“HEY! SLOW DOWN.” Alice stumbled over the roots and fallen branches on the forest floor as she quickened her pace. Thorny brambles snared her boot. They held her foot in place, while her body propelled forward. She grappled for the closest tree. Rough bark scratched her palm as she tightened her grip. Nice save, graceful.
With a twist, she freed her foot. A blister on her ankle popped. The scent of decaying leaves carried on a breeze, chilling the sweat on her exposed skin.
The white rabbit her coven sent to guide her, paused a few feet ahead. It stood on its hind legs with its ears flicking.
“I don’t see what the great rush is.” She peered up.
Slivers of light pierced the canopy of trees, capturing the dust that rose from rustling leaves an earth. It was still daytime. For how long?
She tightened her hold on the headlamp strap. “The nettle isn’t going anywhere, and it isn’t like we’re expected back for tea and cake.”
Alice rubbed the tight muscles of her jean-covered calves. How many hours had she been following the rabbit? She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her blue, flannel outer-shirt, seeking warmth now that she stopped.
The rabbit turned in the direction of crunching leaves.
“It’s just squirrels. I haven’t felt a soul since we left the coven.” Alice followed the rabbit’s gaze. “Do you understand me?”
A twig snapped.
The rabbit hopped away. Its white fur blurred against the greens and browns.
“Wait! I don’t know where the cave is.” Alice gave chase. Her heartbeat pounding in her ears, drowned out the natural litter snapping underfoot. “Don’t leave me alone out here.”
Her breathing grew ragged, drying her mouth. It left her, lost in the woods. How near dark was it?
“Hello?” The emptiness around her swallowed her words. “Mister rabbit?”
She took a few slow steps, and gazed up again, trying to use the direction of the light beams that broke through the foliage to gain her bearing.
The rabbit circled back, and scurried forward again.
It hadn’t abandon her. Not yet.
Twinges of pain splintered from her feet as she hurried to follow it over the uneven terrain.
When the woods opened into a clearing, she stopped and hunched over, hands rested on her knees.
The rabbit hopped through the overgrown grass. It paused to regard her a moment, before it vanished into a cave opening.
A shiver raced up her back when a cool breeze blew over her sweat-covered brow. Was this worth it?
“I don’t need to belong to a coven.” She chewed her lip and glanced behind her toward the forest. Going back was an option. Was there enough daylight to make it back to the coven? Lost in the woods, even after dark, might be better than lost in a cave.
Her hands balled into fists in her pockets while she weighed the reasons for going in the cave against her fear of the dark. Plants didn’t grow in caves, they needed light. Most things needed light to thrive. “Including your bravery.” Her own mocking propelled her forward a few steps, until she stood at the cave mouth.
Damp air with a light, wet aroma hung around the opening. A cursory glance told her that only a few feet inside and there wouldn’t even be lowlight. Nothing could grow in there except despair. The whole trek was a fool’s errand, more than likely to test her loyalty to the coven, or worse, some hazing ritual.
“Solitary witches are perfectly capable of …”
A bush rustled behind her.
Her words and mind silenced.
Alice scanned the thicket. It couldn’t be the rabbit. That impatient creature ran headlong into the darkness of the cave.
The curious eyes of a small deer stared back at her. It wasn’t a monster. Not a spiteful witch having a laugh at her expense. A deer.
Alice turned back to the opening, and tucked a lock of her short, blonde hair behind her ear. Might as well search for the nettle. She inched one hand toward the opening. Her fingers shook. She held her breath a beat, yanked it back, and inspected it for injuries.
“What did you expect?” Her voice still held a tremble when she answered her own question. “Maybe monsters, or to be sucked into a void.”
Her lips pursed. Talking to herself wasn’t getting her any closer to completing the task. The fingers of her other hand rubbed the elastic band of the headlamp, steadying her nerves. The toe of her shoe kicked at the compressed earth under her feet.
One small step. What could it hurt? She had to at least go inside. They were probably watching. More than likely laughing.
Her weight shifted from one foot to the other.
A white flash appeared. The rabbit emerged from the shadows, nose twitching, eyes judging.
“I’m coming. I was coming.” Alice pulled the headlamp on, and pressed the button three times to put it on the brightest setting. “Ready?”
The rabbit moved two hops away. In the inky opening, the details of its face grew unclear.
A deep breath in and out carried on it a strange blend of fresh and decay, but did nothing to slow her heartbeat, or release the tension in Alice’s neck.
Before her imagination could pull up any one of the hundred images of what might be waiting in the shadows, she took a step forward.
Inside the opening there was a small bit of light. Two more steps and only the light from her headlamp remained.
She held her hand up in the beam. The damp air hung heavy, similar to the pond by her childhood home on overcast days. Even in the cold, her palms sweated. She swallowed against a dry lump and studied what she could see of the cave.
It was too dark to make out any details without standing right next to the wall. Details didn’t matter. They went off in a narrow tunnel, straight in front of her. That was all she needed to know. The walls could have spiders, or any manner of crawling, biting things.
Alice calculated her next few steps. Even with careful placement, the slope forced her forward faster than she wanted. She pushed a hand against the wall to slow herself, and yanked it back, before anything had the chance to crawl over it.
“Where are the plants?” She raised her voice.
The rabbit didn’t respond. Magic rabbits couldn’t talk, could they?
Alice closed her eyes. The magic vibrating out from the little creature still tickled her senses. She turned back to the entrance. A small beam of light in the distance fought and lost the war against the blackness.
“I’ll walk to the end of this tunnel. If there are no plants, I’m done.” Alice took another step. The tip of her boot hit a rock. She groaned and kept moving.
The tunnel narrowed. She rotated her shoulder, not wanting to brush the wall and pick up a hitchhiker, or start an avalanche. Was it called an avalanche in a cave?
“Don’t be absurd. It’s called death. A little rabbit won’t be able to dig you out, will it?” Her voice echoed. How far in do you get before the echoes start?
A glance back confirmed she was deep enough that the opening light vanished. Can’t be much farther. Her pace picked up, which propelled her down the slope faster.
The heel of her right foot rolled over a rock. Forgetting the bugs, or avalanche fears, she grappled at the walls. Her elbows locked, arms spanning from side to side. It didn’t slow her.
After several more awkward steps, her feet hit the flat ground of a chamber. A twinge of heat flashed in her ankle.
She took a step into the massive opening, and leaned over, rubbing above her ankle, while gathering herself. Her breaths remained shallow.
The beam from her lamp didn’t reach the ceiling when she tilted her head back. How could a room so vast feel so claustrophobic? The soles of her boots crunched smaller rocks as she took a few steps, and ran her hand along a large rock jutting up. The rock towered over her five-foot-eight by another two heads.
Without her feet crunching or steps echoing back, water dripping in the background filled the cavern with a musical quality. “Plants need water.” For the first time in hours, her voice held a glimmer of hope.
Alice crossed the room, keeping her eyes down on the unevenness of the floor. Even with water, plants needed soil to grow.
Her shoulders slumped with each step on the hard-rocky surface. “Of course it’s rocks, it’s a cave.” In the chamber, the echo amplified her voice, before shooting it back.
She allowed a smile to lift her lips. “Hello.” Alice stopped and listened as the room greeted her with her own hello several times, each repetition losing some volume. A flash of white caught her eyes, interrupting her before she called out another hello. “There you are.”
Alice dipped her chin, letting the beam of light come to rest on the rabbit, who was sitting a few feet away. A circle of mushrooms surrounded it.
Life. Could nettle grow here too? It wasn’t a mean prank. She raced toward the mushroom-looking objects. When she was close enough to get a good look, her lamp revealed they were rocks arranged in a circle. That couldn’t be natural. It wasn’t nettle, but it meant someone had been there.
The rabbit wiggled its nose and bounced away.
“What does it mean? Who made that?” The last foolish apprentice? She turned as the sensation of the rabbit’s magic blinked away.
Water dripped from above, falling in front of her. The freshness that greeted her at the entrance, perfumed the air, reminding her of a summer rain. She kept her head tilted up as she walked, but couldn’t pinpoint the source.
Cool drops hit her face and tickled as they ran across her skin. Different. Infused with something. Earth maybe? It traveled through soil and rock to get there. More than that. It wasn’t natural. Enchanted.
Her feet skidded on loose rubble. A swear word drifted from her lips. She braced for the impact against the ground, and closed her eyes.
Nothing slammed into her. Something cocooned her, sweeping her in the air, suspended.
Alice opened her eyes and wiggled against the hard, vine net holding her. Looking down, the lamplight disappeared into the dark chasm below. A knot of bile forced its way up her throat.
This was beyond a prank. They had gone too far. Were they there, in the shadows? “If this is how you treat an apprentice, I don’t want to be any part of your circle.”
Above her she couldn’t make out a ceiling, but water continued to drip down on her in a mist. The more seconds that ticked by, the more the vines cut into her. Thorns? That was a bit much for a prank.
She turned her head to the side. The chamber was a few feet away, but if she tried to get out of the net, she would fall straight down into the blackness for god only knew how far.
Anger competed with fear as she thought more about her coven doing this to her. Were they trying to get her to show them what she was capable of in a pinch?
Using magic haphazardly was never a good idea, especially since she was untrained. Undoing a hasty casting could take days, weeks, an eternity.
“I’m not amused. Let me down.” Her voice echoed back at her, but it was the only response.
She thought about the last few days. No one had been especially nice, but if she had to peg this cruel prank on anyone, it would be Chester. He’d been flinging awful spells and dirty looks at her since she arrived. “Chester?”
She shifted and a thorn poked her arm, drawing a drop of blood. “You let me down, or I will turn you into the troll you are.”
Alice drew some power into her fingertips. A spark emitted and she gasped. Images of the vines catching on fire, breaking, and dropping her, played out in vivid detail.
Footsteps and voices grew near.
Her head turned and her eyes squinted as she strained to see in the distance. When whoever it was neared the edge of the opening she dangled over, she made out vague forms moving in the shadows.
“Let me down before you regret it.” Her voice resonated loudly because she shouted to appear brave in front of her annoying peers.
Whispers below her drifted up. “Witch … magic … stay back … cut it down … let it fall.”
“What the hell? Don’t play games, Chester. You get me down now.” She pushed a finger outside the vines, so any sparks would drift away from them, and sent a small, non-threatening bolt down as a reminder that even though she was untrained, she was a caster.
Sounds of shuffling drifted up from below, accompanied by a cold chill that encircled her. Frigid air hummed against her skin with magic unlike anything she put off. She tried to look down again, but the net swayed. Her fingers gripped the vines. “Please, let me down.”
“Kill it,” echoed back at her.
Alice shivered. Kill it? Me? Kill me?
The snare dropped in a free fall, before catching. Vines yanked tight, pressing thorns into her flesh. She laced her fingers through the opening, bracing for more movement. The lowering continued, steadier this time.
“Hello?” Alice wiggled, arranging herself to see below.
A pasty figure moved in the shadows. Too pasty to be human. What could it be? Monsters weren’t real. Not really real.
Her grip tightened. Blood ran down her arm from the cuts on her hand and wrist.
Rocks crunched. How many were down there? She closed her eyes tight and thought over the spells she had at hand.
The net swayed. She opened her eyes. Her screams echoed, though the pounding of her heart in her ears drowned it out.
The pasty thing holding the vine sneered at her. A mouth full of teeth opened, saying things she couldn’t understand. Alice screamed until her throat dried and her screams refused to come.
Black eyes stared at her, as it cocked its head. The pointed nose twitched. “Why are you here?”
A shiver raced over her. No words came. She shook her head.
The creature handed the main vine to one of two other similar looking monsters. He made a circle using loose rocks, and walked along the outer edge while chanting, “encaium, helioubrium, lasteriuos.”
A mage? A witch? No, not human. “I’m here for the coven.”
It stopped walking. A magic hum radiated from the circle. It extended its arm, waving long, slender fingers. “Bringathum, levathianus, pretndruim.”
The net rocked, moving closer to the ledge. It reached out grabbing the bottom and swung her closer.
Hot breaths blew over her skin. “That sparkle in your eyes. Blue. It’s water magic?”
Sparkle? Her mouth formed an o. “I’m a witch.”
The thing flung the net, ripping it free and sending her to the ground.
“What are you?” Alice kicked against the vines, freeing herself.
“Why are you here, witch?”
No words came out of her opened mouth. Her gaze flicked across his sharp features, coming back to his pointed ears. “Elf? Pixie?”
“Why are you here, witch?” The repetition was not an echo.
She met his dark stare. “They sent me.” Her voice cracked.
“Kill her.” Another figure stepped beside him and nodded toward her. “She’s been sent by …”
“Hush,” the one who’d lowered her said. “They? Who sent you?”
Alice paled. Tears and trembles followed, but no words.
The smaller of the other things backed up, a low gasp escaped from his gaping mouth. “Witch’s tears!”
“Don’t touch it! There is blood, witch’s blood. How will we cleanse this spot?” The larger of the other two also stepped back, shaking his head. “Push it over, sir, before it’s too late.”
“It’s one witch. A little girl witch at that.” The leader waved his hand and shook his head. “Go away, if you don’t have the stomach for this.”
He paced the circle, testing the seal with his toe.
The light from her headlamp when she turned toward the elf, reflected against his black-streaked, silver hair.
A hand raised, shielding his eyes. He hissed and turned away, groaning before he flung a wave of magic toward her.
The light flickered and popped off. Blackness returned.
“What’d you do that for?” Her voice trembled, as did her hands as they reached into the darkness. When she reached the edge of the circle, there was a flash and a static pop.
All the elves blinked against the light.
Alice backed up. “What was that?” She pulled herself into a sitting position and wrapped her arms around her knees. A shiver raced over her. Did she dare move again? What were these things? Footsteps neared her and she scooted back. “Please, don’t hurt me.”
“Why are you here?” The voice was still cold, but less clipped.
She opened her eyes. A silvery movement broke the darkness. “Nettle. I’m here for nettle.” Her voice came out raspy.
Another silver flash pierced the black void.
“Yes, it’s a plant.” She jerked her head to the side, following more movement. “Why, what is…” She drew in a breath and closed her eyes. Could she use magic to protect herself against this thing? When she tried to call up magic, nothing happened.
The echo in the chamber carried mocking amusement in a loop of laughter. “A plant? What are you trying to call on now, hag?”
Tears came to her eyes. “I’m scared. Cold, hurt, bleeding. I’m calling on something to protect me from you.”
“It’s scared?” The smaller elf tugged the larger one back. “Watch out, it might sing a siren song to lure you closer. Or throw hexes. They do that when cornered.”
The one who’d been questioning her rolled his eyes. “You two are dismissed. Send me the oracle. I need to be sure it’s safe to bring this thing deeper.”
“Deeper, sir. Really?” The head guard’s black eyes widened, and his body stiffened.
“Don’t question me. If the oracle deems it a danger, it will go over the cliff.”
Alice listened to the footsteps grow fainter as the other elves moved away. “Don’t push me over a cliff.”
“Give me half a reason, and over you go.” Rocks crunched under his feet as the remaining elf circled her.
She leaned her head on her knees and cried. What was the oracle? Would it be her salvation, or the last creature she laid eyes on when the elf tossed her to her death?
ALICE JERKED HER head toward the sound of approaching footsteps. Silver flashed in front of her. Another elf. She shivered. The darkness that blinded her, veiled within it something that felt even more terrifying. The oracle? “Hello.”
“Sir, I heard about your…” The oracle paused. “Discovery.”
The chamber filled with laughter. Alice listened as the one they all called sir, addressed the oracle with a name she could never repeat. She renamed him to something with similar sounds. Jasper.
“Discovery? What do I need to know about her?” His foot tapped, crunching rocks.
A silvery movement circled her. The presence wasn’t as abrasive as the other. The voice was softer. “She’s a witch. What else do you need to know?”
“Before we kill her, I want to know if she is of any use. We do have the water issue that eludes you and my best mages.” His tone was accusatory.
Jasper stepped closer to the circle.
Magic brushed against Alice. She lifted her head. Shimmering skin and hair came into focus, but her eyes struggled to make out details. Her palms ground into little rocks as she scooted away from him. Where was the other one?
A bag rustled.
Alice tensed. Her eyes adapted enough to the darkness to see Jasper knelt a few feet away.
He pulled two glass jars and three smaller bags from a larger one. With two fingers he loosened the drawstring on one of the bags, and pinched dried leaves between his fingers, depositing them in a stone dish. After he repeated the process with the contents of the other two small bags, he opened the lids on the two jars. The lids unscrewing reverberated in the cavern.
Liquid poured freely from the jar he held in his right hand, and dripped slowly from the one in his left. Each drop from the left jar hissed when it hit the bowl. The grinding of his pestle as it crushed the contents into a mush, seemed louder than it should in the silence. When the mixing stopped, he got off his knees and sat on the ground outside the circle where Alice sat.
“Certee, imbrum, pallethbrium.” The cave chanted back his toneless words in unison with his own as he repeated them three times.
The other paced, not bothering to hide his impatience with the entire process.
After the chanting was complete, Jasper held the mixture toward his leader. “I need a cross drawn on its forehead.”
“Well?” The sound of his foot tapping echoed.
“I’d rather not touch it. Not until I’ve a better idea what its intentions are.” There was a hint of unease in his tone. His gaze flicked toward Alice.
“Right, a cross? Need any incantations with it?” He reached down and took the bowl from Jasper, dipping his fingers into the mixture.
“No, sir. Careful, sir, they bite.” Jasper cocked up one side of his mouth and bunched his features in disgust.
“Bite? I don’t bite. Don’t you touch me.” Steps neared her, along with a cold magical presence. The same cold, unpleasant magic from before. It moved fast, blurring. “Please, I’m afraid.”
Something brushed her face. She sucked in a breath.
A cold, wet finger made a diagonal line on her head.
“Afraid?” He snorted and drew the next line. “Why are you in my cave?”
“Nettle. I’m here for nettle.” She backed away from the touch, and reached for her face where there was a wet spot.
“Leave it. If I must do it again, you won’t like it.” He leaned in closer. “I do bite.”
She dropped her hand. Annoying the nasty elf probably wasn’t best.
Jasper remained seated outside the circle. He dipped his fingers in the mixture, and made a cross on his forehead. The connection sent a wave of light and sweet into his consciousness. “She’s a Ljósálfr? Witch too.”
The elf beside her shoved Alice on the ground. “I felt as much. You tell me what she wants.”
Rocks cut into her hands as she braced her fall. Stinging radiated from her palms up her arms as she dragged herself to her knees. Would the elf shove her down again, if she tried to stand? Probably. She tilted her head up.
His black eyes glistened, catching her in his hate. “Well? What does it want?”
Her words came out cracked. “Nettle. I told you already.”
“Shush.” His finger pressed her lip against her teeth as her head pushed back.
“You touched its mouth?” Jasper shook his head. “Give me a second.” His eyes closed, breathing leveled, and shoulders relaxed. “Certee, imbrum, pallethbrium.” The magical tether between them pulsed, filling the room with static.
Coldness radiated from the ‘x’ on Alice’s forehead, and pressed into her. Icy tendrils reached into her mind. A soft whimper manifested in the back of her throat. The air swirled as she pushed up a shield against the intrusion.
The back of a hand across her face, broke her concentration.
“No casting,” the elf said.
Jasper winced as his connection with her, sent her emotions into his mind. “It’s afraid. A scared witch?” He forced a breath through his nose. “Regardless, there are no malicious wards on this one.”
“What else?” The other elf clasped his hands, drumming his thumbs.
Jasper leaned closer and sniffed. “Jasmine. Vanilla. Not witch scents. Sweet.” He closed his eyes again. “Cloves. That would be her witch.” When he opened his eyes, he smirked and chuckled. He returned a few of his things to his bag. “She’s not here for the light elves. Not really for the coven either.” He laughed a little louder. “She may prove useful.”
Alice reached up at a twinge where the connection broke. “Useful?”
“What the devil is so funny?” The leader stepped away from her and out of the circle. “Who is she here for?”
“What, not who.” Alice pressed her palm against her forehead.
“You. She’s tangled with you, likely here to teach you a lesson.” He laughed again.
The other elf leveled a cold glare at him.
Jasper stopped laughing. The smile melted from his face and the amusement in his tone vanished when he spoke again. “I also see water. Our source water.”
The leader growled and cut his eyes at her. “She knows about the water?”
“I get no malice. Odd, considering her light. I see her and you at the water, sir. It is not a past intrusion. Maybe she can fix it? It was magically altered, and my workings have been wholly ineffectual.” He drummed his fingers on the stone bowl and put it in his bag. “She’s no present threat, but you mustn’t forget she’s a witch. Never good, not entirely.”
“I can’t keep it out here. As you can see, anything can stroll right in.” He tapped the toe of his boot against the ground. “Witches creeping around my cave. Good thing we are already under isolation. Scandalous.”
“Wait. Keep it? You can’t keep me.” Alice pulled herself to her knees. “He said I’m not malicious. Let me…”
The leader crouched and hissed. “Hush!”
“Questioning rooms were built to keep in magic. No one has to know.” Jasper sucked his teeth. “Course, the guards can be loose with their tongues.”
“I’ll deal with them.” A smile crept on his face. “The questioning room will be perfect, and not so far in as to worry anyone.” The ruler took in a deep breath. A low growl escaped from deep in his throat when he turned to Alice.
The sound carried his emotion, wrapping her in his hatred. Her heels rolled on the rocks as she scrambled away from the sensation. The back edge of the circle popped her.
His head tilted slightly as he watched her response to him. “Come with me.” He waved his hand, a cold static coming from his fingers.
The circle broke. His energy pressed closer.
“Where are we going? What do you want with me?” Her voice held a bravery that didn’t line up with how she felt.
Another chuckle echoed, followed by the sound of footsteps.
Were they leaving her? She scrambled to her feet and took a few steps, with her hands in front of her. “Hello? Mister?”
A cold hand wrapped her upper arm. The fingers pressed in with a bruising force, pinching her skin. She squealed and tugged her arm away.
“Don’t fight me. I’ve not established a use for you yet.” His voice was low and deep.
“I’ll walk. You don’t have to tug me like that.” She squirmed again.
The grip tightened. “If I feel you begin to cast, retaliation will be swift. Do you understand me?” The anger in his voice was more than she’d ever heard directed at her.
“I’ve not done anything to warrant such hostility.” She continued to struggle against his hold. “Just let me go. I don’t really need the nettle.”
“Not happening. I will find out what you want, if I have to devour that knowledge from your bloody bits.” He walked faster, dragging her along. “Keep moving.”
Bloody bits? She stumbled. The monster was going to eat her.
He yanked her up, and shoved her forward. “Move.”
Alice spun, taking a few steps away. The wall of the corridor slammed into her face. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth as her lips and teeth crashed together. A strangled cry escaped. She pushed away from the wall, spun, and raised her arms with balled fists. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will.”
A cold magic pushed against her, followed by a warm body. A hand grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. He held her chin up and wrinkled his nose. “Feisty. Witch. You are not going anywhere, until we come to an understanding about why you are here.” As he talked, he leaned closer, his lips brushing hers.
“Nasty, feisty, hag, and the way you say witch. What have I done to you?” She turned her head, trying for any distance.
Something in his presence, the magic perhaps, drew her closer, but at the same time repulsed her, mixing the instinctual signals she lived by. If he expected her to have answers other than nettle, things were going to get ugly. If the coven knew elves were in this cave, why hadn’t they trained her, or at least told her about them? How would she match up to him, if she stood her ground?
He dropped her chin and snatched her wrist. “That has yet to be determined. Regardless, witches can’t be trusted. And Ljósálfr, forget it.”
“Julsafar? You’ve been misinformed. I’m apprenticing in the Glendale coven.” She put her hand over his and dug at his fingers. “That hurts. Please, just let me go. Can’t you see this is a mistake? If I were as evil as you suspect, I would have attacked you. I should attack you. You are a monster. You netted me. You hit me.”
He ignored her pleas and kept his grip. “Attack me? If you thought you could cast your way out of this, you would have. We both know you can’t fight your way out. Move. We’re almost there.”
“Almost where?” She waited for an answer that never came. “What are you?” She paused again, but he continued to ignore her questions. “Are you some sort of fallen elf?”
“I said move.” He slammed her against the wall and pinned her wrists beside her head.
Alice twisted against his grasp.
He bared his teeth and tightened his hold. “What witch doesn’t know about elves? Fallen elf? Don’t be rude. I didn’t ask what you are, half-light. An oddity for sure, Alice.”
She cut her eyes at him. Did he call her a halfwit? “Now who is rude? I just asked what you are.”
“I’m Dökkálfr.” He stared at her with half hate and half inquisitiveness.
“No, you are witch.” His head leaned down and he sniffed her. “Sadly sweet. Still spicy, just underneath. Unquestionably a witch. I’ve never tasted witch.” He backed up, clutched her hand again, and tugged her along.
She tripped over her feet as she tried to keep pace. “If you are not a fallen elf, what sort of elf are you? Why are you down in a dark cave?”
“I’m not here to answer the questions of a prattling witch. Nor do I like to repeat myself. I am a Dökkálfr.”
When he let her go, she stopped walking. “Is that supposed to mean something to me? I thought it was your name. “Dooka… Dokka… Decker? It’s what? Some sort of fairy?”
“Pfft, fairy? What exactly were you doing in my water?” He narrowed his eyes and stepped closer to her. “The guards tell me you were looking up and dancing. Some ritual?”
“Dancing? I slipped.” She stepped back and stumbled on the uneven ground.
He caught her arm and kept her on her feet. “You are not a very graceful creature, are you?”
“Look, I don’t want to bother your cave, or water. I was sent to get some cave nettle. If you ask me, it’s a foolish game, because nothing could live down here.” She stopped talking when she saw he was smiling at her, with a smile that was way too big for his slender face. “I didn’t mean, well, obviously you live here, whatever you are. I need to go.” She glanced around the narrow passage, not able to see far into the darkness. “Please, this is a mistake. A terrible mistake. I don’t know what you are. I have no idea about your water.” While she talked, she backed away.
He matched her steps. When she backed herself into a wall again, he pressed into her. His long fingers gripped her chin, while he spoke into her face. “Are you trying to make a link to here? Is that why you wanted the nettle, you nasty thing?”
“Get your hands off me.” She pushed at him, her palms hitting an immovable chest. “Link to here? As if this has been a pleasant adventure. With you as a greeting party, you’re not apt to get return visits.”
With a swift movement, he clamped on her wrist, turned, and they were walking again.