Another child was gone.
They’d located him, but by the time they’d made it, it had been too late. He’d already been changed.
Over the last twenty years, only twelve children had been born to his clan. Five of them had made it; three had died, and four had been enslaved.
“It’s not your fault,” Gerda told him, just like she’d said every single time they lost one of their own.
He shrugged off the hand she’d rested on his shoulder, needing to distance himself from her.
It wasn’t his fault – the fault rested with the monsters who hunted them down like animals. But little Flin had been his responsibility nonetheless. They all were. And he’d failed them.
Kai was the last of the Eldorian alive. Some called him Prince or King; he didn’t accept either title. Princes and Kings sat on thrones, within solid walls, and kept their people content, safe.
Kai’s idea of ruling had been leading them to the frozen wasteland they now called home.
As soon as he’d become old enough to be called a man, back when his father had still been alive, Kai had led a quest. He’d explored the whole of Gaia to find the remaining free elves, would they be woodland, water, light or dark – those distinctions didn’t matter, to a race so close to extinction.
Before the quest, there had been close to sixty elves in his clan; now, they were three hundred and ninety seven.
Three hundred and ninety six, he corrected himself.
Blast! He hated feeling that powerless; hatred and darkness made him colder every day. He recalled a time when he’d known how to laugh, when he’d played with the children – he couldn’t now.
Objectively, Kai knew he’d done his best.
He’d found these mountains by chance in his travels, following a rumor about slavers who targeted elves in the area.
He should have headed straight back, but something had called to him, pushing his feet north, and Kai knew not to ignore such feelings.
He’d had reasons to be shocked when he’d opened his eyes to a series of infinitively tall, threatening peaks, higher than any mounts in Europa.
It wasn’t on maps, and he’d hit a ward so strong it had almost brought him to his knees, when he’d stepped too close to the highest peak.
The entire chain of mounts was warded, but the protection grew exceptionally powerful the higher up he went.
It also grew cold; colder than anywhere else in Gaia.
That had been his grand idea; the place where he’d lead his people.
To be fair, it had worked: it was their first loss since the move.
Kai’s decision might have saved a lot of them, but fuck, had he given them a life worth living? They were scavenging for food, forever looking for water, fighting the torrential snow.
Kai was out of his depth; he needed help, badly.
But who would come to his aid? He’d considered appealing to a modern kingdom, such as Alenia – especially given the fact that both the King and Queen were fay descents – offering their skills as healers, fighters, in exchange for a place in the new world his kind wouldn’t survive without allies; but it was a risk he couldn’t take.
Kai’s folks used to be as well-known as the fays, as populous as humans; now they were neither and it might be for the best.
The last time an elf had sought to make a deal with a human, they’d paid dearly for it. They’d found out their weakness, and were still exploiting it, enslaving any elf they could capture.
Kai was strolling through the frozen forest, almost knees deep in snow, trying to calm his fury, his sense of betrayal, before he returned to the village, when his snarl suddenly disappeared, replaced by curiosity, first, then apprehension.
The girl was completely out of place here. Despite his stronger constitution, Kai wore long pants, and his coat was made of thick wool and lined with fur.
She was enveloped in nothing warmer than leather jacket and a pair of leggings; that was it. No gloves, no hat, no scarf. Even her shoes were dreadfully impractical: at least, they were boots, but the fashionable, pretty kind with a wedged heel which did wonderful things to the shape of her legs.
Disastrous as her attire could be, it wasn't the worst of it, because more pressingly at the minute, there was a bear close to her; a live wild, enormous bear, and she didn’t even seem to see it.
He cursed under his breath.
That this set-up might be some sort of trap crossed his mind, but he was not leaving her there. It wasn't the way Kai had been raised. Like it or not, he was the one who cared for, fed and protected the weak.
For the first time, he understood those who called him Prince, aloof and unenthusiastic as he might be. It wasn’t because he was the heir to a throne he, like all his fathers before him, would never sit on, but it might have to do with the fact that he just couldn’t help acting the part.
Another man might have turned around rather than face one of the most ginormous bears he’d ever come across in his life, but with or without a crown, princes did not condemn women to their death.