Sparkling winged faeries materialized in the air around Savvy and Alistair, entwining them in silver filaments of great strength. The fine ropes bound their arms to their sides and they struggled in vain to wriggle free.
“Savvy, what’s happening?” yelped Alistair.
“I don’t know. Just stay calm and we’ll find out soon enough.”
Their arms and legs now tightly bound, the two friends crashed to the ground like harvested trees, eliciting a grand cheer from the faeries crowded atop the grassy rath. The small figures clasped hands and capered in circles to the lilting strains of the harp and flute while pounding drums deep within the mound beat the gathering into a frenzy. LeBits watched these events with growing dismay until finally he had seen enough and he approached the faery hillock.
“Lord Duunin, what’s the meaning of all this?” he asked. “These humans mean you no harm. They came here only to escape the Krytten. Let them go on their way.”
Duunin the Gray blew out a ring of smoke, saying, “that is of no concern to me, LeBits. You know they are trespassers and are forbidden from entering the rath. We must punish them or else humans will come into Needwood Forest whenever they wish.”
“What do you intend to do with them?” asked the cat.
“Yeah, what?” echoed Alistair from his place on the ground.
“We Gwyllyn will do with them what we always do with male younglings. We will bleed them for nourishment.”
“Oh, that doesn’t sound good,” Alistair groaned.
“Wait just a minute,” scowled Savvy. “Did he say male younglings?”
Rolling onto her side, she used her shoulder to push herself onto her knees.
“Lord Duunin, allow me to speak!” she cried.
The music fell silent as the Gwyllyn stared first at Savvy then at their leader.
“It is not your place to speak,” said Duunin.
“I apologize, sir, but what I have to say is important. I beg you to hear me out.”
“Very well, human, what is it that you wish to tell me?”
“You said the Gwyllyn bleed male younglings. What do you do with female younglings?”
A malicious smirk formed on Duunin’s lips.
“Ah, human females we use in … other ways,” he leered.
“Savvy, don’t do it,” hissed Alistair. “We’ll find another way out of this mess.”
“Be quiet, I’m trying to buy us time,” Savvy growled.
Then, looking back at the elder faery, she cried out. “Lord Duunin, I am a female youngling!”
Howls of laughter erupted from the Gwyllyn. They giggled on their backs and stumbled around clutching at their bellies.
“Silence!” thundered Duunin.
A hush fell across the glade as Duunin cocked an eye at Savvy through a swirling cloud of smoke. Then he pointed to the winged faeries.
“You there, take down his … er … her hair,” he commanded.
The faeries fluttered behind Savvy’s head and swiftly undid the length of ribbon she used to tie back her ponytail. Savvy’s coppery locks dropped onto her shoulders, causing the faeries to gasp in astonishment, for the human boy in front of them had suddenly taken on the appearance of a girl. Duunin’s mouth fell open and leaping off of the stone upon which he stood, he pushed his way through the crowd to the mound’s upper rim.
“Bring her closer,” he ordered.
Six of the winged faeries lifted Savvy from the ground and carried her to Duunin. The chief of the Gwyllyn took a length of Savvy’s hair in his hand and sniffed deeply of it. His eyes went wide and he took a step backward.
“It is sweet!” he cried. “She truly is a female youngling!”
The wild faery music churned again into life, bringing the masses of Gwyllyn prancing to their feet. Meanwhile, Alistair pushed himself into a sitting position behind where Savvy knelt.
“Pssst, hey cat! LeBits, or whatever your name is, come over here,” he hissed.
LeBits crept to Alistair and settled down on his haunches.
“You’ve got to get us out of here NOW!” growled Alistair.
“Prrrr, I’ve tried, but you heard Duunin. They won’t release you and now that she’s revealed herself as female they’ll be doubly reluctant to let you go.”
“So I’m supposed to content myself with being their lunch while Savvy bears faery children? There’s no way I’m standing for that. You need to help me.”
“But how, prrrr?”
“Chew through these ropes. Cat stands for Claws And Teeth, right? Do it now while the faeries are distracted. Once I’m free I’ll draw their attention so you can help Savvy. Then you two can escape.”
“Alright, it’s risky, but I’ll do it,” nodded LeBits.
Creeping behind Alistair’s back, the cat took silvery fibers between his teeth and began to gnaw on them. The tough threads held firm at first, but soon they gave way and Alistair sprang free. Leaping to his feet, he cried, “hey, faeries, come and get me!” before bolting back up the grassy slope toward the hole through which they had entered the rath.
“The boy is loose. Go after him!” yelled Duunin, sending a wave of tiny beings speeding off.
Alistair scrambled up the grassy slope with winged Gwyllyn tugging at his shirt. He swatted them away, stunning some of them quite badly, and kept going. The hole loomed before him and Alistair dove for it, squeezing his shoulders through to the other side. Winged faeries wielding silver threads lassoed Alistair’s feet, however, and pulled him flat onto his belly. Perspiration broke out on his forehead and he clawed at the dirt as more faeries piled onto the lines. Steadily, the Gwyllyn hauled Alistair back until they had once again dragged him into the rath. He struggled for several moments longer, but the sheer number of faery-folk on him soon forced him to capitulate. Alistair fell silent and lay there panting from exertion.
Amidst the chaos, LeBits had moved to carry out the second half of Alistair’s plan. He chewed through Savvy’s binding until the silver threads finally snapped. She sprang to her feet, gazing about for another way out of the rath, but a horde of faeries noticed her as well and they leapt from the standing stones onto her back. She struck out at the Gwyllyn, dislodging several of them before more faeries with silver lines roped her feet and hands. The lines held Savvy fast and soon she and Alistair sat back to back on the grass, each of them bound like flies caught in the web of an enormous spider.
Duunin gave orders to prepare Alistair for the ritual and a faery carrying a tiny pouch blew sparkling dust into the boy’s face. Alistair held his breath, but not quickly enough to keep grains of the dust from entering his lungs. His eyelids drooped and before long he drifted off to sleep. Winged faeries then cut the silver threads and lifted Alistair off of the ground. They flew him to the top of the mound and laid his body there on a large flat stone. Duunin climbed up beside Alistair and directed that the boy’s hands and feet be tied down.
Forgotten in all of this, LeBits crawled under a bush to hide. He closed his eyes to concentrate and mumbled an incantation. “My eyes, your eyes, sight be seen. Lady Fiona come to me!”
LeBits uttered the words a second and then a third time before he felt the stirring in his mind that told him contact had been made. He opened his eyes and gazed out at the alarming scene before him. Savvy lay on her side with tears streaming down her face as Duunin unsheathed a long knife above the unconscious Alistair.
“NO!” said a powerful female voice in LeBits’s head. “This cannot be allowed to happen!”
A bright flash exploded above the rath like thunder, sending Duunin and the other faeries tumbling down to grassy mound. LeBits grinned and crept out from under the bush as a fair-skinned woman dressed in flowing cobalt blue appeared overhead. A halo of white brighter than the sun surrounded the woman and her gown and blonde hair fluttered about her head as if a great tempest held her aloft. The woman’s exceptional beauty, however, could not hide the terrible wrath with which she loomed over the rath. Her sharp blue eyes flashed with fury and when she spoke her voice reverberated with menace.
“Duunin the Gray!” she roared. “Would you abuse a Sirachim child, one of your own magical kind?”
“Lady Fiona!” exclaimed Duunin, rising from the grass onto which he had sprawled. “Magical kind? I don’t understand.”
“The girl, Duunin! She is Sirachim, like I. You will release her and her companions immediately.”
“I will not!” cried Duunin defiantly. “They are ours by right.”
“Then you and your Gwyllyn will face my vengeance. Are you prepared to sacrifice your people for the sake of these younglings?”
A scowl formed on Duunin’s face and he looked around at his followers before succumbing to the Sirachim’s threat.
“Very well, Lady Fiona, I will release them,” he snarled, “but you will owe us for this kindness!”
“So be it!” intoned Fiona, and with a loud bang Savvy, Alistair, and LeBits vanished from the rath in a flash of light.
The friends landed on manicured grass set before a small stone house with a thatched roof. Surrounding the lawn upon which they sat towered a giant wall of oversized yellow, white, and red snapdragons waving in the bright rays of the sun. Below the snapdragons stood other flowers that filled the garden with blossoms of every conceivable size and color. A light breeze stirred the air, carrying with it a sweet floral fragrance. The scent filled Savvy’s nostrils and she felt a warm sense of well-being spread throughout her body. Sitting up in the grass, she realized that the silver filaments around her had disappeared. Alistair sat up beside her, gripping his head in both hands.
“Dear young ones, are you hurt?” inquired a silky feminine voice.
The remarkable woman in scintillating blue smiled at them from a stone bench, her once fearsome features now placid and kind. With one hand she caressed LeBits, who lay on the bench beside her, the tip of his ringed tail flicking playfully in the air.
Savvy climbed to her feet and ran her hands down her body to feel for any injury she may have sustained. “I don’t think I’m hurt. What about you, Alistair?”
“I’m alright. That faery dust sure made me woozy, though.”
“The dizziness will pass,” Fiona assured him. “Come closer and sit before me.”
The Sirachim gestured for them to approach and recline on the grass by her feet. Savvy and Alistair made their way forward and sat down as Fiona turned to a table beside her bench. She filled two goblets there with a blue liquid from a silver carafe and offered them to her guests.
“Here, drink this. It will help you regain your strength,” she said.
The friends took the goblets and sipped at the sweet drink. Vitality surged through Savvy’s weary limbs as the liquid coursed down her throat.
“Wow, is this good!” she exclaimed.
“I’ll say!” added Alistair, his head now perfectly clear.
Fiona smiled at them and returned to petting the loudly purring cat.
“Thank you for saving us,” said Alistair. “I thought we were done for.”
“You are welcome, my boy. The Gwyllyn are not evil so much as they are selfish. They will sometimes take what is not theirs to whet their vulgar appetites. It is a good thing for you that LeBits remembered to call me.”
The purring cat blinked lovingly at Fiona.
“It certainly was,” nodded Savvy. “Although it was thanks to LeBits that we found ourselves in that mess to begin with.”
Now the cat glared at Savvy, his purring gone silent.
“Don’t be too hard on dear LeBits. After all, it was I who sent him to aid you,” said Fiona.
“You sent him?”
“Yes. I’ve had my eye on you two for some time now; particularly on you, Savilla.”
Savvy’s eyes opened wide. “It’s you!” she gasped. “You’re the lady in my dreams.”
“I am indeed,” nodded Fiona.
“I don’t understand. Why have you been watching me?”
“The explanation is simple, Savilla. It is because you and I are kin. You are the daughter of my sister, Magdalene. You are my niece.”
Savvy’s head reeled. The dreams, her mother’s name in the book of legends, Fiona’s declaration to the faeries about magical kind, it all came together. At the same time, however, none of it made sense, and Savvy stared down at the grass in silence. How could she be a magical being? She had never demonstrated any powers. And how could Magdalene have been a Sirachim without Savvy knowing it? Moreover, what could have killed her? Sirachim were supposed to live for centuries.
Fiona gazed at Savvy, her lips pursed sympathetically. “I know you have questions, Savilla, and I will provide you with answers as best I can, but first you must be patient and listen, understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” nodded Savvy.
“Very well, then. You, Savilla, are the daughter of a Sirachim, my sister, Magdalene, who entered the world along with me and our other sister, Lilith, a very long time ago. Your mother was never fully like us, however. She did not care for the solitude of Needwood Forest. She longed instead for the company of human beings. More importantly, she yearned for the love of a man. Every so often there is one born among us who feels this urge. It is a necessary part of our nature because if some of us do not find mates we cannot perpetuate our kind. That primal urge, though, has diminished within us for thousands of years and so, understandably, have our numbers. We Sirachim were never numerous to begin with, but if a few of us did not choose a human male every so often we would disappear entirely.”
“So, you, Lilith, and my mother are sisters?” asked Savvy.
“Yes, dear child. That is correct.”
“I see. That confirms the legend, then, but what happened to my mother?”
A shadow darkened Fiona’s face. “Sweet Savilla,” she said, “Lilith murdered your mother.”
“Lilith killed Magdalene? But she was her sister. Why would she do that?” asked Alistair.
Fiona turned her sapphire gaze to the boy. “Lilith killed Magdalene because she has become corrupt. In part, she resented Magdalene’s love of a human man, but there is more to it than that. Lilith has also sought for many years to accumulate power for its own sake. She has studied the dark arts and summoned demons to do her bidding. Worse yet, she recently acquired a gemstone, a ruby called Samael’s Bane, that gives her great power.”
“Was it Lilith who summoned the Krytten? Alistair and I have suspected it was.”
“It was indeed Lilith’s doing,” nodded Fiona. “She summoned Samael to destroy me, but first she tested her control over the demon by sending it to kill those men who cut down a tree in the forest. Their actions were a sin against nature, but they did not deserve to die for it.”
“Who is Samael?” asked Alistair.
“Samael is the name of the Krytten.”
“Hence the name of the ruby–Samael’s Bane,” added Savvy, putting the story together.
“Precisely,” nodded Fiona.
“Lady Fiona, how do you know all of this and if you know the Krytten has been summoned to kill you, why haven’t you done anything to stop it?”
“Have I done nothing, Savilla? You do not know the complete tale. I have, after all, brought you here to me.”
Puzzled by the comment, Savvy and Alistair shrugged at each other.
“Allow me to answer your first question. I know Lilith’s plans because I employed a spy in Lilith’s tower, my dear friend LeBits,” continued Fiona.
LeBits rolled playfully onto his back when Fiona mentioned his name, exposing his tan belly to the sun.
“LeBits is what we call a Felim, a type of cat bred only by Sirachim. Lilith loves Felim and raises them often. With the use of a certain spell, I lifted the hold that Lilith had over LeBits and asked him to spy for me. Now, however, LeBits cannot go back to the tower. He has been gone for too long and his absence is sure to be noted. It is better that he stays here with me where he is safe.”
“So LeBits is how you knew we were in trouble at the faery rath?”
“That is correct, Savilla. When he wishes it, LeBits can let me see through his eyes and hear through his ears. He needs only to speak the proper incantation three times to make the connection between us.”
Fiona reached over to scratch LeBits behind the ears. The cat purred with delight, a satisfied smile on its face.
“But now we come to the most important part of our tale. It is the part in which I explain why I have brought you here.”
“Yes, I’m very curious about that,” said Savvy.
“You are here because it is the right time and because I require your help. Lilith has grown too powerful for me to oppose unassisted. Soon she will try to destroy me, you, and all of Needwood Village. Many lives are at stake.”
“All of Needwood Village? But that’s terrible!” blurted Alistair.
“It is indeed,” nodded Fiona. “I am not so concerned for myself, as I have already lived a long life, but innocent blood must not be shed and you, Savilla, are one of our kind. For that reason alone Lilith cannot be allowed to take your life.”
“I see,” said Savvy, her stomach fluttering. “But how can I help?”
“The time has come for you to develop your magical abilities. You must become the Sirachim you were always meant to be.”
“Magical abilities? But I don’t have any magical abilities. I’m boringly normal,” Savvy protested.
Fiona burst out laughing. “Is that so? Do you not read cards and practice mixing herbs?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“And do you not have dreams that come true, premonitions of danger ahead?”
“I guess,” mumbled Savvy, her nausea growing worse by the second.
“Those are Sirachim interests and abilities, Savilla. They are the characteristics of our kind. There are others too, as you will see, but you must develop them.”
“I understand, but how do I do it?”
“I will train you. Before I may begin, however, there is a challenge you must face. If you are successful in meeting it, you will prove that you wish to fulfill your destiny; that you truly desire to become a Sirachim.”
“I see. What is the challenge?” asked Savvy in a wary tone.
“You must enter a tunnel that runs through Ben Fada and pass a series of tests called The Revealing.”
“Ben Fada? What’s that?” asked Alistair.
“Ah, you do not know the term. My apologies, children. Ben Fada is what we Sirachim call Long Mountain. Once you have traversed the tunnel through the mountain, Savilla, the development of your abilities will accelerate and between us we shall be able to defeat Lilith before she takes more innocent lives.”
“Oh, why does it have to be a tunnel? I hate going underground,” Savvy groaned.
“It is a tunnel because you will need to overcome your fear,” smiled Fiona. “Measuring your courage is a fundamental aspect of The Revealing.”
“Is it possible to fail the test?” asked Savvy.
“And what happens if I fail?”
“Then you will remain a human girl with a normal human lifespan and no magical abilities beyond the power of precognition that you now possess.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” said Alistair in an effort to comfort his friend.
Savvy scowled at him. “Alistair, you’re missing the point. If I fail The Revealing then Lady Fiona will not be strong enough to stop Lilith. She’ll be destroyed and so will our homes and everyone we love. I can’t fail. If I do, we’re all dead.”
Alistair fell silent as Savvy rose to her feet and began to pace. Out of habit, she reached for a length of her unbound hair and chewed on it while deep in contemplation. Alistair followed Savvy with his gaze, racking his brain for some way he could help.
“Can Savvy bring someone with her?” he asked, turning to Lady Fiona.
“She may take LeBits, if she wishes, but you, loyal Alistair, cannot go. The Revealing is only for Sirachim. Savilla must face the challenge alone.”
Alistair looked back at Savvy, who continued to pace until at last Fiona broke the silence.
“Have you decided what you will do, Savilla?”
Savvy turned to Fiona and let the wet end of hair fall from her mouth.
“I have,” she said. “The fate of everyone I love is at stake and I can’t let them down. I accept the challenge and will go through the tunnel. I will take the tests.”
Later that night, Alistair lay in a bed in Fiona’s cottage staring at the ceiling. His mind hopped from one thought to another despite his body’s desperate cry for sleep. Too much had happened that day, however, and Alistair struggled to accept the things that he had seen. Savvy lay across the room from him in another narrow bed that Fiona had arranged. The sound of her tossing and turning caused Alistair to wonder if she was having a nightmare. He certainly could not blame Savvy if she was. After what they had witnessed he too dreaded closing his eyes for fear of what he might see in his dreams.
Yet Savvy also could not sleep. She lay with her back to Alistair weeping as quietly as she could. Inevitably, however, Alistair heard her crying and sat up. Swinging his legs off the bed, he stepped onto the floor and stared at the gray shape of his friend in the gloom. The dim moonlight streaming through their window outlined the contour of Savvy’s shoulders and he could see them shaking.
“Savvy, are you alright?” he asked quietly.
“I’m fine, Alistair. Go back to sleep,” she sniffed.
“I can’t. I haven’t closed my eyes since Fiona said goodnight. Then I heard you crying. Do you want to talk?”
“It might help to get some things off of your chest,” counseled Alistair. “What are you crying about?”
Savvy heaved a sigh and pushed herself into a sitting position. Clearly, Alistair would not leave her alone, so she put her back against the headboard and drew her knees up to her chin.
“Could you light a candle?” she asked.
“Sure,” said Alistair, going to the table between their beds to light a taper.
The candle’s glow filled the room, casting long shadows onto the stone walls. Then Alistair returned to the foot of Savvy’s bed and sat down. In the soft candlelight he could see Savvy’s red-rimmed eyes and the tears that glistened on her cheeks. Wiping them away, she stared down at the bed.
“I can’t get what happened to Constable Edwards out of my mind,” she said. “That awful thing killed him and those other men in cold blood. I’ve never seen anything so terrible.”
“I know what you mean,” nodded Alistair. “I’m scared to close my eyes thanks to all that. I don’t want to remember it. The Gwyllyn frightened me too.”
“It’s been a rough day, Alistair. Then there are the things that Lady Fiona—”
Choking on her tears, Savvy broke down sobbing.
“Oh, Savvy. I’m sorry,” said Alistair, moving up the bed to take Savvy into his arms.
Savvy returned Alistair’s embrace and cried softly, releasing the worry that filled her heart. Alistair held her for a few minutes until she calmed down and resumed talking.
“The things Lady Fiona told us about my mother and about who I am are a lot to take,” she said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
“I know. I’m really sorry about your mother, but is it so bad to learn who you really are?”
“You mean what I am, don’t you?” sniffed Savvy. “I’m not a normal girl, Alistair. I’m some kind of thing, a creature, like the Krytten.”
“Oh, now hush. You’re still the girl I’ve always known,” scolded Alistair gently. “There’s nothing different about you.”
“But what about tomorrow, Alistair? What will I be after the tests, after the tunnel? Will I still be your friend after that?”
Alistair grasped Savvy’s shoulders and peered into her tear-filled eyes. “Savilla Morgan, no matter what happens tomorrow you will always be my friend. Don’t you ever forget that!”
Savvy nodded, a weak smile forming on her lips.
“Alright, Alistair, as you wish,” she whispered.
“I do wish it, Savvy! I know you’re going to do well tomorrow. You’re going to do well in the days to come, too. Think about it. You have the chance to be something more than you are. How many of us ever have that kind of choice? Look at me. I’m a shopkeeper’s son and that’s all I’ll ever be. You can be a Sirachim! Think of how special that is. You’ll learn amazing things. Think of the places you’ll go and the things you’ll do.”
Savvy wiped her nose on her sleeve.
“That’s easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “I’m the one who has to endure the tests. I’m the one who’ll go through the change. I’m the one who needs to do it. Me! Alone!”
Ahhh, thought Alistair, understanding at last why Savvy grieved.
“You’re lonely,” he said. “I get it now.”
“Of course I’m lonely! My mother is dead and my father is away all the time. Now I’m supposed to go through this test and become a Sirachim? Do you remember what Lady Fiona said? She said that my mother longed for love. She said that Magdalene was unusual among her kind. Do you know what that means?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Alistair, shaking his head.
“It means that Sirachim lead solitary lives. It means they live alone in the forest. It means they live—”
Savvy’s voice faltered.
“It means what, Savvy?”
“It means they live without friends, Alistair. It means I’ll be without you and you mean everything to me.”
Alistair stared down at the floor. That Savvy’s transformation could separate them had not occurred to him, but then Savvy’s mind had always moved more deftly than his.
Looking up at his friend, he mustered a smile. “Savvy, we don’t know that for sure. Let’s see how things go before either of us gets upset. What’s important now is that you get some rest. You have a lot to face tomorrow and you’ll need your strength.”
Savvy nodded and threw her arms around Alistair’s neck.
“Thanks for listening to me,” she said. “You’re a great friend.”
Returning her embrace, Alistair smiled and felt a tear form in his eye.
“Savvy, I’ll always be your friend,” he whispered. “And I’ll always be there for you. I promise.”