Filip slashed the wooden training sword across the younger warrior’s leathers, then came down with an overhand strike between head and shoulder. The younger warrior dropped to his knees, but he was grinning like he’d won instead of lost the sparring match. Filip tossed the sword to the side and offered a hand up.

“Prince Filip! That was astounding. You’re incredibly fast.”

After slicking his sweat-dampened black hair out of his face, Filip yanked the trainee to his feet as snow began to fall in thick waves. “You did well.”

The gathered crowd of fellow mountain elves, there for the entertainment of the Frostlight Tournament, shouted Filip’s nickname, Hatchet. More people walked the distant path, leaving the highest elevations to celebrate in the relatively flat land where his ancestors had made their home. Already, woolen tents covered the expanse of rocky land from the castle to the cliffs that overlooked the Kingdom of Lore.

Filip strode out of the ice-crusted sparring ring and looked around for his friend Costel while the crowd began to break up and the judges called out the winners of the day’s fights.

“Will you have a drink with us, Prince Filip?” Two red-haired women he’d never met gestured toward the tavern and the outdoor tables set among the large, copper bowls of fire.

“You do remember I’m the younger prince?” He grinned, already assuming they had set their sights on him with aspirations of nobility. His elder brother, Dorin—heir to the mountain kingdom throne—was heading up a scouting mission in the highest peaks. Dragons had been spotted recently, and Filip’s father the king was determined to record their numbers and protect their young from poachers.

The taller of the red-haired women stretched like a cat, showing off her body, which Filip duly appreciated. “But you are the prince who moves like a mountain lion. A perfect face and the keys to a kingdom say nothing of how a man is behind closed doors.”

Filip chuckled. “You’re brave to speak to a prince like that. Of course I’ll meet you. Perhaps at the bonfires tonight?” 

Nodding, they murmured something complimentary about his arms. Knocking the worst of the ring’s mud from his boots against the fence, he pretended not to hear.

A whimper sounded through the noise of laughter, conversation, and horses nickering. At one of the tables near the pie seller’s cart, Filip’s cousin, Ivan, grabbed the front of a young woman’s dress. The man was a beast in size and manners, and Filip had hated him since they were forced to play together in childhood.

Ivan shoved her forward, and she slid in the mud, nearly falling before catching herself. “Get me more mead, wench, and be quick.”

Without thinking, Filip approached his disgusting cousin. “I see you’re spreading the joy of solstice Frostlight.”

Ivan grunted and drank the rest of his ale. “Shove it, princeling.”

“Seems to me you’re the one doing the shoving.” Filip looked pointedly at the woman he’d mistreated. She grabbed a pitcher from a nearby table, sloshing the contents. 

“None of your business.”

Filip held up a finger. “That’s where you’re mistaken. This is my family’s kingdom, and she is one of my subjects. If you insist on acting like a wild boar, you’re going to have to go away. Far, far away.”

Ivan stood and upturned the table. Filip lurched back to avoid the falling trenchers and mugs. “Fight me, Prince,” Ivan sneered. “To the death. I refuse to live another day in a world where you breathe.”

Filip clapped. “You just strung together more words than I’ve heard you say in all your life. You must have taken up reading. What tomes have you been poring over, wise cousin?”

A very large fist swung at Filip’s head. He ducked, chuckling. 

“I’m serious, Filip. Fight me.” Ivan smiled, his eyes bright with bloodlust.

Filip wiped a hand over the stubble on his chin and sighed. “I was really looking forward to a bath in the hot springs, but I guess…”

He took out his hatchet—the weapon that had given him his nickname—flipped it, then hit Ivan in the temple with the butt. Ivan took a swaying step, blinked, then drew his curved saber. 

Heat rose in Filip’s chest and along his arms, and all trepidation of what he was about to do fled his mind. Ivan really was going to try to slay him right here in the road. “Kill me then, Cousin.” He whipped the hatchet around, its handle as familiar as his palm. “Do your worst. I’ve been spoiling for a fight with you since we shared a nanny.”

Like a bear drunk on brazenberries, Ivan lunged and slashed his blade through the air. Suddenly Filip was dodging expert strikes and stabs with his heart drumming in his ears. He blocked a heavy blow. The impact numbed his arm. 

“I’ll kill you, Prince! I’ll find you in your sleep and bash your ugly face.” Ivan laughed.

Tasting metal on his tongue, Filip came up behind the cruel beast. With a quick foot to the back of the knee, he had Ivan bending backward and the hatchet’s handle laid against the side of his cousin’s throat. The big man began to slump in his grip, the blood cut off from Ivan’s head by the hold.

“Good rest, Cousin. Remember, you brought this on yourself.” He lowered the unconscious idiot to the ground.

The crowd chanted, “Hatchet! Hatchet!”

Shaking, Filip gave them a grin and wiped spittle from his cheek as he walked away.

At the bend in the road, Ivan’s voice echoed. Filip spun to see him sitting up, a hand on the overturned table. “We will see what our fathers say of this, Cousin.”

Filip gave him a big smile. “Just keep your hands off my subjects and we’ll be fine!” You pig.

Ivan’s father would want revenge for this embarrassment. Filip adjusted the royal family’s seal ring on his finger. The heavy thing boasted a detailed constellation, symbolic of the god Rigel and the goddess Ursea who first brought elves to this sharply beautiful place. Filip’s parents would understand about the fight, surely. 

At the lane leading up to the castle, Filip’s friend Costel slipped through the small space between the new blacksmith’s forge and the tavern. Though he was the same age as Filip, Costel still had the rawboned look of a youth. “Filip! Your parents are requesting your presence.” The man’s light hair fell over his eyes.

“Word travels fast.”

Costel’s eyebrows knitted. “News?”

“Aren’t they wanting to know why I put Ivan down for a little nap?”

“You did what?”

Filip pushed past Costel. “He asked for it.”

“Oh, gods. The earl will have you whipped.”

“He was being a boar. As usual. I won’t be taken.”

“You will. That man is nearly as bad as his son.”

“All the more reason for my parents not to listen to his rambling.”

“But that’s not what they want to talk to you about.”

Filip glanced at Costel as they strode toward the inner bailey and the keep. “Do I have time to wash first?”

Costel’s lips bunched. “Your mother is pacing.”

“So, no.”

“Not if you want to keep your ears.” Costel flicked one of Filip’s pointed ears, and Filip punched him lightly in the stomach. Costel made an oomph sound but laughed and came up with an elbow aimed at Filip’s chin. Filip caught Costel’s arm and shoved him away, grinning. 

“Think Ioana will meet me at the bonfires tonight?” Costel asked.

Filip poked at his ribs. “Not if she has anything better to do.”

“Eh! I’ve bulked up this past fortnight, haven’t I? I’ve eaten nearly as much as you.”

“Sure, Costel. You’re gaining muscle. Well done. I was only teasing.” The guards held their swords back as Filip and Costel strolled through the inner bailey’s archway. “She’ll be there, and she’ll beg you to marry her,” Filip said.

Costel looked at the ground, his crooked teeth showing as he smiled widely. “You think so?”

“Aye. You have a unique look, friend. And the ear of the prince.” Filip winked. “Unless my dear mother lops it off during this audience.”

Costel chuckled, then gripped Filip’s arm, stopping him just inside the keep’s doors. “All your news distracted me. There’s a messenger from Lore. That’s what the king and queen want to talk to you about.”

Valets and servants bustled through the corridor, bumping one another into the furs that lined the walls and whispering excitedly under the glowing oil lamps. Normally, Filip’s home was quiet, but at Frostlight, everyone had a job and the wish to see it done quickly so they wouldn’t miss out on the fun.

Filip swung around, aiming for the hallway that led to his chambers. 

“Where are you going?” Costel hurried to catch up. 

“If it’s news from Lore, it can wait until I’ve washed. Those spoiled humans never have anything important to say.” He paused and met Costel’s wide eyes. “Unless the messenger is a water mage.”

“I don’t think so.”

Filip nodded, shrugging. “Too bad. Those mages did fine work in the war. I never did get the chance to speak with one.” 

Most humans were simple folk like him, lacking magic—although his speed, strength, and longer life gave him an edge as an elf. But some incredibly rare humans held powerful magic. Human witches were blessed by the Sacred Oak and given wands by trees near their place of birth. Witches could enact their will on the world to a certain degree depending on how much of the goddess Vahly’s strength flowed in their veins. The other type of humans that held magic were water mages. The blood of the ancient race of sea folk showed up in their ability to make water flood and freeze. 

Costel grabbed him and turned him around. “You have to go to the throne room now or I’ll be in it, Filip.”

Sighing, Filip looked to the painted stars on the keep’s ceiling. “All right. I wouldn’t want your Ioana to miss out on your brawny presence tonight.”

“Shut it,” Costel said, grinning.

Filip and Costel wove through the frenzy of servants and finally entered the throne room. Queen Sorina and King Mihai were both pacing. When they spotted Filip, they stopped. 

Filip spoke out of the side of his mouth. “Costel, you should go. Now.” 

“I will never leave your side.”

“This isn’t an army. This is my parents.” Much worse. When they were like this, anything could happen. “Remember Marius’s donkey?”

Their friend Marius had been caught sneaking a ride on Sorina’s best mare. When Sorina had found out, he’d been forced to ride a donkey to his own wedding. 

“Oh, the donkey. Vahly’s Sword, that bray—”

“If you don’t mind!” Sorina’s voice pounded across the stone floor, and Filip and Costel clapped their mouths shut.

“Son,” Mihai started, “we need to discuss your wife.”

Despite the roaring fires blazing from the two hearths, Filip’s skin went cold. “I don’t have a wife.”

Sorina sat on her throne, her silver crown catching the candlelight and her hands folded in her lap. “You do now.”



Aury let the human king and queen lead her into the gardens beside the great hall. The Frostlight moon shone down through the canopy of skeletal tree limbs and snow-dusted pines. Dark ivy curled around the ruins of the original palace, leaves grasping well-worn stone pillars where the winter jasmine slept in the falling snow. A tidy labyrinth paved with small, round stones looped a still pool that twisted her stomach. She’d seen a face in the washing water. Would she see something else if she got too close now?

The human queen stared, and Aury picked at her gown, nervous under the human ruler’s expectant look. 

Dropping Aury’s arm, the king faced her, his crown shimmering in the broken moonlight as his gaze flicked to her ear. Strange man. “Aurora Rose, you are not half fae as you have been led to believe.”

She couldn’t understand what he was saying. The sounds formed words, but they made no sense.

He cocked his head and watched her like a scar wolf eyeing a hare. “You are fully human and most likely a water mage.”

“No,” she said, touching the pointed ear he’d been focusing on. 

“Here. I can help with that,” the Fae Queen’s voice murmured from the door behind Aury. A tingling spread over her head, and the tips on her ears smoothed into soft curves.

Her heart stuttered. “But… Why would I be human? I’m the queen’s niece. Her sister was my mother. The queen didn’t love me, but—”

The king tucked his lips inside his stained beard and shook his head. “I’m afraid you have it all wrong.”

The human queen gripped Aury’s arms, then spun her around. Those wide eyes looked ready to swallow her. “You are our daughter and the heir to the throne.”

The garden spun, and Aury let the human queen hold her upright. She shook off the dizziness. “You’re my parents.”

“We are,” the queen said, smiling.

“And that’s not all.” The king spun his water mage staff. “You most likely hold a fraction of my power.”

“I’m a water mage?”

“Most likely. You showed a few signs even as an infant.”

“Why did you give me to the fae?”

“That’s a long story,” the queen said. 

The king tucked his staff under an arm. “When you were born, we betrothed you to a prince. The Matchweaver wasn’t pleased that we chose without her advice.”

“You did what?”

The queen sniffed. “The witch grows too haughty. She must remember who rules this kingdom.”

“She cursed you, Aurora,” the king said. “We had to hide you here in the fae court where you would be safe.”

“This is too much. Who has wine?” Aury looked around, but there was no help in sight. Water mage. Royal heir. Curses. Her fingers dug into her gown, and she tried to slow her breathing and stop the world from spinning.

“The Matchweaver’s curse… Well, she said that because we betrothed you without consulting her and her magic loom, you would prick your finger on a spinning wheel and die.”

“Why didn’t she just kill me herself?”

The Fae Queen piped up. “Because she is a witch. They adore dramatics.”

And the fae didn’t? Ha. More likely the Matchweaver couldn’t get direct access to Aury without ending up dead herself. 

“Why are you telling me all of this now?” Aury’s blood began to simmer. She’d been kept in the dark about everything for her entire life. “You could have at least told me. I haven’t been a child in years. Why lie?”

“I never lied,” the Fae Queen said.

After clearing his throat, the king said, “Look, Aurora. We couldn’t risk someone finding out who you were and telling the witch where you were hiding. The fewer who knew, the better. I don’t want to have to slay a woman that my people believe is nigh on being a goddess. The Matchweaver didn’t find you. You’re old enough now to avoid spinning wheels. Enough arguing. You will train at Darkfleot to receive your staff and hone your water magic. But before any of that, you will marry Prince Filip of the Mountain Kingdom. We have waited your entire life for this marriage alliance.”

Her lungs collapsed. Werian appeared with a small stool and helped her sit without falling over. Once seated, she looked up at him. Her chest burned with the splinters of a broken heart. “Liar,” she hissed.

Werian winced but didn’t argue his case like the others. 

“Wait.” She held up a finger. “Do you mean the prince of the mountain elves?” Surely not. 

“Indeed,” the human queen said, looking pale. “The second-born of King Mihai and Queen Sorina.”

A mountain elf. A being who knew nothing of kindness or learned discussion or anything besides war and breeding. Aury’s simmering blood heated to a full boil. She stood and pointed a finger in the king’s face. “You expect me to wed a vicious, bloodthirsty, filthy mountain elf? Well, let me tell you something, Father,” she said, pushing her hurt and anger into the word. He was not a father to her in any way. “You have another thing coming. You are a liar, and you didn’t care a whit about how I was treated here, how I was mocked for all my days. If my life depended on it, I wouldn’t marry someone you picked!” She’d backed him against the palace’s wall. 

“Calm down, Daughter. There’s no reason to be afraid and angry.”

He didn’t believe her about how she’d been treated. Of course he didn’t. They were strangers. “Just try to make me marry him and you’ll see what real anger looks like.”

His face went blank. “Now see here, girl. I am king of Lore, and I will not be barked at by you. You will marry Prince Filip, and I don’t care whether he has fangs the size of daggers or a taste for the blood of babies. We must have his elven warriors to keep the Wylfen at bay. They’ve ransacked our cities for years. They’ve brought war to my kingdom once and will do it again. My spies have seen campfire smoke, and they say a contingent of Wylfen forces will march on Dragon Wing Pass sometime during the next moon.”

The Fae Queen gasped.

The king nodded. “We don’t know how they’ve managed to make their way through the mountains this time of year.”

The bluster went out of Aury, and she stood, her arms limp at her sides. “The Wylfen.” Memories of the war on fae grounds pierced her mind—trained scar wolves, burning trees, children’s screams, and weeks with nothing more to eat than stale nuts and a few berries. The Wylfen were human, but they fought like demons. “So you need the elven army.”

The human queen touched her back, then Aury moved out of reach. “We do,” the queen said. “We must have a powerful weapon to fight them. We’ve lost so many soldiers and mages. We can’t fight them and win. Not again.”

Aury turned to see Werian watching her, his eyes pinched with what looked like worry. She stared at the ground and moved the small, round stones of the pathway with her slipper. Her bones shook inside her skin. She felt as if her body were remaking itself by trembling, soaking in the truth of who and what she really was. A human. A ruler’s heir. A mage. Bound to marry a monster.

Lightning shot through her. She faced the king. “If I am your daughter—”

“You are.”

“Then I should have powerful magic as a water mage, yes?”


She knew of the Mage Trials, the evaluations by the Masters of the Order, the greatest mages in Lore. Normally, water mage recruits studied for a full year or more before taking them. She’d read the information in numerous scrolls during her tutoring. 

“And water mages must train and pass the Trials to earn their place in the army,” Aury said. “You don’t want me, the princess of Lore, to be coddled, do you?”

“No,” the king stammered. “I…”

“I must earn my place and thus the respect of the people.”

“Yes, but…”

“How can I focus on training in the middle of wedding plans? Wait to wed me to the elf until I have passed the Mage Trials.” 

The human queen laughed nervously. “There’s only a slim chance you will pass, Aurora Rose. The Trials are incredibly difficult. Few women earn a ranking.”

“Maybe because they lack support,” Aury snapped.

The queen flinched, then cleared her face of emotion. “We can’t risk losing an army of a thousand vicious fighters who have experience with the Wylfen. They’re already mobilizing, but to slight them—”

“But what if I become the most powerful mage the kingdom has ever seen? I don’t shy away from work. I can learn.” The face she’d seen in the water rolled through her mind. “And just today, I saw a battle in a bowl of water.”

The Fae Queen traded a look with Werian, who only shrugged. The king and queen narrowed their eyes.

“What did you see?” the king asked.

“A face. A saber. Do water mages scry?”

“They can,” the queen said. “Strong ones do.”

“See? I’m going to amaze you.” You complete turd piles of lies and apathy. “You don’t care about me yet, but in time…”

“We do! We just wanted to protect you.” The queen pulled her cloak more tightly around her shoulders.

“You grew strong in spirit here, at least,” the king muttered.

Aury waved a hand to quiet them. “No, you don’t care about me. But you will. I go to the Order’s castle at dawn. Promise me you will give me time to train before you marry me off.”

“We can’t do that,” the king said. “Absolutely not. There is no time. And besides that, Prince Filip is most likely on the road to Loreton Palace right now.”

Aury’s skin felt stretched too thin. “Just give me until the Mage Trials. You don’t have to tell the elf a thing. Simply put him off for a while.” She would figure out what to do once she had more time. 

Werian stepped forward, the purple strands in his black hair shimmering lightly. “The Mage Trials are scheduled for three weeks from today.”

The king scowled and shook his head, but the queen tugged at his cloak. “It’s only three weeks. Filip can wait three weeks,” she said. Then she faced Aury. “The moment the Trials are complete, the wedding will take place at Loreton. You will marry the prince with no argument.”

“But if I’m so powerful that we can fight the Wylfen without the elven army—”


“Fine. After the Trials, I marry the bloodthirsty elf.” She’d figure out another plan. This was all happening so quickly. She needed to stall, to find time to think.

The king whispered something to his wife, and she patted his shoulder and sniffed. 

“Agreed,” the king said, his stare flat and his shoulders stiff. “We will dine at Loreton Palace soon and meet your future husband.”

“My never-to-be husband.”

“Enough.” The king raised a hand, and Aury stood her ground, setting her jaw, daring him.

“Go ahead, Father. Show me how much you care.”

“Ach.” He threw up his hands and barged his way through the group and back into the great hall with the queen on his heels.

The Fae Queen stayed in the garden. “You must remain in your rooms tonight and tell no one of this. If you do, you will find yourself dead of some mysterious poison.” 

“Sounds about right.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing, Auntie.”

The Fae Queen returned to her feast, and Aury was left with Werian.

He didn’t try to hug her or console her, but he stood nearby, tossing rocks into the pool. “Did you really see a face in the water?”

“I did.” Tears burned at the edges of her eyes. No way she was crying. “Will you come with me to Loreton Palace? Just for a while?” She hated the desperation in her voice, but she couldn’t manage to hide it. 

“I can’t. My mother would never allow it. Not now. Later, I will visit you, Princess Aurora.”

“Please don’t call me that.” 

The calico kitten appeared at Aury’s feet. “Back to the barn, kitty,” she whispered as she set it on the path again. “I’d flee with you if I could.”

“I do have another introduction to make,” Werian said, taking Aury’s attention from the kitten’s shadow as it disappeared into the hole near the stable wall where the cats often slept. 

Werian clapped three times, and three fae women walked out of the deeper parts of the garden. 

The first two were tall and slim with golden eyes like a cat’s. The third one was short, dark-eyed, and curvy. Their tattoos said all three of them had fought in the last war with the Wylfen. The inkings snaking up their arms told of all three’s bravery in battle, quick-thinking, and great power in healing.

Werian gave them a nod. “I asked these three to escort you when you leave here.”

“Who are you?” She’d seen them around the palace, she was almost sure, but didn’t have any idea of their positions.

The shorter one spoke up with a voice like bell. “I’m Eawynn. We were there when the Matchweaver showed up to your birth feast and betrothal. We altered the curse.”

One of the slim women, the second tallest, took out a folded bit of parchment. “And I am Gytha. We have been bound to you since then.” With fingers tattooed in thorn patterns, she opened the parchment to show a tiny clip of silver hair. “It’s yours. From the day of your birth feast.”

Aury touched the hair. “In what way did you alter the curse?”

The tallest woman removed her crushed velvet cloak and slung it around Aury’s frozen shoulders. The warmth was welcome. “I am Hilda. We made it so that if you did touch a spinning wheel,” she said, a smile ghosting across her prim lips, “you would only sleep forever instead of dying.”

The shorter one—Eawynn—grinned, her plump cheeks dimpling prettily. “Yes! And only your true love could wake you.”

Typical fae. The ones strong enough to twist a witch’s magic usually had eccentric thoughts on what was best in any given situation. 

Werian hugged Aury then, and a tear slid from her eye. She wiped it quickly. 

“Eawynn, Hilda, and Gytha,” Werian said, “have kept an eye on you since birth. They were told not to interfere unless your life was truly in danger. Now, they can aid you as you train.”

Hilda adjusted the cloak she’d given Aury, moving the clasp so that it held more tightly. “We will see that those who hurt you suffer. Not today. But someday. Don’t worry.”

“You are frightening.”

Hilda laughed. “Yes. I am fae.”

“But you seem so kind,” Aury said. “Unlike all the others.”

The cheery, plump Eawynn crossed her arms. “Only because you’re our charge.”

“I accept your offer to help. I’ll need it.” Aury hugged Werian one last time. “Thank you. For everything.”

“We are kindred spirits, you and I. More than you know.”

Gytha clasped her thorn-tattooed hands and gave Aury a sad smile.

“You’re still keeping things from me?” Aury asked Werian.

“I’ll tell you all about me,” he answered. “Someday. For now, you have enough secrets to feast on.”

Aury slapped his chest lightly and started toward the great hall. “I’ll drink to that.”