***Quick update: turns out vacation is a lot like work, in that I have places to go and people to see and my in-law thinks it weird when I take my laptop along in the car. So it'll be a little longer before I post the piece. Sorry, dahlings, I'll finish it and get it up as fast as possible. Today we're going to an aquarium, tomorrow we're off to the firing range, because what is more American than shooting guns on Independence Day? Nothing, that's what!
Well, it's been a long damn week. We moved out of our apartment and are now bumming sleepspace off friends until the house in the mountains is finished. Boulder is less on fire than before, which is nice. I haven't finished the first installment of the Pandora sequel yet, but it'll be fun once it's done. I have an idea for a rotating POV: Cody, Jonah, Garrett. It starts from Cody's perspective and picks up with them on their way to visit Garrett's family on Paradise, which you know is going to be exciting:) I'll try to finish it tomorrow, although it won't get posted until the day after since I'll be traveling.
Yes, it's finally vacation time! We're going to Florence (Oregon, not Italy *sigh*) to see an in-law. There are three complete sets of in-laws on my man's side, it's kind of hard to juggle them all, but this time his dad won out. We'll get to see fireworks (Boulder's were cancelled), we'll get to eat real seafood (as opposed to Krabmeat or trout), we'll get to chill for a while...as long as I don't leave the guys alone together too often, all shall be well.
But I feel guilty leaving you all with nothing in the meantime. I mentioned a while back that I was submitting a story to a TEB anthology. Joy for me, it was accepted, so I'll give you a snippet of that to tide you over until I can dedicate some serious love to my laptop. This isn't the beginning of the story, but I hope it doesn't confuse too much.
Inside the fortress of the Winter Fae, Oberon’s stronghold, the air was always cold. Every breath spread like a plume of smoke through the air, and even the fires that lined the walls of the throne room crackled with an icy blue glow. Outside the fortress, the cold was so intense that it could kill without the precaution of a warming draught. For a human, who was very rarely offered such fairy magic, it meant there was a lot for him to do to become weather-worthy before he stepped outside towards the kennels.
Thick layers of clothes wrapped Dis from head to foot, culminating in a headpiece that left only his eyes exposed, and those recessed within a heavy swathe of cloth. He took great care to continue blinking, so his eyes didn’t freeze, and kept his breaths shallow. Once he was inside the kennels it was a little better, but they were set apart from Oberon’s main castle, at the very edge of the wall that separated Court lands from the wildness beyond it.
The pale, watery sun had barely begun to make its presence felt on the horizon, and the frozen ground cracked familiarly beneath Dis’ feet as he trudged across the courtyard. The kennels were partially underground, and as he shivered he actually longed for the somewhat fetid heat that he was headed toward. At least there was heat to be had there. Nothing so nice as what he’d left behind, but Dis wasn’t here to be indulged, as Sable so often reminded him. The space between his shoulder blades still ached slightly from her last strike, happily open-palmed and less likely to damage him than when she curled his fingers into a fist or a claw. Sable, like all fae, was much stronger than Dis, and she delighted in showing him just how great the disparity between them was whenever she thought of it.
Such blows came so often that they weren’t worth mentioning to Marten, and when he was in the fae’s arms Dis was so content that he forgot the injuries. Still, he thought Marten might have seen the shadow of pain in his face that morning, because he was uncommonly somber.
“You must remember to stay back,” he said as he watched Dis eat the simple meal he’d brought in the night before. “Let the hounds do their job, don’t try to interfere. A boar is more intelligent prey than it first appears, and this is the emperor of such animals. It will be a hunt to draw blood, for certain.”
“Then the Court will be pleased,” Dis remarked flatly, brushing crumbs of sweet bread from his fingers.
“Some of the Court certainly will,” Marten agreed. “Hunts present the greatest chance for upward mobility in the ranks of the Unseelie. A slip here, a chance branch there…there is no telling what accidents may befall an unwary rider. So be sure you don’t get in the way of any deliberate applications of bad luck.”
“I’m not worth the trouble,” Dis assured him. Marten didn’t reply, just smoothed a hand over his own dark hair in a gesture that Dis had seen whenever he dealt with Sable, which meant he was more deeply disturbed than he was letting on. Dis left to ready the hounds, and Marten went to wake his sister.
The Hounds of Oberon lived below ground in an enclosure that protected them from the worst of the harsh weather. Above their pens was a long, low building with a gate in the center of it and ramps on either side. Let out on one side, the hounds would enter a spacious run where they were trained and exercised. The other side led to a door that connected to the forest, where the Court would be waiting in less than an hour. It was barely enough time to do what needed to be done, but Dis was a fast worker.
Oberon maintained a pack of the twelve strongest and fiercest hounds for the hunt. There were others, but the bitches were kept apart and the young ones that didn’t make the cut were unceremoniously killed and fed to the others. That was work for the butcher, not Dis, but since he had taken over working the kennels he had slowed the hounds’ breeding to a standstill, to reduce the senseless waste of life. One of his earliest memories of Sable was the sight of her torturing a puppy, one of the “spares,” and it had haunted him his whole life. Dis was well aware of the fact that he could have ended up a spare, that the other children taken at the same time as him had died. No more changelings had been brought to the Unseelie Court since his arrival, although occasionally adult humans were brought in and toyed with. Sometimes they were sent back after a brief time, and sometimes…sometimes Sable got them. And then they never went home.
Dis walked down the ramp into the kennel, closing off the gate that would let them into the run as he did. It smelled rank in the kennel; it always did, no matter how he cleaned up after them, but he had grown used to it. He lit a torch and carried it below, and as soon as he rounded the corner the hounds began to bay. Rightfully he should be feeding them now, gristly hunks of raw meat leftover from the Court’s latest feast, but Oberon liked his hounds to be on edge and vicious before a hunt, and that meant no feeding. Occasionally that hunger prompted them to go after a courtier on horseback before the hunt even began, but that too was only cause for amusement.
Dis walked slowly past the pens, glancing in at each beast to see that they were well, and had done no harm to themselves during the night. The hounds were huge, with a square muzzle full of sharp teeth and shaggy white coats that let them blend into the ice and snow. When they stood on their hind legs they were taller than Dis, and even on all fours he could look the largest of them in the eye. Each hound slept in a separate stall to reduce their propensity for cannibalism, and each one was barking raucously now, confused and upset when Dis walked by without giving them their breakfast.
Well, every hound except one. In the last stall was Dis’ particular favorite, the youngest of the hunting pack. They weren’t meant to be given names, a fate that Dis commiserated with, and so he had broken that tradition and called the new pup Ciurlen, one of the few words he remembered from his youth. Dis didn’t remember what it meant, but he liked the sound of it. As a puppy Ciurlen had been sweet and affectionate, almost too affectionate, and Dis had been afraid the hound would need to be put down for its tender attitude. He later discovered that apparently Ciurlen was only affectionate with him, and disliked his packmates enough that he vigorously lashed out at them when given the opportunity. It was a little funny, to Dis, how closely the fae hounds resembled their masters when it came to their social structure.
“Hey, pup.” He stopped in front of Ciurlen’s stall and pulled out a small piece of dried meat, left over from his own breakfast. The hound padded over eagerly and licked it off Dis’ palm, then whined for more. “I’m sorry, that’s it for today. Your king wants your fierce for the Solstice hunt.” Even as he said it, Dis heard the distant blow of the horn. Oh hells, the king was ready to begin and Dis had barely begun his work.
There were different methods for preparing the hounds for whatever task was before them. Before a breeding, Dis layered the run with the scent of one of the fertile bitches. For a hunt, he took a piece of whatever he had salvaged from their last kill and dragged it along the ground and outside, until the scent reached the gate. The hounds would follow it, and there Dis would let them scent the next prey they were set on. In this case he didn’t have a sample, but on the Solstice it was customary for Oberon to do the baiting.
In a storeroom in the back of the kennel lay a long shard of elephant bone. Hastily Dis grabbed it, let one end rest against the floor and then ran up the ramp, the hounds baying mightily as he passed them. He ran through the building and into the frosted air, felt his lungs instantly seize but he couldn’t slow down, not if he wanted to live. The door to the forest was fairly close. He reached it, dropped the bone and then began to run back. As he entered the kennel he heard the horn sound a second time. If it sounded a third time, Dis knew that Sable would construe his tardiness as offensive, and Dis had barely survived the last time Sable had disciplined him for being offensive. Panting harshly, Dis reached the first stall and flipped the latch. The hound burst free, almost trampling him, but it obediently followed the scent trail. He flipped latches and opened doors as fast as he could, and hoped that the rising noise of the pack would persuade the king to be patient.
Ciurlen was the last one Dis set free, and instead of running ahead the hound ran with him, up the ramp and out to the wailing pack, who had already demolished the shard of bone and were baying ravenously at the door. Dis shouldered his way through him, grateful for all the time he had spent convincing the dogs that he was not food, and went through the door, slamming it shut behind him. Then he turned and faced the waiting Court and immediately dropped to one knee, bowing his head. Looking upon the Unseelie en masse was enough to cow the boldest warriors.
They were beautiful, these creatures, his owners, but they had a fierceness to them that was undeniable. They were all sharp lines and deadly curves, every emotion honed to disturb, every word ringing with dominance. Marten made an effort to speak to Dis on his own terms, but the other fae used every art in their possession to seek the upper ground. They were nearly impossible to disobey, and Oberon, their king, was the most charismatic and powerful of them all.
He sat astride his great grey stallion, his face carved as though from ivory, his hair falling like sunlight around his shoulders. Oberon was the only one of them who looked light instead of dark, but his darkness was all inside. Dis simply knelt and held his breath, waiting for judgment. He heard a low chuckle from somewhere to the right: Sable. The sound made him shiver.
Something crashed to the ground in front of him. “The bait,” Oberon said. Dis chanced a look at it. The bait was an enormous hide, with bristles so thick and sharp they might have come from a porcupine. The trotters and scalp were still attached, and Dis could make out the jagged eye sockets, surrounded by thick, protective skin. It smelled of musk and rot and old dry blood.
“Release my hounds.”