Atalanta yanked the pearl-encrusted comb down the length of the auburn hair that ended at her hips. Each tangle she met and each accidental scrape to her pointed ears brought a curse from her mouth. She tried to draw comfort from her surroundings. Sitting on a rock in the elf palace’s enormous orchard and brushing one’s hair was much more enjoyable than sitting at a vanity. The Arcamirian sun filtered through the treetops, filling the place with green light. Multiple varieties of stone fruits weighed down the limbs.
Atalanta gave the comb one more pass and then tossed it aside as a lost cause. She reached up with a hand and plucked a peach from the limb just above her head without having to stand up. She bit into the fruit, sending the juice running down her arm to stain her silver silks. She looked at the mess she’d made and shrugged. Her father had requested that she “untangle that wild horse’s mane” before she made her appearance in the High Court. He had said nothing about maintaining her dress.
She itched to go riding or perhaps challenge Malik to a bit of swordplay or archery. She was not so sure she liked coming of age. As a child, she had yearned to be bigger so she could fight great battles and rule her kingdom alongside her father. Her father had taught her to handle a sword, ride a horse, and use her magic. He had awakened the need for adrenaline, for excitement. He had encouraged it, and now he wanted her to comb her hair and wear her silks and be a dignified elf of the court because she was “becoming a fine elvish woman.” If court and political pomp went along with becoming an elvish woman, she wanted no part of it. And why should the change be so instantaneous? She’d only turned seventeen yesterday. Why should a birthday mark the end of free-roaming through the woods and castle dressed in leathers and pants and the beginning of dull, polite talk with the High Court dressed in delicate dresses? Why seventeen? It seemed so soon. Her father was nearly three hundred. She was still a babe by comparison.
She flicked the peach pit into a nearby bush with a fast, practiced movement.
The bush shook. Atalanta’s high, pointed ears flicked toward the sound. She must have hit a rabbit with the pit. She rose to coax the animal out, her hand outstretched, sensing the earth from the bottoms of her bare feet to her fingertips, and froze. It did not feel right. Her heartbeat quickened.
“Come out, whatever you are,” she said, her hands clenched in fists at her sides, her green eyes fixed on the bush.
A squat deformity leapt from the depths of the foliage with a battle cry. The creature was no bigger than a human child, but with the muscles of a man. Its spine protruded and curved, and its knees seemed permanently bent so that it waddled towards her. Two necks sprang from its hunched back, carrying two heads, each with its own nose, mouth, and bulging, singular eye. The two heads yelled in unison, revealing large tongues as big as a dog’s, but decidedly human.
Atalanta pressed her back to the rock and let out a cry of disgust. She side-stepped the creature easily as it barreled toward her at a clumsy, waddling run. It nearly barreled into the rock. Instead, it pulled up short and turned to face her, identical snarls on both its heads. Atalanta bent her knees in a fighting stance and reached for her sword hilt. Her fingers met nothing but the soft silver silk of her dress. She looked down at the useless dress with gritted teeth.
The monster lunged, and she placed a strong kick to one of its jaws. It should have sent the creature flying and broken its jaw, but the muscular beast only took a step back and grunted.
As Atalanta placed her foot back on the ground and made to take off toward the palace, she stepped on the hem of her dress and stumbled. Her ingrained balance ensured that she did not fall, but before she could recover, the waist-high beast grabbed a handful of her long, freshly combed hair and yanked.
Hair ripped away from her scalp and something in her neck popped, making her gasp in pain. With its free hand, the beast grabbed her ankle and upended her. She caught herself with her hands and tried to whip her body around to take the creature’s legs out from under it with her own, but it snatched her hair at the crown and tightened an arm around her neck. She struggled on the ground, her feet kicking up grass as she tried to stand and free herself. She clawed at the beast’s arms with her nails, raking bloody lines in the flesh. She tried to jab it in an eye, but the heads parted and danced away from her fingers. She put her hands on the ground and tried to push herself upright, but the creature was too strong, and its flexed bicep was cutting off her air. Her vision was slipping, her lungs screaming.
“Sleep, little elfling,” said the creature, both mouths speaking in unison so that the words echoed in her ears as she slipped into darkness.
Andrew’s sword caught the sun as the blade crashed to the ground.
“Come on, Andrew, you can do better than that,” said Michael, a taunt in his voice and in the curl of his mouth.
Andrew looked at his older brother’s bulk with an unspoken complaint. Michael’s muscles shaped his mail into firm hills. He stood a full foot higher than his brother, and his shoulders had twice the berth. He was a near spitting image of their father, right down to the large, somewhat crooked nose and flaming hair.
Andrew favored their mother, with slender shoulders, lean muscle that was lost under his mail, and jet black hair that he kept shaggy. The family resemblance could be found in their father’s blue eyes and sharp jaw.
Panting with his hands on his knees, Andrew looked over at his sisters, still locked in a duel. Andrew’s twin, Andromeda, was clearly winning. It was all Felicity could do just to block Andromeda’s flurry of attacks. The large lock of inky hair that had fallen loose from her braid and into her eyes didn’t seem to impair her vision.
Their grey-haired training master, Archimedes, had his eyes fixed on the girls, for which Andrew was grateful. But if he let his twin outshine him, he’d never hear the end of it—not from her, but from Michael and Archimedes. He picked up his sword and resumed his stance in front of Michael. His breath was still coming too fast. The broadsword was a constant, tiresome weight and felt awkward in his grip. Michael, on the other hand, breathed easy, and tossed his sword from hand to hand. Andrew had a sudden urge to spit.
“Try it again,” said Michael. “You need to learn how to disarm your opponent. If it comes down to a battle of stamina, you’ll lose.”
“Who made you training master?” said Andrew.
Michael lashed out with a vicious downward stroke that vibrated Andrew’s arms when he blocked it. With an angry grunt, Andrew pooled the last of his energy and tried the combination one last time. On the final, upward thrust, Michael’s sword slipped from his hand. Andrew whooped and punched the air, suddenly revitalized.
“Good,” said Michael, “but don’t let hubris get the best of you.”
Michael’s dulled broadsword smacked Andrew across the chest in a bruising blow.
“Don’t let your sword dangle in the grass,” said Michael.
Andrew struggled for air and gritted his teeth in a snarl. He dropped his sword and rammed his shoulder into Michael’s chest. Michael’s heavy mail tipped him off balance, and the two boys grappled furiously on the ground.
Archimedes came trotting toward them, not looking all that concerned. Despite his age, the retired general was still built like an ox. He plunged a hand into the fray, balling a chunk of Andrew’s hair at the scruff of his neck. Andrew did not cry out, but his jaw muscles flexed as if holding in a scream. Archimedes gave Michael’s midsection a good kick.
Michael did as he was told. Archimedes tossed Andrew away, and the sixteen-year-old hung his head and eyed the training master like a wounded animal.
“Michael, you’re not the master here. You understand?”
“Andrew, you start a cheap scuffle like that again, and I’ll beat you black and blue.”
“And I’ll wear each bruise with pride, master,” said Andrew with a wolfish grin.
Archimedes’ hand whipped out and struck Andrew across the face.
“Don’t get smart with me. You’re not princes on this training field, boys; you’re soldiers, and I’m your commander. No special privilege here. Sass me again and you’ll be working the stables the rest of the day.”
“Yes, master,” said Andrew, going red at the neck.
“It might improve his smell,” said Felicity.
The dark blue eyes fixed on Andrew beneath Felicity’s fair lashes were the only proof that Felicity was an Avalon, and they ensured the false rumors of Queen Isabelle’s possible adultery remained little more than whispered market stall gossip. The origins of her thick blonde curls were a mystery, as was her voluptuous figure. Queen Isabelle was tall, slender, small breasted, and slim hipped. Andromeda was her spitting image. Felicity, however, was of average height, slim in the middle, and round on both ends. She did not share her sibling’s pale, burn-prone skin either. Her skin was a buttery gold that turned the color of perfectly baked bread in the summer.
Though there were four Avalon siblings, Felicity was the true middle child, with the attitude to back it up. At eighteen, she was two years the twins’ senior and two years Michael’s junior. She was aware of the rumors surrounding her birth and of the way most men stared greedily as she passed, and she scoffed openly at both.
“Even after a whole day in the stables, I’ll still smell better than Sir Barroth,” said Andrew, referring to a young knight who had caught Felicity’s eye of late.
At Felicity’s wide-eyed disbelief and feral snarl, Andrew smirked and said, “What? You thought no one knew?”
“Take it back, imp,” said Felicity, flicking her rapier’s thin blade under Andrew’s chin.
Archimedes’ horse whip cracked down on Felicity’s wrist, and she dropped the blade with a wounded cry of outrage.
“No archery today for you three,” said Archimedes, pointing at Michael, Andrew, and Felicity. “You’re running the course until I’ve sweated all the fight out of you. I’ve had it with your childishness.”
“What about her?” said Felicity, jabbing a thumb at Andromeda, as Michael and Andrew groaned.
The course was a battle scenario of Archimedes’ own invention. Enemies made of corn sacks were rigged with levers and pulleys to move about the course, which was made up of obstacles like chicken wire and a large hill of overturned pig troughs that had to be climbed with care. Worst of all, it had to be run as quickly as Archimedes desired, and if a trainee didn’t go fast enough, they were assured of some sort of projectile whizzing at their head from the training master’s considerably strong arm.
“She hasn’t made me consider murder yet today,” said Archimedes. “And she put you in the dust, Felicity. If it was a real battle you would have been dead three times over. She could probably do the same thing to Andrew, too.”
“Not if I had a rapier,” said Andrew, lifting his chin to preserve his dignity. “I don’t like broadsword. It’s too cumbersome. I can’t move properly.”
“Rapier’s are for woman and children,” said Archimedes. He paused to spit from a hole between his yellow teeth. “Broadsword is a man’s weapon. You’re a man, now, are you not?”
Andrew flushed, but kept his head high. “Yes, master.”
“Then learn to use a man’s weapon. You’ll use the broadsword when you run the course.”
“Master,” said Andromeda.
It was the second time she had spoken, but her soft voice had been drowned out by her sibling’s complaints and her master’s outrage.
“I wish to run the course as well,” she said, pushing the annoying strand of loose hair away from her grey eyes. “I don’t wish for special treatment.”
“It’s not special treatment,” said Archimedes. “It’s fair treatment. You’re practicing archery. That’s my word, and my word goes. Grab your bow. The rest of you, collect your breath and meet me at the course. If you dally too long, rest assured I’ll let you know it.”
When Archimedes was safely out of earshot, Felicity rapped Andromeda in the shoulder with her middle knuckle.
“Baby Andromeda always gets her way,” said Felicity with a disgusted sneer.
“If I had gotten my way, I would be running the course,” said Andromeda, rubbing her shoulder.
“Sure,” said Felicity. She adopted a soft, mouse-like voice and said, “‘Oh, please, master, I wish to run the course because I’m the perfect warrior.’ You may fool him, but you don’t fool me. You’ve gotten your way, just like you always do.”
“Leave her be,” said Andrew, stepping between the two girls with his armor centimeters away from Felicity’s. “You can’t blame her for being better than you at everything. It’s not very hard to do.”
“I would very much like to see you prove it,” said Felicity through gritted teeth.
“Quit it, both of you,” said Michael. “I won’t be getting a lashing because you two can’t get along. I’ll drag you to the course if I must.”
Felicity smacked Andrew across the face with her curls as she turned to follow Michael. Andromeda grabbed Andrew’s hand as he made to follow them.
“You know, Archimedes shouldn’t call rapiers women’s weapons just because he’s useless with one,” she said.
“Archimedes isn’t useless at anything,” said Andrew, shoving his twin playfully. “But thanks.”
The Avalon’s palace was an ancient masterpiece of polished stone rising into a half dozen towers. Inside, every wall was hung with dense tapestries, vibrant paintings, and elaborate ironwork that had adorned the passageways for centuries. The four siblings walked down a long arched hallway, headed for their rooms in the east wing.
“That old man loves throwing walnuts far too much,” said Felicity, massaging a welt on her neck. “He ought to have been a squirrel.”
“I think he’s more of a dragon, myself,” said Michael.
“More like a grouchy old troll,” said Andrew, scratching at his shaggy black head like a dog.
“I’m going to have Cecelia draw me an extra hot bath before the ball,” said Felicity.
“The ball!” said Andromeda. “Ugh, I forgot all about that dreadful thing. I suppose Mother will make me wear a corset.”
“Stop complaining, Andromeda,” said Felicity. “At least you won’t have any bruises underneath your corset. I shall have at least three. Though, I could give you some if you don’t want any special treatment. ”
Andrew clenched a fist, but Andromeda just sighed softly and kept her grey eyes on the tapestry at the end of the hall. Felicity appraised her with sly, sideways glances. The scowl lines between her soft brown brows vanished into her forehead, and she breathed a small sigh of her own.
“Don’t look so dreary, Andromeda,” said Felicity. “Balls are fun. Dance with a boy. I’m sure if you’re wearing a corset, you’ll get plenty of offers.”
“If I’m to decide between a boy and breathing, I shall choose breathing every time,” said Andromeda.
But it seemed that Andromeda’s governess had other plans. After a bath that was far too hot, a great deal of rib-cracking corset tugging, and a quick meal of braised lamb and cranberries that she could hardly eat for the terrible compression of her stomach, Andromeda stood next to her siblings in the palace ballroom.
It was the largest and most spacious room in the castle. Its floor was the only one in the castle made of polished wood rather than sanded stone. Hundreds of the human realm’s lords and ladies drifted gracefully across it in their finery. The floor was hardly visible through the mass of colorful silks and satins and the stampede of polished shoes. At intervals around the room, giant, gilded mirrors three times the height of a man were fixed into the walls, making the room look and feel as though it was full of thousands rather than hundreds as the mirrors reflected both the dancers and themselves in endless tunnels. Between the mirrors, broadswords, bows, and maces hung on the wall, fixed into wooden coats of arms of all the noble human families. A spiral staircase led to an upper balcony where even more people looked down on the dancers. The balcony wrapped around the room’s entirety and was supported by white marble columns. Vines made of pure gold wrapped around each column, the leaves reaching for the balcony as though it was sunlight.
The siblings stood near the far wall, in front of the crimson and silver banners that bore the Avalon family crest: an eagle with a sword clutched in its talons. Their parents, King Markus and Queen Isabelle, sat in thrones just behind their children. They had started the dancing, as was customary, and then had returned to their thrones to observe their court, but their eyes were actually locked on their children. They leaned toward one another over a wooden table laid with wine and goblets for their refreshment, secretly commenting on who had danced with whom and wondering if Andrew or Andromeda would dance at all without prodding.
Felicity scanned the crowd for someone who met her standards. In her royal blue satin dress with a skirt made of hundreds of bows and her diamond tiara, she was rather imposing in her beauty, and very few young men approached her. Six brave souls out of dozens had asked her, but she had turned them all down with a wrinkled nose.
Andromeda stood next to her in a long-sleeved deep crimson dress with buttons up the back, holding her waist where the dreaded corset was squeezing her. She made it a point not to catch anyone’s eye and stood slightly behind her siblings. Her hair was pulled up in a braided arrangement, held back by a glittering tiara, but she wished that the annoying lock that usually fell in her eyes was back in place tonight.
Michael looked more dashing than imposing now that he had exchanged his armor for a soft white tunic and a black overcoat embroidered with golden eagles. He had already asked three girls to dance, and all had accepted.
Andrew’s coat was dark blue and embroidered with silver wolves, but he looked uncomfortable. He watched many girls, but never moved from his twin’s side to ask any of them for a dance.
“I don’t see the point of these balls,” Andromeda whispered into Andrew’s ear.
“Me either, but there’s no escaping,” he replied. “Mother loves them.”
Andromeda sighed and watched as an extraordinarily tall man with slender limbs and sharp features approached Felicity and held out a hand for a dance. Andromeda waited for Felicity’s sniffed rejection. This pale man was far too lean for Felicity’s taste. She often remarked that she had no interest in a man she could easily pummel, and preferred thicker built men, usually with dark hair and short beards. This man was also a little too old for her fancy as well.
The man said something Andromeda didn’t catch. Felicity curtsied and took the man’s hand. Andromeda went slack-jawed as Felicity followed the man into the crowd of dancers. Perhaps she did not know her sister as well as she thought.
Michael shifted over and stood between Andrew and Andromeda.
“You two better dance with someone, or Mother will pick someone for you,” he said. “She and father have been pointing at the two of you and whispering with their heads together.”
“Damn,” said Andromeda.
“Since when do you curse?” said Michael with mild admiration.
Andromeda made a face at him, and Michael laughed and retreated.
Andrew stepped in front of Andromeda.
“Would you care to dance, dear lady?”
He did an over dramatic bow and held out his hand. She laughed, curtsied, and put her hand in his.
The twins spun around the dance floor, doing all the steps their mother had taught them during their much dreaded lessons as children. Andrew kept spinning Andromeda much too hard on purpose. He held her in the proper form, with one upheld hand in hers and the other on her back, and whipped them around in dizzying circles. The rush was exhilarating, but disorienting. When he released her back and spun her out from him, she collided with another dancing couple, and she and the other woman crashed to the floor in a tangle of satin and metal hoops.
Andromeda tried to stifle her laughter as she apologized to the much older woman, but Andrew had no such qualms.
“Hush,” she said through a snicker as she returned to him. “You’ll get us into trouble.”
He held up his hand in answer, and she took it.
“Not so hard this time,” she said. “This corset already makes me short of breath. I may faint if you make me any dizzier.”
“You’re Archimedes’ prized warrior, and yet you lose a battle to a corset?” said Andrew.
She pinched him in the ribs and he straightened out, leading her at a pace that actually matched the music. Andromeda looked over Andrew’s shoulder into one of the mirrors. She saw her own smiling face and Andrew’s shaggy black hair. Then, just as Andrew was about to turn her in another direction, she caught sight of Felicity’s golden curls.
She dug her nails into Andrew’s shoulders and planted her feet in order to keep her eyes on the mirror.
“Ouch, Andromeda! I’m keeping pace with the music. No need to draw blood.”
“Andrew, look,” said Andromeda, her voice a harsh, frightened whisper.
Felicity held her hands out in front of her as if they were resting on someone’s shoulders, but she was dancing by herself. Andromeda and Andrew turned their heads from the reflection in unison and found Felicity in the crowd. She was dancing with the tall, pale man whom Andromeda had seen ask for her hand. Felicity looked into his eyes with a dazed, slack-jawed expression.
“It can’t be,” said Andrew. “Can it?”
Andromeda turned back to the mirror, and Andrew followed suit. Felicity turned on the floor by herself. The twins looked back, eyes fixed on the man with his arms around their sister.
“Vampire,” they echoed.
“What do we do?” said Andromeda, her usually quiet voice reaching a high, squeaking timbre.
Andrew scanned the room, as if the answer might appear on the walls.
“We have to get her away from it,” he said, nodding as if to affirm the solution to himself. “It can only keep her in a trance if it maintains eye contact.”
“You have to be the one to get her. It will be harder for it to put you in a trance.”
“You’re a boy,” said Andromeda, giving him a familiar scolding look for not remembering his tutoring. “I’m going to alert the guards. Try not to let it know you’ve discovered it, and don’t look it directly in the eyes.”
Andrew watched her dash into the crowd, knocking guests aside with her hoop skirt. He slowly turned back to Felicity and the vampire, suddenly feeling like his bladder might give way. He maneuvered his way through the crowd and held out a shaking hand to tap the vampire on the shoulder. The vampire froze so quickly that Andrew’s eyes traveled past it before he realized it was no longer moving.
“Pardon me, sir,” Andrew said, a noticeable quiver in his voice.
The vampire slowly turned his head and fixed on Andrew with deep, dark eyes. Andrew quickly looked at the vampire’s chin instead.
“I’m afraid I need to borrow my sister for a moment. The king and queen need a word with her.”
“I’m not sure your sweet sister wishes to be…borrowed,” the vampire said in a strange, lilting accent that sounded eerily like the ancient Arcamirian the young royals had been forced to learn since they were children in order to read the old scrolls.
Across the room, Andromeda had nearly reached the ballroom doors where armed guards were posted outside when she spotted Michael holding a pretty girl in a pink dress close enough to stunt the movement of their dance. Andromeda snatched Michael by the arm, making him release the girl in surprise. Andromeda ignored the daggers the other girl shot her way and said, “Michael, I need to speak with you, now.”
Michael’s jaw tightened in anger for only a moment before he caught sight of Andromeda’s wild eyes.
“What’s wrong?” he said, allowing her to lead him away, much to the dismay of the young maiden in the pink dress.
“A vampire has Felicity in a trance,” she said.
Michael’s laugh was nearly a bark.
“A vampire? Are you sure it’s just not a nobleman who hasn’t seen enough of the sun?”
“Michael, please. It has no reflection! Andrew is trying to get her away from it. You have to help him.”
Michael’s face lost all color. He gripped Andromeda’s arms a little too tight.
“Where are they?”
Andromeda pointed back toward the middle of the dance floor.
“Alert the guards, but tell them not to do anything until I signal them. If it really is a vampire, it could snap her neck and suck her dry before they could even get near her.”
Andromeda swallowed hard at the thought and nodded. Michael released her arms, and as she ran for the door, he ran to grab one of the swords mounted on the wall. He freed a broadsword from its wooden mount and started winding his way through the crowd with it held up by his head in a ready position. The dancers that he passed stopped to watch him go, whispering to one another and shifting uneasily.
In the center of the dance floor, Andrew watched as Felicity blinked rapidly and then opened her eyes wide as if coming out of deep sleep. The vampire’s threatening gaze was fixed on Andrew, daring the young prince to challenge him again, but his trance required eye contact.
“Felicity?” said Andrew, seizing his chance. “Come with me. I need to speak with you a moment.” He held out a tentative hand toward Felicity.
“What?” said Felicity, blinking at her brother.
“Stay with me, my sweet,” said the vampire.
Felicity jerked and, still encircled in the vampire’s arms, looked up at him. She sucked in a sharp breath, preparing to scream, and then she shivered from head to toe. Her body went limp and submissive. Her eyes glazed over again.
Andrew clenched his hands into fists, but there was nothing he could do. He was unarmed, and no match for a vampire’s strength and speed. He scanned the crowd looking for Andromeda and the guards, wondering how long the vampire would keep up his charade. Andrew figured the vampire had hoped to lure Felicity out of the castle under a trance and avoid the guards, but now that he was discovered, he might unleash his fury at any moment.
There was no sign of the guards, but Andrew’s eye caught on a flash of silver and red. It was Michael, shoving his way through the crowd with a deadly look on his face and a sword in his hands. Andrew averted his eyes, so as not to alert the vampire.
“It would be wise to let her go,” said Andrew, keeping Michael in sight.
“Why is that, puny little prince?”
“Because my brother is much bigger than I,” said Andrew.
The vampire’s brow pulled down in a frown just as Michael slammed into his shoulder from behind, knocking Felicity free of the creature’s arms. Michael grabbed Felicity around the waist with one arm, picked her completely off her feet, put her behind him, and then faced the vampire with broadsword brandished.
As the three siblings watched in horror, the vampire’s face began to change. All of his teeth grew sharper and larger. His canines grew down to kiss his bottom lip. His jaw enlarged with sickening pops and his lips curled back to accommodate the vicious, toothy maw. Black claws the size of lion’s teeth grew from his nailbeds, overlapping his fingernails, and ripped away his tunic and overcoat. His black, bat-like wings, folded to his back like a second skin, now had room to unfurl from his shoulder blades. When he lifted his head and grinned at the siblings, a forked tongued hung from his mouth. He let out a horrible, screeching growl like a wild cat in a brawl.