I’m gearing up to start writing the sequel to a fantasy novel that I started submitting to publishers at the beginning of January. Kendra exists independent of my novel’s characters, but she’s given me a new way to explore their world and to see another side of the conflict that’s taking shape in it.
Time doesn’t mean anything in Faerie, but that’s no excuse for being late. I’m lying on my belly beneath the branches of an old hawthorn tree with nothing for light but a full moon, and there’s no sign of my contact anywhere. I’ve been here so long my wool shirt’s soaked through with dew and all the feeling’s gone out of my legs. I’m getting real close to packing it up and going home. These days this kind of cloak and dagger stuff is riskier than ever, which was why the red caps sent me—I’m expendable.
When someone took out the High King a few months back me and the red caps went to ground. We’d heard the rumors about war coming same as everybody else, but none of us believed it. Next thing we know old Silver-Hand is dead, his court’s been slaughtered, and his allies are on the warpath ready to mow down anyone they think might’ve had a hand in his death. But their attacks on the Solitary Fae to beat them back into submission has only encouraged more of them to rise up. Now I hear talk of red caps banding together with the other Solitary Folk and an army gathering deep in the Hollow Hills. But we’re called Solitary for a reason—we don’t play nice with others.
Not that I’m one of them. I’m human, same as you. I had a human name once—Kendra I think it was—but names have too much meaning in Faerie so everyone just calls me, ‘Girl.’ The red caps stole me as a baby. Humans make good pets for faeries, and there’s plenty of gold for those willing to risk their necks to snatch ’em. I don’t have much say in it. I go where I’m sent and do what I’m told—most of the time anyway. That’s why I’m out here lying in the dirt to meet with a faery about a baby she wants specially placed. Gristle, my band’s leader, wouldn’t risk his own neck in what could be a trap, but he wasn’t going to pass up the chance for gold a baby swapped for a Gentry child would bring. If I’m caught and killed trying to get it for him he’ll lose more sleep over loosing the money than me.
I hear a trill of whistling notes, like a songbird, only it’s the middle of the night and all the birds that sing like that have been quiet since sundown. Trust the Gentry to come up with some sissy signal like that. Everything they do has to be soft and pretty. In answer, I set my tongue against the roof of my mouth and make a noise like a rattlesnake tail to let the faery know the coast’s clear.
She doesn’t come out right away. She’s more cautious than most. After a second or so, a tall faery wearing a slinky, shiny, silver robe steps out from behind a tree. The sight of her is like a knuckle to the gut. She’s that beautiful. In the moonlight her white-gold hair shines like platinum, and she’s got it braided back from her face in a dozen tiny braids that come together to form one thick one that sweeps the back of her knees. Her blue river eyes sweep through the trees looking for me. She’s carrying a bundle in her arms, but of course I’m expecting that. It’s the whole reason we’re both here.
“You’re takin’ a big risk,” I say, crawling out from under the hawthorn so she can see me. “And I can’t make any guarantees your baby’ll be safe on the other side.” At the sound of my voice she whirls, and the bottom of her long gown flows in a graceful arc around her legs that makes me extra aware of my chewed off fingernails and the dark rings that circled my neck where sweat and dirt has settled since my last bath.
“She’s far safer in the uncertain future you can provide than here where her fate is assured.” I roll my eyes. We call them the Gentry for a reason. Everything about them is fancy, especially the way they talk. I squint at her. I’ve never seen one like her up close. Before the old king died she’d have stabbed out my eyes for daring to look at her without permission, but without a leader her people are running scared and she can’t afford to turn on me. She needs my help.
A breeze blows through the forest rustling the leaves. She spins, frantic as a doe backed into a corner with hounds snapping at her feet. Her long braid snaps around so fast I actually hear the end crack like a whip.
Suddenly she swoops at me and shoves her baby into my arms. Her blue-silver eyes are wide as she searches the trees. She’s half-guarding me, half-ready to flee.
“Promise me you’ll get her out of here,” she hisses over her shoulder. I tell her what she wants to hear and some of the tension goes out of her. I want to roll my eyes again. That’s the one advantage humans have over the fae and they’re horrible at guarding against it—we can lie. Since they literally can’t speak anything but the absolute truth they always assume everything you tell them is true too. Of course if they catch you in a lie it doesn’t end well for you. If they’ll stab out your eyes for looking at them imagine what they do if they find out you’ve deceived them. Take my word for it, it’s not pretty.
She takes one last look at her baby, and quick as a hare she dashes away. The silver of her gown kicks up and between one blink and the next her body morphs and dissolves into a puff of wind that kicks up a few stray leaves and she’s gone. It’s a cool trick.
Once I’m sure she’s really gone I peel back one fold of the quilted leaves to see what’s so special about this kid. My eyebrows shoot up.
Usually I operate at the other end of a swap. I’m a Snatcher. I’m the one that drops the changelings into the cradles and steals the human kids away. I only ever deal with the weak and sickly Solitary Fae that nobody wants. The red caps slap a glamour on them to make them look like the kid when we switch ‘em, and the humans raise them and wonder how their cute little offspring turn into such odd, ugly kids overnight.
But this baby’s different. She’s beautiful with a helmet of orange and gold hair that glows like fire sprouting from a face as brown as a hazelnut. Sensing me looking she opens her eyes and they’re the color of the ale the clurichauns sell at the harvest market. Like most faeries the tips of her ears narrow into sharp points. Whoever gets this one won’t have any reason to complain.
I tuck her back in and prepare to set off for my camp. I haven’t taken two steps when a twig snaps. They’re on me before I can draw my little bronze dagger. Red caps. Three of them. They’re not from Gristle’s band, which makes them even more dangerous to me.
“What d’you want?” I half-turn, trying to shield the baby and keep all three of them in sight. Luckily for me none of them are carrying any weapons that I can see. Red caps prefer big blunt tools they can use to beat their enemies bloody.
“You got something we want,” says the leader in a voice that belongs on a bullfrog. My insides freeze. I tighten my grip around the baby.
“Shame you let the mother get away,” says the one to my right. He smells like old feet. His face is lopsided, the left half sagging like he’s lost control of the muscles somehow.
“If you hurry you can still catch her,” I say with a simpering smile that I drop a second later to glare at them. “Hands off, boys. This one’s mine.”
“Wrong,” croaks the bullfrog. “This one belongs to the Ash Queen, and if you knew what was good for you you’d swear your allegiance to her too.” My heart sinks. I’ve heard of the Ash Queen. She’s the one who ordered the hit that took out the High King, and if what these red caps are saying is true then she’s gathering more followers for her rebellion than I’d thought. But hat’s got nothing to do with me. I’m not fae. I tip up my chin.
“With the way kings and queens are dropping around here I don’t think I’ll waste my time.” I look between them, wondering if I can fight my way out, but even though they’re not much taller than me I know that they’re at least three times as strong. The one on the left pulls his cap off his head and starts running it between his long fingers. I notice it’s a light rust color and not the usual dark crimson. He’s due for a new dye job. Suddenly I’m extra aware of the blood throbbing through my veins. I know defeat when I smell it. This time it smells like old feet.
“Here.” I hold out the baby, resentful. I hate losing. I also hate the thought of the pretty little girl going into the Ash Queen’s lair. I wonder who she is and why her mother’s so desperate to get her away. If she’s one of the Gentry why won’t her own people protect her? Even if the mother’s on the run, the Fair Folk usually take care of their own.
I let the Ash Queen’s henchmen take her away. She’s got a life of labor like mine to look forward to. The Queen won’t kill her. She’ll put the poor thing to work the moment she’s big enough to stand. It’s no fun seizing power if you don’t have anyone to lord it over, after all.
Whatever happens it’s not my problem anymore. The red caps bare their teeth at me, leering. I hold up my little dagger, reminding them what happens to anyone who messes with me. They might prefer bludgeons to blades, but I’ve taught more than a few of them to fear the sight of a sharp edge in my hand. The bullfrog grunts and leads the others away.
After I’m sure they haven’t circled back to follow me I turn and head back to my band’s camp. I’m scrambling to think up an excuse for why I’m coming back empty-handed. I’ve had my eye on a new silver dagger with diamonds in the hilt that’d come back in one of band’s latest raids. Considering how much money the baby should have brought us, Gristle promised me I could have it once I completed this mission. Well, what he didn’t know wouldn’t kill him. I’ll just tell him the faery never showed. Like I said, faeries’ll take you at your word. They have no defense against a good solid lie.
Thanks for reading!