“We never steal children. We only swap them. An eye for an eye, a child for a child.”
The Sword Master
The Sword Master
1 June 1927
Aiden tramped down the narrow forest path, avoiding the roots snaking across it, and trying not to think too hard about where he and Corson were going. The crossroads on a desolate pine-encrusted ridge, just past the territory owned by the witch, Baba Yaga. And far too close to demon territory. This Sword Master had better be worth it. At least Corson was here. A lithe, effective fighter with a solid punch and a way with swords.
“You think if we run into Baba Yaga she’ll refrain from turning me into a frog if I ask nice?”
“If you ask nice, maybe she’ll turn you into a prince,” Aiden joked. Corson was certainly handsome enough. He always looked like he was coming off a movie set with his fringe cut long enough to show off the wave in his dark hair.
“Well, that’s the dream…” Corson cracked a grin. “Of course, we have to survive first.”
Aiden’s laughter died. Survival was what this mission was anbout. Just last week a pack of demons almost got through the village’s defences. If the attacks continued, and they couldn’t adequately defend themselves against the stone-skinned monsters, the small
settlement of New Avondale would have to be abandoned. A blow to Burcham and The Society and all the people who lived there, as well as Aiden and his parents who used it as a temporary base.
“I’ve heard there’s no better fighter than the Sword Master,” Aiden replied, changing the subject. “With his swords we’ll be less vulnerable to demon attack.” He frowned. No doubt this Sword Master would be the tall strong warrior type that would call him Red, or Carrot Top. And be a total condescending arsehole. He shrugged. Sometimes in life you had to suck it up. “I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of turning all my swords into twisted hunks of iron on those demons. I’d be better off hitting them with a sledgehammer…now there’s a thought.”
“Come on,” Corson smiled his wide smile. “If you were strong enough, you’d have done that already.”
The day passed, footstep by footstep, mile by mile. Carefully quiet, to avoid announcing their presence to demons, the settlements along the way, and the bandits that frequented them. Nottingham Forest and Witch’s Place held two of the most notorious stretches of road.
By midday, the thick forest of Brocéliande had thinned. The pink of the Dornröschenschloss castle roses could be seen in the distance. The path was little more than broken rock along a rugged cliff, kept together by the scraggly pines that clutched the barren rock with their wiry roots.
Corson glanced to the left. Down in the gully below was a ramshackle cottage inside a small dirt clearing. “Is that Baba Yaga’s hut?”
“I hope not.” Aiden shrugged hoping the large creamy-brown shells scattered around the outside the hut weren’t skulls. He walked faster. “Best not to find out. Wait a minute? Do you think this is the spot?” A broken signpost lay on the ground—a fresh hole where it had been ripped out of the rocky ground. The cracked and broken signs had previously pointed the way to Dornröschenschloss castle, wóþbora cotif and Market Town, and the Deadlands and the Underworld.
“I think so.” He waved his hand down the escarpment to the sulphurous pools and mountains ahead. “Presumably the track down the is to the Underworld, and I don’t want to get any closer.”
Gravel crunched behind them.
Aiden turned. A massive marble demon towered over Corson. Calcite crystals caught the light in its smooth white-and-grey streaked skin. But however pretty and statuesque the demon was, it was even more deadly.
“Watch out!” Aiden drew his sword and scrambled down the path toward the demon as it threw a marble fist at Corson’s face.
Corson turned and ducked, the blow parting his hair. Bobbing up, he smashed his sword into the demon’s jaw.
The demon laughed, batting Corson’s blade aside as if it were a mosquito.
Skidding on the shattered rock of the steep cliff track, Aiden hacked at the creature’s chest. The blade crashed into the creature’s stone-like skin with a clang that reverberated up his arm.
“Is that all you’ve got?” The demon sneered, swiping at Aiden. Aiden danced back.
Corson turned to Aiden, distracted. “Aiden!” he yelled.
The creature lunged for Corson again and hit him solidly in the stomach. He grunted and staggered backward.
“I’m on it!” Aiden kept hacking at the marble demon. The demon, refusing to be side-tracked, followed up with another blow. Corson swerved, and the demon’s fist glanced off his ribs.
“Oof!” Corson grunted. He threw his sword at Aiden like it was a spear.
Aiden flinched as the sword sailed past him and clanged on the resilient skin of a trident-wielding schist demon that had been sneaking up behind him. I almost walked right into that demon’s arms!
Corson’s sword bounced off the demon’s rock-hard skin, flying over the edge of the narrow path and clattering to the bottom.
“Shite,” Aiden called. He lunged to join Corson, now fighting without a sword. But the schist demon thrust its weapon at Aiden’s chest. Aiden jumped sideways and the demon followed—as fast as ever and with barely a scratch.
Aiden hacked at the demon’s face, denting his blade. He twirled away. The demon followed and he chopped at it again—putting all his weight into the move. The clang reverberated, and pain numbed his hand, radiating up his arm. Stone chipped. A tiny fissure. Boiling-hot magma-like blood welled up to seal the crack. A tang of sulphur split the air.
Aiden shifted his grip and spared a glance for Corson, who dodged behind a scraggly old pine a hairsbreadth ahead of the other demon. Corson has the right idea. Tire it out. Their speed only lasts so long.
A roar brought him back to his senses. “Pathetic human,” the trident-wielding yelled. “Enough playing. Time to die.”
Aiden hit the creature on the side of the head with a clunk, chipped his blade and damaged the demon not at all. He darted back again.
A wet thump. Corson cried out.
“Corson!” Aiden risked a glance behind to see his friend scramble over a boulder. Still alive! The demon followed.
Dammit. With Corson unarmed and injured, Aiden had to risk everything to get this fight over fast. He blocked the trident, stepped inside its reach and swung with all his might.
The blow smashed into creature’s face. Its skin cracked wider, and a gout of hot magma-like blood sizzled against the sword.
The demon clutched at empty air as Aiden twirled away.
Corson cried out again.
Anger flooded Aiden. He raised his sword and made to run at the schist demon drawing a wild attack. Using the demon’s own momentum, he pulled the trident from its fingers and ran to Corson, who was backed up against the trunk of a giant pine clinging to the edge of the steep slope.
The schist demon followed Aiden up the narrow track.
“You come to join the fun?” Corson asked, blood pouring down his nose. He threw a rock at the marble demon’s face.
Aiden didn’t waste his breath trying to be cute. He hammered a blow into the marble demon and stepped next to Corson.
Corson grabbed the trident. “Thank you.” He thrust it at the marble demon.
“Sorry.” Corson puffed, struggling for breath with wheezing gasps. “I got us a bit backed into a corner.”
Aiden rained blow after blow on the head and shoulders of both demons. Corson smashed the trident over the head of the marble demon. It shattered into splinters. Steaming demon-blood ran down its face.
We need a plan. Sooner or later, one of them is going to grab us. The image of being crushed by the two monsters made him sick.
Corson’s arm shot out and grabbed a marble-skinned shoulder. His foot hooked behind the demon’s calf. It lurched and toppled forward toward the edge of the cliff. Skidding…falling, the demon’s scream of hatred faded as it crashed down the steep slope.
“Nice!” Aiden yelled as the last demon threw itself at him. Aiden sidestepped and kicked out at it.
“Good try.” Corson rushed to shove the demon. It thumped a fist into Corson’s stomach, Corson was thrown backward into the tree, and stayed there—slumped over the gnarled old roots. It’ll be a while before he’s back on his feet. If he gets up at all.
It was just the two of them now. The schist demon and himself.
Aiden stepped forward to give Corson some room and battered his mangled sword at it.
It stepped forward, using its strength and weight to get close to Corson. Desperate, Aiden decided to take a leaf from Corson’s playbook. He stepped in close, kicked his opponent’s shin, and pushed.
The demon swung his rocky fist.
Aiden leapt clear. His hand tingling and numb, he hacked at the demon’s head, the clang as loud as any bell. He forced himself to continue—once, twice, three times.
The demon staggered closer. The reek of sulphur heavy in the air as hot demon blood oozed from multiple cracks. It stepped up and wrapped its arms around him, dripping molten magma onto Aiden’s shoulders. The superheated stone sizzled through his jacket, searing his skin like liquid fire.
Caught in the demon’s crushing grip, Aiden screamed and thrashed.
The demon staggered and slipped. Its grip loosened.
With a grunt, Aiden shimmied from the demon’s grasp and hit with abandon, gritting his teeth against the pain and inching back to Corson who was struggling to stand.
Again, and again, Aiden hit—the pain from the burns subliming into his own white-hot fury.
The demon slowed, as did the drip and sizzle of its scorching blood. A haze of eye-watering sulphur rising from its wounds.
So close. Arm cramping, Aiden fought to hold the blade and put all his strength into one more blow from his scorched and twisted weapon.
The clash of sword against stone was punctuated with a sharp crack.
My sword?! Aiden bounded back and the demon exploded, shattering into shards of half-molten stone. Pelted by red-hot debris and flakes of schist, Aiden ignored the sting of falling rock to check on his friend.
Corson stood up behind the steaming pile of stone that had been the schist demon, clutching his stomach and very much alive.
Aiden breathed a sigh of relief. “Hey, you look almost as bad as my sword.”
Corson tried to smile. “Me? I’m just winded. Be right as rain in a minute. It’s all about the muscles.” He flexed an arm. “But that sword of yours is toast. Unless you picked up an iron railing and your sword’s fallen somewhere nearby.”
“Smartass,” Aiden muttered. “You don’t think I can fix it?”
“Nah,” Corson said, kicking the broken crossroad sign. “We need that new swordsmith to turn up. But we shouldn’t wait here any longer, we’re like sitting ducks here on the border waiting for him to arrive.”
“We can’t leave,” Aiden said, wincing as he pulled up his sleeve to check his burned arm. “The Sword Master is coming from several worlds away. We have to give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, we need that expertise.” He waved the mangled blade. The cool air passing over his burn helped. Still, his arm was sure going to sting when the adrenaline wore off.
“And if another demon turns up, what are we going to hit it with?” Corson held up his bare hands.
“You shouldn’t have thrown your sword down that cliff.” Aiden grinned. “Besides, you could always tell everyone you were training with your bare hands because demons aren’t scary enough for you.”
“I’d rather something more solid than my hands against demons. Or fae, for that matter. You think the fae are ever going to forgive us?”
“No.” Aiden sighed. “Although it might help if they’d tell us why us using silver makes them so angry. They’re always using silver. It makes no sense.”
“Yeah. And if we leave the swordsmith alone here, he’ll probably never forgive us either. Then where will we be?”
An ominous crunch pulled their attention. More demon footsteps were climbing the path. They were only minutes away.
“I guess you’re right.” Aiden pointed down the cliff face at the half dozen demons on the track down into the DeadLands. Mostly granite demons by the look of them. Slower than marble and schist, but tougher and very dangerous.
“I guess sometimes you need to know when to fight, and sometimes you need to know when to run.” Corson turned back from the cliff. “You think there’s—”
“Watch out!” Aiden jumped over a waist-high rock as a dark figure dressed in forest colours sprinted toward them. She had flares of rose-red in her skirt and braided hair down to her waist. Even with a substantial backpack, she was light-footed on the treacherous cliff path.
“Fae!” Corson yelled, joining Aiden behind the flimsy cover.
“Shit!” Aiden held out his pitiful sword. It would do no good against so many demons and a fae—a fae holding the most beautiful sword Aiden had ever seen. Its bright steel flashing in the sunlight was enhanced by ornate silver and gold script that swept up the blade.
“Stay back, Fae,” Corson yelled. “We don’t want any trouble.”
The vision of beauty continued to race toward them. “Demon!” the fae yelled, sidestepping like a dancer—dress flaring out into four scarlet petals as she twirled to face a slate-green demon emerging from its hiding place behind an enormous pine.
Flail whistling, the schist demon charged.
Aiden moved to join her, and face down the massive creature.
Corson pulled him back. Too slow.
The demon’s smile told Aiden everything he needed to know. He flung up his battered sword. Also, too slow.
The vision of beauty stepped forward, faer sword sweeping through the demon’s flail like butter, then cleanly reversed the blade in a swift arc to remove the demon’s head. Steaming gently, the demon’s slate-green noggin bounced into the bushes. The body shattered and collapsed in a pool of swift-hardening demon blood.
Corson advanced. Fists raised, he yelled. “I said, ‘Stay back, Fae.’ We don’t want any trouble.”
The swords-fae threw faer head back and laughed, faer dangly gold earrings swinging merrily as if they were laughing, too. “I’m no fae. You’d be dead if I was.”
Aiden’s heart soared and his mind whirred. Fae were supposed to be whip-thin, and eerily quiet. Scornful and distant. This person was none of those things. Substantial and real, she was more sunshine than shadow. And although her clothes were unusual, they appeared bright and well-made and not like gossamer down or any of the other strange materials fae preferred. Her face was the shape of a heart. Her lips were like…he wasn’t sure…plums? velvet? All he knew was how difficult it was to quell his impulse to lean in and kiss them. And if she was human…. “Where did you come from? We should walk you back,” Aiden said, trying to shake the giddy attraction that surged through him like a thunderclap. “It’s not safe here.”
“You mean, it’s not safe for you.” She laughed, her smile lighting her eyes. “Do you even know what you’re doing? Your sword is more gate-post than blade.” She was mesmerising, the spark of her amusement barely contained. “Come on.”
Together, they headed up to the ridge back above the creepy hut.
“Are you sure you’re not fae,” Aiden blurted. “You’re so beautiful.”
The woman turned to Corson. “Do you think that’s an insult or a compliment—I’m really not sure.”
“Oh, it’s a compliment,” Corson said. “Half of New Avalon composes a sonnet every time a fae stops by the forge.”
Aiden took a breath trying to stop the blood from rushing to his cheeks—suddenly ultra-aware of his red hair and freckles. If Corson says anything about fire-engines, I’ll…. Instead, Corson winked at Aiden and rushed ahead.
“Alright,” she said with a nod that set her braids bouncing as she walked back the way they’d come. “I think I’ve seen enough. Fire Boy, let’s get back to your settlement. It’s right next to Myrddin’s forge, isn’t it?”
What does she mean, she’s seen enough? And calling me fire boy? Still, as a nickname, it’s not completely without hope. “Yes, King Arthur’s forge—or Merlin’s if you prefer—is the biggest drawcard in Brocéliande. We’re receiving requests for special swords made in its flame already.”
A smile played on her lips. He imagined kissing her and shook his head. Brocéliande could play tricks like this. Love at first sight is for the people who belong here, not me. According to his parents anyone foolish enough to fall in love here, would inevitably find heartbreak. And besides, being part of The Society meant avoiding entanglements that could compromise the settlement.
She gazed at him, her amber eyes wells of mystery. “I could fix that blade of yours, Fire Boy. Make you a proper one.”
“I’m ah…” Heat rushed up Aiden’s cheeks. He stopped, frightened he’d make a complete fool of himself and trip over his feet as well as his tongue.
She stuck out her non-sword arm. “I’m Keera, by the way. I also go by the title, Sword Master.”
“Oh. Of course. Lovely to meet you.” So, she was the swordsmith they’d been waiting for. He should have realised the moment he’d seen her sword in action. “Thank goodness you’re here. We desperately need your skills.” He patted the pommel of his mangled sword. “Hey, anything’s got to be better than this.”
Corson turned back. “Yes, that’s right. It’s lovely to meet you and all, but don’t you think introductions can wait, so we can all move a bit faster?”
“You’re being ridiculous.” Aiden glanced down the slope. The demons were so close he could see their granite faces leering through the twisted half-dead pine trees clinging to the volcanic rock. Some were swinging flails. Others wielded swords that looked more like knives in their impossibly large fists. “It’s hardly an army.” Aiden said, trying to play it cool. “But maybe we should run.”
“Keera Quicksilver, Destroyer,” A demon bellowed, shaking its marble fist. “King Hades has sent us to kill you!”
“Hmm,” Corson said. “They do look a bit eager. We could slow them down, first.”
“No—” Aiden started.
“To that big tree on the saddle. And…go!” Corson screamed and brandished a fallen branch. “Death to the demons!” he yelled as if turned into a berserker rage. He ran back along the ridge.
Aiden followed reluctantly until he saw Keera was laughing madly and keeping up with Corson. Wildly flailing with his ruined sword, he joined in.
“Stop now,” Corson whispered, coming to a dead halt by the tree—where the demons couldn’t see them.
Keeping themselves out of line of sight, they threw rocks into the underbrush down the slope and turned to slink back toward the forest. Keera bounced along beside them, tirelessly springing over the rocks until they reached the dappled light of the forest itself.
“Just a minute.” Aiden sucked in a deep breath and put his hand on the lush moss growing on the trunks of the trees.
Keera stood opposite, adjusting the huge backpack on her shoulders.
“Come on you two,” Corson said. “Stop making eyes at each other and let’s get out of here. You know what they say? We’re not out of the woods until we get to New Avalon.”
Heat crept up Aiden’s face. “I’m…um….”
Keera tilted her face up to Aiden, a smile playing on the corners of her lips. “So, your village is called New Avalon?”
“Given it’s a few huts and a wooden fence—and the forge—I’m not really sure it lives up to the name.”
Keera smiled. “I’m sure it will be amazing, Fire Boy.”
“It’s Aiden,” he blurted like a schoolboy before composing himself. “I’m sorry, Corson and I never introduced ourselves, did we? Well, I’m Aiden, and this is Corson.”
“Very nice to meet you.” She reached out to shake their hands. “Corson. Aiden.”
Aiden opened and closed his mouth, lost for words, before releasing his grip. “Sorry. Ah…so, you’re a swordsmith. What made you decide to come and work for The Society?” It was a stupid question, but he wanted to hear her voice again.
“The demons are getting strong, and my team’s lost a lot of hunters.”
“You’ve lost hunters?”
“Yes. I thought that if The Society had demon-slaying swords, you’d be able to help beat the demons back into the Underworld. Besides, Fire Boy, I wanted to meet you.” And there was that light in her eye again.
“Me? What do you know about me?”
“Nothing at all. Except your sword is completely ruined.”
“Yours is so beautiful. Is the silver and gold filigree important, or just for decoration?
Keera pulled out the blade to show him. “It’s writing,” she said. “Runes. They’re very powerful.”
“What does it say?”
“Keera Quicksilver, Destroyer of Demons. The gold and silver runes give the sword its power to strike true, but because they’re unique for the person the sword is made for, it means the sword will only respond to its owner.”
“If we’re going to make more blades like it, we’ll need gold,” Aiden said. “That might take a while.”
“Never worry. For yours, we can use the gold from my earrings. Surely, you have silver?”
“A little.” Aiden’s mind raced. He had a literal silver spoon somewhere from one of the settlement’s early finds.
“I can’t wait to make you a sword. And of course, you, Corson.”
Aiden swallowed jealousy as she turned her luminous eyes on his friend. He had not right to be possessive. What’s getting into me?
“Never mind me.” Corson grinned at Aiden with a not-so-subtle raise of his eyebrows, before turning back to Keera. “Except yes, Keera Swordmaster, I’d love one of your swords. And I promise not to throw it over a cliff face.”
Aiden coughed. “Truth is, Corson threw his sword at a demon and saved my life.”
“A quick-thinking warrior. Good. Lives are more important than swords. Even my swords. Besides, my swords have a way of finding the person they were made for—as well as burning the hands of thieves.”
Aiden wished she’d called him a quick-thinking warrior, instead of Fire Boy. But Aiden wouldn’t have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t acknowledged Corson’s bravery—even if a part of him wanted all Keera’s praise to himself.
Aiden turned to Keera. He imagined wrapping her in his arms and kissing her soft red lips. He’d settle for walking by her side, the warm glow in his stomach a pleasant distraction from his burned shoulder. It had been kind of Corson to rush ahead, and give them a chance to chat of this and that. Favourite flowers and sword making, and the most dangerous places in Brocéliande
“Damn it,” Keera swore under her breath as they approached the path to wóþbora cotif—the village The Society had dubbed Town of the Triplets.
Three children were sitting on the path, playing one of their strange games of exchanging eyes and ears—for they only had a pair of each between the three and must share them if they wanted to see or hear.
Aiden cringed as the central child picked up an eyeball from each of her brothers and squished them into her eye-sockets, while the two boys slapped an ear each to the side of their heads.
They stood up. The triplet on the left’s free hand was pointing to Aiden and the triplet on the right was pointing to Keera.
“I see,” the sighted triplet in the middle said. And the three chorused:
“Gold and silver.”
“Life and death.”
“Sword and shield.”
“I hear,” said the triplet on the left
“Sword Master you have found your Fire
“But you anger the fae
“They curse your every breath
“And you, like your swords,
“Will be quenched in the waters of the River of Death.
“I hear,” said the triplet on the right
“Your children will be flowers
“Sweet as nectar and sharp as thorns
“Fae, walkers, demonslayers, witches
“All are friend and foe, hammer and anvil
“Forge their thorns early
“Save them from the fae
“And they may save this world.”
Holding hands, the triplets scurried away, back down the crossroads toward their village.
Aiden blinked and turned to Keera. “What was that about?”
Keera shrugged and walked on, shoulders hunched. “Poor kids. They’re always running out and spouting nonsense at me.”
Aiden got the impression she knew more than she was telling. Unable to put words to his concerns, he walked on in silence.
Corson was sitting on a rock on the path ahead. “What happened to you?”
“We got waylaid by wóþbora cotif triplets.”
Corson nodded. “I hurried past. They’re always threatening me with death and giant spiders every time I walk by.” He shivered. “Still, we’re almost at home base, and I didn’t want to rush on in case your parents noticed my return and worried that you weren’t with me.”
“Good call,” Aiden agreed as they passed the lookout in a huge oak tree.
Within moments they were at the gate. A crowd armed with swords and axes had gathered near the fence covered in briars that marked the village boundary.
Alice Faulkner had baby Hazel in her arms, and a kitchen knife. Aiden’s parents stood beside Alice, twirling their swords, ready to protect Alice and her baby with their lives. Mayor Harder paced out to the gate with Alice’s husband, Prof Brian Faulkner, by his side. While Prof was not a small man, he was dwarfed by the heavily muscled mayor whose favourite sword was so big the point almost dragged along the ground.
“It’s just us.” Aiden waved, pretending not to notice the scowls and frowning faces. What’s their problem, anyway?
“What is this?” Mayor Harder humphed. “I mean…”
“Let me.” Prof Brian Faulkner waved his arms. “Aiden. Weren’t you supposed to get the Sword Master? Who is this? She looks like a wicked queen, or one of those annoying fighting princesses…”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Aiden snapped. “Let us through.”
“I’m not being ridiculous,” Brian humphed in his, Listen to me, everyone. I’m a professor, tone.
Mayor Harder took a step back and watched.
What’s he doing, letting Prof Faulkner take over like that? Aiden took a deep breath. It didn’t help. He glanced back over his shoulder. Keera’s jaw was set in a firm line. Corson rolled his eyes.
More and more of the village had downed tools and emerged from their houses. Encouraged by the growing crowd, Brian Faulkner ran out through the gates and stood in front of Aiden. “What are you doing? We have to be careful about who we bring into New Avalon. We’ve only just created this outpost, and bringing in locals without proper vetting could be catastrophic.”
“Stand aside,” Corson growled. “You will all treat this warrior who saved our lives with the respect she deserves. Oh yes, and she is the new swordsmith we were sent to collect.”
Mayor Harder nodded. “Good, then. Wonderful to meet you, Sword Master. When you have a moment, I’d love to see your work. Let them through, Faulkner.”
Aiden’s father stepped up to Brian’s side and looked Aiden and Keera up and down. “This is not good. I knew we should have left you Earthside, Aiden.”
Yeah, like that was going to happen. Sometimes Aiden thought his old man lived in the eighteen hundreds and hadn’t made it into the 1920’s at all.
“Dratted problem with this place,” Aiden’s father said through his impressive moustache. “Is that it’s always doing this kind of thing.” He shuddered. “Falling head over heels is just bad form.” He called back over his shoulder to where Aiden’s mother was still protecting Alice and her babe. “Mother? What do you think?”
The crowd parted to let her through. She looked Aiden and then Keera up and down. “Damn, Aiden. Not true love?” His mother sighed. “Please, tell me I’m wrong.”
Heat flushed Aiden’s cheeks. He almost wished he was being buried alive. Anything was better than this. And where was he supposed to look? Back at Keera? He’d known her for all of an hour. But looking straight ahead was worse, with his parents and the village all judging him for falling in love with a woman he’d just met. If this is love? It can’t be. Blood pounding in his temples, Aiden coughed. “If you’ll excuse us. I need to show the Sword Master around.” Keera and Corson followed as he cut through the crowd. He envied her composure, showing little reaction to all the accusations except an amused smile that danced on her lips and maybe a hint of red under her dark skin as she drank him in with her warm, luminous eyes.
“Um, Sword Master Keera,” Aiden spoke loud enough for the others to hear. “We should check out the forge. I’m really keen to see how you make swords. I’ve never seen anything so effective.”
Keera nodded, stepping in close. “I’ve always wanted to see Myrddin’s forge.”
Behind them, Aiden’s mother shook her head and sighed. “It never ends well.”
“What? I thought that in Brocéliande, true love always ends well,” Alice replied. “Remember that princess bride? All the happily ever afters.”
“Have you seen her recently?”
“Well, no,” Alice admitted.
“Exactly,” Aiden’s mother snapped. “It’ll all end in tears. And the next thing we know there’ll be two orphaned children in these woods, and we’ll be left looking after them.”
Aiden stomped on, trying to get their voices out of his ears—his mother was worse than all of wóþbora cotif’s triplets rolled together with her crazy predictions.
Humans seem to think fae are either flitting through the flowers drinking nectar, or stealing children. Well, only one of those is true—
—we never steal children. We only swap them. An eye for an eye, a child for a child.
Gather round, my young ones, my darlings, open your beautiful eyes, and fold your wings neatly, while I tell you a story. The story of how I lost everything, including my beloved changeling. How I was banished to the kingdom of mortals and sent to ward the human child with red hair.
No, little ones, do not cry. They are not the monsters you think, and not so very different from us. Yes, they are dangerous, but we fae are dangerous, too. It’s not all fairy godmothers and queens and royal balls. There is deceit and treachery, and you need to know it when you see it. I see the silver-fire of the fae in all your eyes. You will grow strong and powerful. Far stronger and more powerful than I, and that is why I say:
Trust no one.
Hate no one.
You will find what you need when you most need it, and although your hearts will be broken like so much china, you will mend the pieces with your tears—and the burning tears of the sun—for only when you are a spider-work of silver and gold will your hearts be strong enough to break the spell that has sundered our world.
We must make it whole again. And I must save my Nada.
The bluebells were ringing.
Lettie’s heart fluttered. Fae were coming from far and wide to pay homage to King Hades and Queen Persephone. Many heard the call, arriving in the blink of an eye to witness the commencement of the revelry that would last all summer long. And not just fae. Many humans and other races also heard the call—unsure of what was happening, or why they’d blundered through fairy barrows into the deep dark forest and grassy moss that was Queen Persephone’s ball ground.
The elderfae, refusing to recognise Persephone as Queen for long centuries now, would hide and not come out again until winter.
Lettie couldn’t imagine it. She loved the summer and the Royal Summer Ball, looking forward to the first signs of spring, and the fanfare that went with it. She donned a robin’s-egg-blue dress and fluttered her rainbow wings, determined to look her best for Queen Persephone’s arrival. And for Nada to look faer best, too. Where was her little changeling?
She searched her tiny tree-house cottage. The nest where Nada curled up to sleep. She threw open the cupboard doors and peered over every square inch of wall and floor. It was so hard to find changelings when they could turn into nearly anything—a skink, a mouse, a bird, a stick insect—anything. “Come on, Nada, where are you?” she called. “We’ve got to go.”
Nada, perfectly camouflaged as a bark-like lizard on the wooden side of the hut, transformed into a flutterby with shimmery blue wings.
“You do know what today is, don’t you?” Lettie asked, breathless at the prospect of the ball.
Nada’s shimmery-blue wings fluttered and morphed into the darker-blue of a swallowtail—edged in a dramatic dark-blue.
“Nada, it is not edged with darkness. It’s a party. And we will both love it. Remember, there will be dancing on the greensward, and twelve beautiful princesses, the swan maidens, the wood nymphs and water sprites. All the sages and mages, the wanderers, the dreamers and fae will be there. Then, after the dancing, the royal entourage will relax on the soft moss-covered roots and we will come home. Quick, now, we don’t want to be late.”
Lettie popped Nada onto her shoulder and hurried to the twisted wooden balcony made from live wood. “Time to fly, little one.” She laughed at her own daring. Queen Persephone didn’t hold with flutter-form—because she cannot do it. Lettie dropped the thought from her mind. Nothing good would come of thinking ill of the queen.
She stepped up onto the railing, dropped her elegant form, or more accurately her ungainly human-like wingless form, and together, they soared into the woods, rushing through the branches. Above, a thick canopy of leaves protected them from the jealous eye of the sun. Below, mossy roots formed a thick matt above the shallow forest soil.
They flew on, past the giant oak and kauri. Past more types of trees than anyone had names for. Trees that remained solid and unwavering even in all the excitement swirling below. Half the kingdom had arrived to celebrate, and the other half were hidden in the deep, dark woods. Fools, Lettie thought. A faint glimmering from the giant glow worms in the branches around the greensward warned her that she was getting close.
They landed discreetly, just beyond the celebrations, before changing back into elegant form and edging closer.
Her heart soared. The gardeners had outdone themselves. The lush-green ball ground was circled by clamouring bluebells. Glow-worms shimmered, their lights falling on starry silver-white flowers. At the far end, Queen Persephone and King Hades’ live royal thrones, their branches curling around each other to form dramatic spirals, were festooned with tight rosebuds. The high-backed seats were softened by a thick layer of green leaves decorated with rose petals.
“Smell that?” Lettie inhaled the sweet buttery-perfume from the roses and the honeyed notes of ambrosia. “That’s the smell of the ball.
Of course Nada said nothing. But to Lettie’s delight, her little changeling looked over at the high-backed thrones wreathed in buds and transformed into a fully blooming purple rose—with wings sprouting from either side of the stem.
Lettie beamed with pride and glanced around to see who else was there. She caught sight of a few of Queen Persephone’s sycophants burbling about how they couldn’t wait to see the queen again. Lettie couldn’t help but feel jealous. One day, maybe Queen Persephone would recognise her worth and the queen’s entourage would not be so haughty. Beyond them was a flash of yellow. It was Zadie, a fellow changeling-nurse, flitting from flower to flower in her trademark sunflower inspired dress. There was no sign of faer changeling.
Lettie rushed over. “Oh, no. I can’t see your changeling. Has something happened?”
“Left it behind,” Zadie muttered. “I mean, it’s not like the things ever grow up, is it? Won’t matter if it misses a summer ball to the great and glorious usurper, Queen Persephone.
Lettie gasped and glanced around. Fortunately, no one seemed to be listening to Zadie’s treachery. Queen Persephone had sent fae to the Labyrinth for less. She shivered at the thought of the dark, dank pit, and the terror waiting within, and pulled her changeling close. I am no traitor. That fate will not be mine.
Zadie glanced meaningfully at Lettie’s ward, and the skull of the death’s head butterfly pattern rippling over Nada’s wings. “Oh, what the heck, Alette. It’s not like yours will become fae, either. And there’s no one else here to tattle on my lack of bowing and scraping.
“Just call me Lettie,” Lettie said. “You know I’m not one for ceremony, but our great queen is arriving through the Mirror of Tears today. We should—”
“You know how Queen Persephone made the Mirror of Tears, don’t you?”
“She cried a million tears and—”
“No, that story’s a lie. It was the blood of her enemies. She threw their bodies onto the greensward until the moss shone silver…it was only then that she discovered the power and turned the blood of her foes into a fancy mirror.”
“You know I’m right,” Zadie said.
“I know nothing of the sort.” Persephone and Hades were rulers with god-like powers—surely they never resorted to bloodshed?
A leaden note to the welcoming peal crept in as the bluebells tired of their call and began to preen for the feast. The fae gardeners helped them by burnishing their blue apparel until it rivalled the slivers of sky above.
“Beautiful,” Lettie remarked to the chief gardener as she dashed past. He was moving on from the bluebells to tend a patch of daisies that shone as merrily as the stars in the sky.
“Thank you, Lettie,” the old gardener said, beaming with pride. “Not that that wretched so-called queen of ours will notice.”
“I’m sure she will,” Lettie said, not wanting to hear any more.
The gardener sighed. “Doing things for the queen never turns out well. I’ll be left with a mess when she moves her party on, and that’s at best.”
“It’ll be amazing. You just see.” Lettie ushered Nada so they could get a better view of the ceremony, and all the fine noble fae waiting for their most gracious queen. The princesses, swan maidens, dryads and other wood nymphs and water sprites danced, while the sages and mages and noble folk looked on uncertainly—just close enough to observe the queen’s arrival.
The soldiers rolled back the blackened rock of the firepit, and lit the faery-fire. It’s blue flame dancing joyfully as two soldiers marched into the clearing, their silver armour shining. Two by two, they proudly bore the Queen’s famous Mirror of Tears draped with silken sheets of spider web and placed it before the royal thrones. “Behold!” they cried, pulling back the heavy silk and bowing low.
Inky darkness rippled in the mirror, but there was no sign of the queen.
Nada startled as King Hades’ tall, stone-skinned demons leapt from the fire—the crackling heat swirling around them not fae-blue, but the red-hot heat from the underworld itself.
A cry of wonder erupted from the humans in the crowd, but Lettie felt only Nada’s fear as she pulled the changeling into her arms.
Where is our Queen Persephone? And her King?
Another cry, this time of welcome, as King Hades followed his demon bodyguards through the fire. He was pulling the shaggy, three headed Cerberus along on a lead with him. Cerberus howled, glaring around the clearing as he always did. The Quips—Queen Persephone’s soldiers—jumped back as the ancient beast sniffed the air, poison dripping from three sets of sharp teeth.
Hades sighed and let Cerberus jump back into the fire pit. As soon as the creature was gone, two Quips quickly stanched the fire and rolled the blackened-rock back over the pit. Everyone else remained bowing, not daring to lift their heads…but still there was no sign of Queen Persephone.
Time dragged on. Nada, restless on her shoulder, attempted four different forms before settling back into the shape of a rose.
A flash from the mirror, and Queen Persephone appeared at last. Dressed in a red-silk ballgown with pink petticoats, and dripping with pink opals and diamonds, she pushed her way through the silver mirror as if pushing her way through the surface of a lake. A rush of devotion washed over Lettie as queenly and magnificent, she strode toward her throne. She was trailed by her large entourage of sycophants and Fae-in-Waiting in their elegant fae form, scornful as ever of the celebrations that had been arranged. When her last attendant had burst through the liquid silver, Queen Persephone yelled, “What is this mess? Who is in charge of the daisies? Where is my constellation?”
Fae backed away. The head gardener was pushed forward.
“Silence. You shall pay for your failure. This…mess…is not up to my royal standards.” Her voice boomed like thunder. Points of red flushed her cheeks as she glowered at the gardener, an icy hatred burning in her eyes. “And so, my final judgement. Thou hast disappointed me for the last time. Soldiers, throw that wretched good-for-nothing fae into the catacombs.”
But the flowers are perfection, dotted across the greensward like the fae constellation itself. Lettie put her hand over her mouth, terrified to break the eerie silence. Queen Persephone is upset. Someone has upset our fair and righteous queen, but not the gardener, surely?
Demons grabbed the poor gardener, who screamed and squirmed in and out of flutter form. For the venerable old fae, there was no escaping the demon’s grip.
Queen Persephone held up a hand that sparkled with diamonds, sapphires and rubies. “Wait.”
The gardener paused. The crowd too. Lettie’s heart leapt. Of course, Queen Persephone would relent. This was one of her games to keep the gardeners on their toes, make sure they didn’t take their queen’s favour for granted.
“Before we have our fun,” Queen Persephone continued, ignoring the gasp from the crowd. “I have pressing business. Has anybody heard of the Sword Master? Are the rumours true? Did this mortal scum desecrate the blood of the fae with cold iron?”
Lettie gulped, too frightened to stand up and speak. This must be why the queen was so furious. Even Lettie had heard the rumours. But can they really be true? And what does it mean if they are?
Arachne scuttled forward. “There are such rumours, Queen Persephone. But I can’t confirm them.”
“Wyrden? Wyrden, where art thou?”
“My Queen.” A spry, silver-haired humanoid with a white walking cane and eyes like pools of midnight emerged from within a knot of demons and bowed.
“Wyrden, if this is true, then seek out the abomination and kill them, or better still, bring them to me so they can suffer a fate worse than death.”
“Do it,” Hades thundered.
“Yes, my King, my Queen. I shall obey.” Wyrden sloped off, apparently unaware of Queen Persephone scowling at his insolent back.
He didn’t bow!
Persephone clapped her hands. “Now, back to business. Throwing this wretched, insolent gardener into the catacombs.”
The poor old fae shivered and glanced toward the entrance to the labyrinth. “My Queen…”
“Silence!” She glared at the old gardener. “For I am not without mercy. Yes, for thy crimes, thou shall be sentenced to the labyrinth. But steal the treasure from the minotaur at the centre of the maze for me, and thou may return to my court. Fail, and I shall banish thee forever.”
Lettie let out a breath. Her Queen was indeed merciful. Of course, the gardener wouldn’t be banished forever. Even if everybody else the queen had sent to the labyrinth had failed to return, this gardener would succeed. Because he was loyal. And the others had been traitors.
Queen Persephone’s musicians struck up a beat, accompanied by the pure tones of ocarinas and other woodwinds. The old gardener was whirled along with the music, pulled and dragged, and kicked and thumped and battered.
The pure sounds of the woodwinds transformed to shrieks and wails that rose to a crescendo as the dancers pushed the old gardener to the iron bars of the wooden door that barred the entrance of the labyrinth.
The music stopped and the dancers did, too. For a moment, the world was still except for the gardener’s feeble struggles against the fae dancers who would not let him go.
A trumpet bugled, and a demon shoved the iron-bound door open.
Lettie tried to peer inside, but there were too many people in the way.
The poor gardener was shoved through and the door slammed shut.
Lettie flinched, horrified at the thought of being trapped inside an iron cage lined with stones and bones and filled with monsters. At least that’s what Zadie had told her last year when Lettie had failed to get a glimpse.
The dance party was silent.
A harrowing scream cut through the wooden door.
Then there was silence again, only more oppressive than before.
Lettie shed a silver tear. Her changeling caught it and flew the precious cargo over to Queen Persephone’s mirror. A tiny splash, and a ripple, and it was gone.
“Good. Good.” Queen Persephone said, turning a sad smile on Lettie.
Lettie’s heart was suddenly light. Queen Persephone had noticed. Had shared her pain.
“What a beautiful changeling. Well done, you.” Queen Persephone said with a smile as warm and pure as starlight.
Nada. My beautiful Nada. Lettie’s heart soared before she caught a glimpse of Zadie’s scowl. “Um. Zadie also has a beautiful changeling.”
Queen Persephone raised an eyebrow. “So, Zadie, where is this charge of yours?”
Zadie pointed toward her tree house and shot Lettie a look of hate.
“Well, go fetch faer.” Persephone clapped her hands. “Now, where was I? Welcome, one and all, to the dance. Let us be merry today, for soon we shall be at war.”
“War?” a soldier asked. “I m-m-mean,” the fae stuttered. “Who should we fight?”
“Our enemies,” King Hades thundered, blue fire crackling through his hair. “I hope you do not question your queen.”
“No, my king. Sorry, my king.”
“’Tis the humans,” Persephone shouted. “But we shall not think of their evil today, for today is a celebration.”
War with the humans? Lettie clutched Nada to her chest. Yes, a sword smith had desecrated fae silver by forging it alongside cold iron, but they would be punished. And the rest of the humans? Yes, they were foolish and blundering, but surely that wasn’t a crime large enough to start a war?
The music resumed—and once again, nobody could escape the dance.
Aiden clutched the ring in his hand so hard that it hurt.
“Ah, there you are.” Keera hurried through the crowded Market Town marketplace, her smile as dazzling as the sun.
Will she say yes?
So many things seemed to stand in his way. He needed to find the perfect place, the perfect moment under the dappled leaves of Brocéliande. Not here in the hot marketplace, with all the people around. And the pick-pockets.
He ran his other hand through his red hair.
“What is it?” she asked. “You get what you needed?”
He nodded. “I um…” He stared into Keera’s eyes. “I thought we might have a picnic…go somewhere nice.”
A child snatched the ring right out of his hand.
Keera’s hand shot out and grabbed the child. “You’d think you would have learned from last time,” she scolded, plucking the diamond ring from the young thief’s unresisting fingers.
“No harm in tryin’.” The urchin wriggled free.
“What’s…who’s the ring for?” she asked, turning it over and holding it up to the light.
Heat rushed into Aiden’s cheeks. I probably look like a cherry. “Umm, ahhh…” he mumbled, mortified. “It’s an Earthsider tradition.”
“Oh?” She tilted her head.
“You’re going to make me say it, aren’t you?”
Keera bit her lip. “It’s just, not all our traditions are the same.”
Aiden got down on a knee. “Will you…”
Three near-identical people—with one eye between them—strode in their direction.
Aiden bounded to his feet, took Keera’s hand and tried to sidestep the wóþbora cotif triplets, but they completely blocked the path.
“You shall have two children.”
Aiden blushed. And glanced over to Keera. He’d not even proposed…half proposed at best, and these idiots turned up. All this nonsense about children was a step too far. “That’s enough, please.” But the wóþbora cotif triplets pressed on.
“A girl and a girl.”
“And they shall be as twins though they shall be born two years apart.”
“Strong of heart and of mind.”
“They will see what no one else can see.”
“You will give them everything they need.”
“But only if you hurry.”
“For in the morning.”
“You will be gone.”
“I—” Aiden started, remembering their previous encounter with the younger soothsayers.
Keera sighed. “Don’t worry. The triplets always come at inopportune times with dire prophecies. This one, they’ve been saying that to me since I was twelve. It has nothing to do with you. Besides, I’m not the sort of person who wants children. I need to save the people of Brocéliande from the demon incursion. That doesn’t leave much time for family…”
Aiden’s heart sank. So, this was the rejection. He’d always known…
Her eyes sparkled. “Fortunately, there will be just enough time for you.”
Aiden thought his heart would burst. Within moments they’d both forgotten all about the triplets and their embarrassing prophecy. Corson and Keera were right; it did no good to take their words too seriously.
And when they got back to Earth, Burcham offered Keera a permanent contract to use the forge at her discretion.
Keera Swordmaster is contracted to forge swords for The Society with the understanding that demonslayer swords will be forged for members of The Society of her own choosing.
Reimbursement will be at the standard rate, but, due to the value of her work, Keera Swordmaster may use the forge of Arthur Pendragon while part of an official Society mission, even if it is not for official Society business.
Years later, the happily married couple moved into Aiden’s parents’ old house on Earth. Safely away from demons, fae, and the many other dangers of Brocéliande, Aiden and Keera thought nothing of the prophecy when their first child arrived. Born with a shaggy crop of dark red hair, she clutched her parents’ hands fiercely. Keera declared that Ruby was the perfect name for this little warrior—the child of their heart, and Aiden agreed.
When the second child arrived and it was a girl, Keera remembered the prophecies. Two children with two years between them. A girl and a girl. An urgency gripped her.
For weeks she cast about for a name. The right name. One that might protect her baby and keep her close to her sister, but also set her apart. It wasn’t until she was visiting Aiden’s parent’s cottage in Brocéliande and wandering past the thorny roses, ice clinging to their stems like pearls, that her second daughter’s name popped into her head. The name for their dark-haired bundle of fury had to be…Pearl. A dark Pearl full of knowledge and hidden depths. And yet the name could also symbolise a rose. A nod to the red and white flowers of Aiden’s mother’s garden—and two inseparable sisters who looked after each other through thick and thin.
Keera held no illusions. She’d made King Hades’ demons angry. No matter what Aiden said, sooner or later they’d come for her.
1 June 1934
Keera swiped away a trickle of sweat only to find it had evaporated in the heat. The tang of hot steel on her tongue, the charcoal smoke in her eyes and throat, and the clash of metal on metal close to overwhelming as she struggled to keep her rhythm. Her arms ached from pounding and shaping the metal. She should have taken a break before this crucial stage, but didn’t want her stay in Brocéliande to be longer than it had to be. Besides, Myrddin’s forge was overbooked, as usual, and the many sword-smiths waiting would surely barge in.
Ruby and baby Pearl were playing not so far away, under the watchful eye of Alice Faulkner. Alice was a godsend. Especially as Aiden’s parents had gone Library of Alexandria hunting again. Besides, with three children of her own, Alice knew just how to look after the little ones—but her curiosity was insatiable.
“I wish I could understand how you do it.”
“I wish I had the time to teach you, but—”
Alice smiled. “Don’t worry, I couldn’t do all that hammering even if I wanted to, but maybe there’s something in your process I could apply to other things. Your swords can only be used by their true owners. I’d love to know how it works.”
“I’m not sure I understand myself. I think in Brocéliande, soul power—or magic—if you will, has to do with intent. And the words. As your motto says, Verba sunt omnia.”
Alice raised her eyebrows. “Your? Aren’t you a part of The Society now?”
Keera shrugged. “You know how it is.” She might be employed by them, but she never felt like she truly belonged. Or that their goals were the same as hers.
Pearl squealed and crawled across the clearing toward her mother, nappy trailing. She was chasing after little Tailor who was toddling toward the forge giggling wildly.
“Careful!” Keera yelled. “Hot! Hey Aiden! Can you come and help?” Where is he?
“Sorry.” Aiden called. “Almost there.”
“I’ve got them,” Alice grabbed Pearl and tucked her under one arm and then snatched up Tailor. “Come on, Pearl, let’s give your mum and dad room to think. Thank goodness you’re behaving, Ruby. You’re the only good child here.
Ruby nodded solemnly, red curls bobbing against her golden cheek. “Bird talked to Ruby.”
“Yes, birds do that here.” Alice smiled. “Come on, how about you and I go and look for Hazel and Arthur and see what trouble they’re up to?” She ushered Ruby away to help ‘search’ for her two eldest children, who were playing in the branches of the old apple tree near the village fence.
“Thanks.” Her face covered in smudges of soot, a frown of concentration on her lips, Keera turned back to focus on the steel.
Aiden set down the bucket of water and pulled his mess of red hair back into a rough ponytail, then pumped the bellows again. His job was keeping the forge hot so Keera could focus on her work, stroke after stroke. With every sparking blow from her drop-hammer, the shape of the sword made itself known. A fine blade…so far.
Ruby raced into the clearing. “Mama, we saw a fairy.”
“Fae,” Keera corrected without thinking, working on keeping the rhythm of her strokes even.
Alice, carrying a baby in each arm, was close behind. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. Ruby knows better than to come too close to the fire.”
Alice shivered. “What if your Ruby sees fae when we don’t?”
Keera laughed. “It’s just a game Aiden plays with her, but I guess seeing hidden fae could come in handy. They can be quite the nuisance.”
“Aren’t you worried? I mean, if she can see fae when nobody else can, doesn’t that mean she’s a witch?”
Fortunately, Aiden butted in. “Ruby’s going to be a demon hunter like her mum, aren’t you Ruby?”
“She is that,” Keera said, holding the new sword up in the air to inspect it. “And here’s the sword to prove it.” She couldn’t be prouder of her work. “Hear how it sings?” She tapped the blade with the finishing hammer along the edge a final time and then plunged the red-hot steel into the bucket of water.
Now for the inlay. Keera put her hand on the wooden strips with the delicate silver and gold script inlay and pressed them hard against the sword-blade, carefully binding them to the blade with flax. This was the magic. The moment.
“Almost there, Ruby.”
“My sword, Mummy?”
Keera smiled. “If you’re good.”
She plunged it into the centre of the forge until the twine and wood were nothing but smoke. The blade glowed silvery-red in the heat of the forge.
Aiden glanced at the blade and grinned. “I think this is your finest work ever.”
“Don’t speak too soon.” Keera said, inspecting the blade. “But I do hope so.” She plunged it back into the water.
At last, with Aiden’s hands over hers, they declared over the hiss of water and the roar of the fire. “I name you Heart of Ruby, Demonslayer and Protector of the Righteous.”
The sword stayed true, gleaming in the sunlight.
Ruby clapped and held out her hand. “Mine.”
“Yes,” Keera said. “The sword is yours and will respond to none other.” If only she had the time and energy to make Pearl’s today, but the sun was already dipping below the horizon. And Aiden’s parents had been suspicious enough, given Ruby was nowhere near old enough to wield a sword yet.
“Careful.” Aiden guided Ruby’s hand to the exposed metal where the pommel would be.
Ruby grasped it and smiled. “Sword. Mine.”
Lettie brushed down her bird’s egg blue dress, fluttered her rainbow wings and settled on the nursery rocking chair near the nest where Nada was supposed to be sleeping. One instant, Nada was in the form of a butterfly—fluttering verdant wings—and the next, faer was kicking legs the colour of autumn leaves out of faer nest.
Lettie pulled on her favourite bluebell cap. “Are you ready?” she cajoled, happy that she finally had a moment to sing to Nada. Nervous that she was deliberately missing Queen Persephone’s arrival this year—fear bubbled through her, as it had every year since the death of the gardener.
Nada transformed into a sparrow and opened faer beak.
Lettie’s heart skipped a beat. Hoping beyond all hope that today would be the day that Nada would sing along, she began singing The Song of a Zephyr on a Summer’s Day.
Rustling echoed around the small chamber.
Was that a note? Or was it the wind? Lettie’s heart thundered in her chest. “Nada,” Lettie whispered. “You’re going to have a true name. You’re going to be. I just know it.” Hoping against hope this bundle of twigs, wishes, and precious stones would manifest as fae, she burst into song again.
“Oh, dreaming fae, the sun of day, will stab you.
“But in the twilight, you will delight and scare the nasty sun away.”
A silly song. But curiosity about the sun had killed many a young fae as its glitter and shine drew them to fly to their deaths.
“Lettie! Lettie! Where are you?” Zadie burst in through the nursery door. “Queen Persephone is asking for you. Come quickly.”
“Darn it all.” Lettie sighed, imagining all the reasons the queen could possibly want her. She doesn’t want me; she wants my changeling. The thought shot through her like a lightning bolt.
“Stay safe,” she whispered to her charge fluttering around the tiny tree house where she’d made her home.
“Hurry, hurry.” Zadie wrung faer hands. “The queen is in such a temper she’s threatened to send us both to the Underworld, and our changelings with us.”
“But, she can’t,” Lettie spluttered. She thought about carrying her precious changeling with her, but Nada was exhausted. So, instead, she called her little changeling back to bed. Grabbing for Nada’s spider-silk throw, she grazed her palm on the hook. A spatter of silver blood splashed the wall.
Lettie grabbed a fuzzy leaf to clean the mess.
“No, no, we don’t have time,” Zadie insisted, hurrying to drape the spider-silk net over the crib herself.
Lettie wiped the wall angrily, but only smeared the silver further. “Boggarts and beasties!” she swore. Maybe the neighbour could help. She ran out and knocked on her neighbour Rose’s door. “Hey, Rose! I’ve got to go out.”
“There’s no time.” Zadie grabbed Lettie’s arm and dragged her out onto the ledge of the balcony.
“What is it?” Rose poked her peachy-pink head out the door.
“Keep my Nada safe,” Lettie yelled as Zadie pulled her over the ledge. Together they flitted out through the dark forest toward the glow-worm lights of Queen Persephone’s Great Summer Ball.
Today, the musicians stood silent.
Instead of dancing, the king and queen were draped decorously on their living wood thrones. Even smothered with spring roses, the living thrones radiated an aura of sorrow, as if were mourning the gardener who was surely dead. Lettie shuddered at the idea, her stomach turning at the way the roses’ sweet honey scent saturated the air.
All the queen’s fae, in their fancy suits and ball-dresses, clung to the trees around the outskirts of the clearing, their faces twisted in disdain.
Shame coursed through Lettie like cold iron as she shifted from her shimmery blue and rainbow flutter-form to the heavy humanoid, so-called elegant form, the followers of Queen Persephone preferred.
“There you are!” King Hades thundered, lurching himself upright. His dark hair swirled with power as he glared at Zadie and Lettie.
“Finally, thou art here.” Queen Persephone snapped. A brittle, porcelain smile on her face. “But at least you are not seven years late.”
Seven years? Lettie swallowed back her confusion.
“The Queen’s drunk her nectar from the wrong side of the flower today.” Zadie whispered.
Fortunately, Persephone didn’t notice. She’d turned to glance back at a silver-haired man with a white cane. Wyrden! He clutched a white cane in one hand and cradled some kind of long stick in an oil skin under his other arm.
“Now, show everyone what you have,” Hades demanded, pointing to the oilskin.
Failing to hide a mocking grin, the man threw down the bundle. It fell open, revealing a silvery, glimmering…something.
Lettie leaned in to see.
It was a brightly burnished sword with elegant gold and silver writing flowing down the blade. Exquisite flowing writing that glowed with power. She shivered. The silver wasn’t just any silver—
Queen Persephone turned back to the man and roared, “Seven years! This desecration hath been happening for over seven years, and thou get back to us now!”
Lettie clenched her jaw, mind spinning at the horror of the fae blood decorating cold iron.
“If only Persephone had downed all twelve persimmon seeds, then maybe King Hades, Persephone and all the highborn would be living it up in the underworld the whole year round,” Zadie whispered. “Then the fae kingdom wouldn’t have to put up with these endless tantrums. And the unseelie court could have put this sacrilege to rights a long time ago.”
Lettie swallowed, glancing about to see if anyone else had heard. Zadie’s shocked, she doesn’t really mean what she’s saying about our noble Queen Persephone. Fortunately, nobody was paying them any mind.
“Wyrden, my Queen is right,” Hades thundered. “Why have you waited so long to come hither with this news?”
The trench-coated man stared him down with eyes that glistened oily black.
Lettie smothered a gasp. Wyrden is a skin-demon! Does anyone else notice? And he stands mere steps away from Queen Persephone. This should not be. And yet the queen herself called for him.
The queen’s court rustled nervously. Lettie risked a glance. Queen Persephone was unruffled by the soulless eyes, and King Hades’ smirk was downright terrifying.
The skin-demon Wyrden licked his lips. “I got here as soon as I could get my hands on one of the swords. And I come with not just a sword.” He pulled a folded square of paper from his pocket. “This map has everything you need to find the Sword Master herself, and her children—if you hurry.”
“Wyrden, don’t try me. You are my minion!” Hair crackling with power, Hades bunched his fists.
Lettie jumped. Hades’ glare alone was enough to turn an ordinary fae to flame—but Wyrden barely flinched.
“Of course, my lord.” Wyrden bowed low. “I am troubled by being unable to be in two places at once. If you will excuse me, I’ll get back to that other urgent job you suggested…”
Hades narrowed his eyes further.
“…the whole spider thing on the border with the humans. Remember that?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Hades rubbed his hands together. “Overrun their pathetic new settlement before the mud-humans get a foothold in Brocéliande and send any survivors to the demon mines.”
“Good, we have been waiting a long time,” Persephone agreed.
“Yes, my love, and that is why we are going with your plan.”
Hades shooed Wyrden away with the flick of his hand.
The spry, silver-haired humanoid stepped toward Lettie, forcing her to jump out of his way. A bully to the bone. He smirked at her before striding off, leaving the sword in the centre of the clearing.
Persephone, Hades and all the fae stared at the sword still lying on the grassy moss.
Hades bent down to pluck up the sword only to drop it again. “This,” he yelled, “is an abomination. Take it away.”
Wyrden, having disappeared into the forest, did not come back. Instead, fae after fae tried to touch the blade. One wrapped spider-silk around the handle only to have the silk burst into flame.
“Lettie,” Zadie whispered, tugging at Lettie’s hand. “I have a bad feeling about this. Why would Queen Persephone specifically ask for you? For us?”
Lettie pulled her hand free, determined to stay and find out what was going on. Angry fae flittered around the clearing, voices rising in anger.
“The blood of the fae.” Persephone’s voice cut through the clearing. “The humans dare too much. Do not worry, I shall deal with this.”
“They slaughtered my demons,” King Hades protested. “I should be the one—”
“What are a few demons?” Queen Persephone arranged her gown with care. “The blood of my fae hath been defiled with cold iron and scolded with the gold…I mean, the tears of the sun. I shall have my revenge.”
Hades’ hair crackled with power. “Only if I don’t have mine first.” He pounded the side of his throne and screamed with anger—Lettie hoped it was because he’d hit his hand on a rose-thorn. “You think your fae’s silver blood is important, or that I care one whit if it is mixed with iron or gold. But it is nothing. My plans are all that matters. This court is but a distraction.”
“Enough,” Queen Persephone grated. “Without me, thou wouldst be rotting in the underworld. Now, let me talk to my two fae nursemaids so we can deal with the Sword Master once and for all.”
“It’s what the humans would call a pissing contest,” Zadie whispered. “At least what the male humans would call a pissing contest. We have to go, we’re only nursemaids to them. What if they threaten your precious Nada?”
Nada? Queen Persephone doesn’t want me, she wants Nada. Lettie gulped, betrayal ricocheting through her gut. This time she let Zadie take her free hand. Together, they started to back away.
Persephone’s gaze landed on them, heavy as a mountain lion and twice as self-satisfied. “And where are you two going?”
“My queen?” Zadie asked, although how fae could even speak at a time like this, Lettie wasn’t sure.
Persephone smiled radiantly upon them. “Zadie and Lettie, I have a job for your changelings. Dost thou think they’re up to it?”
Lettie shivered. The thought of Nada placed in the hands of humans was too awful to contemplate. “My queen…”
“They’d better be ready,” Hades growled. “Or I’ll feed you and your changelings to Cerberus myself.”
“Don’t listen to the old grump,” Persephone said in a voice so sickly sweet it would make bees vomit. “Take this map. Find the Sword Master and swap her children for your changelings. You can do that for your queen. And tell the changelings to do a proper job on the torment and murder before they return.”
Lettie took a deep breath. “My Queen—”
“That had better be a yes, because Cerberus will be the least of your problems if the Sword Master survives.”
“Yes, my queen.” Zadie stepped in front of Lettie, and took the map with a bow. “At once, my queen.” She returned to flutter form and zipped up into the sky.
Lettie bowed lower still, trying to give herself time to think of a way out of this. Hades’ hair still crackled with power.
“Wait,” Queen Persephone said. “This swap cannot go wrong. To ensure everything happens according to plan, I will send Arachne to the border. Do not fail.”
Reluctantly, Lettie rose and followed Zadie, zipping through the giant trees and dappled evening light. “Wait up.”
Zadie turned on her. “Frigus ferrum. This is your fault, Lettie.”
“Please, tell. How could the fault be mine?” Lettie asked. She didn’t need an answer—she was blaming herself already. Zadie was right, we had every opportunity to run.
If only I could take my beloved Nada and flee now. But after seeing the blood-script on the sword, no fae will forgive me if I don’t make this sacrifice.
3 June 1934
“Hello, squirrel,” Ruby called out to a red squirrel. It bolted up into an oak tree.
“Bye, bye, squirrel,” she said, disappointed that the creature hadn’t answered.
“Never mind.” Aiden took Ruby’s hand in his, careful not to hold too tight. “Come on, little one. We’re falling behind your mum and little sister. Now we’ve crossed the border, it’s well past time we were home.”
“Hungry,” Ruby grumped.
“We’re all hungry,” Keera called back. Pearl was snuggled up against her chest in the baby pouch, noisily sucking her fingers and drooling down her white dress. “The picnic tables are just ahead.”
“Ooh, look!” Ruby cried—finger pointing to a circle of red-capped fly agaric mushrooms. “Fae.”
Aiden glanced back. “Yes, they’re fairy mushrooms. Don’t touch, you’ll scare the fairies.”
Ruby nodded; eyes wide.
“The fae will be fine.” Keera pushed Pearl’s beanie up. “But you won’t be if you touch poison mushrooms. Stay away.”
“Keera, come on. It’s just for fun. When I was little, Mum and I would look for fairies everywhere we went.” He smiled that infectious smile of his. “Look! Someone’s even made little fairy houses along the walk.”
“They’re not real fairy houses, Aiden.”
“Didn’t you ever think fairies were the cute creatures in books?”
Keera bit back a grin. “No. I don’t think so. When I was little, I thought fairy stories were horror stories. This whole cutesy fairies thing is weird.”
Ruby laughed, pointing at the snails and their silvery trails, before discovering a ‘village’ of tiny pretend houses that had been artistically scattered among the trees and shrubs along the side of the path. “Fae, fae. See Mama?”
Lettie hugged Nada tight and looked out from behind the fly agaric mushrooms toward the family. The adults seemed ordinary enough humans, but the eldest girl, Ruby, was pointing right at her and Zadie with an enormous chubby finger.
“I didn’t know humans could see us here, like this,” Zadie muttered.
“It’s unusual even for children,” Lettie replied. Because that’s what the old gardener had told her. He’d had a soft spot for this Earth place. She couldn’t see why—the trees were sickly, and it smelled weird.
Still, the little girl was charming with her red-autumn leaf hair and gold-brown skin.
“Are you sure these are the ones?” Lettie asked Zadie.
Carelessly holding faer changeling by the heel, Zadie shrugged faer green speckled shoulders. “It’s them. You know it is. We’ve been chasing their trail through Brocéliande to this forsaken place. I can still smell the sword the woman made, the cold iron, the tears…”
“Yes, they’re very pretty,” Aiden said. “Ruby, come and see.”
Like Ruby wasn’t tired and hungry enough already. “Shall we make it to the picnic table? Have some lunch?” Keera said.
“Soon, Mama.” Ruby crouched down to better see the little painted clay toadstools clustered near the base of a tree that had tiny fake windows and a green and gold door placed artfully on the outside, as if it were part of the tree trunk.
It wasn’t the only one. It would have taken time and care and a certain sense of humour to place the miniature village of fake fairy houses along this quiet forest walk as an attraction for the families walking through. Small and cute. This is how ordinary people thought of fae. Diminishing them by adding wings and pretty dresses. Aside from the penchant for gorgeous clothing, they couldn’t be more wrong. Fae, at least the fae people could see, were as big as humans, as dangerous as demons, and fickle as the wind. Wiry, quick-witted warriors with no mercy for anyone who stepped into their territory or got too close.
“Come on. Lunch time.” Keera hitched the straps of the baby pouch.
“Big fae,” Ruby said. “Not fit in houses.”
Keera’s heart dropped until she saw Ruby was trying to open one of the tiny fake doors.
“No.” Keera took Ruby’s hand. “We have to be careful. We don’t want to break the special houses.”
“But look,” Ruby said, pointing to a butterfly flitting through the trees. “Fae. Look!”
“Not here.” Keera let out a nervous burst of laughter. “Still, keep an eye out and warn us if you see any silver-clad warriors.”
Pearl was slurping her fist with gusto. If she didn’t get fed soon, she’d burst into tears.
“Come on, your sister’s hungry, Ruby. Aren’t you hungry, too?”
“Come on. We have a job to do.” Zadie scraped a handful of puddle-slime and raced ahead to the picnic table.
“I don’t like this,” Lettie shook her head. Nada squirmed in her arms.
“Who are we to argue?” Zadie replied. “The crime was committed. The King and Queen have made their ruling, and the price must be paid.”
“And the Myrddin treaties?” Not that Lettie cared a jot for the treaties—only that it outlawed exchanging changelings for human children.
“Void, I guess.” Zadie shrugged. “But there’s nothing we can do. We follow the queen’s plan, or we die.”
Lettie’s heart felt like it was being stomped on. But the queen did not know what she asked. Persephone had never spent hours making faces, or waving her hands at the wind, listening, hoping, begging for a changeling to Become. “I’d condemn Persephone to the Underworld if Hades hadn’t done that to her for half the year already. And it’s going to be so hard on Nada and…your wee one.”
“Eh, we lived through this. Our changelings can, too.
“Not me,” Lettie said. “I was never sent to be raised by humans.”
Zadie gritted her teeth. “You were one of the lucky ones, then.”
Aiden’s stomach rumbled.
“Pretty.” Ruby pointed past the picnic table under the great willow tree and toward the burbling brook meandering beyond it.
Aiden felt a weird pressure from there, as if someone or something was watching.
“Look, the fae’s got a baby.” Was there a glow in the air where Ruby was pointing? Can’t be. Fae don’t come to Earth, there’s not enough magic. Except now he felt like second-guessing everything he knew. Everything he’d learnt.
“The children love the forest, here,” Keera said. “But all this talk of fae is making me feel nervous. Like we’re back in Brocéliande.”
“I know what you mean.” Aiden shivered. Talking about fairies didn’t feel quite like a game anymore. “Maybe we should picnic closer to home.”
“Picnic, Mama? I’m hungry now.”
“So am I, sweet pea. So’s your sister. She’s going to swallow that hand if we’re not careful.” Keera sighed and rescued Pearl from the baby sling. “And this is a lovely spot.” The willow’s drooping leaves offering just the right amount of shade. Keera eased the front pack off her shoulders and sat down at the picnic table. Then, fast as lightning, jumped up, clutching Pearl. “Oh, no.”
“What is it?” Aiden asked, accidentally touching the slimy table. “Ew.” He wiped his hand against the nearest tree. “Can you watch Ruby for a moment?” He raced down the grassy bank to the stream. In a nervous hurry, he half-slid down to the rocky edge. He glanced back, but could see nothing.
They’re fine, he thought, rinsing his hands in the stream. Keera can more than look after herself. There’s no reason to feel so nervous.
The pale red-headed man approached the slimy table.
Zadie laughed as he jumped away, wiping his hand repeatedly on a nearby tree before rushing off to the stream. “See how silly they are? Fussing over a little slime. Quick! Tear a fragment of the child’s dress while they’re distracted.”
Lettie didn’t think it was so funny. She rushed to Ruby and snipped a fragment from the older sister’s dress while Zadie sneaked up to cut a thread from the baby’s bib. Not that the Sword Master was going to notice. She was too busy watching the man nearly fall into the stream.
“There. Happy?” Lettie muttered, waving a fragment of Ruby’s red dress.
Holding a piece of white fabric with her fingers, Zadie shuddered. “Humans are so gross. The babe had spit all down it.”
Lettie stifled a giggle. “I thought you were the one who didn’t mind a little slime?”
“Slime’s different.” Zadie huffed. “Come on. Arachne is waiting for us.”
The instant they’d passed into Brocéliande, the change from flutterform to elegant form hit Lettie like a brick.
Arachne scuttled toward them, clicking angrily. “How long must I wait for you? Here, take these.” She thrust a blue butterfly wing pendant into each of their hands. Two tiny threads, white and red, from each of the girl’s dresses were knotted around each chain. “Put the Queen’s Talismans on now. They’ll keep you in elegant form, even on Earth—and keep you and anything you’re holding, shielded from the humans. Well, all the humans except the girls themselves…that’s what the cotton’s for. You, and even the children, will be able to walk past other humans screaming—and they won’t notice a thing.”
“Queen Persephone’s so clever,” Lettie murmured. “she’s thought of everything.
“Yes, yes,” Zadie snapped, while Arachne rolled her eyes.
Reverently, Lettie pulled the iridescent necklace over her head and smoothed it against her skin. Nothing happened. Of course it didn’t.
Muttering, Arachne sewed replicas of the children’s dresses, her eight legs clicking in her haste. “I hate it here on the border,” the old spider grumped. “That dead world is no place for someone like me, and here is little better. By the underworld, I thought the queen had finished with these games of hers.”
“Our Queen commands, and we must.” Lettie piped up.
“Don’t listen to me. I’m just an old spinner who wants to get back to Faerland where I belong.”
“I won’t breathe a word.” Zadie turned to give Lettie a sly wink. Fae was such a gossip. There was no way fae would be able to resist telling everyone up and down FaerLand of Arachne’s lack of respect for the queen’s orders.
“Almost there,” Arachne said, picking up Nada and pushing faer into the dress.
Nada wriggled and rustled by way of laughter.
“Is Arachne tickling you?” Lettie asked, listening so hard for an answer she imagined Nada had replied with the softest, yes. But of course, neither changeling said a word. It was nothing more than the wind. She was silly to hope, especially now that her Nada was about to become Changeling Ruby.
“Arachne’s work is amazing,” Zadie said. “Do you think if I ask nicely, she’d make me a gown for the queen’s ball?”
“I can hear you perfectly well,” Arachne said. “And no. Bad enough being at the queen’s beck and call. Ask someone else to make your dress, or make it yourself.”
And with that, Arachne was done. Lettie swallowed. The changelings were not only dressed in replicas of Ruby and Pearl’s clothes, but they appeared exactly like the human children. Changeling Pearl’s chubby baby limbs kicked, just like a human child’s. Changeling Ruby put faer hands on faer hips. Only now, Nada could no longer become a butterfly and hover over Lettie, or turn into roses or reptiles. She was stuck as Changeling Ruby.
“And remember, the talisman’s protective charm only covers you and anything you’re holding, so once you’ve made the exchange, hold the children tight.”
Zadie grasped Changeling Pearl under faer arm like a bundle of wood. “Weird human thing.”
Lettie didn’t think Pearl Changeling was so weird. Faer hair was beautiful, black as ebony, shiny as silk. Faer chubby cheeks held a delightful scowl. Fae kicked out her baby limbs, opened faer mouth…
…and shattered into an assortment of precious stones, argentite, and other oddments.
Zadie burst into tears. “My darling. My precious. I never thought I wanted a changeling. Why break now? Why?” She pushed silver tears aside with the back of her hand.
Lettie didn’t know what to say. Zadie had never wept before. Or at least Lettie had never seen it. But much as her heart was breaking for her friend, it hurt to see her own changeling immutable and unchanging.
Nada had lost something precious—but at least Lettie’s precious changeling was still with her. If not for much longer.
She had to harden her heart.
Only it felt like breaking as Nada…no, Changeling Ruby, blinked. Her green eyes accusing.
“Maybe we could run away? We could keep my changeling, reverse this enchantment and find somewhere the king and queen will never find us.”
“Where would that be?” Zadie said between sobs. “No, we have to work with what we have. And it’ll be easier now with just the one.”
Lettie clutched Nada tight while Zadie wiped away faer tears.
Faer chin set, and eyes narrowed, Zadie pulled a red jewel out of faer pocket. “I have the perfect lure.”
“How about we have another little rest here and finish our picnic?” Aiden pointed to some exposed tree roots, the perfect size for a bench. He pulled his backpack down with a sigh of relief and rolled his shoulders. Even if they did really need some family time together, walking back from Brocéliande with the children and all Keera’s sword-smithing equipment hadn’t been the best idea.
“Picnic!” Ruby giggled and pulled a face for baby Pearl. Pearl giggled back, kicking her chubby legs, and drinking in the forest as if it were sunshine.
“Uh. Uh!” Pearl flung out her arms.
Keera pulled her out of the sling and sat her down on the mossy carpet.
Pearl clambered over the roots and pulled at Aiden’s pant legs as if she was trying to stand.
“Not yet, you don’t, rabbit.”
While he picked up Pearl, Ruby toddled over to a mossy bump under an elm tree. “Get away from there!” Keera called, a note of panic in her voice. Elms were treacherous.
Aiden’s eyes met hers and she relaxed. This is Earth. Not Brocéliande. Keera needn’t always be on guard.
Raising her chubby hands up onto the rough bark, Ruby called out, “Look a soft.”
“No,” Aiden said. “Bark’s rough.”
“Ruff, ruff,” Ruby said. “I like doggies.”
Aiden laughed, only to be confronted by the cutest chubby-cheeked scowl from Ruby. He glanced away to smother his mirth and unpacked the boiled eggs.
It was good to stretch his legs out in the shade. Keera leaned in and pushed a strand of hair back. She kissed his nose. “It’ll be good to get back home.”
Aiden couldn’t agree more.
“Alright, I think it’s past time for lunch,” Keera said. “Come and wipe your hands. Ruby? Where’s Ruby?”
“Ruby!” Aiden called. Guilty he’d lost sight of their daughter, his heart thudded, a single beat of concern before he saw Ruby’s hand reaching out for something within the elm’s branches. A flash of something red and sparkly. Aiden frowned. Maybe it’s a trick of the light—or maybe it isn’t. “Ruby, what are you doing?”
Ruby returned; her chubby little hand clenched in a fist.
Keera reached out a hand. “What have you got there?”
“Open it,” Keera insisted.
Reluctantly, Ruby opened her fingers one by one, but there was nothing inside.
“Let’s eat up,” Keera said in her no-nonsense voice. “I’ll feel much better when we’re home.”
Zadie turned on Lettie. “Alette, you missed. That was on purpose.”
Lettie shook her head—but it was true. She had no intention of letting Nada go.
“Fine,” Zadie growled, grabbing hold of Changeling Ruby’s hand and pulling her away from Lettie.
“No!” Lettie cried. “Give faer back.”
“Don’t make me hurt it!” Zadie warned, clutching Changeling Ruby tight.
Lettie whimpered. Should I free faer? Will fae break? She tugged a little, but Zadie only held Nada…Changeling Ruby tighter.
“Let faer go. Queen Persephone doesn’t need to do this. We don’t need to do this,” Lettie begged, but Zadie ignored her. Slowly, fae stepped toward the family, thrusting Changeling Ruby in front of faer.
The child, Ruby, waved and walked nearer, an egg clutched in one hand. She waved with the other. “Hello.”
The changeling waved back.
Pearl burst into tears. The parents glanced over, offering the bawling baby food. Seeing faer chance, Zadie rushed in.
Lettie lurched forward…too slow to stop Zadie as fae pushed Changeling Ruby away and snatched up the human child. In the rush, Ruby’s half-eaten egg dropped to the ground.
“No,” Lettie cried. The changeling she’d cared for, for so long, walked toward the strange people like they were faer parents. Like they’d looked after faer for a hundred years.
“You knew it was always going to come to this,” Zadie said, thrusting the human bundle into her arms. “Queen Persephone doesn’t tolerate failure.”
“And what about you?” Lettie asked, holding the squirming child, Ruby, tight to her chest. “Your changeling failed.”
Zadie let out a strangled cry and wrapped faer arms around faerself.
How could I have been so cruel? “I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not,” Zadie snapped. “And it was a good point. So, what am I going to do? I’m going to wait a hundred years or so for the queen to calm down.” Zadie ran, leaving Lettie alone with the human child.
“Mama,” Ruby said, watching her parents pack up their picnic and continue on their way, none the wiser that their talkative child was now apparensilent—and oblivious of their real child only footsteps away.
What have I done? Lettie felt as if iron was running through her veins, even as she did her duty and held the child. The pain of losing Nada made worse by this human horror that stank of stale egg and talcum powder. “This way,” Lettie insisted, pulling the little girl away.
“Ruby’s hungry,” Ruby said.
“Is she?” Lettie replied, flashing her sharp teeth. “What if Lettie is hungry?”
Ruby didn’t seem to notice the threat. “Ruby wants to go home,” she said. “Take me home.”
Lettie sighed. “Well, come along. The faster we move, the faster you will see your new home. It has been a long time since we had a child at Queen Persephone’s Court. Tell me, do children eat spider-silk or ambrosia?”
“Food,” Ruby licked her lips. “Chocolate. And pancakes.” In her hand, she still held Zadie’s red jewel.
Lettie tried to take it.
“Mine!” Ruby shrieked. “Mine. Mine. Mine.”
Lettie clamped a hand over her closest ear. I am cursed to have lost my beautiful changeling for this ghastly creature. The last thing Lettie wanted was to leave Nada behind and take a human child through the border into the Fae Kingdom, but an upset, crying child was worse. After her sacrifice, she was going to have to stick this one out and hope one child was enough to curb Persephone and Hade’s wrath.
The little girl screamed in a voice even more piercing than most humans, “I’m hungry and I want my mama.”
“Human child. You will be the death of me.” Lettie threw Ruby over her shoulders and trudged onward, determined to offload this annoying creature as quickly as possible.
“Hungry! Hungry!” Ruby cried tears of water down Lettie’s dress.
Lettie sighed and pulled out her personal stash of food. “Hi, Ruby. Maybe we should start again. I’m Lettie. Would you like some nuts and berries?” It wasn’t ambrosia or anything fancy, but it would have to do.
Nut by nut, and berry by berry, she passed her entire month’s supply of food up to the child, whose struggles slowly eased. At last, battered and bruised, Lettie felt safe enough to put the child down. “Move, Ruby. You are most annoying. I do not like you.”
Ruby looked up and smiled. “I like you. And I like my pretty present.” She turned the red stone over in her hands so it flashed with light. “Are we going home now to see Mummy and Daddy?”
Lettie wiped a silver tear from her eye. It was all she could do not to break down on the spot and cry herself to death.
“Don’t cry.” Ruby wrapped her chubby arms around Lettie’s legs. “Do you want the jewel? Here.”
Lettie shook her head and pulled herself together—for Nada’s sake. Why is the human child being so likeable? It’s only making this worse.
She closed her eyes and imagined it was Nada hugging her tight.
“So, what do you think, Ruby?” Aiden asked when they’d finished eating. “Are you ready to go yet? Are you sure you don’t want something else to eat?” After all her complaining, Aiden hadn’t seen her touch a thing since she’d run off with the boiled egg.
Ruby shook her head.
“Was that a nice picnic?… Ruby?”
Ruby shook her head again and lay down on the mossy forest floor.
“Of course you’re tired. It’s been a big day.” Aiden picked up his little girl. She didn’t cuddle in, but lay stiff in his arms.
Keera flashed him a worried glance. “Maybe we should’ve asked Corson to help.”
“Maybe,” Aiden replied, his gut churning. He shook his head and tried to get the idea of fae snatching Ruby out of his head. So, Ruby isn’t talking. It’s been a long day. She’ll be right as rain in the morning…
Lettie with Queen and Ruby
Lettie arrived at the Fae Court, exhausted from carrying the small and grumpy child, and hungry after giving Ruby all her food.
Music swelled, triumphant and achingly beautiful.
Lettie sighed. Her arms ached. And every dew drop she passed reflected her image, so totally inappropriate for the queen’s court. Her skin, instead of glowing a healthy green, was the colour of pale-mustard. And her beautiful blue dress was spattered with mud.
King Hades and Queen Persephone were sitting on their thrones under the towering green of the elder trees. King Hades’ tousled hair proclaimed his anger, swirling like a storm cloud and electrified with tiny balls of lightning that arced into the twilight.
With a wave of the queen’s hand, the music was silenced, the fae musicians motionless as if frozen mid note. The string players’ bows hovered over the strings as if paused on a knife’s edge, and the ocarina and flautists’ lips were pursed over their decorative instruments.
“My Queen, I have the child,” Lettie announced, pushing Ruby in front of the throne. “Now, please, I…” Lettie’s throat burned. She needed Queen Persephone to understand her sacrifice. And Zadie’s. Maybe the Queen will relent, and I’ll be able to rescue my changeling and bring faer home.
Zadie’s head popped up from behind the royal thrones, smirking maliciously.
Zadie didn’t run away at all.
Lettie’s throat seized, unable to think what to say. What’s Zadie told the queen? She can’t have told her the truth, or she wouldn’t be sitting right there, smirking.
“What hast thou done?” Queen Persephone roared.
Lettie flinched. “I…I brought the child.” She pushed Ruby in front of her. “I’ve done everything you wanted—”
“So, I see. And still you backstab me, and all fae. Zadie has warned me about your perfidy. That thou should do such a thing… ‘Tis beyond forgiveness.”
Zadie’s smirk widened.
What? Lettie opened her mouth. “I…”
The fae court pressed in close. Closer. Waiting for Queen Persephone to pronounce her judgement.
The child, Ruby, looked up at them all with big brown eyes. “I’m hungry.”
“And that child looks tatty. Hast thou been dragging it through the mud?”
No thanks to Zadie. “Yes, my queen. I’m sorry, my queen. I only did—”
“Do not lie. I know why thou hast only one child. You destroyed Zadie’s changeling in a burst of jealous rage. And now we are bereft. We may never get the revenge our people need.”
“What? No! I never! Ask Arach—”
“Thou destroyed the balance. A life for a life. That is the bargain. A child for a changeling. It has been so since the beginning of time. By—”
“Zadie is…I would never…” Zadie’s betrayal was like a blow to her wings. It had made her careless. Seeing Persephone’s rage, Lettie’s stomach fell and her head whirled as she waited for the awful moment where the ground would swallow her up.
“…and that be not the worst of it,” Queen Persephone continued as if Lettie had said nothing at all. “One changeling alone cannot serve the revenge the defilers deserve, and we have no more changelings. Now thou must tell Wyrden to finish thy job and kill both the Sword Master and her husband and child before they make more trouble.”
“Wyrden?” Lettie repeated, dizzied by the speed of her calamitous fall. No favour would be granted, no quarter given. Her heart sank as her hope of a speedy reunion with Nada melted like summer snow.
The child Ruby appeared equally perplexed. Looking over the gathered fae, she inched closer to Lettie.
Queen Persephone grabbed the child’s arms. “Wonderful to meet thee, Ruby.” She turned to her husband. “Let us dress this child for a ball. She shall have nothing but the best spider silk. And husband, thou send this miserable fae to sort out your half-demon.” She turned to the still smirking Zadie. “And thou be little better than Alette. Did you bother to get Arachne to sew this child a ball gown for my summer festivities? What was thee thinking?”
Zadie said nothing.
Queen Persephone waved a hand and two of her attendants left, dragging the sobbing child with them. Then the royal musicians struck up a sombre chord.
“Don’t worry, Ruby.” Lettie called after Ruby. “They’ll look after you, you’ll be like a princess in the prettiest gossamer silk dress.” And I’ll still be wearing this old thing.
A Fae-in-Waiting beside the Queen frowned. “She has my pendant. I need it back.”
Queen Persephone nodded and before Lettie could reach up to remove it, the fae tore it from her neck and hugged it tight. Whyever she wanted it so badly, Lettie didn’t know, and wasn’t sure she wanted to.
“Right, you,” Hades snapped at Lettie. “You’d better hurry. Through here.” He pointed to a mirror. The Silver Paths of the Dead. Lettie froze. An old rhyme from her own nanny returned unbidden.
Do you fear to tread,
The Silver Paths of the Dead.
Good. Then, do not go.
Bad enough leaving the child with the queen who seemed to care more for Ruby’s looks than her happiness, but travelling the paths of the dead was dangerous, as was going anywhere near the skin-walker, Wyrden. That creature was more terrifying than all the paths combined—even the labyrinth with its minotaur.
She shivered, thinking of the poor gardener thrown into the lightless hole, while his carefully tendered plants were trodden into the soil. Maybe the labyrinth was worse, after all.
“Do you really think I should be the one to tell Wyrden…anything?” If he was dangerous enough to give the king and queen pause, he’d think little about snuffing out an insignificant fae.
“And tell Wyrden,” Hades thundered, “tell him he should have dealt with this himself from the beginning. And if he can’t, I will find someone else to do his job. We are at war, fighting for the very lives of our people. You will not fail me again.”
Lettie hesitated in front of the rippling surface, dreading her mission with every fibre of her being. The horror of war sweeping through FaerLand the only thing stopping her from flying away. She needed to harden her heart and do as her queen commanded. It was so difficult. All these people, all gathered around watching her, and she’d never felt so alone—not for a hundred years.
“I said, GO!” King Hades roared. He shoved Lettie through the liquid surface.
It was like being pushed through fire.
Lettie screamed. It wasn’t just the suffocating metal blinding her and clogging her nose; she was changing against her will. Despite doing everything in her power to stay in elegant form, she was pushed into flutter form. She’d face Wyrden small as a tiny bird. The prospect was terrifying, but at least with the wings she could fly. A myriad of hellish reflections and fiery landscapes flashed by. A murder of crows appeared. Their eyes glinted like daggers, their claws as large as swords, they flew at Lettie.
Where is Wyrden? Not in FaerLand or Brocéliande…. Earth! Lettie screamed, the crows claws raking her skin as she was pushed into the magic-dead world.
5 June 1934
Pearl was in her high chair, throwing gobs of porridge on the wood floor. In between cleaning up the mess, Aiden tried not to stare at the too-quiet Ruby sitting close to Pearl, pushing food around her plate.
“That will do,” Keera said, taking the porridge away from Pearl and wiping her hands. Before she released the wriggling baby, she glanced over to Ruby, a frown creasing her forehead.
Is she as worried as I am? “Keera? Have you heard Ruby talk since we got back?”
“Do you think…?” Keera left the question trailing like a thread.
“I don’t know.” Their eyes met in sudden realisation. They’d both been thinking the same thing. Telling themselves that this couldn’t have happened on Earth. Yes, in Brocéliande, maybe, but to have fae follow them over the border—Aiden would have thought it impossible.
They moved out of the kitchen, to the corridor. “There must be some other explanation.” Aiden whispered. “And even if it’s a changeling, what do we do?”
Keera frowned. “In the old days…”
“No. Even if it did work, we can’t torture children.” Aiden shuddered. The tales he’d heard of throwing children into fires, and other cruelties, to discover if they were fae or not, were unthinkable. No wonder fae thought humans were barbarians. “And, anyway, what about Pearl? She’s too young to be talking. What if she’s a Changeling that’s doing a better job of hiding? We’d never know. Not for sure.”
“Yes, there is.” Keera rummaged through the closet for her travelling backpack and pulled Ruby’s new sword from its scabbard.
Aiden took a deep breath. “We’re probably overreacting.”
“Best to be sure.” Keera stepped toward Ruby.
“No!” Aiden shouted.
“Not like that,” Keera said. “I’d never. This is Ruby’s sword. If the child is Ruby, the sword will recognise her.”
“Ruby, my heart. Do you want to see your sword?”
Ruby shook her head. She placed her hands behind her back.
The sword swirled so the pointed edge was to Ruby.
“It’s reacting to her. That has to be a good sign,” Aiden said.
Keera frowned. “It should find its owner, pommel first.”
“I’ll try,” Aiden said, unwilling to give up.
“Don’t bother.” Keera wrapped the sword in oil cloth and put it away. “It’s not Ruby.”
Ruby…Not-Ruby looked up at them with knowing eyes, hugging her arms around herself.
“It’s alright,” Aiden said, his mind spinning. “Why don’t you get the blocks out and play with your sister?”
“Uh,” Pearl held up her arms, determined to be released from her highchair prison. Aiden rescued her and plopped her onto the floor. Once they were busy building, Aiden drew Keera aside and whispered. “If that’s not Ruby, we have to go, rescue the real Ruby. Maybe we can ask Alice to get us into FaerLand through her portal mirror. Otherwise, we could be caught on the border and caught there for a hundred years.”
Keera shook her head so her braids bounced on her shoulders. “No, there are better ways into FaerLand. Less dangerous paths that won’t take so long.” She smiled. “Your soul is precious to me. Besides, we have to see if Pearl’s a changeling, too. Which means I need to go back to Brocéliande and use the forge again.”
“And make her a sword? But it will take too long.”
“Luckily, time moves very slowly in FaerLand. So, much as it breaks my heart, it’s better we move slowly, than rush in and leave our Pearl behind. Once we know whether we are looking for one child or two, then we can go in to find our Ruby.”
“But if she’s eaten anything…” The thought that they might get there and not get Ruby back was horrifying.
“That’s the underworld,” Keera said. “FaerLand is…different. Not so cut and dried… Pearl? How did you get over there?”
Aiden swivelled around. Pearl was shuffling along on the carpet, determined to get to the cupboards—and into trouble.
“Ugh, so we have to go to Burcham’s office and tell him we’re going going back in sooner than we thought.
“When will we ever be able to disentangle ourselves from The Society? I joined because I thought we had a common enemy. But I just don’t know any more.”
Aiden nodded. Keera knew the world of Brocéliande better than he did, but it wasn’t as if they had much choice.
Aiden turned to Keera, hesitating outside Burcham’s heavy oak office door with its officious brass nameplate stamped with Burcham LLB. Inside, he could hear voices.
“You ready?” Aiden asked.
Keera pushed her braids into a wide hair-tie and nodded. “Yes. Are you?”
Aiden flashed a grin. “My ancestors were Scottish. I know how to fight.”
“Yeah. Losing causes,” Keera replied. “But we’re not losing this one. No matter the cost, we have to convince them to let us back in now. Let’s go.” She knocked.
“Come on in,” Burcham called.
The office was already full of people. Sitting alongside Corson and Professor Brian Faulkner was an academic in a tweed jacket held together with patches. Opposite them was a silver-haired gentleman wearing dark, dark glasses and gripping a white cane.
Corson grinned welcomingly.
“Perfect timing,” Burcham said. “I’m so pleased you wanted to come on board.”
On board what?
Burcham leaned over his oak desk. He looked like a badger that’d been stuffed into a business suit two sizes too small. “You’re just in time to meet everyone else who’s going on the expedition tomorrow.”
What expedition? Aiden glanced around the crowded office.
This isn’t the plan.
Not that he could tell anyone that. He couldn’t let The Society, or anyone, know of Ruby’s condition. Condition sounded better than changeling—anything sounded better than changeling. He’d not even mentioned the possibility to his parents, who were no doubt wondering right this minute why their talkative grandchild had turned silent.
In the corner, a sliver of silvery green light peeked out from a green velvet cloth—a glimpse of Alice Faulkner’s infamous silver mirror. A dangerous and tempting artifact for those who knew how to use it. The only time Aiden had ever seen it uncovered it had reflected a variety of scenes, forests and rivers, and tiny rooms. Fortunately, Burcham would never risk travelling the Silver Paths of the Dead himself. He’s more about rarities and curios than risk. According to ancient law, the risk was possession by demons. The idea made his skin crawl—but if it came down to it, he’d be willing to risk everything for his family.
Focus. Keera’s right—there are other ways into FaerLand.
Burcham waved over to the patched academic. “Dr Philips here is an arachnologist. He’s coming on this trip to bring back spider specimens and the famous Brocéliande spider silk.”
“Delighted to meet you.” Philips stuck out a hand. A solid handshake. “Have to say I’m excited about this place Faulkner’s been talking about. It could have some real potential to create innovative materials.”
“Lovely,” Keera said. “But what’s this about spider-silk? Wasn’t the policy to stay well away from the creatures?”
Burcham leaned over his desk, casting a furtive glance—not at the scientist, but at the elderly gentleman with the cane—before turning his attention to Keera. “You must understand, this mission is important to me. We’ve spent years setting up New Avalon and we need the operation to pay its way. So…” Burcham steepled his fingers. “We’re taking on a commission.”
Aiden’s eyebrows rose. Somehow, he stopped himself from saying, surely this is a recipe for disaster.
Beside him, Keera cast her “I told you so,” glance. She’d warned that The Society’s, and Burcham’s, studied ignorance about Brocéliande would get them into trouble.
There’s no choice. We have to get onto this expedition, whatever the cost. And Keera had to use the forge, which meant she had to be officially invited.
Oblivious of their reservations, Burcham nodded. “The scientific part of The Society wants us to bring experts on missions, and they’re paying, so we’re not really in a position to say no. Not to mention the exciting knowledge we’ll be gaining.”
Not that Burcham cares as much for knowledge as he does about treasure and cold hard cash, but I guess he has to finance the settlement and the expeditions somehow.
“For this mission, Corson’s going to be taking point. Keeping an eye on the project and keeping our experts out of danger.” Burcham turned to Alice’s husband, Brian. “And, of course, you know Professor Faulkner.”
“Hmm. And this is Dr Wyrden, our sponsor.”
“Delighted to meet you,” the elderly gentleman said. “This is so very exciting.” He clapped his hands. “And I have something I wanted to give you, Aiden.”
“Yes, you. I’m so pleased to have caught you here today. You’re a very important part of our strategic plan going forward. To understand Brocéliande better, I think you should have this.” He pulled out a heavy tome bound in old leather and passed it to Aiden. Demonologie, by the High and Mighty Prince, James & c was stamped on the outside in faded gold ink. A collector’s piece for sure.
“I’ve killed a few demons in my time,” Dr Wyrden said. “And this book opened my eyes to the world I was getting into.”
“But—” Aiden said.
“No buts,” Dr Wyrden lifted a hand. “There are truths hidden within, if you dare look. But I’m very late. I really must be going. If someone will see me to the door.” He grabbed Aiden’s arm in a vice like grip.
“Thank you, sir.” Aiden stood and helped him through to the corridor.
“I’d be careful if I were you,” Dr Wyrden whispered once they were out of ear shot of the others. His breath was hot on Aiden’s ear. “You should never have married an outsider.” Aiden’s blood felt like it was boiling as the old man left, walking with an uncanny accuracy, never changing direction even once. If it wasn’t for the dark glasses and the cane ringing on the ground, Aiden would never have thought he was blind. Even Brocéliande seers had more trouble negotiating their surroundings.
He shrugged and returned to Burcham’s office. It was a problem he hoped he wouldn’t ever need the answer for.
“Such a kindly old man. We’re so lucky to have him as a sponsor,” Burcham said when Aiden returned.
Keera’s hand jerked as Aiden murmured a non-committal, “Indeed.”
“So, it’s sorted. Corson, you’re taking my dear friend, Philips, in to check out these spiders. And I’ll give you a bonus for keeping our generous investor, Dr Wyrden, happy.”
“I’m not sure about going out of our way to see the spiders,” Corson said. “They’re hardly the garden variety that Mr Philips is used to. Begging your pardon, I mean Dr Philips.”
Dr Philips shrugged. “Large spiders don’t bother me.” He glanced at Faulkner. “I don’t know why everyone is making such a big deal of them.”
“Dr Philips, Mr Burcham, you don’t understand. They’re not ordinary spiders. Going into their territory will be dangerous,” Faulkner said. “And we’re so close. If we find the famous library, we should be able to open a path…then everything will be back on track.”
Aiden bit his tongue. Faulkner was obsessed with the Library of Alexandria. But maybe he could be an ally against this interfering with the FaerLand spiders nonsense.
“Professor Faulkner is right, Mr Burcham. Messing with the giant spiders would be foolish.”
“This is not a democracy,” Burcham muttered. “It’s non-negotiable. Take it, or stay home.”
Keera coughed. “Um, we were planning to bring the children.”
“Yes, and they’ll be perfectly safe. Always have been, you said so yourself, before…” Burcham trailed off.
Keera bit her lip, clearly finding it as difficult not to inflame their previous disagreements as he was.
Burcham frowned. “Believe me, we are where we are. If you like, we need not put you on this mission at all. You could wait for the next one.”
“Not at all,” Aiden said. “Keera and I are very excited to be going back in. And you know nobody can make a sword like Keera.”
Keera leaned over the table. “And I wouldn’t take Aiden’s reputation so lightly. Or his parents’.”
Burcham wiped the sweat from his forehead. “It’s good to know you’re on board.”
Aiden stuck out a hand. “It is indeed. Thank you, Mr Burcham. And, if that’s all, then I guess we’ll be going.” He turned to the others.
“Afternoon, Philips, I have to say, I’m looking forward to working with you.” He wasn’t, but it was hardly Philips’ fault. The man seemed nice enough. Finally, he turned to Corson. “Good to see you, old friend.”
Burcham handed Aiden an envelope. No doubt it was their old retainer.
“You forgot your book.”
Aiden grabbed the leather-bound Demonologie, by the High and Mightie Prince, James &c. and stalked out.
“That didn’t exactly go to plan,” Aiden said. “Wyrden gives me the creeps, and this stuff about spiders…. What are they thinking?”
Keera shrugged. “It went better than I thought. And as I’m going in officially, my original contract comes into play. They have to let me use the forge.”
“But they’re planning to go into the spider territory on the FaerLand border. Why don’t they just go around poking the fae with sticks? It’s not going to end any better.”
“Don’t worry, that spider expert will think again when he sees a spider the size of a car. Right now, he probably thinks he’s going to be flown to some island. Or that we’re certifiable. One or the other. It’s always hard to tell with English academics.” She laughed. “They always like to act as if nothing fazes them.”
Aiden grinned back. “Come on, we better rescue the children before Mum realises Ruby’s a changeling.”
Keera’s smile dropped like a hammer blow.
Teeth and Books: 6 June
The faries exchange a life for a life. Bring your changeling with you if you want to see your child again.
Aiden turned the pages of Treatise On Fae back and forth, desperate to find an answer.
The Myrddin Pact
From this day, no child of mortal born may be exchanged for a changeling. Break this pact, and I shall return.
(In the Earth year 573)
The section on the Myrddin Pact was particularly frustrating. But he should not be surprised. Persephone was unlikely to lose sleep over it. After being dead so long, it wasn’t like the old wizard was going to come back to wreck revenge on her immortal self.
Aiden sighed and dropped the book on Fae and hefted Demonologie, by the High and Mightie Prince, James &c. again. It made his teeth itch. But maybe it was simply his distrust of Wyrden. An unreasoning distrust could be keeping him from the very answers he needed. He opened the old tome to where he’d left off.
…. The fearefull aboundinge at this time in this countrie, of these detestable slaves of the Devil, the Witches or Enchanters, hath moved me (beloved reader) to dispatch in post, this following treatise…
Beloved reader, indeed.
A treatise of fear, but also Aiden was beginning to suspect, of jealousy. The prince had been in Brocéliande, for sure. But as a spoiled royal brat, he’d come expecting to be lauded and got his nose in a twist. At least, that’s how Aiden saw it as he flicked through page after page of half-truths and lies designed to turn people against magic users. All presented as a discussion.
Maybe that is the point. If the creepy Wyrden thought it would turn him against his wife, he was wrong. And if it gave insights Aiden’s other books didn’t show more clearly, he couldn’t see them.
Aiden shook his head. It looked impressive, but the truth was, for all its hints and warnings, all he could find within its pages was an unreasonable dislike of any people with the ability to keep demons at bay. The man appeared more deranged than anything. Likely with his nose out of joint for not being welcomed at the fae court.
The prince even seemed to respect the strongest and most evil of the demons. Aiden shivered. He’d be happy never to see one of the terrifying creatures ever again.
A bookmark half-fell from one of the pages. A chapter headed:
Faries and Changelings. Supplemental.
There was an extra proviso written in faded ink in the margin: The first part was smudged, but the rest was clear:
…invite yourself to the dance—not even the queen herself can hurt you until after the dance is over.
Interesting. Then, amongst the usual rules:
- Don’t eat the food, or you may be trapped in Faerland forever.
- Don’t touch what is not yours, for it all belongs to fae, and the fae have no mercy for mortals.
- And don’t stand still—time disappears in FaerLand
There was one rule, and a particularly vile one, that stood out as being a rewording from other texts:
- The faries exchange a life for a life. Kill the changeling and the pact is broken.
“Aiden,” Keera called from the kitchen. “I’ve packed. I’ve organised the girls. Are you ready?”
Aiden slammed the book shut, raising a century’s worth of dust. Disgusting. How could anyone endorse a book so cold-blooded as to promote this evil myth? No. Why am I second guessing my decision now? Even if I did kill the changeling, and the pact is broken, the text says nothing about a live child being returned.
“In a minute.” He found his shoes and pulled them over his thick walking socks.
A page had fallen out from one of the other ancient books. He glanced at it, before tucking it into a drawer.
Daemons can walk through fire—their paths often leading strait from the underworld to hot pools, fiery pits, and volcans both large and small.
“I hope you’re not reading that cursed book the creepy old guy gave you,” Keera said.
“It’s just…never mind.” Aiden threw off his worry, plastered on his best smile and hurried to meet his family at the door.
Changeling Ruby was standing by the back door, sucking the end of her hair.
Pearl, trapped inside the canvas front-pack he’d made, wriggled and kicked her chubby little legs against the side. The bag pitched sideways.
Aiden lunged and grabbed the bag before it fell. He struggled to pull the font-pack up and strap it securely, with Pearl, their chubby nine-month-old, wriggling like an eel. Even then, it wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t carrying a sword and a week’s worth of supplies on his back.
“Looks like a perfect day for it,” Aiden leaned in to kiss Keera’s worried frown away—but Pearl thrashed her arms and legs.
Aiden lurched sideways to avoid falling over. “Oops! Sorry.” He adjusted the sheepskin shoulder protectors and tightened the straps. “I’ve got to get used to this.”
“Do you?” Keera’s eyes lit with some of the old sparkle as she grazed his cheek with her lips. “Come on.” She lifted half an armoury onto her back. “We’ll be late to meet Brian and Alice Faulkner and the rest of the expedition at the Sister Tree.”
She glanced down at Changeling Ruby. “You ready, Champ?”
The silence was deafening.
Stomach lurching more than when he almost fell, Aiden forced a smile.
“Ruby, you’re a stout young walker. A real trooper. But today we’re going to have to walk fast, no stopping to look at snails or squirrels, alright?”
Changeling Ruby nodded.
“Good. Let’s go.” Keera opened up the door to reveal a clear autumn day with a pale-blue sky that promised the day would get hotter.
Lettie emerged in a darkened room, through a mirror that was draped in a green velvet cloth.
Earth. It even smells wrong. Of oil and dead wood and metal—so much metal it made her teeth itch.
I have to get out. She extricated herself from the drapery and discovered a half-open window that looked out over black solid tar mixed with gravel—a human road—and onto a lawn with a peeling-green park bench and a few sad rose beds. Even the trees behind the low-mown grass lawn seemed gloomy, lacking the vivid greens of FaerLand. Or maybe it was the thin morning light, and the old fae enemy, the sun peeking its head over the distant hills.
Wyrden was sitting on a park bench in the middle of the grass. He was wearing dark glasses with his trench coat and fedora and throwing food at the pigeons. The more they ruffled their feathers in indignation, the more he smiled.
She slipped through the window, expecting the birds to say something about the rude person throwing food at them, but the most they did was caw at the sky.
What in Hade’s name is the skin demon up to? she wondered, sneaking closer.
Wyrden turned and stared right at Lettie in a way that made her want to run and hide. “So, little fae. What brings you here?” Wyrden’s smile was worse than Zadie’s. Empty. He pulled off a large hunk of crust. “You’re smaller than one of these birds, and your wings are so gossamer fine you’d be lucky to survive a hail of stale bread.”
He raised his hand.
Lettie hesitated. She hadn’t meant for him to see her yet. And she still didn’t have a plan. How do you convince someone like Wyrden?
He threw, and she whirled away, lumps of stale bread barely missing her.
Wyrden pulled out some more, lining up the shot.
“You’re not very good as a spy, and useless as an assassin, so why has Queen Persephone sent a slip such as you to me?”
“The thing with humans is that they’re so annoying,” Lettie said. Almost as annoying as Queen Persephone. Why couldn’t she see how much I loved her, how I threw my life away to obey her? But it was best not to say such things out loud, not if she wanted to keep her head. “Our, ah, kind and benevolent queen—and of course, King Hades, well, they’ve decided they’re tired of playing games. They want you to deal with the Sword Master problem.”
“Do they?” His lip curled. “And what if I am also tired of playing games, and jumping to their every whim? What if I want a little more out of my arrangement with them?”
“You’ll have to talk to King Hades about that yourself,” Lettie called, determined not to cower for his entertainment. The only reason I’m here is because I’m disposable, unimportant to the great Queen Persephone and her retinue. Still, there was no point advertising that fact by cowering like a fugitive. “What do you think I am, your personal messenger?”
Wyrden lowered his glasses, revealing eyes like pools of midnight. They seemed even creepier here, under this yellow sun, than they had in the soft light of FaerLand’s forest.
“What sharp teeth you have, little fae,” Wyrden murmured. “But I don’t think they’ll do much to hurt me.”
“I’m sure that’s true, but King Hades and Queen Persephone would not be amused if you disobeyed her or anything should happen to me,” Lettie said, flitting up close. “You know Queen Persephone objects to the demon-infected on principle, let alone ones that threaten her personal staff.” A ridiculous bluff.
“Are you saying she wants me to kill the Sword Master without destroying her first? It’s so blunt. Still, I suppose needs must. We don’t want any more of those very dangerous swords of hers lying about, now, do we? They infuriate Hades so.”
Lettie shook her head. There was just one more thing to brave. For herself. And more importantly for her infant. “And that is not all the queen asked. Changeling Ruby must be kept safe.”
He nodded. “I thought I remembered you. You’re the timid little changeling-nurse. Look at you out in the big wide world, acting all brave and powerful like you wouldn’t blow away in a strong breeze. Like your beloved queen would care about one useless changeling.” He steepled his fingers and barked a mirthless laugh. “I could help with the mess you’re in, but instead you’re asking me for favours—for a pile of barely sentient sticks. It’s pathetic.”
Lettie wanted to scream. How dare he? Nada was everything. One day, and soon, faer would prove herself and become a fully-fledged fae with a true name. If faer survives. And I have to do everything I can to make that happen—including threaten a demon.
She stifled a shiver. “I could go to a certain witch; tell her of this little visit to Earth.” Baba Yaga might even care enough not to kill me for my insolence.
He smirked. “You would not dare. It would break the bargain.”
She fluttered up, out of his reach. “I have no bargain. Whatever bargain Queen Persephone has signed with you, I can do as I please. Do not try me.”
“How dare you!? Your queen will be furious.” Wyrden dropped the bread and picked up his cane, whipping the stick up—as if it were a blade.
Lettie flitted out of its reach. “Queen Persephone is already furious with me, with you, with all the worlds. So, she can choose to dance her fury away, or bring it down upon the both of us. You choose. I will have what I want, or I will take you down with me.” Her heart skipped at her audacity. I will stop at nothing.
“Fine.” His oily gaze unreadable, he lowered the cane. “We don’t have all day to argue. They’re off to Brocéliande now. If we dawdle, we’ll miss them.
“You’re coming along too, little fae. Otherwise, how will you know for sure I did as I was asked.” He shrugged. “I could have the Sword Master spirited away to make swords for me. Imagine that power.”
Lettie stifled a gasp.
Wyrden chuckled. Brushing the crumbs off his jacket, he strode ahead. “If we’re going to catch up with them, we’d better hurry.”
She followed, flying a safe distance behind him as he strode down a gravel path through the park, passing close to a cluster of women in white dresses and strange caps. Wyrden was heading toward a scrubby trail of half-grown trees that led into the heart of the dappled earth forest.
Voices rustled through the forest ahead. The gurgling of a baby. The footsteps of a child.
Lettie’s heart leapt. She was about to see Nada again.
Within a few hundred yards of the house, Aiden was already backhanding sweat from his forehead. Carrying Pearl felt like carrying a mini-sauna around. Fortunately, they’d soon be deep in the forest where the autumn sun would struggle to filter through gold and green leaves. And Brocéliande would be cooler still, with dense foliage that had never seen an axe.
As Aiden was day-dreaming about cool breezes and ice-cold drinks, Keera whispered, “I think someone’s following.”
A twig snapped behind them in the otherwise eerie silence.
We’ve been through here so many times. Why does it feel so different today? He glanced down at Changeling Ruby. Maybe that was it. He laughed at his own nerves. “I’m beginning to wish we decided to meet the others on the way in.”
“We’ll be at the Three Sisters tree soon enough if we hurry.” Keera took Ruby’s hand.
Changeling Ruby stopped and sat down.
“Come on, Ruby,” Aiden cajoled, “we’ll be late to meet your friends. Hazel and Arthur and the other one.”
“Tailor,” Keera prompted.
Ruby shook her head, her hands waving in flat denial.
“Ruby?” Aiden whispered.
The changeling shook her head.
“Ruby, come on.” Aiden took the changeling’s other hand. “We can play one, two, three jump! But quietly. Ready?”
Changeling Ruby nodded. Together, they forged on along the forest path, swinging her every fourth step. The gathering unease lending speed to Aiden and Keera, to the delight of the changeling, whose grin got wider with every jump.
Another stick cracked behind them, followed by the ring of metal, like a sword being drawn.
“Someone’s definitely following us,” Aiden muttered checking the sword at his hip. “Nobody except The Society uses this track.”
“You don’t think it’s one of the others?”
“Maybe, but we’re running so late—everyone should be waiting for us.”
They picked up the pace again, the soft thud of footsteps behind them getting closer and closer.
Tangled roots tumbled over the path, and all around the ancient trees were covered in moss and thick lianes that wound around the trunks. “We must be almost there.”
“Shh.” Keera pulled Changeling Ruby close. They listened to the curious resonance of the footsteps. The last time Aiden had heard footsteps like that, he’d been in Brocéliande—with demons after him.
Behind them, loud voices echoed and the thud of the footsteps grew nearer.
Changeling Ruby took a step backward and tried to wrap herself in Keera’s tramping skirts.
“I’ve got you.” Keera scooped Ruby up like she wasn’t already carrying a heavy backpack. “We’re close now.”
“Sorry, bubs,” Aiden wrapped his arms around her and the awkward front pack, but he didn’t slow. As Corson always said, sometimes you have to know when to fight, and sometimes you have to know when to run. Keeping his knees bent so Pearl wasn’t bounced around too much, he sped after Keera who leapt nimbly over the path despite the child and heavy backpack.
Old oak trees spread their golden leaves above, like offerings to the sky. They were close to where they were supposed to meet the others. We’ll be safe soon—unless it’s a trap…
It can’t be, he thought. I need a moment to think. But his brain was spinning as he loped along.
Keera handed Changeling Ruby over to Aiden and pulled her sword from its scabbard. At least she seemed calm. Calmer than me.
“It’s all right, bubs.” Aiden’s lungs were burning as he tried to smooth his stride. He was really hot now, carrying Ruby Changeling on his hip as well as Pearl and the packs. “We just need to be quiet—like hide and seek. Okay?”
Changeling Ruby put her finger to Pearl’s lips, and the baby stopped crying, although her bottom lip still quivered.
Aiden picked his way over the roots and the half-buried rocks of the trail as fast as he could.
Not fast enough.
He put on a burst of speed over the stony path, but he couldn’t keep it up. He stubbed his toe and almost fell. Scared he might hurt the children, he slowed again. His arms ached and his back and shoulders throbbed from the weight of his pack and the two children. Maybe Keera could take Ruby for a bit. He glanced back, but Keera wasn’t there.
Where is she? He peered back through the dense forest. A bright light flickered in his vision. Keera’s sword. It slashed through empty air. “Run!” Keera yelled, not turning around, but slowly backing toward them.
She swung again, her sword clanging against another, but whoever was wielding it was behind a twist in the path, obscured by the dense forest.
Aiden, caught between wanting to rush to Keera’s side, and take the children to safety, stood rooted to the spot as a shadowy figure with a narrow sword appeared from the leafy shadows, their sword flashing up to Keera’s throat.
Lettie fluttered in Wyrden’s wake. Plans of rescuing Nada thundered through her head like water monsters, but none of them could surmount the insurmountable barrier of her current tiny size. She tried to change form. Nothing.
Elegant form would be so useful right now. Still, she couldn’t let the disappointment drown her. All she could do was keep on flying and hope for an opportunity to save Nada without relying on the treacherous skin-demon.
Lettie’s anticipation grew as she trailed after Wyrden. She imagined bringing Nada back home in triumph. That Nada would speak faer first words, play faer first trick, spoil faer first bowl of milk…
She couldn’t wait. She zipped ahead to see Nada, past emaciated beach trees with shafts of morning sun piercing their tiny leaves. It had nothing of the grandeur of the lush forest of FaerLand, or the ferny understories of the forest of Brocéliande,
A footstep ahead crunching on rock was the first sign they were close. The second sign, an endless babble from one of the parents.
She flew fast, determined to get a glimpse of her changeling. She could see the parents trudging over roots and… there faer was, caught up in Aiden’s arms, smiling. Her heart swelled to see faer. But so did her throat. She swallowed to stop herself from crying. I should never have let Nada go.
A stick cracked next to her. Wyrden. He was running fast now. And so were the family.
“When I attack, you distract them!” Wyrden whispered over the wind.
“How?” Lettie asked. “Even if I flit up to them and say boo, they might not notice me. You know how blind humans are.” And I’m not sure I want to help him, anyway. I’m here to save Nada. “Besides, the queen asked me to pass a message onto you, and I’ve done that. Or—”
“You know,” Wyrden said. “I don’t think Hades and Persephone would have sent you if you weren’t disposable. So, if you don’t help, after I have fun killing all of them, I’ll kill you.”
“You think they have sent just any fae to deal with you? They need me.”
“What? A nursemaid who lost their changeling?”
His words were like needles. “I haven’t lost faer. The Queen ordered her on a mission. Fae’s right there.”
Changeling Ruby was clinging to the man and pressing her head against his chest.
Pain squeezed her heart.
Is that love? Or jealousy? Her blood felt like cold iron running through her veins. Besides, Aiden was hugging her Nada too tight. What if she breaks? What if Nada doesn’t love me anymore?
No. Changeling Ruby was clutching Aiden, terrified of the skin demon she’d brought here. And Aiden was patting her red hair, reassuring her without words. Does he think the changeling’s his own child? Does it matter? They are protecting the youngling Queen Persephone has endangered…I have endangered
Ahead, Wyrden trod on another stick. “Humans,” he cursed, pulling a sharp sword from his cane. Cold steel. It had been hiding there all this time in protective wood so she wouldn’t be able to sense it. But now the taint of cold metal filled the air.
Wyrden was bold, she’d give him that much. He’d brought that white cane right up to King Hades and Queen Persephone themselves. Which meant that they were not the all-powerful beings she had believed, or they would surely have struck him down for his daring.
“Come, do your duty and fight!” Wyrden yelled at her. “Or I shall have all the glory, myself.” The old man’s smirk was reflected in the hollow emptiness of his eyes—as unremittingly lightless as a starless sky.
Would the father keep her changeling safe? Why was the man not running? Could he not see Wyrden was about to deliver a mortal blow to his wife? He has to run. Lettie held back a scream. She should wish the humans both dead for their crimes, but as always, her treacherous heart wanted something she couldn’t have. And so, Lettie watched, indecision tearing her apart.
“Sword Master,” Wydren said, “prepare to die.” He lunged at Keera, flicking the narrow blade at her throat.
Who’s Wyrden shouting at? Aiden swivelled around to see where the threat would come from.
A fuzzy light dove toward Wyrden and Keera.
Maybe she could distract Keera with a face full of leaves. Surely even a human couldn’t miss leaves falling on them? She plucked a handful of beech leaves and zipped toward Wyrden’s battle.
Wyrden flashed a mocking grin, his eyes like pools of oil.
Lettie hesitated. I wouldn’t trust him as far as I can throw him—which is nowhere. If only Queen Persephone hadn’t given me the order. Any orders.
She fluttered back and forth on the knife of indecision—and impotence—as the battle raged on. Wyrden was good with a sword, but his weapon wasn’t as sturdy as Keera’s. He had to be careful not to over-extend. And she had to be careful to watch his unnatural speed.
Lettie caught sight of Changeling Ruby and abandoned the fight. What do I care if they die, so long as it is not my dear Nada. She fluttered over and landed on the changeling’s shoulder. “Don’t be frightened. I’m here to protect you.”
Changeling Ruby burrowed deeper into Aiden’s chest.
“I’m sorry,” Lettie said. Not that it made any difference. She’d abandoned Nada, and now Nada was bonding with these humans. Becoming more and more Ruby every minute.
It shouldn’t happen. What happens when a changeling bonds with humans? Nada will disobey Queen Persephone’s orders at the least. And then what? Will I lose my beautiful, whimsical, changeling altogether? Will faer become nothing more than a pile of mementos and sticks? Like Zadie’s?
Even thinking of the loss hurt so badly she wanted to tear her hair out and cry—and to hurt all the people who’d hurt her. Is this what Zadie had felt? Is this why she’d lied? To patch up the pain in her heart with poison oak?
“Get back over here and help,” Wyrden snarled at Lettie. “Or, by Hades, I’ll kill you and scatter your bones to the wind!”
The old gardener’s words, “doing things for the queen never turns out well,” echoed through Lettie’s head as she dived into the fray. No. She shook her head. She couldn’t think that way. It was wrong. The old gardener must have deserved his fate. Somehow. Queen Persephone must have seen his treachery. That was it. All she had to do was bring Nada back home in triumph as a full-fledged fae and Queen Persephone would recognise both of them. Maybe even throw them a ball in their honour. Buoyed with new hope, Lettie screamed and threw foliage at the Sword Master.
The Sword Master jerked backwards and stumbled on the rough ground.
Wyrden raised his sword.
Aiden lurched toward Keera, and stopped himself. Keera was already back on her feet, and parrying away Wydren’s blow.
More leaves fell while Wyrden argued with a fae they couldn’t see. He glanced down at Changeling Ruby. But the child, or fae, or whatever she was, snuggled deeper into his chest. Whatever was going on, she wasn’t to blame.
More footsteps. Aiden sucked in his breath as a man crashed through the foliage toward them. “Stay back!” he warned, putting his hand on his sword-hilt.
“Hey!” The newcomer burst into the clearing.
“Corson!” Aiden said, relief sucking the wind from his stomach as he pointed at Keera’s attacker. “Get him!”
Eager for a fight, Corson ran to where Wyrden had been, but the spry old man had already disappeared into the forest.
“Are you alright?” Corson asked Keera.
Keera nodded. “Did you see where he went?”
The forest was silent in both directions. There was no other trail than the path they’d been walking on.
“Thanks for turning up, Corson,” Aiden said, putting Changeling Ruby down. He sighed in relief. “My hands were a little full.” The child clung onto his leg until he picked her up again.
“I can see that,” Corson replied. “And of course I’ll always help you, my old friend.” He held up the sword so the ornate silver and gold writing shimmered in the sun. “Look at this blade your wonderful wife gave me. Where would I be without you both? But what do you mean, Wyrden attacked you? You can’t mean the blind man we saw yesterday?”
“Yes, Wyrden, our sponsor,” Aiden insisted.
“What?” a voice said behind them. Professor Faulkner—wearing his usual patched tweed sports jacket. He also held one of Keera’s swords at the ready. “You didn’t say you were fighting Wyrden, did you?”
Burcham was just behind him, his business suit replaced by a tweed walking jacket-and-trousers. Somehow, the lawyer still managed to look like a badger stuffed into a size-too small clothing. “Hmm. Were they saying the blind old man attacked them?” Burcham asked Faulkner.
When Faulkner nodded, Burcham turned to Keera and Aiden. “You have got to be joking?”
“Do we look like we’re joking?” Keera demanded.
“It was definitely him,” Aiden agreed. “And he’s not blind.”
Burcham glared. “That’s enough. Wyrden couldn’t possibly have come here, let alone attacked anyone with a sword.”
“Mr Burcham…” Aiden stopped. Riling his current employer wasn’t going to get them where they needed to be. Instead, he floundered to say something that would put Burcham in a better mood. “I have to admit, I’m a little surprised to see you here.”
Mr Burcham shrugged. “I decided you were right. I can’t run this part of the business from behind a desk.” He clapped his hands together. “Isn’t this wonderful? There’s so much to see.”
“Wonderful.” Aiden parroted, trying to make the word sound enthusiastic. Keera raised an eyebrow.
The silence hung uneasily until Burcham broke it. “Corson, my man.” He thumped Corson’s shoulder. “Did you see who it was?”
Corson glanced across at Keera. “No, but if Aiden and Keera say…”
“Pish. Heat of the battle and all that.”
Changeling Ruby wriggled. She poked her head over Aiden’s shoulder and waved.
Aiden held her tighter. “Are you alright, Ruby? Is there someone there?”
“Not that I can see,” Corson replied.
“Thanks, Corson.” At least someone on this mission has their wits about them.
“Anyway, everybody, even though we’re still Earthside, we should stay close together. We don’t know if Wyrden was working alone.”
“No more of that. You know it couldn’t have been him,” Burcham laughed. “I know what it is.” He laughed. “No doubt you think all old men look alike. I know, I used to. Come on. Let’s get back to the others.”
The look Keera gave Burcham should have burst his bonhomie, but it slid right off.
Aiden gritted his teeth.
They didn’t get far before the rustle of the forest gave way to children’s laughter. The Faulkner children were waving sticks and declaring themselves king of a moss-covered tree stump.
Keera took Ruby from his arms and the changeling buried her head in Keera’s shoulder.
“Are you ready to walk yet? You can see your friends.”
Changeling Ruby shook her head, clinging in a way Ruby never had.
“It’s alright, little one,” Aiden said. “We’ll get you home, soon. See, we’re almost at Brocéliande. There’s the Three Sisters right in front of us.” Aiden pointed at the ancient three-trunked tree, dripping in green lianes and glimmering with a soft-green portal light.
“Hey, you made it.” Alice yelled from in front of the Three Sisters. Aiden blinked. In her muted green jerkin and brown full-circle tramping skirt, she was easy to miss. “Children! Time to go,” she called.
The two boys waving sticks jumped off their moss-covered tree stump and Hazel, their older sister, clambered down from her hiding place up in the branches of a large overhanging sycamore tree.
“Are we ready?” Alice said, straightening the eldest boy, Arthur’s, collar. “Hazel, Arthur, Tailor, it’s up to you to look after Ruby and Pearl.”
“Yes, Mama,” Hazel said with all the solemnity of a seven-year-old. Her two younger brothers giggled and turned to run back to the tree stump.
Alice grinned. “Not so fast. Come and say hello before we go.
“Good, we’re all here. Brian and Alice Faulkner, Corson,” Burcham rattled off names, barely waiting for a response. “The Faulkner children; Hazel, Arthur, Tailor. Philips…uh…where’s Dr Philips?” Burcham demanded.
“Here,” Philips stopped poking around in the leaf litter long enough to wave. “Sorry, I was a little distracted.” He lifted a half-rotten branch.
“Good. Shall we be off?” Burcham stepped toward the sacred tree. “Let’s go.”
“What?” Aiden said. “Hold up a minute.” A cold sweat rippled down his spine. “What if Wyrden follows us?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, man. Wyrden is blind. Such a generous, kind man…besides, whoever you saw is more likely to follow us if we hang around, so let’s get moving, shall we?”
Aiden shook his head. There was nothing he could do about it, but walk on—and keep his wits about him. “Has everyone been briefed?” Aiden asked. “Faulkner, did you warn Philips about what he’s getting into? You both work at the university. Surely you had a moment to warn him about the danger of riling the spiders. And Philips, do you even have a sword—something to defend yourself with?”
Philips laughed. “You’re not frightening me away that easily.”
“Man after my own heart,” Faulkner said, slapping Philips on the back. “Besides, we all know what we’re doing, don’t we, children?”
“You have my sword,” Arthur said, having returned from the mossy stump.
“And my bow,” Hazel added. “That’s even better than a sword.”
Aiden bit back a laugh, determined to be diplomatic. He couldn’t exactly ask Philips to leave the party, not with Wyrden back there with who knew what on his agenda. So, what should I say? “Of course, we want you to come along. I was thinking that after all our…excitement…I’d appreciate it if we focussed on getting to New Avalon before…” annoying the giant spiders “…looking for any spider-related adventures.”
Burcham stepped forward. “We’ll see how it goes. Sometimes you have to seize the day.” He chuckled as if he’d said a joke. “Let’s get going. We’re already late.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Aiden said. “I was distracted by some last-minute reading. And then we were attacked.”
“Oh, was the book any good?” Philips asked.
“Certainly didn’t have the answers I was looking for,” Aiden replied.
“Pity,” Philips said. “This one is rather good. He pulled a copy of The Sword in the Stone out of his pocket. “Not sure why the Prof thought it would be useful, but it’s an interesting read.”
“Great,” Keera muttered, adjusting her sword-belt. “He’s going to kill get us all killed.”
Alice’s eyes met hers. “Children, one last thing before we go. Corson’s a warrior and a martial arts champion, so Hazel, you and Ruby and the boys need to listen. If Corson says jump, you jump. Understand?”
All the Faulkner children nodded.
“Ruby?” Alice prompted.
Ruby glared at the ground.
Alice raised her eyebrows. “What’s up?”
Corson, Philips and Burcham were on another round of handshaking. Aiden, his hands full of children, couldn’t exactly join in. “Enough of this, let’s go,” he said. Careful not to scrape the ancient bark and verdant green moss on the three-trunked Sister Tree, he stepped through the westernmost gap and into the bright, leafy forest of Brocéliande.
Lettie took a deep breath. She needed to follow the humans through the barrier. She could feel the power humming through the tree that stood as a gateway to each of the sister territories. Right would send her back to FaerLand. Left, and she’d follow the humans.
A hand grabbed her by the scruff of the neck.
“Listen, fae, I’m going to go and get the spiders. With that fool scientist on board, the humans are sure to make a nuisance of themselves. You keep an eye on them and report back to the Queen when you can. Understand?
He shook her so her head whipped back and forth. “Good. And if you get the chance, little Lettie, kill them all and let us be done. I’m tired of being the queen’s pawn. I have better things to do, even if you don’t.”
“So, somehow, all by myself, I attack all these humans, kill the Sword Master and get my changeling back?”
Wyrden scowled. “So long as Sword Master and her husband are dead, I don’t care what you do. But if you’re thinking what I think you’re thinking, you’d better remember I have Persephone’s royal ear. Now flutter off and get to work.” He released her and took the right-hand path into FaerLand.
Lettie shook herself. Pleased to be in a whole different realm to the skin-demon, and enjoying one last taste of the freedom of wings. Then she sighed and took the leap into Brocéliande.
Pain lanced through her. Her arms and legs growing. Her body tall and willowy and annoyingly all elbows and knees. Elegant form. If there was one thing worse than being stuck in flutter form it was being forced into elegant form, knowing she couldn’t change back. Not while in Brocéliande, anyway. Her flower cap, designed to hide her in the bluebells, stood out like a blue beacon. Everything was outsize and ugly. Hardly elegant at all…a total mess and a laughingstock if Zadie, or anyone else, sees me.
Still, now I’m as large as the humans, I’ve a much better chance of completing my mission. Killing people might not even be that difficult—no more difficult than spoiling milk. Lettie’s stomach lurched at the thought. I can’t be soft. Not if I’m to save Nada.
Keera held her breath as they made the transition from the Earthside forest to the wilderness that was Brocéliande. It was beautiful, the sun shining through the leaves above and forming a speckled canopy of light and shadow. Her heart soared to smell the clean, fresh air and hear the birds chattering. Half song, half scolding the travellers for entering their territory.
Moss clung to either side of the narrow path and up the nearby trees.
Gravel crunched underfoot. A large greywacke stone marker heralded that there was 10 1/5 M to Avondale and 5M to Market Town.
Keera startled, drawing her sword as she waved her other hand for silence.
The shock of Wyrden attacking while they were vulnerable still on her mind, Keera waited a moment longer listening for danger.
Nothing…except the chatter of birds.
They moved on, Corson and Brian Faulkner taking the lead, with Burcham and Philips close behind.
The trees hanging over the path held no untoward shadows, and nothing seemed out of place, except every footstep pierced her soul like a warning. She needed to unwind, but the leaden weight of responsibility would not let go. And not just concern for Ruby, lost in FaerLand, but for everyone here. Aiden and Pearl. The changeling. The Faulkner children, Hazel, Tailor and Arthur, all striding along with sticks in their hands and pretending they were warriors like Corson.
Here I am. Prepared to risk everyone, everything, by bringing a changeling into New Avalon. She glanced across as Aiden slipped Not-Ruby back down to the ground. She picked up a stick and followed along behind the older children. A perfect imitation.
The thunder of an approaching horse jolted her out of her thoughts. Aiden held a hand up and pulled Not-Ruby back to safety.
A young woman riding a speckled white stallion passed them, a rich cloak around her shoulders, and the glint of a gold tiara under her battered brown hat. “A beautiful morning. Have you seen the Captain of the Watch?”
“Which court?” Keera asked.
The young lady shrugged and continued on her way, singing. A handful of birds fluttered around her shoulders, adding their voices to her melody.
“Another princess in hiding,” Keera said.
Aiden grinned back. “Yup.”
“You should pay up, Philips.”
“I don’t know about that,” Philips said. “How could you possibly know that was a princess?”
Aiden laughed. “Were you blind? Did you not see the gold crown? You think every waif in Brocéliande wanders around with one of those gold things on their forehead?”
Grudgingly, Philips passed a bundle of notes to Corson and Aiden.
“That’s enough of that,” Burcham spluttered. “Fleecing the newcomer is hardly fair.”
Alice glared at her husband.
“Fine.” Prof Faulkner sighed. “I rescind all further bets. Corson?”
Corson shrugged. “I was only trying to warn him. Anyway, see those enormous trees to the right.” Just steps ahead, giant trees marked the fae border—their gnarled roots like writhing snakes poking out of the emerald moss that surrounded them like blankets. Their massive trunks were the width of a tennis court, and their spreading canopies reached up into the clouds.
In the shadows, something was moving.
Does anyone else notice how tense Corson and Keera are? They both kept glancing over to the FaerLand border. But whatever had caught their eye, Aiden couldn’t see it. On the other hand, a gossamer thread of spider silk was hanging in the branches, footsteps away.
At last, Corson spoke, focussing on Philips and Burcham. “See the FaerLand trees over there? They’re an extra-good reason for staying on the path. Who knows what is moving under the shade of those great trees. Also, the Fae don’t like people touching anything they consider sacred. Go in, and you’re not likely to come out again, understand?”
“And even if you make it out alive, it’ll likely take a hundred years or so and everyone you know will be dead,” Keera added.
“We’ll be fine,” Burcham replied. “Nobody is talking about going over the border. Let’s all get a little closer to see what we can see.”
Not-Ruby ignored the adults and swished her stick sword from side to side, striding determinedly after Arthur and Hazel. Keera inched closer to her, placing herself between the child and the FaerLand side.
“The fae?” Philips echoed, oblivious.
“Just go with it,” Faulkner said. “The name is not important, but the warning is. It’s not safe to get too close to those trees. And keep your eyes peeled for anything moving.”
“Fantastic, I can’t wait. You know, other countries have spiders as large as a human hand. I’d love to find one at least that big.”
“Just don’t blunder into any spiderweb,” Aiden muttered.
“Yes, and I must collect spiderweb.” Philips nodded. “Wyrden was very keen on a sample. There’s some there, not so far off the path.”
Keera flinched and did a poor job of hiding it with a smile. “It’s best to stay on the track. Maybe come back later when the children are settled.”
“True,” Aiden said. “Besides, there’s no point in killing all of us, when we have Burcham and Philips as volunteers.”
Philips and Corson didn’t miss a step, but Burcham turned scarlet. “That’s a bit much.”
“Ha,” Faulkner fake-laughed. “It’s not as bad as that. We’re all on edge after the attack on the Earth border. We’ll feel better once we’ve made it to Avalon.”
At least he’s admitting there was an attack.
Philips coughed. “I’m not sure what the fuss is about. Dr Wyrden didn’t say anything about the spiders being dangerous.”
“Nobody’s been stupid enough to get that close,” Alice said. “It’s just common sense.”
“Besides, Dr Wyrden just tried to kill us,” Aiden muttered.
“And he didn’t say anything about being a murderous skin-demon either,” Keera agreed.
“And now you’re saying the sweet old philanthropist is a demon as well as an attempted murderer. Really.” Burcham tutted. “He’s blind, and you’re a warrior. What’s he going to do? Rap your knuckles with his cane? Come on. What do you say we sneak a little closer to these spiders while we’re here and get a good look? The old path’s not so far out of our way.” Burcham pointed to a faded wooden crossroads marker. “See this way is even shorter,” he said, wiping some moss off to reveal 9 1/2M burned into the wood—along with a skull and crossbones dabbed in red paint. “See, nine and a half miles versus ten,” he enthused, completely ignoring the skull and crossbones.
“Shorter and slower,” Alice muttered. “There’s good reason nobody takes that path any more.”
Prof Faulkner nodded and glanced over to his children. “Mr Burcham, be reasonable. The spiders can wait.”
“The children should be perfectly safe.” Philips pointed to a brown, long-legged spider, smaller than a thumb, scuttling over a mass of web. “See, it may be big, but it’s not dangerous to humans. If I’m not mistaken, it’s a new species of Cambridgea. I wonder what she’s doing here on the wrong side of the world.” He pulled out a collecting jar with a flourish. “Let me just grab this little beauty.”
Keera sighed, scrambling through her brain to find the right words to convince him to cease and desist. By the way he was scratching his jaw, Aiden was trying to do the same.
Corson cracked his knuckles. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to provide back up. But that’s a tiddler. The spiders we’re worried about are bigger than we are. If it comes down to a direct confrontation, there’s not a lot I can do.”
Philips stepped off the track, scooping the spider into the collecting jar with one hand and using a large furry leaf to guide it in with the other. Deftly, he dropped the leaf in and screwed the lid on. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” he said, oblivious of the growing tension.
“Small spider.” Little Arthur stretched out his arms. “Big spiders stay over there.” He pointed over at the hazy mist enveloping the FaerLand border.
“Impossible,” Philips said, waving his arms. “Creatures with exoskeletons simpy can’t grow much more than this.” Philips’ hands stopped a shoulder width apart. “And that’s at most. It’s all about weight and oxygen diffusion. You see, arachnids don’t have the lungs we do…”
“What about book lungs?” Prof Faulkner asked. “I mean, there has to be a way, because I’ve seen them.”
Aiden nudged Keera. “Books might be useful for research, and some magic, but they’d make very poor lungs.”
Keera’s lips quirked into a half smile.
“Book lungs are found in many spiders. They consist of a series of thin plates…”
“I think we need to get moving,” Burcham snapped and ignoring the fact that their path was less than a stone’s throw away from the misty border of FaerLand.
Faulkner turned to follow Burcham. “Can’t a person have a stimulating academic debate?”
Alice put a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Wait, we can’t go that way.”
“We can’t leave him by himself.” Faulkner said. “He’s got no idea.”
“And we shouldn’t split the party,” Corson agreed. “It’ll be easier to keep the children safe if we stick together.”
Keera clutched Not-Ruby’s hand as the forest closed in over the path, becoming denser and denser as they forged down this old trail where the sun barely pierced the leaves above.
Aiden nudged Keera. “There,” he whispered.
Keera nodded, her heart skipping a beat as she saw the huge greenish-blackish spider perched on the massive trunk of one of the FaerLand border trees. She swallowed and kept on walking, but Philips stopped in his tracks. “Wow! That’s gorgeous!” he said. “It’s very realistic for a model. Well, done. Even I thought it was real for a second, there.”
Gorgeous was not the way Keera would have described the chitinous creature staring at them with cold-multifaceted eyes—even if it was only the size of a small cat.
The party jumped. Keera clutched her sword and hoped she wouldn’t have to use it.
“That’s really interesting,” Philips whispered. “Give me a moment.” He pulled out a camera.
“Don’t use that!” Faulkner grabbed for the device.
Philips pressed the button. There was a small pop and a whiff of burnt metal.
Faulkner blew a sigh of relief.
“That could have been worse,” Aiden said. “Surely someone told you modern equipment like cameras have been known to explode here.”
“Mmm.” Philips looked at his camera and put it back around his neck. “Damn, Faulkner. I thought you were having a laugh at my expense. I didn’t think for a moment any of it was real.”
“Ugh,” Faulkner said with a shake of revulsion. “I’m not sure what you see in spiders. They’re the creepiest things in Brocéliande, and that includes the demons.”
“What?” said Burcham, his stride as stiff as a show pony’s. “Not more drama about demons. Surely that’s going too far.”
“Right.” Philips was still examining his camera. Keera didn’t have the heart to tell him it was never going to work again. That was the thing with Earthsiders. They thought everything should work here the way it did at home.
The spider was still watching them with its cold-multifaceted eyes.
“Okay, fine,” Philips said. “There are giant spiders. But there’s no such thing as demons. I’m not falling for it.”
“Ah,” Faulkner corrected him, in his self-proclaimed expert voice. “I very much want to assure you that there are demons. But no need to worry, we’re keeping well away from their territory today.”
“Did you see the red mark on the abdomen on that black spider?” Burcham interrupted, pointing to another human-sized spider on the side of the track. “I think it’s rather—”
The spider jumped.
The shiny black giant spider swung closer on a thread of spider-silk to land on one of the huge oak-like trees that overhung the path on the FaerLand border.
“Stay calm. We’re all alright.” Keera’s heart fluttered as she pulled Not-Ruby up into her arms and the party stumbled to a halt. Aiden’s fine. Pearl’s asleep. The Faulkners…they were also good. Hazel, unruffled, had her bow out, while Alice carried the two boys.
“We need to move away slowly. Please stay on the path,” Keera ordered.
“Yes, if there’s one rule here,” Prof Brian Faulkner said. “It’s stay on the path.”
Hazel nodded. Readying an arrow, she strode out to her father who was looking back and forth as if unsure whether to stay with Burcham, Philips and Corson, or to inch back to the rest of the party.
We’re too close.
“Don’t panic. The spider can’t possibly be that big, it’s just a trick of the light. Besides, most spiders have very poor eyesight. They rely on webs to catch their prey. We’ll be perfectly fine so long as we don’t act like dinner.” Philips pulled out a pad and began sketching a decent rendition of the approaching spider under the scrawled title Attercop giganticus.
“Um.” Corson took Dr Philips’ hand. “Let’s not assume too much, shall we?”
“Not an assumption, old chap,” Dr Philips said, expounding on how spider metabolism worked, including facts about the diffusion of oxygen and the difference between haemoglobin and hemocyanin.
Not-Ruby struggled in Keera’s grasp, peeking up over her shoulder and waving a hand, before cuddling close in an attempt to burrow into Keera’s chest.
Keera held her tight. It felt like holding Ruby—but it wasn’t Ruby. Her heart sank as her thoughts went to Ruby all alone and in terrible danger, somewhere within the trees of FaerLand—so close, and yet a world away.
Lettie couldn’t believe her Changeling was waving at the spiders. Did she think they were all Arachne? What is my too-clever-for-faer-own-good-changeling doing?
She ducked back into the bush and ditched the wretched white sheet. Lucky the humans were so blind, or they’d have seen her when she almost crashed into them.
Slowly, slowly. It was stupidly dangerous wandering into the territory of the spiders. You might as well wander into Mirkwood.
Keera clutched her sword as another spider appeared. Black as a shiny new kettle, and large as a horse, it scuttled along the path toward them.
The red-spotted spider swung closer, landing on a huge, liane-encrusted tree. Its fat body swayed on spindly legs, chelicera waving like arms in front of its mouth.
Arms outstretched, Alice gathered Arthur and Hazel. “Back off slowly.”
Faulkner joined them, taking the path back the way they’d come.
Corson grasped his sword. “Burcham. Philips. Move, or die—those spiders are hunting.”
Philips dropped his pencil. “Maybe, on second thoughts, we should back away—slowly. Has anyone got any fire?”
Burcham fumbled in his pockets and struck a match as they backtracked along the trail.
The spiders jumped down from the trees near the misty FaerLand border and raced closer.
“Here,” Corson called, holding out a brand. “You got a light?”
Aiden pulled out his tinderbox and struck a sulphur-tipped match. It burst into flame and tumbled to the ground, smoking and threatening to set the leaf-litter afire.
The spiders hissed.
Aiden poured water from his drink bottle and stamped on the debris and struck another, determined not to fumble it again. The match lit with a puff of sulphur and, in moments, he’d lit Corson’s brand. Corson shoved the brand into Keera’s hands and pulled out another. He held the second brand against the first until smoke billowed, catching in Keera’s throat and drawing tears from her eyes.
The spiders reared back, but did not move—two terrifying sentinels guarding the trail ahead.
With the two brands between them, Corson and Keera shielded the front and the back of the party, respectively.
Safely back at the crossroads, the spiders out of sight, Burcham coughed and puffed out his chest. “I think we might have overreacted back there. Let’s go back and gather a stray shred of silk from one of the larger webs.”
“Maybe not now,” Corson muttered. “Apart from the spiders that might eat us, we also have the children to worry about.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Burcham said.
Thank goodness. He’s finally realising how crazy it would be to annoy one of these giant spiders.
“Hmm. Maybe tomorrow would be better.”
Keera blinked. “Tomorrow?”
Aiden placed a hand on her shoulder and their eyes met. Living until tomorrow wasn’t their only concern.
A flash of black chitin slipped through the thick woods behind them. “The spiders are trailing us, aren’t they?” Brian Faulkner said. “And the torches? Do we have enough?”
“Sorry,” Corson said, “I only brought the two. But we should be able to get to Market Town before the brands burn down.”
Keera’s gaze danced between the flickering light and the spiders moving through the forest. Why are the giant spiders so worked up? Surely, it’s not the one tiny spider Philips captured? Or are they still angry that we were walking along the border of FaerLand?
The brand burning down to her fingers, Keera gripped the very end and peered into the sun-dappled trees. More and more spiders were moving through the trees. Their long chitinous legs scuttled over the forest floor—darting closer and closer—their fangs eagerly dripping poison.
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