A/N: Whoo hoo! Book three is here (sort of). I'm only about four chapters into it, and this book is going to be roughly the same length as the previous books. I'm also still doing some outlining, but I can at least get the first chapter out there. Obviously, since I've decided to post as I go, the updates for Ever After won't be as regular as they were for Changeling and Faery Tales. So, all I ask is that you guys be patient with me.
To the Guest, who's last review I couldn't reply to, I intend to answer your question here! For this particular story arc, this will be the last book. HOWEVER, I've already got a sort of prequel planned and partially written. It'll be called Fairest, and it focuses on the Fairchilds mainly, starting when Leon, Tilda, and Rush are young all the way up to where Changeling begins. I'm also considering writing another book that follows Maggie, Rush, and Darrius after the events of Ever After. That book would also explore Wych Wood Hill and Rae Fairchild. So, if that's something you guys are interested in let me know (but I'll probably write it anyway ;) ).
Phew! Now that that's out of the way, here's the first chapter.
"But it's a special death you save
For me, the brown-eyed daughter"
-Special Death, Mirah
ONCE upon a time, a peasant girl lay slumbering in a cold, damp cellar. For a hundred years, she remained there with just a slot for a window which allowed her a glimpse of sunlight. Thrown in the cellar by a wicked queen, the peasant girl harbored little hope of rescue.
The gallant knight, who sometimes brought her treats, did nothing to go against the queen since she was not his queen, for the knight came from a foreign land. A land not interested in waging a war over a peasant. The king cared not about the suffering of one small girl if it kept his queen appeased. The eldest prince took pleasure in tormenting the girl, pouring waste through her little window, soiling her meager living quarters. The princess was kind, if not compassionate, though the peasant girl held little hope of the princess releasing her. The princess liked keeping her companions close at hand and feared that the peasant girl would run away if she was set free.
After nearly a century of fear and hopelessness, the peasant girl hatches a plan to escape. However, her plan is rushed and sloppily executed. She is caught in the courtyard, mere yards from the window of her cellar. She runs straight into the younger prince. Unlike his brother, the younger prince has largely ignored the peasant girl. Over the decades, she learned the other members of the royal family well, but the younger prince is still a mystery to her. Because of this, she is uncertain what his reaction will be when he sees the peasant girl on the run.
In the past, she noted that the younger prince did not present himself like the rest of his family. While they all wore finery and jewels, the younger prince dressed plainly. He spoke little and only with intention. When the noble families gossip about the royals, the younger prince is often forgotten.
But the other peasants in the land, they know him well. The girl will occasionally hear hushed words about the younger prince exchanged between the butcher and the blacksmith. Fearful and disgusted words. Staring up at him now, with his hands on her shoulders, the peasant girl wonders if she should be fearful as well.
Instead of doing something nasty to her, the younger prince smiles and wraps one arm around her shoulders. "Why do you run?" he asks. "When I have hanged your oppressors."
The younger prince steps aside, revealing the gallows.
Six bodies swing from nooses, their lips blue, faces purple, eyes bulging. It's the king and queen, the princess, and the three youngest royal children. The eldest prince is nowhere to be seen.
"Not to worry," says the younger prince. He responds as if she spoke her thoughts aloud. "My brother won't find you." He reaches inside his coat. The peasant girl recoils when the prince reveals two blood-covered spheres sitting in palm of his gloved hand. "I took his eyes."
Maggie drags her mind out of the dream like she's slogging through molasses. It takes her a moment to orient herself. The dream felt so real that she half expects to find a cobblestoned courtyard outside the egress windows. Slowly, the familiar features of the Fairchilds' basement ground her in reality.
She is not a peasant girl; she's a changeling. This is not the cellar in a castle; it's the basement in a farmhouse, renovated to be a small apartment for her and the other House Pets. Maggie turns her head to look at the empty beds on either side of her. There is still a dark red stain on the wall by Annabelle's bed. Outside, she hears birds singing and searching the dewy grass for breakfast.
It's peaceful. Quiet.
She stares up the beams crisscrossing the ceiling. Never did Maggie anticipate that one day she would wish to stay in this basement, all alone—forever, if need be. The insistent throbbing in her hand is what convinces her to get out of bed. It's been hurting nonstop since she left the Stonybrook Inn.
Stonybrook Inn. She could have stayed there if she chose to. Now, she might not have the chance to return Merle's map to him.
Maggie will have to venture upstairs eventually, otherwise no one will feed the others. She just wants to cling to this peace for a minute longer.
She knows from experience that the concrete floor is a shock to her bare feet, so Maggie carefully steps from rug to rug. Holding her right hand close to her chest, she slips out of her nightgown, letting it drop to the floor. Next, she walks to the closet and selects a green dress. From the dresser, she pulls out a pair of underwear and black stockings. With nothing to numb the pain in her hand, it takes her longer than normal to get dressed. And maybe she is lingering longer than necessary to avoid the world upstairs.
At the base of the stairwell, Maggie wiggles her feet into a worn set of boots, the laces of which she ties one-handed ever so slowly. These are not the house shoes she would normally wear indoors during the colder months. These are her outdoor boots, made of tough leather and lined with thick rabbit fur to warm her toes. It's been twelve days since Leon recaptured the changelings, and Maggie hasn't yet thought of a mode of escape that won't get them all killed. But she plans to be ready to run at a moment's notice should an opportunity present itself.
The steps creak as she ascends to the main floor of the house. Maggie can't recall a time when she was so apprehensive to leave the basement. It feels like she is entering enemy territory. All she wants is to flee back downstairs and crawl into bed again.
The basement door opens sluggishly at her hesitant touch, causing the hinges to tick, tick, tick. Maggie peers into the hallway. It's empty. She can hear noises, though. Someone on the second floor is moaning in pain. She gently closes the door behind her and hurries toward the second-story flight of stairs. It will be better for everyone if she gets to the moaner before it attracts Leon's attention.
Old photographs line the walls on either side of the stairs. Black and white photos of Master and Madam Fairchild and portraits of all the children. Maggie averts her gaze, looking down at her feet, when Tilda's picture comes into view. The floor is surprisingly clean given the abuse she put it through that night. Previously, it was marred by bloody footprints, dripping from the ax, and the smearing of blood and viscera as she dragged bodies down the steps. She and the other changelings worked hard to clean everything up. Now, except for the occasional pink spot on the carpet, anyone would be hard pressed to tell that a massacre had occurred.
Even she has difficulty keeping things straight in her mind. So many details about the house are the same as they've always been. The basement smells damp and musty as it has ever since Maggie can remember. Emerging from the basement into the hallway, the scent in the air makes a dramatic shift; it smells like bread, apples, fresh flowers, and something unique to the Fairchilds that Maggie can't put into words. When the house is quiet like this, she starts to think that the family is simply out for the day, and that they'll be home for dinner. She can pretend that Tilda is going to walk up behind her and braid her hair, or that Rush will meet her in the dark corner of the library.
Another moan interrupts her train of thought. Not all the changelings have taken to Leon's method of restraining them.
She follows the sound to Madam Fairchild's bedroom in the master suite she once shared with her husband. The moaner is Farah. In the bed with her is Dorothy, who appears to be sleeping soundly. Farah, on the other hand, is unconsciously frowning. A sheen of sweat makes her forehead shine. The girl is ghastly pale, nearly gray. Maggie pulls back the blankets.
The bandage around Farah's wounded leg is bloody. Even without her keen sense of smell, which has likely been magically enhanced over the decades, she would still be able to tell that the hole in her leg is infected.
Looking over her shoulder, she sees no sign of Leon. With the coast clear, Maggie reaches under the bed. In a dark corner beneath the headboard is a glass vial with a label across it written in Old Fae. She stashed Rush's remaining sleep tincture there one morning after she noticed Farah's condition was declining. There's nothing Maggie can do for her, except to deepen her sleep so her groans of pain cease. Even if Farah can still feel every ache and throb in that dreamless sleep, muting her voice keeps Leon from noticing her.
These days, none of them want to hold Leon's attention for very long.
Maggie tips the vial and pinches Farah's mouth open. Three drops fall onto her tongue. Maggie helps to wash it down by pouring just a little water into Farah's mouth from a glass she keeps on the nightstand. Farah coughs once, twice, three times and then settles into a quiet slumber again. Maggie replaces the vial under the bed where Leon will hopefully never stumble upon it.
She goes back down the stairs and into the kitchen, pausing briefly to look out the window. There are clouds in the sky, but the sun is shining through them. Sunlight pools on the damp grass giving dewdrops a crystalline glow. It looks warm outside, although that's likely a deception of the sun. Maggie sees leaves and tree branches in the distance being whipped by an early November wind which is surely frigid. She laments the passing of summer as she always does. Faeries in the summertime are less odious than in any other season. Tilda liked summer best.
Turning away from the window, Maggie sets to work cooking breakfast. She makes toast and eggs for most of the changelings. Lela doesn't like eggs, and Hank has a gluten allergy, so she makes oatmeal for them. She also makes one bowl of cream of wheat, which she waters down heavily with milk. This is for Farah, who sleeps more often than not these days, and even if she didn't, Maggie isn't certain she would have the strength to eat anything more solid than this. The cream of wheat has a thinner consistency than oatmeal. No chewing required. She barely needs to swallow it; the hot cereal just slides down her throat.
Maggie doesn't cook anything for Leon.
There isn't enough room at the kitchen island for all the changelings to sit around it, so with much reluctance, she takes two plates and walks toward the door to the dining room. At the swinging door, she hesitates. Before her return home, Maggie hadn't seen this room since she brought Max here to help her clean up the bodies of the Fairchild clan. The bodies that she staged. Now, she's been serving meals in the dining room for days, but she still can't just walk in.
She has to stop. Take a deep breath.
Then, once her mind is clear, she can stride through the door and set the table. Maggie never looks up from the plates. She can't look around the room. Out of the corner of her eye, she sometimes believes she sees blood on the carpet and the tablecloth. She makes one final trip between the kitchen and the dining room to bring a carafe of orange juice and glasses to the table.
Next on her daily to-do list: order everyone out of bed.
Most of them sleep at least double to a bed. Not Maggie, though. She'd offered the other two beds in the basement, but nobody wanted them. She suspects that her group of changelings, including Lela, don't want to sleep downstairs because none of them want the bed Annabelle was shot in. And she guesses that the second group of changelings, Hank's group, wants to distance themselves from Leon's least favorite changeling.
Maggie is just leaving the dining room when she pauses. She knows for a fact that everyone is in bed, but all the same, she thinks she hears something. It's a mechanical grinding coming from somewhere above her head.
It's the meatgrinder, she knows it is. She remembers, because that's what she used to grind the Fairchilds into slop for their sandwiches. And when she couldn't bear to look at the meatgrinder every time she entered the walk-in pantry, she moved it into the attic. Ever since Leon captured them, she's been hearing it intermittently. The worst is when she hears it at night through the vents.
She wonders if Leon somehow knows this. If he figured out what she did, how she did it, and is now using the appliance to torture her.
Only when the grinding ceases can Maggie convince herself to ascend the stairs again. She returns to Farah and Dorothy's room first. Although she can't see him, she knows that in the connected, adjacent room where Master Fairchild used to sleep is Hank. She'll get to him in a minute.
This time when she enters, Dorothy is awake. Her hazel eyes are open, tracking Maggie across the room.
Maggie has never paid much attention to eyes beyond their color and their initial impression. All it takes is one look at Leon's ice blue eyes, and she feels chilled to the bone. She's always been fascinated by the color of Rush's eyes. They're such a dark shade of brown that they're nearly black while the rest of his pigmentation is pale to the point of being almost colorless. His eyes are the only parts of him that are warm. Even though Madam Fairchild had the same pale skin, fair hair, and dark eyes, she radiated a different air than her son. Somehow, her eyes weren't warm like Rush's. It was like staring into an ominous abyss.
But recently, Maggie has been paying special attention to eyes. Frequently, it's the only method the other changelings have for communicating with her. Leon gave Maggie limited orders she's allowed to give them, and talking isn't one of them. She can order them out of bed, she can order them to eat and go to the bathroom as well as other daily functions of life, and she can order them to and from any room in the house. That's it. Not that she hasn't attempted to give them other orders. When they first found themselves under Leon's thumb, Maggie tried ordering Luke to leave the house with her in the middle of the night. He'd simply stared at her, still flat on his back in Rush's bed next to Max, and didn't move a muscle.
So, talking with the other changelings is out of the question. That leaves Maggie straining to listen to the words trapped behind their eyes.
Dorothy's hazel eyes are steady on Maggie. They don't flit to look at anything else for even half a second. In the beginning, Dorothy's eyes were desperate, pleading with Maggie to do something. Enough time has passed now that she doesn't look at Maggie with desperation anymore. There's an accusing hopelessness in her gaze.
Why haven't you done anything to get us out of here? Maggie imagines Dorothy saying. And yet, at the same time, she's accepted the possibility that Maggie will do nothing.
"I'm trying," she tells Dorothy. "If I don't execute this just right, then more of us will die than escape."
Dorothy rolls her eyes. Her gaze comes to rest on the wall, refusing to acknowledge Maggie anymore.
"Fine. Be angry. You don't have to like me," Maggie says resolutely. "But you do need to get up, so get out of bed."
Like a puppet, Dorothy does as she's told. Farah is still asleep, soundly after Maggie administered Rush's sleeping tincture. Ever since their arrival, Maggie has handfed Farah in bed rather than bringing her down the stairs to the dining room for meals. Whenever Leon joins them for meals, she's paranoid that he'll finally notice Farah's absence, and she will have to find some way to explain to him why one of the changelings isn't at the table. He probably won't take 'she's dying from an infected gunshot wound' for an answer.
She prays that he won't be here today, although she doesn't hold out much hope. His presence in the house is unpredictable. He's left them alone for the past two days; Maggie has a feeling that today he'll make an appearance.
Dorothy has no choice but to stand motionless as Maggie undresses her. She's gotten used to dressing and undressing all of them by now. At first it was awkward for everyone. They didn't have any choice but to accept her assistance. They couldn't even protest. Most of them had fallen into a routine at this point, so some of the awkward feelings have faded. It helps that Dorothy is not one of the shy ones.
Dorothy may conscious and tense, but her body isn't stiff. Her arms and legs are pliant under a small amount of pressure and direction from Maggie. It's easy to pull off the nightgown of Madam Fairchild's that Dorothy is wearing. At first, Maggie tried dressing everyone in their own clothes, but eventually that became too cumbersome. It is far easier to put the girls in dresses that once belonged to Madam Fairchild or Tilda rather than working their legs into jeans. She has a hard enough time getting pants on the boys no matter how loose the pants are.
Today, she chooses a dark blue dress of Madam Fairchild's. The satin sleeves are supposed to end at the elbows, though the matriarch had been more slender and taller than Dorothy is, and the Pit Fighter is bulkier in places where Madam Fairchild used to be thin. Maggie takes a letter opener from the dresser and pops the buttons off the sleeves to let them out a bit. The fit of the dress isn't perfect, but it doesn't look uncomfortable. And it's not as if she can ask Dorothy for her opinion.
She smooths the fabric, ignoring the intensity of Dorothy's eyes, the way they seem to be trying to consume Maggie.
"There. All done. Go down to the dining room while I get the others ready."
Dorothy abruptly walks out of the bedroom, following instructions.
Maggie repeats this process with the other changelings. Hank in the adjoining room, then Lela, Chelle, and Kayla who have taken up residence in Tessa and Charise's room, and so forth. Luke and Max are the last ones she attends to. It's still awkward dressing and undressing these two, although for very different reasons. Luke is the only one who knows one of her two deep, dark secrets—the one secret that she is arguably more ashamed of than six counts of murder. He understands why she freezes every time she hears the meatgrinder start making noise up in the attic.
With Max, she dreads being the reason for his vulnerability. Not because he knows any of her secrets, but because he doesn't seem to care anymore. About anything. There used to be fire in his eyes. He used to fight her. He would have hung her out to dry if he figured out that she actually went through with her heinous Plan B, as he dubbed it. It's been about a month since she's seen him. Nowadays, whenever she helps him with something—dressing him, guiding him into the bathroom, quickly bathing him—he looks at her with defeated brown eyes.
He doesn't care, she can see it. Max doesn't care about anything. Not the indignity of being totally reliant on her, not Leon who has reached a whole new level of sadistic. She believes he'd have the same dull look in his eyes if Leon shot him in the chest with a flaming arrow. A depressive combination of fatalism and acceptance.
She can't look into Luke's eyes, because he knows what she's done. And she can't look into Max's eyes, because she feels partially responsible for the slow death of his spirit.
The two boys sleep in Rush's bedroom. His room has a certain scent that differs from the rest of the house. It smells like him: sweet on the surface but with a sour undertone. Rush has always smelled that way. Tilda and Madam Fairchild had a cloying floral scent, while the other men in the family smelled woodsier, like dead leaves. Maggie never got close enough to the youngest three to become acquainted with their scents. None of them smelled like Rush, though.
His scent manages to be both enticing and repulsive at the same time. She has the same reaction to his bedroom. It signifies safety and imprisonment simultaneously.
She sees Max and Luke lying next to each other on Rush's bed. Just like Dorothy and Farah, they're completely motionless. Maggie feels bad for ordering them around, but that's the only way this works. If she poses her orders as requests, then the changelings do nothing. If she asks them questions, they can't answer. The only way they respond is to a direct order, and even then, just orders that she is authorized to give.
Maggie has gotten good at dressing them without looking at them, so she doesn't have to see Luke's disappointment or Max's defeat. She doesn't lift her head until after she tells them to go down to the dining room. When the only thing she can see is the other side of their heads. She watches their backs as they descend the stairs. Luke, with the dark skin of his neck where it meets the tight, black curls on his head. And there's the pale skin of Max's neck, no longer sun-kissed from the clear summer skies, and mostly covered by brown hair that's getting too long. They are both dressed in Rush's clothes.
Sometimes, she catches a whiff of him on them and gets the mad idea that perhaps Rush has come to their rescue. The fleeting thought is gone in an instant as she remembers what she told Darrius months ago.
When no one comes to save you, you have to become a special kind of monster to save yourself.
At the top of the staircase, the meatgrinder in the attic comes to life again. Maggie freezes while the boys continue on as if they don't hear a thing. She feels like she's back in the pantry, in the early hours of the morning, feeding pieces of the Fairchilds into the appliance and grinding them into shapeless mush. One memory flashes into the next, and she's standing over the stove using a spatula to cook the ground meat in the pan. Even though she's rubbed the meat with whatever spices she could find, the noxious scent of burnt sugar overpowers everything, searing the inside of her nose.
Gasping, Maggie banishes the memories. She's stalk still in the middle of the hallway, knees locked and fearfully sweating. Her legs shake like her bones are made of rubber as she takes the steps one at a time.
In the dining room, all the changelings except Farah—so, Luke, Max, Chelle, Lela, Fitz, Matthew, Hank, Gunner, Chaz, Dorothy, and Kayla—are seated around the table. Their faces don't move, except for their eyes. Maggie goes around filling their plates and pouring drinks. She faces the table once more, about to order them all to eat, when she chokes on her tongue.
Blood leaks through the ceiling. It rolls down the walls all the way down to soak into the carpet. It pools in the middle of the ceiling and drips onto the table. Black flies emerge from the blood and buzz around the chandelier as well as the plates of food. It's not a hallucination. The others see it, too. Their eyes follow the flies and the dripping blood.
Numbly, Maggie thinks that Tilda's bedroom is the one directly above the dining room.
A hand falls on her shoulder.
Startled, she tries to jerk away from the contact, but the hand tightens its grasp. Hesitantly, she looks over her shoulder.
Pale, mottled flesh greets her. It's stitched together clumsily, creating a patchwork of a person. The glowing eyes are the most unsettling part. Leon Fairchild finally looks like the monster he's always been.
"Well," he rasps. Maggie's gaze is drawn to the purplish-red slash across his throat. "Aren't you going to order them to eat?"
"Eat," she tells them. Leon's hand remains on her shoulder, fingers digging into the tendons. The changelings jump to life, pouncing on the food voraciously. It's like they can't control themselves. Like they have to do as she says without stopping to breathe. There's at least some truth to that. She's learned to make their portions smaller, because there is nothing she can do to stop them from devouring everything on their plates. On the first day she made them breakfast, both Lela and Chaz vomited.
Leon moves, releasing her to fish a vial out of his pocket. He goes to Matthew, who sits nearest, and grabs his head. He roughly tilts his chin up and inelegantly splashes liquid from the vial into Matthew's open mouth. Like Maggie did when she served them, Leon makes it all the way around the table to administer the liquid to the other changelings. With a smirk, he comes back to Maggie and tucks the vial away again. Maggie swallows.
"None for me?"
"No, none for you." His smile grows wider. It almost looks painful. "You're free to do as you please. You could even leave if you wanted." But she won't go and abandon the others here with him, and Leon knows it.
"Why?" she asks through clenched teeth. Why is she the only one who gets to move and speak freely? Maggie is the one he hates. If he's going to torture anyone, it should be her.
"Why didn't I do to you what I did to them?" Leon's smile twists into something darker. "Because I have something special in mind for you. Now, I'm just waiting for the right moment." He turns his strange eyes on her. So close to her and unblinking. "You'll know when it's time."