The most beautiful tree on the road up to Limhill was the old oak they used for hangings, and it knew it. Its trunk was six feet across, its canopy well-formed, and it dropped acorns the size of a child’s fist. Dispute persisted about the source of its good health; some called it coincidence that the hanging tree should be so healthy. Tarrow did not.
She knew the power in a hanging: the fear, the sorrow, the anger. Never mind the power inherent in sacrifice, and if there was a vestige of human sacrifice left in the mortal world, it was public executions. The Limhill hanging tree was old, and they’d been hanging men, or mostly men, from it for the better part of four centuries. When she looked closely, she could see where branches had needed trimming or where a split had endured correction. But never on the heavy horizontal limb jutting from the trunk at just the right height for a noose. That branch had always been perfect, as though the tree was always mindful to care for it.
It was a tree that knew which side of the bread got buttered.
Given where they’d put the nearby sign, Tarrow guessed that the good people of Limhill knew it too. They hadn’t dared nail it to the tree; they’d raised a signpost a few feet off the road and tacked it up, a crude drawing of a child’s face over a barely legible caption:
Jon Shellstone Cooper
Reward for Safe Return
The boy had dark hair, dark eyes, soft features. He looked twelve, maybe thirteen. Children grew restless around that age, ran off, bought unfortunate tattoos, joined the bluewater navy, did all manner of foolish things. Jon had probably tired of provincial life and made for one of the cities to the south. Even with the letter from Jon’s mother in Tarrow’s pocket, even with the reports of lights and disembodied voices across the county, Tarrow could have believed that he was the ordinary sort of runaway and irrelevant to her vocation.
Except that the hanging branch pointed straight down the road, back the way she’d come. The last time she’d passed through, eighty years previous and under a different name, it had pointed across the road. When she studied the ground around the trunk, she found the roots bent in a gentle spiral, as though the oak were turning counterclockwise very, very slowly. It probably was. Sometimes, at least, the tree offered a path out of this world that wasn’t circumscribed by a noose.
How had the crossing happened? A parade of fairy lights and laughing voices dancing in time and leading Jon Cooper through the stepping walk, drawing him widdershins around the tree until he was dancing through the strangeness of Faerie? Had it been panicked flight, the boy running flat-out through a night of wind and rain and driving screams, his course curving past the tree as he lost the road in the dark? Or outright abduction, the boy bound by a geas or a promise given without due care?
The manner of crossing would matter. So, she thought grimly, would the tree’s adopted purpose.
She scowled and laid a hand on the trunk. A whisper of power raised gooseflesh despite the warmth of the spring day. “They say the road to the lands of the dead runs through Faerie,” she murmured. “They say a lot of daft things, and they say them often enough that sometimes they start turning true. What say you, grandpa oak? Do you want to save me my time? You seen a human boy, looks like trouble, about yea high, three weeks back?”
Leaves rustled, though there was no wind. She was fairly sure the tree was laughing at her.
Away down the road to the south, dust was rising. A moment later, still distant, came the sounds of plodding hooves and wagon wheels. She knew only one stepper that traveled with a retinue: Sean Whitesmith. A bored son of a boring lord. Any fool could take up cold iron and learn the stepping walk to Faerie lands. The case could be made that only fools ever did. But this one knew what she was, would work for free, would make an idealism-seasoned hash of everything and likely return from Faerie with a new collection of Fae artifacts and, optimistically, one of Jon’s ears.
She hefted her walking stick, flipped the uncapped end downward, and drew a line through the dust and clotting mud, negotiating a spell with the road—a small one, nothing showy, nothing that would drain her. Just enough to delay Whitesmith for an hour or three.
When she pressed on toward Limhill, she shut the hanging tree from her mind and focused instead on imagining Whitesmith’s expression when wheels started popping off his wagons eight miles short of town. For all his faults, he was a canvas fit for painting all manner of mischief, and however much Tarrow had embraced the world of iron and time, she was still half-Fae, and she’d never gotten the mischief out of her blood.
It was late afternoon when she came to Limhill, a town of several thousands clustered around a pair of sequential falls in the Mede River, one powering a flour mill, the other a foundry. Dogs howled, the sound greeting her even before the wardens at the gate. They carried matchlocks of crude construction; local make, as likely to be bombs as firearms. They inspected her gear and let her pass but not before handing her an iron chit to keep in her cheek should she fear night callers from Faerie, and not before seeing her accept it barehanded.
Within the gates, life ran on in a frantic hush beneath the howling dogs and clamor of the foundry. Barges circulated above and below the two fall lines: grains and raw ores upstream, flour and cast ingots downstream. The foundry was new—at least, less than eighty years old. More iron for the cities and farms, less down in the bones of the earth. She wondered, as she set to work getting prospective informants thoroughly drunk, whether that shift would have consequences.
The first thing she learned was that people were frightened:
“You’ll touch iron first, yeah?”
“Pick a coin off the counter.”
“Well, sure, it tastes rough, but a sprig of rue in the ale’s a local delicacy, it is.”
Most of the tests they imposed wouldn’t have worked. All were excessive; the power of the Fae in the mortal world was limited. They could deceive by omission, trade violence for violence, and commit minor mischiefs, but the true nightmare fodder was reserved for their own realm—or for mortals foolish enough to enter into bargains with them. The fair folk needed the excuse of mortal will to loose any significant power outside their own domain. Limhill’s bar rats were indulging in paranoia, and useless paranoia at that.
But in public house after public house, alcohol dissolved their distrust of strangers. Besides, Tarrow looked like a reasonably attractive young woman. Loosening tongues was easy enough. With luck, she would be long gone before the townsfolk realized that they’d all seen a slightly different attractive young woman. Bit by bit, the truth began to spill out:
“Not to say he’s not missed, not to say that, you understand, but that Jon boy was trouble—you heard about his father? No, no; his real father, Percival Shellstone, his blood father. His mother, Eileen, she remarried about two months after they hanged Percival for a murderer, and she married up, I’ll tell you that—”
“Eileen Cooper always was a beauty. You wouldn’t know it now. She’s been pulling her own hair out. Serves her right. Used to carry on, you know? Anybody with a calendar could tell you that, assuming he could count nine moons.”
“My Laurie heard voices on the moor. She said they were singing about... she knew how to put it. I can’t remember. I heard them too, when I was her age. I know I did. Funny thing, how hard it is to remember.”
“The man you ought to be asking is Tom Cooper. Eileen married him after the hanging and all. He was right honorable, taking in Jon like his own, not that the boy did him any good turn. That was, what, six years ago? Seven? Gods, I feel old some days. You’re still buying?”
“Percival dumped the body in the river. Stands to reason. Never found it, did they?”
“And then there are the lights. Dancing lights. I saw them with my own eyes, I swear, two months back. Moving against the dark like—like—I saw an emerald once, an emerald like a pheasant’s egg. It burned. These were bright like that, and they moved like the hands of women dancing, like the dancers at a wedding feast.”
That one drew her up short. She studied her drinking companion more carefully. He was short, balding, middle-aged, and had the ruddy complexion of the professional drinker. He’d shaken her hand with more ease than his companions, all of whom had drifted off to a corner table. His right hand had been soft.
“Let me see your left hand,” she said.
He held it out, a bit shyly. “Why?”
She took it, felt the calluses on his fingertips and the softness of his palm. Now that she was listening, she could pick out the traces of magic in his voice. Her own mother’s work, or something like it. Her mother had always had an affinity for artists. “Because I’ve got only the one myself. You’re a musician?”
“Since I was a boy.” He drew back his hand, suddenly uncomfortable. “Ah, miss—?”
“Since you followed the lights, you mean. Not two months ago—thirty-five years? Or just thirty? The drinking’s tacked on some age, from the glow in your nose. Burning like a ruby, if you like.”
He shook his head. “I don’t remember.”
She pressed on anyway. “Did they lead you to the hanging tree?”
A shiver ran through him. “I—I don’t remember.”
But he did. She could taste the lie in the air. “Tell me where Tom Cooper lives.”
Sean Whitesmith’s retinue was at the gates when she cut across Limhall to Tom Cooper’s aspiring manor. Whitesmith led the procession, mounted on a pale gray gelding and clad in iron-studded leather with a shortbow across his shoulder. Even in the failing light of evening, she could make out the artfully maintained blue stubble on his jaw—the affectation of a man who needed the world to know he could grow a beard if he wanted one, dammit. He was a fourth son in a time of peace, and without a war in which to die honorably, he’d turned to the study and defiance of the fair folk. He was in his prime, laugh lines just starting to crease the corners of his eyes, and he had the serious, open face of an inveterate liar.
But she thought she saw the faintest hint of a smile in his eyes, even in this light, even at this distance, as he offered the gatekeepers reams of papers proving his right to entry. None of the wardens could read, she’d wager, and he was placing the same bet. From the sheepish then overconfident way they waved his column through, he’d won.
Most of his retainers were walking, and their clothes were dusty and mud-stained. Several—the scholars, the minor gentry, the spinsters out for amusement—looked worn down by half a day’s easy walk. He had only a single coach left in his train, and she allowed herself a grin as she ducked into a shadow. He’d badger and cadge his way to Tom Cooper and the local mayor in less than an hour, but she already had an edge: the unpleasant little truths that Cooper wouldn’t be quick to surrender but that the rest of the town had spilled like last week’s slops. Whitesmith might spend a full day figuring out that Jon had crossed over at the hanging tree. She merely had to confirm why and negotiate her payment.
With that happy thought, she knocked at the door of Cooper’s house: a two-story study in ostentation, right down to the hedges and oversized glazed windows. By the wagging tongues of the local busybodies, he’d risen from almost nothing through his shares in the foundry and several canny investments in downriver manufactories. He was so nouveau riche she half-expected to find his front hall floored in coin.
What she found instead was a world of iron. The entryway was a museum of ingots, castings, and scale models of foundry equipment. A glass case showed a succession of iron and steel bars, each neatly labeled by grade. Tarrow’s memory stuttered, and for an instant she was kneeling again by the bank of a laughing creek, holding her sister slack and sightless and devoid of glamour. An iron crossbow bolt, standing like a gnomon above the blackened ruin of her chest. The scales of her own soul tipping, tipping.
Then she was back, facing down a succession of domestic functionaries, memory locked away again. She had to brandish her letter in three different faces before she won through to Cooper’s den. His wife was there too, pale and hollow-eyed, slouched in a leather armchair. The ghost of beauty still clung to Eileen Cooper: long dark hair, strong cheekbones, a languorous grace of gesture. She was younger than Tarrow might have guessed—thirty, perhaps—and wore a black, long-sleeved gown with a high neck. It was her signature that footed the letter that had brought Tarrow to Limhill. Most likely, Eileen had also written to Whitesmith and every other stepper she’d ever heard of.
Tom Cooper stood to greet Tarrow formally. This took a moment. He was well over six feet tall, fairly glowing with health, blond and graying smoothly from the temples. He sketched a short bow in the modern style, one foot forward, then tossed an iron nail at her head.
She caught it barehanded and held it. Once, her skin would have bubbled and run like wax. Once, she’d have been bound to return the nail or offer an equal exchange. Which would have left her a choice, depending on how she chose to construe the nail. She could have given him a copper penny or cut off two of his fingers: a gift for a gift or an injury for an injury.
Now, with that part of herself long since bartered away, she tucked the nail into a pocket. “A free sample of your wares, ironmonger?” she asked easily, dropping without invitation into a chair.
A muscle worked in his jaw as he stared down at her. “These are perilous times,” he said at last. “I am responsible for what I allow in my home.”
She held up the letter. “Truer than you know. I’m an invited guest, Tom. Had I been of the fair folk, you’d have offered me both deadly insult and assaulted me against the laws of hospitality. Your life would have been forfeit.” She let her eyes drift across the portraits on the walls. Several of Cooper and his wife, three of their daughters, and one—a small one—of Jon Shellstone Cooper. Also a dozen of various large, heavy-jowled dogs. Gods, she thought, this man had portraits made of his hounds. That was a new trick. “Your life and more besides,” she added. She pointed to the painting of the eldest of their daughters. “She’s lovely. Seven years old, if I had to guess? That is, the length of your marriage minus about six months.”
A flush began to climb Cooper’s neck. “Insulting a host is also against the laws of hospitality,” he said.
“If the truth displeases you, change it. They say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.” She held up the letter. “Mrs. Cooper—Eileen—you’ve requested my aid. Here I am. What say you?”
Eileen Cooper’s head swiveled between her husband and her guest, the motion mechanical. She licked her lips. “I... want my son back. The fair folk took him. I know it.”
Tarrow nodded. “Possibly. And you, Tom Cooper? Do you want him back?”
He resumed his seat, still red-faced. “Of course. I’ve been a father to the boy for half his life. I put out word of a reward, posted signs for miles—”
And who would heed those signs? she didn’t say. No one saw a sign by a roadside and abandoned their business to track down a lost child. No, the signs had been a gesture, a face-saving measure.
“—and while I’ve not the faith in charlatans that my wife has shown, I will confess that I am willing to try anything to see Jon safely home.” His flush was fading as he recovered control. He was bargaining now, and it seemed more natural territory. “If you bring him back to us, the promised reward will be yours. A year’s good wages, in these parts.”
Eileen stirred, about to speak, but flinched at a glance from Cooper and said nothing.
“I have no interest in your posted reward,” Tarrow said evenly. “I bring back the child. Then you make an offer—one offer—and I take either the payment or the child. So I suggest you weigh his worth carefully.”
Cooper leaned forward, eyes hard, ready to take offense again. “You would attempt extortion in my own home? You would try to take our Jon from us all over again?”
She let herself smile then. Her glamour painted her as a young woman, but different eyes perceived the guise differently. To some she might have black hair; to others red. A lean face or a broad one. Pale skin or dark. That blessing was mixed, as everything in her nature was mixed. Only half of her was still Fae. She couldn’t be sure what Cooper was seeing, but more than one of her lovers had mentioned that when she smiled just so, there seemed to be something the matter with her teeth.
Slowly, Cooper settled back.
“If I return your Jon,” Tarrow murmured, “I’ll have wrested him from Faerie and all its hosts. Do you suppose you could keep him from me, should I choose to deny you?”
“Well then,” she said, “are we agreed?”
Downstairs, a bell rang. Muffled voices. Sean Whitesmith in full form, ready to breeze through the servants’ blockade on sheer bluff.
“Yes,” Eileen said. “Yes.” She sounded breathless.
Cooper sucked air between his teeth. Then: “Yes. We are agreed.” He offered a hand.
Tarrow took it, and she went on smiling through his attempt to crush her fingers. For good or ill, most humans understood pain too poorly to inflict it in meaningful measure.
Leaving, Tarrow passed Whitesmith on the stairs. “Sean,” she said, her voice flat. He smelled as he always did: of horseflesh, sweat, old parchment. He wore a fine silk shirt under his leathers, and he was, as usual, smiling faintly, unsurprised at their meeting.
“Miss Tarrow. Knocking the wheels off? Really? I’d expected more creativity from you.”
“Maybe you’ll go back the way you came and find trees bearing wheels like fruits. No coach falls idly by my hand.”
He laughed and clapped her shoulder, then bent close and whispered, “Here I thought you couldn’t lie.”
“I can offer a hypothetical. All things are possible, after all.” She shrugged off his hand and looked him up and down. “Most things.”
He winked, but his air of cheer had thinned. “I wish you hadn’t hampered me. A boy’s life is at stake.”
“Exactly. I made allowance for your excellent jawline and the capacious emptiness above it. Poor Eileen would rather have her son back alive than an epic tale of heroic failure.”
His smile returned, lightning-quick: “And what do you want, Miss Tarrow? I should be happy to lend you my jawline—strictly as a model, you understand.”
She snorted, forced her way past both him and the pair of attendants following like sheep, and set out into the streets of Limhill at night. Doors and windows were already barred, and the damned dogs would not stop howling.
The story was plain enough. Perhaps Percival Shellstone, Jon’s father, had committed the murder for which they’d hanged him. Perhaps not. It hardly mattered. What mattered was that Eileen had already been a guest in Tom Cooper’s bed, and they’d wed soon after Shellstone’s execution. The eldest daughter had Cooper’s fair hair, which made the quick marriage the correct gamble. Then came six years of life as a stepson for Jon Shellstone Cooper, all with his father’s alleged crime hanging, as it were, over his head. As for Cooper’s love of his stepson, Tarrow guessed it worth no more than the iron nail in her pocket. A look around the house had been enough to mark Cooper as a man who loved his possessions and nothing else. He could possess his wife, could call his daughters his own flesh, but what to do with the dark-haired boy who wore a dead rival’s face?
And so, she suspected, the fair folk had offered Jon a way out of his misery, and he’d accepted it. They’d have made promises, every one true, and led him dancing around the tree. Then he’d have found himself in Faerie without the faintest idea of how to protect himself.
Three weeks here, she thought as she strode south down the road back to the hanging tree. Maybe three weeks there, or a thousand years, or ten minutes, or the same day repeated a few hundred times. And however rarely the fair folk outright stole human children, they were above all else a predatory species. They’d have already begun trading for pieces of the boy’s reason, his soul, his memories, his aspirations. She might have to buy him back a piece at a time. That he was there willingly only complicated matters; she might have to talk him into wanting to return to the mortal world at all.
It was a clear night, the moon waxing gibbous, and the hanging tree was a plume of rustling shadow against the sky. Wind stirred the grasses and raised the fine hairs on her neck. Two wrecked coaches and a wagon still stood by the roadside, one half-repaired. A deep, centering breath. A final check of the iron cap at one end of her staff. She had the nail in her pocket, a pouch of iron filings, a handful of copper trinkets and a few duodecimo books for trade, and a canteen and satchel of pemmican for herself. She loathed the taste, but it would keep her alive and active for weeks, and she’d be damned before she accepted food from the fair folk.
A final deep breath drawn beneath the tree. She concentrated on her need to reach Faerie, to leave this place behind, to seek out a life beyond a misshapen family. Then she began the stepping walk, feeling for the right rhythm, letting it draw her widdershins around the tree, closing her eyes as the ground came alive beneath her feet.
The power of the place was a greasy chill sliding over her skin. Beneath the rhythm of the dance she could hear the crack of breaking necks and the creak of rope, feel the lurch and shudder of the condemned, smell the hot rank fetor of death. All around her the crowds were gathered, centuries of them, mingled in sorrow or rage or fevered anticipation. Torches burned in her mind’s eye. Snippets of last words, most little more than ineffectual pleas for mercy or protestations of innocence. Only one caught her, made her smile, added a little flutter to her step: I didn’t practice, but I hope I get this right!
She was whirling now, laughing, crying, staff held away from her like a partner in a country dance, stepping, stepping—
—she felt the crucial step, she took it—
—and slammed into a wall.
She sat down hard in the grass, stunned. The demi-real faded, leaving her alone with a bloody nose and bruised shoulder. Her first thought was that the Fae had raised a ward against travelers, but that made about as much sense as a spider posting cautions around its web.
Her second thought was that she must have misconstrued the circumstances under which Jon had walked the stepping walk. She had the fundamental why of it, but she was missing some detail, some piece of the how or the conditions that had opened the crossing....
Her third was that, despite the warmth of late spring and the pressures of contemporary style, Eileen Cooper had worn long sleeves and a high collar and had seemed just a little too afraid.
“Hellfire,” she mumbled, rubbing her shoulder. She rolled to her feet and fetched the trunk a kick. “You knew this wouldn’t work, didn’t you?” It was obvious in hindsight. None of the men who’d crossed over into death at this tree had wanted to make the crossing. Coercion had seeped into the place, and it shaped the crossing into Faerie. You had to be driven through—forced, tricked, pursued.
She collected her staff and what dignity she could find and stalked back to the road, pausing to wipe the blood from her nose. “Hellfire,” she said again. This meant she would need help, and while no one in Limhill was qualified to give it, she could name one person who might—might—be less unqualified than the rest.
Sean Whitesmith and his retainers had taken rooms in the best inn Limhill had to offer. Then, infuriatingly, he’d left with a small contingent, obliging Tarrow to sit up in the common room and wait as his itinerant scholars transcribed progressively taller tales of Fae encounters and the local storytellers traded coins under the tables. A game was on: who could tell the grandest lie before doubt began to creep in. If Whitesmith wasn’t back by first light, he’d be facing an entire new history of the county.
The innkeeper had been loathe to tell her when Whitesmith might return, but he hadn’t tried to throw her out. He just kept giving her nervous looks.
She took a chair near the fire, propped her staff against the mantel, and let herself drowse. The common room was warm and close. Ancient wood gleamed with good care and the polish of generations of sleeves. It was a comfortable place, and besides, tracking Whitesmith down would be a waste of energy. He might have gone to survey townspeople at random. He might have attempted a circuit of less savory establishments than public houses. He might even have gone out on the moors to find one of her kin, in which case he’d find himself running a merry chase until dawn. Or until that chase dumped him into a sinkhole, fine clothes and all.
That made her smile, and she slept.
When she woke, gray light was leaning against the eastern windows and the common room was nearly deserted. Whitesmith had claimed a low table by the fire and was pouring hot spiced wine into a pair of clay mugs. Two of his retinue stood just out of earshot, visibly armed and unhappy.
“A long night, Miss Tarrow?” he asked, offering a mug.
She accepted, sipped, and laughed as heat spread down her throat and filled her nose. “You remembered the pepper. But that’s a winter drink, Sean. You know what they call sophistication out of season?”
“Avant garde,” he said mildly. “If you’re here, I’ll take this mess for a bad one. Unless, of course, you’ve sought me out for my own sake, wearing either silks or one of those devilishly sharp stone knives you people favor.” He sipped at his own drink, made an approving noise, and set it aside. “It all depends on what sort of dream I might be having, you see.”
“I use steel like everybody else. Merely with less provocation.”
“Fascinating. You’re looking particularly lovely this morning, by the by. The dried blood on your chin is new. Have you been out drinking?”
She ignored the question and wiped at her mouth. “I propose a trade.”
“Oh? The last time we traded, I won your secret.”
“And I won a favor of like value. You have a choice: trade with me, or I call in my favor, and by earth and oak, you’ll not care for it.” She poured herself another mug. Alcohol had little effect on her, though the history of change in a well-aged bottle might start to addle the Fae half of her head. Time had never sat well with the fair folk. But this wine was young—four or five years—and diluted besides. “The trade is fair. I’ll tell you all I know of the circumstances behind Jon Cooper’s disappearance and how he crossed into Faerie, and in return, you will do the same.”
“A fair trade? A blind trade, I should say. Did you bring blindfolds, Miss Tarrow? No? Well, I’m sure we’ll figure something out.”
“Are we agreed?” She held out a hand.
He kissed it with an air of exaggerated decorum. “We are. Shall the lady go first?”
“It happens rarely enough,” she said, but her heart wasn’t in the banter. The sky was brightening beyond the windows. She couldn’t know with certainty, but instinct said that time was passing in Faerie. No less dangerous, time was passing here. She related what she’d learned: the timeline of the relationship between Tom and Eileen Cooper, Jon’s likely discontent, the way to Faerie that led through the oak where his father had been hanged. “One open question,” she said in closing, “is whether Percival Shellstone earned his hanging, or Eileen and Cooper just wanted him removed. It might matter. It might not.”
Whitesmith drew a knife and set to cleaning his fingernails. “All this is very interesting,” he said in a tone that belied the sentiment, “but I concentrated my energies on the night of young Jon’s disappearance. It was twenty-two nights ago, with a full moon obscured by fog and stormclouds, and with various unpropitious signs in the heavens. A cat birthed a two-headed kitten. Attentive eyes observed grasses moving against the wind, and the dogs were restless.” He paused, expectant. Dogs traded howls now in the distance, faintly audible even indoors.
She shivered. Perhaps Whitesmith wasn’t a fool. He’d had a few years to improve since their last meeting. “You don’t mean that the dogs wouldn’t shut up, because unless that wine is better than it lets on, the dogs here never shut up.”
“No. Hunting on the moors seems to be the gentleman’s pastime of choice in Limhill, and thus the pastime of the, ah, merchant class. I never understood the appeal, myself. I’m quite content to have my meat come from the kitchens. On the night in question, several experienced hunters attested the sounds of hounds in full bay. Has anyone ever attempted to set hounds on the fair folk?”
“Yes,” she said absently, thinking about the portraits in Cooper’s den. “It ends poorly. The traditional response is to turn the hounds on their masters, but without the benefit of long experience, you all feel much the same to the fair folk. Collateral damage tends to result. There was a case four, five hundred years ago....” A spasm of memory, and she was back in that homestead, kneeling in gore, the surviving hounds lapping at her hands. The huntsman’s wife had killed one with a hatchet before the others bore her down and mauled her. Tarrow had counted the corpses, some of them very small, and found them equal in number to her brothers and sisters slain in the surrounding woods over the previous fortnight. And there the matter had ended, the scales in perfect balance.
She met his eyes. “Come for one of my kin,” she said softly, “and you’d best come correct, with iron and fire. No, Sean Whitesmith; had it been the fair folk Cooper set his hounds on that night, his wife would have had to bury him in a bucket.”
They sat unspeaking for a while, listening to the crackle of the fire and sounds of the town waking. “What was the charge against the boy’s father?” Whitesmith asked at last.
“Murder. They say he killed a mill worker in a drunken rage. No body was ever found, but he was a drunk, right enough, and violent one. Eileen pleaded for leniency at his trial with both her eyes still blacked. Her face said more than her mouth, I think.”
“That open question you mentioned? It doesn’t sound open to me.” He gave his wine a distasteful look and set it aside. “Do you suppose they both framed Shellstone? It may have been Cooper alone. Seven years ago, I suspect Eileen was simply ravishing.”
“If you were any shallower, you could ride under your saddle.” She took his mug, drained it. “The boy might have found proof of his father’s innocence on his own. Or he may have asked the wrong question. It’s even possible that the fair folk told him the truth and offered proofs. Likely, even; the timing is otherwise far too convenient. There was a confrontation with Cooper. Jon ran. And Cooper set the hounds on him. Either he reached the tree in time, or he didn’t. But if he didn’t, I think we’d both be hearing different stories. The absence of a body suggests a successful crossing, albeit under circumstances both unpleasant and difficult to replicate.”
Now came her turn to wait expectantly, watching faint puzzlement blossom into comprehension.
“No,” he said. “No—absolutely not.”
“I’d do it alone, but I might not be able to charm an entire hunting pack, and I’d sooner not have to kill any of them. Besides, if they were all charmed, they couldn’t chase me to the tree, now could they?”
“This is all predicated on making enough of Limhill want to murder you. If it works, you’ll find enemies waiting when you come back. I brought a few men-at-arms, not an army. In the best case, you’d have a hostage Cooper does not value.” But he seemed contemplative. Wheels were turning behind his eyes. The effect was unsettling. In all their fifteen years of professional rivalry, she’d never seen Whitesmith turn so damned thoughtful. Then again, fifteen years was a long time. Perhaps he was finally learning.
“Out with it,” she said, “before you sprain something.”
“Why Jon? Why take him?”
Her optimism crumpled. “He’s a child. A vulnerable one. It’s what they do.” She shook her head. “You still don’t understand—over a decade at this, and you still don’t see. You can walk the stepping walk. Fine. But if you want to make yourself a knight errant against the Fae, you’d best learn that very, very few of the children who leave with them are kidnapped. Most want to go. Most have excellent reasons. Did you see Eileen’s sleeves? How she kept her neck covered? The look on her face? Stop asking about the weather and think on what Jon had to be afraid of.” And, she didn’t add, what he might ask of a race of beings whose only morality lay in the law of equal exchange. Succor? Truth? Revenge?
“Fair enough,” he said quietly. “Allow the boy his motivations. But allow the Fae theirs, too.”
“My kin don’t have motivations. They are what they are. That’s all.”
“I think I’ve spent more time with them than you have, over the last few years.”
“No doubt. You have a fetish.” She’d meant to give the word a twist, but it came out flat. Bitter. “But mostly in this world. There... it’s different.”
“What were you afraid of, Miss Tarrow? Why did you leave?”
She rose and took up her staff. “Give me until sunset. Then rile the villagers for me. I’ll be at the Saints’ Key, south side of town.”
He sat in silence, face unreadable, fingers white on the arms of his chair. At last, he sighed. “You’d try this without me, too, wouldn’t you?”
She had to smile, just a little. “Yes.”
“Fine, fine. My men and I will do what we can. I’ll need something of yours for the hounds to scent. I don’t suppose—?”
She pulled out a handkerchief and threw it at him. “Don’t do anything unseemly with it, understand?”
He gave a small bow, and for once there was no trace of mockery in it. “As you will.”
The Saints’ Key was cheap. Cheap rooms, cheap and mostly pickled food, cheap wine. It didn’t serve its own ale, and the pair of brewing vats growing a coat of black mold in the street out front suggested why. If the inn had other virtues, Tarrow couldn’t see them. She took a room, laid down a charm against bedbugs and anything else that might came crawling out of the mattress, and then set her bedroll on the floor anyway.
When she woke, Eileen Cooper was sitting in the room’s only chair, watching her.
“Neat trick,” Tarrow said, sitting up and stretching. Her bruised shoulder ached, and she idly wondered whether her swollen nose was showing through her glamour. The room lacked a mirror, and she seldom bothered with them anyway; they gave back a different face every time, a constant reminder that she no longer had a real one. “Bribing, breaking, or climbing?”
Eileen held up a key. “I used to work here. They still know me.”
Interesting. “Well, aren’t you an upwardly mobile one. Up from on your back, I gather?”
She nodded, face tight. She’d dressed simply, in a rough tunic and skirt, but she’d looped a light linen scarf around her throat. “Lord Whitesmith said I might find you here.”
“He’s not a lord. Not yet, anyway. His father’s the one with a title: Samuel Whitesmith, styled Lord Torvale, which is an etymological offense to gods and men.” The light through the window told her noon had arrived. She’d had a bare four hours of sleep. “Believe it or not, I’m hard at work. Better to try the crossing at nightfall, and I need to be fresh.”
Eileen sat and fidgeted in silence. It was a positive force, that silence, like the suction of a deep-river whirlpool.
Tarrow sighed and let it draw her in. “You’re here to ask for something else, yes? I suppose you finally got around to asking what happens if you get your Jon back. Could be your man tries to kill him again. Could be he doesn’t, and Jon goes and peels the old scabs off what you and Cooper did to your last man. Right now, there’s room for denial. But the fair folk could give him proofs. Maybe they already have. There goes your fancy house, your silk drawers, your servants.” She shrugged, made a so-it-goes gesture. “If you end up back working here, stick to this room. The charm on the bed should hold for a few months. At least you won’t get bitten by anything with more than two legs.”
Eileen’s lips pressed into a single white line before she spoke: “I saved him. I saved us both, doing what I did about Percival. He was getting worse.”
Tarrow rose and flicked out a hand, tugging aside the scarf to expose the purpling bruise at the base of Eileen’s neck. “Traded up, did you?”
“There’s always a price.”
“Now you sound like the Fae. A price for this, a trade for that. Hell, you’re all starting to sound like them.”
Eileen didn’t seem to hear. “He loves me, in his way.”
Against her better judgment, Tarrow sat on the edge of the bed. “They always say that.”
“Yes. And then the women repeat it. There are times it’s easier to go on believing a lie. Most of the time, really. It’s why this whole city pretends your Percival killed a man. So now I suppose you’ll ask me to take Jon with me when I go—maybe ask what you can do to be sure you bid me too low for him. You’ll have something trite to say about how he’ll have a better life, and you’ll say it from the best house in town. Through a bruised larynx, too, but hell, a human being can grow used to anything. Or maybe you were going to ask me to put Cooper in the ground. Even if you can’t inherit everything, you’ll be kept comfortable. Maintained, that’s the word, in a certain style. No. I’ll tell you now, I’m not a murderer.” Not anymore, at least. “And don’t make a case for justice or any other damned fool thing. I’m not a judge, either.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Eileen murmured. “I wanted my son back. But when I sent the letters... did I make a mistake?”
Tarrow raised a hand, tilted it. Maybe and maybe not.
“He was angry last night. I could see it. He’s... less sure that you’re a fraud. He knows Jon might come back.” She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “What if Jon... stayed in Faerie? Could he have a life there?”
The question caught strangely in her mind, like a bone swallowed crosswise. No one, as far as she could remember, had ever asked it before. When she answered, she spoke slowly. “There’s a coral reef,” she said, “far, far south of here. It’s... beautiful in its way. Dangerous, too. It encloses a harbor, and there are safe channels through it. But accidents still happen. If you swim out there, you can see hundreds of years of shipwrecks—they gut themselves on the reef, then sink down the slope of it for dozens of fathoms, then fetch up and lie there. That’s what Faerie is like. I lived there, once. Everything there has always been a ruin. The cities all half-fallen down, the monuments broken or unfinished. There’s a black stone henge that looks like it’s stood in wind and weather for ten thousand years. But you can’t say how old it is. Hell, you can’t ask how old it is. There’s no time there, not the way you think of it. When a mortal crosses into Faerie, she can bring a little time with her, a little eventuality, but the entire realm is like the reef and the wrecks. Nothing happens. It’s where bits of finished things fetch up. It’s the leftovers, the detritus none want to remember when the shipwreck survivors are telling their stories. You can go there; you can even stay, as long as you’ve drawn a deep breath of the real world... but it isn’t a place for the living. That’s what mortal means, by the way. It means you’ll die, which means you’re alive now. Being unto death, if you like. The fair folk don’t understand death, for all that it’s possible to kill them. They don’t see it as inevitable. They’re as immortal as the mountains... or maybe they’re all stillborn. All born underwater, staring up at diluted sunlight that won’t ever be theirs, not truly, and undrowning.”
Eileen began to cry silently.
“No, there’s no living there,” Tarrow said, more gently. “Not for anyone who wants to be human. They’re fascinated by life, just like humans are fascinated by death and raise up doctors to fight it and gods to preside over it. But that fascination doesn’t make the fair folk alive. It merely makes them cruel.” She rose, took Eileen’s hands, and drew her up. A thought struck her: “That reef is dying, by the way. Some say the waters have warmed. Some blame the effluvia of the port city. I don’t know whether it matters. It just came to mind.”
“What will they do to him?” Eileen whispered as Tarrow ushered her out the door.
Sometimes, deceit still came to Tarrow with all the speed of reflex. Sometimes it failed her utterly. “Ever seen a child fascinated by a pendulum clock? The first thing she’ll do is pull it apart to find the tick. Now go. I mean to sit and drink while Sean turns the wheels of the rumor mill.” She hesitated, sighed, and added, “The Lord Torvale might want a skilled laborer. That would put your son over a hundred miles away. I can ask. Sean, fool that he is, gives a damn for things like justice and mercy. It’s why he does this, when he isn’t merely bored of dressage and chasing girls he doesn’t want to catch.”
Eileen paused too, a question in her face.
Tarrow snorted. “All right. I’ll tell you: I do it to keep ships off the godsdamned reef.”
Whitesmith outdid himself, and it almost got her killed.
She’d asked the inn’s barkeep for peppers. He had only brined ones, but they would do. She was sitting at the bar with a mortar and pestle, grinding the last of them into paste, when the watchmen entered. All wore steel plate, and two of the three were carrying iron-sheathed clubs. They paused in the doorway, painfully awkward, and held a hushed conversation.
She sighed, scraped the paste into a small glass jar of oil, corked it, and shook the contents. “Looking for someone, boys?”
The unarmed one took a few cautious steps forward and removed his helmet. “We are, miss. Maybe you’d care to tell us why we look at you and see three different women?”
She mulled the question over. “Drinking on duty? Lunching on the special mushrooms?”
“I don’t think so, miss. I think it’d be best if you kept your hands flat on the bar and didn’t speak. We’d like to do this with all courtesy.”
She laughed. “What comes after the courtesy? A bonfire? Burial with an iron spike in my heart? Now, now. If Whitesmith told you what I am, he should have told you that iron won’t work.”
“Thing of it is, miss, a couple feet of heavy oak wrapped in iron works on just about anybody.”
She tied the jar to her belt and laid a hand on her staff. “Just about, yes. Just about.”
The watchman took a half-step backward. “We just want to know where the boy is. That’s all.”
That question alleviated any guilt she might have felt for what she was about to do to these men. Besides, her talk with Eileen had left her in a foul mood. “You never really believed the bit with the fair folk. Not until now. It was just an easy way around admitting that Cooper might’ve murdered the boy. ‘Oh, there’s no body; the fair folk took him, what a shame, we’ll put up signs.’ Back when it was Percival Shellstone, lack of a body meant it was murder certain sure, but Shellstone was a violent, drunk, penny-poor son of a bitch, while your Tom Cooper is a violent, sober, foundry-wealthy son of a bitch.
“That’s all the fair folk are these days to you people: stories to go with swamp gas and drunks singing in the woods at night. Lies you can all agree on when the truth starts burning. Now and then, they’re more than that. Now and then, the lies turn out to be true.” She packed centuries of derision into her voice. “I’ve been doing this for two hundred years. Bringing your children back to you, talking you down from idiot choices, freeing you from bargains you never should have made. Keeping the ships off the reef. And what do I get in return? Iron.”
The other patrons were edging away now. The watchmen fanned out, their stances fairly screaming that they’d rather be anywhere else.
“And only three of you? Insulting. No—wait. The rest are outside, aren’t they? What, did you draw straws?”
The nearest watchman nodded and pulled a sap from his belt.
The bartender, his back to his shelves, stammered, “But—you drank the beer with rue.”
“Yeah. Tasted awful. That stuff will give a human tumors, by the way. Stick to cold iron, barkeep.” She rose and bounced on the balls of her feet, gaze flicking between the watchmen. “Who’s first?”
They all tried to go at once, which simply wasn’t sporting. One went down with a broken knee as she ducked his swing and lashed out with a foot. The spokesman crumpled as she deflected his descending sap with her staff and slammed the free end into his groin. The last landed a glancing blow on her shoulder, but she was already spinning away, and her counterstroke struck his upper arm with an audible crack of breaking bone. When she drove the end of the staff into his gut, he sat down heavily and folded around his broken arm.
She worked her bruised shoulder through a circle. “Dammit, that’s the same one the tree got. No, no, don’t get up on my account.”
Amber torchlight filled the windows. A dozen voices shouted questions from the street.
“The hell with that,” she murmured. “Barkeep? Back door?”
He pointed, hand shaking.
She’d expected an angry mob, maybe even a reasonably well-organized watch response.
She hadn’t expected competent archers.
The first arrow hummed past her head and sank into the still-open door. She ducked aside, and the second drew a line of fire across her hip. The third punched through her left arm. Strange, silvery pain filled her as she tried to trace the arrows to their sources. Three different rooftops. She couldn’t clear their range, not fast enough, but she could break the lines of sight.
She cursed and ran, trying to ignore the yard of shaft sunk halfway through her bicep. The hounds wouldn’t need her handkerchief. They’d have her blood.
Another arrow flashed before her eyes, dark on dark, the air vibrating in its wake. But she was running flat-out now, swerving through alleys, ducking to slide under closed market stalls, kicking herself up a brick wall to gain the rooftops and send an archer screaming over the edge. Somewhere far behind, a matchlock fired, then another, then a third with an altogether different sound and the scream of a man whose weapon had blown up in his face. Adrenaline sang in her blood, mingling with something older and more fundamental. The chase and the joy of it, the smell of blood, the bright clean line where everything—everything—stood at stake. She laughed as she ran and gave a single high, musical cry, the old hunting call, and turned south, leaping from roof to roof as the arrows fell around her and then fell behind.
She was over the city wall and almost a mile south before she heard the baying of the hounds.
It was eight miles to the hanging tree. Jon had made it. Admittedly, he’d known the lay of the land, but he’d also been twelve. She was in her prime. Hell, she’d been in her prime for centuries, and she was still inhumanly fast, born to run like mad in the moonlight, alive with fear and delight.
She pulled every dirty trick she’d ever learned as the hounds drew closer. She forded a tributary stream and left a few dead-end trails from the southern bank. A hundred yards along the second, she shattered the jar of peppers and oil. She tore strips from her clothing and pitched them upwind as she ran. She charmed the grass to tangle her pursuers’ feet and the wind to throw dust in their eyes.
Light rose up and danced around her. Fairy lights. She cursed them, but they persisted, sweeping in wild patterns and rushing away into the night. They meant her no kindness, but her kin would never decline a game like this, and their apparition would slow the hunt.
The wound in her arm burned. She didn’t dare pull the arrow; the shaft might be all that kept her from bleeding out. The pain faded with time, receding into a distant ache. If they’d bothered with archers on the roofs, Whitesmith might have oversold her abilities and undersold the need to take her alive. No surprise there; to err was human, and for all his obsession with the fair folk—maybe because of his obsession with the fair folk—he was still the most human person she knew.
Half an hour into her flight, she crested a low rise and saw the road, a pale ribbon bright in the moonlight less than a mile away. She’d kept a good pace, for all that her breathing was coming in ragged gasps. The hanging tree was a shadow against that ribbon, and she could feel its power tugging at her, drawing her onward.
The hounds behind her changed their pitch. Of course there were sighthounds in the hunting pack, and she’d stood silhouetted like a novice. Bugles joined the call.
“Really?” she wheezed. “Kind of festive, don’t you think?”
Silvery laughter rang sourceless from the darkness all around her.
“Oh, go to hell.”
She set off again, bearing straight for the tree. The pain in her arm was almost gone, which was probably a bad sign. So was the stitch growing in her side. She could hear hoofbeats now, and excited shouts.
The tree was a hundred yards away when the first of the hounds caught up. She whirled and dealt it a killing blow from the staff: a straight lunge that took it through the open mouth and snapped its neck. She sprang back from the next pair and crippled one with a stroke to the leg. Her left arm wasn’t working properly, though, and when she swung at the other hound, her blow went wide. It backed off, wary and circling out of reach, but it didn’t flee. Others joined it: five, seven, ten. Excited, snapping, closing in a ring.
Horsemen were coming over the hill. She spun the staff one-handed, screaming at the hounds, and let the sound rise into mad laughter as their ears went back and they shied like spooked horses. “Come on,” she snarled. “I thought you liked sticks, you sons of bitches.”
A familiar voice shouted a command. Cooper’s voice. A hound leapt—
—and an arrow punched through its throat in a spray of blood. The others dispersed.
Whitesmith crossed before her at full gallop, standing in his stirrups and nocking another arrow. Three other men rode with him in Whitesmith colors, bows raised, checking and wheeling their horses to face down Cooper and the mounted watchmen. “Go!” he shouted over his shoulder.
She blew him a kiss—Gods, but I’ll regret that, she thought—and half-staggered the rest of the way to the hanging tree. The stepping walk seized her then, rising effortlessly. Cold swirled around her, a riot of emotion and history, and she stumbled through the motions, widdershins, always widdershins, and then she was beneath the fatal limb—
—and then she was falling to her hands and knees in brilliant sunlight. She stayed that way for a long moment, panting. The air smelled of dry leaves and smoke, and the chill of damp earth seeped into her hands. When she raised her eyes, she found the hanging tree perfectly reproduced in full autumn glory, hung with red and gold. Leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze and spun away, falling away upward in a lazy column that might have been butterflies caught at the onset of migration. Other trees dotted the open moor, scattered too widely to call a forest. All wore fall foliage, and all were shedding it. Everywhere she looked, plumes of leaves rose and vanished into blue-gray distance overhead.
She knew the place. It wore a different skin, but it had the same feel, the same subsurface hum of ill-contained delight.
“It wouldn’t be Faerie,” she said with a sigh, “if it weren’t weird.” She braced her wounded arm against the hanging tree and broke off the shaft above and below, leaving a few inches protruding. She prodded the wound lightly, winced, and fumbled for her canteen. A fast rinse was the best she could do for now, and the arm might fester anyway.
“Looks nasty, Miss Tarrow.”
She twisted. Sean Whitesmith was kneeling in the grass, broken bow in one hand and dagger in the other. Blood dripped from a bite on his right forearm, but he was grinning.
“Cooper just about had me,” he went on. “I had to shoot him in the leg, and he still took a swing at me with an axe. You should’ve seen him hobbling after me. You think you know the phrase ‘hopping mad?’ You surely don’t.” He pushed himself upright, ambled over, and dropped down beside her. “We’re each an arm down. Trade?”
“I don’t think yours would suit. If I wouldn’t be seen on your arm, why would I suffer to wear it?” The rush was subsiding, and a hundred minor pains made themselves known. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“I shouldn’t have done a great many things. But here I am. Mutual assistance pact? Until our return to less exotic climes?”
“So be it. Be quick. We have a walk ahead of us.”
“Look around.” She pointed to the southern horizon, where a low band of gray grounded a series of irregular towers. “That’s Lodestone. It’s always had an affinity for connections to the mortal world. Hence the name. If Jon crossed here, he went there next. His... host would have insisted.”
Whitesmith unslung a bandolier and began unpacking lengths of bandage. “His host?”
Lodestone. Why did it have to be Lodestone? She laid her head back against the trunk as Whitesmith began to cut away her sleeve. “We’ve known each other for fifteen years, Sean. I’d say it’s high time you met my mother.”
Lodestone had always been a city in ruins: broken towers, crumbling walls, inscrutable and half-eroded glyphs from some older, stranger race. The fair folk’s own legends about its origin conflicted with one another, but all could be summarized as Well, it was just there, you know? So we moved in.
A pair of fair folk intercepted Tarrow and Whitesmith a hundred yards from the stone wall that encircled the city. Both wore hides and had feathers and animal hair worked through their braids. One had an obsidian-edged weapon belted to his waist: three feet of heavy wood with stone chips set in grooves along its length. The other wore a brace of more conventional stone knives. They were vaguely masculine and wore no glamour, and they stood tall and gray-skinned, their wide eyes black from corner to corner and glistening.
“I met a man and a half today,” the swordbearer said to his companion, “and found the heart of a riddle. Now all I need are the pretty bits: rhyme and meter and artful misdirection. Do you suppose we’d find them inside? If we rummaged?”
“They have four feet between them,” the other said, “which does for a child’s meter. Being a man and a half, they ought to have three, don’t you think?” He smiled at them, exposing two rows of pointed teeth. “A gift for you? A small correction?”
Tarrow grinned back. Fresh, she might have been a match for either of them. Exhausted, wounded, and facing both, she would die bloody in the first exchange, iron or no iron. Whitesmith would be no help at all. But this was an old game: stay entertaining, stay alive. “You might not like where you find the fourth. Nightshade would like it even less.”
The smiles widened, and they spoke together. “It knows Nightshade?”
“And it carries iron.” She planted her staff in the ground, iron-down. Thin black veins wandered outward from the point of contact, questing, grass and weeds charring as the sickness spread. Both fair folk flinched backward, ever so slightly. She winked and lifted the staff. “Don’t you want to know how this ends?”
They traded looks, then, as one, sketched elaborate bows. When they spoke, they alternated in a rapid auctioneer’s cadence: “An escort through the city—”
“—to keep you from molestation—”
“—and see you safe to the house of Nightshade, travelers?”
Tarrow shrugged dismissal, threading a path between insouciance and outright insult. “It would be more impressive if I couldn’t tell you’ve practiced. But no. We’ll have no escort and pay you no price.”
Whitesmith coughed quietly and leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “If these two waylaid us outside, don’t we need an escort to avoid, ah, needless repetition in the city itself?”
“No. Because these two will follow us, and the rest will be dying to find out why. When a cat sees another cat playing with a mouse, does it go for the prey? Or for the rival?”
“That’s... not reassuring at all.”
She scowled at him. “You’ve been here before. You know it works.”
“Never to a city. Is... is this Nightshade your mother? Is she a Faerie queen?”
“No such thing. Come along. Our jokers are looking bored. If they lose interest, they’ll kill us.”
They met no further opposition, not as they passed through the broken gates, nor as they ascended stone tiers and wound through narrow streets. Gray faces peered at them, a few leering, most simply speculative. Armed figures closed around them in a loose cordon, moving with easy grace. All wore leather jerkins of identical cut, a detail that nearly made Tarrow stumble as she stared. The armor looked like part of a uniform, and she’d have bet on seeing the moon fall before seeing fair folk pressed into any brand of uniformity. A few even had what looked like rank insignia. Stranger still, she saw mortared stone walls. Someone had been repairing parts of Lodestone.
An image flickered in her mind: an overambitious shipwright sending divers down to the reef with tools in hand and heads full of lies about what could be made with rotten wood.
When they reached the house of Nightshade, Tarrow swore with a sudden violence that made Whitesmith leap back and grab for his knife.
The last time she’d seen it, the house had been a stone slab construct, expanded here and there with magic to include an inverted labyrinth and the glassless aquarium in which Nightshade periodically drowned things. Now, it looked like a low-walled manor, with wooden outbuildings, fresh paint, glazed windows, and a gravel walk. Trimmed grass grew thick and blue-green, and where once there had been tangles of wildflowers, a few late-bloomers added dashes of color to mulched and tended beds.
“It’s all confused,” one of their companions said. “See? The thoughts have gone all knotted.”
She suppressed an impulse to dash a handful of iron filings in his face and stalked through the open gate, glaring at the gardeners—gods, what kind of Fae consented to be a gardener?—until they backed away, either under sheer force of will or growing recognition. Whitesmith followed. In the brief backward glances she risked, he looked like a child with a new and sharp-edged toy. Some of his enthusiasm faded when he saw the figure staked out on the lawn, its entrails hauled forth and composed in elaborate geometric patterns. It was still alive, and glamour flickered over its face and ruined body: young, old, male, female, androgynously elegant, stately, voluptuous. All its faces wore expressions of agonized fascination.
Nightshade received them in an upper room carpeted in skins and sparsely furnished. She looked as she always had: a glamour of sharp, maternal aspect, black hair shot with silver framing narrow golden eyes. She stood taller than Whitesmith, and her slender arms were bloody to the elbow. The cause, if there was one, was not in evidence, but both self-proclaimed escorts looked at her, faltered, and fled.
She swooped down on Tarrow, embraced her, took her face in stained hands, and kissed her firmly on the forehead, nose, and mouth. “Hello, Mule,” she said. Her voice was a perfect contralto, rippling with submerged delight.
“Mother. It’s Tarrow these days, by the by.”
But Nightshade had already lost interest and was walking a slow circle around Whitesmith. “Is this one taken?”
To his credit, Whitesmith met her eyes and kept a hand on his knife. “No,” he said, “and he won’t be. Madam. We’ve come for Jon Shellstone Cooper.”
Tarrow kept her face neutral and managed, with difficulty, not to kick him in the shin. “Among other things, mayhap,” she added smoothly. Telling Nightshade what you wanted was a fine way to ensure that you wouldn’t get it—or that by the time she gave it to you, you wouldn’t want it anymore. “A small trade for now: a word with me for a word with the boy.”
“The boy?” Nightshade cocked her head in mock puzzlement.
In the quiet of her mind, Tarrow swore again. The opening of a distinction between Jon Shellstone Cooper and the boy couldn’t bode well. Unbidden, Whitesmith’s question returned to her: why Jon? And here were signs of change in a changeless world....
“It’s a lovely little army you’ve been assembling, Mother,” she said. “Uniforms, ranks. Do you march them up and down and wave at them from balconies? I told the human that there are no Faerie queens. Don’t say you’ve made a liar of me.”
Nightshade laughed. It was like music, the sort that played right before an on-stage stabbing. “A queen? Donning a silly hat and then demanding to be taken seriously? Oh Mule of mine, even I might tire of that game. We’ve found for ourselves a warrior prince.”
Whitesmith let out a sharp hiss of breath. “Mortal will,” he said. “If the fair folk are following Jon’s wishes, they can act in the mortal world.”
“A word for a word,” Nightshade said, ignoring him and taking Tarrow’s arm—the injured one, of course. “Your proposal is acceptable. Let’s go see our dear Jon, and on the way, you will fill my ear with the finest decantation of mortal gossip. Do they still eat potatoes? But they’re so ugly!” She winked at Whitesmith. “The potatoes, too.”
And what do you eat, Mother? Tarrow thought. But the answer would be what it had always been: Nightshade fed on whatever amused her. Whatever failed to amuse her, she merely discarded.
Nightshade did, as it happened, have a balcony, and on the grounds beyond, Jon Shellstone Cooper was drilling the troops. He took after his mother: dark of hair, pale beneath an even tan, tall and graceful as he led a series of spear forms. He wore deerhide breeches and had stripped to the waist. Muscles shifted and glistened with sweat.
“Well, he came out well, no denying that,” Tarrow said. “How long has he been here—no, wrong question. How many years has he aged?”
Nightshade gestured, and a wicker couch appeared on the balcony. She pushed Whitesmith into it one-handed and settled in beside him, effortlessly draping his bandaged arm across her shoulders. “Oh, twenty, twenty-five. Time. Such a funny thing. He’s just dripping with it, and I do believe I’ve put it to good use.” She lapped at a drop of blood seeping from under Whitesmith’s bandage. “Oh, a Donshire hound? Very good. If one must be bitten, one must demand the best.”
Whitesmith disengaged his arm and pulled away. “So he’s spent twenty years brooding over his stepfather, and you just happen to have the means to offer him revenge. And destroy an iron foundry along the way, I assume.”
Tarrow sat down between them, gently slapping away her mother’s hand and then laying the iron-clad staff like a barrier across her own shoulder. “It’s thin. To act in the mortal world, your soldiers would have to surrender their wills to his. Completely. Do you think they can?”
“My soldiers?” She looked affronted. “They are his, entirely, and all have freely traded their service for, oh, this and that. My part in all this was merely one of introductions, the extension of hospitality, a proxy trade here and there, and counsel in exchange for certain favors. What he does with his power is altogether by his will and according to his list. He rather dislikes his stepfather, you see, and that hideous enterprise which gave his stepfather such power.”
“Sure,” Tarrow said grimly. “We’re supposed to believe a twelve-year-old had the foresight, patience, and knowledge to build up this little army. And that he’d conflate a man he hates with a damned industry.”
Whitesmith, to Tarrow’s horror, was smiling. Just a little. “It’s a very human thing you’re doing, my lady,” he said. “I believe the term is ‘strategic warfare.’ I’d always wondered why the fair folk didn’t try to hinder human access to iron.” He shook his head. “They’ll all die, of course. If they can each fight like Tarrow, they’ll wipe out half the city, but they’ll die all the same. There’s too much iron in Limhill. There’s too much iron everywhere.”
Nightshade gave him a lofty look. “We shall see. That is what an experiment is all about. You passed Derindal on the front lawn? You can’t have missed him; he must be taking up a quarter acre. Our Jon says that humans sometimes try to read the future in one another’s insides. Derindal is an experiment, too. Do you know the future I read inside him? No? I read that tomorrow—and there will be a tomorrow, even here—there will be one less of my kind.” She bent forward, abruptly intense, and her glamour shifted, leaving her gray and lean and—what? Old? “There is a shape to history. It is pressing through into our world, Mule and man, like a body buried shallow.” She rose. “I promised you a word with Jon. Take it. Then go. I tire of you—just as you tired of me, Mule.”
The words stung. She hadn’t tired of her mother; she’d been exhausted by her. The force of Nightshade’s full regard had emptied her. Hollowed her out. But that was an old, familiar pain, and it engendered little more than an inchoate anxiety that her mother, no less than Tarrow herself, had chosen to lose herself in the mortal world.
Jon had little more than a child’s mind. Tarrow and Whitesmith argued him in circles, but the crux of the matter remained: he had been hurt, and all else was beside the point. “They’ve been good to me,” he said of the fair folk, “and Limhill killed my father. They all did.”
“Your father,” Tarrow snapped, “was a bastard. Your mother was a whore. Your stepfather was, is, and shall remain a son of a bitch. But they’re all human. They’re more like you than Nightshade will ever be. They’re your family. Kill them, and what happens next? Somebody else goes after you, and now you’re alone. It has to stop somewhere. It might as well stop with you refusing to slaughter a city because Nightshade wants to see what will happen.”
He stuck out his jaw and said nothing.
“You could come back alone,” Whitesmith said. “You’re a man now. You could challenge Cooper. I know a few gentry who still allow it. A compromise—you fight him alone in a formal duel. Leave Limhill and your mother out of it.”
Jon sneered at him. “I have an army, and you want me to fight alone?”
“You have two hundred and sixteen Fae with stone-tipped spears and leather armor,” Whitesmith corrected him. “And they’ll all die if pierced with iron. How do you think this will end?”
Silence. Tarrow broke it with a curse. “So be it. Sean, pull this damned arrow out of my arm and sew me up properly. We’re going home.”
“Leave it,” she said sharply. “We came here to save a child from himself. We failed. There’s no child here. Just another in a long chain of consequences.”
“After all this, you’re just going to give up? What about the mother? Dammit, Tarrow, what about Limhill?”
She locked eyes with Jon, tried to find some trace of fear or doubt. Nothing. “Sometimes,” she said, “you can save people. Sometimes all you can do is map the choices they’ve already made. This history was written years ago. We’re only passing through.”
Nightshade appeared as though conjured. “Come, Mule, don’t be so dramatic. Surely you have sympathy for one who would choose against his own kind?”
“I didn’t choose to be human. I chose to be neither.”
Nightshade smiled, and had Tarrow not known better, she might have believed she saw genuine sadness. “And has that made you happy?”
“I... don’t know. It’s made me better, I think.”
Nightshade reached out and brushed a strand of hair back from Tarrow’s face. Then, briefly, she touched the iron cap of Tarrow’s staff, and she took no hurt from it. “Perhaps it has. May I keep this, in trade for your safe passage back to your realm? I should like to watch it rust....” Her gaze slid to Jon, who still stood in petulant silence. “Isn’t it strange, daughter mine, that death drives continuation? That, no less than birth, it is the impulse at the turn of the cycle? A point to think on.”
Unwillingly, as she laid the staff in her mother’s hands, Tarrow realized that she would do just that.
They returned without incident to the oak. It wore the livery of early spring now, buds giving way to the first scattering of leaves. Ribbons hung from its branches, white and yellow and silver.
“Where’d they get the paper for ribbons?” Whitesmith asked.
“Don’t ask. The answer won’t make sense.”
Far away, a bird gave a high, warbling call. Another answered. Whitesmith cocked an ear, listening, then sighed. “This was all very disappointing.”
“It usually is. The human parts are always sordid, and the Fae....” She’d meant to say are just the Fae, but it felt untrue, and the words died in her throat.
He tipped water from a canteen into his handkerchief and pressed it into her hand. “There’s still blood on your face. It’s getting to be a habit. Your mother is... formidable.”
She dabbed at her cheeks. “Yes.”
“She touched iron.”
“Does that mean iron doesn’t work on them anymore? Or did she... do what you did? What did you do, exactly?”
She shrugged, ignoring the twinge in her arm. “There are older things in the worlds than humanity or the fair folk. I made a trade. I don’t know whether Nightshade did the same. It seems... likely. She was showing us two futures, I think. They can wage war on iron, or they can all become like me. Either way, it’s the end, and she can see it coming. I hadn’t thought it possible.” She sat down at the base of the tree and idly wound a bit of ribbon around her hand. “Being unto death. Whatever they choose, they’ve become... a bit human. Already, I mean.”
He sat beside her. “Them becoming like you wouldn’t be so bad, if I may be forward. Admittedly, a whole society of you would be rather frightening, but—”
“Why do you think she calls me Mule, Sean? It isn’t my stubbornness.”
“Oh. I see.”
“Yes. It would be the last generation.”
Silence for a while, broken now and then by birdsong. Clouds drifted overhead, moving without wind, colliding and parting in fantastic patterns. He slipped an arm around her. She allowed it, then laid her head on his shoulder. She was exhausted. Besides, it felt pleasant.
“You know, there might be a lot of angry villagers with pitchforks waiting for us on the other side,” she said.
“Maybe. We should have borrowed some of Jon’s army.”
“I don’t know what I’m going to tell his mother. To run like mad, probably.”
“What about Cooper?”
“To hell with Cooper.” She stood and hauled him upright with her good arm. “It’s time to go.”
“Ah—how? We weren’t chased here. I kept expecting you to insult someone, or do something to force a pursuit.”
A bit of mischief woke in her blood. “Look around, Sean. Here, now, this isn’t a hanging tree. Ribbon, fair waking weather, level ground around.” She slid her arms around his neck. “For the moment, it’s a May tree.”
He gave her a wary look. “So—”
“Oh, don’t get your hopes up. A dance will do. So dance with me.”
He did, and the stepping walk took them, all rising blood and delight in the turning of the season, and they crossed together back into the world of iron and time.
No hounds or archers awaited them. From the state of the three bodies hanging from the tree, a week had passed. Black flies swarmed through the reek.
“I told them to withdraw after I reached you,” Whitesmith said tonelessly. “I was very clear.”
All three corpses wore Whitesmith colors. The three riders who had balked Cooper’s pursuit, she realized. The hangings might have been legal, but they were a grave provocation against Lord Torvale.
“Do you think they let the rest of my people leave?” he asked in the same voice.
“Most likely. We killed two or three hounds. You lamed Cooper. They’d probably call this an even trade.” She turned and spat on the tree. “An even trade—they’re becoming more like the fair folk, too, I think. I might be out of work soon, with the Fae turning human and the humans turning Fae. Gods. I swear, there are some humans who could even up a haircut until their heads fit through an arrow slit.” She caught his look and winced. “I’m sorry.”
“We don’t have to warn them. Jon might come tomorrow. He might come in a week. But it’ll be soon, I think.” His jaw tightened. “It would be fair. If there’s one thing we can’t call that boy, it’s unjust. We can let him have his revenge.”
He looked away. “Yes. And mine, Miss Tarrow.”
She cupped his cheek, turned him to face her. “I can’t set foot in Limhill. They’d kill me outright. They won’t touch you. For your men, your father will make complaints, perhaps demand weregild. For you... he’d raze this city, and they have to know that.” She let a mirthless little laugh slip out. “An utterly disproportionate response. I like it better than measuring out blood by the pint. Love is a finer thing than justice.”
“Fine. I’ll tell them, but I’d be lying if I say I hope they believe me. What about you?”
She knelt and pressed her hands into the grass. The earth began to shiver and crack a dozen yards from the tree. “I’ll be making graves,” she said. “I offer them freely—a gift without obligation, or in thanks for my own life, if you like.”
“Thank you.” He turned to go, then paused. “Will you still be here when I come back?”
She nodded. There was no moment of decision, then or in memory. She just knew that she would be waiting for him. “Under a new name, I think. Oh, and bring a saw.”
He seemed puzzled. Then he glanced at the heavy limb that held the ropes. “Will it stop Jon from crossing back over?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know whether I even care. But it feels like the right thing to do.”
“Yes, I suppose it does.” He touched one of the hanging men, heedless of the flies and decomposition. “You know why so many of my people travel with me? A few my father sends as bodyguards, but most are just curious. We all grow up on Faerie stories. They come with me because they want to see. The brighter ones are afraid, but they still want to see. I have to turn many away, actually....” He shook his head, drew a deep breath, and pitched his knife into the ground. It stuck blade-down. “Mostly, we see things like this. Mostly, but not always.”
He walked back to the road, head down, and turned north towards Limhill. He did not look back.
She finished opening the graves, then broke up the roadside sign for markers. Whitesmith would have to supply the names. Only when she could delay no longer did she take his knife in hand and begin to climb the tree.