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|The end! ^o^||
Sabella took another slow sip of water, her trembling free hand gripping the kitchen counter hard, and tried to blot out the screams from outside. Someone else was paying the price in Little Corrigan for her carelessness.
As she poured herself more water from the pitcher, soft-slippered footsteps whispered behind her. She knew it would be Illy, standing there in a thick, green dressing-gown far too big for her, even before she turned around.
“You need to stop stealing Hwenal’s clothes,” Sabella said vaguely.
“They’re warmer.” Illa shuffled up to the kitchen cabinet, trailing green felt, and took out a glass, holding it out for Sabella to fill. “Are you all right, Ding-Dong? I’m sorry about your little dragon, but you shouldn’t worry.”
She couldn’t smile much even at the childhood tease. It was Illa’s way to try to laugh when she was frightened or upset, not hers. “I understand why we couldn’t open the door, Illy. The fae are tricky. But it’s hard to know Bat’s out there.”
“At least he has wings,” said Illy, no smiles this time, and Sabella knew she’d heard those three, sad screams as well.
“I can’t imagine living in the old times,” Sabella said softly. “Every day. Every day they had to live with this.”
“It’ll be over soon,” replied Illa. It sounded a bit like self-reassurance. “The Army should arrive tomorrow morning.”
“It should never have begun,” replied Sabella softly.
“Well, guess what?” Illa snapped, her very abrupt anger startling. “It bloody did. And between you and bloody Hwenal, I’m getting fed up with all the indulgent self-flagellation. Put up and shut up. You’re not the tragedy – the Arinrods and Adronn’s son are!”
Sabella put down her glass of water and left the kitchen, not trusting herself not to cry if she tried an old-fashioned sisterly screaming-match. As she reached the stairs back up to the bedrooms she heard Illa’s slippered footsteps rushing after her, and they caught her on the landing.
“Bell, I’m sorry,” her sister said quietly. “I know you feel guilty. So do I. Everyone seems to be, at the moment.”
“I just want to get some sleep, Illy,” replied Sabella, walking on up the stairs and going to her bedroom door. “Really. It’s all right. We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Are you sure?”
Sabella nodded, leaving Illa hovering anxiously there at the door for a moment. It was just as well; a few seconds later she came out into the hall again, bewildered.
* * * * *
He couldn’t jump off. The disembodied arm gripped him hard on its back, and every time he struggled, two more would branch out of the horse’s flanks to grab on too. By the time he had seven of the things clutching him, he stopped fighting.
The wind blasted in his face as the fae-horse plunged through the streets, red eyes blazing the way for wherever it was going. Cail’s eyes were playing tricks, and they were having tricks played on them as well – on the fringes of his vision there was mist rolling in, and strange figures seemed to stand and watch as the not-horse flashed by.
The fae’s path was direct and unswerving; it was riding for the ridge, the looming jarrahs west of Little Corrigan. Cail saw the slaughter-yard fly past, dark and abandoned, and heard the fae horse spit through its teeth as they passed.
It charged up the ridge, effortlessly, as if the ground sloped downward rather than up. Cail began to see more of the hazy figures, men and women, lifting and pointing pale hands in the moments before the horse thundered on.
The jarrahs were black towers by night, the hostile fortress of the fae. Young jarrahs, not yet tall enough to lift their arms high, and slender switches of wattle whipped harshly at him, forcing him to shrink closer to the dark fae’s back.
The mist that had bothered the outer borders of his vision began to swim in more fully, painting the night in lighter grey, but with images that no longer entirely reflected the real world. They had come to the Butcher’s Fence, cantering in and amongst bramble walls that flickered uncertainly between the tangled, vicious ramparts Cail knew and smaller, less tangled memories of much younger blackberries.
The pale figures were thick here. The fae horse cantered amongst them with an air that reminded Cail of the Iron Triumph parade back home, as if he were the volunteer dressed up as captured Lord Arathalian. The memory-shadows cried out in acclaim, but without true joy or emotion: butcher! butcher! butcher!
“I’m not the butcher!” shouted Cail, frightened by the dead and empty faces. “I’ve done you no harm! No-one here has! Let me go, please, leave us all be!”
The fae horse stopped.
Cail hit the ground, hard, as all seven unnatural hands hurled him to earth. He lay there winded as the white shadows clustered around him, staring down empty-eyed, passionless, lifeless.
The red eyes were flaming down too, somewhere amidst the rest, and unlike the shadows they were very much alive – alive enough for a hundred, seething with an inalienable, devouring rage. Cail was looking into the eyes of hatred itself, too hot for any pity, too dark for any regret, too old for any release.
“We’ve done you no harm,” he sobbed again, hopeless. “Please. Please. Don’t kill me.”
The fury that kindled in the fae’s eyes was impossible to stand. Cail closed his eyes before those two fires, letting the tears roll down his cheeks, and then screamed as a hundred cold hands came clutching in.
* * * * *
Sabella sat in the parlour, speechless with grief, with Illa at her side. Poor, brave Hwenal kept offering repeatedly to go outside with his gun to search Cail out around the house, but Sabella could feel the horror stiffen Illa’s limbs each time he offered, and she loved her sister too much to do such a thing to her.
In any case, she knew that Cail wouldn’t have willingly stayed outside for long. He was city born, but he was Ancaladis’s student. He knew the fae.
“I can’t understand how it happened,” said Illa for the hundredth time, knotting and unknotting her fingers over and over again in the lace doily thrown over the couch. “I can’t see how it got him. It can’t come in. It’s the Truce-By-Wattle.”
“It didn’t come in. He went outside,” Hwenal replied with gentle certainty, pacing the floor. “And the fae may not have him, Illa. Don’t worry Sabella needlessly until we know the truth.”
“Even if he went outside, Hwenal,” replied Sabella hoarsely, speaking up at last, “he wouldn’t stay long. Not willingly. Something’s wrong.”
“You should let me look outside and see if he hasn’t hurt himself looking for the dragon. Just in case.”
Sabella returned to her original response, mutely and firmly shaking her head. To think she’d looked out the window just an hour ago, hearing no monster-hounds, and considered going out for Bat herself …
I should have, she thought. Then Cail would be the one safe inside.
The moment the sun rose, Hwenal left his post at the window and hurried outside, calling out for Cail. Sabella followed, but not out of any real hope. Instead she sat in the garden under the rampant jasmine, waiting for Hwenal to come back grim-faced and defeated. Then she stayed there, even after he’d gone back inside.
About an hour after sunrise, a large party of riders and one carriage pulled up outside Hwenal’s house. The Army had arrived.
A man stepped out of the carriage, short and stockily built, and strode through the garden to shake Hwenal’s hand at the door. His gait was the unmistakable soldier’s clip, making his tan uniform a redundant mark of rank.
“Mr. Ridgen, good morning,” the soldier said briskly, shaking Hwenal’s much larger hand. “I’m Lieutenant Milas Ambridge, Corruthian Despatch.”
As the men spoke, a double-file of the tan-uniformed Army soldiers in their broad hats strode up the garden path, rifles on their shoulders. Sabella watched them without curiosity.
“Thank you for coming, sir,” replied Hwenal gravely. “Did both messengers reach you safely? We’re worried for them.”
“They reached us safely and in admirable time, Mr. Ridgen, considering they were unhorsed for the first half of the journey. I understand you have a very dangerous Faeborn running amok in Little Corrigan.”
“Fae?” The man’s thick brows raised, but not mockingly. “Your messengers said the same thing. I suppose we’ll soon see. Come inside and tell me in brief what’s been happing here these last days.”
“Of course, sir.” Even when speaking deferentially, Hwenal managed to sound dignified. “But please be careful of your word-choice. The Truce-By-Wattle still seems to apply, for now.”
“The Truce-By-Wattle?” Lieutenant Ambridge looked even more surprised.
“It is a fae, sir. I promise you. Please be mindful of the Truce-By-Wattle.”
“I’m sorry, butcher.” Sabella recognised the note of a country born man in the apology. “Let’s go, then.”
The Army soldiers stayed outside while Hwenal and the despatch commander went for their discussion. Sabella could hear the men talking amongst themselves as they idly strolled the garden.
“Fae, they’re saying. That’d be interesting.”
“It never is, Ketty. It’ll be some absolute monster Faeborn like you get out here.”
“Yeah? What about Aulden Ferry, fifteen years back?”
“Fifteen years back? Bloody hell, Templine, how old are you?”
“Mind your business.”
“Never heard of Aulden Ferry. But not all of us remember back when iron was invented, old man.”
The men chuckled and ribbed each other for a while. Sabella wondered whether they’d still be chuckling when they saw the fae.
At last the lieutenant came back out of the house, looking rather grim, and called the soldiers together.
“This is going to be a hairy one,” he said seriously. “Whether it’s fae or Faeborn, this thing is one hell of a piece of work. It has a particular penchant for Reshaping, the butcher tells me, and it’s only active at night – or has been so far. When night falls I want iron suits on at all times, and we’re going to need our sharpest, youngest eyes looking out for us.”
“Rules you out, Templine,” one of the wits said dryly.
“Crack jokes on your own time, Ketty. This thing has killed three people in the last few days, one of them by Reshaping with a bloody horse. Another man is missing. Today you’re going to go with the butcher to get some search parties going with the locals, but be back here well before nightfall. Everyone clear on that?”
“Sir,” came the crisp chorus.
“Good. You’re looking for a Kincail Aquillen, Lorian man, twenty-four years of age, black hair, brown eyes, light build. Off you go.”
Sabella finally went inside as the Army soldiers departed, having sudden visions of sitting and watching when they brought her dead fiancé back to her. She didn’t want to got to the bedroom – it still smelled like Cail, and soon Illumi would be awake – so instead she went back into the parlour and curled up on the couch, trying to understand the sudden, horrible change in a joyful life.
She must have fallen asleep, because it seemed like only a moment later that Illa was shaking her, the fuller light of afternoon filling the room. “Bell! Bell! They found Cail! They just brought him in! Bell!”
The words were electric. Sabella jumped from sleep to wakefulness in the same instant she jumped from the couch to the floor, incapable of any response but to sprint from the room in her sister’s train.
She took the stairs three at a time, almost in flight, and ran after Illy to the guest bedroom door. A soldier was standing there, talking swiftly and urgently to one of the servants.
“Just a moment, ladies,” he warned before Illa could throw the door open. “I’ll have to go in with you.”
“What are we going to do, assassinate him?” demanded Illa with her usual tact.
“I’m sorry, madam, but there’s something not right,” the soldier replied firmly. “Wait. Please.”
Sabella did wait, but only barely, containing herself until the man opened the door and preceded them into the room. Then she rushed straight to the bedside, where they had laid Cail down. It was as if he’d been lying there all morning, sleeping in as usual.
He lay there very still as Sabella sat next to him, brushing fingers over his scratched face, too overwhelmed this time to cry. There were a few new marks on his face, she saw – light ones – and his clothes were rumpled and lightly ripped in places, especially the sleeves of his shirt. Dirt and leaf-litter clung to his back.
It was all far from alarming at first glance. But Sabella thought she could see why the soldier was suspicious; Cail was lying far too still, taking sudden, shallow breaths at irregular intervals. His skin was like ice. It was no fever.
“Where was he found?” she asked the soldier quietly.
“On the ridge up west,” he replied matter-of-factly. “The locals were calling it the Butcher’s Fence. My colleague’s gone to fetch the captain.”
“Butcher’s Fence! How’d he end up there?” Illa stared at him.
“Don’t know, madam,” the soldier replied. “It’s a maze up there. We’d never have found him if not for his dragon, flapping all around the place. They tell me he’s a dragonmaker?”
“His dragon? Was it brown?” asked Sabella.
“It’s in that box right there. See for yourself.”
And there was Bat, sure enough, sleeping deeply in his nesting-box for once. Sabella watched him sleep with a few adoring tears pricking dangerously at her eyes, trying to resist the urge to wake him and bundle him up in her arms.
Then she frowned. Illumi was in the box next to Bat, awake, watching Cail with slow blinks of her pearly eyes. She wasn’t peeping or calling for him. She was bobbing down and peering just over the lip of her box in her you’re scary pose, usually reserved for mice and men with large moustaches.
“What do you think happened to my fiancé?” Sabella asked, dropping the term in hopes it might encourage a more fulsome answer.
“I don’t know,” the man replied seriously. “It might have been a particularly vicious enchantment that will wear off eventually. But you need to prepare yourself for the possibility that the monster’s Reshaped him somehow – made him Faeborn.”
She bit her lip and nodded, determined that all her tears were finished.
“We’ll have an expert in to look at him eventually,” the soldier added kindly. “Hopefully he’ll be able to tell us there’s nothing too serious about this. I don’t want to give you false hope, but Reshaping’s a difficult process, and it usually leaves some sort of physical deformity.”
“Even when a fae does it?” asked Illa. It was clearly a genuine question, but it made the soldier uncomfortable, and he looked down to adjust the sit of his belt.
When Hwenal arrived home in the late afternoon, accompanied by the dozen Army personnel, he received the news of Cail’s return with a delight that deeply touched Sabella. The two soldiers who’d brought Cail in had a long talk with Lieutenant Ambridge, all speaking in lowered voices off to one side.
“I don’t think Cail looks even slightly Faeborn,” said Illa staunchly.
“They’re not all lizard-tailed, rabbit-eared freaks, Illy,” Sabella replied, surprised at how calm she still was. Compared with the other possibilities that had almost turned real, this particular worst-case scenario didn’t terrify her. If Cail had been made Faeborn – if the government did have to deport him to Kirkayon Island – he’d still be alive. And she would go with him.
“I still think it’s enchantment,” Illa insisted, obviously less comfortable with the alternative than Sabella. “It looks very much like what happens if you pick a bloodbloom. Without all the vomiting, I might add.”
For the first time in a long time, Sabella managed to smile. “I hope so, Illy.”
They sat and watched the Army men suiting up for a full anti-magic skirmish, donning iron breastplates and greaves that made them look like knights from an elder age. There were even iron helmets to replace the famous broad-brimmed hats.
“I salute-eth you, Templine.”
“A bit of quiet!” called Lieutenant Ambridge over all the clanking and swearing. “Right, here’s how it’s going to go. I’ll have four of you in the upstairs windows facing the main street, four of you in the downstairs windows facing the street, two of you in the upstairs windows looking on the side street – that’s the west facing – and two of you in the bedroom with the suspected. Clear? Be watching for red-eyed dogs.”
“Advice to live by, sir.”
“Thanks for that, Ketty; you’re now watching the suspected. Any arguments? No? The you four go up – you two go up on the west side – Taffren, you’re with Ketty …”
Sabella sat with Illa at the dining table, listening to the men clanking throughout the house.
“It’s a nice feeling to have them here,” Illa said wearily.
“Cail will be sore to miss it,” agreed Sabella.
“They’d better not forget the Truce-By-Wattle with all that gung-ho soldier carry-on, though. I can just picture it – ‘come to daddy, Faeborn!’”
“Um … I really can’t picture anyone saying that, Illy.”
“You never know. I don’t want the fae in my house.”
It was a cold thought, dispelling Sabella’s mild amusement.
“No,” she murmured, and turned her attention back to her food.
* * * * *
The woods were primeval black, endless colonnades of shadow leading away to shadow. If the heads of the mighty jarrahs reached some sort of sky high above, it was impossible to tell – down here everything was cold, and colourless, and wreathed in the unnatural mists that warned Cail this was no place for a man.
But he could not escape. Where would he go? The mists ate everything. The jarrahs marched on eternal to the horizon – if the horizon was real here. And the blackberry brambles crawled like living things under his feet.
I’m dead, or dying. The thought was lonely here.
Of course you are, child of men.
There was no transition, no appearance; there was simply a presence beside Cail, and it seemed there had been from the beginning. Whenever the beginning was.
She was small and beautiful, a moon-fae in child-form, colourless like everything else but somehow vivid in her shades of white and black. For a moment Cail thought of his former teacher, Mistress Ancaladis, but only for a moment. This fae was not angry or bitter. This fae was nothing at all.
We are all dead and dying here, she said. Again and again and again.
Is it you? Cail asked, revelling in the living thrill of anger. He wasn’t dead yet. Did you kill those people?
I cannot kill, she said. I cannot do. I can only echo.
You mean you’re not real.
I am. I am not. I am tired of dying; I want to finish …
She was gone. Again, there was no transition – she had simply never been there. It was a strange sensation, deeply uncomfortable.
Lights began to kindle in the mists and the branches of the trees, small pinpoints of radiance that pulsed and flared in steady time. Faelights … Cail had seen them before, in Loria, on still-enchanted hills that shimmered to life on long-forgotten days of fae celebration. But where Loria could shine blue and green and yellow, the lights here – like everything else – had no colour at all.
Voices rose out of the dark, singing words Cail didn’t understand. They were beautiful, high and pure-toned, holding each note with unadorned clarity. But the notes they sang were chaotic, clear but patternless, and their voices did not complement each other in harmony. It was more like language than music, words sung in notes.
Come, then, child of men.
I don’t want to, Cail told the fae who was and was not at his side.
You are his now, she said. Come and eat before the end. One of the endings.
I don’t want to.
She laid a hand on his arm, there and not there, like bodied mist. A memory flew back to Cail – white hands pulling, dragging, drawing him here – and he recoiled from the fae in fear.
Something snarled, more animal than animal, out of the dark.
You must, repeated the fae. Spare yourself pain and fear. When you know your ending, they grow less.
This time she offered an empty hand rather than take Cail’s arm. Cail looked at it, white in all the black night of the forest, and then took it.
Slowly she began to walk, drawing him with her, and the colour-leeched faelights blossomed further and further through the trees. Out of the mists he began to see more of the white figures, singing to each other in their clear voices – some few of them child-shaped moon fae, like his guide, but most of them the black-skinned, black-haired night fae. Or was it only the shadows of this place that made them look that way?
Come and eat, said his fae.
Cail looked around at all the fae and caught his breath to see them pacing softly around the blackberry-brambles, stooping to pluck thick, fat berries from amongst the thorns.
The bloodied berries, he said in horror.
Yes, she said. The men will be here presently. Come and eat.
It makes no difference to the ending.
The fae shadow sat beside another moon-fae, singing colourless words to her, and then stretched a hand out to pluck a berry from the brambles. Not everyone ate. Some ate, but not enough to steal all of their magic. It did not matter. They died nonetheless … if not there, then in a near and bitter place.
Cail watched the berry disappear between her lips, watched the black juice pearl at one corner of her mouth. Why are you still here?
He did not die, though, she said, plucking another berry. He fought them too hard. He made them pay. Then the butcher made him pay again, down in the dark with the earth and the iron. Now he makes them pay. This is the way of things, child of men. Echo and echo and echo. The past is an echo, as I am.
Then ‘he’ should remember what came before this. Cail gestured around the blackberries and the white fae-shadows, using anger to ward off the thought of what was coming. There were as many slaughters of men in the Ages of Fae as there were slaughters of fae in the Age of Iron!
Of course, child of men. Echo and echo and echo. But it does not make your tragedy less, or mine.
Her white hand was stained dark with the juices now. The singing voices floated amongst the trees and brambles.
You didn’t answer me, Cail said at last. Why are you still here?
She pointed to the blackberries. Eat and you will know.
I … I don’t want to. I’m afraid.
Then eat for regret, she said. Eat for remorse. He no longer recognises such things, but we do.
Cail looked at the nearest bramble, almost picked clean by the fae’s delicate fingers. Only a few berries clung there, bloated and dark.
Slowly he knelt down and reached a trembling hand in amongst the broad leaves and thorns, plucking the berry and holding it between two fingers. It was wet. When he finally put it into his mouth and bit down, the rancid, metallic taste of blood almost made him retch.
They did not taste like that, said the fae. They were sweet. But he does not remember. He remembers only the blood and the death, the hounds and the horses, over and over and over, echo and echo and echo …
In the distance, the frantic belling of an eager hunting-pack began.
We are echoes and he cannot let us finish, she said, rising. Before Cail could scramble up as well, terrified, he felt the feathery never-was of a kiss on his cheek.
I wish you an ending, she whispered.
All around, the memory-fae were rising, leaving their berry-harvest and waiting expectantly with their eyes on the forest. This could not have been the real scene from those centuries ago – there was no panic, no emotion at all.
Then the first hounds came flying from the darkness, black shapes, hurling themselves on the first unresisting fae and tearing them apart. The horses came thundering in close behind, following the hounds’ hungry calls, bearing shadowy, indistinct men on upon their backs with swords and threshers.
Cail watched the mechanical slaughter in horror, speechless, as the hounds and horses poured through the trees. His moon fae companion watched incuriously as a rider reared up before her and struck off her head, letting her body sink like a falling leaf to earth. A night fae lay calmly nearby while three dogs fought over her limbs. Black blood soaked in impossible, misremembered quantities over the ground, over the brambles, washing out all the faelights in darkness.
At last it was over. The ridge was a chaotic tumble of bodies, mostly night fae, set to turn to a permanent tumble of stone at the touch of the sun.
But the sun would never rise here.
Suddenly a massive, blacker shape burst from nowhere onto the ridge, and the first colour appeared in the black and white world – blazing red eyes. The fae was neither hound nor horse this time, but a confused, raging mix of the two, a horse-like monster with a split muzzle full of teeth, shaggy-black and dog-legged.
In moments the fae had torn its own hound and rider phantoms to pieces – black fantasy or genuine recollection, it was impossible to know – and then it was coming for Cail, its infernal eyes burning up the rest of the misty shadow-world.
* * * * *
Sabella sat at Cail’s bedside, reading a book of Illy’s called Fae Maladies by candlelight. The last light was fading from the sky, but her fear of sundown was much, much less with two soldiers in the room.
“Find anything?” asked one of the soldiers encouragingly. His voice was strange behind the iron helmet, but friendly.
“Not yet,” Sabella replied. “I will, though.”
“My cousin got himself cursed something fierce,” the other soldier remarked. “He went mountain-climbing and got bitten by one of those spiders – what do they call them? Harvesters? Couldn’t walk or talk for a year. Poor old Tam.”
“Ketty,” the first soldier said acidly, “that’s not a good story to be telling now.”
“Why not? He got better in the end, and he hadn’t become Faeborn or anything.”
“Countdown in five to shutting up, Ketty. Five, four, three, two, one.”
Sabella tried to get back to her book.
Then Cail screamed.
The book dropped to the floor. With a seizing in her chest she leaned in and tried to touch his face, but he was turning his head from side to side, still screaming, his fingers knotting up in the blankets.
Sabella realised, with another hard shock, that for all their friendliness the two Army men were holding their pistols watchfully.
“Stop, Cail, stop,” she urged, frightened by the guns and what the men were obviously prepared to do. “Stop.”
He didn’t stop at once; something was hurting him, or he thought that it was, and for a full two minutes it seemed like he might choke himself with the force of it all. He was hardly even breathing. Sabella hovered where she was, barely breathing herself, trying at intervals to stroke his hand or smooth his hair.
Then, sudden and sharp, the screams cut off. Cail fell back in the bedclothes, icy and still once more.
“Merry hell. One for the captain, Taffren?”
“Not just yet.”
“Sounds like he’s eaten a treeful of nightmare oranges,” muttered the one called Ketty. “Poor kid.”
But Sabella didn’t trust herself to talk to them again. She couldn’t forget that instant reach for their guns.
Downstairs, raised voices were clamouring. Shots were fired – loud, sharp barks that broke the night – and the bloodthirsty baying that had so haunted Little Corrigan struck up along the western facing of the house, the side-street.
‘Taffren’ went to the west-facing window, looking out.
“Lots of dogs,” he observed laconically, holding the curtain open for a minute. “Looks like some of our bright sparks have actually hit a few, too. No red eyes I can see, though.”
“Maybe this thing had a rethink about the whole ‘red eyes’ business,” replied the other. “Thought to itself, ‘You know, I think these might be a bit too much of a cliché, and me, I’m a self-respecting monster …’”
Sabella looked down at a gentle touch. Cail had reached out, his face damp with cold sweat, and taken her hand.
“Cail?” she whispered softly.
With a sudden, hard, jerk, Cail dragged her off her stool and on top of him. She could hear the two soldiers shout to each other as he grabbed her under the arms and rose from the bed, keeping her interposed between him and their guns all the while. When she looked up at his face, his eyes were open … but they were rolled back white in his head.
Her first instinct was to struggle – staring so close at the whites of his eyes made him look like a monster – but as reason overtook her, and she heard what the two soldiers were barking at each other, she realised that if she successfully pulled free, they would shoot him.
“Open the window,” said Cail, his voice distressingly his own, no monstrous rasps or snarls. “Throw your iron outside.”
“Don’t you shoot him,” Sabella warned over the top of his demand. “Don’t you dare shoot him.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said Taffren steadily, still sighting down his pistol, and she knew he was answering them both.
“Open the window. Throw your iron outside.” Cail’s hand – no, it’s not him, she thought stubbornly – curled around Sabella’s throat. His fingers were icy. “The man who lets a woman die is cursed.”
“Exactly,” the soldier grated.
The fingers around Sabella’s throat locked and began to squeeze. She tried not to fight, still desperate not to have him shot, but instinct was such a difficult thing to override …
“The moment she drops, Faeborn, you get a bullet in the head,” warned Ketty, the muzzle of his pistol wavering as it hunted a clear line.
Cail laughed. “And what is that to me?”
Sabella dragged in a breath as his fingers relaxed, rolling her eyes around the room for some sort of inspiration. There must be something. There had to be something.
“Bloody mind-catching,” Ketty snarled. “I hate that.”
“Fetch the butcher,” said Cail. “These two are his kin. I know this.”
“We’re going to dip you in molten steel and make us a weathervane when we catch you, fae,” replied Taffren. “Nothing else to say apart from that. Let the boy go, leave the girl alone, and maybe we’ll talk.”
“Fetch the butcher. I will not ask again.”
“Good. That’ll save us some time.”
Suddenly Cail lunged, fast, and the world disappeared under a thick drape of bedclothes. The two soldiers swore, and someone tried to snatch the blankets away one-handed, but Sabella clung on to them tightly; Cail was dead without them.
Then they were moving. Sabella moved with him, two swift, running steps, cried out at the sound of smashing glass – and then they were falling, falling, hitting the lower slope of the roof and rolling, Cail’s arm clutching around her middle, the blanket spiralling off on its own.
They hit the ground.
“Hold your fire! Take a careful aim! The suspected’s with the girl!” one of the soldiers was yelling out the window to his comrades, but Sabella hardly even heard it, sick on the fiery agony of a broken leg. Cail was already moving again, insensible to whatever his injuries were, indifferent to her cries as he dragged her back to her feet.
“I know that the butcher is here!” he shouted back at the house, retreating steadily through the garden. “Come out!”
Sabella set her teeth against the pain, her eyes streaming, watching helplessly as the front door drew further away. A shadowy litter of Reshaped dogs lay dead on the ground in dark blood, a flat reminder of the soldiers’ marksmanship. Her course was set now. Either she went with him into the dark, or he died at Hwenal’s gate.
No response came from the house; Sabella heard Cail’s breath hiss through his teeth, much like hers. He reached for the gate as they backed up to it and pulled it open, dragging them both out into the street.
She tried to keep up with him, but the pain grinding right down her leg finally made it impossible. They had only just cleared the gate when her calf jarred against the fence, sending her sagging down in his grip with another loud cry of pain.
A pistol barked from the darkened windows – Sabella only looked in time to see the plume of smoke floating up to sky, crying out again. Cail reeled back, turned in a quarter-circle by the impact, and dropped in the dirt, pulling her down with him.
The bullet had hit him in the shoulder. He was clutching at it where he lay, his breath rasping harshly in his throat, blinking hard as if trying to stave off a faint … or perhaps just stay calm. It was at that point Sabella realised she could see his irises again, flicking from the gatepost in front of his face to the blood on the road.
“Are you back with me, Cail?” she asked, still through her teeth.
“Bloody hell,” came his reply. “Bloody … hell.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t have, but for a moment the thought of both of them lolling around on the road – in the aftermath of so much hideous luck – struck Sabella as almost funny. He always accused her of black humour, though.
“Listen,” she warned. “You have to stay close to me … until the soldiers know you’re back to normal.”
The front door rattled open; at least two sets of footfalls came running out in brusque military steps. A soldier’s voice began to shout a terse command – but was drowned out by a deep, stony crack somewhere behind Sabella. She turned her head sharply to see a great chunk of the neighbour’s brick wall rip itself free of the ground and hurl itself towards Hwenal’s garden, shedding loose bricks and mortar.
The bricks smashed into the ground. She could feel each impact drumming through the earth and up into her screaming leg, and heard the two yelling soldiers go dashing back for the front door.
Guns cracked from the house again – this time it was impossible to see what they were firing at – and then fell silent. Sabella looked over at Cail again, watching him close his eyes and grope blindly for her hand.
“Don’t be scared, brown-eyes,” she whispered.
The Cail she knew would have come back with something like ‘why the hell not?’. This Cail just kept his eyes closed, shaking, lying as low to the ground as he could.
She couldn’t see the fae, no matter how she turned her head, and it seemed that the soldiers in the house couldn’t either; there were no more shots fired and no-one else came out of the house.
For a long time, there was silence. Sabella shifted painfully on the ground, sitting up to reach out experimentally for the gate, and then recoiled with a small shriek as it slammed itself shut.
“No,” she protested, hopeless. Images mixed in her head – the Reshaped dogs, the Reshaped man. If she’d been holding a pistol, she would have chosen the swifter death at that very moment.
Then someone called out from the house. “Fae? Do you hear me? I am the butcher.”
Sabella’s throat seized to hear Hwenal’s grave voice, and she could only imagine Illa’s reaction back inside the house. The butcher stood in the front doorway, the light of a candle huffing out behind him.
This isn’t your fault, Hwenal, it was never your fault – go back inside!
“Are you listening, fae?”
Another clutch of bricks tore free of the neighbour’s fence and were flicked contemptuously at Hwenal’s. Sabella shielded herself with her arms as the bricks scattered overhead.
“Give back my kin,” Hwenal called, “and we’ll settle this as in the old days. The men of iron have no place in our quarrel.”
“I trust the butcher even less than the men of iron.” Sabella didn’t even feel her lips moving, but she recognised her own voice with a start.
“Then hear my oath on the wattle, fae: I shall come out to you with no defence but the blood in my veins if you return my kin to me, and the men of iron will lay up their arms and stay inside. If these terms are broken, may the Truce-By-Wattle be permanently broken here and everywhere, and may no man’s home be a sanctuary ever again.”
All was still under twilight. The only sound to be heard was a faint but fierce argument inside the house, filtering in muffled wisps and trails through the open door.
Cail’s hand tightened painfully around Sabella’s at the slow sound of hooves crunching on dirt. There was the fae, at last, an indistinct monster-shape of fused horse and hound, red eyes blazing a watch on Hwenal’s house.
“Then come out and ride,” Sabella heard her voice say, and immediately contradicted it with an angry cry. “No, Hwenal! You stay with my sister!”
“The butcher is no more a fool in the new days than he was in the old,” Hwenal called steadily. “I’ll hear your oath first, fae.”
“Then hear my oath on the iron: of all the base and crawling children of men, only these two your kin can expect safety in my presence. All the rest will die, butcher, including you.”
“And if your terms are broken?”
“If these terms are broken, may I lie again undying under iron – not for centuries, but eternity.”
“Those are good terms, fae. I am coming.”
Sabella shook her head, trying to turn him back with will alone, as Hwenal’s footsteps came slowly down the weed-choked garden path, unassailably dignified, firm with a carriage that even the butchers of the old days might have admired.
As he opened the gate and stepped outside, Sabella reached up and grabbed at his knee. “Please, Hwenal, don’t go. You can’t leave my sister. You can’t leave Little Corrigan without the butcher.”
“This is the Age of Iron, Sabella,” Hwenal replied with gentle pride, reaching down to pat her hand comfortingly. “Everyone is the butcher and blacksmith now.”
He smiled down at her and then moved away, his boots crunching on the looser dirt of the road, slowly walking towards the black, hellish shape of the fae. Sabella watched through tears, her vision blurring into shapes, shadows and red light.
The bushy bottlebrush by the gate waved and rustled as someone stood up from hands and knees.
“Not now, Bell,” said Illa, sighting down Hwenal’s rifle, and fired.
There was a scream out on the road – at least as much rage as pain – and the dark fae went running, losing definition and shape as it fled. But now Hwenal was running too, much faster than his size would have suggested, and just fifty metres further down the road, he caught it.
Illa pushed the gate open with her foot and walked out into the street, tamping the next charge down into the rifle as she went. Sabella sat where she was in numb disbelief, wishing her leg were the same, and barely reacted when the front door opened.
“You stay in there!” Illa shouted back at the house and the soldiers, glaring down the path. “The Truce-By-Wattle’s not useless yet, so don’t break it!”
By the time Sabella’s sister had started walking again, Hwenal and the fae were struggling furiously in the dirt, mutual loathing showing in every clutch and grab. The fae was in its natural form now, a grey-skinned, grey-haired man in rags that might once have been clothes. It was impossible to see the colour of his eyes from where Sabella sat, but they weren’t fiery red.
Hwenal was bigger, stronger and heavier. The outcome of the fight was a foregone conclusion even before Illa reached them with the rifle.
The night fae stopped struggling at Hwenal’s last heavy punch, falling back in the dirt. It did not move even when Hwenal rose, holding out his hands for the gun; instead it started to sing in the strange fae language. “Pelasdes …Marahaina …Torenme …Lucatis …”
“It’s going to try more magic anyway,” Sabella groaned, turning her head away.
“They’re names, Bell.” Cail’s voice was faint. “Just names.”
“Amane …Elisdes …Calahaine …Orlunis …Sincana …Atarsdai …”
The rifle barked one last time, its crackling echo fading off slowly into nothing.
* * * * *
“Dare we ask you to visit again?” Illa asked as Cail leaned over to kiss her goodbye. She was trying to make a joke of it, but her eyes betrayed her honest grief – they were too much like Sabella’s.
“Not for a while, Illy,” he answered her honestly, moving aside for the coachman to fetch another case. “But eventually. I promise.”
She gave a teary smile and hugged him tightly around the middle, that fierce grip that no woman her size should physically be capable of. He compromised with a one-armed hug, giving her a last pat on the back and releasing her for Sabella to say her goodbyes.
As the two sisters embraced in floods of tears and watery demands for letters, Cail moved out of the way and went to stand outside the gate. They’d stayed five extra days in Little Corrigan, but not quite the full two weeks they’d allotted when they’d arrived – months ago, that seemed.
It was hard to keep hiding how much he was longing for home. Now more than ever he needed to see the sea again, and the sleepy island that lay somewhere across it.
Inevitably, his eyes strayed back to Hwenal’s garden as he stood and waited. There was a pale grey stone lying there now, about five feet long, placed along the path where the lavender tried to reach.
Townsfolk had been coming to look at it more or less constantly for the last five days. Cail could see some of them now, children, leaning over the eastern fence and trying to peer through the explosion of plants. Last night in the Iron Cockerel, it had been hard to take more than a few mouthfuls of their farewell dinner at a time without Hwenal and Illa being assailed for the tale of the night fae’s demise.
He couldn’t blame the people for being taken with the story. It spoke directly to any country-born soul – a truly old-style tale of the butcher, outwitting the fae with courage and cunning, in this case assisted by his brave and canny wife.
There were happy endings for stories. History just had endings.
Lumi stirred in his shirt, giving a sleepy peep; it was still too early for her. Cail stroked her head with his good hand, wondering if his shoulder would ever heal properly … and if everything else would too.
At last Sabella and Illa pulled apart, still crying copious tears. “If I marry this idiot, you’d better turn up!” Sabella said fiercely. “It’s your turn to visit next anyway!”
Cail moved out of the way as someone else passed him with a case, then realised it was Hwenal. “Oh, come on, don’t do that – that’s what we pay the coachmen for.”
“The more hands, the faster you are ready, Kincail,” answered Hwenal with a small, knowing smile, loading it up with the rest.
He shifted awkwardly. “Listen, it’s not as if –”
“You don’t have to explain. That was not a reproach. You’ve suffered a lot here, and home is what it is.”
The butcher secured the case and then turned to face Cail properly, giving him another of those strong, rather uncomfortable country embraces, taking care not to aggravate his shoulder. “I hope to visit yours one day.”
“I hope you will, too,” Cail replied, finally smiling a little himself. “And if you don’t enjoy it, I’ll help you pack your bags quickly, too.”
Hwenal’s smile broadened, the amusement confined to his eyes rather than a laugh. Then he turned and went back to where Illa was standing, alternating between waves and loud blows into her handkerchief.
Sabella said a second and third goodbye to Illa and Hwenal, then finally moved away on her crutches back to the carriage. Cail and the coachman both helped her inside, still waving as they shut the door.
At last the coachman mounted up and flicked the reins, sending the carriage trundling away down the road. Sabella pressed her face to the window and kept right on waving, obstructing Cail’s view of Hwenal and Illa somewhat as the house fell away behind them.
Only when the house was no longer visible – roof included – did Sabella sit back in her seat again, wiping at her eyes and vainly trying to catch Bat for a comforting hug. “Feels like we’ve been in the Fae Wars, doesn’t it?” she asked with a watery laugh.
Cail smiled, but didn’t answer. Perhaps it was the country-born mindset that didn’t let her see they had been in the wars.
Echo and echo and echo, a voice that had never truly spoken seemed to whisper.
The carriage rolled on, climbing the steep hill out of Little Corrigan and back into the great Corruthian forests, bound for Talton and for Feyton through a tangled procession of blackberries.
|A Night of Souls||Riddles|
Lost Sons and Lost Souls
|Lost Sons and Lost Souls (II)|
|Blackberries (Part Three)||Tintauri's Squire (Part III)|