I suppose we'll behave like a bunch of holier-than-thou hypocrites. Because the alternative is to look at ourselves in the mirror and know that we are capable of dark and terrible things… Dark and terrible things. And the joys they bring.
~Michael Grant, Light
I awoke with the rising sun. I rolled so the streaming light was no longer in my eyes. Noreen shifted closer to me on the bed. Without Ciarin there to cuddle with her, she'd gotten lonely and snuck up under my arm, burrowing into my neck.
I smiled, still half asleep, my thoughts laden with the dreams I'd danced with all night. Happy, peaceful dreams, a welcome change from the near constant flow of nightmares.
I felt warm. Not the hot, uncomfortable, just woke up in the middle of summer and left the fire lit warm. The comfortable, safe, happy warm. And I knew it was irrational just to feel that way about a dream. But it had felt so real, I wanted to pretend for a few more moments that I'd really been with Abel, laughing, talking, kissing, pretending to read by the light of a dying fire back home.
I sighed, feeling it fading away. But I knew I could get it back. I could rise and return to him and pour my heart out, because even though I was terribly confused and conflicted, I knew I wanted to be with him. And I decided that was what I was going to do.
Noreen growled a complaint as I threw my feet off the side of the bed and began to dress myself. I smiled at her small white form before walking to the window and pulling the curtains back all the way.
"Come on, little one," I pet her back, "We're going home."
Her ears perked up and she sat back, "Really? We're going home?" her already high voice rose in excitement.
"Yes, I'm going to finish getting dressed, gather my things, and then you, Cairin, Trodair and I are leaving." I sung as I danced around the room, searching for my left boot, still giddy from my dreams.
Noreen hopped up and dashed around madly, gathering things and either shoving them into my bag or hers. I laughed, knowing she was excited to see Ciarin and Abel once more. The wolf hadn't made an appearance since we arrived, and I often caught the fox looking around for him. And she adored Abel, for some reason, preferring to sit with him in his office when she wasn't with the wolf or me.
I brushed my hair back, straightened my clothes out for the hundredth time before finally putting on my weapons, red cloak and rucksack. The whole time I kept up a running commentary on my thoughts with Noreen. Not really allowing her to get a word in edge wise.
"I mean, it's not as if I can't just leave if my feelings are unrequited, right?" I waited for her to nod, though she still looked confused, "He did say I didn't have to return, so if I make a complete ass of myself, I can just turn around and leave again, right?"
The thought alone was painful. I didn't want to be away from my home ever again. Not the meadow, but the people who made up my home, Tegan, Tapfer, Alejo, Ronald, and yes, even Abel. In truth, I didn't know what I was going to do if Abel laughed me off.
As I walked around the house, lost in thought while searching for my father to tell him goodbye, a slight figure intercepted me. Darcy, wearing a dark blue dress, red hair pulled behind her head, stopped me just outside the dining hall.
"You're leaving us already?" she tilted her head, looking me up and down.
"I really must be getting back to the meadow." I said as way of apology for my brief stay, "I can't neglect my duties, after all. I was only looking for my father to tell him farewell."
"Oh your father left early, before the sun rose, to go on a stag hunt with some of the other men," she rolled her eyes and waved a hand, "Won't be back until much later I'm afraid."
"Oh," I sighed, taken aback, "Just as well then. I'll send him a letter."
"That's probably for the best," She nodded, "But please, Lily, before you go, would you have a cup of tea with me? Have a little mother daughter chat? I don't know when we'll get to see you again."
Something was off in the tone of her voice, the glint if her eye, the tilt of her chin… I was deeply suspicious of everything before me. And calling herself my mother when she had to only be a few years older than me, and only my father's wife a few months and knowing me for only a day struck a nerve. But this was my father's wife, after all. He loved her and I had to make an effort despite my prejudices.
Besides, what could a cup of tea hurt?
"Of course, Darcy," I smiled, nodding for her to lead me, "I'm sorry we didn't have a chance to talk more."
She walked me to the end of the table, a tray of tea waiting, and I wondered if she had waited for me to get up, planning to ask me to join her for tea. I bit back on my paranoia and sat down delicately, my training kicking in and hiding my distrust. Noreen sat beneath me, hiding in the folds of my cloak as it hung on the floor.
Darcy poured the drinks with a soft smile on her face, "Cream or sugar?" she asked.
"Neither, thank you." Tea was a rare enough commodity in the house while I was growing up, forget about wasting any cream or sugar on it, so I had grown used to drinking it black.
She passed me a cup, carefully on a saucer, before pouring her own. When she sat across from me with a smile, I sipped from my cup. It was so delicious I found myself draining the cup before I could stop myself. Not very lady like of me, and I cleared my throat as I replaced my cup on the table, "Sorry," I apologized.
"That's quite alright, Lily." She put her own untouched tea down, her smile turning predatory, "I'll imagine you're going to start feeling a bit woozy."
Before I could respond, I felt my body fall back against the chair, my head snapping painfully into the wooden headrest. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I could barely think straight. What did she do to me?
"You're probably wondering what I am doing," she rose and stalked over to my side, "Well I know few people," she shrugged, "Who know how to get things we need. Even if it's from behind enemy lines."
She yanked my chair back, twisting it so I was facing her. She placed her hands on the arm rests and brought her face close to mine, I couldn't look anywhere but her cold, empty eyes.
"I know you asked for nothing extra in your tea, but I just couldn't resist. We found one of your precious Fae," she spat the word, "And the scum was just thrilled to give me a curse to use on you. He was grateful for the chance to put down the Beast King's most loyal guard dog. So, you're going to fade soon, but I didn't want to let you die without telling you something."
I was fighting it with all my might, but she was right. Everything was growing dark, my heart was slowing and I couldn't even tell if I was still breathing. I was screaming in my mind, begging my arms to just reach my dagger, my sword, anything to hurt her with. But I couldn't even control my eyelids as they began to droop.
"You see, my family is part of something." She continued her soliloquy, "And now so am I. I had to marry your father, I was supposed to get close to you and find out what you know, but you didn't give me much of a chance. The Huntsmen will be so disappointed in me, but with you gone, there's no one left to defend the king, so they'll get over it, I'm sure. What's one casualty in a war? Nothing when you compare it to what we will accomplish.
"The Fae are an abomination," she sneered, "Monsters with no place in our world. We are going to cleanse the South Kingdom of their filth. Then the North, then every other nation in the world." She laughed, pulling back from me.
"You're crazy," I finally managed, my mouth barely able to form the words, sapping the remainder of my strength.
She howled in outrage before slapping me across the face. I fell to the floor from the strength of it, allowing enough distraction for Noreen to sip unnoticed out the door. I found a small amount of relief in that as Darcy composed herself.
"You had your chance to join us, Lily. But you chose those filthy beasts over your own kind." She crouched to look me in the eye once more, "We are going to take our place at the top, my dear. But first, my lovely step daughter, I'm going to start with you. Then your friends, your king. We are going to kill them all and there is nothing you can do."
Her cackle sent a shiver of fear down my spine.
That was the last thing I felt before it all went black, fear and worry. And as I faded, I sent one final prayer to the heavens that they would protect Abel.
Even as another day passed away, I found myself missing her more and more. It didn't lessen one bit, my love for her even in her absence. I drank myself to sleep, doused myself with the freezing stream water to wake up, then resumed my drinking.
It was awful and destructive but I couldn't find myself to care. What had I let myself become? I'd lived hundreds of years only to allow myself to be killed slowly by one human girl.
But that was it, wasn't it? She wasn't just one human girl. She was frustrating, brave, challenging, kind hearted and heard headed. She was everything and more. She made me think and she made me want to be better. I'd walked around so long holding that "Devil may care" attitude, only have it all stripped away by one glance from Lily.
Lily… My flower. How my heart ached for her.
I thought back to the letter in my office, chastising myself once more for neglecting to tell her anything as soon as I found out. I hadn't been ready to let her go. I would never be ready to let her go, if I was being honest with myself. But why did I have to take this selfish aspect of my life and put it into my relationship with her? Why had I waited too long to remove my own feelings from the situation until it was too late? Why now, when I had no hope of ever keeping her in my life, did I have to become so noble? What had she turned me into.
I looked into my own reflection in the spring. My human face stared back at me. Not the beastly mask I had grown so accustomed to greeting, but the soft, pale skin of a weak and vulnerable man. What's worse is I couldn't find the will to change back. She did that to me. Made me want to be a better, kinder, stronger… man. That was it, she made me want to be human. If only for her.
Why had I let myself grow so attached to her? Wasn't it only half a year since I first laid eyes on her? How could so much have changed in so little amount of time? But, it wasn't as if she'd actually done anything. She'd been herself, her stubborn, gorgeous, maddening self. And that was all it took to destroy every wall I had built around myself to stop from caring about anyone or anything other than myself or the good of the Fae.
Now, not only did I care for her, but for the individual Fae. For Tegan, and Tapfer, Ronald and Henry, and even sweet little Noreen. She'd weakened me by making my heart grow stronger. And I couldn't even find myself being angry about it. It had felt amazingly freeing to let go.
Then she was gone. But I couldn't bring the walls back. I couldn't even bring the beast back. I didn't want him back, really, but the walls would have been helpful against the torrential depression filling me.
"Well then," I sighed to my tired reflection, "If you can't get them back, get the girl back instead. You can do it."
I continued the conversation like a deranged man as I stalked through the house, forgetting in my madness the paths leading to my study that I had walked for years, "After all, what's one girl compared to your previous conquests? For god's sake man, you have had the Seelie Queen eating out of the palm of your hand! Quite literally at times!"
"Yes," I responded, "But Lily isn't like anyone I've courted before. She isn't swayed by my charm or money or power. So, why then, would she want to be with me?"
"Because she loves you."
"Rubbish." I retorted before I realized it wasn't I who had spoken, I turned quickly to find Tegan standing behind me.
She wasn't in her usual appearances. She had her hair down in waves around her shoulders, her dress wasn't muted or dressy, but somewhere in between, she had bare feet and, most surprisingly, she had a smile on her face.
"Tegan!" I sighed and moved to hug her before I could think better of it, "I thought you'd decided to stay away when you didn't return."
She laughed, though, and returned the hug, "What? And leave you to fend for yourself? Look at you I've only been gone a day and a half and already you're completely undone."
"I expected you back last night after the party," I pulled away, looking down at her concerned, "I was going to send the dogs out for you soon, you know."
"And they say chivalry is dead." She shook her head, "Dawn after the party came sooner than I hoped and I had to return to being a dove. I've been using my stone too often, so I couldn't keep track of where I was flying. I had to walk from the other side of the forest to get back here. I'm happy for the longer days, I get to enjoy the sun for a bit before it goes down."
"How was the party?" I asked, moving to sit on the surface of my desk, "Were all the best people there?"
"Everyone but you, Abel." She entertained me.
"And Lily, did you see her?" I asked, giving up the charade nearly completely.
"Only for a moment, I didn't have a chance to talk to her." She sighed heavily, 'She did look sad though. And…"
"And what?" I asked.
"You remember when I came to work for you?" She asked, "I'd just finished with my schooling and you needed my etiquette skills to reign in your court."
"Yes," I smiled fondly. Most of my court members had been in the woods for too long, not knowing how to blend in with society very well. Tegan was invaluable to say the least.
"I was fairly new at being Fae," she shook her head, "Goodness, I don't think I have ever told anyone this story."
I simply nodded for her to continue, happy that she had chosen me to talk to, even though it was wildly out of character for her. It just reinforced my theory that something was off with her today.
"I'd suffered, as most girls do, heart break." She swallowed audibly, eyes misting over slightly, "And like the foolish human I was, I sought out a quick fix through magik. A Fae, of some kind, found me lurking the town at night and offered me an escape from my pain. Better than all the rum in the world, he said. He could give me happiness, but it came at a price. My human form, it was tainted with grief. But if I let go of it every morning, surrender it and become a ringdove, I could be happy. Soon I was only happy as a bird, and the nights were only more cold and bitter for it.
"Then I found you. And you gave me a home and a purpose." She smiled, "And I could be happy again. Not much, but a shadow of my former joy would return. And I don't know if it was fate or destiny or blind dumb luck that was working, but work it did. I found you, and two years later you brought home Lily. And she was like… the little sister I never had. And I thought surely, this is all the happiness I will ever get back, and even then I was willing to give up my joys as a bird to spend a few hours a day with her. But fate wasn't done."
She smiled wistfully, far away in her thoughts, but I could tell she was reaching the most important part of her tale and I found myself leaning forward, elbows to knees, waiting for her next words with great anticipation.
"She brought me back to her, our Lily did," she laughed, "Back to Belle. And all the heart ache and pain that came with losing her to the politics of the village resurfaced in me with a vengeance. And it was almost more pain than I could bear. But underneath all that garbage was hope, shimmering beautiful hope. Because in those beautiful blue eyes of hers, I saw all the love I had seen in it before we lost one another. And so I sought her out at Lily's party, knowing full well she'd be there, being the best friend and all.
"And I pulled her aside before she could even realize who I was. When we reached the secluded balcony and I revealed myself to her, the happiness and sadness on her face was truly heartbreaking. And I was fully prepared to beg her, full out on my knees, beg her to leave that oaf Tomas, to run with me or to return here with me. But all I could say, with no romantic flourish or charming bravado, all I could ask were five simple words. Do you love me? And though I don't know how or why, she responded in kind, "Always."
"I kissed her then, without thinking or fretting about anything. I just kissed the woman I love. And when I had the strength to pull away from her, I promised I'd find a way to get her back for good. And I left her dazed on the terrace, pushing my way through the crowd and running smack into Lily. When I realized it was her I turned back to speak with her, but she was with Belle. And they were talking about you."
She smiled, not saying another word.
"Well?" I demanded, "What were our ladies gossiping about then?"
I saw her face flash with happiness and relief at my easy acceptance of her. It should have come as no surprise to her. As perceptive as she was, what made her think I wouldn't? Love was love no matter who bestowed it on whom. Fae, human, man, woman… what did any of that matter when your love was pure?
"She'll be coming home, Abel." She finally said, "In fact I am surprised she's not back already."
"Why?" I asked, "Not as if… she could ever love me. Someone as damaged, as wretched as I am." I turned away from her, not wanting to revile any weaknesses.
"Abel, you silly man," she grabbed my elbow and spun me around, "She speaks of you as if you put the stars in the sky. She looks at you as if you are the best thing. Much like the rest of us, she can't stand you, but she understands you. You mean the world to her. And that's why she will return. She loves you."
I felt the smile break across my face, but before I could say anything in response, a small white ball of fur tore through the room and leapt, crashing into my chest. Trembling and huffing with tears streaming down her muzzle, Noreen tried burrowing closer to my chest.
My initial reaction to seeing the little fox, was joy at her return and all the meaning that it held, such as Lily's return. But then when the fear and tears and sorrow registered, I quickly grew panicked and worried. I set her on the desk and knelt so were eye level.
"Little one, please, calm down," I begged, stroking her back, "What has happened?"
"Lily, she… she is dead." Her high voice was reedy and thick with tears as she choked out the words.
It took all my will power and strength to not grab her and shake her, demand for her to stop being so cruel with this obvious lie. But Tegan's gasp and the look in Noreen's eye told me this wasn't a joke.
"What happened?" I heard my voice, but I didn't remember opening my mouth or forming the words.
"Her step mother," she shook violently, anger seeping through her grief and rocking her tiny frame, "Her evil, wicked step mother poisoned her tea."
"Why?" Tegan asked, moving to stand by my side, her hand working to smooth out my own clenched fist. When I relented, I felt the blood drip down my fingertips.
"She's with them," she spat, "The Huntsmen. They mean to kill us all, and she killed Lily for choosing us over her family."
"She's truly dead then?" I asked.
"Very nearly when I left, sir. I wouldn't have left her in such a state, but there was nothing I could do to save her. And her last wish was for you. I could feel it. And I thought maybe, if we could get there…" she hiccupped, close to tears once more, "But it took me too long to get back here. She's surely gone by now."
"Dying for us is an act of pure love," I quickly straightened my spine, "It's possible to save her still. But we must hurry. Tegan, find Tapfer and Alejo, ready our men."
She left in a flurry of skirts, the door slamming behind her.
"Sir they are on their way here." Noreen interrupted my pacing.
Screaming reached our ears, "I think they are already here."
The door burst open, and I half expected to see Tegan retreating back here, she was never the fighter. But I was gravely mistaken. I was rewarded with the sight of an archers extended bow, and the glint of the arrow head pointed directly at me. Everything was in slow motion, and yet I could not react. I could only observe. I saw the intent in his dark eyes, the sweat on his pale brow. I saw the breath leave his body as his fingers released the bowstring and the spinning arrow fly from him headed to its intended home of my heart.
And I heard a defiant, outraged cry. So small and beautiful, like a child playing warriors with her friends. And before I could decipher what it really meant, a small white shape leapt from the desk beside me, and the arrow instead buried in her side. And just like that, time resumed at its normal pace, and Noreen's body crumpled limply at my feet.
The shocked archer's gaze jumped from me to the fox and back again. And as he fumbled for another arrow from his quiver I stomped to him, covering the room with only a few strides. And without thinking of my repercussions, I grabbed his neck and snapped it in my hands like a twig. I watched the light leave his eyes, and I dropped him to the floor.
The small wheezing sound from behind me pulled on my heartstrings. I went to her, blood tainting her pure fur. I held her quivering form as she took her final shallow breaths.
"It was an honor to work for you." She sighed, rolling her big brown eyes up to look at me, fresh tears glistening there.
"It was an honor to call you friend, my dear one." I felt my own tears drip heavily down my cheeks.
She smiled contently before the life left her eyes. And like that, Noreen was gone.
My whole body shook, the paintings and books trembled with the howl of pain, agony and anger that was ripped from my body. I placed the fox carefully down, removing the arrow swiftly as my vision tinted with crimson rivaling her life essence.
The second man who tried to attack me with a sword in the hallway I dispatched of quickly, stabbing him in the neck with the arrow I still clutched tightly.
I turned, made my way towards the sounds of clashing metal, screaming men and women and the smell of fear and smoke. I was drawn outside, and that's when I saw him. That smug face with the dead brown eyes and thinning grey hair. The deep set wrinkles worsened by the gleeful smile he held watching everything unfold before him.
"Viktor." I hissed as I stalked towards him.
A sharp pain in the back of my left knee had me stumbling for a moment. The second knee gave out as well and I cried out, turning to see the two arrows protruding from the backs of my legs. I collapsed, my legs no longer under my control, and I knew the tips had to have been laced with something.
From where I lay in the dirt, I could see all my court members fighting, falling under the attacks of the intruding men. They had outnumbered us, caught us off guard. We never stood a chance. We were wrong the whole time. It wasn't a war the Huntsmen wanted. It was extermination. It was genocide. They weren't planning on moving against me, oh no, they were planning on killing all Fae kind. I was just the first road block they found in way of their goal.
Ropes were tied around my wrists and ankles, the arrows yanked from my flesh. I was rolled, made to bear witness to a fairy have her wings ripped from her back, an elf being burned with steal shackles around his throat, a satyr with his horns tied to one horse, his hooves to another, torn apart… It was all unbearable.
Tegan was thrown on her knees before me. Bruised and bloody, covered in dirt, a haunted look on her face already. She was trying to tell me something, but she was gagged, a filthy rag shoved in her mouth and secured at the back of her head.
I looked up at the two men standing on either side of her. Otto Jäger, and Viktor Venator.
"Abel," Viktor, the South Kingdom's human king, smiled down on me, "It has been, what, ten? Fifteen years? Far too long, that is for certain."
"Not long enough," I spat, "What do you want?"
"To give you what you deserve!" his face contorted with rage, "To kill all the beasts and monsters who dare think they have the right to exist!"
"The only monsters I see are you and your men." I said calmly.
"Now, now, Abel." He growled, "You really mustn't say things like that. Now, I'm going to make you watch as I kill your kin." He pointed a sword at Tegan's throat.
Tegan, so strong and resilient, kept her emotions in check, eyes on me, I saw her breath in deeply, accepting her fate. But I had not accepted it.
"Don't you dare touch her!" I growled, jerking forward only to be pushed back by a boot to the face courtesy of Otto.
"Well if you insist, though it would have been much quicker if you'd let me slit her throat." He looked back at her, "Now that I've had this moment to think about it, she really is too pretty to kill isn't she?"
Fear encased my heart, and I saw it echoed in her tear and dirt smeared face. I felt myself shaking, I couldn't do anything as Viktor whistled, and Otto's eldest son came over to us. He nodded to Tegan, "She's coming with us."
Tomas smiled wickedly as he grabbed her by her hair and yanked her to her feet. She cried out in pain and the man only laughed. He dragged her like that out of my line of sight. I struggled against my own restraints the entire time, straining forward, trying desperately to break free and save her.
I could see now, all the dead Fae surrounding me, and my rage only intensified, "I will kill you all!" I screamed wordlessly until I tasted blood. Viktor only chuckled.
"Shut him up." He turned away from me, "We've got a journey a head of us and I don't want to have to put up with that the whole way."
"I swear, Viktor I will snap your neck and hang you out to dry like the pig you are, you bastard!" I lunged again, but this time there was a heavy thud against the back of my head. I saw an explosion of stars before I was consumed by the darkness.
So I didn't notice the small grey man enter the clearing. I didn't see him stand over the two dead elves. I didn't hear him chant, low and guttural. I did not witness myself die.