It was only a curt nod, cold, neutral, but it acknowledged the rank and superiority of a beastformed demon. She looked at the shocked crowd. “Let me introduce to you E’Rechto Phasa, Favoured by the Queen as Her Huntress.” Moonhuntress, the name said.

The beast, E’Rechto, opened its mouth and spoke in a woman’s voice, yet deep and with a hidden menace, “thankyou, E’kira. For your invitation and your welcome.” She rose and prowled into the whispering and murmuring crowd. “I hunt the Moons’ people,” she growled. “Those that are of that blood, or are allied with them.”

People parted almost reluctantly around her where she walked, and one stood broadlegged before her. “I will not bow to a riderbeast,” he scowled.

She gazed at him for a moment, then she simply swatted him with an enormous clawed front paw. A’Grih swallowed hard, seeing the man’s guts spill out through the gashes. E’Rechto turned her head slowly to gaze around the room. “Anyone else?” she asked into the silence. There was no reply. She moved towards one or another then, sniffing them, and they scampered aside.

A’Grih wanted to run, too when she stopped in front of him, but he was frozen with terror.

“I smell Moon on you,” she said. “What say you?”

He couldn’t breathe. The eyes that stared into his were on fire. Flames of the Sun goddess burned into his mind, laying him bare to the will of that exalted beast. “I have a Source,” he gasped, the words stumbling from his mouth.

“The Sun-touched boy is blessed! Lady E’kira has received a handsome gift!” she purred, but looked at him and continued, “….and?”

A’Grih grasped his horns to stop his hands from shaking. He felt the fur between his thighs become wet. “It is a dwarf,” he whispered. It was like a thundering roar into the stunned crowd. He fainted, and his last thought was that he hoped father would forgive him for being afraid in the face of the Favoured.

 

He woke up in a large fourposter bed in a lavish bedroom. Velvet curtains covered the walls – and maybe windows. A fireplace at the other end of the room brought some much needed heat into the chilly autumn evening – although it might have been night or even morning. A’Grih didn’t know. The fur between his thighs was dry but matted. He smelled of stale urine and dirty hair, but he was still clothed, and for some reason that eased his mind. He got up from the bed and made his tottering way to the door. It was locked.

The ease ran from his mind like snow on a spring morning. He wanted to rattle the handle and scream for help, but it was clear as ice and sun that noone would be helping him. He was in the house of a Lady who had taken him as an offering of good will, and perhaps still in the house was a Child of Fire, one of the handful of specially Favoured that worked the Blessed and Divine Queen’s direct will. The Favoured that had caused him to spill the terrible truth.

 

He was a traitor. Yes, that was it. By bonding to that Lunar creature, he had betrayed his race, his family, his people. But he couldn’t help bonding. That was how Sources worked. It was some mystical thing, ordained by the gods, or chance or pure bad luck. A’Grih stroked the golden tip of his horns. So much for being sun-touched. It was just a superstition anyway. That the slight copper colouring should indicate some special luck from the Blessed Queen – no, he had no luck, now.

 

A voice outside the door silenced him. It was the Lady E’kira, speaking to her soldiers! “There must be an entrance to the Ashen hills near their estate. He would have gone that way to see that dwarf. Bring it – he will do much better with a Source stabled nearby. It would please me to see how much he is capable of. Sources are rare and valuable.”

Yes, they were. There was a rumour that all elves had one – it was what made them such a formidable enemy, but also the subject of so much scorn. Like a source-less elf was the saying. But the other Kindreds had not been so blessed by the gods. Dwarves rarely had them at all, humans and demons only some. Tsik-birds? Nobody really knew. But for A’Grih to have a Source, it made him valuable. A Gifted with greater power, greater finesse and complexity in his spell work. But only when the Source was near.

For a living being to be a source was not unusual in itself – but A’Grih had never before heard of a Kindred being one. He thought he would love to have his Source near him.

Then he thought of what E’kira had said; ‘stabled’. Like the riderbeasts. Distant cousins who had the misfortune to have four legs, yet when they bred, they were as likely to produce full demons as any other parent. And yet they were ridden, stabled, treated at best like pets.

Like he had thought first of the Moonhuntress prowling through the party. A sickening feeling spread through his stomach. They would treat the dwarf as a pet – at best. The eyes that had loved him would be kept with animals, treated as an animal. A’Grih had not eaten much at the party, but the little that were, rose unwanted in his throat. He could not let this happen.

 

E’kira came into the room a little later, thought the figure lying still dazed on the bed was him, and as she quietly went out again, a shade flickered in torchlight behind her.

A’Grih released the spell when she was out of sight, panting with the exhaustion of fooling both sight and ears. He kept a light shadow about him as he snuck through the house, and to the front door, but to cross the courtyard unseen? He was already shaking. The fainting had taken its toll, and the spellwork was an effort he had never before experienced. Father and his armsmaster had drilled him in fighting until he was ready to drop. Mother’s punishments… no not even they were as draining as this Gift. He had endured Sun and Snow, he had endured their words, their laughter. And still this was worse. There was only remedy that his heart knew – his Source. The gift to fuel his Gift, to fuel him. A burning need and desire that he experienced for the first time in his life. He had always run from his life, tried to escape, tail between his legs like a scared dog. Now for the first time he had something to run to.

Keeping himself cloaked as he snuck out the door, he surveyed the courtyard. Morning had come. A half-dozen riderbeasts were penned in one corner, fighting over scraps from the party. A handful of guards were stationed around the yard, and two more by the gate. And a few strides to the right of the door Moonhuntress had found a sunny spot to lounge in.

His heart stuck in his throat and the ground seemed unsteady under his feet for a moment again. Blessed Queen, save me! He thought. Give me the strength to pass her! He closed his eyes and pulled on the last dredges of energy. Silent hooves. And nothing where his body should be. Now he could only pray that was good enough, and he stepped out into the open courtyard as if it were a great and terrible chasm.

 

One step.

Another.

Moonhuntress lifted her massive head and sniffed the air.

 

To be continued…

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