Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
The faer announces – with a flourish of his hands, as if to an auditorium – that he wants to sleep. But he doesn’t, and I don’t either. The heaviness is gone from my limbs now, but I can’t compel myself to the door. I want to go to it. Want to wrench it open, thunder down the stairs, out into the forest, fuck finding Violet, fuck everything. I want it so badly that sweat beads on my neck and forehead. But my body won’t move. I shook his hand.
I shook his hand.
Nonetheless, I survey the room, looking for cracks and boltholes and weaknesses. It’s small, with soil scattered across the floorboards and a stillness beneath them - there's nobody else here, wherever we are. One rotted window sits high on the back wall and branching shadows knit like veins across the floor, with nothing to cast them. There’s just one mattress and the faer is on it, curled up like a question mark and lying too rigid to be asleep. I wonder how old he is. I wonder why he’s searching for Violet. I wonder if he knew my mother, or just knew who she was, and then I remember the dream and my head hurts and I dig fingers into my temples until I stop wondering.
That’s why I can’t sleep. I’m not afraid of the faer anymore, not now he needs me – that bastard wouldn’t hurt me unless I was awake to feel it, anyway. I’m only afraid of closing my eyes and finding myself at that dining table, dead leaves skittering through my hair.
The notebook is on the floor, within arm’s reach. I pin it in place with my eyes. I keep hearing branches rasping together, which makes me shiver. I remember mum’s voice in the dream, mingled with mine. I think of the notebooks saying run, that’s the problem, come and find me. I think of the whispering in the back of my head.
Is it you? I ask silently. Are you there?
But there’s only silence, and the rustle of the faer rearranging his clumpy feet.
I must sleep at some point, because I wake with a crick in my neck, achy ears and daylight burning my eyes. Something kicks my knee.
“Up,” says the faer. “We’re going.”
I frown through my fingers. “Where?”
“Wherever your heart reaches for.”
I pull a face. “Bit early for Wetherspoons, isn’t it?”
He clearly doesn’t get the reference, because he frowns like a kid left on the outskirts of an in-joke – then kicks my knee again, harder. I pull myself to my feet, scraping soil from my hair and dusting myself down. My face smarts with cuts and bruises from the scrap by the stream yesterday. The faer’s face is similarly marred – twin scratches across one cheek, probably from my nails – but he’s ignoring it. In the full light from the window, he looks even more bizarre, with his black dress and grass-stained leggings, the snapdragons vivid in his hair.
“Do I call you he or she or something else?” I say.
He glowers. “Why should you need to call me anything?”
“I dunno. So I can say ‘it’s him, officer, he’s the one who punched me in the jaw’.”
“You would never need to say that,” the faer snaps. “‘He’ will suffice, if you truly require a term. But I fail to see why you would.”
He opens the door, pointing me down the stairs. I don’t want to let him walk behind me, but he seems warier this morning, keeping a few paces between us. He has the air of a kid who, having successfully stolen a monkey from the zoo, has now come to the realisation that he has to look after it.
I scoff my last ginger biscuits and chew on a mint, wishing there was somewhere to wash properly. The air is fresh outside, the canopy a shaggy mess of yellows and oranges and dirty greens, but there’s no glimmer of a stream or brook – just broken, moss-furred boulders and loamy ground.
“Where are we?” I say.
The faer doesn’t answer. When I turn back, the shack is gone – just a twisty copse of trees in its place, hung about with tattered linen flags. The surprise registers as a dull thud – I remember the sprawling shadows on the floor last night, the sounds of branches scraping together – but there’s no time to dissect it before the faer pulls me on. We press into thickets of denser trees, where the bark turns tar-black and shiny. Unfamiliar white roses push out of the soil, with thick stems and hooked thorns.
The faer holds his hand out, stopping me in my tracks. He crouches down next to a clump of roses.
“Hand,” he says.
I eye him warily. He takes my wrist and pulls me into a crouch, then he presses my thumb into one of the thorns.
“Jesus,” I say, snatching my hand away. Blood beads on my skin. “What was that for?”
The faer says nothing. He reaches inside the rose, scraping out a slither of pollen. He holds it out towards me.
I furrow my brow. “Off your filthy fingernails?”
He gives me a look, and the handshake tugs at me. I take the pollen and touch it to my tongue. It tastes cold and acidic. The faer’s eyes linger on me.
But then my thoughts slide like hot wax. I know that I’m looking at those tar-black trees, the yellow-orange canopy overhead, but that’s not what my brain sees. I’m in a clearing, it insists, even though I’m not. I’m looking at a hawthorn, it tells me, while I sink sideways onto the ground, my vision full of clovers and soil.
It’s the biggest hawthorn I’ve ever seen. Branches splay towards the sky like grasping fingers; the berries are as red and gleaming as drops of blood. I look at it, and I feel it looking back – I feel scoured to my bones, picked clean, peeled open. Chills erupt on my skin. I shake my head; I hear leaves whispering at the back of my mind—
And then everything settles. I’m back among the tar-trees, seeing them, smelling the cloying scent of the roses. The faer is on his feet, frowning down at me.
“What did you see?”
My voice comes out thin. “A tree.”
“What kind of tree? Where?”
“I- I don’t know. It was a hawthorn, a huge one.”
His frown deepens. “No sign of your sister?”
It takes me a moment to even register the words – a sister, my sister, the one I’m supposed to be searching for. My thoughts are scattered. The hawthorn’s gaze has punched a hole through them. I can only shake my head.
The faer huffs. He crouches down at my level once more, untangling two knotted roses, his brows narrowed.
“We’ll try again, then.”
Three roses later, and I’m shaking so badly that I can’t even stand upright, my skin alight with gooseflesh and the sense of being watched. The faer paces this way, that way, back again, his shoulders squared in his jacket.
“Is it you?” he snaps. “Are you doing this deliberately?”
I press my hands to my face, smearing blood on my cheek. “I shook your hand.”
He grits his teeth. “What of your other family? Is any of your blood in the Faerlands?”
“I had a cousin taken—”
He spits. “Not close enough. Your parents?”
“My mum’s dead as a dodo, so that’s a no on that one.”
He looks at me oddly. “What of your father?”
“In Winchester, last I heard.”
He grounds his heel into the soil, scowling. “The roses show you the path to your blood. Your sister—”
“She’s not a full sister,” I say, pushing myself up. A tremor runs up both arms. “Different dads.”
“That shouldn’t matter.”
“Maybe you did it wrong, then.” I grimace and spit into the mud. Now the shivers are subsiding, I just feel sick. “Maybe it’s your gross fingernails, contaminating the pollen.”
“Maybe you didn’t take it properly. Did you swallow it?”
I raise my eyebrows. “You ask a lot of people that?”
He kicks me in the chest, knocking me flat on my back. The breath stutters out of me. In the stark daylight, his thorn-teeth are eerie and bared, his eyes little slits.
“Do you think this is funny?” he breathes.
I stare up at him, thinking of the voice in my head, and the bruises on my face, and the illusion of a hawthorn shimmering beyond my vision. I think of how I should be back in London, moaning about history coursework and eating fish finger sandwiches for every meal, but instead I’m here, in a faerie forest, with an Adidas trainer planted on my chest. It’s hilarious, I want to say. It’s the funniest fucking thing in the world.
The faer’s eyes scorch me. He turns away, moving towards one of the black-trunked trees. I watch him touch his fingers to the bark in a constant, frenetic rhythm – it almost looks like Morse code.
“What’re you doing?” I ask. “Telling the trees I’m a bitch?”
He turns back around. His mouth is set in a line, but some of the tension has left his shoulders. “They say the hawthorn is important.”
I miss a beat. “The trees do?”
“Can you think of any relationship between your sister and the hawthorn you saw?’
The cheese seller’s words come back to me: the town with twin hawthorns. I bite them back. If I’m no help to him, he’ll renege on the deal, let me go—
“A relationship?” I say. “No. She might’ve had a one-night stand with it, though.”
The tree’s branches crack and whistle – there’s a great chittering of leaves, and the faer’s eyes narrow.
“The trees say you’re lying to me.”
“About my sister fucking a hawthorn? Perceptive of them.”
“There’s a connection. Tell me what it is.”
I close my eyes for a moment, but the pull in my chest is too great. I agreed. I agreed. I shook his hand.
I tell him.
And so the new plan is the old plan.
He knows the town the cheese seller spoke about. More importantly, he knows how to get to it. The forests of the Faerlands don’t work in a straightforward fashion. Strictly speaking, the town might have been north of the first settlement I came to, but that doesn’t mean the best way to reach it was by going north. The routes and roads are jumbled up in the woods, overlapping and doubling back on themselves. You can walk in the same general direction and end up in different places, depending on the landmarks you fix your attention on.
The faer seems to know the signs. He tells me to look for vivid orange mushrooms, particularly ones that mottle tree trunks. He also tells me to keep my mouth shut, but I don’t know if that’s part of the process.
“Focus on your sister,” he says. “The forest will take us to her.”
It takes us to her very slowly. We walk until the sun hangs low in the sky, and I’m sweating and filthy and aching all over. The faer’s own feet drag, and I can see the raw skin on the backs of his ankles, but he doesn’t let up the pace. I eat Rolos and oat biscuits from my backpack, washing it down with tepid water. I offer him a bit of everything, but his nostrils pinch and he backs away.
“It’s not poisoned,” I say, chewing. “Even I can hear your stomach going.”
He doesn’t say anything, just walks. Shadows dip in the hollows of his cheeks.
When we do leave the forest, it happens abruptly. The sky opens above us, a valley opens below. I’m struck by how ordinary it looks – the streets are stone, not pounded dirt, and the buildings red-brick and arranged in lines. It’s leafier than most human towns, but not by much.
“This is the place?” I ask.
Without pupils, it’s hard to determine the path of the faer’s eyes, but he seems to be drinking the town in. Not as you’d drink milkshake or good cider – more like he’s supping lemon juice.
So we begin our descent. I’m thinking only of a soft surface and somewhere to wash my face – maybe real food, not days-old crackers – so I don’t notice the thronging strangeness until the town has grown up around us. The streets are full, blocked by smouldering campfires and makeshift shanties, tattered tents and stacks of blankets and endless moving bodies. Some of those bodies look human – smell human, from the dry sweat in the air – but not all. Two feathered cats wind around my legs, sniffing at my shoes. Whenever I turn my head, the air thickens and blurs, full of things I can’t see properly.
“What’s going on?” I hiss. “Faerie Glastonbury?”
He doesn’t say anything, probably because he doesn’t want to admit that he doesn’t know. He eyes the late-afternoon sky, frowning, and pulls me on down a few more streets. Eyes follow me, and so do the wails of child-formed things.
We head towards the centre of the town, but the crowds thicken and blockades rise up at the end of every street, guarded by silhouettes and blank-faced abair. Someone throws something through the crowd – a lump of stone – and a gunshot cracks the air.
“What the fuck is going on?” I say.
The faer takes hold of my shoulder and pulls me into the shadow of an alleyway. It stinks of piss and smoke and dogs.
“Don’t even think about wandering off,” he says, tightening his grip.
And then we’re in darkness.
It’s just the same as what happened in the forest. Profound blackness wraps around everything, so that I’m left only with his blazing eyes and the lightness of his hair. We’re still in the alley, because I can still feel the bricks at my back, still smell the piss. But the colour has been knocked out of the world, and I can barely see a handspan before my face.
He keeps his grip on my shoulder. He says something – the sound reaches me, but without being able to see his mouth, I can’t make sense of it. I go where he drags me – back down the alley, stumbling on the ruts in the cobbles.
We’re back on the main road, but the crowds are gone. No, not gone – I see fluttery outlines of hands and arms and shoulders, but they have no more weight than smoke. The boulevard is chequered and inconsistent. Parts seem to have been torn or smeared away, to reveal a nothing-colour underneath.
The faer pulls me along the left side of the road, where the ground is solid. We pass through the misty crowd, making our way towards the blockade. It must’ve been rigged up by abair, because it’s made of wooden struts, nailed together and sanded down. The faer drags me up and over, his nails digging hard into my hands.
The other side of the blockade is a wash of nothing-colour, and the space where the road should be falls away into an endless gulf. We stick close to the buildings for as long as we can, but eventually the ground runs out beneath us. I can see a smear of almost-shapes in the distance, but can’t make sense of any of them.
The faer grips my shoulder again, and—
—and we’re back.
The light spears my eyes. I throw a hand up against it, waiting for the colour to bleed through the cracks in my fingers and feel normal. What was that? I start to think, start to say, but then I drop my hand and the words dry up.
We're at the centre of the town, where the twin hawthorns should be. Mum described them to Violet once – two great trees, one with red berries, one with white, but so grown together that they seem to be one plant. Their roots extend for miles in opposite directions, carving unseen faerie roads into the north and south. Nobody tends them. There’s no turning of the soil, no pruning, no gardeners. They have never needed it.
But now I see figures clustered around the base of one of the trees. Hands stuck in the earth, fingers dancing over the trunk, voices crooning old songs. It leaves are curled up at the edges, its berries dried to grey bullets. Nonetheless, I still feel its attention on me – just the lightest touch, like a hand grazing my cheek.
Its twin lies slumped on the ground, trunk torn, berries bloody in the dying sun. No figures surround it. When I look to it, it doesn’t look back.