CHAPTER FOUR - A CROWN OF STARS
Ethan felt the shimmering green-gold of Alric’s protection flow over him as he crossed from Winter Haven into parts unknown. And then the shimmering sensation just stopped. His skin tingled with warmth and then went bitterly cold as well. His vision changed. It went silver. Everything took on the wash of a sepia photograph. His stomach cramped so hard that he nearly doubled over. But he had no time for sickness.
One of the wolves had opened its mouth and was about to snapped off one of the girl’s tender arms.
Ethan pushed the nausea and pain aside as he hefted up the branch. “Get away from her!”
The little girl gave a cry of surprise and whipped around to look up at Ethan with wide blue eyes. The wolves froze. Their heads rose up in unison to face him. They growled deep in their throats.
“You see me now, don’t you, you filthy beasts!” Ethan growled in response.
The wolves’ heads came up to Ethan’s shoulder in height. Their red eyes glowed like the coals of a fire. The long snouts and razor-sharp teeth the size of Ethan’s fingers glistened. They were nearly the size of horses as opposed to dogs. Suddenly, the soundness of his plan didn’t seem as sound as before.
How is this possible? These are NOT normal wolves! Ethan thought as he gripped his branch tighter. It seemed as effective a weapon as a toothpick against a bear at that moment. But it was all he had and the only chance the girl had of living.
They are Fell Wolves, my son, transformed by the Fallen’s spell just as we all were into creatures of endless hunger.
Ethan had no desire to argue with his mother’s imaginary voice in his head. For what she was saying made as much sense as anything else right then.
“Get away from her!” he threatened the wolves again.
Ethan swung the heavy branch menacingly at the two wolves. They retreated a few steps. He was determined to get between the little girl and the wolves at the very least if he couldn’t scare them off altogether. Then he would urge the child to walk or crawl onto Alric’s land. He had a feeling that the wolves wouldn’t be able to follow them into Winter Haven.
And if that isn’t crazy enough, I have a feeling that we’ll become invisible to them once we cross over the border. If I’m going to lose my mind I might as well go all the way.
“Hey, can you hear me?” Ethan asked the child.
She was balled up and shaking. He took his eyes off the wolves to reach down and touch her shoulder to get her attention.
“Can you walk? I need you to go just over there and you’ll be safe.” He pointed towards Winter Haven.
He could feel the border just a few feet behind his back. It radiated warmth and protection. But the little girl had no idea that safety could be so near. She continued to sob and now to rock. She was too terrified to move. He’d have to carry her. But how would he be able to hold her and the stick at the same time? The wolves could attack them with ease then.
I’ve got to scare the wolves away. Even if temporarily. Then I can scoop her up in my arms and carry her really quickly into Winter Haven.
With that plan in mind, he stepped over her and towards the wolves. Their lips writhed back from their teeth. Their red eyes glowed with a sulfurous fire that Ethan wouldn’t have thought possible except he was seeing it up close. He jabbed the stick towards the wolf on the right.
“Shoo! Get away!”
Shouldn’t they be scared of me? I can’t imagine that they’ve gotten used to humans. No one is going to feed them like cute pets.
But the wolves had crafty expressions in their glowing red eyes. He could see them thinking. The wolf on his left retreated one step from the branch, its red eyes tracking the wood intently as if gauging how much of a threat it was. Ethan tried to pretend that it wasn’t a branch in his hands, but a sword. A silver sword that glittered in the sunlight. The wolf on his right suddenly shot forward and grabbed a hold of the end of the branch. Ethan let out a shout of surprise and dismay as the branch snapped in two easily.
So much for my imagination making it a sword. It’s a stick. A weak, rotted branch.
The wolf shook its massive head, worrying at the wood then flung it away where it landed with a puff of snow. Both wolves growled and lowered their heads as they started to advance again. They knew he and his piece of wood were no match for them.
“Shit,” Ethan hissed.
The wolves ignored the broken stick that he still brandished at them now. They ignored him. They wanted the tender flesh of the child behind him.
“Get away! Get AWAY! GET AWAY!” He stamped his feet and waved his arms.
But the wolves lunged forward anyways. If he wasn’t going to get out of their way, they would take him down. Their jaws opened. Ethan felt their hot breath on his face. He threw himself backwards and their jaws clamped down on empty air. His left hip hit the ground and pain radiated in nauseating waves. But he scrambled over onto his front and tried to crawl quickly towards the child.
He intended to cover her with his body if he could do nothing else. He felt one of the wolf’s teeth catch the bottom of his jeans. He let out a startled yelp and ripped his legs away from them. He rolled forward and grabbed the girl. He tried to get to his feet, but one of the wolves head-butted the back of his right knee and he stumbled back down, twisting himself in mid air to stop from falling on top of the child in his arms. Instead he landed with a painful thump onto his back. The wolves were suddenly above him. Their heads blocked out the trees. Their breath frosted the air. Their spittle rained down on his front like rain.
They’re going to feed. Ethan balled around the child to protect her from their jaws even as he thought, I can’t die this way. Not this way. Not yet. Not now. I have a chance to see Alric tonight. To speak with him. To try and have part of my dream become real. Please no …
But suddenly the wolves’ massive heads were lifting and they were staring away from him and the girl and into Winter Haven. Both began to whine low in their throats. And then Ethan heard what was making them afraid. The sound of hoof beats and clear silver bells. He remembered seeing the bells in a photograph of Teufel’s saddle.
Something silver flew through the air and struck the nearest wolf’s throat. It was a bolt from a crossbow that went deep into the animal’s massive neck. The wolf let out one blood-choked howl before it staggered a few feet away and collapsed on the ground. Black blood poured out of its body and pooled around the corpse. Its limbs twitched in its death throes. The other wolf let out a frantic howl before it turned tail and ran. But it was pursued.
Ethan turned his head to see the pursuer. His breath caught and he knew that he could not be seeing what he was for it was too much like his mother’s fairytale. But then again, weren’t the wolves, too? Ethan had the urge to laugh hysterically at that, but time seemed to slow and his mind could only focus on Alric Koenig. All else fell away.
Alric rode on top of Teufel. He wore a coat of midnight blue that was cut open at the elbows to reveal a wrap of white silk on his forearms. The coat had long tails on the front and back. Silver stitching caught the sunlight and sparkled. There was a hint of white silk at his throat, too, from a flared open shirt. His pants were a silvery gray with thigh-high black suede boots. He did not hold Teufel’s reins. Instead, both of his hands were on a crossbow that even with its delicate silver filigree looked deadly. It wasn’t for show. It was a weapon. He braced it over one arm to aim while he used the other to depress the trigger to fire it. His hands were gloved in silver metal mesh.
But all of this was secondary, was unremarkable, compared to what Ethan saw above and around his head. His black hair flowed back unimpeded, but circling his brow was a crown. For one moment, as Teufel thundered past what had been the edge of Alric’s lands, the sunlight illuminated a ghostly crown of stars.
It can’t be real. Ethan’s mouth parted in shock. I’m truly mad. It can’t be real.
The crown was not of silver or gold adorned with jewels. It was transparent and insubstantial as moonlight. And all the more beautiful and ethereal for all that.
Meet the Sky King, my son. See his magnificence.
This can’t be real, Mom. He can’t really be an Elven King!
You need not believe me, she whispered. Your eyes are not lying to you this time, Ethan.
But then the crown was gone. Disappeared in another burst of sunlight and thundering hooves. Alric pursued the wolf into the distance. Snow kicked up behind Teufel’s flying hooves.
Ethan felt the border of Alric’s lands suddenly shift and flow forward with his passage. The green-gold border covered him and the girl in a wash of warmth and protection that were like a balm. Ethan took in a deep shuddering breath. Even the child that had been nearly speechless with terror before relaxed against him.
“It’s okay,” he told her and gently petted her curls. “It’s all right now.”
He heard a terrible howl turn to a death squeal and he knew that Alric had killed the other Fell Wolf. Ethan urged the young girl to unball from his chest, but she fisted her little grubby hands in his coat and wouldn’t raise her head to even look at him.
“Are you all right?” Alric asked.
Ethan’s head jerked up. He hadn’t realized the man was back even as the bells on Teufel’s saddle jingled prettily now. There was no crown of stars above Alric’s head, but his surreal beauty struck Ethan like a blow to the chest.
Alric. Alric. Father? No! Don’t think that. Don’t be crazy now. He’s here. Don’t do anything that would make him go.
“Oh – oh, I …” Ethan’s hip and back already ached with a fury that said he’d have ugly bruises in a few hours. His palms were also cut and raw from the branch. But he felt none of it. “I’m fine.”
Alric dismounted from Teufel in one fluid movement. The tails of his coat fluttered and then fell neatly to his knees. “And the girl?”
“The girl? Oh, I – I don’t know.” Ethan gently stroked her head to try and get her to look at him. Finally, she lifted her face to him. Her big eyes were still streaming with tears. “Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“B—bad doggies,” she choked out.
Ethan let out a surprised laugh. “Bad doggies? Yes, they were. Very bad doggies.”
The crunch of Alric’s boots in the snow drew his gaze again. The older man hunkered down beside them. His eyes were the most startling blue. They looked into Ethan’s and something passed between them. It seemed like time stretched out for a moment. Or maybe stopped altogether. Their frosting breath seemed to hold still in the air.
Alric, meet your son, his mother whispered. I wish you could know him.
He’s going to know me, Mom. I have this chance. I thought I was going to die today. But I’m alive and I have this chance. I’m not going to lose it. And that thought gave Ethan courage to speak to the other man without too much fear. He was going to seize this moment and every moment thereafter.
Alric blinked slowly and the moment was lost. He said, “Your eyes are green. I did not expect that.”
Ethan blinked at what should have sounded like a nonsensical statement, but somehow seemed portentous instead. “Oh, yes. My mother … she had green eyes.”
“And is this your sister?” Alric asked. He was so close that Ethan could smell his cologne. Like pines and cool water.
Ethan had to stop himself from leaning forward and pressing his nose to the collar of Alric’s coat and breathing him in.
“No, no, I just saw her about to be attacked and had to help,” Ethan explained. “I don’t know who she is. I’ve never seen her before.”
Alric’s unblinking gaze held him again. His pupils were larger than normal, Ethan realized. The blue of his irises was strikingly crystalline. Like the wolves, he did not look altogether normal. But unlike them, he was beautiful. Heartbreakingly so. Ethan could not quite believe Alric was real. His gaze slipped to the snow to see if the man’s boots had actually made tracks in the snow or if he would see an unmarked field of white. But they were there. And so was Alric.
He can’t be my father. He’s wondrous and I am not. But I could almost believe he was an Elven king.
“Child, did the – bad doggies – hurt you?” Alric touched the back of the girl’s neck.
She twisted around and showed him the shredded arms of her coat, but there were no cuts thankfully or pieces of her missing. “Ripped,” she mourned.
“Yes, well, we’ll make sure you get a new one. Nicer than this one,” Alric assured her. “What is your name?”
“And your parents? Where are they?” Alric had a slight accent. Something like German, but not quite. Or at least Ethan thought so as he mentally compared it to the German tourists he’d met.
She balled her hands into fists and brought them up to her eyes. “Momma shopping.”
“She must have been at the market just north of here. The Fell Wolves wouldn’t have taken Mary too far to – to do what they do,” Alric murmured under his breath.
Ethan started. “Fell Wolves?”
To hear that word falling from Alric’s lips seemed impossible. It was like some kind of odd confirmation of his mother’s madness. His stomach burned hotly all of the sudden.
Alric’s head rose up at Ethan’s tone. “Yes, does that mean something to you?”
“No – well, maybe. My mother might have – it’s just the wolves were so strange. They had red eyes. Did you notice? And the blood …” Ethan looked over at the dead Fell Wolf that was near them. “It’s black.”
The little girl gave a wail of fear as she realized that one of the wolves was still nearby even if it was dead. The mention of blood probably wasn’t a good idea either.
“Do not speak of it with her present,” Alric warned.
Ethan nodded. “I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come. It was a miracle that you did.”
“I protect my lands.” It was such a simple statement that meant either so little or so much. But before Ethan could respond to it, Alric looked down at the trembling girl in his arms. “I think that things would have been far direr if you had not come as well. I would have been too late but for you. Your bravery is remarkable and just as admirable.”
Ethan pinked. “T—thanks, but really anyone would have done it.”
“I assure you that is not so. When faced with such creatures most would have turned and fled. Perhaps some would have sought help after they ran away, but only someone quite … extraordinary would face the Fell Wolves down,” Alric said. “With his bare hands no less.”
“I – I had a stick.”
Alric tipped his head back and let out warm, rich laugh that had Ethan shivering in appreciation. “A stick? Well, such a brave, beautiful young man! What a wonderful combination.”
Ethan’s chest expanded ten sizes at Alric’s warm regard. He almost didn’t hear the ‘beautiful’ part of the comment. That had him flushing and staring down at the top of the girl’s. How could Alric think him beautiful? He was just being kind undoubtedly. “Oh, well … I’m more in the leap before look category in this case.”
Alric moved nearer to him. “You mustn’t downplay your actions. Know your worth.”
Ethan shivered again. Words can be magical. His make me feel strong and beautiful and brave.
“And may I know your name?” Alric asked.
“Ethan, Ethan Furst,” Ethan said. “And you are Alric Koenig.”
“I am. Do we know one another?” Alric’s lips curled into an uncertain smile as he cocked his head to the side.
Do we? What can I possibly say in response to that, which won’t make you think I’m crazy? We live in completely different worlds. But somehow we’ve met here. At this moment. My mother’s stories bind us though you don’t know it.
“No, but I think everyone knows who you are, Mr. Koenig,” Ethan said softly.
“Please call me Alric.” The man’s smile grew thoughtful. “Are you from here?”
“I live in Winter Haven.”
“You’ve moved here recently then?” Alric’s expression was even more perplexed.
“Oh, no, I’ve been here for five years,” Ethan said.
Alric’s frown was definite now. “I – I do not understand how I do not know of you. This child is not from Winter Haven so my not knowing her makes sense. But you … you, I should know.”
Ethan looked down, his cheeks reddening. While part of him offered up the Bottoms’ opaque references to keeping him hidden from Alric’s gaze, he knew the real reason Alric didn’t know him was far more obvious and mundane. Alric was uber-wealthy and Ethan was the uber-poor. He was surprised that his hand-me down clothes didn’t give him away compared to Alric’s clearly elegant ones.
“I don’t think we move in the same circles, Mr. – ah, Alric.”
“But I know all who live in the city,” Alric murmured.
“Really?” Ethan was frankly astonished at that and would have thought another person lying, but Alric didn’t seem like the sort.
“I know how that sounds. But I feel a sense of … duty to know my fellow citizens,” Alric said.
Like a king would for his subjects.
“It pains me that I would have missed someone of your caliber,” Alric added. But then he was smiling, “This fortunate occurrence has rectified that oversight. Though I am not glad for this child’s fright, I am grateful we have met, Ethan.”
Ethan loved how Alric said his name like it was important and known to him.
“Me, too,” Ethan’s voice dipped slightly.
“Did you know that Furst means ‘prince’ in German?”
“And Koenig means ‘king’,” Ethan said.
Alric let out a delighted laugh. “Ah, yes, it does! Fancy you knowing that.”
“My mother told me,” Ethan said, smiling and blushing in spite of himself.
“Your mother must be quite a remarkable woman, I think,” Alric said.
“She – she was.”
“Was?” Alric’s gaze softened as he understood the past tense without it being explained. “She has died, I take it?” When Ethan nodded, suddenly too choked up to speak, Alric said, “I am deeply sorry.”
“Thank you.” Ethan shook his head to clear it as the little girl snuffled lightly against him.
“Speaking of mothers, we should get this little one to hers,” Alric suggested.
“Definitely. Do we go to the police or what?”
Alric’s blue eyes closed for a moment and when they opened he said, “No need. I am certain her mother is still in the parking lot of the market.”
How could he know that?
Because he can sense her, my son.
“Oh, well, great,” Ethan said lamely.
Ethan struggled to get to his feet. Alric offered him a gloved hand. He stared at it for long moments. His heart hammered in his chest. He wanted to take Alric’s hand. He wanted to feel the strength in the man’s arm as he helped Ethan to his feet. And the burning in his belly lurched forward at the thought of touching Alric.
You mustn’t let him touch you, Ethan. He’ll know, his mother’s voice warned.
That you are Fell. Please, my son! Be careful!
“It’s okay,” Ethan told him as he forced his stiff muscles to work and stood upright. The little girl slid down his body and stood on her own two feet though she clung to one of his legs. “Thanks, but I can get up on my own.”
There was only a trace of disappointment in Alric’s expression, but he quickly smoothed it out. “Would you like to walk or ride, my little one?”
At first Ethan thought he was asking him that, but he was asking the child. She stuck her thumb into her mouth and looked at the horse with wide eyes. She clearly wanted to ride on it, but at the same time she was uncertain.
“His name is Teufel. He will carry us lightly and safely to your mother.” Alric then looked over at him. “Ethan, will you ride behind me while I carry Mary?”
The dream rose up before Ethan right then. He could already imagine the creak of the saddle, the jingle of silver bells, the scent of Alric in his nose, and the beautiful body of the man pressed up against his as the powerful animal galloped between the snow iced trees. He could almost feel the material of Alric’s cloak against his cheek and hear the steady thump of the man’s heart.
Do NOT, my son! He will KILL you if he knows who you are. What you are.
He will not kill me. He is not that kind of man. But Ethan saw the crossbow that was strapped to Alric’s back and for one moment imagined Alric reaching around for it and pointing it at him, like he had at the Fell Wolves, like he would at any Fell creature.
“Ethan, are you unwell?” Alric stepped towards him.
Ethan shook his head. “I – I just remembered about my friend Scott. He’s waiting for me on the other side of the woods. I need to get to him. He’s undoubtedly freaking out about me.” Scott probably was, but he would kill Ethan for using him as an excuse not to stay with Alric.
“Can you not phone him?” Alric asked, tilting his head to the side.
“I don’t have a cell phone.” I can’t afford one, but I won’t talk about that. “I wouldn’t know Scott’s number even if there was a phone here. I – I don’t really call anyone.”
“A rare thing indeed for a teenager of this day not to be constantly on their phone,” Alric said with a smile.
Ethan let out a self-conscious laugh and scrubbed a hand over his hair. “Oh, yeah, I’m a little weird like that.”
“Rare not weird.” Alric paused then offered, “We can take you to your friend first before I take the girl to her parents.”
Ethan’s heart stuttered in his chest. It was as if the other man did not want their encounter to end either. It cannot matter to him like it does to me. I can hardly feel what it means yet. I’m still too overwhelmed by it.
“You have no idea how much I want to take you up on your offer, Alric,” Ethan relished saying the man’s name. “But you must take her to her mother as quickly as possible. Don’t let me slow you down.”
Alric’s blue eyes studied him for long moments. “You are indeed a rare individual … Prince Ethan.”
Ethan let out a laugh at the play on words the man had made with his last name. Then, even though his cheeks were on fire with the boldness of what he was about to do, he bowed low and said, “It is my pleasure to serve you, King Alric.”
There was a moment of stunned silence then Alric’s rich laughter flowed over them both. “Until we meet again.”
“I hope it will be soon,” Ethan said. Tonight, actually.
“As do I.” Alric then took up Mary into his arms. She went quite willingly.
“Horsie?” she asked.
“Yes, we now will ride on Teufel. The trip will be quick and soon your mother’s arms will be around you,” Alric said to her, smoothing back her curls with one gloved hand.
Her face glowed. “Oh, horsie!”
Ethan watched Alric lightly leap up on top of Teufel with incredible grace. Mary’s eyes were wide as saucers as Alric took the reins in one hand and held onto her securely with the other.
Ethan dipped his head again and Alric smile broadly. Then Teufel was turning and Ethan heard the thunder of hooves again as they raced out of sight between the trees.