Run Like Hell
With your empty smile
And your hungry heart
Feel the bile rising from your guilty past...You better run
His face was covered by a helmet that had huge antlers on either side and nearly scraped the ceiling. He was dressed all in brown and green leather and carried an ivory horn.
I was nearly unconscious from the effort of such a summoning, my will was severely weakened, and my puny circle never stood a chance of holding him. He burst free and the shockwaves from the backlash threw me against the wall. I thought he would kill me for daring to call on him, but he just grinned and crossed the broken circle. Once he was free, he let out a rumbling laugh and blew several blasts on his horn.
A great wind rushed through the room and hundreds of glowing figures rushed by. All of them laughed wildly, showing pointed teeth and red, cat-like eyes.
"We hunt!" cried the Erlking, and they all sped off, scattering furniture and debris in their wake.
I'd unleashed the Wild Hunt on my hometown. I'll remember that night for as long as I live as I heard terrified screaming and the sound of shattering glass as the Faefolk swept through the streets, hunting anything that moved, laughing as they rode.
I smiled wearily as the sun rose because I knew the Erlking would be forced back to the Nevernever once the sun came up and I would be able to help any survivors.
To my shock, the Hunt returned to my house. Most of them dissipated as soon as they came near the remains of the circle, but the Erlking stayed. He stared at me for the longest time – a little witch cowering in the corner under shattered furniture and scattered books. It seemed forever before he stooped down and picked me up.
The world spun and blurred for a moment and when I opened my eyes I wasn't in my destroyed living room any more.
He set me down on a cold floor in the middle of a large hall and took his helmet off. Tucking it under his arm, he strode up to the dais was directly in front of us and sat down on a large throne made of horns and draped in hides. He stared at me. Like all the Fae, his eyes had slitted pupils and were an especially vivid green. His dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail and his features were lightly asymmetrical, but that only gave him a rather roguish charm instead of making him ugly. It was the kind of face that, even though it wasn't handsome, you could stare at for a long time.
"Thou hast courage to summon one such as I," he mused. "That pleases me."
I wanted to tell him that I didn't care if I pleased him or not, but I wanted to stay alive more, so I stayed quiet. He leaned back and let out a sharp whistle. Two huge black dogs trotted in and made themselves comfortable at the foot of his throne. Two Faerie creatures followed and bowed to him. I learned later that they were goblins. Looking at their tattered gowns, I assumed they were women, but their features were so lumpy and lopsided that I really couldn't tell.
"Take her to the suite of rooms by the gardens," he commanded.
The women bowed again, peering at me from between long dreadlocks, and took me by the arm to lead me away. I flinched as their knobby fingers wrapped around my upper arms. We had just reached the doorway when he ordered us to stop.
"What is thy name, witchling?"
He nodded briefly, absently scratching one of the hounds behind its ears.
The goblin women marched me down the hallway and through passages until we reached a set of rooms. They were beautiful – all silvery white wood and gauzy curtains. A deep pool surrounded by bright flowers served as a bath in one room, and the other room had a huge wardrobe filled with rich dresses, a dressing table and mirror, and a canopy bed. Next to the bed was an oak door and the far wall, a series of arched openings led out to a veranda and huge garden.
"Whose room is this?" I asked, fearing the answer.
"Yours," answered one of them, "for as long as our Master chooses to keep you."
With that, they left me. I crept through the room, trying to make sense of everything. The first thing I investigated was the door by the bed, but it was locked from the other side. Wary, I explored the rest of the suite. I don't know how long I spent looking around, but no one came back for me. Finally, exhausted, I collapsed on the bed and went to sleep.
The next morning, two goblins woke me. I was pretty sure that they were different from the ones that brought me here, but their features were blurred and distorted and they were frighteningly similar in their mismatchedness.
They explained that the Erlking had summoned me for breakfast and they were there to help me get ready. Before I could protest, they had pinched and prodded me out of bed, laced me up in one of those beautiful gowns with their eerily nimble fingers, and were pushing me out the door.
Breakfast started out as a quiet affair. I was too nervous to talk and he didn't seem to want to make conversation. Finally though, I grew tired of the silence.
"How long will I be kept here?" I asked.
He looked up from his breakfast with a frown.
"Kept?" His voice rumbled through the room. "Thou speakest as if thou wast a prisoner here."
"Thou insultest my hospitality by calling thyself such, when in fact, thou hast been treated as a guest. " His voice hardened. "Wert thou not a woman and a stranger to our customs, I would slay thee in thy place for that."
"How is a simple question reason to kill me?" I snapped, not taking kindly to his threat.
"The bond between guest and host is sacred to my people. If either were to break that bond, the other would be well within his rights to demand satisfaction in blood for the breach – as a matter of honor. Is there no such regard for hospitality in thy world?" he asked severely.
"When we invite friends over, of course we try to be good hosts, but we don't kill our guests if they complain about the food."
He shook his head and returned his attention to his meal. I could tell from the stiff set of his shoulders that I had offended him. Sighing, I set my spoon down. It would do me no good to antagonize a being that could kill me where I sat.
"I'm sorry for my insult. I didn't mean to be rude."
I don't think he expected me to have the manners to apologize. A small smile softened his features as he nodded his head to me.
"I will accept thy apology, witchling," he paused a moment and continued slowly, "and try, in the future, to remember your inexperience in the dealings of our kind."
He ignored me for the rest of the meal. I was torn between being irritated at his backhanded apology and just grateful not to be the focus for his attention anymore.
I atewith the Erlking every evening after that, though not by my own will. He instructed me on the etiquette of the Nevernever. When I commented on the fact that he was lecturing me instead of talking with me, he explained that not all Fae would tolerate my ignorance, and that many would kill me for an accidental insult before finding out my intentions. After that, I made a greater effort to ask questions when I didn't understand, instead of just smiling and nodding.
Once I realized that the goblins would not harm their master's guest, I began to explore the castle more freely. After a few weeks, the Erlking found me in his library and, since not all the books were in English, we had a whole new set of lessons. He began teaching me that evening and before long, I found that I preferred his company to anyone else's. Within a few weeks, I had a basic grasp of all the languages in his library. I thought I was just learning exceptionally quickly, but one of the maids let it slip that he was using his magic to help me get the hang of it all more easily than I could have otherwise.
After several months had passed, he asked me if I would like to stay in the Nevernever forever. I answered yes and he told me to call him Arawn, even though that was only one of his names. It fit best in that realm, he explained. Other names were better suited for different parts of his life. He took me as a consort a few weeks later and that was when I discovered that the oak door in my room connected to his suite. I didn't know whether to be flattered or frightened, but I was too enamored of him to really care.
Within a year, Kess was born. She was a good baby and her father doted on her, always holding her and talking to her. I thought it was wonderful, and lived in a happy daze for a while, basking in his attention and watching my baby girl grow.
One day, Arawn was called away to help the Winter Queen in a war. I was distraught at his leaving, but he promised he would return soon. At first, I could hardly get out of bed, I was so lost without him, but as the days went by, I grew stronger. It felt like a fog was slowly lifting from my mind and body.
I noticed that Kess, usually so docile, was growing more lively by the day. It went beyond the squirminess of a toddler, but was like watching her wake up. She had always been the picture of contentment, but it seemed to me that she was now noticing the world around her for the first time. I didn't have time to try to sort out these changes in the two of us, because Arawn returned shortly after they began. I was so happy to be reunited with him that everything else was driven out of my mind and I returned to that fogged bliss that I had been living in before he left.
Then, one night, around Kess's third birthday, I heard a noise coming from her nursery. Worried, I slipped out of bed and went to find out what it was that I had heard. I found Arawn leaning over her cradle. Kess was whimpering in her sleep so, at first, I thought he was soothing her because his hand rested above her head. But then I saw that little motes of light were floating from my daughter to her father. As he absorbed them, he rubbed her temples and made shushing noises. She quieted instantly and went completely still. Having lived in the Erlking's court for some time now, I recognized what he was doing.
He was draining my daughter of her magic and adding that power to his own.
He was only draining small amounts from her, like little sips instead of sucking the cup dry, but it was still weakening her. Being sure to stay silent, I withdrew and crept back to bed, a horrible suspicion growing in the back of my mind.
The next day, I found an excuse to leave his side and went back to my suite. I tried one of the simple spells that I used to cast and found that I could barely muster the strength to do it.
He'd been draining my magic too. The contented fog that I'd been living in was his way of ensuring that I never noticed his magic inside my head, just like when he'd taught me to read when he first ensnared me.
I was so angry that it was impossible for that magic-induced stupor to take me over again, although I could always feel it on the edges of my mind.
I began looking for ways to escape. I pretended to be as content as always, but I was frantic to leave. I scoured the library for a full year and a half, searching for a spell or portal that would take me back to the human world.
Finally, I stumbled across the information I needed. In one of the oldest tomes, there was a blood-spell that could catapult me out of the Nevernever and back into my own. It would require every last drop of power I had left to me, but we would be free.
I gathered what I needed over the course of a few days, and on a night when the Erlking chose not to come to my rooms, I grabbed Kess and prepared the spell. The final step after mixing the ingredients was to pour some of my own blood over them and say the incantation. Because I had so little magic left, I was barely able to open the portal. Without looking back, I jumped through, but was too weak from blood loss to control where it was taking us.
We ended up in a large field and I had no idea where to go. I was so exhausted from the casting that I passed out along the dirt road where we came out.
Jenny's story took most of the morning to tell. Harry had set down his blasting rod and taken a seat while Sam stowed his knife and sat across from him. Dean seated himself near Kess. Once the story gained momentum, everyone listened patiently, not daring to interrupt, lest she lose her nerve and not finish.
"It was a miracle no one took Kess from me while I was unconscious." Jenny said as she set out the sandwiches and drinks that Hob had brought in while she'd been talking. "We wandered that rural area for several days as I looked for work and a place to stay in a tiny town. I was weak from the blood loss and both Kess and I were suffering the initial lethargy that came with the absence of Arawn's presence."
Harry gently placed a hand on her shoulder as she finished speaking.
"They were starving when they came to the farm," the wizard said, taking a bite of his food. "My mentor felt bad for them, so he brought them inside for a meal."
I was clearing the dinner dishes when Ebenezer and I heard a scuffling from outside.
"Rats again?" I asked, cocking my head to listen.
My grey-haired guardian shook his head as he pushed himself out of his chair. Grabbing his staff that was leaning against the wall, he narrowed his eyes.
"Sounds too big, Hoss."
He crossed the small room and opened the kitchen door, spilling yellow light across the back porch into the night. Leaning his head out, he looked around. I followed behind him and stepped outside to get a better view. Ebenezer thumped me on the back of the head.
"Always too quick to act. Throw up your wards, boy! Just 'cuz it sounds like a possum or raccoon doesn't guarantee that it ain't a nasty."
The corner of my mouth pulled down in annoyance, but I obeyed. Just then, a movement under the awning caught my eye.
A woman huddled up against the wall of the house in the patch of light made by the kitchen window, clutching what looked like a bundle of rags against her chest. It was a clear night, but cold, and I could see her shivering even from the distance that separated us.
"Hey!" I called.
She jumped at the sound of my voice, jerking her head up. Wide, frightened eyes dominated her face. Without a word, she scrambled backwards and began to run.
"Come on, Hoss," my mentor started down the steps. "It's too cold for her to stay out here."
"What if she's a nasty?" I asked, adolescent sarcasm fully intact and operational.
"Would she run?" Ebenezer shook his head at the folly of youth.
"What if she's a lure?" I asked more seriously this time.
That caused him to pause for the slightest second before continuing into the yard.
"We'll adapt. You coming?"
I followed him into the dark yard. A ball of light hovered at the tip of his staff – wizard's flashlight. It bobbed with his gait and lit a good-sized circle around him. Pretty soon, we caught up with the woman. She froze, much like a deer in the preverbal headlights, and I had to chuckle at the similarity between the two circumstances, though I was amazed she didn't have more of a reaction to the glowing light on a stick.
"You look like you need a hot meal." Ebenezer called out.
The woman looked at us suspiciously. Ebenezer smiled disarmingly.
"Homemade chili and cornbread. The boy and I have already eaten, but we don't mind sharing. And if you need a place to stay for the night, we have a warm bed you're welcome to."
I could see that she desperately wanted both those things, but was probably remembering all those stories that you hear about what happens to people who accept help from strange country-folk at night.
"Mama, I'm cold," whimpered a small voice.
Ebenezer and I both froze. The bundle of rags turned out to be a kid, no more than four or five years old. That plea made up the woman's mind and she nodded hesitantly and took a step closer. As a group we all trooped back to the warm kitchen. Ebenezer seemed to be the only one who was comfortable with the situation. The woman and I eyed each other as she stepped in, tightening her grip on her child's hand.
She eats like someone who hasn't tasted food in years, I thought to myself as I watched the woman all but inhale the food I had set in front of her. Up close, she was a small thing and far too skinny. I couldn't tell what color her hair was under the layers of grime, but it was obvious by the flushed cheeks beneath the dirt that she was running a fever.
The toddler she was holding didn't move much. The kid's eyes were dull – I was willing to bet a fever was setting in there too.
"What's the young one's name?" Ebenezer asked from his place at the sink where he was rinsing dishes.
"She's called Kestrel," the woman answered, mumbling around her mouthful.
"Pretty name." I said, trying to be friendly.
The little girl whimpered until her mom gave her some of the milk I had brought out. That quieted her for the rest of the meal and she lapsed back into her listless stupor. Once the woman finished, she finally worked up the nerve to look at me, though not in the eyes. I was used to that, but only from people who knew about and understood the magical community. Since this woman couldn't know we were part of that community, I began to wonder what was up.
Ebenezer finished the dishes and joined us at the table. He looked kindly at the woman as he pulled out a chair.
"How'd you end up here, Miss…?"
"My name is Jenny. My daughter and I had to leave our home in a hurry. We got lost."
Her voice trailed off and her eyes began to fill with tears. I gave a mental groan; I've always been a sucker for a damsel in distress. I knew Ebenezer wouldn't leave them out in the streets, especially seeing what bad shape the kid was in.
Suddenly, Kestrel began to cry – not the fussy whine that most kids her age use when they aren't getting attention, but the gut-wrenching sobbing that indicates something is really wrong. Jenny began to rub her back and make soothing noises, but I could see how worried she was. The kid continued to cry until, with a rippling convulsion, she threw up all over the table.
Jenny mumbled an embarrassed apology and started to stand, placing Kestrel in my lap. Ebenezer gently cut her off and brought over some towels. Jenny all but snatched them and began mopping up the mess. Kestrel sniffled and coughed. Please, don't barf. Don't barf, I mentally chanted.
Then I noticed that the curdled milk on the table was flecked with spots of blood.
That couldn't be good.
When I leaned forward to get a closer look, the toddler started crying again.
"I hurt, Mama."
"I know, Baby." We could hear the anguish in her voice.
"Trade you," I said, trying to mask my concern with a smile.
She let out a nervous laugh and nodded, setting the towels down and reaching to take her child out of my lap. As I mopped up the mess, I kept an eye on the baby.
"Is she all right?" I asked.
"The food doesn't agree with her." Jenny replied. "She hasn't been able to keep anything down since we got here."
"Hmm." Ebenezer frowned.
What dots are he connecting that I'm not, I wondered. Looking frantic now, Jenny stood and began backing away from our table towards the door.
"Now, Jenny," Ebenezer's voice was meant to soothe, but she had bolted.
"Hell," I muttered.
I left the filthy towels on the table and took off after them. It was fairly easy to catch her – I have a long stride and even then I was in pretty good shape.
She was just rounding the corner by the barn when Ebenezer and I caught them.
"You left some things out, Jenny," I called as he came up behind me.
She turned and looked at us with hunted eyes. Her bottom lip began to tremble. My heart went out to her again as I took in how utterly exhausted and frightened she looked.
"Look," I said gently, palms spread wide to show we meant no harm, "We want to help you, and I'm pretty sure we can, but only if you let us."
Jenny wavered, obviously wanting help, but not knowing if she could trust us. Fair enough. I wasn't certain we could trust her either. Finally, her shoulders slumped and she timidly took a few steps towards us, cradling her child close to her chest.