Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
I’m young, but not that young. I don’t have my hearing aids in – I never do, at this age, because the kids laugh and point – so the world is a soundless bubble around me. I’m sitting on the window sill in the living room, watching the moonlight swim in the puddles outside.
And then I see her. The mushroom silhouette of her brolly, her hair desaturated by the slantwise rain. My heart lifts, but then a hand squeezes it tight, as if to milk the blood from it.
A key in the lock, the stamp of muddy boots, the scrape of the brolly closing. Mum pulls her coat off and slings it on the rack. Despite the brolly, raindrops bead her hair like tiny pearls. It’s as red as mine now. Redder.
She turns to go upstairs. Sees me. Stops.
What’re you doing up?
I have to read her lips, because her voice lies beyond the bubble. I can well imagine the bite in it, though, and it stoppers my throat. I shrug, avoiding her eyes.
Were you-- she presses her lips together. Were you waiting for me?
I don’t know if she wants me to nod or not. I move my head in some ambiguous way. A line appears between her brows.
And then she’s moving, striding towards me, and her arms are tight around my shoulders. I can smell the wet wool of her jumper; her hair tickles my face, suffused with the musky tang of enchantment. I lean into her, clinging to her arms, breathless, wordless--
She jerks free, pushing me so hard that I bang my elbow on the window frame. She backs away a few paces, turning to face the wall. Her shoulders rise and fall with one long, deep breath.
Then she looks back at me. Her eyes are too bright.
Go to bed, she says. You’ve got school tomorrow.
I scuttle past her, my head bowed. In the morning, Violet sees the cut on my elbow and asks where it came from. I only shrug.
I wake a little after daybreak, my eyelids heavy, shuddering off the remains of something half-remembered. There’s a moment – and god, what a fantastic moment it is – before I recall exactly where I am. Then I see the messy berry-painting on the wall, remember the blushing faer, and feel altogether like I want to crawl into a ditch.
Riders, I remind myself. A faer who sells cheeses.
I force myself out from under the heavy covers. A basin of water steams by the hearth, and I wash quickly, soaping my hair and letting it dry in the fire-heat. I rummage around in my backpack for a new shirt, finding a flouncy button-down which, if memory serves, is enchanted to stay warm and dry. It’s fuck-ugly and cuts under my arms, but I slide into it anyway.
I slot my hearing aids in and shoulder my pack, ramming a few oatcakes into my mouth. I tidy the room and leave a toffee on the pillow, just in case Mrs Blushing Housekeeper employs faers and not abair. Best to be polite, even on neutral ground.
I creep down to the front door, shivering in the wet air. Said housekeeper is at the gate, jabbering away to something I can’t see. Her gaze won’t settle, and she lowers her voice when I come near. I incline my head as I pass, trying not to run.
The village looks even shabbier by daylight, but just as dead. Most of the houses are shuttered and silent and smokeless, but the plants haven’t yet claimed them, which means they can’t have been abandoned for long. I can’t help wondering at that.
The biggest building lies in the heart of the village, the one with the yard full of goats. I spot an abair amongst them, tossing grains into a trough. It’s not the first time I’ve seen one, and he’s as boring and lanky and brown-haired as any stranger I might make a pass at after too many ciders. But when his eyes pass over me, it rubs gooseflesh up my arms.
He doesn’t look for long. Just goes back to the goats. I pull my eyes away and make for the door, but the fear has set in again, like damp. I look at the charms strung from the eaves and the foxgloves twisting out of the cracks in the brickwork, wondering what the hell I’m doing here.
Pretend, the voice whispers. Lie.
The fear eases. I push the door open, breathing in the smell of old milk.
Behind the counter sits the least human-looking faer I’ve seen yet. He’s got more than a passing resemblance to the goats outside, with his horizontal pupils and coarse, yellowy hair. There are even horns pushing out from the tangle – three pairs of them, most of them chipped. His lips shrink back from black teeth.
“What’re you wanting?” he asks. The counter is heaped with sagging white discs. “We got goats’ cheese, lots of kinds. There’s orangey ones and berry ones, and big ones.”
I remember my bland oatcakes. “They’re fresh?”
His eyes flicker. “There’s- there’s lots of flavours. You’ll like some, I bet.”
“Maybe later,” I say. A deep breath. “I’m after information, actually.”
“I hear you saw something.” I make my voice casual. Think Hollywood detective, off-hand, devastatingly hot, cares only about the case. “Riders, with a human woman, three nights ago. Did you see where they went?”
He goes still. “Why d’you want to know?”
“She - she owes me money,” I settle on. “I’ve got batteries, food, knives, whatever. I can trade.”
“I don’t need none of that,” he says, in a tight voice. “You sure you don’t want any cheese?”
“No, I’m looking for—”
“Then you should leave, I reckon.”
Annoyance sparks in me. “I’m a guest in your shop.”
“An’ this is neutral ground.” He looks towards the door, twisting his horny little fingers together. “If you en’t going to buy anything, that means you en’t got—”
“I am going to buy something. The information.”
“I already got a buyer for that. Get out.”
The words hit like scalding water. “You what?”
“You deaf, kid?” he says, and I’m too nonplussed to say yes, actually, I bloody am. “I got a buyer. It en’t for sale, and if you got any sense, you’ll move on.”
I feel unsteady on my feet; the world is bubble-like, just as it is whenever I take my hearing aids out. Someone else is looking for her. Someone who tracked this guy down before I did. I look at his sloppy cheeses, old and stinking. I remember the voice: lie.
I sling my bag off and reach inside, pulling out the notebook. I flip to the back for a clean page – tear it out, grapple for a Sharpie. Then I write, in clear, block capitals, with all the flourishes I can muster:
FRESH CHEESE SOLD HERE – BEST IN THE FAERLANDS
“Here,” I say, holding it up. “Did the other buyer offer you this?”
His eyes widen as he reads it. The brusqueness vanishes from his face.
“Nobody will know a human wrote it,” I press. “You can have it. I can write you as many as you want; I’ll call you a cheesemaker extraordinaire, bloody cheese wizard, whatever the hell you want. Just tell me where my- where the woman went.”
He gnaws at his lip, still looking towards the door. Then he beckons me closer with a crooked hand.
“I want ten of ‘em,” he says. “An’ I want you to put the address on, so’s I can spread ‘em about…”
There’s only just enough blank notepaper. I tear some of it badly, but he doesn’t seem to be concentrating on that. As I copy out the same message, adding the address and other overblown adjectives, he watches the lies form under my hands with hunger in his face. To even call him a cheesemaker is a lie. He’s got abair to do the crafting. I wonder if he’s even got the strength to hold a pen.
I shuffle the signs together, holding them to my chest.
“Now tell me where the woman went,” I say. “And - and tell just me. If I give you these, you can’t tell that other buyer anything.”
Goat man scowls, but he can’t stop staring at the signs. “I saw riders, is all. Royal ones, by the clothes. They were goin’ north, to the town with the twin hawthorns – I’ll be betting they want passage to the inner Faerlands.”
“And the woman? You saw her with them?”
“Tied up on the horse,” he said. “She didn’t look pleased, she didn’t.”
“Okay,” I say. I hold out the leaflets, but whip them out of reach as he grapples for them. “Remember. You can’t tell anybody else this.”
A sullen crease dents his forehead, but he nods. Then he snatches the papers out of my hand and shoos me from the shop.
It’s easier to walk than to think. I set out into the woods just as the sun passes the midday point, clipping on my earphones and listening mindlessly to Bowie. The deeper I press into the forest, the darker it gets. Mistletoe disappears from the branches, and the sensation of eyes presses from all sides.
Royal riders. Going north, to the inner Faerlands. The knowledge thrums in my head. I tell myself it’s worry – I'm worried about her, worried about what the hell she’s done to get caught up in this, worried about what it all means. But beneath it simmers something white and scalding. I think of my cousin, vanished into the woods at eight years old. There was nothing complicated about that. Nobody went after him.
My feet come to a stop, once or twice. I look left and right, searching the trees for the bobbing lights of the Road. I could go back. Tell Gran I found Violet, dead-eyed, working as an abair to a cheesemaker in the outer Faerlands.
She wouldn’t believe me.
I don’t care.
But the memory-dream from last night drifts back to me. Violet sitting me down on the edge of the bath, rubbing Sudocrem into my cut elbow. She didn’t ask again where I’d got it, but she bought a bag of Starburst on the way to school and gave me all the purple ones, even though they were her favourites.
I keep walking. The darkness gathers and my phone dies, cutting Bowie off mid-chorus. I pick out the silver thread of a stream and sit down on the banking, eating old crackers and a few fun-sized Snickers. There’s more food in the bag than I remember packing.
I don’t know how far I am from the nearest settlement, which makes me uneasy. I pull out mum’s notebook, looking for advice on getting stranded in the woods. I remember something, vaguely, about protective sights. Trees that will hide you, in exchange for tribute. Saltwater ponds that faers avoid.
I turn to a likely page, written in brilliant blue ink.
And the first word I see is
I’ve just enough time to look up before the hand closes over my mouth.