He was damn sure he didn't have a thing left to live for. And he was more than fine with it.


2. The Red Order

“I don’t know how you do it, Briar,” Endy said, sitting on the forest floor with his back pressed against an old and ancient oak.

                “It’s like they sing,” came a disembodied voice from above. “Like every plant has a song and you have to listen for it and figure out how it’s speaking. I wasn’t lying as a child when I told you I could hear the trees singing.”

                “My mother looked at you so funny when you said that,” the human chuckled. He tipped his head back, resting it against the rough bark in order to see Briar stretched out on his stomach along a branch some ten feet off the ground. “I don’t hear tree songs, Briar. But I hear water music.”

                “I’m lucky if I can divert a raindrop.”

                Endy grinned. “But you can grow a tree with no starter seed. That’s something.” His grin faded. His next words were going to be painful. “Meg wants me to go to Avernoth for more training. She says I have the most potential from a minor village than she’s seen in a long time and it would be a great opportunity.” He quickly added, “Though, if you were her student, she’d make the offer to you, first, because you’ve got more potential and talent than me.”

                Briar dropped smoothly and silently from his branch, landing in a crouch beside Endy’s booted feet. He rested his forearms on his knees, looking at his human best friend with a stare far beyond his years. “I don’t have the gift of magic, remember?” He reached out, wiggling Endy’s foot. “You should go.”

                “You have to come with me,” Endy blurted.

                Smiling sadly, Briar jiggled the foot again. “They won’t take someone who’s never had an ounce of formal training at the Academy. You go. You go and live and learn enough for the both of us, and write me letters to keep me from losing my mind.”

                Leaning forward, Endy moved sharply – and unexpectedly – enough to sweep Briar’s feet out from under him, sending the Fae crashing to the Earth with a yelp. Satisfied, he leaned back, returning to his original position against the trunk.

                “Why don’t you just come with me, Briar?” he repeated, much softer this time. He blinked slowly. Briar never could deny him anything when Endy’s eyes went wide and slightly watery. The Fae had muttered on more than one occasion it was like kicking a downed dog.

                “I can’t, Endy.”

                The human snorted inelegantly. “If this is about what Red will and won’t let you do, I don’t know why the bastard’s concerned. He ever caught you coaxing your mother’s flower garden into blooming long before and after they were supposed to, he’d disown you.”

                Briar flopped forward onto his belly, resting his arm casually over Endy’s knee. “He ever caught us, I’d worry more about him throwing me out of the family than out of the house.”

                “Cyren doesn’t say it’s a sin.” Endy smiled fondly, resting his hand on the Fae’s head, fingers running gently over one pointed ear. “Besides, if you left to Avernoth with me, then Red wouldn’t know and probably wouldn’t give a damn. The male did attempt to beat your magic out of you.”

                The Fae’s shoulders twitched in phantom agony, and he shifted more toward Endy’s warmth. “Still. A non-mage going with a mage to what’s known as the mage capital? Half of Pennfold will assume someone’s lied to them for years, and as I’m not around to blame, they’ll look at Red. And I can’t go, anyway, because of this whole mess with Lily possibly being pregnant without being married.”

                Endy froze. “She’s pregnant?”

                Briar propped himself up on his elbows to meet the human’s brown eyes. “I’m pretty sure she is. She’s been puking a lot lately, and no one else in the house has gotten ill.” He shrugged. “I think it’s the blacksmith’s apprentice, but I could be wrong.”

                 “Heh.” The human’s fingers rubbed back and forth on the point of Briar’s ear. “I still think you should come to Avernoth with me.”

                “Endy,” the Fae growled, grinding his forehead into the side of the man’s knee. “I can’t without outing myself as a mage, and that’s going to bring a world of hurt that I haven’t had to deal with in a good six months.” He shifted, resting his chin on Endy’s kneecap to look properly at his face, eyes particularly vulnerable. “Will you promise me you won’t have anyone else while you’re there?”

                “Why, Briar Foxwood, would I want anyone else before or after I have had all of you?” Endy tapped the male’s nose with his index finger, smiling gently. “Nobody else, Briar.”

                Seemingly satisfied, Briar shifted once more to wrap his arm completely around Endy’s leg and rest his cheek on the human’s thigh. It was Endy who had given him the name Foxwood when they were alone, as Briar wasn’t fond of either his middle or his last name as they were part of his father’s legacy to him. If Redwood Haverford wanted to deny his only son had magic, Briar could damn well deny he was a Haverford to begin with.

                “I promise,” Endy murmured from above him, fingers carding through Briar’s dark brown hair, “no other male but you.”

                It was as good as an I love you they were ever going to exchange, even somewhere as private as their own patch of forest, and Briar hummed softly in contentment as he listened to the Earth sing around him.


                After the fourth attempt to find another position in which to fall asleep, Briar gave up and shoved the summer sheet off, stretching out on his back with his arm on his chest. The house was still, and nothing caught his attention when he focused on his ears. The abdominal muscles under his hand twitched again, and he turned his head to the side, staring out through the open window at the tops of the trees.

                Redwood Haverford had built a house for his wife shortly after they were married, and he’d built it on the fringes of the Village Pennfold where he could look more at the trees and greenery – as befitting  a nurseryman – than his neighbors. He was a goodly couple hundred yards from his nearest neighbor, and Red liked the distance. Another couple hundred yards past the next house, and the dwellings got closer and closer together until they encountered more streets and then eventually became row houses in the village proper.

                Briar normally didn’t mind the distance, but something felt decidedly off. The shadows seemed more sinister, and there was a darker cast in the late summer air that shouldn’t be there. Something niggled at his senses, and he finally heaved himself upright with a growl.

                A figure moved from the tree line past the clothes line and on toward the neighbor.

                Quietly as possible, Briar shifted on the bed, gripping the sides of the window in effort to crane his head around enough to see where it had gone.

                There. Against the fence Mrs. Wardly had put up when Briar and Lily were children. It climbed it.

                He sat back on his heels. There was no common path through the forest from that direction, and the only ones Briar knew where the ones he and Endy had explored together, Briar guided more by the forest than any other knowledge. The only legitimate road from that direction, out of the east, led from Venegry, and anyone with half a functioning brain wouldn’t dare make the trip from Venegry to Pennfold in the dark of night.

                Movement caught his eye again, and another shadowy figure followed the first.

                Whatever this was, it wasn’t right. Briar scrambled off the bed, snatching up his shirt from the floor and his knife off the desk before stepping out in the hallway. He paused, making sure the house wasn’t aware of what he was doing, and took a few moments to wrestle his shirt on. It dragged heavily against his back, clinging as he passed the door to his parents’ room. Slipping his boots on in the kitchen, he was careful to open and close the door, breathing deeply once he was outside in the summer night air.

                His first glance was toward the forest, to make sure he wouldn’t be blindsided by someone else coming from the trees. Once he was certain there weren’t any more coming, he took a breath, focused on the Earth humming around him, and allowed his magic to light up the footprints like liquid moonshine on the dewy grass. He took off at a jog, knife in hand.

                The footprints skirted Mrs. Wardly’s, and Briar lost them momentarily when he had to switch from grass to the packed dirt of the main road. Dried Earth was more difficult to get a read on than the moist, fresh soil, but it gave him what he needed.

                Glass broke in the distance, followed by thumps muffled appropriately by distance and, from the slightly acrid scent to the air, elemental magics that weren’t meant to be mixed. Briar picked up the pace, forking right when the footprints split, one pair heading further into the village and the other through a raggedly hanging front gate. He went through the opening without hesitation, and the noise level inside the shaped air serving as a buffer increased dramatically.

                He didn’t think twice about it, bounding up the few steps and through the door. Broken glass crunched beneath his boots; flashes of light came from the back of the house – probably the kitchen – and he crept toward it, drawing level with the doorway.

                There was a whump and the dishes in the cupboard next to his head shattered. Briar ducked, hand squeezing around his knife hilt as the darkly robed figure came sliding toward him. He reached out, latching onto the hood and using it as a handle to pull the stranger back toward him, knife-hand flashing around to the front and quickly slicing open the now-vulnerable throat. The body hit the floor with a thud and a gurgle; Briar wiped the blade on his breeches. He finally looked over at Mage Tyra, their current Mage in Residence. Her night shift was torn and dirty, stained with blood in some places, but she was standing tall, pressed against the wall of the kitchen with the carnage all around her.

                “Briar,” she said, once she had her breathing under control.

                “We’ve never met,” he said slowly.

                “Endy is one of my students.” Tyra thumped across what was left of her kitchen. Briar noted she had boots on. Her pixie-cut hair swished around her rounded ears, declaring her human or shifter. “Talk of you dominates most of our conversation.” She held out her hand. “Nice to finally meet you, though I could have used better circumstances than a visit from the Red Order.”

                He gave her hand a quick, hard squeeze and followed her back the way he’d come. “I’m sorry about the state of your house.”

                Tyra paused at the hall closet by the door, shoving the downed coat tree out of her way. “It’s a house, Briar. It’ll fix. The living, on the other hand, won’t.” She pulled a crossbow from the depths of the closet, kicking the door shut with her foot. “I don’t know where they’ve come from, but where there’s one there’s usually more.” Without waiting for him to catch up, she hot-footed it out the front door – hanging awkwardly on its hinges – and out through the front gate to the street. Briar had to jog to keep up and hear her next words. “There have been rumors around the cities the Red Order was planning something, perhaps a coup against the mages, but the Council didn’t think it would account to much.” She paused, looking intently at the dirt. “Lev be damned, I don’t know which way they went.”

                Briar coaxed the footprints from the Earth once more, tapping her on the shoulder and jerking his hand to the right.

                “You really are very good.” She cocked the crossbow. “If the rumors are correct, the Red Order is hunting mages to prevent the stronger elementals from coming together. Rather than finding those with enough power to possibly be the element mage, they’re killing all of them.”

                He bristled, shoulders twitching in suppressed rage.

                “I’ll get the intermediates and you get the children,” Tyra said firmly. She gave his shoulder a shove when he hesitated, clearly thinking of Endy. “He can hold his own. You can sing with the trees. If anyone can convince a forest to hide a village of children, it’s you.”

                “You have a point there,” he agreed.

                She gestured with the crossbow, and he took off. There were only so many times he could push a woman with a loaded weapon. The footprints led him down a narrow alley between two sets of row houses, and into the small, fenced-off back gardens of many of the residences. A few clotheslines were heavy with drying laundry, shifting in the light summer breeze. Briar stilled his breathing and his heart rate.

                It was so faint he nearly missed it.

                The stifled sob of a child and the grating of a knife in a door lock. He moved toward it, ducking under linen shirts and shifts, the Earth muffling his footsteps. It was the same procedure as in Tyra’s kitchen – yank the hood, slit the throat, let the body drop. The door swung free with a creak, and Briar waited.

                “Master Briar?” came a small voice from the shadows.

                “Yes, lads.” Briar crouched, straining to see through the darkness. He’d come across many of the village children working in Thomas’s bakery for the past few years, and nearly all of them knew from Endy that Briar was one of them, even if he couldn’t do magic as openly as they could. Children were truly gifted secret-keepers.

                He landed on his rear with a thump and a soft exhalation of air, a small boy on each side. Briar dropped his knife in the grass to wrap both arms around them. They couldn’t have been older than eight – ten at the most – and they were being hunted simply because they were gifted with magic.

                “Are you boys alright?” Briar asked, once they’d separated.

                “Yes, Master Briar.”

                “How many more of the younger mages are there, besides you two?” He picked up his knife before standing.

                “Ten.” The boy on the left answered. “Ten more other than us.”

                “Can you take me to them?”

                The boy took his hand with a nod, and began pulling back through the garden gate and to the other street. Briar rounded a corner and ran smack into someone else, the pair of them landing hard on the ground. He couldn’t get his knife out quickly enough. Luckily, he didn’t need to.

                “Scare a Fae to Lev and back, Briar.” Thomas held out a meaty hand to help him up. “Have you got the Sanson twins with you? I’ve got the rest with me.”

                The twins in question scurried from behind Briar to join the rest of the children huddled in Thomas’s shadow.

                “We’re supposed to hide them,” Thomas said, rubbing a bandaged hand over his face. “I don’t know where.”

                “Tyra suggested the forest.” Briar glanced around. “But if we can find a large tree with a good root system I think I can solve the problem of where to hide them.”

                “Mr. Catterly’s got a big tree in his back garden,” came a small voice from behind Thomas. “He’s over on Chestnut Street.”

                “A few alleyways over,” Thomas murmured. “Kitty, you’ll need to lead, because neither Briar nor I have been to Mr. Catterly’s before.” He glanced at Briar. “And he hopefully won’t mind you hiding a group of children in his yard.”

                Kitty, a thin girl of about eight, walked smartly forward and took hold of Briar’s hand. He let her do the leading, Thomas bringing up the rear with the children between them. There were some tense moments, passing beneath the gas lamps as they entered the higher end of Pennfold, and Briar’s heart thumped painfully hard all the way there. He couldn’t recall most of the trip from finding Thomas and the other children to opening Mr. Catterly’s garden gate, but there was a massive oak, tall and proud against the starlit sky.

                Briar released her hand, walking slowly around the oak and feeling with his magic. The tree was very old, and it had lived a full life. He placed his hand on the bark, knowing the great tree didn’t have many years left in its life cycle. But with a wide base and an even wider root system branching far and deep in the Earth, it was perfect for him to coax a hiding place for the children.

                Breathing deeply, he found the very thread of being that connected his soul with that of the Earth, tugging gently and shaping carefully. The wind shifted, the branches creaking gently overhead as the roots groaned, prodded out of their natural position. He sucked in a hard breath, shuddering, standing with both feet on one massive root as they parted, the ground swallowing itself to open a hole. Briar and the tree shuddered together, his legs decidedly shaky as he stepped back to the grass, his entire back damp with sweat.

                “Perry! You still have that lantern I told you to bring?” Thomas whispered as Briar began helping them down into the space beneath the roots.

                “Yes, sir.” The lantern in question was nearly as tall as the boy holding it.

                “Good. Light it when you get down there so it won’t be dark. No light will show up here.” Thomas glanced at Briar for reassurance, and the other Fae nodded.

                “Someone will come get you when it’s safe, alright? But none of them that were after you will be able to move the roots.” Briar nodded for them to light the lamp, closing his eyes and shifting enough tree and Earth to protect them. He staggered, the world tilting madly when he was finished, and only Thomas’s strong arm kept him upright.

                “You alright?”

                Briar nodded. “Fine.”

                Thomas took him at face value and the two of them hurried through the night back toward the center of the village. Lights were on in my homes, and people of all races were beginning to emerge, confused at the noise and the feeling of unease as it permeated through the streets.

                A scream rent the air.

                Briar knew that voice as well as he knew his own. He flung his knife to the side to focus on running, weaving through the increasing crowd and nearly losing his footing as he went from rough dirt to cobblestone. Thomas was at his heels, reaching for any part of Briar he could reach to slow him down. The older male snagged an arm, and the two of them hit the ground in a tangle of limbs by the fountain depicting Cyren and Lev as robed figures in masks. There were bodies littered throughout the square. Thomas elbowed him hard in the ribs in an effort to get him to stay down, and Briar squirmed away, screaming out Endy’s name in frustration.

                Endy didn’t answer.

                He lurched to his feet, slipping through Thomas’s grasping fingers and crossed the distance between him and Tyra as she stood with her head bowed. Briar came to a dead stop when she looked up, her red-rimmed eyes meeting his.

                “I’m sorry, Briar.” She stepped aside.

                There, still and pale on the cobblestones was a glassy-eyed Endy staring forever at the sky, lit garishly by the lamps.

                Briar’s legs gave out, knees taking the brunt of weight as he landed on the rough ground, shoulders hunched in.

                “He didn’t go willingly,” Tyra said quietly from somewhere to his right. “He took two of them with him. It was the third he didn’t see.”

                He reached out, wrapping his shaking fingers around Endy’s cool ones, squeezing gently. There would be no more moments like the one earlier in the day in the forest, merely the two of them. Endy would never go to Avernoth to study at the Academy, and he would never send Briar letters of the goings-on. Nor would he continue to attempt to convince Briar to come with him.

                Never would Briar know love like he had known it from Endy.

                He tipped forward, pressing his forehead to the back of Endy’s hand with a stifled sob. He shook, and the Earth itself rippled, seething in agony with him. Briar opened his mouth, inhaled, screaming with every fiber of his being, and the world went white.

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