Important Author's Note: To any newcomers, just in case you missed it in the summary, this is the sequel to Learn Me Right. If you're interested, please click through my profile to read part one first, otherwise I'm fairly certain none of this will make any sense.
To my returning readers, welcome to part two!
Rated T for violence, mild language, and some sensuality.
Disclaimer: I don't own anything except for Eirlys and her fellow OCs.
the bitter cold
I watch as the branches of the willow tree sway in the light of the rising sun. Spring is encroaching upon Asgard; the air is warm, and the sun peers over the horizon just a little earlier each day. The flowers are beginning to bloom, colours bright and varied in the garden below. As I look out at the Rainbow Bridge, I think of all the worlds I wish to see. Of the adventures I have yet to partake in.
I smile when I feel his hands sliding over my robe, his arms coming to wrap around my waist. His long fingers toy with the silk tie resting at my midsection. I lean back against him, the nape of my neck pressed to his shoulder. "What has your mind so entranced?" he murmurs, his breath caressing the shell of my ear.
Reaching back, I play with a corner of the bed sheet hanging from his hips—the only thing he appears to be garbed in. The thought sends a twist of pleasurable heat curling through my abdomen. "I was merely thinking about the worlds I have yet to see... like Midgard," I reply. "I've seen most everything else in the Nine Realms. All that I care to see, at any rate."
"Hm, yes. I daresay you would not hope to see Jotunheim." My heart races when one of his cool hands glides down my side to massage the exposed skin of my thigh. "Or Muspelheim for that matter."
I lean to the side to regard Loki, his eyes glinting in the light. "Have you been to Muspelheim?"
He hums in confirmation. "Briefly. On a foolish venture that allotted me a fair bit of scolding from my father."
"Oh?" It's a challenge to withhold my grin. "But how did you enjoy your little venture?"
His chest seems to vibrate against my back as he chuckles. "Let me just say that I am not overly fond of fire and brimstone."
A laugh escapes my lips in return, and I tuck my head in the curve of his throat. "And what of Midgard? I continually ask Fandral about the mortals, but he only ever talks about how fair their maidens are. How different are the humans from the writings I've read, I wonder."
"They are not all that you think. They fight amongst themselves endlessly, in a never-ending vie for power. Mere decades past, they suffered a great war—millions were slaughtered. Nevertheless, they've entered into another, massacring each other, death spilling across their lands," he tells me. "And for what? They are little and petty, like animals fighting over a bone."
I tilt my head back to give him a pointed look. "They sound no different from us."
He lets out a breath of laughter. "A fair point."
Voices suddenly resound in the garden.
I jump back upon seeing the garden maids coming out to tend the blossoming flowers growing at the garden's wall. "Oh, Norns," I mutter. "They'll see us if we linger here a moment longer."
It takes every bit of restraint to keep from moaning while one of his hands slips beneath my robe, the other tugging at the fastening. His mouth is at my ear when he speaks, "Then might I suggest coming back to bed?"
My eyes flickered open, and the light of the sun was replaced with a persistent gloom. I blearily glanced about before coming to realize that I was curled on the floor of the watchtower—the tallest turret in the Alfheim palace, and the warmest. The room was barely several yards wide, but it was enough to fit half a dozen people. All the same, it was rarely occupied by more than a few of us.
Lifting my head, I observed Castien sitting some ways to my right. Deep in reverie, he'd fletched arrow after arrow, a neat little stack piling at his feet. Across from me, Faradei knelt by the window. He had the shutters open, allowing the snow to trickle inside. With his keen senses, he seemed to notice I was awake first. He turned to me with a gentle smile. "Good morrow, Eirlys."
I blinked and swallowed against my dry throat. "How early is it?"
"Difficult to say," Faradei said, leaning against the window frame. He made some vague gestures at the sky with one hand. "The endless torrent of snow has blotted out the sun."
Craning my neck, I could see the blizzard raging on. The sight sent a shiver through my body. It was not the chill that bothered me, but the trepidation churning within. The bitter cold climate had been burying us deeper and deeper in snow for nigh on a week now. With a frown, I leaned back, nestling closer to the brazier that sat in the corner.
Brow raised, Castien lowered the arrow in his hands and surveyed me. "Did you have a vision?"
I was not surprised he could discern that I had seen something in my sleep—something more than just a dream. He always seemed to know, especially when it was a notably disturbing vision. Though my visions were never quite as vivid as they had been in Asgard, every few months, I would see flashes of... fire. All bright blues and reds. Like burgeoning stars. And I would always awake with a searing heat lingering on my skin. Despite the terror they roused, I could not comprehend their meaning.
"No, it was not a vision." I leaned my head back against the stone wall, my gaze straying to the ceiling. "It was a memory." But what was odd about this particular dream—this memory—was that it felt like the visions I used to have. It was vivid and stark, and I could feel everything. All the emotion. Every sensation.
"Was it a pleasant memory?" Castien asked, a small smile playing at his lips. I glanced his way, my cheeks flushing. "Ah, I see."
Clearing my throat, I sat upright, and the journal I'd left lying across my chest slid down into my lap. Some of the pages were beginning to curl and wrinkle, yet Loki's writing remained steadfast on the parchment. I felt a pang of sadness every time I looked at it. A year now. A year since I'd last seen Loki. Since he banished me from Asgard and played a hand in the destruction of the Bifrost. And I felt no closer to finding him.
I ran my hands over the supple leather, grazing the worn pages with the tips of my fingers. Pages I'd read and reread near constantly in the hopes that I would discover a way to Midgard from Alfheim. Although I'd studied the magic and all its complexities, there was no information regarding a path I could take to the human world. Even with Lord Meyrick's assistance, I still could not find the answer. But I would persevere. As soon as the winter passed, I had every intention of scouring the land for a passageway now that I understood what to look for.
With a deep breath, I carefully closed the journal and held it close to my chest.
Movements gradual and slow, I rose to my feet and sauntered across the room. Beside Faradei, I stooped to peer out the open window, the roaring winds thrusting freezing air into the chamber. I braced myself against the frame and cast a spell to ward off the cold. Squinting against the flurry, I could perceive the outlines of the two towers flanking either side of the entrance hall. For a moment, I feared they'd both been buried beneath the snow, but I noticed the faint flicker of firelight peeking through. Someone was on watch still, thankfully.
Our defences were poor, far poorer than they should've been; there was nothing that could be done to change that, as much as we needed it. When the winter came, it carried with it a harsh and endless snowstorm. For but a moment, it had ceased, allowing Faradei's scouts to assess the conditions. It was then, in little more than a fleeting glimpse, that they discovered the Chitauri making their approach. Their numbers had grown, but that was all that could be discerned, for the snow resumed, and our scouts were forced to return to the palace.
After close to a year of meandering through our lands, the Chitauri were making their advance towards us at last. Yet we were unable to intervene. As of now, we could not be certain how close they remained, or if they were still on the move. All we could do was wait and see.
Turning away from the window, I did a cursory once over of the room. Castien continued to fletch his arrows, his quiver near bursting by now. In the far corner there lay a pile of blankets where my handmaiden often waited on me, yet it appeared she was now absent. "Where has Arlessa gone?"
"She has gone to prepare your things for the day," Castien replied, running his fingers over a handful of feathers. "Gone to prepare your royal garb, I assume."
I glanced down at my leather and metal attire, a set of armour that formerly belonged to Sif. It was the only set I'd brought with me from Asgard, now well-worn, the dark blue trimmings faded. I'd taken to wearing it since the Chitauri began their approach, though I hadn't gotten into the habit of bearing my sword—the nobles in the palace seemed to take less kindly to that.
"Did you not say you hoped to provide a distraction for the younglings?" Faradei said. "We've been trapped in the palace for a week now. They've been growing restless."
"Oh, Norns, I almost forgot." I sighed and ran a hand through my rumpled hair. As their future queen, I'd been advised to provide the people with all they needed. And now, at a time like this, they needed comfort and a gentle hand. I did not think myself up to the task, but I would do my best nevertheless. "I suppose I'll wait for Arlessa to make her return. There is no sense in chasing her down if she comes back here."
Castien hummed, tightening the string on his bow. "Everyone has been restless. I think we've all gone a little mad."
"Indeed, some of our scouts have been making desperate attempts to survey the lands, even in this weather," Faradei said.
My brow lifted. "And have they seen anything?"
Wry amusement crinkled the corners of Castien's eyes when he glanced my way. "No, they can't see more than a foot in front of them. We had to drag some of them back inside before we lost sight of them from the towers."
After a moment, he looked out the window, his gaze darting left and right. The humour seemed to fade from his expression. "This is the worst winter we've had in centuries. Our defences are weak, and, despite our expectation for it, we would still be caught unawares by any attack."
"Father has done all he can to prepare our people for such an instance," Faradei said. "The number of guards patrolling our walls has been bolstered. We do no more than hope for the best now."
"We do no more than anticipate conflict, more like." Expression grave, Castien levelled his gaze with his brother's. "The Chitauri encroach upon us, of that I have no doubt. For once, we are fortunate that our father has a penchant for war."
The blare of a horn echoed somewhere in the distance.
My heart dropped. Faradei and I leaned towards the window, while Castien saw fit to wedge himself between us. The blizzard seemed to have died down just enough for us to be able to see a mile radius around the watchtower. I shielded my eyes from the snow and wind yet was unable to perceive anything amiss.
Again, the horn sounded.
"I see them," Faradei murmured.
I was bereft of their Elf eyes. "Have they arrived at last?"
"Chitauri," Castien confirmed, bending forward until he was half out the window. "I count several scores... a hundred, maybe more." That did not bode well.
Faradei nodded. "As do I."
I clutched onto the green crystal resting at my collarbone; not a day went by when I didn't wear it. It gave me strength when I needed it the most. "What weapons do they bear?"
Before anyone could answer, a blast of energy came surging through the flurry. It exploded against one of the towers below, the stone structure crumbling like a house of tiles.
Castien cursed, drawing back to slam the shutters closed. He grabbed my arm and tugged me towards the stairs, Faradei on our heels. "Come, we must ensure the safety of our people."
We descended, flying down the winding steps, as the third call of the horn drifted through the air. This time it was cut short. Castien and I slowed, exchanging a look of dread before continuing our way.
Upon reaching the bottom, we were faced with the clamour and chaos that resounded throughout the palace: guards barking orders down corridors, warriors hurrying to and fro to fortify the gates, servants rushing to get our people to refuge. The princes of Alfheim were quick to spring into motion, starting down the hall with me in tow. Mere moments later, Arlessa came dashing towards us.
"Your Highness!" she called. We met her in the middle of the corridor, people hastening past us all the while. "Your Highness, I have spoken to Captain Leto. He bid me to tell you that all civilians are being gathered in the throne room."
Castien nodded. "Good, it remains the safest place right now."
"I want you to go there immediately," I told Arlessa. "They will be closing the portcullis and barring the doors soon."
For the span of a breath, Arlessa looked at me, ashen, before proffering the weapon I hadn't realized she was carrying. "I thought it prudent to bring this to you."
Though a palpable fear churned in my stomach, I could not keep from smiling. Without hesitation, I took Silvertongue from her, the black lacquered scabbard shining in the flickering firelight. In exchange, I pressed Loki's journal into her hands. "Keep this safe."
"Verily, my lady."
"I don't know what I would do without you."
"You would flounder, of course."
Then, with a quavering smile, she was off, running in the direction of the throne room alongside numerous other servants.
Swallowing thickly, I rejoined Castien and Faradei, the two of them already discussing a plan of action. "Worry not for the small gates; they will be well manned," Castien said to Faradei. "I want you to ensure none of the civilians are left behind. We cannot allow them to be trapped outside the throne room."
He let out a breath prior to turning towards me. "Eirlys, I need you to be in there with them. Speak to the people, keep them calm, and stay with them. They will heed you."
A part of me didn't like the idea of staying out of the conflict. Our numbers were no match for the Chitauri. Even though King Tylock had called to muster our warriors, most of them were unable to make the journey to the palace. All the same, I did not think Castien's request unreasonable. The people needed a guiding hand; I might not have been queen, but I was all they had. "Yes, of course." I cast a glimpse at the path Arlessa had taken before fastening my sword to my belt. "And what of you, Castien?"
"I will be in the entrance hall. Father will be there, and the Chitauri will no doubt seek to face us head on."
With that, Castien nodded to the both of us, and we parted ways, heading for our predetermined destinations: Faradei and I to the throne room, Castien to the palace gates. Armed guards stormed past us, bowing their heads to us curtly as they went by.
We maintained a silence between us while weaving through the corridors. The number of guards thinned the deeper we traversed into the palace. Protocol required that they remained at their posts in the event of a siege. But our numbers were scarce, and they would surely serve a better purpose at the forefront.
Together, Faradei and I marched across an enclosed bridge, coming to a stop before the throne room itself. Several guards stood close at hand, fully prepared to lower the portcullis upon command. I could see dozens of Light Elves inside, huddling together in groups. Children with wide, frightened eyes. Parents who could offer no comfort. They were all so steeped in terror, I doubted anything I could say would assuage the feeling.
"Our numbers are too few," Faradei said softly.
He was right, I knew. If it hadn't been for the storm, maybe—just maybe—we would have some certainty of our protection. My stomach twisted further; I couldn't help but think that if the Bifrost hadn't been destroyed, the Asgardians might've been able to come to our aid. But it seemed fate and chance were not on our side.
I took a deep breath and tried to console him. "Do not dwell on our numbers. We have a strength and spirit that will see us through."
Faradei faced me, bearing the smallest of smiles. My attempts at reassurance did little. But perhaps it was enough.
We both looked round to see Captain Leto waving him down. "We are in need of your assistance, Your Highness."
Faradei nodded to him before placing a hand on my shoulder. "Be safe, Eirlys."
"And you take care," I replied. "Keep an eye on Castien, if you can."
All he could give me was the solemn incline of his head. In the blink of an eye, he was following the captain of the guard back over the bridge.
As I stood in the doorway the led into the throne room, I could barely breathe. The guards watched me, their expressions stoic, but I saw the fear in their eyes. Fear, not for themselves, but for the men, women and children in their keep. And if they were afraid, I could only imagine how terrified those men, women and children inside must've been.
Drawing a deep breath, I steeled myself and strode into the throne room. It was a circular chamber, reinforced stone and iron lining the walls. Below, deep below, there were tunnels that would lead beneath the mountain and to the seashore. It was to be our last resort, one I desperately hoped to avoid, for the snows were heavy and I doubted our people would be able to contend with such conditions for long.
The throne itself sat at the far end, atop a small dais. It was nothing more than a heavily cushioned chair, empty now save for the large coronet set atop a velvet pillow: the king's crown.
My mouth went dry when I realized all eyes were on me. I was their princess—destined to be their queen consort. The thought never failed to inspire alarm in me, even after all these years of being married to the crown prince. They would look to me for guidance and comfort. Just as I had looked to Frigga.
I saw Arlessa standing amidst a group of Light Elf children, calming them with the same soft tones she'd used to soothe me in my youth. My ladies-in-waiting were gathered nearby, fearful, but attempting to feign otherwise. Driana stood with her arms around Mhalia, the youngest of my ladies, and offered me a tremulous smile. I knew she worried after Castien, and there was nothing that could dissolve such unease.
Peering through the crowd, I found Lord Meyrick, my steadfast mentor. He nodded to me with encouragement, and I was all too aware that words needed to be shared. It was my duty to instil calm in our people, regardless of the storm brewing within.
Clearing my throat, I walked across the throne room, Elves parting in my path like they'd done for Castien so many times before. I stopped just at the foot of the throne and clasped my hands together to keep them from shaking. "My people... please heed my words." I glanced across the chamber full of people, each and every one of them turning their gazes towards me. "I know you are all very afraid. And I cannot tell you not to fear, for I feel very much the same." My voice wavered as I pressed on, "What I ask of you is not a simple task: have faith. Have faith in our warriors. Have faith in one another. We will endure this trial, in that you have my word."
I took in a shaky breath and picked my way down the steps where Meyrick came to my side. He smiled upon me, taking one of my quaking hands within his own. "You did well, Eirlys," he said. "It takes much courage to admit you're afraid."
Shaking my head, I returned his smile with a dry one. "Courage is something I seem to be lacking as of late."
"Courage will find you when you need it most," Meyrick replied.
I wanted to take his reflection to heart, but waves of doubt drowned out my ability to do so.
The hush was broken when a familiar voice echoed down the enclosed bridge that led from the throne room. "Make way! I've a few strays."
I scurried forth to stand beneath the portcullis, Meyrick on my heels.
Faradei came running up the bridge, a child in his arms, with two more following shortly behind. Once they reached the gate, he let the child down, and the three little Elves went shouting for their mother. I watched with bated breath until they found her, her cheeks wet with tears.
"I've had the guards search all that they can," Faradei said, glancing from me to Meyrick. "They've been called to the entrance hall. It is believed the Chitauri are assembling some sort of... device outside our gates. We fear they seek to destroy our barricades as they did the tower."
"Have they made any demands?" I asked. "The Chitauri lingered on our borders for almost a year. Why are they attacking now?"
"I know not. They have given no indication of their goals."
I frowned, my bemusement mingling with an ever-rising dread. There had to be an explanation for all of this, for the attack, for the very presence of the Chitauri themselves. Nevertheless, I could not muster an answer.
Faradei reached out to grasp my elbow, drawing me back to the situation at hand. "I will join my brother at the fore," he told me. "And I wish for you to be there as well."
Brow furrowed, I shot a look over my shoulder. "No, I am meant to be here with our people."
His expression softened despite the shake of his head. "I know that is what Castien asked of you, but I do not believe the decision is sound." I blinked, surprised to hear Faradei refuting his brother's resolve. And yet he kept on, "He thinks with his heart, not with his head. He does his best to protect you, though I cannot imagine you need his protection. It would be far more advantageous to have you fight alongside us."
I could not deny that I wished to lend my aid in battle. As much as I sought to bring solace to the Elves sheltered in the throne room, I could not help thinking I would serve them better by facing our enemies and bringing an end to this madness before it pervaded the palace any further.
Chewing on my bottom lip, I nodded. "Spare me a moment? I would have words with Lord Meyrick before I go."
When Faradei acquiesced, I turned to see Meyrick waiting on me. The knowing look in his eyes told me he already understood the choice I'd made. With a careful look, I said to him, "Should a terrible happening come to pass, keep the people as calm as you can. Lead them into the mountains. They will look to you as an example."
"Keep a weathered eye on my apprentices. They have likely found their way to the fore of the conflict," Meyrick remarked.
"Of course they have," I said, somewhat wryly. "They've been craving an opportunity to utilize their barrier magic for months."
He smiled in return and dropped his hands on both my shoulders. "Keep your wits about you, Eirlys. Do not act a fool."
I felt an abrupt pang in my heart. "I pledge that I will not act a fool."
Unable to utter another word, I moved to follow Faradei, crossing beneath the portcullis just moments before the guards lowered it shut at his command.
"Eirlys! Wait." Freezing in my steps, I looked back to see Driana clutching onto the portcullis, her bright blue eyes peering through the grating. I knew what she meant to ask; she needed not speak to express her entreaty.
I graced her with a quavering smile, one I hoped seemed reassuring, though I sincerely doubted it did. "I will ensure he is safe."
She gave no response as Mhalia tugged her back, and the guards swung closed the doors behind the portcullis, bolting them shut with a resounding clank.
With a deep breath, I clenched my hand around Silvertongue's scabbard and turned towards Faradei. "Let's go," I said. "We haven't another moment to waste."
Countenance grim, he led the way across the bridge and through the corridors. If it hadn't been for the shouts in the distance and the howling wind, the palace would have seemed... forsaken. There was not a soul to be found in the halls, and it was that fact that spurred me on.
As we neared the entrance hall, an explosion sounded in the distance. I slowed, a strange sense of familiarity overcoming me. Memories of the siege of Asgard flitted through my mind. The Mad Titan sent the Dark Elves to Asgard. Perhaps we were right to speculate his hand in this as well. It was a train of thought that had to be entertained later. Right now, I had to worry about bringing about an end to this chaos.
Faradei and I dashed through the door, entering the hall side by side. Every warrior in the palace lined the lengthy chamber. They held their bows at the ready, arrows nocked. We strode past the pillars, winding through the crowd. Once they took notice of our arrival, they began parting left and right to allow us an unhindered passage.
At the forefront, we found Castien with his father. King Tylock stood in full armour, the sigil of the Light Elves shining on his chest plate.
Positioned before them, Meyrick's two apprentices, Azarik and Valdarr, were casting their barriers in conjunction. Although they were barring the heavy iron door well, the metal was already dented, cracks beginning to show.
Castien turned upon our approach, a frown registering on his features when he saw me. "Eirlys? Did you not heed my words? I asked you to keep watch over our people."
"And I asked her here," Faradei broke in. "With what we are about to face, we will need to make use of all the magic we have."
Castien looked ready to argue with him, but their father forestalled his objections. "Faradei is right," Tylock said, sparing me a glance and a nod. "She would serve better here."
If either of the princes meant to say anything after that, they never had the chance.
Sparks showered upon us, and we all tilted our heads back to see the Chitauri cutting through the ceiling of the palace. They worked quickly, so quickly that Tylock hadn't the opportunity to issue a single command. Bits of the ceiling crashed to the floor, and roaring winds whipped through the hall, strong enough to tear the tapestries from the walls. Our warriors moved deftly out of their path mere seconds before the Chitauri came crawling through.
Tylock shouted his orders, but I couldn't make out his words over the sudden din.
My chest tightened when I heard a faint whirring emanating from the opposite side of the great entrance. The sound reminded me of the staff used by the Dark Elves in the halls of Asgard, one that caused an explosion that nearly knocked me unconscious. Stomach churning, I pushed past Castien and positioned myself between Azarik and Valdarr. They made no indication that they noticed my presence, so deep in concentration they were.
I shut my eyes eyes, gathering energy from deep within to cast a barrier atop theirs. A mere heartbeat later, a fiery blast collided with the door. The cracked iron seemed to explode from the impact, pieces of metal flying every which way, battering against our magic shields. We could see outside, our view unobstructed; snowfall whirled in the gale and the Chitauri prepared to fire upon us once again.
Hand quaking, I ducked beneath a streak of flames. Azarik and Valdarr were just barely able to do the same. The Chitauri were still raining down from above. Yet I could not relinquish my hold on the barrier over the door. Castien saw fit to defend us and hurtled into the fray, battling the Chitauri that came between us and the great entrance.
A cry of fury drew my attention to where Tylock and Faradei fought side by side, their bows in hand. Our foes closed in around them, obviously aware of who they were.
Before either—or even I—could react, one among the Chitauri let fly a bevy of projectiles. A small dart no larger than a bee struck King Tylock in the throat. He was swift to pluck it from his flesh. But the damage had been done. Within seconds, it appeared a weakness overwhelmed him, taking the strength from his legs, and Faradei was forced to fight through the crowd, dragging his father to safety.
Once they disappeared into the mayhem, the enemy began to encroach on us. Over the clangour, I could hear Castien calling my name. Breath catching, I turned to the right and saw a Chitauri advancing on Valdarr, weapon glowing in hand. All around us, our warriors were engaged in battle. Castien was a short ways away, fighting to reach our side. But he would never reach us in time.
I cursed under my breath and let my barrier dispel before drawing my sword. Darting forth, I managed to block the small blast the Chitauri fired at Valdarr. I was only just able to drop into a crouch to avoid another shot that came from elsewhere. Enveloping myself in a barrier, I rolled forwards and rose on one knee to stab the Chitauri straight through. For half a second, I paused, absorbing what I'd done. The first life I've taken in seventy years. Then I stood to yank my sword free.
Past the bright blue glow of my shield, I took in the scene around me. Castien stood nearby, loosing three arrows in rapid succession. Each bolt struck a Chitauri in the face, and every one fell dead in a heap. When a large eruption shook the chamber again, I bit back a cry and cast a dome-shaped barrier over a dozen of us. It was enough to shield Azarik and Valdarr while they blocked the remains of the gate, but I knew not a one of us spellcasters was going to withstand another blow.
"Eirlys!" Within my blockade, Castien came stumbling to my side, blood on his face. My heart faltered before I realized the blood wasn't his. "Azarik and Valdarr aren't going to be able to endure another blast. When their shields fall, I need you to let me through."
"Through what? The gate?" I shook my head. "No, when their magic fails, I will bear the burden."
"And then what? Wait until you can hold it no longer?" He glanced about, and I followed his gaze to survey the warriors I'd confined in my dome. They were waiting and watching as their brothers in arms fought all around us. I could see Faradei, returned from bringing his father to safety, doing all that he could to defend the barrier I'd built. "Eirlys, I need to get through that gate."
My body was starting to quake from sustaining the spell, and I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I feared if I maintained it for too long that I would drop it unexpectedly—or worse, fall into unconsciousness. "What do you intend, Castien?"
"I must destroy that tremendous weapon of theirs," he insisted. "The young sorcerers are wavering. And you can hardly hold your shield as it is. One more blast could tear through your magic and kill you."
"No, I won't let you. It's too dangerous." Darkness was beginning to trespass on my vision. And despite how much I was willing to argue with him, I knew he was right. I doubted I could suffer the Chitauri's handheld weapons much longer. A blast from their mounted artillery was not something I could contend with. But neither could I let Castien go. "If you attempt it, they will overwhelm you. Surely you would die."
Our gazes locked, his eyes teary and imploring. All but trembling, I shook my head once more. "No... no, I promised Driana I would keep you safe."
"And I vowed to keep her safe," Castien replied. He peered around, as if considering the turmoil tearing through the hall. "When Azarik and Valdarr drop their shields, I need you to do the same. Once I am through the gate, you must cast a barrier upon it lest you allow the Chitauri to flood the chamber. Do you understand?"
"Castien, I can't... I can't let you do this." Through my blurred sight, I saw him smile. It was the saddest smile I'd ever seen.
"You know this is the only way." He reached out and grasped my shoulder. "I ask that you look after... our family. It will not be easy for them after this. Faradei especially." A shadow of sorrow flitted across his features. "And Driana... ensure that she knows that she meant everything to me."
Before I could answer him, a massive upsurge shook the ground beneath our feet. I looked to see Azarik and Valdarr's combined strength failing. Their shields dissipated, and the Chitauri came pouring through the broken gate. I shared a look with Castien one last time and reluctantly let my barrier fall.
In the blink of an eye, he was tearing through the throng, battling his way past the stream of Chitauri, bow in one hand, blade in the other. My state of vulnerability did not go unnoticed. I had to hunker down, my hands over my head as numerous blasts came my way.
Faradei dispatched my attackers with a swift cascade of arrows before stopping at my side. "What is Castien doing?" The question made my mouth go dry. He turned to me, blond hair in disarray, his normally calm facade shattered. "Is he—?"
Something in my expression must've provided the answer, for he was running after his brother a moment later, shouting words I could not hear over the cacophony.
Vaguely, I was aware of Valdarr dropping to his knees, the Elven youth weakened from expending so much energy. Azarik, however, remained steadfast, his tall and lithe form towering over me. He said nothing as he cast a barrier over the three of us—the last line of defence from the Chitauri swarming the hall. Sparing him a curt nod, I turned to watch Castien leap over the remainder of the gates and disappear into the snowstorm. Yards behind, Faradei trailed in his wake. With a heavy heart, I cast my spell over the entranceway, barring the path of both Faradei and the Chitauri still trying to enter the palace.
I knew not how long I persevered. Every strand of my being seemed to thrum and shudder and throb. As every second passed, my vision tunnelled just a little more, and breathing proved just a little harder. I felt a strange pain in my chest, spreading towards my shaking limbs, seizing my muscles. Something deep within me ached—something decidedly vital—when I strained my magic further and further.
Still, I bore the agony and refused to relent.
But then a large billow of flame erupted in the distance, green sparks burgeoning upwards like an ocean wave.
I let go, crumbling to my knees beside Valdarr, gasping for breath. There was a ghastly roar, to which the Chitauri responded with their own cries. Lifting my head, I stared as the Chitauri began their retreat, their numbers reduced since their arrival. They left the hall with an alarming speed, some climbing out the apertures in the ceiling, most others clambering over the broken gate.
As they vanished into the tempest, I pressed a hand to my chest, the peculiar ache lingering. Azarik crouched next to me, the concern clear on his often stoic features. "Are you unwell, Your Highness?"
Coughing, I shook my head. "I am fine." The struggle to rise to my full height attempted to prove me wrong. "See to Valdarr. Take him to the healing room. I shall seek you out in due course."
Without a hint of hesitation, Azarik clasped Valdarr's arm and led the younger Elf away from the bedlam. The last of the Chitauri were dead or gone now. All that remained were our warriors. They knew better than to pursue our attackers while they vanished into the cold wastes. Our warriors remained steady and attentive should the Chitauri make any attempt to return. A few Light Elves hastened around the chamber, tending to the wounded. Counting our dead.
"Oh, Norns. Castien," I breathed.
My legs refused to cooperate at first, and I stumbled once or twice before eventually rising to my feet and wending my way through the hall. I called Castien's name while I staggered over the dead, my eyes bleary. Bracing myself, I passed the threshold between the hall and the outside world, a flurry of snow and wind near knocking me off my feet.
I paid little heed to the forces of nature as I wandered. I couldn't have, even if I wanted to.
There was death. Death all around. Dead Chitauri, arrows jutting from their chests and their heads. I would've grimaced at the grisly sight if my mind hadn't been otherwise occupied.
My heart just about stopped when I spotted Faradei kneeling in the snow. He hovered over a prone figure, unmoving.
I ran and skidded to my knees opposite him, peering down at Castien. Not yet dead, but dying. In his weakening hands, he clutched onto a Chitauri staff, long, black and etched in indecipherable runes. The one I presumed he'd used to destroy their artillery. It slid a little more from his fingers as his life started to fade.
His skin had become as white as the snow that would serve as his deathbed. My gaze travelled further to see the blood blossoming from his chest, the bright red staining the white. I touched his cheek—cold as ice now—to behold his unseeing eyes. The vibrant blue in them seemed to wane.
I drew back when he looked straight at me, his bloodied hands reaching up to grasp mine. "Driana... tell Driana..." He brought my fingers to the pendant hanging from his neck. It was a key, simple and unassuming brass with an oval-shaped head; I had never seen it before. "Keep... safe..."
With the last of his strength, he closed my hand around the key before the light in his eyes dimmed and vanished. When his hands fell away from my own, the last of his breath departed.
Holding back my tears, I could only look on as Faradei grabbed his brother's shoulders, murmuring his words of disbelief.
The wind dropped into a whisper around us, and the snowfall became no more than dust.
Author's Note: As always, special thanks to Hr'awkryn for beta-ing :)
The title of this story, Between Two Points, was inspired by the song of the same name by The Glitch Mob.
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