lungs in a startled whoosh. His balance and control now lost, Cairon crashed noisily through the remaining foliage to land heavily on his side.

The Fae winced at the throbbing pain in the wrist that was currently crushed underneath him and tried to shift his weight away from the limb. Even this amount of movement caused his vision to momentarily flash white and the youth froze, trying to regulate his breathing and not pass out. Gritting his teeth, Cairon rose to his knees, taking care not to jog or move his damaged wrist. Once kneeling he reached out with his good hand to brace himself against the nearest tree trunk as he levered himself to his feet. Then, cradling his wrist against his body, the Fae shakily set out amongst the trees. He had a great deal of distance to cover before he'd consider himself safe. And even then, the Fae had no idea what he could do next to get himself out of the trouble he was in.

He hadn't gone far when the idea to disguise his skin occurred to him. Cairon slumped to his knees and scrabbled at the dirt with his one remaining good hand, rubbing it into his skin as best he could. With a covering layer of grime and dirt over his ethereal skin, Cairon was more confident that his complexion should go unnoticed as long as no one got to have too close a look. His eyes still posed a problem. The shade of violet was too strong to be passed as a particularly dark blue – as was the case with other members of the Fae. An unusual colour even amongst his own race, it was unheard of amongst mortals. Cairon scowled, the only method he knew was glamour magic, but it was still surely too dangerous to risk? He rose to his feet and accidentally jogged his injured wrist causing another flood of muffled cursing. Never mind a glamour, if he was going to risk some small spellwork, it would be to heal his wrist. At least that would speed his escape up a little.

Closing his eyes, Cairon began to focus on the power that he had worked so hard to suppress in recent days. In some subconscious part of his mind he felt it respond to his will, to begin to re-emerge and awaken within him. The next moment he was collapsed on the forest floor again, gasping for breath and waiting for both the pain to recede and his vision to return. Torn between screaming obscenities at all mankind or simply bursting into tears, Cairon levered himself to his knees and then rocked his weight back on his heels. Withdrawing his damaged wrist from its cradled position against his torso, Cairon gingerly gathered the material of the overlong cuff in the fingers of his free hand. Pulling his sleeve carefully back along his arm in an effort to avoid knocking the source of the pain yet again, Cairon's eyes hardened at the sight of the dull metal band that encircled the injured joint. While having arguably saved his wrist from a bad breakage in the fall, the iron would never let the injury heal. And using magic with it on was completely out of the question – the metal reacted to faerie magic strongly and would no doubt kill him faster than he could heal himself. The Fae sighed. He had to get the thing removed, but finding someone willing would be tricky. Apart from anything else, the metal band resembled nothing so much as a manacle as favoured by escapee prisoners and criminals. And while Cairon was unfortunately a member of the former group, being mistaken for one of the later would not be in his best interests.

He might have stayed there considering his options and using his conclusions as a good opportunity to mope for an indefinite amount of time had Cairon not heard the sound of approaching mortals. It had to be mortals, aside from the astronomical odds of actually meeting another Fae in the mortal realms by complete accident, the embarrassing amount of noise as the group of what sounded like three men trampled their way through the undergrowth would shame any self-respecting Fae into immediate hermitage. Cairon rose cautiously to his feet once more and began to stealthily trail the mortals in the hope of finding out just what humans were doing in this part of the forest at this time of day.

From the tone and content of their conversation, Cairon placed the three men as neither legitimate foresters nor members of the city guard. He wasn't absolutely sure, given his complete absence from the mortal world until a few months ago, but in his estimation, they were almost certainly bandits. Indeed, their conversation seemed mainly focused on the prospect of rich pickings as nobles and wealthy merchants from the surrounding area would start to stream towards the city as news about the engagement spread. The bandits would not be the only ones hoping to profit from the occasion it seemed. And if that was the case, then it seemed only fair that Cairon also play the situation to his best advantage.

Keeping track of the bandits' position via the noise they probably weren't even aware they were making, Cairon quickly circled the band of thieves so as to be in their direct approach. He then began to tromp heavily along the faint forest pathways and hoped he was making enough noise to rouse some attention.

It seemed that luck was with him, for the first time since who knew when. The low voices of the mortals abruptly fell silent, but rustling in the undergrowth and snapping twigs informed him that his presence had indeed been noted. Sure enough, Cairon soon found himself walking into a small forest clearing to find two men waiting for him and a third blocking the way he had arrived. Turning slowly Cairon widened his eyes and did his best to appear intimidated, but it seemed his acting skills weren't needed.

"Hey lads, look at this young thing. 'Ere; what's an 'igh-born lad such as yourself doing all alone in a place like this?"

"You want to watch yourself, delicate thing like you. 'Ow d'you expect to protect yourself from unsavoury elements, eh?"

"I reckon we ought to do you a favour, lad. Best hand over your valuables now and you won't have to worry about them being taken later on."

Cairon fought another inward burst of dislike for mortals and mankind in general before stammering out a reply. "I … but I don't have any valuables."

This was met with a collective hum of disapproval and much overly-dramatic shaking of heads. "Now there's no need to lie to us, lad. We're only trying to do you a favour."

Cairon fought the standard burst of fury that the questioning of his word always caused. Didn't mortals know that the Fae couldn't lie? If they could, then Cairon wouldn't be in a heap of trouble, facing down three soon-to-be-unpleasantly-surprised bandits with an injured wrist and wasting valuable fleeing time. Unable to control his expression enough to hide his anger, Cairon hoped it would pass as indignation as he lifted his chin. "Why would I be lying? Isn't it obvious that I don't have anything worth stealing?"

"Well why don't we have a look for ourselves then?" The bandits had been gradually closing in around Cairon and now he finally saw the first flash of steel. It would have undoubtedly scared the mortal victim, but Cairon was unmoved. Steel wasn't the metal that could harm him.

In a gesture that was completely without warning and very fast, the first of the thieves slashed the knife towards the encircled victim. Instead of slicing through the cloth and flesh of the unfortunate young man, it slashed nothing but empty air. The three bandits had a moment to gape in shock before Cairon swooped into action.

It was all over remarkably quickly, Cairon simply spun from one bandit to another, administering a sharp blow to the neck to each in turn. They had little time to do anything other than slump senselessly down to the earthen ground, mortal reflexes being no match for the greater speed of the Fae. Cairon stilled and tried to get a grip on his anger. It appeared he was dealing with things a good deal less well than could be desired. With a long intake of breath, Cairon then glanced down at the human heap and began to work free a hooded cloak from one of the unconscious bandits. A reasonable fit on the thief, it all but swamped Cairon's much smaller frame, neatly disguising the slender bone structure and with the hood raised also threw his face into shadow and hid the colour of his eyes. With a small pleased smile, Cairon judged himself to now be sufficiently capable of remaining unnoticed in crowds.

No longer hindered by the needed to remain unseen, Cairon allowed his pace to increase as the found the main road leading south and shadowed it from the safety of the trees. He had no real knowledge of the geography of the mortal realm and was also unable to return home while stuck with the iron band wrapped around his wrist. He had to find a way to get it removed, but anyone who saw it would no doubt assume it to be the manacle of an escaped prisoner. Which he sort of was, but definitely wasn't a criminal.

He stopped only to eat and drink, using his innate knowledge of nature to find edible fruits and drinkable water. Gradually, Cairon lost track of how much ground he had covered as even his supernatural reserves of energy depleted to the point where he had to rest. Stubbornness however, was a trait that ran in his family and Cairon doggedly plodded onwards in spite of the increasing difficultly he had in making his brain think logically. It was probably that, combined with the amount of noise he was making as he trampled through the forest that made Cairon join the group of travellers who caught up with him as he stumbled along the roadside.

"Goodness, you look fit to drop! Careful!" A firm, steadying hand caught Cairon's elbow and prevented him from blundering into another tangle of nettles and briars as it steered him onto the road. "There we go."

"Look at the poor boy; there's nothing to him! From that pallor, I'd guess he's not in full health either."

"Lad, are you alright?"

Cairon blinked sluggishly and focused his gaze on the concerned face in front of him with difficulty. "What?" His voice trailed off as his body ground to a halt and stubbornly refused to start moving again. "I…"

"You look half-dead boy, excuse my boldness. What's got you in such a state? You're clearly not fit to travel."

The figure in front of him was definitely a woman, Cairon noted, aside from anything physical, she gave off an almost alarming sense of motherly concern. Behind her and slightly more towards the centre of the road stood two men with a cart and bored looking pony. They were all dressed in earthy shades of brown with a welcome lack of the elaborate tailoring he'd grown so used to seeing in the city. Chances therefore were that the people were from the countryside. Cairon closed his eyes for a moment to steady himself then refocused his gaze on the woman with more success. He guessed she was somewhere on the other side of middle age, but whether the lines that creased her face were primarily from age or the sun, he was unable to tell. "I can't stop," he tried to explain. "I need to keep going."

"Keep going?" exclaimed the elder of the men by the cart. "There's nothing more this far south apart from the border with Korlan."

"And if you're going there, you'll have to have a good sight more of your wits about you, from what I've heard," the younger added. "I daresay the rest of the kingdom is pleasant enough, but around the border there's nothing but forest. And not forest like what we have here, either. That forest is practically primeval, I've never heard of anyone hunting in it or felling trees."

To Cairon, it sounded like heaven – or as close to home as he was going to find in this realm. "That's where I'm going. Korlan."

The woman in front of him took at step back, looking him up and down in an assessing manner. "Well the state you're in, I doubt you'll even make it to the border before you collapse. And what's the matter with your arm? You're cradling it … have you hurt yourself."

Even in his almost trance-like state, Cairon was still able to flinch away from the reaching arm. "It's nothing you need to worry about. I just fell awkwardly on it. I think it's just a slight sprain."

The woman gave a disbelieving sniff, but allowed her hand to fall back where it rested solidly on her hip. Finally, she spoke again. "There's an inn just a short way off. My husband over there stays there frequently while making trading runs and we're known for being good customers. It's not the grandest of places, but they're honest folk what runs it and the food'll help you get some meat back on those bones. Now, we're going to help you over to that cart so's you can rest; I doubt we'd get another ten paces out of you afore you fall over and do yourself a worse damage than a sprained wrist."

Then the hand was back, guiding him towards the other two mortals and it was all Cairon could do to blink in bewilderment. "But … I have nothing to offer you," he stuttered. "No money … I … why are you so generous?"

There was a reverberating laugh as the elder of the two men stepped forwards to join his wife in assisting Cairon onto the cart. "That's just my Linnie for you. She's got an instinct for spotting a deserving soul and an even better one for those that are up to no good. She's got it into her head to help you out, young sir, and there's nothing doing but to let her get on with it."

"And as for paying us," chipped in the younger man, obviously the son of the pair. "I'd save your breath. A bit of kindness between men shouldn't come with added strings and a bill of service. We'll just hope that someday, should you find it in your power to help out some poor soul that needs it, you won't trouble yourself about money either." The son earned himself beaming smiles of approval from his parents for this short speech and coloured slightly in embarrassment, which he tried to hide by busying himself with the pony.

Cairon found himself set firmly between several sacks of grain and barely had the time to pull his acquired cloak tighter around himself before the cart jolted into movement. Although initially unused to the motion of the cart as it bumped its way along the rough road, Cairon soon found himself being lulled into a doze. He was only vaguely aware of the three mortals that walked alongside him, talking in quiet, soothing tones. His eyes slid slowly shut and Cairon drifted into the first bit of sleep he'd had since the prince's engagement had been announced.

But while daylight and conscious thought kept the youth from dwelling on the events of the recent past, his unconscious self was able to offer little protection from the images that came swarming in. Memories of darkness and dank stone cellars, of roses with hidden and vicious thorns, sparkling ballgowns and a figure dressed in a fabric so luminous it appeared to be woven starlight and finally of a soul-wrenching screaming that seemed without end. Cairon jerked himself awake, unsure of whether it had been he or his memories who had cried out.

Linnie glanced up at Cairon and smiled, "I was wondering if you'd wake up before we reached the inn or if we'd have to wake you ourselves. Feeling a bit more human?"

It'll take a lot more than a nap to make me feel that, thought Cairon, but instead he just smiled.

"He's awake?" came a call from further in front. Moments later the son had dropped back to keep pace with his mother and the cart carrying Cairon. He too smiled up at the disguised Fae. "The inn's not far off now. We should arrive not too long after nightfall."

"You're not going out of your way for my sake, are you?" Cairon asked in sudden concern. "I never thought to ask."

Linnie laughed. "We have a farm not a great distance from the Korlan border as luck would have it. So there's no need to work yourself into a fret over that. We've been to the city to trade and sell off the crops we won't be needing in exchange for various other goods." She paused for a moment and then laughed again. "And it seems like we couldn't have chosen a better time to make the trip, arriving just in time for those fancy balls at the palace. You could often catch a glimpse of the nobles on their way to the dance, you know," she confided. "And my, if some of those gowns weren't the grandest things I'd ever seen."

"Still seems like we missed getting a glimpse at the grandest of them all, though," the son chipped in idly. "From all the gossip, the girl the prince chose wore clothing that far surpassed anything else the kingdom had to offer. I'm sure she must have been a real sight."

You have no idea, reflected Cairon.

Linnie meanwhile was sighing and agreeing enthusiastically with her son. "Indeed! A sight to charm the Prince himself. I heard he was all but bewitched by her."

Cairon winced at the statement that came a little too close to the truth for comfort. "You didn't want to stay to witness the wedding preparations?" he asked.

Linnie's son snorted. "As if. We have a farm and responsibilities to get back to. And I can't see them rushing the wedding, they'll want to make it as grand as possible. We'd have been waiting for the best part of a year by my reckoning and just think what would happen to the fields and cattle in that time."

"I'm not so sure about that," countered his mother. "Remember how keen Prince Tristan was to find the girl, maybe he'll decide he simply can't wait to make her Queen."

"No one knows that much about her though," the son added. "It's all a bit mysterious, really; the way she just showed up out of nowhere."

"That's the way it has to be, though," objected Cairon almost without realising he was speaking. "It's the whole reason the Ever After Laws were drawn up in the first place. If you want to be approved and kept safe from curses and invasion, there has to be something like that involved."

"The lad has a point," Linnie informed her son. "Royal marriages have to meet the precepts laid down to be seen as valid. You remember the fuss that was made over Korlan when it emerged that the Princess didn't have a curse placed on her from birth? They only escaped sanctions due to the fact they were able to argue it wasn't necessary provided she married a disguised prince or noble woodsman."

Cairon looked over the side of the cart at Linnie in alarm. "There's an unmarried princess in Korlan? She's not of age yet, is she?"

Linnie shrugged with a laugh and a sly look at Cairon. "Fancy yourself as a bit of a valiant suitor do you?"

"Not at all!" Cairon protested a touch more vehemently than he'd intended. "Just wanted to know if I was likely to hear of another royal engagement so soon after this one," he added somewhat feebly.

Linnie's son shrugged, while his mother gazed at Cairon with a look that made him shrink slightly back into the hidden recess of his hood. "I can't say," the son said in reference to Cairon's earlier query. "No one here knows a lot about her. I don't doubt you'll be able to find out more once you get to Korlan though. After all, she's their princess."

"If you're finished talking back there," called the elder of the two men. "We're approaching the inn. Let's save this conversation for a nice warm room with a roaring fire and good food, eh?"

"Couldn't agree with you more, my love," called back his wife. She winked at Cairon. "Some good, warm food inside you is just what you need. We'll see if we can't get some colour back into those cheeks."

Cairon looked away, pretending to show interest in the approaching inn, but he was glad of the chance to fall back into silence. Not for the first time, he cursed his inability to keep his mouth shut and stay both unnoticed and out of trouble. In his experience, the two seemed to go hand in hand where he was concerned. It wasn't even as though he could blame that on his Fae nature … he was just naturally talkative and when combined with his tendency to be opinionated, the outcome tended to leave a lot to be desired. In any case, there was a lesson to be learned, Cairon reflected. And from now on, he was keeping his mouth under control … especially around mortals.

Having concluded his internal berating, Cairon turned his attention to the approaching building that sat snugly in the midst of the clustered trees. Cheery lanterns marked out the yard and stables while several windows emitted a warm glow that indicated a large fire was indeed provided for patrons to warm themselves beside. There appeared to be a reasonable amount of activity; nothing compared to the crush of the city, but still far more than Cairon would have expected considering the distance from the capital and the lack of any other evidence of fellow travellers he'd seen on the road. Perhaps there was a small hamlet nearby, or a group of travellers were resting before heading to the city en masse, the youth mused and tried to fight the unease he felt at the prospect. After all, it was mortals who were now helping him with no thought as to how they would benefit, he reminded himself before a pang of annoyance hit him. Why did he only meet mortals worthy of help and his magic when he could no longer use it?

The quartet made their way into the yard where stable-hands appeared immediately to take the pony to the stables. From the banter between the young boys and Cairon's fellow travellers, it was obvious that Linnie and her family were well known and equally well liked. Cairon allowed himself to be helped down from his seat in the cart, but generally hung back and observed. His silence didn't seem to cause any real upset as he was ushered in to the main building and sat down at an empty table beside the fire. Linnie's husband grinned at the expression on his face. "You look a touch overwhelmed, my boy. Or is that just the fatigue showing on your face?"

Cairon offered a slight smile in reply.

The older man's face creased into a sympathetic smile. "Don't worry, Linnie and Bran are going to be back here once they've finished ordering up some food and lodgings for the night. We'll soon see you rested and well again."

"Thank you for this," Cairon said softly. "I still can't quite believe how kind you're all being."

"No more of that, young one," came Linnie's strident tones as she and her son bustled up to join them at the table. "We're more than ready and willing to help out so there's no need to thank us. You'll be giving us swelled heads and ideas above our station, you will."

Cairon felt his cheeks warm as he offered another small smile. This got a much more favourable response from the woman than his gratitude had.

"Ooh, now there's all the thanks I need! What a beautiful smile you've got. Fair lights up a room."

"Careful Ma, you're making him embarrassed," her son objected. "Can't you see you're making him uncomfortable?"

The barmaid chose that moment to arrive with plates of steaming food, saving Cairon from more discomfort. He turned his attention to the heaped platter in front of him and felt his eyes widen at the impossible amount of meat, vegetables and bread that were piled there. A gentle elbow nudge in his side made him glance at Bran, who winked at the stunned youth.

"As you can no doubt see, there's plenty here. So tuck in."

Cairon did so, but at a much slower pace than those around him. He ignored the meat and focused his attentions on the vegetables and bread, finding every mouthful wonderful after a long period of subsisting on next to nothing. While he ate, the conversation around him wandered over many subjects until it finally fell silent when a lute was struck up from the other side of the room.

Cairon slowed and then ceased eating, choosing instead to focus on the music as it played a variety of tunes from lively to melancholy. All seemed to be going down extremely well with the gathered audience, though Linnie turned to her husband with a quiet sigh during an interval. "Wonderful as her playing is, if someone doesn't get up there and start singing, Sophia's going to have to do it herself. And you know how reedy her voice is."

Linnie's husband shook his head. "Don't count on me to sing tonight, I'm afraid. The journey's all but worn me out and my mind couldn't remember a tune for love nor money."

"Well someone should step forwards," Bran commented, echoing the calls for a singer that were ringing out through the bar. "It's the only form of payment Sophia ever asks for and it would be a shame not to reward her playing." The younger of the two mortal men then turned to Cairon with a speculative gaze. "Do you sing, stranger?"

Racking his brains for a way to answer evasively, Cairon reflected how much he disliked direct questions. "Sometimes," he answered. "But I'm no minstrel."

Linnie's face lit up at his answer. "But you can carry a tune?" At Cairon's reluctant nod, she beamed. "Would you mind terribly singing a song for Sophia to accompany? The poor thing hardly ever gets anyone other than the usual woodsman and farmers and our repertoire is very limited."

Cairon coughed nervously. "I'm afraid I don't know any lively songs and what if I don't know any of the same tunes Sophia does?"

Linnie laughed and clapped her hands together in delight. "Sophia loves that! She says she enjoys the challenge! She'll just let you carry the tune and make up an accompaniment as she goes along. Will you do just one song?"

Cairon looked into the face of the woman who'd shown overwhelming kindness to him and knew his conscience would never allow him to refuse. "I'll sing one song."

"Wonderful!" Linnie turned and stood, waving her arm in the air to attract attention as she called; "Sophia! I've got some new blood for you here! This young lad'll do a song with you!"

Cairon found himself being herded forwards by an appreciate crowd and inwardly kicked himself for once again inadvertently falling into the spotlight when he should be fading quietly into the background. It was becoming a really unwelcome habit. He found himself standing next to a pleasant-faced young redhead cradling a lute. She smiled up at him. "My thanks to you, stranger. What manner of song is it that you intend to sing?"

"It's a love song," Cairon replied without really stopping to think about his answer.

Sophia's eyes twinkled in amusement at his response. "My favourite songs," she said with the smile evident in her voice. "And is there a certain someone you'll be singing this song about?"

"No!" Cairon denied quickly, feeling his face flush with embarrassment. His reaction caused the seated musician even more amusement, but she was quick to compose her feature and sound a couple of notes on her lute in order to check that the strings were still in tune.

"Begin whenever you feel ready and I'll join in when I have the key and rhythm," Sophia instructed, her eyes already closing as she focused fully on her hearing.

Cairon nodded, even though the young woman was now unable to see the gesture and found himself singing his sister's favourite song. It was the first one that came to mind and also the one he knew best from a childhood of first being taught it and then being made to sing it to his older sibling on countless occasions. His mouth formed the word from the olden language now only ever used in such songs with an effortless ease.

Bryd one brere, brid, brid one brere,

Kynd is come of love, love to crave.

Blythful biryd, on me thu rewe.

Or greyth, lef, greith thu me my grave.

Losing himself in the slow lilting melody, Cairon began to strengthen his voice, letting it ring out through the silent pub. Beside him, Sophia nodded slightly to herself before joining in with an almost stately accompanying melody. As he went into the second verse, Cairon focused on that melody to keep his mind from remembering his sister.

Hic am so blithe, so brighit brid on brere,

Quan I se that ende in halle.

Yhe is quit of lime, lovely, trewe,

Yhe is fayr and flur of alle.

Mikte hic hire at wille have,

Stedefast of love, lovely trewe,

Of me sorwe yhe may me saven;

Ioye and blisse were eere me newe.

Slowing the final passage to indicate the end of the song, Cairon gently let the final notes die before gauging the response. There was a moment's silence before a loud wave of enthusiastic applause and cheering and the Fae looked down to see Sophia beaming at him.

"That was absolutely wonderful," she enthused. "I hardly ever have the chance to accompany the old ballads. And your voice is positively mesmerising. Are you a trained musician?"

"Oh no," Cairon corrected her hurriedly, already seeing in his mind's eye just how this was going to stick in people's memory. "My sister taught me." And as for his voice, well, all Fae were gifted singers. Though Cairon hoped that fact wouldn't be too well known amongst mortals.

"That'll be why you only know love songs then," Sophia concluded with a teasing smile. "Still, I'm glad for it. You and your companions' meals are on the house."

Cairon inclined his head in thanks and made his way back to his table, hidden away at the other end of the room. Behind him, he heard several young girls pleading with their erstwhile suitors to be serenaded with love songs like the one just performed. Sowing discord again, Cairon reflected. Not the most useful habit in a Fae who's supposed to dedicate their life to helping mortals. Maybe the elders were right in being so dismissive. Keenly aware of the gazes he was attracting, the Fae mentally added the thought that his inability to fade gracefully into the background probably didn't help matters either.

Cairon slid back into his seat and dropped his eyes to the table when he saw the expressions on the faces of his three fellow travellers.

Linnie snorted in amusement as she regarded the quiet youth with twinkling eyes. "Well lad, you might claim to be no minstrel, but I daresay you could make a fine career as one."

"I don't like crowds," explained Cairon. "They make me uncomfortable." Neatly leaving out the long and ever-expanding story as to why Cairon held gatherings in such disfavour.

"Fair enough," Bran conceded. "We shall simply feel that much more privileged to have been included amongst the few that have heard you sing.

Cairon smiled his thanks before clearing his throat with a small frown. "On a different matter; how far are we from the border of Korlan by now?"

Linnie's husband grinned. "We're practically on top of it. When the gloom lifts a little you'll be able to see that the current woodland gives way to much denser forests of evergreens. That's the edge of Korlan."

"Of course, that's just the distance to the border," added his wife in a cautionary tone. "Once in the forests, there's no real way of telling how long it'll take you to reach anyway." The woman winced. "Their geography is a little intimidating and liable to change without notice. It's some sort of spell worked into the kingdom to inconvenience invaders."

"Should think it works too," Bran added. "Sometimes the magic seeps over a little and makes everyone incredibly dizzy for days. Can't even navigate your way from one end of your home to the other."

Cairon nodded. "I'll be careful. Thanks for the warning." He began to rise to his feet, but paused when Linnie rested a gentle hand on his arm.

"Sure you won't stay and get a bit of rest first?" she asked with a note of urging in her voice. "It'll make your trip much easier."

Cairon carefully withdrew his arm and shook his head regretfully. "In all gratitude, I really can't afford to lose any time. You have my thanks for your kindness. I won't forget it." With a last smile at the trio, Cairon made his way towards the door, deftly slipping between the groups of people who were beginning to crowd into the inn as the evening progressed.

Once outside he inhaled deeply, savouring the cool night air before striding out towards the distant pointed treetops he saw to the south. An hour by foot and then he was safe. Free to hide himself away somewhere he wouldn't be found by anyone. Then he could try and work out a way to remove the iron brace and see what he could do able healing his wrist, though of course he'd be able to supplement his healing with magic once that cursed metal was gone.

Caught up in his plans for the future, the gradual change in foliage went unnoticed by the young Fae until he registered a distinct lack of starlight. He had previously dismissed it as cloud cover, but it was slowly dawning on him that the night sky had been absolutely clear when he left the inn with no wind to account for the sudden overcast weather. Slowing his pace, Cairon glanced up at the sky to find it all but obscured by dense branches coated in spiny pine needles. The Fae drew to a halt and felt a faint smile tugging at the sides of his mouth. If what he'd been told was correct, he was indeed now in Korlan. Safe from potential retribution or exploitation. And he hadn't even noticed it in all his pre-occupation. "Honestly," Cairon murmured to himself. "What kind of a Fae are you, to be so unaware of your surroundings?"

An unseen breeze slithered through the branches around him, making them whisper to one another as though discussing his question amongst themselves. Cairon paused in picking up his path again and looked around him with thoughtful eyes. Now he was taking the time to study the forest, it was clear that there was an unnatural element to it. The trees seemed to crowd in on him far more than the actually were, exuding a sense of claustrophobia and disorientation. Shadows flickered amongst distant branches and movement appeared just at the corners of his eyes and a fraction too quickly for him to catch, even with his inhuman reflexes. Cairon could understand all too well how mortals would find themselves hopelessly lost and confused here, for the forest seemed to have a sentience of its own and one that was designed to repel intruders.

A muffled crunch from behind him caused Cairon to mentally add another advantage that the forest offered; the woods themselves were apparently more than capable of distracting even a Fae to the fact he was being surrounded. He grinned humourlessly to himself as he turned to see just who his ongoing bad luck had led him to this time.

Standing opposite him and obviously more than a touch surprised at having had his presence noted so soon, was a man in his early twenties. He was a fraction taller than Cairon; something he'd only noted in one other mortal, and his lean frame was nevertheless toned. A wild tangle of golden brown hair fell choppily across his face, nearly obscuring a pair of hazel eyes that were both sharp and alert. The mortal's black garb and quiet approach identified him as trained in stealth and probably the martial arts as well; a fact backed up by the unsheathed short sword he held in his hand.

Cairon took this in and felt his hopes of escape and solitude wither away. "Are you here to kill me or drag me back in chains?" he asked wearily, his voice flat and without inflection.

The man frowned, not seeming to understand. His grip on the sword relaxed and then tightened again as he raised it a fraction.

Cairon followed the movement idly. "If you're here to drag me back, you'd be better trying to kill me," he informed the man. "As I have no intention of being used again and will have to kill you if persist in trying to capture me. But if you're here to kill me, you might as well get it over with as I have little desire to fight off a continual swarm of assassins. And I don't doubt it'll be continual, I know how persistent she can be."

The man lowered his sword again and raised an eyebrow. "Clearly I'm missing something," he remarked dryly. "I'm here to find out why you are intruding on these lands. Her Highness does not take kindly to trespassing; she feels it leads to general meddling in her affairs."

Cairon paused. "You're not sent by Prince Tristan or his fiancée?"

"I'd be in a lot of trouble if I was, considering this isn't his land," replied the man. "I'm in the service of her gracious Highness, the Princess Eleanor."

"Oh thank the Fates," Cairon sighed, slumping to his knees. "I did it; I'm safe." He closed his eyes for a moment to bring himself under control before facing the black-clad man again. "I assure you Sir, that I wish only for solitude and have no desire to become entangled in the affairs of anyone, least of all royalty."

The man was studying him in a mixture of curiosity and concern. "Really," he stated flatly. "Well I'm afraid the hermit lifestyle may have to wait for a while. I'm taking you to her Highness, I think she'll be very interested in meeting a Fae."

Cairon felt his newly acquired hopes shatter. His head slumped and he watched as another ten or so armed men appeared from the trees. They fell into step around him and Cairon allowed himself to be herded along with them. It was so typical, he reflected bitterly. Out of the frying pan and straight into the fire.