A Beth-Hill Novel: Wild Hunt Series, Book 5: All that Glitters by Jennifer St. Clair

The Wild Hunt roamed the forest outside of Beth-Hill until the Council bound them for a hundred years. Nevertheless, a century of existence has made an indelible mark not easily forgotten for these ghostly myths that are no longer so ghostly or myth-like…

 

All that Glitters Kindle coverTwelve-year-old Arthur Morgan is small and slight, forced into a life of fairy taxidermy by his father. As a member of the cruel Morgan Household of vampires, Arthur has spent a lifetime being abused by his father and grandmother. In this family, all kowtow to the monstrous duo’s iron will in sheer terror of what will be done to them if they disobey. When Arthur meets Iris, a cousin not highly-placed in the Morgan hierarchy, he sees himself in a light he’s never wanted to before. He’s becoming as cruel as his father, having trapped and killed fairies out in the forest for years.

With Iris’s influence, Arthur decides to free one of them and, in doing so, meets Maya, a water fairy, who shows him just how horrible and twisted the household he’s grown up is–for both the innocent, defenseless fairies and family members that have been unjustly imprisoned by his father and grandmother. Deciding to smuggle those caged out of the household and to safety gives Arthur a sense of power he’s never had before.

But his secret can’t be hidden long. With the help of water fairy and an adult vampire, Arthur and Iris attempt to escape. Even though Arthur is determined not to let his father win this time, he wonders if it’s possible to become something other than what his family has decreed he must be to serve them.

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GENRE: Fantasy      ISBN: 978-1-925574-62-3     ASIN: B07VX7LR8D      Word Count: 80, 442

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Prologue

Arthur

 

Arthur met Iris the year they both turned twelve. She was a cousin; a Morgan, yes, but her status in the household would never amount to anything because of her parents, who had left to raise their daughter away from the household, only for her mother to return with her tails tucked between their legs (he didn’t quite understand this analogy, since they were vampires, not werewolves, but his grandmother had said it, so it must be true.) Iris’ father had died in a Hunter attack. Arthur never wondered about the truth of that story, because it seemed to happen quite frequently to vampires who had left the household to live on their own.

Iris was small and dainty and blonde, and when Arthur first met her, wore a frilly pink dress and pigtails, which he pulled. And she’d burst into tears and run away from him, and he’d expected not to see her again, because she was obviously a coward and unsuited for life in the Morgan household. But she had appeared the next day during class time, when the children of the household gathered to learn (certain, specific, approved things) and where Arthur knew he could do whatever he wanted, because he would not get into trouble.

Not by anyone important, at least.

So, the second time he met Iris, he took a pair of scissors from the teacher’s desk and he cut off one of her braids.

She had two of them, after all. And he was honestly quite confused when Iris burst into tears again and when the teacher, who wouldn’t go so far as to actually discipline the son of the head of the household, confiscated the scissors.

Arthur placed the braid in the room his father had given him for his trophies, which was where Iris found him a few hours later, minus the other braid now. Short, her hair curled in ringlets around her elfin face.

No one had ever followed him to the trophy room before. No one important, at least. And Iris was absolutely not supposed to be there, but being so new, Arthur had to wonder if anyone had told her the rules yet.

“I’ve come for my braid,” Iris said, and held out one small hand. “Please.”

Arthur stared at her solemnly. “It’s mine,” he said. “By right of conquest.”

“I would like it back, please,” Iris said, equally solemn, and strangely unafraid.

She should have been afraid.

“Do you know who I am?” Arthur asked haughtily, but she wasn’t listening to him now; she’d seen past him and into his trophy room, and her eyes grew wide.

With awe, Arthur thought at first. He was, after all, very proud of his trophies. And, in turn, his father was very proud of him because of his trophies.

“Would you like to see them?” he asked, and picked up the nearest one; not yet mounted; a tiny fairy no larger than his hand with beautiful butterfly wings he’d been careful not to damage.

Iris gasped. Reached out to touch the fairy; Arthur moved it out of her reach, wary that she would inadvertently destroy it.

“You are Arthur Morgan,” she said, answering his previous question. “Only son of Ichabod Morgan, who is the head of this household.” She paused. “And not a nice person.”

Arthur stared at her. No one had ever said that to him before, and he wasn’t quite certain how to respond. “What is a ‘nice person’?” he asked eventually.

The look she gave him was rather akin to the look his father gave those who’d displeased him, right before their executions.

“A nice person doesn’t cut off other people’s hair, or kill fairies,” Iris said.

Arthur nodded, on firmer ground now. “Then you’re right,” he said. “I’m not a nice person.”

Iris gave him another look, but he couldn’t interpret this one as easily. To cover his ignorance, he said, “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I came for my braid,” Iris reminded him, unconcerned by her trespass. She folded her arms. “And I’m not leaving until you give it back.”

“Then I’ll call the guards,” Arthur told her smugly. “And they’ll drag you away and throw you in a cell, and you will die.” Nearly all of those who argued with his father died in the cells; Arthur had watched the executions. He wasn’t quite certain–exactly–if Iris would be dragged away (probably screaming and crying) if he called for the guards; he’d never actually had to call for the guards before.

Would they even come for him?

“My braid,” Iris said ominously, and stuck out her hand.

“I won’t give it to you,” Arthur decided.

“Then I’ll scream,” Iris threatened. “And if anyone comes, I will say that you tried to kill me for your trophy room.”

“But that would be a lie,” Arthur said, puzzled. “I’m only supposed to trap and kill the small folk for my trophies.”

“Then why won’t you give me back my braid?” Iris asked.

Arthur looked at her curiously. “Because I like it.”

Iris sighed. “Wouldn’t it have looked better still attached?”

“I don’t think so,” Arthur said. “You could have changed it. You cut off the other one–but the one I have will look the same, forever.”

Iris frowned at him. “Nothing is the same forever,” she said.

Arthur showed her the fairy again. “They are,” he said simply.

“What do you do with them?” Iris asked, staring past him at the trophies that hung on the walls.

The only people who had ever shown an interest in Arthur’s trophies were his father and grandmother, the latter who had closely inspected his delicate work at preserving them, and, eventually, had grudgingly declared that Arthur was really doing the household a service by ridding the forest of vermin.

His father had responded by encouraging him with books on taxidermy and bottles of poisons and weapons that were useless against the small folk if he wanted to preserve them. The poisons had come in handy, however, and so had the books, even if they were more on preserving animals and not fairies. He had never accidentally poisoned himself, or anyone else. Arthur was too careful for mistakes.

And he wasn’t about to complain. He’d seen what happened to those who dared complain to his father, and had no doubt he would suffer the same fate if he dared to do so himself.

And no one, until now, had ever asked him to explain himself.

“They’re my trophies,” he said, and wondered if that was enough of an explanation for Iris. He suspected not.

His father had never forbidden him from showing his trophy room to anyone, but Arthur couldn’t imagine that he’d be pleased by Iris’ presence.

Perhaps he didn’t need to know.

“I can show you,” he offered, then immediately wanted to take back his words, because he knew someone would have seen her come here, and he knew he would be punished if his father–or grandmother–found out what he had done.

But no one had ever dared to ask to see his trophies. And Arthur suddenly found that he truly wanted her to say yes.

“Okay,” Iris said uncertainly, as if she sensed some of his unease. And she made a little sound when he grabbed her hand and pulled her inside; only a small sound, but a sound, nonetheless. And Arthur slowly closed the door behind her, tense for the shout of discovery.

He heard nothing beyond the door.

When he turned to face Iris, she stood near his workbench, staring down at his current project, wide-eyed at the tiny pile of bones beside the carefully preserved skin of the fairy he’d been working on. The wings were already completed; they graced the wire armature that would become the basis of the trophy’s skeleton once the skin finished curing.

“Don’t touch anything!” He tried not to shout, but the words came out sharper than he intended.

“I wasn’t,” Iris said. She sounded a bit annoyed that he wouldn’t trust her, although he wouldn’t have put it past her to take something away from him in retaliation for her braid. He wondered if he should just give it to her, then realized she would probably just discard it, because it was of no use to her now.

At least if he kept it, he could keep it safe.

Without speaking, Iris moved away from the workbench to look at the trophies Arthur had hung on the wall. They were more recent; his earlier attempts at preservation had not worked out so well, although his father had never said a word against them, Arthur had been a bit embarrassed to leave them up, now that he knew more about preservation. He’d buried the early mistakes in the forest, with no thought for the creatures he had killed. The trophies were all that mattered, especially since his father approved.

And his father’s approval was–and would remain–a very important thing.

“You’ve killed all of these fairies,” Iris said sadly, and reached up to gently stroke the edge of an iridescent wing.

“Yes,” Arthur said. “What else would I do with them?”

Iris’ frown deepened. “You could let them go,” she said. “Leave them in peace to live out their lives.”

“But then how would I get my trophies?” Arthur asked, because she clearly did not understand. And he didn’t think he would be able to make her do so.

She sniffed, frowned again, then said, “I’m leaving.”

“I won’t stop you,” Arthur said. “But–” he hesitated, then, not wanting to owe her anything for her silence.

“I won’t tell anyone what you do here,” Iris said quickly, then added, “Do you think you could–maybe–let the next one go?”

Arthur didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer, because he knew he couldn’t do that; his father approved of his trophies and expected him to bring at least one back each time. He’d perfected a way to kill the fairies quickly, at least, without harming a hair on their heads. They did not suffer, but he could not let them go.

Perhaps Iris saw some of his thoughts in the expression on his face. Perhaps she’d given up on him as a lost cause. Either way, she nodded and let herself out without another word.

Only later did he realize that she’d taken back her braid when he’d opened the drawer he’d stored it in and found it gone.

He did not pursue her or demand it back. Secretly, he admired her courage, and wished he could be so brave. Secretly, he wondered what would happen if he returned without a trophy, for whatever reason.

His father’s temper was a volatile, unpredictable thing, and something Arthur had–of yet–avoided.

 

Later, after sunset, he left his workroom and walked down the hall, speaking to no one, although no one ever tried to speak to him at all, except for Iris. And perhaps it was Iris that made him realize how the others fell silent as he approached; how they would not meet his gaze; how they tried their best to pretend he wasn’t among them, as if they thought that Arthur, by extension, would treat them like his father for any imagined–or real–transgression.

He’d set his traps the day before, out in the forest. Arthur did not have to ask permission to leave the house and grounds like everyone else; he did not have to notify his father or grandmother of his whereabouts, or what he intended to do, because he left the house for only one reason: to bring back trophies.

He did stop in the kitchen for a handful of sugar cubes; the fairies could not resist sugar cubes, and the bell jars he used as traps had proved to be quite efficient.

In fact, Arthur had lost all sense of challenge long ago, now that he had perfected both his traps and his method to dispatch his prey. And as he approached his first trap, he saw a small form inside the jar. This was not unexpected. Nor was the fact that the fairy had eaten all the sugar cubes he’d left inside, and now, presumably, had fallen asleep, curled up on its side.

Or dead, Arthur thought, seeing what looked like a smear of blood on the glass.

He crouched down in front of it and gently tapped on the jar. The fairy’s wings were in tatters, and it was much thinner and dirtier than the others he’d caught, although the dirt could have been due to the fact that it apparently had tried to escape by digging a tunnel to freedom. It hadn’t gotten very far since the ground was rocky and hard here, which was one of the reasons why Arthur had set the trap in this spot and not another.

The fairy did not respond to his tap, so he eased up the edge of the jar and slipped a thin mat underneath, gently easing the fairy’s body onto the mat. It would seal once he inverted it, and then his captive would be trapped until he dispatched it with the gas.

But this fairy seemed to be dead already. At least, it made no peep; no move to attempt to fly; its limbs flopped carelessly as Arthur inverted the glass and sealed its fate. Its eyes were open; blankly staring; its mouth hung loose; its tongue stuck out grotesquely.

It wasn’t even worth his time to bother with, considering his other traps were likely occupied.

He unsealed the jar and removed its occupant by dumping it out onto a nearby fallen tree trunk. The fairy lay sprawled every-which-way, unmoving. Not breathing, either, as far as Arthur could tell.

He did not leave it lying there, but took a square of cloth out of his pocket and transferred the fairy’s body onto it. And then, he carefully wrapped the corpse, dug a shallow grave, and laid the fairy to rest. After that, he cleaned off the bell jar, reset the trap, and gathered his supplies to move on to the next trap.

And then, abruptly, he sensed that he was no longer alone.

His first thought was that Iris had followed him somehow; his next that the fairy had returned to life, even though the grave seemed to be undisturbed. And he doubted that Iris could hide from him so thoroughly, which meant it was likely another fairy or one of the small folk.

Unconcerned, he made his way to the second trap, which was empty and untriggered. The sugar cubes had melted into an unpalatable mess, however, so he replaced them and moved on.

The last trap was beside a nearly dry creekbed that tended to flood when it rained. This one was occupied by a specimen with wings flecked with green and gold and purple; a riot of color that managed not to become overwhelming at all, considering its hair was fluffy like a dandelion gone to seed and nearly the same color. It was standing as he approached, its hands pressed against the glass, just staring at him, unafraid.

What if he did let this one go? What if he took Iris’ advice and let it fly free? What if he returned home and informed his father that the traps had been empty? Would his father kill him right away like he had some of the others? Or would he give Arthur a second chance to prove himself?

“I’m sorry,” Arthur said, feeling awkward, because he had no idea if the fairy could understand him, much less sympathize with his plight, especially since he intended to kill it. Still, it was legal prey, despite what Iris believed. And she was just a silly girl anyway, wasn’t she?

He avoided the fairy’s gaze and prepared the mat to slip under it, feeling dull now, hopeless that he could safely attempt Iris’ suggestion that he let one of the fairies go free without losing his life in the process.

What would the rest of his life be like? An endless circle of trophies as he grew older? And perhaps his father would eventually give him orders to kill those who betrayed him; perhaps he would be groomed to become his father’s executioner, destined to have blood on his hands for the rest of his life.

All of a sudden, Arthur realized that he didn’t want to become his father’s executioner. He did not want any more innocent blood on his hands.

He drew in his breath sharply. Knelt there on the ground with his supplies around him; supplies enough to kill a dozen fairies, and likely enough to kill one young vampire as well, or, at the very least, knock him unconscious so that the sun could do its job come dawn.

Or he could slit his wrists and let the blood loss weaken him enough to prevent him from returning home.

He realized his hands were shaking now; he felt a bit dizzy and short of breath. But even then, realizing he was frightened–terrified, really–did not weaken his resolve.

Before he could stop himself, he pushed the bell jar over–the fairy crouched down as if it expected him to try to grab it, but Arthur let the jar roll away, where it shattered against a nearby rock as he turned his back on the fairy.

How should he do it? Would the poisons in his bag even affect a vampire? He had syringes for injection, but would drinking it work better? Or both?

He heard something rustle behind him as he inserted the needle into a bottle of poison and pulled the plunger up to fill the syringe, but he did not look around; the fairies couldn’t stop him, after all, and no one would have followed him out of the house. Perhaps they’d find a pile of ash when they realized he was gone; he doubted anyone would notice his absence before dawn, and he thought he was far away from the house that they would have trouble tracking him down, especially since there weren’t any werewolves to sniff out his trail.

Some of the households hired werewolves, but the Morgans did not.

Keeping his mind carefully blank, Arthur squirted a bit of the poison out of the needle (although it didn’t matter, really, if there was any air trapped inside, since he intended to die from this) and then rolled up his sleeve.

For a moment, he wished Iris was there so that he could tell her that she’d been correct; that he wasn’t a nice person, and likely would never be a nice person, and that was why he’d decided to do this, but he had no way to tell her this, and he didn’t want to leave her a note, so he inserted the needle into a vein in his arm and pressed the plunger down–

It was cold; searingly cold; with numb fingers, he removed the lid from another bottle and drank it down for good measure, and then he realized he’d fallen forward into the dirt and leaves and that his muscles seemed to be moving on their own; jerking his arms and legs as if attempting to throw off the effects of the poison, and there was no pain, at least; just searing cold and numbness, just that, nothing more.

And then, dimly, he heard a voice above him. And the voice asked, “Do you suppose he knows he’s past the Veil?”

And another voice answered with a question, “Why would he do this to himself?”

The second voice was a small voice, soft like he imagined the fairy’s hair would be. Arthur tried to open his eyes to identify the speakers, but he had no control over his body now; no control at all, and he couldn’t do anything but slip further and further into darkness, until there was nothing left of himself at all.

***

He awoke with the warmth of the sun on his face, but he had no strength for panic because his stomach seemed to be trying to turn itself inside out. Vampires did not get sick unless they were poisoned and Arthur had, very effectively, poisoned himself. He couldn’t open his eyes; couldn’t feel anything except the warmth of sun on his face.

The warmth of the sun–

He heard a noise; a moan, and realized the noise came from his own lips. Feeling slowly returned, not that he particularly wanted it to, considering he hadn’t expected to wake up at all.

He heard something else, then; the faint crackle of flames, but they were off to his left, not the result of his body burning in the sun. And he felt something scratchy on his bare skin–a blanket?

No one from the Morgan household would have given him a blanket. Except maybe Iris, and she wouldn’t have known how to start a fire.

When he tried to open his eyes, the light was so bright; so terrifyingly bright that he heard himself cry out; his body twisted sideways, trying to escape the searing light.

“Does he know?” a voice asked very close to his ear.

“Likely not,” another voice commented; a quietly powerful voice that sent chills up Arthur’s spine. A moment later, something fell across his head; another blanket. Darkness, blessed darkness reigned, but he still couldn’t see; orange and yellow sunbursts dazzled his sight from his brief glimpse of the sun. He drew in a breath. Coughed, then ventured, “I’m not dead.”

“But I bet you wish you were,” the first voice commented.

Arthur couldn’t answer that. “Please let me die.”

“I’m sorry,” the second voice said. Both were female, but this one sounded bossier than the first. “That would entail dragging you past the Veil, because I doubt you can walk right now, and neither of us are inclined to do that.”

“Then I’ll crawl,” Arthur managed to say, but nothing happened when he tried to move. Presently, knowing they were probably laughing at him, even though he heard nothing, he asked, “Why past the Veil?”

“Because the sunlight in Faerie won’t harm you,” the first voice said quietly. “You didn’t know? They didn’t tell you?”

Arthur thought about lying to protect what fragile dignity he had left, but then he remembered that he lay at their mercy, covered with blankets against the sun, but not, apparently, to protect him from its rays. No, they’d given him the blankets for comfort, and word completely alien in the Morgan household.

“I imagine my father knows,” he finally said. “But I also imagine he would never think to share that information with anyone.”

“And who is your father?” the second voice asked.

“His name is Ichabod Morgan,” Arthur murmured, hoping that they’d realize his importance now and kill him; they had to, didn’t they? Especially if they thought his father would care? “The head of the Morgan household,” he added, just in case they didn’t know.

“Ah,” the second voice said in a sort of tone that made Arthur suspect she’d already known this. “Your name is Arthur, then.”

“Yes,” Arthur said, seeing no reason to lie.

“And why do you want to die so badly, Arthur Morgan?” the first voice asked.

Arthur felt something hot and wet slide across his face and dribble down his cheeks. “Will I die?” he asked mournfully.

“From this?” the second voice asked. “No. The poison you took will only make you feel wretched for a little while, and we’ve already explained about the sunlight.”

“I do feel very wretched,” Arthur admitted, which was true, because the pain in his stomach had not subsided, and he felt horribly dizzy and weak.

The first voice, he thought, stifled a laugh. Or, really, more of a giggle, which awoke anger, which pushed away some of the pain. But anger was useless here; he knew that instinctively, because he had no true status outside the household; not one that mattered, anyway. And anyway, a vampire lying on the ground covered with blankets was probably an amusing sight. They would probably laugh at him long after he was gone.

“Blossom,” the second voice said sharply; a rebuke.

“I apologize for laughing at you,” the first voice said quietly.

“I’d probably laugh at me too,” Arthur murmured, and closed his eyes.

“Why do you wish to die so badly?” the second voice asked.

In a monotone, Arthur told them how he had come to his failed decision. He didn’t mention Iris or how he had come to even consider releasing one of the fairies. And he wasn’t entirely certain what would happen to him now; or if he could, perhaps, find another way to end his life. It was, after all, past dawn now. There was a slim possibility that no one would miss him for a little while, at least, so he still had time. Only, he wasn’t certain how long it would take him to crawl to the edge of the Veil.

To be honest, he wasn’t quite sure of anything at all, including which direction to crawl. Or how to crawl, for that matter, since his arms and legs seemed to be on revolt.

“I see,” the second voice said, entirely neutral. “That is quite a dilemma.”

“Not really,” Arthur told her. “The simplest solution is for me to die. Don’t you see?” He managed to raise his head–just a little, and opened his eyes. Light leaked in from under the edge of the blanket now; it made his eyes water even more.

“What if there’s an alternative?” the second voice asked.

“There is no alternative,” Arthur whispered, and lowered his head again. He didn’t want to hear alternatives or platitudes or anything at all, because none of that mattered, since his father would likely kill him if he returned home without a trophy.

And death by his father’s hands would be much more painful than death by his own.

“How old are you?” the second voice asked curiously.

“Why does it matter?” Arthur asked, despondent now; he truly could not see a way out of this, not without more pain, and he was in enough pain as it was. He closed his eyes. Maybe if he stayed silent, they would leave him alone.

Probably not, but he could hope.

“Because you’re awfully young to want to throw away your life,” the second voice said quietly. “And you not wanting to become your father’s executioner tells me that there’s something in that heart of yours worth saving.”

Forgetting he’d decided to ignore them, Arthur said, “My father would not agree.” And then, “Nor would my grandmother.”

“Your grandmother raised your father,” the second voice said. “Remember that.”

Arthur had never thought about it that way before, not that it helped anything at all, of course. Had his grandmother molded his father into what he had become? And, in turn, his father had molded him? Was it too late for Arthur to do anything about it? He’d been killing the small folk for years already; what sort of sacrifice would it take for him to set his sights on larger prey? He remembered what Iris had threatened; to tell the guards that he had intended to kill her for his trophy room. Would they have believed her?

He felt sick at the thought. Small folk were–they were one thing. Easily captured; easily dispatched. But other vampires? Humans, even? Where would it end?

“Your thoughts are very dark,” the first voice–Blossom, he remembered–said, loudly enough for him to think that she crouched right beside his ear, close enough for him to reach out and touch.

He didn’t try to reach out and touch her, though. He’d already decided that she was the fairy he’d released. The other voice, the older one, was more difficult to classify. “You can read my thoughts?” Arthur asked, horrified.

“I can feel them,” Blossom said. “Like a tsunami of despair, enveloping everything else in your mind.”

“What’s a tsunami?” Arthur asked.

“A very big wave that destroys everything in its path,” the second voice said.

That sounded about right. And Arthur was just about to sink back into the tsunami when Blossom asked, “Who is Iris?”

The waves of pain were lessening, but left him weak and dizzy and nauseous. Perhaps he’d said Iris’ name aloud; perhaps Blossom could really read his thoughts. He hadn’t intended to tell them about her, but he found himself telling them about her anyway, and what he had done, and what she had suggested he do.

“I’m surprised you spoke to her at all, considering she had no status in the household,” the second voice said after he was finished.

“She spoke to me,” Arthur whispered. “No one does that.” And then, he realized that if he never returned; if he did manage to die out here in the forest, Iris would be the first one questioned; the first one killed by his father’s wrath. By deciding to commit suicide, he had effectively killed her anyway, because someone would have seen her on her way to Arthur’s trophy room, and that someone would not hesitate to turn her in for a favor from Arthur’s father when he tried to determine what had happened to his son.

That’s how things worked in the Morgan household.

“What do you mean, ‘you’ve become what your father wanted anyway’?” the second voice asked.

Arthur hadn’t realized he’d spoken aloud. “Iris will be killed when my father tries to find out what happened to me,” he said. “And it will be my fault.” From somewhere deep inside, he found the strength to push himself upright, although he did not remove the blankets. Sitting up, however, made the dizziness increase, and the sunlight piercing through the edges of the blanket didn’t help, because it made the nausea increase, and so he huddled there for a moment with his arms wrapped around his stomach, trying desperately not to be sick.

“I have to go back.”

“I don’t think you’re in any condition to go anywhere just yet,” the second voice said. “And anyway, what will your father think if you come crawling back to the household without a trophy?”

“Maybe Iris won’t be blamed, then,” Arthur whispered. “And he’ll just kill me instead.” He shuddered at the thought, because he’d watched the executions; he knew exactly what to expect.

“What if–” the second voice began, and Arthur’s temper exploded.

“There are no ‘what ifs’!” He shouted the words, or, rather, raised his voice as much as he possibly could. “There are no alternatives! There are no other choices!”

And then, he fell over, because that had taken the last of his strength. And he closed his eyes and let himself fall into darkness.

***

This time, when he awoke, he felt something cool draped across his face, and sensed that he no longer lay in the forest beside a campfire in full sunlight. Water dripped somewhere in the distance, echoing faintly; he opened his eyes and saw fading sunbursts at first; it seemed to take ages for his eyes to adjust. But when they adjusted, he saw stone walls around him, and sand beneath him, damp and cool, and realized he either lay in a cave or a dungeon, deep down underground.

Instead of feeling panicked, he felt–calm. It was so quiet and peaceful away from the sunlight that he found himself starting to drift off again; he curled up under the blanket and dislodged a wet washcloth from his forehead. He had no idea how much time had passed, and wouldn’t have cared if he hadn’t remembered Iris and what might happen to her if he did not return.

That was the only thing that propelled him to an upright position. The only thing that made him even remotely curious about his surroundings, which were too natural to be a dungeon. No human–or vampire–hand had carved these walls.

So, a cave, although he supposed a cave could double as a dungeon, nonetheless.

He stood on shaky legs and wrapped the blanket around him, because the air here was cool and damp, and while he’d welcomed the coolness while lying under the blanket, his clothes were also damp and that made it feel even colder. And perhaps the poison’s effects were still coursing through his body, because he found it difficult to close his hand tightly around the blanket to keep it in place; it was as if his fingers had decided to stop working, although he saw nothing obvious wrong with them.

He seemed to be alone in this quiet place; they’d left him to recover or to die or just to get him away from the sunlight. He wondered where they were; Blossom and the other person. Had they left him in disgust? In frustration? In anger?

He turned around in the middle of the narrow space so that he could see his entire surroundings. There were two openings–a continuation of the space he’d been left in. Saw a cloth bag sitting against the wall near one of the openings. Crouched to open it, and found two stoppered and sealed bottles.

He’d seen those bottles before, even though the Morgan household’s official position on bottled blood was to pretend it didn’t exist. It just wasn’t feasible to feed every single vampire in a household fresh blood from human veins. The care and feeding of the humans involved was much more costly than buying bottled blood and allowing the vampires to believe they were drinking fresh blood. Those humans kept for feeding only fed the elite of the household, and were not well cared for. Arthur wasn’t allowed to go into the human section of the household. Or, at least, he’d never asked, and his father had never offered to show him. He had only rumors to go on, and those rumors weren’t kind to the humans involved.

With difficulty, Arthur turned his mind away from those thoughts and studied the two bottles. He supposed he should drink one of them if he’d decided to return, because he would need his strength for a little while, at least, until he could find a way to die that would not mean Iris’ death as well.

But then again, if he died out here and then Iris died because of him, he would never know, since he would be dead.

That thought did not cheer him as much as it should have.

In the end, exhausted from walking only a few feet, he sat down beside the bag and drank one of the bottles. And then he fell asleep again, curled up against the wall.

***

When he opened his eyes, the fairy was watching him from atop an outcropping of rocks. She sat with her legs crossed, leaning forward with her chin on her fists, just watching him, although she straightened up when she saw that he was awake.

“You drank,” she said, approvingly.

“You’re Blossom,” he whispered in response. He hadn’t vomited up anything, but his stomach still didn’t feel right, and the dizziness had returned while he slept.

“I am,” the fairy said, and launched herself from the rocks, fluttering close enough to touch, although he didn’t bother to try. She peered into the bag. “You should drink the other one.”

“I don’t think I can right now,” Arthur said, and closed his eyes.

“What if I helped you?” Blossom asked.

No one had ever offered to help Arthur before, at least, not without some ulterior motive. Arthur opened his eyes and looked at her closely. He saw nothing false in her gaze. “It’s not that–that I don’t want to drink it,” he finally said. “I’m afraid that if I drink it, I’ll just throw it up again.” And then, he said, “I didn’t know fairies could talk.” Somehow, the fact that they could made it so much worse that he had killed so many of them. He felt something hot and wet slip down the sides of his face and covered his head with the blanket so that she wouldn’t see his tears.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about fairies,” Blossom said after a moment. “And the small folk, as well.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Arthur whispered, and didn’t even try to stop the tears. “Nothing matters now.”

“Except for Iris,” Blossom reminded him, but that only made him cry harder; he curled up in a ball and sobbed because he had no other recourse. He had done terrible, terrible, terrible things. The small folk and the fairies should have been lining up to kill him, not giving him bottled blood to drink and patting him on the shoulder through the blanket with a hand barely bigger than his thumb.

“Why didn’t you leave me there?” he asked, his voice rough with tears. “Why?”

“Because you were hurt,” Blossom said. “Because you let me go.” She hesitated. “Because Maya said you didn’t deserve to die.”

“Maya is the other voice,” Arthur said after a moment. “The one who sounds as if she expects to be obeyed.”

“She does, doesn’t she?” Blossom asked, and giggled. “Yes, her name is Maya. She should be back soon.”

Cautiously, Arthur lowered the blanket and wiped away the remnants of his tears. “Where did she go?” Would it be smart to express any interest in her whereabouts? Should he just accept the fact that she’d left him here with Blossom as a nursemaid and not ask any questions?

Blossom glanced towards the doorway, or opening, presumably the one that led outside. “She went to ask someone she trusts about your options, without naming any names or identifying you in any way.” She said the latter part as if she expected him to protest, but he no longer cared.

“I have no options,” Arthur said woodenly. He managed to get to his feet, and, holding onto the wall with one hand and the blanket with the other, lurched towards the doorway that presumably led outside. “Which way is the Veil?”

“It’s still day outside,” Blossom said. “You can’t–” He felt the breeze of her passage ruffle the hair on top of his head, but he ignored her and concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. And then, when he turned a corner and encountered the searing brightness of sunlight again, she finished, “see. You’ve never been outside during the day, have you?”

He’d fallen back, eyes streaming, barely able to take a breath. “No.” But then, determined, he draped the blanket over his head and walked out of the cave, straight into a tree.

This time, when he fell over, he decided he would not get up, and he did not try to brush the fairy away when she draped the blanket over his face again.

“Maya will be back soon,” she said. “I’ll be here with you until then.”

“Why?”

“Because you were kind to me,” Blossom said, and he felt her hand on his shoulder again, trying to comfort him even though no comfort could be found.

“Not on purpose,” Arthur said. “I don’t know how to be kind, or nice, or anything that Iris thinks is important.” He paused. “All I know how to do is kill fairies and small folk, and preserve them for my trophies.”

“But you can learn to be kind and nice and everything that Iris thinks is important,” Blossom said encouragingly. “You can learn to do other things, too.”

“Not in the Morgan household,” Arthur said hopelessly, and she fell silent, obviously agreeing with him.

But then, she said, “I could show you how to be nice right now. Just a little niceness, nothing too difficult. And then, even if you do die, you’ll know what it means, at least.”

Arthur thought about this for a moment. “What is it?” he asked. “What do you want me to do?”

“Drink the rest of what Maya brought, and offer me a sugar cube, since I didn’t bring anything to eat,” Blossom said promptly. “Share a meal with me.”

“And how is that being nice?” Arthur asked curiously.

“You’re offering me something to eat,” Blossom said. “Without any reason.”

“Other than I know fairies really like sugar cubes,” Arthur pointed out. “And I don’t know what happened to my bag.”

“It’s in the cave,” Blossom said. “Maya brought it. She cleaned up everything and brought it with us.”

What would it hurt to do this? To venture back into the cave and give her a sugar cube while he finished the first bottle and opened the second? He knew he would feel better if he drank more blood. If he didn’t throw it up afterwards, at least.

“I’ll help you,” Blossom said. “Just–follow the sound of my voice. I won’t direct you the wrong way.”

Arthur supposed he would have to trust her, not that she’d tried to hurt him yet. In fact, she seemed to have plenty of patience, despite the fact that he believed his situation to be hopeless and that he wouldn’t live very long once he returned to the household.

Once he could walk without running into trees, at least. Once he could find his way back.

But he took her at her word this time, and crawled back into the cave, and she directed him into the dark coolness without a single wrong turn. And he leaned back against the wall and rested for a little while because his eyes needed to adjust again, and then he managed to walk back into the room where he’d awakened. And he saw his bag sitting against the opposite wall where someone had placed it, and nearly overbalanced when he crouched down in front of it to remove the little bag of sugar cubes.

But he managed. He carried the bag over to the bottles, sat down, and solemnly offered a sugar cube to Blossom, who held it with both hands and took a large bite.

Well, a very small bite to Arthur, but it took her a moment of chewing before she could speak again.

“Now you,” she said, and he lifted the bottle to his lips and drank.

“This is being nice?” he asked, because it really made no sense; Iris had said nice people didn’t cut off braids or kill fairies, but she’d not told him what nice people actually did. Just the simple act of sharing a meal was nice? He’d seen it many times before, even in the household, with mothers and children and husbands and wives.

He supposed Iris’ mother had been nice by braiding her hair that first day.

“This is being nice,” Blossom confirmed, and Arthur heard a small sound past the doorway. Not a large enough sound to be Maya, but a small enough sound to be another fairy, or one of the small folk.

Blossom’s eyes widened. She quickly shoved the rest of the sugar cube in her mouth and flew through the doorway, as if to shoo the other fairy–or fairies–away.

“There’s a whole bag,” Arthur said. “And unless you planned to eat them all, you could share too.”

He felt better now. Not perfect, but better. Not well enough to tackle the sunlight, but well enough to realize that he would likely be able to walk home once the sun set. And, clear-eyed, he realized he would be walking home to his death, but that seemed to be okay now. He wasn’t frightened.

Not anymore, at least.

Blossom poked her head back through the doorway. “Um,” she said. “They must have smelled the sugar cubes when you opened the bag.”

Arthur held it out. “There’s plenty. Well, maybe thirty or so left.”

“There are ten fairies,” Blossom reported. “If you don’t mind.”

“I won’t need them anymore,” Arthur said, and removed ten sugar cubes from the bag.

“Hold out your hand, then,” Blossom said, and he obeyed. He almost wanted to close his eyes, but he did not, and watched as one fairy after another crept into the narrow room, snatched a sugar cube from his hand, and vanished back the way they’d come.

Only the last one spoke. “Thank you,” she said in a very small voice, her eyes wide as if she knew exactly who he was and what he had done.

“You’re welcome,” Arthur said, because that was probably the correct response. “There’s still more left,” he said to Blossom once they were gone. “They don’t stay fresh very long. Would you like another one?”

“No, thank you,” Blossom said, and he found himself oddly annoyed by her refusal. Wouldn’t it be nicer to say yes, regardless? She must have seen something on his face, because she added, “But if you want to share more, I can find other fairies.”

“I’m tired,” Arthur said, and retreated to his blanket, unable to explain how he felt, and why. He left the bag of sugar cubes on the floor.

Blossom ignored the bag and followed him. “Why are you angry?” she asked.

“I’m not angry,” Arthur said, but he was angry; angry and sad at the same time. “I don’t know. You–you said you didn’t want another sugar cube, even when I offered you one.”

“Because I didn’t want one,” Blossom said patiently. “Because I’d eaten one already.” When he didn’t respond, she continued. “If I’d taken one and then thrown it away, how would you have felt?”

“Angry,” Arthur said after a moment. “And confused. I think.”

“But you’re angry and sad because I told you the truth,” Blossom said. “Why is that?”

“Because I offered you something, and you refused,” Arthur told her. “What’s nice about that?”

“Not everyone will take what you offer,” Blossom said quietly. “And that doesn’t mean they’re being cruel. Sometimes it means they just don’t want what you have. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean they’re not nice.”

“I don’t understand,” Arthur said, and turned his back on her, wrapping himself in the blanket again.

“Why don’t you get some rest?” Blossom asked. “I’ll stay with you, like I promised.”

“You should go,” Arthur whispered, and closed his eyes. After a little while, he felt her hand on his shoulder again, and then, gently, she wiped away his tears with a scrap of cloth.

“Sleep,” she whispered in his ear. “Sleep.”

Arthur slept.

***

When he awoke, something had changed. Perhaps it was because he had finished the second bottle; perhaps it was because Blossom had curled up on his lap and fallen asleep, resting her head on the crook of his arm. Perhaps it was the faint rustle of paper behind him; apparently someone or something had decided to help themselves to the sugar cubes.

Arthur did not mind, or particularly care.

“You’d best,” a familiar voice said quietly, “save some for later.”

“They don’t last,” Arthur murmured, and the sugar cube thief squeaked and the rustling stopped. Arthur raised his head to look at Maya for the first time.

As he’d thought, she wasn’t a fairy or one of the small folk, even. She was taller than him, an adult, and wore her hair in long ropes that looked like seaweed. (Not that Arthur had ever seen seaweed before, of course, but he’d seen a picture once, in a book before his father burned it.) Her green tinged skin named her as some sort of water fairy, but Arthur didn’t know what kind.

It also didn’t seem like she was wearing any clothing, at least at first, but that changed as he stared at her, as if some sort of magical censor had decided he shouldn’t see her naked.

“You’re Maya,” he said, unafraid.

“I am,” she agreed. “And you are Arthur Morgan, and in a world of trouble.”

“No,” Arthur said. “I’ll be dead soon, so it won’t matter how much trouble I’m in.” He couldn’t tell if the sun had set, and didn’t want to disturb the sleeping fairy, so he stayed where he was, sitting against the wall.

“What if you don’t have to die?” Maya asked.

“I have to,” Arthur told her. “Otherwise, I’ll become what my father wants me to become, and I don’t want that to happen.” He felt very calm about this now. He’d made his decision; now all he had to do was return home and accept the consequences of his actions.

He wondered if his father would kill him quickly, or if he would linger for days like some of the others.

“You think your father will kill you because you’ll return without a trophy,” Maya said. “What if I give you a trophy?”

“Then what about next time?” Arthur asked. “And the time after that?” He held himself very still as Blossom awoke, and stretched, and gently patted his arm as if to thank it for being such a nice pillow. “And what happens when my father wants me to–” He couldn’t think about that right now, so he stopped talking. “Has the sun set?”

“Nearly,” Maya said, and glanced away, towards the entrance of the cave.

“Then I thank you for your hospitality, but it’s time for me to go,” Arthur said formally, and forced his legs to hold him. Blossom launched herself into the air and hovered in front of him, frowning. Arthur tried his best to ignore her.

“I heard you shared your sugar cubes,” Maya said.

“They can have the rest of them,” Arthur said. “I don’t care.” He shed the blanket, too, and stood there in the cool air, shivering. And then, with one hand on the wall, he started to move past Maya from where she sat near the doorway.

She reached out to stop him. “Wait. Please.”

“Nothing you do will help,” Arthur said quietly. “Even if I bring back a trophy and my father doesn’t kill me for being out past dawn, he will still want me to kill for him, eventually. I know this for a fact.”

“How old are you?” Maya asked.

Arthur didn’t want to answer her. He didn’t want to see pity in her gaze. “Twelve.”

“If you never went back, they would search for you,” Maya said. “And likely kill scores of us before they gave up.”

“I know,” Arthur told her. “I don’t want that to happen either.” He met her gaze. “It’s better this way.”

And perhaps that would have been the end, of Arthur and of trophies and of everything else. Perhaps he would have returned empty-handed, and perhaps his father would have killed him without a single thought.

“I can give you a trophy to bring back with you,” Maya said. “This time, and every other time until you are of age and can flee safely.”

“It will never be safe for me to flee,” Arthur said, but he was wavering now; he didn’t really (truly) want to die by his father’s hand.

If he had any sort of choice in the matter of his life or death.

“You could save Iris,” Maya said, and that decided everything.

“How?” Arthur asked.

“Do you trust her?” Maya asked.

“I think she is trustworthy,” Arthur said. “We’ve really only just met.”

“If you take her into your confidence, you wouldn’t be alone,” Maya said. “And you could visit with us when you come to claim your trophies, and we can teach you what you’ll never learn in the Morgan household.”

To not be alone seemed more important than anything, especially now. He started to speak, but had to stop and clear his throat. “Like what?”

“Sharing sugar cubes with the fairies was a good start,” Maya said. “But we can help you become a better person. A nicer person. A person Iris would want to be her friend.”

Her friend. Arthur didn’t have any friends.

How would it feel to have one?

“I could be your friend, too,” Blossom offered.

“Oh,” Arthur said, shocked. “Why–why would you want to do that?”

Blossom smiled. “Because you can bring more sugar cubes,” she said.

Arthur could understand this; she wanted something from him, so she offered to be his friend. “I could,” he said, but didn’t miss Maya’s frown. Carefully, he asked, “Why are you frowning? Don’t you want her to be my friend?”

“Not because of sugar cubes,” Maya said.

Blossom flew up to Arthur’s face. “Not just because of sugar cubes,” she said. “Because I want to help you become a better person.” She glanced at Maya. “But if you want to bring sugar cubes with you–”

“I would anyway,” Arthur told her. “To bait my traps. Someone needs to eat them.”

Blossom smiled and clapped her hands together.

Arthur felt something–twinge–inside his chest. Something alien; a sharp but not quite uncomfortable pain that made him wonder if he truly was as recovered as he’d thought.

If his father noticed he’d been gone all day. If he didn’t react angrily to that fact. If the trophy Maya offered was special enough for Arthur to miss the dawn curfew. If Iris was trustworthy. If she would agree to be his confidant. If–

There were too many ifs.

But the only way to determine which would become facts was to make the decision–aloud–that he’d already made in his heart. “Okay,” he said, his voice rough and unsteady.

“Okay,” Maya said quietly.

“It might not work,” Arthur warned her. “If you never see me again–”

“Then we’ll know we weren’t successful,” Maya said, and held out a small bundle. “Here is your trophy.”

Arthur made no move to take it. Suddenly fearful, he asked, “Did you–did you kill it? For me? I don’t want you to do that–”

“No,” Maya said. “I did not kill it for you. No one did. It died of natural causes, and the others will have, too. You have my word on that.”

Carefully, reverently, Arthur accepted the bundle and cradled it against his chest. He felt–strange, he decided. Different. Odd.

And then, he realized what it was. For this to work, he would have to lie to his father. He would have to tell him what he expected to hear, not the truth of what had really happened.

He had never lied to his father before. He had no idea if he could do it now.

He wasn’t afraid. That much was true. Whatever happened, he wasn’t afraid. Not anymore, at least. If his father believed him; took him at his word; accepted the trophy for what it was and nothing more, then he would have a secret to protect. And he intended to protect it, or die trying.

“Thank you,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” Maya said gravely.

***

The walk back to the Veil took no time at all. Blossom rode on his shoulder for most of it; she flew away as he crossed over, and he missed the faint weight of her presence as he walked the familiar path home. He passed both of his traps, untriggered, and almost knocked them over, but left them in place at the last minute, just in case someone came to verify the story he was about to tell.

As dusk deepened to darkness, he slipped into the household by the back door and carried the bundle and his bag into his trophy room. He saw no one, but that wasn’t really a surprise. To vampires, it was early morning, after all, and most would still be asleep, if they slept during the day.

Arthur suspected his father never slept, but he’d never summoned up enough courage to ask. Still, he half-expected his father to be waiting for him as he turned to regard his sanctuary, but neither his grandmother nor his father lurked in the shadows.

But Iris did, her slight form huddled against his workbench. She’d fallen asleep, but woke up as soon as he closed the door behind him.

“You’ve been gone all day!”

Arthur made himself set down his bag and bundle before replying. “Did anyone miss me?” Perhaps this would be easier than he expected.

Iris slowly rose to her feet. “I did,” she said.

“Did anyone else?” Arthur asked.

“I don’t think so,” Iris said, then blurted, “What happened? How did you survive the sunlight? Did you go past the Veil?” And then, she saw the bundle Arthur had placed on his workbench. Her eyes widened. “What is that?”

“A trophy,” Arthur said, then added, “I didn’t kill it. I haven’t even looked at it yet.” He paused. “I–I took your advice. I let one of them go.”

“But you brought one back, too,” Iris said sadly.

“So that my father wouldn’t kill me for my failure,” Arthur said tightly. “And so that he wouldn’t kill me for staying out all day long.” He hesitated. “Did you know that the sunlight in Faerie won’t hurt us?”

“No, I didn’t,” Iris said. “You walked in sunlight? Why would your father kill you? You’re his only son!” She’d clearly been talking to someone, or listening to gossip, because she added, slightly bitterly, “You can do no wrong.”

“That’s because I haven’t done anything against him yet,” Arthur said. “My father or my grandmother.” He took a deep breath. “Can I trust you?”

“I told you I wouldn’t say anything,” Iris said automatically.

“That’s not what I meant,” Arthur said. “I–how did you get in here, anyway? I locked the door when I left.”

Iris glanced down at her hands, which were balled into fists. “A spell,” she finally said. “When you didn’t come to class, I got worried.”

“I don’t always go to class,” Arthur said.

“I didn’t know that,” Iris said quietly. “And since we’d–spoken the day before, I thought that maybe–” She looked at him. “I took back my braid.”

“I know,” Arthur told her. “You can keep it.”

Iris folded her arms. “I wasn’t going to give it back!”

“I know,” Arthur said, then asked again, “Can I trust you?”

“Yes,” Iris said.

“I mean it,” Arthur told her. “Like, really trust you.”

“Yes,” Iris repeated. “You can really trust me.”

Still, Arthur hesitated, because what he wanted to tell her, about what he had done and what had happened afterwards, would not only get him killed but would probably start a war between the Morgan household and the small folk if his father heard any inkling of it. Perhaps it wasn’t a good idea, to take her into his confidence. Perhaps–

“You look really terrible,” Iris commented. “What happened to you out in the forest?”

“I decided that I didn’t want to become the person my father wants me to become,” Arthur whispered. “And I–I decided that the only way to succeed in that goal was to die. But I didn’t die, and I came back because I knew you would be the first one to die in the event of my disappearance, and I didn’t want you to die because of me.”

Iris’ mouth dropped open. “You–”

The door opened behind Arthur. He spun around, forgetting Iris; forgetting everything but the fact that his father stood in the doorway now, and then, his father stepped into the room.

“Were you gone all day?” he asked. There was no anger in his voice–yet.

“Yes,” Arthur said.

“And you brought back a worthy prize?” his father asked, not questioning how he’d survived.

Not caring, Arthur thought. “Yes,” he said aloud.

“Show me,” his father said, and Arthur turned to his worktable. Unwrapped the bundle, which contained–

Iris gasped.

Arthur ignored her. The bundle contained a fairy so tiny and delicate it would have fit into an eggshell. It lay curled on its side, its silver wings softly glowing in the dim light of the lamp above the worktable. The wings were twice its size, and completely undamaged, despite the bundling.

“Who is this?” Arthur’s father asked, frowning at Iris.

“My assistant,” Arthur said without thinking.

Arthur’s father did not protest. He did not protest. That, in itself, was a miracle. Instead, he peered down at the tiny fairy, and said, “I would like to see this mounted, when you’re finished. I’m certain you’ll do an excellent job.” And then he was gone, as quickly as he had come, closing the door behind him.

Arthur waited for one stunned moment before he sat down in his chair, staring at the delicate project before him, forgetting Iris’ presence until she asked, curiously, “Your assistant?”

“He saw you,” Arthur told her. “I had to have an explanation, and he had no protest.”

He wanted to pinch himself, to make sure he hadn’t dreamed his father’s lack of protest.

“Well, then,” Iris said. “If I’m to be your assistant, then what do you usually do next?”

“You don’t actually have to be my assistant,” Arthur said slowly.

“Then tell me about what you intended to do in the forest,” Iris said. “You were going to tell me before your father arrived.”

“I think you were the one talking,” Arthur said. She’d only gotten out the one word, but he knew what she’d intended to say.

“You said you decided to die,” Iris said quietly.

“Yes,” Arthur said, not meeting her gaze.

“How?” Her voice was very soft.

“The poison I use to dispatch the fairies,” Arthur said. “I–injected it and drank a bottle of it for good measure.” He rubbed his arm; it still hurt a bit, although his stomach had settled down.

“Let me see,” Iris said, and inspected his arm when he held it out and rolled up his sleeve. It was mottled with bruises. She gently touched the red mark of the needle. “You’ll want to keep this covered, or someone will ask questions you won’t want to answer.”

“I will,” Arthur whispered.

“Does it hurt?” Iris asked.

“Not now,” Arthur said, and then, “A little. Not like before, though.”

“Why did you do it?” Iris asked.

In a monotone, Arthur told her what he had determined his future would become. “I don’t want that to happen,” he finished. “I still don’t.” He told her about Maya, and Blossom, and what they had offered him. And what he had decided.

“That’s why you wanted to know if you could trust me,” Iris said, nodded. “I understand now.” She hesitated. “I think I would like to meet Blossom, someday.”

“I think she would like to meet you,” Arthur told her. “I’ll–We’ll have to go into the forest together, someday. Someday soon, I think, if you want to go with me.”

“Assistants should probably go with their Masters,” Iris said solemnly.

Arthur stared at her. “I’m not your Master,” he protested, not liking that word.

“But your father thinks you are,” Iris said, which was likely the truth. “And I don’t mind.”

“I’m not intending to kill any more of them,” Arthur said, wanting to be truthful.

“I’m glad,” Iris said. “But I’m not so glad that you thought you had to kill yourself because of what I said to you.”

“I’m still not sure it won’t come to that,” Arthur admitted, not meeting her gaze.

She put one hand on his arm. “But you’re not alone anymore. You have me now.”

Arthur sucked in a breath. “I’m sorry I cut off your braid,” he whispered.

Iris smiled, but her smile was worried. “All is forgiven,” she said, and they never discussed it again.

***

Maya proved true to her word. She provided the trophies and Arthur’s father never discovered their secret. She also provided instruction–to both Iris and Arthur–with Blossom’s help, and sometimes the help of other fairies and small folk. Sometimes Arthur didn’t understand what they were trying to teach him; sometimes he stormed out of the cave (which had become a school, of sorts) and sulked in the forest until Blossom or Iris came to fetch him. Sometimes it was too hard to pretend that his life was anything other than terrible, especially when his father required everyone to watch the executions, and expected Arthur to stand right beside him while he wielded the blade or watched from the doorway as the hapless vampire burned to death in the cold light of dawn.

He learned to compartmentalize his life inside the household and his life with Iris. He learned to close all emotion away and pretend to be the son his father wanted, only to discard all of that when he was alone, or out in the forest, or with his only friend.

Iris proved to be a stalwart companion, and her smaller fingers made delicate work seem simple. Despite the horror she’d expressed at first, she did not hesitate to help him prepare the trophies Maya provided, and Arthur grew to rely on her talent and budding expertise.

He wasn’t alone anymore. That much was true, but he knew that his carefully built world would crumble instantly if his father caught wind of the Secret.

And yet, a year passed. Then two.

When Arthur turned fourteen, his father deemed him old enough to help with the executions. This was, of course, the path Arthur had seen in his future two years before, and Iris stopped him this time before he could harm himself, and she hid all the poisons away until the panic subsided enough for him to think.

Although, in truth, he couldn’t think, because it had been two years since he’d killed a fairy or one of the small folk, and he didn’t know what he could do to refuse to obey his father’s decree, other than to die himself, and Iris wouldn’t let him do that.

“How do they usually die?” Iris asked.

Arthur stared at her. “You’ve never gone?” He’d supposed that everyone was required to go; there were crowds, most of the time, when his father deemed someone ready for execution.

“No,” Iris said. “My mother won’t let me.”

“He doesn’t use poison,” Arthur told her. “He uses sunlight, or silver, most of the time.”

“You’re not him, though,” Iris said. “Will he let you use poison?”

“What? I’m not–I can’t–”

“And make it so they’re dead so that we can sneak them out of the house at night and give them to Maya to save,” Iris said quickly, just in case he thought she meant otherwise.

Arthur thought about what she had said. Wondered if it would work. Would Maya even agree to spirit the prisoners away? Would they have a place to go? She had not mentioned Arthur fleeing since that first day, and sometimes he wondered if the Secret was worth keeping if he would never get to utilize what Maya and Blossom and the others had taught him.

“We can ask her,” he finally agreed, and they did, that night. Arthur’s father had said nothing about the trophies, but Arthur half-expected him to refuse to allow him to hunt, now that he would be murdering those his father deemed enemies.

He couldn’t do it. He knew he couldn’t do it.

“Arthur,” Iris said, and he realized she’d been repeating his name as he stood there, frozen with horror. Blossom hovered in front of his face, worried; he blinked at her and whispered, “We need to speak with Maya.”

And Maya, when she arrived, listened to his concerns and Iris’ idea and said, “Of course I know where they could go. Can you pinpoint the dosage so they’ll seem to be dead?”

“I think so,” Arthur said. The panic was subsiding a little now; faced with an actual plan, he only had to worry about pulling it off.

As if that were only a small worry.

But it worked; he stood up to his father and protested an audience; stated that he would only use poison, and his father did not object. And perhaps that was why he only had to dose a handful of unfortunates with the poison he’d developed over the course of the next year; his father still took care of the bulk of the executions.

After a while, though, Arthur began to pay attention to the condemned prisoner’s crimes, and decided for himself which ones to request–to rescue–and which ones would be more likely to use the knowledge that someone in the household had freed them to return themselves to favor. That meant making choices he didn’t want to have to make, and yet, he managed to save some lives. Not all of them, but some of them. And it was all he could do.

He never asked Maya where the prisoners ended up. Iris might have, but she did not share the information with Arthur. And perhaps they would have continued like that, for years, except–except one night, they were seen.

***

His name was Liam, and everyone believed him to be Arthur’s younger brother–half-brother, really–although no one knew the truth. The story was that Liam and his mother had returned to the household after Liam’s father was killed–much like Iris and her mother had returned years before. Liam’s father was Arthur’s uncle, so they were definitely cousins, but they looked enough alike to be brothers, even though they were four years apart.

Soon after Liam’s arrival, his mother became ill, and so he was forever hanging around, unsupervised by anyone. Sometimes, Arthur suspected he had some sort of talent for invisibility, because he would be absolutely certain he was alone, but then have Liam appear in the next moment, standing against the wall or a tapestry as if he’d been there all along.

Arthur did not wish to encourage him, but he couldn’t refrain from speaking to him since they were cousins, and since his mother had some sort of strange status, despite her illness. Arthur had spotted his father emerging from their small set of rooms on more than one occasion, something that never happened with anyone else.

They’d perfected their rescues by now; after the poison took hold, they would cast a spell to render themselves unseen, and slip out of the household without a murmur of suspicion.

Arthur had also–privately–inquired if Maya would be able to find someone to provide replacement weapons to the household’s store of silver ones; he knew they wouldn’t be able to do this forever, and he wanted to make their chances of survival higher by replacing as many of the silver weapons with harmless ones. Maya had not asked questions, but she had placed one hand on his arm and said, solemnly, “When you decide it’s time for you to leave–and Iris, of course–know that we will help you.”

And although he was not yet of age, Arthur realized that he would have a much better chance at not being sent back to the Morgan household now, if he did flee.

But then, if they fled, no one else would be rescued, ever again. The prisoners would have no hope at all, and his father would have complete control of the household. And although Arthur knew that his position was precarious–it would only take one mistake to doom them both–he could not allow himself to consider freedom just yet.

But then, Liam followed them into the forest one night. They’d just left the household wards behind; just carried their latest rescue into the forest, when Arthur heard something behind them; a twig snapped, or an indrawn breath; it wasn’t much, but he lowered his half of their burden without a sound and vanished into the trees.

Iris followed him. The prisoner would keep; they never awoke until the next day.

Liam either didn’t realize he’d been heard or Arthur was faster than he thought, because he was still crouched behind a tree when Arthur found him.

He gasped aloud at Arthur’s appearance and tried to say something, but Arthur couldn’t let him speak–or scream–this close to the household, so he covered Liam’s mouth with his hand and pressed him up against the tree. “Not one word. No screams, either. Do you understand?”

Liam nodded convulsively, and Arthur realized he’d pressed the blade of the knife he always carried–just in case–against his throat. It wasn’t silver, but Liam didn’t need to know that.

“Don’t hurt him,” Iris said from behind them.

Arthur, slightly sickened at his reaction, slid the knife back into its sheath. “Not one word,” he warned, and Liam nodded again.

He removed his hand. Stepped back.

Liam touched his throat, then looked down at his hand, as if expecting to see blood.

“How did you follow us?” Arthur asked quietly.

Liam opened his mouth to reply, then closed it, remembering Arthur’s previous words.

Exasperated, Arthur said, “You can answer questions.”

“I’ve been watching you for weeks,” Liam said after a moment, and tensed, as if he expected Arthur to lash out at him. “That spell you use–I can see through it.”

Arthur stared at him in dismay.

“How?” Iris asked when he didn’t speak. “Another spell?”

Liam looked down at his shoes. “A talent,” he mumbled, then, “Please don’t tell anyone.”

A talent for seeing through spells. Arthur’s father could do a lot with such a talent; Liam would never have a normal sort of life (if one could have a normal sort of life in the Morgan household) if Arthur’s father discovered his secret. He’d be locked up; used as Arthur’s father’s secret weapon against his enemies.

“We won’t tell,” Arthur said. “As long as you don’t tell anyone about us, either.”

Liam considered this for a moment, then nodded. “Okay.” And then he asked the damning question. “What are you doing with them?”

“Rescuing them,” Iris said after a moment. “And we’d be killed if you told anyone at all–you know that, right?”

“My mother has the same talent,” Liam blurted out, then, as if he couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. “She–your father, he–he comes to her–” Miserably, he whispered, “That’s why she’s sick. He made her sick.” He folded his arms. “I don’t want the same thing to happen to me.”

He looked so pitiful and young, standing there; helpless, even, but Arthur couldn’t help but doubt his word. Not that his mother was sick; that was–well, that was likely not what was wrong with her; he suspected something a bit more nefarious, with his father involved, but he didn’t want to say it aloud.

“Please,” Liam begged. “I won’t tell anyone. I swear. You can kill me if you ever think I’d betray you–”

“I hope that would not be necessary,” Maya said from behind them, her voice quiet.

Arthur stepped away from him, suddenly cold. “I–”

“It’s my fault,” Liam said quickly. “I followed them; I shouldn’t have–” His eyes were wide and frightened; he looked as if he wanted to run away as fast as he could possibly run.

Arthur didn’t remember being frightened of Maya when they’d first met. She had been kind to him; covering him with a blanket against the sunlight; bringing him something to drink. And she’d been his friend ever since. “Maya is our friend,” he said.

“Friend?” Liam asked. “What’s–what’s a ‘friend’?”

“You have a lot to learn, young man,” Maya said as Blossom flew up to hover beside her.

Liam gasped.

Iris gently took his arm. He started to pull away, then stopped himself, as if he realized that she wouldn’t hurt him, despite what he had offered. “Come on,” she said gently, but her gaze was on Arthur, as if asking permission to allow Liam to accompany them. “We can’t stay here for long; we’re too close to the house.”

Arthur swallowed a sigh. “Come, then,” he said, and the edge of wariness Liam wore like a badge crumbled to dust around his sudden smile. Had he ever been that young? That innocent?

That trusting?

“I will have your word,” he said formally, resisting the urge to trust him completely.

“You have my word,” Liam promised. His smile faded; he looked worried now, as if he feared Arthur would not accept his word for anything important at all. “I won’t–”

“I know you won’t,” Arthur told him, and tried to pretend he meant it. “Come on.” And together, they walked where they’d left the sleeping prisoner.

 

Despite Arthur’s initial misgivings, Liam proved to be an invaluable partner in their little endeavor. Young as he was, no one really paid attention to him, and he soon became adept at hiding in plain sight; something he’d practiced while trailing after them all those weeks. He soaked up whatever Maya and Blossom chose to teach him, and didn’t seem to have such a hard time with subjects Arthur had nearly abandoned, like empathy and caring. But for all he learned, he became even more adept at hiding what he had learned while home.

But despite Liam’s assistance; despite his trust, Arthur felt as if a noose was slowly tightening around their necks. He couldn’t pinpoint the source of their doom, because his father showed no sign of knowing or realizing what they had done. He assumed that Arthur dragged his victims out for the sun to take, and Arthur did not dissuade him.

And then, Isobel, Arthur’s aunt; sister to Arthur’s father and a highly placed member of the Morgan household, even though she didn’t live inside the Morgan household, went crazy. Arthur did not hear the entirety of the story, but he heard enough of it.

She’d gone crazy, murdered her son Tobias twice times, and brought him back to life twice as well, with a spell.

The Council and the Hunt had gotten involved; two of the younger Richmond sons had died, and Arthur’s father likely would have killed her himself, but Tobias did the deed, and then fled, resurfacing along with an errant cousin and the younger daughter of the Richmond household.

Considering his mother had killed him twice, Arthur didn’t blame him for killing her. But Arthur’s father did, and he put a high price on Tobias’ head after Isobel’s death.

He also forbade anyone from mentioning Tobias’ name, which meant that the cells in the basement filled up quickly, and punishments were rife. Whether because of the fact that he couldn’t reach Tobias himself or he hadn’t seen this coming, Arthur’s father became more cruel and even more violent than usual, if such a thing were ever usual.

He never actually did anything to Arthur; for some reason he seemed to trust his son, although Arthur wasn’t certain why. He’d never actually defied his father to his face, after all, and the Secret had yet to be discovered. But when Arthur’s father insisted he participate in punishments for such small infractions, Arthur knew that he couldn’t keep the Secret a secret for much longer.

Nearly a year had passed since Liam had joined them. Arthur had no reason not to trust him now; he’d proved himself trustworthy time and time again. He had absolutely no indication what would happen, or what Liam had done until it was too late and he could do nothing about it; too late to help him; too late to save him; too late to dissuade him from his path.

Arthur’s father became convinced there was a traitor in the household, feeding Tobias information.

Arthur had no idea that the traitor was Liam until he’d been imprisoned. Had no clue what Liam had done until he’d been shouted at and beaten and tortured, and sentenced to die at dawn.

Arthur himself wasn’t suspect, but that could change, of course, with one slip of Liam’s tongue; one hesitation; one–

“We can’t allow this to happen,” Iris said, shocking him out of the horrible spiral of his thoughts.

Arthur wasn’t surprised that she’d appeared in his bedroom; despite the guard his father had put on the door–for Arthur’s safety, he’d claimed–Iris knew all of the secret ways in and out and around the household by now. There were many secret passageways even Arthur didn’t know about. He had no doubt one led directly to the basement, and had no doubt Iris had already looked in on Liam.

His father hadn’t insisted he attend Liam’s punishment. But he had no doubt he’d be required to attend Liam’s death.

“Did you know?” His voice was hoarse. “Did you know?”

Iris’ silence was answer enough. Arthur closed his eyes. Slumped back in the chair.

“It wasn’t that he didn’t trust you,” Iris finally said. “He didn’t want you to feel as if you had to become involved.”

“How could I not?” Arthur asked hollowly. He’d thought–and dismissed–contacting Tobias himself, more out of fear than anything else, because if Tobias knew he was not with his father, Arthur feared he would be asked to do something he wouldn’t be able to do, like kill him, or kill Grandmother Morgan, or worse.

“We have to leave,” he said. “We can’t stay here; not now; if Liam breathes one word–”

“He won’t,” Iris said quietly. “He knows it won’t save him.”

Arthur’s father had come an hour before. Raging; furious; he’d spoken without thinking, and said something he shouldn’t have said. Something he’d never admitted before.

He hadn’t even noticed the slip, but Arthur had noticed it, and now, he wondered if he should tell Iris what his father had accidentally confirmed.

“He’s my brother,” he whispered, still stunned by the admission. “My father said ‘sons’ when he came here, Iris. He said ‘sons’.”

“Then that’s all the more reason to save him,” Iris said, unsurprised, which made him wonder if she’d already known the truth, or if she’d just assumed that the rumors were true, regardless of any proof at all.

“How?” Arthur asked, which was the most important question, really, because there were guards on Liam’s door, of course, and while they had the spell to move unseen, Liam would be able to see him, and so would his mother. And Liam’s mother, although still not well, had been taken down to the basement to keep watch over her son. And she was loyal to Arthur’s father; fanatically loyal.

She would see them come, and she would tell Arthur’s father, and then they would all die.

“Do you know the arrangements?” Iris asked. She didn’t seem at all concerned about their inability to rescue Liam, or if there would be anything left to rescue, after Arthur’s father finished with him.

“He is to die at dawn,” Arthur said.

“Four hours from now,” Iris said, and frowned.

Arthur couldn’t cry; he wanted to, but the tears would not come. “I don’t want him to die,” he finally said, and heard his voice shake.

“Then let’s make sure he doesn’t,” Iris said firmly.

“How?” Arthur asked again. He couldn’t sit anymore; he stood and started pacing, back and forth, back and forth. “In four hours, I’ll be standing beside my father while Liam is sentenced to death–” His voice trailed away. He stood, quite still, staring at the door, because he’d just realized what would happen when his father used the weapon he’d chosen to end Liam’s life.

He’d taken care of nearly all of them at this point, and he knew that his father would choose something that would ensure Liam died in agony for his betrayal, only, since the weapons were no longer silver, unless he chopped off Liam’s head, he would not die at all.

Which meant that he would then test the other weapons, realize that they weren’t silver, either, and then the Secret would be uncovered, because he would have to suspect Arthur’s duplicity. No one else had that much access to the hidden places; no one else could have done such a thing.

Arthur had switched out the weapons in the hope that they wouldn’t be used on himself, or Iris, or Liam. But he hadn’t thought past that; he hadn’t realized what that actually meant. But now–

In a whisper, he told Iris what he had done. “My father will use one of them on Liam, and he won’t die from silver poisoning. He won’t die writhing in agony. He won’t die at all, unless my father cuts off his head.”

Iris’ mouth had dropped open. She stared at him in shock, as if she couldn’t quite believe he would even attempt such a scheme; or, more likely, that he’d been stupid enough to try.

“You do realize we’ll have to leave?” Arthur asked. “We won’t be able to stay here?”

“I don’t want to leave my mother,” Iris said. “But I understand why I have to. If I could get her to come with us–”

“It’s too dangerous,” Arthur said automatically.

“It will be dangerous for her if I leave,” Iris said, but she did not back down; she folded her arms and stood firm against Arthur’s fear.

He took a deep breath. “I know what I will need to do,” he said. “To save him, I mean. But afterwards–if what I think will happen happens, you’ll–you’ll have to rescue both of us from the basement.” Another breath. He had to take deep breaths or he would hyperventilate, and then be good to no one at all.

Iris stilled. “What do you intend to do?” she asked.

“It’s probably best if you don’t know,” Arthur managed to say, and she glared at him until he told her, haltingly, of the dangerous plan that had suddenly appeared in his mind; a plan that could go wrong so many ways, but, perhaps, with a little luck, would go right.

“It’s very dangerous,” Iris said softly.

“I know,” Arthur told her. “But I can’t see any other way to save him.”

“Maya would say you’re purposely putting yourself in danger to save him,” Iris said. “And that you’re leaving me to pick up all the pieces, afterwards.”

“I won’t die, either,” Arthur told her. “Unless–”

“Unless they cut off both your heads,” Iris said, her voice quiet. “Yes.” And then, quite unexpectedly, she threw her arms around him and held him tightly. Since Iris was usually the calm and collected one, Arthur wasn’t sure what to do, at first. But then she sniffed, and wiped her eyes, and stepped back, and said, “I’ll be there, afterwards. I–”

“Don’t promise,” Arthur said, interrupting her. “Too much could go wrong.”

“I won’t promise,” Iris told him. “But I’ll swear. I will be there, afterwards. You have my word.”

And somehow, even though he knew too many things could go wrong, Arthur believed her, and loved her for it.

***

And then, too soon, it was almost dawn.

The entire household was required to attend, with no excuses. And they packed the meeting room–once, long ago, it had been a ballroom, but it hadn’t been used for that purpose for many years. And as the members of the household trickled into the room–Arthur, his father, his grandmother, and Arthur’s father’s five lieutenants, two of which had once been vampire hunters, stood up front in a line, awaiting Liam’s arrival; he’d be paraded in so that everyone could see him, forced to walk if he still could; otherwise, he’d be dragged–they were silent. There were no whispers. No murmurs. Just footsteps, as everyone filed into the room and awaited the horror therein.

Liam was almost upright when they brought him into the room. They were moving too quickly for him to actually keep his footing, so they half-dragged him down the suddenly empty middle of the room, where everyone had left an open space in front of Arthur and his father and the others. Arthur didn’t see Iris at first; he had to steel his face not to show his sudden panic, but then he spotted her near the back of the room with her mother–with absolutely no expression on her face.

Considering everyone else looked properly horrified by Liam’s appearance, Arthur felt as if his father would pull her out of the crowd and accuse her of being Liam’s accomplice without a second thought.

But he did not. He seemed to be satisfied that Liam had worked alone, and apparently, Liam had not said one word about Arthur or Iris or the Secret. In fact, Liam’s gaze slid right past Arthur as his guards left him standing in the middle of the circle, alone, barely able to stand upright.

All at once, Arthur realized that Liam’s mother wasn’t present, and wondered when his father would notice. But then, he realized that his father was waiting for something–someone, and when she stepped into the room and walked through the throng to stand beside him, Arthur knew that what he’d suspected was true.

Liam’s mother did not even seem to see her son standing there, swaying, barely able to hold himself upright. She stared–glared, really–out at the crowd until Grandmother Morgan, who had–up until now–remained silent–pushed her aside and snatched up the bow Arthur’s father had intended to use.

“This traitor–” Arthur’s father spat. “Colluded with our enemies–”

“Cousin,” Liam said clearly. “Our cousin.”

“Whose name has been struck from the family!” Grandmother Morgan snapped. “Who is guilty of murdering his own mother!”

“She murdered him!” Arthur blurted, unable to stop himself. “And brought him back to life! Twice!”

“Silence!” Arthur’s father roared as murmurs drifted across the crowd. To Arthur, he added, “We’ll discuss this later.”

“No,” Arthur said, and stepped forward to stand in front of Liam. “We will discuss it now. I don’t think my brother did anything wrong.”

Liam drew in a shocked breath. Those who heard Arthur’s declaration stepped back, fearful now, because Arthur’s father would just as well kill them all to keep the secret safe. The stupid secret, really, because who really cared if Liam was or was not Arthur’s brother? Why keep it a secret at all?

“It’s true,” Liam’s mother said unexpectedly. “It’s true.”

“Regardless of his parentage, he has betrayed the family,” Arthur’s father said tightly. “Stand aside.”

“No,” Arthur said, dimly surprised that his voice did not shake. That he didn’t immediately obey his father’s order, out of fear.

Grandmother Morgan, never one for long conversations, snatched an arrow from the quiver and notched the arrow onto the bow. Arthur tried to watch both her and his father at the same time; he never expected one of the lieutenants to act without a direct order. The man stepped out of line and lunged for Arthur, who stepped back, away from him, and collided with Liam, who fell backwards.

Perhaps Grandmother Morgan had intended to shoot Liam, not Arthur. Perhaps she merely wanted to end the bickering, especially in front of the entire household. Either way, she let the arrow fly, and Arthur found himself falling backwards onto Liam, staring up at the shocked faces around him; one hand reaching up to touched the feathered shaft that now stuck grotesquely out of his chest; the other scrambling, as if he intended to get up and throw himself at his father, a suicide attempt if there ever was one.

There was no pain, at first. Just a bone-deep numbness that could not–would not–last.

And chaos. Above and around them. His father shouting for order. His grandmother’s cackle. The snap as his father broke the bow in two.

Someone grabbed Arthur’s arm, presumably to pull him upright. The abrupt movement awoke a deep and tearing pain that robbed both breath and sense and left Arthur reeling in its wake.

He had not–quite–expected it to hurt so badly.

“…away,” his father growled. “Take them both. I will deal with them later.” He threw the broken pieces of the bow in Arthur’s face. “Or let them rot.” Raised his voice. “I will have silence!”

Arthur screamed when they pulled him to his feet. He saw his father’s fist right before it connected with the side of his head; heard Liam moan as the guards jerked him upright and dragged him away.

And then, blessedly, nothing more, not even pain. Arthur let himself fall into darkness.

***

He awoke sometime later to voices overhead and the taste of blood in the back of his throat. Not nourishment, but his own blood. For a moment, he felt no pain, but it was only a moment. One very short moment.

His eyes snapped open, or tried to. He couldn’t seem to open his left eye all the way. He drew in a sharp breath. Choked on it. Moaned aloud.

“Don’t try to move,” Liam said, somewhere to his right.

He sounded–beaten. Exhausted and hopeless and beaten. Arthur doubted they’d fed him, so his wounds would not heal as quickly as they would, otherwise. Not that they were supposed to have healed at all; Liam certainly wasn’t supposed to be alive right now.

Neither was Arthur, really, considering the arrow should have been silver.

“Are we alone?” Arthur asked.

“Blossom was here,” Liam told him. “She came in through the window, where the glass is broken.”

“Why did you do it?” Arthur asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There’s a guard outside the door,” Liam said. “I tried to cast a spell, but I don’t know if it took.”

Arthur didn’t have enough strength to check. “Answer my question,” he said, but when he tried to raise his voice, the pain choked away anger and left him dizzy and sick in its wake. He realized, then, that the arrow no longer stuck out of his chest, or shoulder, or wherever it had entered (since everything hurt, it was difficult to tell) and someone had placed a bit of cloth against the wound, to soak up the blood.

There was a lot of blood.

“Please,” he managed, and Liam said, “Because he deserved to know. He’s no more a traitor than you or I. He had no choice but to do what he did. Do you blame him for fleeing?”

“I don’t blame him for anything at all,” Arthur whispered. “Where’s Iris?”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to try to keep that from your father as well,” Liam said after a moment. “You’re already hiding so much.” He paused. “I’m sorry. I didn’t tell them anything about–about the Secret.”

“I know,” Arthur said, and closed his eyes. He couldn’t keep them open. “Where’s Iris?”

“I don’t know,” Liam whispered. He sounded like he was crying. “Will you die?”

“Did you remove the arrow?” Arthur asked.

“It’s on the floor beside you,” Liam told him. “Blossom helped–she told me what to do.”

As far as Arthur knew, Blossom had never actually ventured into the household before. How had she known to come? “Are we alone?” he asked again.

“I told you–there’s a guard outside the door,” Liam said. “I tried to cast a spell so he wouldn’t hear us talking, but I’m–I can’t–” He took a deep breath. “There’s a body. A human. I think he’s dead, though.”

“Which cell?” Arthur asked.

“The second one from the end, on the left,” Liam replied, because they’d marked them all long ago, in their quest to become more efficient in their rescues.

“There’s a passageway into the one beside this one,” Arthur murmured. “Is he dead or unconscious?”

“I don’t know,” Liam said. “I can’t hear his heart beating.” He paused. “He’s just–just a child, though, Arthur–younger than me. A little kid.”

A child. Younger than Liam. “How much younger?”

Arthur heard a rustling sound, then Liam’s gasp. “Someone’s drunk his blood.” And then, “He’s still alive. Barely.”

“Don’t–” Arthur opened his eyes. Tried–and failed–to sit up. “Don’t hurt him.”

“He’s just a little kid!” Liam sounded shocked. “I wouldn’t–”

“That never stopped my father,” Arthur interjected, and Liam fell silent. “Our father, I suppose. Can you help me sit up?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Liam said after a moment. “You should lie down. Maybe then–” He was crying again, and Arthur suddenly realized why.

“The arrow wasn’t silver,” he said quickly. “I’m not dying.”

Liam sniffed. “What? Your father said it was–”

“He doesn’t know,” Arthur said. “No one was to know. Iris didn’t know, until I told her. I switched them out. Nearly every weapon I could find. Maya helped.”

Liam was silent. Arthur again tried to sit up. This time, he managed to prop himself up against the wall, even though the movement made the room dip and sway around his head. At least he could see Liam now, though. And while he’d expected Liam to look relieved, he had not expected anger.

“I’m the one who should be angry at you,” he said quietly. He could see the human boy now, too, although he wanted to unsee the boy as soon as he saw the bite marks on his filthy neck; his wrists; no doubt even his ankles. And–elsewhere.

Vampires were very thorough. And no one liked to open old wounds to feed, although it looked as if that had happened more than once. Arthur felt sick just looking at him.

“That’s true,” Liam allowed. “But you could have told me. Us.” He glanced at the boy, following Arthur’s horrified gaze.

“I didn’t want you to have to lie to anyone because of it,” Arthur said. He wanted to help the boy, but he didn’t know how; he’d had very little interaction with the humans the vampires kept for food. Although if the boy’s condition was any indication of how they were treated–Arthur shuddered. Then the faint rumors were true, and he’d drunk their blood without question. For all he knew, he’d drunk the boy’s blood as well, and that seemed too horrible to contemplate.

“What happened, after I–after my father hit me?” Arthur asked, and reached up with his hand to touch the side of his face. He didn’t try to move his left arm; he didn’t want to dislodge the sodden dressing, and he knew it would hurt worse if he tried to move it.

“He kept hitting you,” Liam said quietly. “And so did the others. And your grandmother wanted to chop off our heads, but he wouldn’t let her.”

“I see,” Arthur said, and tried not to feel…well, anything at all, because none of this was a surprise; he knew how his father treated traitors, and to his father, he would be the worst sort of traitor of them all. “How long have we been here?”

“I’m not sure,” Liam said. “I think it’s still the same day. I wasn’t awake when they brought us here, though, I–” he took a shuddering breath. “Arthur, are we going to die? I thought I would die; they almost caught Tobias when they caught me, and I tried to get away–”

“We’re hopefully not going to die,” Arthur said. “Depending on if Iris finds us or not.” He paused. “But we’re going to leave. Forever. Okay?”

“Okay,” Liam said without any hope in his voice at all.

“Come sit by me,” Arthur said. “If the boy’s not lying in water or anything, leave him there. We can’t help him right now.” The floor seemed to be fairly dry, but he knew that the basement leaked when it rained. He’d found more than one prisoner lying in a puddle of brackish water and bloody vomit over the years.

“He’s lying on a blanket,” Liam said. “It’s not a very nice blanket, but it’s dry. Except for blood, but that’s dry too. Mostly.” He hesitated, then asked, softly, “Did we do that to him?”

“Yes,” Arthur said. “If you mean did we, as vampires, do that to him. Yes. But did we personally do that to him? I don’t know if there’s any way to find out.” He waited until Liam had joined him against the wall, then said, “When we leave, I want to take him with us.”

“But he’s barely alive!” Liam protested. “And wouldn’t they–wherever we’re going, wouldn’t they think we did that to him?”

Arthur closed his eyes again. Leaned his head against the wall. “If we can get him to a Healer, then perhaps he’ll live,” he said. “And if–if others find out about what happens here, then perhaps they can do something about our father and Grandmother Morgan.” He wasn’t certain that anyone would care what happened to humans in the Morgan household, but he hoped someone would care. And, maybe, if someone did care, the Morgan household might not be so terrible anymore.

But he was too tired to think about that right now.

“I always hoped I was really your brother,” Liam said after a moment of silence.

Arthur smiled. And, with Liam’s steady presence beside him, allowed himself to slip away.

***

He awoke with the taste of blood on his lips, but it wasn’t his blood, this time; it was from a cup, and fresh enough to be from the boy. He opened his eyes, reaching up to push the cup away, and Iris said, “Don’t waste it. Liam told me–” she glanced over her shoulder. “What happened. I got this from the kitchen, so there’s no way to know.”

“He’s coming with us,” Arthur told her, then realized they weren’t alone in the room. Iris’ mother knelt beside the boy, her back to Arthur, doing something he couldn’t see.

“She’s not hurting him,” Iris said quickly before he could move to the boy’s defense. And then, softer, “I–I had to tell her, Arthur. She’s trustworthy; I swear.”

“You had to tell her what?” Arthur asked.

Iris’ mother glanced back at him. “Nearly everything, I think,” she said. “Is this the time I tell you that I won’t betray my daughter’s trust?”

She spoke softly, her voice unthreatening. And, perhaps, it was too late now to worry about her presence. After all, Arthur doubted Iris would be able to help them both to freedom while carrying the boy as well.

“This is the time, yes,” Arthur said, and she smiled, briefly.

“I don’t believe we’ve ever officially met,” she said. “I’m Fern.”

“Arthur,” Arthur said. “And Liam. And we don’t know his name.”

“But you want to take him with us,” Fern said, firmly establishing herself as part of their team.

“He’ll die if we leave him,” Arthur said.

“I gave him some water to drink,” Fern said. “And he drank it, but he needs more than we can give him here. Can either of you walk? Iris tells me she knows a secret way out of here, and I don’t think we have much time.”

“We can’t leave until the sun sets,” Arthur reminded her.

“But we can hide until the sun sets, and not in here,” Iris told him. “This isn’t a safe place to stay. Can you walk?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur admitted.

“My mother can see through any spells you might use,” Liam whispered, his eyes half-closed, his head leaning against Arthur’s shoulder.

“So can you,” Iris said crisply. “We’re not leaving you here; your father will kill you long before dusk.”

This was true. Arthur was rather surprised he hadn’t shown up already. Perhaps he still believed the arrow had been silver; perhaps he would expect Arthur to be dead when he did arrive. “Liam? Can you walk?”

“Here,” Iris said, and held out another cup. “You didn’t drink nearly enough before; drink this now.”

Liam took the cup. Made a face, no doubt because of the boy, but did not refuse to drink. “Arthur needs it more,” he said.

“I don’t think so,” Iris told him. “And anyway, he drank half of it.”

Arthur sat and drowsed for a bit, knowing that he should make the attempt to rise but realizing that he would likely be unable to do so. Despite the blood, everything still hurt, and the wound in his chest did not seem to be healing very quickly. The smaller wounds healed first, and there were many of them; at least he could open his eye all the way now, and his vision wasn’t blurry anymore.

Something clattered at the window. He watched, mutely, as Blossom slipped inside and flew over to where he sat.

In a perfectly neutral voice, Iris’ mother said, “That’s a fairy.”

“I told you,” Iris said. “It’s not my fault if you didn’t believe me.”

To Iris, Blossom said, “Maya wants to know if you know about the tunnel.”

“The tunnel?” Iris asked. “There’s a tunnel?”

“To where?” Arthur asked, struggling to stay awake.

“A cave, in the forest,” Blossom said. “Your ancestors created it, to aid in their escape if the household was ever destroyed by Hunters.”

That made sense; Arthur’s ancestors were nothing but paranoid when it came to Hunters. And there had been a few close calls. But for Iris to not know about a tunnel in and out of the house; could they have used it in their rescues?

Iris asked the same question.

“Maya said it wasn’t passable, and it isn’t yet,” Blossom said. “But we’re working on clearing the rubble, and you can hide down there until dark.”

Until dark. “And then what?” Liam asked.

“This boy won’t be alive by dusk,” Iris’ mother said. “He needs a Healer’s help, and there are no Healers here.”

Blossom flew over to where he lay. Settled on his chest, and inspected his wounds, which were cleaner now; Iris’ mother had been busy. She frowned. Opened her mouth to speak.

“We didn’t–” Arthur began.

“Of course not,” Blossom said hotly. “But someone did. More than one person, I’d say. Does this happen often?” She looked at Arthur, as if he would know.

In fact, everyone looked at Arthur, as if he would know.

Defensively, he said, “I have no contact with the humans who live here.” And then he wondered why he felt so defensive, since he hadn’t known. Was it just because he was a vampire? Would he feel that way for the rest of his life? Haltingly, he said, “I thought that if we saved him, we might be able to–help the rest of them, somehow. I thought that maybe someone would help us help them.”

It was practically a speech, and in his current state, utterly exhausting. He closed his eyes.

“You can’t sleep now,” Blossom said, and touched the side of his face.

Arthur jerked awake. “I wasn’t asleep.”

“No, you weren’t,” Blossom said. “Maya would be proud of you.”

“May I ask about Maya?” Iris’ mother inquired. “Is she another fairy?”

“No,” Arthur said. “Not a fairy. Not like Blossom.” He tried to focus on her face, but it was blurry now; he’d apparently reached the end of his strength. “Can you help him?”

“I can–” Blossom touched the side of his face again when his eyes slid shut. “I can bring a Healer here, and she can help him.”

“Then why can’t the Healer also help Liam and Arthur?” Iris asked sensibly. “Do they just help humans, then?”

Arthur supposed that could be true. He’d never heard of a Healer wanting to help a vampire; he’d never actually seen a Healer before, in truth. They tended to keep away from the vampire households, and he did not blame them.

“They don’t just help humans,” he heard Blossom say. “I’m not sure that she could take the boy and Liam and Arthur.”

“And Liam and Arthur aren’t going to die before the sun sets, unless we’re caught, and then you will die, too,” Arthur pointed out.

Liam was silent. Arthur suspected he was asleep. Or unconscious; he seemed to still be in pain, which was worrying. How would they walk all the way through the forest to wherever Maya intended to take them? How could they possibly get away without someone noticing? How could they–

“Arthur,” Blossom said, as if she could read his mind. “Stop thinking so hard.”

“I can’t help it,” Arthur murmured, but didn’t open his eyes.

“Liam?” Iris asked, and when he didn’t answer, repeated his name until he stirred. “Can you walk?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered miserably. “I don’t think so. Not very well.”

“See?” Iris asked. “They both need a Healer’s help.”

“The boy needs one now,” Arthur said. “Where is the entrance to the tunnel?” He opened his eyes. Pushed away the weariness. The pain wouldn’t leave; he couldn’t do anything about that, but he could–and did–slowly stand, using the wall for support. Holding his arm against his chest so not to jar his wound.

“I think I can find it,” Blossom said, hovering in front of him worriedly.

“You’ll get the Healer to come for him?” Arthur asked.

“I will,” Blossom said. “I promise.”

“Thank you,” Arthur said. “Go with Iris. Find the entrance. And then come back for us. Please.”

When Arthur stood up, Liam slumped sideways but managed to catch himself before he fell. He stared up at Arthur with wide, wounded eyes as if he had done something impossible, like walk out into the sunlight or survive a silver wound. Iris’ mother helped him stand. Arthur had expected her to protest that he’d sent Iris away, but she did not.

“I’ll help Liam if you can walk on your own,” she said, and what seemed to be only seconds later, Iris and Blossom returned.

“Come on,” Iris said. “I know where to look, now.” She paused. “It’s a trapdoor, though. You have to climb down a ladder.”

“I’ll manage,” Arthur said, although he wasn’t certain how.

Blossom stayed with the boy. Arthur could only hope that she would fetch the Healer to save him; he would have no way to know until the tunnel had been reopened so they could escape.

Somehow, he made it down the metal ladder. Somehow, Liam did too, although he insisted on going last, just in case he fell so they could catch him. Somehow, he found himself stumbling through a brick-lined tunnel in darkness so thick he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face; Iris had called up a light, but it had only reached a foot or so into the darkness, hardly enough for all of them, and Arthur had no strength to cast spells.

They stopped when they reached the blockage. It seemed to be unyielding; Arthur heard nothing from the other side.

“Sit down,” Iris told him, and he sat on sandy soil, damp and cool against his skin. Liam sat beside him; Iris on his other side. Arthur couldn’t see either of them, but he heard them breathing, and he felt–for some strange reason, he felt safe.

“I should have brought supplies,” Iris said after a moment. “Blankets. Food.”

“Flashlights,” Liam rasped, then cleared his throat noisily.

“There was no time to gather supplies,” Iris’ mother said quietly. “You did what you could. Why don’t you all try to get some rest? I’ll keep watch.”

Perhaps before he was wounded, Arthur would have found her suggestion suspicious, and he would have refused. But now, he obediently closed his eyes and let himself drift away with his two best friends beside him and his father none the wiser to his location.

For now, at least.

 

 

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