Though Jason Rampling is glad that his brother Mark has found love with Dorian Fairchild, he longs for a boyfriend of his own. One day, an accident in the woods propels him into a strangely anachronistic world where he is cared for by Graylin Stonetamer, a mysterious young man who studies magic and seems to know quite a bit about Jason, Mark, and their family history. Something about him even reminds Jason of Dorian, though he can’t quite explain what.
While he searches for a way home, Jason finds himself falling for Graylin, who eagerly returns his passion. Yet as the two grow closer, Jason begins to suspect that Graylin is keeping a secret that may make it impossible for them to build a life together.
“Look,” Wyl Silverhand said with a smirk. He pointed past a clump of fragrant honeysuckle. “Your human is back.”
Graylin looked up from the delicate agrimony tendrils he’d been sorting through. Though he tried not to show any reaction that would give Wyl fodder for teasing, Graylin felt his heart stall in his chest. Sure enough, the human they’d spotted for three days in a row had returned, walking in and around the tangled vegetation that twisted and bloomed on the opposite side of the stream. In the past, he’d carried a book or a map with him, and the two of them had watched while he surveyed the land and made markings on the paper. He seemed about their own age, in human years at least. The contrast presence of writing materials suggested that he might be a student, like them. Yet what lessons could he learn from walking in the forest?
The human remained oblivious to their presence, of course, which made it easier for Graylin to stare. He never tired of gazing at the human’s well-defined cheekbones, the midnight-black hair he wore short, unlike the men in their own community did, and the graceful limbs he kept encased in long sleeves and coarse blue leggings. Graylin had noticed the way those same leggings gave way to the seat of his breeches, too, the strange material worn and faded so that it seemed to melt around his lean hips and other, more private areas of his body. He hoped Wyl hadn’t caught him staring at such things, but he doubted he could be so lucky. Wyl noticed everything.
Today, the human was walking around pushing an odd, stick-like metal object in front of him. As he slid it over the ground, his face took on a faraway expression, as though he were dreaming. Two strange cylindrical objects covered his ears. Graylin had never seen a display quite so odd.
“What is he doing?” he asked Wyl, standing and moving closer to the stream to get a better look. “What is he carrying with him? Is that an aye-Pod?” He pronounced the unfamiliar word slowly and carefully.
Wyl laughed. Graylin noticed that his collection bag lay empty at his feet. Master Freme would be angry about that. “Don’t be daft. Those iPods are no bigger than the palm of your hand. That’s the point. They’re easy for the humans to carry.”
“How do you know so much of iPods?” Graylin asked with a scowl. Such gadgets were unknown among his people. They had none of the strange substance, which he heard others call electricity, to run them with, anyhow.
“I know because I have seen them. The last time I sneaked into the human village, I even pinched one and tried it out. It sent a terrible cacophony between my ears. But after a moment or two, I liked it. The Hall of Learning would be a much better place if everyone had them.”
“Master Freme would never allow that.” Such talk unnerved Graylin, though Wyl never shied from discussing forbidden things and planning mischief. “You ought to stop sneaking into the village, you know. If he finds out, he will forbid us altogether from leaving the Hall without him.”
Wyl’s cheeks reddened. “Master Freme does not need to hear of everything I do. And how would he, anyway, unless someone tells him?”
“He won’t know, I guess,” Graylin said, lowering his gaze back to the agrimony.
“Good.” Wyl brightened. “You wouldn’t want him to ban me. Because you can come with me next time.”
“I don’t know.” Graylin fidgeted, uncomfortable with the idea of walking freely among humans, perhaps pretending to be one of them. Their ways were so strange, from everything he’d heard. Some of them possessed violent tempers, virtually unknown among the elven. Yet their world also contained many wonders, he was sure—among them this male who had captured his attention.
In fact, that very human had now paused at a particular spot only a few yards from the stream, running his strange device over and over a certain clump of weeds.
“What is he doing?” Graylin asked.
Wyl thought for a moment before answering. “I suspect he’s reading the earth. Humans don’t have magic, of course, so they must use many odd devices. No doubt some sort of sound is coming out of those bits on his ears.” He shook his head. “Pitiable fools, aren’t they? They cannot make their gold—they must hunt along the ground for it, like swine searching for truffles.”
“That is a rather unkind remark,” Graylin retorted. His face grew hot. “They cannot help who and what they are.”
“Indeed not,” Wyl agreed, though his smirk never wavered. “We are prisoners to our names as well as our natures. You and I are proof of that, Stonetamer.”
Graylin sighed. The truth Wyl spoke of weighed heavily on his mind each day, and more so now that Inspection Day was fast approaching. The two of them would represent many generations of Silverhands and Stonetamers in front of the entire Hall of Learning, and as yet they had little or nothing to show for their illustrious heritage.
“I suppose we are,” he admitted.
Together they watched the human lean his device against his thigh, take a tiny book from his breeches pocket, and jot something down. Presently he wandered off into the overgrown forest. Before long he had disappeared from view.
A sudden clapping sound startled them both from their reverie. They turned at the same time to find that Mynogan Freme had come up behind them and whipped his hands together for the express purpose of startling them.
“You two gentlemen have overstepped your bounds,” he snapped, his regal face taut with impatience. He spoke with genteel moderation, as he always did, but Graylin suspected he longed to shout at them or perhaps even shake them. “May I inquire why? I specifically ordered you not to approach the stream.”
“We had no choice,” Wyl argued. “The best flora grows in this spot and no other. Can you not smell the wild mint? ’Tis the water that strengthens the stalks.” Turning his head slightly, he offered Graylin a discreet wink. Luckily, Master Freme did not seem to notice the bawdy wordplay.
“We didn’t breach the barrier,” Graylin said.
“See that you do not.” Freme’s long fingers rubbed the bridge of his aquiline nose in frustration. “Since you are already here, I will allow you to continue—this once. Now collect what I asked you to and get back to the Hall to study. I shall be grading your choices and examining you on the properties of each plant later.”
He stepped back to supervise, folding his arms. Grumbling, the two young men got to work. Crouching, they gathered sacks of toadflax and hogweed, plucked vibrant poppies and sharp thistles, and dug up mandrake and orris roots.
“I still wonder what that human was looking for,” Graylin whispered.
“Something more valuable than this rot,” Wyl twisted an angry fist around the mouth of his bag and cursed. “Why can’t we spend our days hunting for better things? Things we could get from the village, for example.”
Graylin smiled. “Like iPods?”
“Perhaps.” Wyl’s grin returned. “You say we are here because of tradition. Perhaps ’tis time we made our own tradition.”
“Hush, Wyl. Master Freme will hear you.”
“Come on. You don’t enjoy this any more than I do. You’re not even good at it! Freme loses his breath carping at you! How many of his precious bolt-heads must you break before he gives up trying to teach you?”
Graylin blushed. The constant loss of glassware in Freme’s instructional laboratory had become a continual source of embarrassment to him. “I shall tame it by and by. That is my name, after all—Stonetamer.”
“So your grandfather was good at such tasks. Mine was as well. Why should that determine what we do today?”
“Because it’s the way we have always done things!” Cheeks flushing, Graylin bent to the task and pulled off two flower heads much more forcefully than necessary. From the corner of his eye, he noticed the vegetation swaying in the distance. The human was moving around again. Graylin longed to cry out to him, to meet his eyes, to wave at him. Yet the unseen barrier between their worlds would keep them forever hidden from his sight.