Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
The world is outlines. Outside of the gleam of his eyes and the paleness of his hair, I can make out only silhouettes, blocks where the darkness is thicker than others. The silence is so profound that I can hear the blood surging in my head.
“Where am I?” I whisper.
“Never you mind.”
I smell snapdragons, and then a foot grinds into my hand, making me gasp.
“Perhaps you might tell me where the riders are going, now?” he asks, his voice dangerously sweet.
“You had – your three questions”
“Yes, but I’m not asking anymore.”
“You said you’d leave me alone—”
“And that I did. Until you said ‘help me, help me’, and I valiantly stepped in to save you.”
He leans harder on my hand, crouching down and grabbing me by the jaw. His bitten nails press into my skin, and I spit in his face.
He slaps me so hard that the world cants sideways.
“That’s not a nice way to treat your rescuer,” he snarls, and he presses his whole weight onto my chest, crushing the breath out of me. His hands roam, catching hold of the notebook crammed under my arm. “You ran back to get this, didn’t you? Let’s have a look.”
How he manages to read it in this darkness, I can’t guess. But his restless hands flip through page after page, vigorously enough to tear the paper. I squirm under him, trying to free my pinned arms, but he keeps his legs clamped either side of me.
He rakes through the last pages like he’s shuffling cards. Then he stops.
“This girl,” he says, and he turns the notebook towards me. “Who is she?”
My blood runs cold. He’s stopped at a photo near the back, and I can just barely make it out – some Polaroid of me and Violet in the garden, tending the foxgloves with Mum. Violet must be about eleven, but she’s barely any different – still with that long, coal-dark hair, her round face and warm eyes.
“Friend of mine,” I spit out. “We go way back.”
But the faer’s face is alight with wonder. He looks to me, then to the photo again – squints to read something scrawled beneath the picture—
“I think,” he says, “that you’re a liar.”
And then he presses a hand over my mouth. The world shrinks to a tunnel, to a disc, to a pinpoint, and then it’s gone.
Mum is sitting at the table.
I’m alone with her, which makes my pulse spike. She’s got her hands lightly folded over each other, her skin pale against the wood. It’s old skin. Veiny, knotted, speckled like rotting leaves. I reach out to prod it, but she pulls her hands out of the way.
You have to find me, she says, in a voice that sounds like mine. Find me before he does.
I want to say that I don’t understand, but she reaches forward and presses her finger to my lips. I taste soil.
Find me, she says again.
Her other hand lifts, tracing the side of my face with feather softness. Something splinters inside me, and I lean into the contact. But then her fingers snap off under the weight of my head, and a breeze from the window tears her apart. She clatters across the table as a thousand leaves.
And I wake.
I can still taste soil on my tongue, along with something dirty and metallic. Hard floorboards press into my cheek, and one of my hearing aids is gone. I can hear a rumble that might be someone’s voice, but the details are sanded off. My eyes are too heavy to lift, my eyelashes gummed with blood from the cut on my forehead.
A hand grabs my shoulder, pushing me onto my back. Then it presses over my face and the heaviness lifts from my eyelids; I force them open to see the faer standing above me. He’s saying something.
“I can’t hear,” I croak. “My hearing aid—”
He pulls it out of his jacket pocket, eyeing it like a dead thing. My hand is leaden when I take it from him, clumsy as I slot it back in my ear – it lets out a whistle—
“Shut it up,” the faer mouths. “It was doing that before. I’ll take it away again.”
I scrabble, with stiff fingers, to secure it. The whistling quietens, but the faer still glowers. I know I should be taking stock of where I am – some half-lit box room, with an unmade bed in one corner – but every part of me is charged with fear. My cheek throbs with the force of the earlier slap, and my body is so sluggish that I can’t even raise my head.
The faer arches his eyebrow.
“The girl’s brother,” he says. “How different you both look. I didn’t even think you human, at least until you started telling lies.”
“I’m not a liar,” I say. “She’s my friend. That’s all.”
“God, you are tiresome.” He holds the notebook up. “It’s written here, in your mother’s hand. Yes, I know who your mother was.”
I grit my teeth. Some part of me wants to bite back with a comment about knowing his mother, in more ways than one, but my jaw hurts and I don’t want to be hit again.
“If you know who she was, you know I’ll be wanting that notebook back,” I say, even though I’m not sure I do now. “Give it to me, let me go, and I promise I’ll tell you where the riders are headed.”
The faer’s eyes flash. “What makes you think I need to know?”
“Maybe because you tried to beat the fucking info out of me—”
“And failed, by happy accident. You aren’t going to tell me where your sister is. You’re going to take me to her.”
I laugh, but it sounds strangled. "What, just like that? I don't even know where she is.”
“You do. Blood calls to blood - the route is in here.” He jabs me hard in the chest. “And you will show me what it is.”
My heart hammers. “You're sure about that, flower crown?”
He slaps me again, across the other cheek. There’s a twisty Christmas-cracker ring on his middle finger; the plastic jewel bites into my skin.
"I'm certain sure,” he says, putting his face close to mine. “You owe me a favour, little rat. Did I not save your life?”
“You tried to get me killed—”
“I threw a stone, in frustration, and it clipped the icon – most unfortunate. I still might have left you, when the forest-faer came blundering through the trees, but I heard your cries for help.” His mouth quirks. “And I answered.”
He’s right. I can feel it in my gut – the sick, heavy feeling of owing. With it comes the seething rage that, under normal circumstances, I would stamp out by way of some short, sharp words, most of them rhyming with ‘runt’.
But the voice is whispering in the back of my head, with a tone like crackling leaves. Be careful, it says.
“Fine,” I say, swallowing. “Name your terms.”
“You will lead me to your sister, wherever she is. You will make no attempt to obstruct, delay, or prevent me. And—” he hesitates a moment “—you will do everything in your power to conceal your relationship to her from anyone who asks.”
Terms always come in threes. They can be as broad or specific as you like, but broad terms are open to exploitation and pitted with loopholes. He’s rehearsed these ones, thought about them carefully – far more carefully than the questions he asked me during the struggle by the stream.
“Anyone who asks?” I say steadily. “Who else is going to ask?”
His white eyes bore into me. “Do you accept?”
I glare up at him, pinned to the floor by my own lethargy. Looked at directly, there’s nothing terrifying about him. He’s just some fucking flower-crown twink in a pair of Adidas trainers. But shadows shift around him when I narrow my eyes, and his teeth are like thorns.
I lift my hand slowly. He grasps it in a crushing grip, and we shake.