321 years ago
Year of unity 1549
Egil crept through the harsh underbrush, a knife in his hand. There was shouting up ahead, but he didn’t rush, didn’t risk revealing himself. Not yet. Though he hadn’t encountered him personally, he’d heard stories of creatures in this wood who used compassion as bait, mimicking the sounds of people in distress to lure you in deeper, to the heart of the wood.
It being some trick of Lyryma’s was the most plausible explanation for the racket. The only ones who venture this deep into the forest are those already privy to its secrets, and they’d know better than to scream.
Egil didn’t know what he’d expected to see when he finally reached the source of the noise – some strange wispy monster, maybe, or nothing at all – but four young alfar with pristine sabres and fine clothing fighting off an angry selcla wasn’t it. It only took a few seconds of Egil watching their sword forms to know they wouldn’t win this fight alone.
Not all of them held sabres, though– the one at the back, furthest from the selcla, instead tried desperately to hold the reins of their spooked horses. Seeing this, Egil crept around the edge of their small clearing over to him, ripping up a thick fern branch as he went.
“Give me your tinderbox,” he said to the alfar in an urgent whisper.
The alfar jumped at his sudden appearance and turned wide, icy-blue eyes on him. “What?”
“A tinderbox. You have one somewhere among the saddlebags, don’t you? Give it to me.”
“Who even are you?”
“Doesn’t matter. Just trust me.”
The alfar stared at Egil a moment longer, then nodded and thrust the reins into Egil’s hands. He turned to a dun horse decked in Alfheim trappings and rested a hand on its neck, cooing at it under his breath while searching its saddlebags for the tinderbox.
Finding his prize, he passed it to Egil and took back the reins. With a few hasty strikes, Roman set the fern branch ablaze.
Across the clearing, the selcla stood on its hind legs so that it towered over the three alfar at nearly twice their height. It swiped at one with a massive paw, striking him and sending him flying into a nearby tree trunk with a thud. Before it could strike again, Roman ran into the fray, waving the flaming branch at the selcla. It fell back immediately, dropping onto four legs again and taking several steps wary back.
“Shoo,” Egil urged, waving the branch at it again. It was burning quickly; he could already feel the heat on his hand. Fortunately, the trick had worked. With an irritated grunt, the selcla turned and lumbered back into the brush.
Egil dropped the branch and stomped out the fire while the alfar crowded around him.
“That was brilliant!” one said.
“How did you know that would work?” another asked.
Egil stepped away before they could fully encircle him, eyeing them all warily. They barely seemed to notice his hesitation, too caught up in their own excitement and the rush of adrenaline that follows a near-death experience. Guessing an alfar’s age always posed a challenge, but based on their manner and dress, Egil knew these were young.
“What are you doing here?” he asked them. “This forest is dangerous.”
“Yes, so we were told,” one of the boys sighed. He was taller than the others. Older, too, with less baby fat and a trace of blond stubble along his jaw. “I didn’t know that meant giant bears that attack for no reason whatsoever!”
“Dangerous means dangerous. Leave before you get hurt.”
“We can’t,” said another, the one who’d been thrown into a tree. He rubbed at his lower back but otherwise appeared uninjured. “Our friends are waiting for us at the edge of the wood. They dared us to keep going until one of us found an oanai. We can’t turn back now.”
“Then you’ll die and you’ll bring shame on your families,” Egil said. He met the fourth alfar’s gaze, the one who’d been watching. “The blood of Alfheim royalty will be on your hands.”
The boys all stilled. Surprise flickered across the face of the fourth alfar, and he left the horses— calmed, now that the threat was gone— tethered to a tree in order to join them. “How did you know?” he asked.
“The crest on your saddlebags.”
“Clever. Who are you?” the tall one asked.
Egil hesitated. This would be his first time introducing himself since escaping Unity. The people of Home had already known him as Egil, accepted him as Egil, but this was a chance to be someone else, to rid himself of the title Egil, Unity’s servant. Egil was gone, but Amaimon was, too— dead and buried long ago by Unity.
“Call me Roman,” he said. Then, regretfully dropping his mother’s surname— it was how Unity knew him— he added, “Roman Hallisey.”
“Well,” the tall alfar said, reaching out to lay a hand on Roman’s shoulder in a gesture Roman shied away from. “It’s truly a pleasure, Mr. Hallisey. I’m Helge Evanson. This is Kjell and Oskar, and the royal you so quickly identified is Leandros Nochdvor, the King’s grandson.”
Roman eyed the royal. He looked like his uncle— golden hair, pale blue eyes, and light, unmarred skin. But Leandros was younger, leaner, and far more awkward. The biggest difference, though played openly across his face— his emotions. Clearly, this alfar hadn’t yet mastered the old Alfheim tradition: keep your true feelings hidden.
He smiled at Roman, soft and kind. “Join us for a meal. Consider it our thanks to you for saving our lives.”
“I dare say we could’ve fought it,” Kjell said.
“What, like you were fighting it when it sent you flying?” Oskar asked.
“It does seem like you’re our good luck token, Mr. Hallisey,” Helge said. “Please, do sit. I’d love to hear what you’re doing in Lyryma, if it’s as dangerous as you say. Oskar, get a fire started, would you?”
As much as Roman didn’t want to stay, he couldn’t in good conscience leave these boys alone. They’d been lucky so far, but luck was a fickle thing in the deadly depths of Lyryma, and Roman had enough blood and guilt staining his soul already. While he was still trying to decide, he found himself being dragged down to sit beside Helge at a small but growing fire.
Kjell broke a loaf of bread and passed it around the circle while Helge offered Roman fruit native to Alfheim. Roman took one of the small berries and considered it— these alfar must’ve been early into their journey, if their fruit was still so fresh. They’d likely come here directly from Alfheim.
“Is a dare really worth your lives?” Roman asked. His eyes met Leandros’ blue ones when he looked up, and the royal looked away. Roman almost smiled at the obviousness of his unease. If this had been some mission for Unity— pull information from the alfar king’s grandson— he’d have been disappointed by the lack of challenge.
“Yes,” Oskar said easily.
“We’re students at the Academy, you see— that’s the best school in Alfheim— and we’re about to enter our final year,” Helge explained. “It’s tradition that every year, when the senior class graduates, they give the rising class a dare that they must complete. Ours is to bring back some proof that we met an oanai in Lyryma. So we must do this.”
Roman raised an eyebrow.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Helge said. “If we turn back now, we’ll be the first class in over fifty years to fail. Our fathers, our fathers’ fathers, they all completed their own dares. We’d be a disgrace.”
Roman looked at Leandros. “What about you? You’re quiet. Do you disagree?”
“I think it would be wise to cede defeat,” Leandros said, shooting Kjell a glare. “Which is what I’ve been saying all day.”
“You were just as excited for this as the rest of us!”
“That was before we almost got mauled by a giant bear!” Leandros countered. “Besides, I was excited to leave Alfheim, not to enter a forest where our people are rightly unwelcome.”
“It was a selcla, technically,” Roman said. “Same genus, different species.”
The alfar all shot him surprised looks at that, not expecting a strange, feral human they found in Lyryma to know the difference between a genus and a species.
Roman cleared his throat. “There are worse creatures here, the deeper you go. Which is why I advise that you turn back.”
“If you know Lyryma so well, why don’t you help us? Do you know where we can find the oanai?” Oskar asked.
This sparked Kjell and Helge’s excitement, and soon Roman had three eager alfar bearing down on him. He pushed himself to his feet, stepping swiftly away from them all, closer to the protection of the wood. “If I help you find an oanai, do you promise to leave the forest immediately after?”
“Of course,” Helge agreed. “We don’t want to be here, believe it or not. I have silks and a warm bed waiting for me in Alfheim, and I don’t have to dine on berries and bread.”
“Fine,” Roman said. “I’ll take Nochdvor, but the rest of you must stay here.”
Leandros’ mouth fell open in surprise.
The others climbed to their feet in an instant, swarming Roman. Oskar, Kjell, and Helge spoke over each other, each trying to complain louder than the others.
Kjell, “Why him?”
Oskar, “Why not take all of us?”
Helge, “Just who do you think you are?”
“Your people have made an enemy of the oanai for centuries; you think I’d just march you straight to Home? You’re just arrogant, unthinking children. You give no thought to the damage you could do,” Roman spat. “Since Mr. Nochdvor is clearly the only one among you with common sense, he’s the only one I’ll take.”
Helge spluttered. Soft hands, fine clothes, and loud, arrogant confidence— he’d clearly never been spoken to this way in his life.
“We’ll be back in a few hours. If you’re going to sleep, keep a watch. Don’t leave this clearing and always keep that fire lit. Most predators in the forest fear fire. It should keep you safe until we get back,” Roman said, before Helge could recover. To Leandros, he added, “We continue on foot. Keep behind me and follow my orders.”
Leandros shouldered a single, small bag and followed Roman deeper into the wood. As the glow from the fire behind them dimmed, soon to be swallowed completely by the lush foliage, dark in the night, he tried to spark up a conversation.
“How do you know so much about Lyryma?” he asked. When Egil looked back at him, the alfar’s expression was clear, composed. He’d shown so much apprehension earlier, but where was that fear now?
“I live here.”
“Is that so? Have you been here long?”
There came a pause, Leandros waiting for Roman to expand on his statement. When he didn’t, Leandros said, “Your accent is Troasian, isn’t it? That’s a very long way from here.”
Leandros sighed. “You’re not one for talking, are you? That’s fine, I suppose.” He walked beside Roman now, looking all around him like he couldn’t take enough of it in. “Lyryma is actually quite lovely when there are no monsters attacking you.”
“It is,” Roman agreed. He remembered the first time he’d seen the forest. He’d been weary and injured, stumbling in after a long chase out of Gallontea, his heart breaking for Bellona, the girl he’d had to leave behind. Things had changed so much since then. He’d known peace.
Leandros remained silent the rest of the way. That silence echoed around and between them. Normally, Egil was uneasy travelling the forest at night, but he found it peaceful with a companion, even a stranger he’d only known a few hours.
The forest matched their peace, their silence, so that they were able to hear the music of Home long before they reached the city. It drifted through the trees toward them, compelling them onward, and before long the ground dropped out beneath them, the city sprawling below. Night had fallen, so lanterns had been lit all throughout Home— the majority of them surrounded Central Field, where figures swayed and danced to Home’s strange music.
“This is Home?” Leandros asked, breathless. He dropped to his knees at the very edge of the hill, staring down at the city with wide eyes and an open mouth. “From the stories they tell in Alfheim, I was expecting…”
“Not this,” Roman guessed.
“Not this,” Leandros agreed. “This is incredible. It puts Alfheim to shame.”
“You’d be surprised at how many stories your people tell about Home are untrue,” Roman said, crossing his arms. He watched Leandros out of the corner of his eye— he couldn’t remember ever meeting an alfar so unapologetically enthusiastic about anything, let alone another city, another culture.
“I don’t doubt that.”
Roman pointed at Central Field. “There are your oanai. You said you needed proof?”
“Just some token,” Leandros said with a shrug. “Can we get closer?”
“I don’t know if that’s appropriate. It’s not for me to invite you into the city.”
Leandros nodded. “I understand. Then shall I…wait here while you get the token?”
“Egil!” a deep voice called, turning both Leandros and Roman’s heads. Leandros gasped when he saw his first oanai – it was Mani, a favored candidate for quadrant chieftan. She was also the youngest candidate, and the one who had first found Egil when he came stumbling into Lyryma with Unity guards on his heels.
She approached from the grand staircase, tilting her head quizzically as she took in the person beside Roman. “You’ve been a guest here for so long, Egil, but you’ve never brought a friend before.”
“He’s not—,” Roman began.
“But he’s someone you trusted to bring here?” Mani asked.
“Yes,” Roman admitted.
“Then welcome to Home,” Mani told Leandros. “You’ve made it just in time for a party.”
“A party?” Leandros asked.
“He’s not staying,” Roman said. “Mani, can we borrow a whisker?”
Mani blinked at the unusual request. “A whisker?”
“Yes, one of your whiskers. Leandros needs it for something,” Roman said.
Mani made a low, thoughtful noise. “I will give your friend a whisker if you both come to our party. I’ve noticed how you always avoid them, Egil. Our good neighbors will be very happy to see you.”
“Happy may be a strong word.” Roman sighed. “Fine. But we can’t stay long.”
They followed Mani down the Grand Staircase, toward the constant stream of music coming from Center Field. The minute they made the clearing, glasses of shimmering wine were thrust into their hands. A faerie with elegant butterfly wings danced around Roman, playing with his hair before whisking Leandros away for a dance.
As a newcomer, someone fresh and exciting, Leandros quickly amassed an entourage of curious fae. Roman watched him for a while— he was all youthful excitement and awkward limbs compared to the grace of the fae, but he was something solid and true in a sea of the surreal and ethereal. Roman found him strangely magnetic.
With that thought, he drained his glass, then cast one last look at Leandros before setting off in search of another. He should have realized then how hard it was to leave a fae party once you’d begun to let yourself enjoy it.
Roman and Leandros found each other again nearly an hour later, when they almost collided in the middle of a dance. Roman caught himself only to stumble into him a moment later. He laughed, the world tipping dangerously around him.
A deceptively strong arm wrapped around his waist, keeping him steady. “Hello again,” Leandros said, raising his voice to be heard over the laughter and music.
“Hi,” Roman said breathlessly. “We should really be getting back to your friends.”
“They’re not my friends,” Leandros said. He tugged Roman away from the party, his amused grin never leaving his face. “And I think we should both sit a while before we try to go anywhere.”
Roman shrugged and dropped down into the grass. “That’s fine. As long as they keep the fire going, they won’t die.”
Leandros laughed. It was a sound that belonged here. If magic existed, Roman always thought, he would find it in Lyryma. He was right, in a way— he found it in that laugh.
“You’re like a different person, drunk,” Leandros observed as he settled beside Roman in the grass.
Roman scoffed. “This is hardly me drunk. It’s me…” Inhibited just enough to be able to breathe, to emerge from the shell of a man who was broken and remade only to be broken again. Just enough to forget the torture, the manipulation, and worst of all, the terrible things he’d done of his own will. “Relaxed,” he finished.
“Of course. My apologies.”
Roman ignored the faint humor in the alfar’s voice. “When does your term start?” he asked.
“Kjell— or was it Oskar— one of them said you’re students at the Academy. A new term starts soon, right?”
“Not until fall,” Leandros said.
Roman nodded and twirled a lock of hair around his finger. It was getting long, nearly down to his waist when he didn’t tie it up. The passage of time was indistinct in Home— seasons meant nothing, weeks blended into months, into years. And through it all, Roman didn’t age. He used his hair as a time marker of sorts— soon, it would be time to cut it all off and begin the cycle again.
There was no counting the cycles since he’d attended the Academy, too many were they. He doubted anyone he knew still taught there. He tried to think of the youngest professor who’d been teaching when he was enrolled. “Is, ah…Elgar Silge still teaching there?”
Leandros had been watching the party, his foot tapping along to the beat of the music, but at this, he turned the full force of his attention on Roman. “No, he’s been dead many years.”
“Ah,” Roman said. “Shame.”
“His daughter is the headmaster, now.”
Roman sat upright at that. “Asta?”
“You know her?”
“We were friends when I– I used to attend the Academy,” Roman confessed without quite meaning to.
With the expressiveness Roman had come to expect from him, Leandros made a surprised noise, still watching Roman with an intensity that made Roman look away. “A human from Troas who attended the Academy and lied about his own name, now living in Lyryma with the oanai. What a mystery you are.”
“I didn’t lie,” Roman said. He was getting the feeling that he’d had far more to drink than Leandros had. A mistake. “My name is Amaimon Roman Rosario Hallisey. I go by Roman.”
“The oanai from earlier called you Egil.”
“That’s not my– that’s something else. Don’t ever call me that.”
Leandros held his hands up in apology. “I won’t. I’m sorry for pushing. I like Roman. It’s a good name.”
“Thanks,” Roman said. Warning bells chimed in the back of his head. Instinct told him Leandros wouldn’t abuse the information, but it was still more than Roman had willingly given anyone in— well, all his life.
“What did you study at the Academy?” Leandros asked.
“Chemistry. I never did get to graduate, though. I had to drop out before my final year.” He almost smiled. “Never got to participate in any dares.”
A furrow appeared between Leandros’ brows. “What happened?”
Roman shrugged. “My father died. I didn’t have the money or means to continue.”
“You could always go back,” Leandros slurred, the first sign of his own intoxication he’d shown all night. “You could finish with the new term. We could be classmates.”
Roman laughed, short and bitter. “I don’t know if that’s possible.”
“Think about it,” Leandros said. He pushed himself to his feet and held a hand out to Roman, who took it with little hesitation. “In the meantime, come and dance with me, just one song. Then we can find that oanai, get her whisker, and I can get out of this forest.”
Six Months Later
The schoolroom was sticky and humid, filled with chattering voices and blank space– walls, desks, chalkboards. For the best Alfheim had to offer, the Academy certainly left something to be desired. But it was space away from his family and the professors were competent, so Leandros knew he shouldn’t complain.
He sat surrounded by Helge, Oskar, Kjell, and several classmates who hadn’t been let in on their fateful summer dare. Helge was telling some story about an Evanson family hunting trip to Creae Valley, and Leandros had long since tuned out. He was the first to notice, then, when someone familiar entered the room behind their professor.
A lean figure with dark skin, dark eyes, and long, long dark hair pulled back and up off his neck, Roman stood out among the broad-shouldered, fair-haired citizens of Alfheim. More importantly, he lacked the features that marked alfar blood –pointed ears, sharp angles, long proportions. As in Lyryma, he wore an old Troasian style – a flowing white tunic partially unbuttoned, a red sash around his waist, a homespun ascot around his neck.
Almost immediately, he found Leandros’ gaze. Leandros took a moment to recover from his surprise, but then he smiled at Roman, and Roman nodded back at him.
“What is he doing here?” Helge asked, finally noticing Roman as well.
“Mr. Evanson,” the professor scolded, settling his things on the desk at the front of the room. “This is your new classmate, Roman Hallisey. He is a personal friend of the Headmaster, so I hope you all welcome him and show him how hospitable we can be at the Academy.”
“This is some kind of joke, right?” Helge asked, dropping the Unity-mandated Ellesian for eld alfar, a language spoken only among old Alfheim families. “He’s some filthy peasant who lives in the woods among nympherai. Why in all of Calaidia would the Headmaster have anything to do with him?”
“Shut up, Helge,” Leandros snapped, also in alfar. He turned to face Roman, who’d settled on a stool at the high table behind him and switched back to Ellesian. “Glad you could make it.”
“Gladr lig at vara hi,” Roman replied in crisp, flawless eld alfar. Glad to be here.
Helge nearly fell off his stool.
As they settled into the term, Leandros made multiple attempts to befriend Roman Hallisey. He tried to invite Roman out with the rest of the students, tried to strike up conversations with him between classes, and once, when he was particularly desperate, tried following Roman to the market so he could later “pretend” to run into him. The latter attempt had been an utter failure. Either intentionally or unintentionally, Roman had disappeared from Leandros’ sight after just one block.
Leandros was used to people who hid their emotions, but it was different with Roman. Sometimes, Leandros wondered if Roman even had emotions, then he’d catch a flicker of life – the way he’d smile to himself when the professor got his facts mixed up, the spark of anger that flickered to life in his eyes when the other students were being particularly ignorant. It would remind Leandros of that night in Home, when Roman smiled, laughed, played with his hair and danced. He’d remember the loneliness he saw in Roman when Roman had let his guard down, and then he tried harder.
Leandros knew that loneliness. It matched his own.
His chance to finally get close to Roman came in the form of a group project. Leandros had been in the classroom early to speak to the professor, make sure that when the team assignments were read out that he and Roman would be paired together. Roman hadn’t questioned it out loud, but he’d given Leandros a curious, appraising look as they’d agreed to meet in Roman’s flat their next free day to work.
When the day came, Leandros was inexplicably nervous. Roman’s flat was in a corner of Alfheim he’d never been in, and the building itself was smaller, colder, dingier than any building he’d ever seen. He hadn’t even known places like this existed in Alfheim. He climbed rickety steps and planned what he might say to Roman, what they might talk about.
Roman’s rooms were simple and pleasant, even if there were only two of them: the main room and the kitchen. Leandros tried not to stare too much at Roman’s bed as they both settled on the ground to spread out their papers and get to work.
They fell into a rhythm with their work quickly– Leandros didn’t even need to use his planned conversation starters. He was pleased to find they worked well together. He had an eye for the big picture, and Roman for details. Roman’s intense focus rivaled his own– so much so that they worked straight through lunchtime without noticing.
“I think we’ve earned ourselves a break,” Leandros said eventually, stretching with his arms over his head, his back cracking once, twice with the movement.
“Mm,” Roman hums, still staring down at their work with a frown.
“Roman,” Leandros said, when Roman didn’t move. “A break. This project certainly isn’t worth overworking yourself over.”
“You’re right,” Roman said, finally putting down the paper in his hand. “But what, exactly, did you think we’d do during this ‘break’ instead?”
Leandros frowned. “Talk, I hope? I was curious to know how you’ve been readjusting to Alfheim.”
Roman only raised an eyebrow.
Leandros tried again. “Do…you miss Lyryma?”
“Sometimes,” Roman said. He looked up at Leandros, then, and Leandros found himself trapped by that gaze. “I know you asked the professor to make us partners.”
Leandros felt his mouth fall open. “Oh, I– no, I only– that is, I thought–,”
While he stammered out an excuse, Roman sat up and shifted closer. Then, he straddled Leandros’ hips, his warm weight settling in the alfar’s lap. Leandros’ mind stuttered to a stop. Before it could start up again, Roman kissed him, wound an arm around his shoulders and sighed a contented him against Leandros’ lips when Leandros kissed back. Without thinking, Leandros wound an arm around Roman’s waist and hauled him closer, making him gasp.
The sound was enough to pull Leandros back to his senses. He pushed Roman off, ignoring his surprised expression, and scooted back until his shoulders hit the edge of the bed. He knew his face was bright red, could feel the warmth rushing to his cheeks.
“What,” he gasped. “What are you doing?”
Roman only frowned. “It’s what you wanted, isn’t it? Why you’ve been so nice to me?”
Roman’s frown only deepened.
“I want to be friends with you, Roman.”
Roman stared at him. “Friends,” he repeated. “Do you really mean that?”
“Of course I do,” Leandros said, wondering– not for the first time– what happened to Roman to make him like this. He knew what he’d seen in Home; he knew Roman wasn’t naturally cold.
Roman ran a hand through his hair, accidentally pulling some of the shorter pieces free of its tie. “I don’t…I mean, it’s been a while since I– since I’ve had friends.”
“I can tell,” Leandros said, managing a small smile. “I mean, me too. Helge and them, they don’t count. They only tolerate me because of my status. And besides, they’re awful.”
Roman nodded. “They really are awful.”
Another silence fell between them, both watching the other as if they might try something else world-shattering. Finally, Roman said, “I suppose we can try it.”
Leandros couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled out of him– whether at his own embarrassment or at Roman’s, he wasn’t sure. Roman smiled, warm and wide, and Leandros felt his loneliness begin to drain away. At the same time, he wondered if friendship would be enough.
A/N: How was that for an interlude? I’m sure everyone was dying to know just how Roman and Leandros became friends 🙂
I’ll be posting art from today’s chapter, but only on the Fractured Magic discord, which anyone is welcome to join!