Taurils were the most feared monster in all of Astielle. The torso of a giant on the body of a bull, they were faster than most horses and could rip a man in two. Their horns were prized for use in weapons and tools for the sheer impossible hardness of them, requiring magic to carve. An arrow from one of their bows could drive straight through the trunk of a tree.
It was sensible, then, that whatever pilgrim was visiting Elias’ grave mounted their horse to flee as soon as Karzarul was visible on the forest path.
Karzarul had been dead. It was, as usual, a temporary condition. In his absence, his murderer had died, and the Kingdom of Astielle had risen. This, he was used to. It was the monsters that had gone funny. When last he’d breathed, it would be no unusual thing to see a Tauril in a fine embroidered tunic, strolling down a forest path.
Yet these monsters he’d seen since waking were halfway to animals, twitchy and violent, their minds closed off to him. He didn’t know what to make of it.
For now, he’d check Elias’ grave, and make sure the fucker was dead.
It was a nondescript monument, as these things went. He took small comfort in that, looking down at the marble stone in the clearing, the little flowers and trinkets left there. Sometimes the Starlight Hero was beloved enough to get statues and plazas and temples and all manner of things. Sometimes they deserved it. But he hadn’t much cared for Elias.
It wasn’t the murder—though he was mad about the murder. It was that he’d been an asshole about it. Plenty of Heroes managed to murder him without being assholes about it. He rubbed at the back of his glove, contemplating the little star on the grave.
Someone else was here. He could hear their boots in the underbrush, quiet as they were. His ears flicked. The fleeing pilgrim, back again? He turned his head at just the right moment to catch her eyes.
Mostly hidden behind a tree in the shadows of the leaves, she looked like one of the abandoned changelings of the Faewild Forest. She had all the tells of a child once touched but not claimed, reflective pupils and pointed ears and streaks of grass-green in her hair. For those who turned, the final effect was ethereal. Half-done, they looked like dolls abandoned in the dirt, broken and mossy.
This one was grown, though. As grown as any human ever was. What had made her leave the forest, where she could have lived on ageless and waiting?
“Hello,” he said, and her eyes widened.
“You speak Astia?” she asked. Her voice was small and coarse.
“Most Taurils do,” he said.
Her thick brows furrowed. “No they don’t.”
“I think I’d know better than you do,” he said, and she pressed her lips together. “Have you met many Taurils?”
“They keep trying to kill me,” she said. “I’ve never heard one talk.” Her eyes drifted lower, still high above her head. “Or wear clothes,” she said. “Armor, but not clothes.”
“I’m old,” he said, and her eyes narrowed as she tried to connect the two statements. “Your horse must be very fast,” he added, since few Taurils ‘tried’ to kill rather than simply succeeding.
She grinned, pearl-white teeth glinting like knives. “My sword is very sharp,” she corrected.
“Is it,” he said, his hooves shifting in the dirt, and her grin disappeared as she grew wary again. Her grip adjusted against the tree bark, and his eye was drawn to the back of her hand. A dark splotch on her skin, its edges too sharp to be an accident. An eight-pointed star. She saw him see it.
“Ah,” he said. She said nothing. “That would explain it.” He looked down at the gravestone, the star in the stone. “Visiting your own grave?” he asked.
“So they say,” she said.
He thought of a blade through his back, through his neck, through his ribs. The same blade, and always different hands. “You don’t remember?” he asked.
He envied her that. Sometimes they remembered. Maybe it was better that she didn’t. Elias had killed him, just like Tomas had killed him after Gwenviel had killed Laurela, and before that it had been Kelruil—
So many Starlight Heroes, and so many Sunlight Heirs. Always the same Moonlight Monster, always the same Starsword.
“Do you know,” she asked, “if he’s awake?”
“Who?” he asked.
“The King of All Monsters,” she said. “Karzarul.”
His hooves scuffed the dirt. “He is,” he said, since he saw no point in lying. She drooped a little, and she looked very small, this lost little Hero only mostly human.
“Oh,” she sighed. “But you’re not trying to kill me.”
“I’m old,” he said again, as she leaned against her tree.
“Can you lie?” she asked.
“Anyone can lie.”
“Oh,” she sighed again. “It would be very convenient if you couldn’t.”
“For you, maybe.”
“It’s only that,” she said, “if Karzarul has risen, it means I should probably start questing. So I was going to ask, um. How much time you think I have, before he’s too strong for me to fight. But I don’t think you have any reason to be honest with me about that.”
“You don’t have to fight him,” he said.
“Astielle will not fall to monsters,” she said. “I only wish I had more time, is all.”
“Monsters aren’t so bad,” he said.
“You’re not,” she said. “Or, you don’t seem so bad. If they were all like you, I think… it would be different.” She pushed away from her tree, and he got a better look at her. Her tunic and leggings were both torn, much of her brown hair pulled loose from her braid. The shape of her arms was familiar, the same muscles on a different body. But her shoulders were broad and her legs were thick, leather boots all scuffed. Short and wide. Sturdy, was what she looked like. He wouldn’t have guessed her for the Hero, if not for the blade at her waist and its ominous shimmer. “You should stay away from people,” she warned. “I think it’s okay, if you do.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said, watching as she disappeared into the trees.
He should have asked her name, he realized. He’d know soon enough.
He watched her from afar. He wasn’t always a Tauril. Sometimes he was a Misthawk, or a Howler, or an Entboar, or a Bruteling.
She probably could have killed him at her grave. He realized this the first time he watched her kill an Ursbat. She was pure brute strength with no caution to temper it, willing to crawl up behind a beast just for the chance that her blade would strike true the first time. He watched her climb onto its back as it roused, expecting her to fall and her neck to break. Instead she rode it, driving her sword into its back until it fell.
She could have done the same to him. It wouldn’t have been much more difficult. He wasn’t back to his full strength just yet.
He watched as she avoided monsters more than she fought them, taking odd paths and climbing unnecessary cliffs. He watched her draw maps, sitting in trees and on mountains. He watched her harvest berries until her fingers turned purple, catch fish with her bare hands and eat them still hot out of the fire.
She was a wild thing, this fairy-touched girl.
He only lost track of her when she went into human towns, which was a risk he couldn’t take. The monsters still puzzled him. He’d approached a camp of Brutelings to ask where their village was, but they hadn’t answered him. They’d hissed and grunted and offered him meat, and it was all making Karzarul start to wonder if he’d gone insane. He knew they hadn’t been like this, before. Dying sometimes made memories go fuzzy, but not like this. Something was very wrong.
He stayed in the form of a Bruteling, small enough to stay hidden as he lurked outside the town. He watched the comings and goings of travelers and merchants, children running in the streets. Soldiers stood watch, skinny young men he could kill even in this form. No warriors, these.
She rode out of town on her horse, a fat black mare with flowers braided in her mane. It was weighed down with full saddlebags and a sleep roll, but the Hero looked no better for her time spent in town. The same clothes, dirty and torn, the same patched leather boots.
It felt indiscreet to walk through the open plain, so he took the form of a Misthawk, opening his arms as they stretched into wings before taking flight. He went in wide circles to gain height before he followed her, wanting to look plausibly like a bird from the ground. There wasn’t much to see from such a distance, even with a Misthawk’s many eyes. He had to circle occasionally to keep from overtaking her, slow as she traveled. It was no wonder she spoke of wanting more time.
He watched her dismount, though he couldn’t tell why, on her hands and knees in the tall grass beside the road. He saw before she did the pack of Howlers creeping closer, and he circled lower to get a better look. There was no reason for them to attack her—she wasn’t in marked territory, and she was hardly an appetizing meal. Yet they stalked toward her like they were hunting, so he was curious to see how she handled them. Would she dispatch them, or simply leave?
To his surprise, she did neither, absorbed so deeply in her mysterious task that a Howler was able to pounce on her. She screamed in alarm as its teeth sank into her skin, and her horse bolted, fleeing down the road to safety. They were on her all at once then, five of them barking with gnashing teeth and tearing claws and her on the ground with her sword.
He dove toward the ground, holding his wings close to his body and pointing his beak toward his target. He landed with the paws of a Howler, and he tackled one of the others, ripping at its neck with his teeth. It yowled and retreated, and he growled with a flare of his ruff, taking stock of the situation.
The Hero had managed to run one of them through, its corpse now bleeding out in the grass. But her legs were both bleeding, one of her arms, and the side of her neck looked torn open. Her gaze was unfocused, her breathing heavy.
They were the sort of wounds only a Hero could survive, and only barely that.
He risked returning to Tauril form, stomping his hooves at the remaining Howlers. He grabbed at one of them, and tried to draw its essence into himself. To his horror, it fell to dust and smoke in his hands.
Monsters were supposed to be made of moonlight. Flesh and blood all built on a framework of power, the same power that animated him. These new, strange monsters—these were nothing.
The Hero collapsed to the ground.
He would worry about the monsters later. For now, he had to awkwardly splay his front legs out enough that he could reach the ground with his arms, lifting the Hero up to carry her. The Starsword sang in objection to his closeness, but he ignored it. She was surprisingly heavy for her size, but a Tauril could toss her around like a ragdoll.
He wondered if he ought to kill her.
They didn’t always try to kill him, Starlight Heroes. Only most of the time.
He galloped toward the mountains, the closest place he knew that had sacred springs.
She woke up feeling better than she had in months, if slightly damp. She felt… cozy. All wrapped up in furs. She opened her eyes, squinting at the fire and trying to remember where she’d fallen asleep.
There was a Tauril sitting on the other side of the flames.
She sat up.
“Hello,” he said.
“Oh.” Her heart was still racing, but she tried to calm it down. “I met you,” she said.
He was the only Tauril she’d ever seen who looked like that, as white as snow from his head to his tail. The longbow on his back looked solid silver, same as the embroidery on his fine clothes. She wondered if Taurils had princes.
“Where are we?” she wondered.
“I brought you to a sacred spring,” he said. He tilted one of his horns toward the water. “This one’s full of starlight.”
“Oh,” she said, pulling furs tighter around herself. That explained the damp. “You saved me.”
“A bit,” he agreed.
She wasn’t used to thinking of Taurils as people. She’d been working on it, since she met him, but it was hard. Usually they just tried to shoot her, or roared a lot while trying to cut her head off with an axe. She was trying not to dwell on the idea that every Tauril she’d ever killed had been a person, like he was. She thought if that idea caught up to her, it might cause problems.
“I never asked your name,” she said.
“Ari,” he said, after a moment of hesitation. She thought that maybe it was normally something like ‘Prince Ari’, and that was why he hesitated. The idea that he was unique because he was secret Tauril royalty was taking firm hold in her mind despite or because of the total lack of any evidence.
“I’m Minnow,” she said.
“Minnow,” he repeated.
She shifted under the furs. “Minona,” she said. “I use Minnow.” She looked around the little area by the fire, until she spotted her sword and one of her packs. The others were on Piggy, and who knew where that horse had gotten to by now. Hopefully a stable. She reached out until her fingers caught the strap of her bag, which she dragged closer. “Do you want anything?” she asked. She unbuckled the top flap to look inside. “I have some berries, and an apple. There’s some honeycomb, too.”
“No, thank you.”
“My teapot and cooking stuff is all with Piggy,” she said, “so I can’t offer you any of that. If you have a pot I can make you some soup? You seem like you probably need a lot of food. Soup is good for that. Oh, and I have—not fireflies, those are a different thing. Flutterfires? I have some of those, they’re good in soup. I have some fancy soap, too, a lady gave it to me in the last town. I think she wanted me to advertise? It’s good soap. It’s got milk in it.”
“You don’t need to give me your soap,” he said. “Or your soup.”
“Okay,” she said. “In stories, sometimes, the Hero will give people a whistle to call for them if they need help. But I don’t have one of those. If you whistled I don’t think I’d hear it, unless I was already kinda close.”
“You don’t need to give me anything,” he assured her.
“Okay,” she said. She should have believed him, since she saved people’s lives regularly and never wanted anything. She’d never been the one getting rescued before. “Do you think it would be sacrilegious to take a bath in a sacred spring?” she asked. “I know you already dunked me but I think I might be gross.”
Because you look really nice, she did not say, because that would be an insane thing to say to a monster.
“You’re the Starlight Hero,” he said. “You can do whatever you want with your sacred spring.”
“I guess,” she said. “But I think at least one goddess would probably descend to yell at me if I pissed in it.” She wiggled out from under the furs, regretting it immediately. Shivering, she peeled off her tunic and took a closer look at it.
She should wash her clothes, too. She wasn’t thrilled that a monster had not only saved her life, but thought she was stinky while doing it.
Once she’d stripped, she balled up her clothes and grabbed her fancy milk soap. The shimmering of the spring made her nervous, so she stuck a toe in first.
It was warm.
She practically jumped the rest of the way in, letting her clothes float as she sank down to her shoulders. She hadn’t realized she’d still been sore until she’d gotten into the water. She poked at the pink bitemark on her thigh, but found it was tender. Bruises had bloomed around it, the skin closed before the bleeding had stopped.
“This feels really nice,” she said, scrubbing at the dirt and dried blood on her legs.
“Good,” Ari said. He was watching her.
“You could fit, if you wanna try,” she suggested.
“I can’t touch the water,” he said. She frowned as she looked at it, dirt and bubbles of soap floating briefly before disappearing in shimmers of starlight.
“Oh,” she said. “Because you’re a monster.” He nodded. “How did you dip me, earlier?”
She ran soapy fingers through her hair, trying to untangle it, watching him watch her. His eyes were big and silver, with thick eyelashes, and his nose fell wide and straight from his forehead. He had a ring in it, and rings in his big fuzzy ears, and rings on the horns that swept forward from his temples before rising straight upward. She wanted to steal them. There were tufts of fur at the tips of his ears, big silver tunnels near the base of them, his hair in a braid down his back. It was much tidier than hers.
“You have a good face,” she decided.
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s different,” she said, “when you’re not roaring at me.”
His lip curled, and he bared his teeth before letting out a roar that rattled the trees.
“Oh,” she sighed, sinking lower into the water, her heart thudding against her ribcage. If she’d really thought he’d hurt her, she’d have her sword by now. Instead it was just empty fear, like sledding down a mountain or jumping off a cliff. She rubbed her knees together and thought about sacrilege.
“Why did you save me?” she asked, scrubbing soap into her tunic.
“It seemed the thing to do.”
“Shouldn’t you try to kill me?”
“You haven’t tried to kill me yet,” he said.
“I only kill things that try to kill me first,” she said. “And things I want to eat.”
“Exactly,” he said.
She frowned at the grass stains in her leggings. “The other monsters try to kill me as soon as they see me.”
“Those are new monsters,” he said. “There’s something wrong with them. I don’t know what.”
“Is that why you keep saying you’re old?”
“King Leland says it’s because of Karzarul,” she said. “He wants to destroy Astielle and kill every human, so monsters can rule in eternal darkness.”
“That’s stupid,” Ari said.
“Maybe,” she agreed. It certainly felt stupid, when she could sit and talk to a Tauril. “But monsters are attacking people, and burning villages.”
“The King of All Monsters isn’t behind every Ursbat attack,” he said, “any more than King Leland is responsible for every bandit. Do you trust your King?”
“No,” she said. He gave her the creeps, actually. “After I kill Karzarul, I think he’s going to try and kill me to keep me from killing Prince Leonas.”
“Were you planning to kill Prince Leonas?”
“No,” she said. “The King is just paranoid. He keeps the Prince locked in a tower. It’s a whole thing.” She gave up on trying to scrub all the blood out of her underwear. Even sacred starlight water could only do so much. “Do you think you could hang these in a tree for me?” she asked, holding up her wet clothes. “I tried to wring them out,” she apologized.
He pulled himself up onto his hooves, towering as he stepped closer. He had to bend at the waist to reach her outstretched hands, taking her clothes gingerly between gloved fingers. Then he hooked them onto tree branches high above where she could reach without climbing, safe from the fire but not from the smoke. She didn’t mind. Her clothes were usually smokey. She looked at one of his enormous cloven hooves, now at eye-level, and imagined it trying to crush her skull.
“You said you wanted more time,” he said. His voice was strange coming from so far above her. “Because King Leland will kill you?”
She shrugged, though she couldn’t tell if he could see if from up there. “They only let me do this because I need to find Karzarul and kill him,” she said. “Once I find him, it’s over either way. He kills me, or they make me go back to Castle Astielle. I don’t get to keep exploring.” She sank into the water until her chin was submerged. “If I explore too long, he’ll get too strong and find me instead. I just wanted to make it last before then.” She raked her fingers through her hair again, with no greater success. “Do you have something I can dry with?” she asked. “I don’t want to get your nice furs all wet.”
She watched him turn to pick up one of his packs off the ground, looking ungainly as he did so. She thought about how easy it would be to slice through one of his joints with the Starsword, in that position.
“Here,” he said, having to turn and bend again to offer her what looked suspiciously like a saddle blanket. She pulled herself out of the spring and into the cold night air, taking the blanket to help wring out her hair first. She stood close to the fire while she rubbed water off her limbs.
“Can I sleep here?” she asked. “I’m still tired, but I can wait if you need to go.”
“I can wait,” he said.
“Are you going to sleep?” she asked.
“I might,” he said.
“Can we sleep on the same side of the fire, then? I think that’s warmer.”
“If you’d like,” he said. It made her nervous as he navigated around her, legs as tall as she was. When he dropped back down to the ground it sounded like a felled tree, kicking up dust around him and disturbing the fire.
She moved the pile of furs closer to him without asking first, then crawled back inside, shivering against the cold. At least she felt clean, now. She hadn’t felt clean in a while.
“You should take that honeycomb,” she said, yawning. “It’s really good.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Minnow woke up to the sun in her face and a smoldering fire. The sight of Ari startled her still, until she could acclimate to him as Ari instead of a monster. She yawned, pushing the piles of furs aside and raking her fingers through her hair again. It had dried fluffy, going in every direction and with a halo of split ends.
“Good morning,” Ari said. “Would you like your clothes?” He dragged a hoof over the remains of the fire, mixing it with the dirt to put it out. It felt wrong that something that large could move.
“Yes, please,” she said, smacking her lips and trying to air out her mouth. He dropped them onto her head without ceremony, and she harrumphed as she tried to sort them out. She found a small twig stuck in her chest wrap, and stuck it in her mouth to chew on as she got dressed. Her toe went through a hole in her sock, and she wiggled it thoughtfully.
“You should buy new clothes,” he said.
“Yeah,” she agreed, standing up to roll up his furs and hand them to him. He took them and re-rolled them before putting them into one of his packs. He’d strapped them onto his harness, similar to the saddlebags she used with Piggy but without a central saddle. She wished she’d been awake to see him fastening the straps onto his lower body. She put on her own belt, her sheath and glider and the pack that strapped onto her thigh.
“I can take you to an area of the forest by the closest stable,” he said. “From there, you should be able to find your horse.”
She considered the prospect of mounting him. “It’s fine,” she said. “I still have my glider, if I climb this mountain I can just jump.”
He dropped to his knees, arms crossed, waiting. She felt silly arguing, so she touched her hands to his back, her boot to his harness. She was still worried it would hurt him to pull herself up. “This feels rude,” she protested.
“It’s not,” he said.
She scrambled up onto his back with as much speed and as little grace as she could manage, wanting to get it over with. Trying to find a comfortable seat presented new problems.
“You’re too big,” she complained.
“Try sidesaddle,” he suggested.
“Gross,” she said automatically. But her legs were uncomfortably far apart, and every time she tried to move her pelvis sort of…
Rude. More than rude.
The thing was, none of this would be a problem if she were killing him. She’d ridden Taurils before, climbed onto their backs while they bucked to drive a sword through them. That was easy. But having to worry about his discomfort, about being rude, that made this all very difficult.
She huffed and grumbled, sticking her fingers through some of the metal rings on the leather strap in front of her as he stood. Her grip tightened as he started to trot.
This bouncing was not going to work.
She shut her eyes and pretended she was riding a horse. Or a different Tauril, that she was trying to kill.
She was going to end up absolutely numb between her legs, which was probably for the best but which she still resented.
The transition into a gallop smoothed out the ride, but she still found herself leaning far forward, nearly laying out on Ari’s back. That made it a little easier, resting her cheek against his fur and hooking her boots into the harness strap behind her. She watched the landscape pass them at high speed, saw small gatherings of wayward monsters unable to react to their passing in time.
In some ways, this was very convenient.
A bell echoed in her head.
“Wait,” she said, pulling on his harness as if it were reins. “Can we go back, please?” she said, sitting upright again. “I need to get down, I think we passed something.”
Ari slowed, then turned, retracing his steps at a slow clip until she heard the bell again.
“There,” she said, sliding off his back without waiting for him to stop, stumbling as soon as she hit the ground. She walked in slow and irregular circles, trying to identify where the ringing was loudest. When she found the spot she dropped to her knees, pulling the Starsword out of its sheath and using it to dig into the ground.
It was perhaps not the most respectful use of a magical blade, but it could never break or lose its edge, so she refused to feel bad about it.
She sheathed the sword to start digging with her fingers, until finally they struck what she’d been looking for. A stone, rainbows of light emanating from its center like a prism, its shape irregular and crude.
“A fallen star,” Ari said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Sorry. When I hear one I have to get it right away, otherwise I’ll never find it again.” She opened her pack and tucked it away amidst her berries, wiping dirt off on her thighs.
“Why do you need them?” he asked.
“When the first Starlight Hero and Sunlight Heir and Moonlight Monster were made,” she said, “they went to the Fairy King and asked him to forge them weapons. So he asked for three fallen stars, three crystal sunbeams, and three perfect moonstones. That was how he made the Starsword, the Sunshield, and the Moonbow. But then the Starlight Hero asked if the Fairy King could make him anything else, and the Fairy King told him that if he brought him a thousand fallen stars, he could have whatever he wished.”
“Right,” Ari said. “That was a metaphor. It was an example of an impossible task, to explain how difficult it had been just to make those three legendary weapons.”
She frowned as she stood, displeased to learn that he’d already known the story. It seemed like everyone knew every story before she did, which took all the fun out of telling all the new stories she’d collected.
“Yeah,” she said, walking back towards him. She stopped, bending down to look at a wildflower. “I don’t think I have one of these,” she said, digging into her bag to find her flower book. Then she stood, pulling herself up onto his back with less fuss this time. “People keep telling me that, but it seems like it’s mostly people who know more about books than fairies. Fairies are very literal. It’s actually super annoying.”
“Maybe,” Ari said. “That doesn’t make it any more likely that you can collect a thousand fallen stars.”
“This is my four-hundred thirty-eighth,” she said.
“Bullshit,” he said.
“I keep most of them at home,” she said. “If I had more time, I think I could find a thousand.”
“You have time,” he said.
“Not if Karzarul finds me.”