Atalanta yanked the pearl-encrusted comb down the full 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 to do it. The Arcamirian sun filled the place with green light as it filtered through the treetops. Fruits of all colors and shapes 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 appeared in 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 pit of the peach into a nearby bush with a fast, practiced movement. The bush shook. Atlanta’s high, pointed ears flicked towards 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. She 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 towards 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 at elvish speed, 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 from 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 grabbed her hair at the crown and wrapped an arm around her neck. She struggled on the ground, her feet kicking up grass as she tried to stand up 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 it crashed to the ground.
“Come on, Andrew, you can do better than that,” said Michael, a taunt in his voice and the curl of his mouth.
Andrew looked at his older brother’s bulk with an unspoken complaint. Michael’s muscle 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 and rather uncared for. The family resemblance could be found in their father’s blue eyes and sharp jaw.
Andrew put his hands on his knees, panting, and looked over at his sisters, still locked in a duel. Matthew’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.