There was snow everywhere, lying in great, heaping piles that glowed in the surrounding darkness. Zach thought it was lucky it had snowed so much, really, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to find their way. But Zach had always been the ‘cup half full’ sort.
Arianna, however, was not. No, Arianna was decidedly a ‘cup half empty, or completely empty depending on the day. Probably raining on the cup too’ sort of person. She stomped through the snow in her big boots, scowling. Zach couldn’t see the scowl, but he knew it was there.
“I fucking hate Canada,” she groused, kicking up a tuft of snow. She had her arms folded across her chest, as much to keep her coat closed as to show her dissatisfaction with the situation.
“I know you do,” Zach replied, hands in his pockets.
“I hate Nova Scotia and I hate Amherst too.”
Sometimes Ari wished her father hadn’t moved them here, but then she wouldn’t have met Zach, and in the end she was happier to have met him than to have not, even if it meant dealing with his 2am tom-foolery.
“Why couldn’t we have just talked about whatever it is you want to tell me on the phone?” She really loathed the bitter cold of Canada in December, and would have rather been in her bed, sleeping.
“It’s too important. Besides, I have something to show you.”
At last they broke through the woods, where all the houses were as dark as the trees had been. It was, after all, Amherst, where everyone went to bed at a reasonable hour and didn’t make a habit of walking around well after midnight. She thought blissfully, for a moment, that she had been one of those people moments ago, and it hadn’t been half bad.
Ari didn’t have to ask where they were going as she followed along beside Zach, who walked bold as you please down the center of the road. Only one place would be open at this time of night: Marie’s. It was here that the dubious sort gathered to discuss their dubious business before driving out of their humble little town and on to their destination.
The people of Amherst had repeatedly tried to get rid of Marie’s, stating it as an eyesore, but to no avail. It stood still, proud as ever, at the end of Wyatt street. It glowed dimly, it’s glass front allowing them to see straight through into the restaurant, where red vinyl barstools and chrome counter-tops awaited.
Opening the door let out a gust of warm air. Ari shivered, teeth chattering, and huddled deeper into her coat as they plunged inside. At least they kept the place heated.
The diner was mostly empty, just a single scruffy looking old man nursing a cup of coffee and looking decidedly unfriendly, and two men in dark coats that sat near the bathrooms and looked around conspiratorily every few seconds, suspicious of every waitress that passed by too closely.
The on staff waitresses stood behind the counter that wrapped around the front half of the restaurant. They eyed Zach and Ari as they walked in, and after a moment, one of them detached from the group and sauntered over. She had messy hair, gathered into a loose bun that rested on her shoulder, and heavy eye makeup, smudged from at least a few clumsy eye rubs. She popped gum, a hand on her hip, “Two?”
Cheerily, Zach agreed, and the waitress grabbed two of the laminated menus and lead the way around the corner. It was darker where she sat them, a few of the overhead lamps having gone out.
“I’ll be right back to take your order,” she told them, before turning on her heel and padding away.
Ari watched her go, sliding into the booth she’d chosen for them. Zach slid in across from her, his smile bright and chipper and hinting at dreadful things. If it had been anyone else, Ari wouldn’t have noticed. But she’d known Zach since they were children. He was the first friend she’d made, everyone else too boring or simple to keep her interest for long, and their friendship was one that had lasted throughout the years. Now, seventeen, Ari knew when Zach was hiding something, when he’d done something wrong, and when she was about to hear something unfortunate come out of his mouth. Now was one of those moments.
“What?” She demanded. “What is it?” There was no point in beating around the bush, as Zach would have them do. It was late, and she was cold and tired and already annoyed with him.
Zach lifted his eyebrows, playing for dumb. It had been years, and he still acted as if he could lie to her, or surprise her. He was a pretty boy, always had been, and it was his pretty face that allowed him to get away with so much during the core of their youth.
A pointed chin, long, silky brown hair, and freckles that played across his face and gathered around his amber eyes. He was thin, with small wrists and long fingers.
“Oh, there’s plenty of time, Ari. Geeze, don’t you want your breakfast first?”
“Shove it,” said Ari grouchily. She could feel exhaustion pressing against the backs of her eyes, and she was in no mood for Zach’s nonsense. “Just out with it already.”
Zach’s face fell in stages: first the smile dropped, then his shoulders, and then he seemed to loosen up all over, sighing. “Oh, fine.” But just then, their waitress rejoined their table, pencil and pad poised.
“What’ll it be?”
Zack ordered toast, and Ari a cup of coffee, ignoring Zach’s pouting look when she refused food. She waited until the waitress returned with their order and left once more before rounding on Zack with a scowl.
“What? Just, what? Out with it. I want to go back to bed.”
Zach pretended to busy himself with spreading butter on his toast, studiously not meeting Ari’s eyes, until she began tapping her nails on the counter, staring. Finally he grew tired of the feeling of her gaze on him and he lifted his head with a pout.
“Alright, alright. Fine. Look, I need to tell you something.”
Ari didn’t say anything. She stared, deadpan, across the table as she dully turned the tiny spoon around and around in her mug, clinking against the porcelain sides.
“Okay, do you remember about four weeks ago, when I disappeared?”
She rolled her eyes pointedly. Of course she remembered. Zach had told her he was going on holiday with his dad, some island out in fuck all no where, and she hadn’t heard from him after, for two weeks. She’d texted him every day until half-way through the week when she decided that having fun was one thing but ignoring your best friend was just not okay. She’d then spent the rest of the week calling him. When that didn’t work either, she called his dad, who told her to stop worrying about Zach, he was doing just fine, thank you and good-night.
She’d begun to feel rather peeved, but Zach returned a few days later, apologizing and promising he hadn’t meant to ignore her. His phone had died, his dad wouldn’t let him use his charger and was trying to teach him a lesson, something about ‘appreciating nature and family togetherness without the interruption of technology.’
It seemed like something Ben would do, and so Ari had let the entire thing drop, but her bitterness remained, though it wasn’t entirely Zach’s fault. “Yeah,” she answered, “of course I remember.”
“Well,” said Zach, so quickly it was as if her answer hadn’t mattered at all, which, in retrospect, it probably hadn’t. “There’s something I left out. Something I didn’t tell you the whole truth about.”
Ari’s stomach sank. It came as no surprise, and so the ache of fear was a dull one. Zach was a troublemaker, a magnet for bullshit, and Ari had spent much of her childhood lingering outside detention halls, or fending off the clingy girls that whined to her about how ‘cruel’ he was. Zach wasn’t cruel, not exactly, just easily bored and somewhat flippant. She wondered what sort of mess she was going to have to clean up now.
Narrowing her eyes, she asked carefully, “What did you do?”
Zach shifted in his seat, casting his gaze sideways with a troubled twist to his mouth. It was the expression that troubled Ari this time, sending a fresh wave of anxiety through her. Zach was the sort of trouble maker that didn’t care when he got caught. He laughed it off, shrugged, took his medicine and never learned. It helped that he was gorgeous; people fell all over themselves to forgive him, and he was intelligent too, which made his teachers fond of him and more or less indifferent to his antics.
“I didn’t really even want to be there,” and here came the excuses, thought Ari tiredly. “There was nothing to do, so most of the time, I would just go to the woods.” Here he paused, his eyes on his hands, which twisted nervously in his lap. His toast went untouched, the butter turning the bread a faint gold. “There was something there.”
Zach paused, tapering off. She could see that he was nervous, but when he didn’t continue, she sighed. “What do you mean ‘there was something there’? What, like a bear?”
“No,” Zach replied coldly, expression twitching as he looked up and met her eyes. “A faery... Faeries. I met them.”
Whatever apprehension Ari had felt prior to the conversation fell away instantly, and she was filled with a blank sort of irritation. “I’m going home,” she announced, starting to stand. “Because clearly you’ve lost your mind.”
Zach lunged forward, gripping her wrist, and when she looked down into his face, his eyes were wide, imploring. Still, she pulled herself free from his grasp, though she did retake her seat, waiting patiently as Zach regained his composure.
“You don’t understand,” he hissed, gaze darting around momentarily, checking for eavesdroppers. It was all very dramatic, and Ari was scarcely holding onto her patience.
“What the hell do you mean ‘faeries’?”
Ari rolled her eyes, “You dragged me out of bed to tell me some stupid story about faeries? What’s next, did you also meet Santa Claus in a tree?”
Zach scowled, curling his hand into a fist where it lay atop the table. “You’re not taking me seriously.” His eyes were shining, irritated, but Ari couldn’t find it within herself to care.
“No, I’m not, Zach. You just told me you met a faery in the woods while you were on vacation with your dad. Is there something wrong with the air up there? I can’t believe you dragged me out of for this. I’m going home, tell Tinker Bell I said hi.”
This time, when she began to rise to her feet again, Zach didn’t stop her, but he hissed through his teeth, “Please,” and gave her the eyes; full and round and pleading, the very look he gave her when he didn’t want her to be angry. You’d think, after years of this, she’d of grown immune to it, but her heart gave a sad jerk and she shifted in her seat, reaching forward to take her mug into her hands.
It was warm, spreading tingles across her palms and over her fingertips. “Fine,” she said, “tell me about the faeries.” There was a mocking tone to the word, but Zach either didn’t notice or didn’t care.
“They’re real,” He insisted, because Ari hadn’t lost her patience enough already. “I saw them. They took me under the hill and-”
“Under the hill?”
Zach showed his appreciation for her interruption with a glare. “They’re not like you think. They’re real and they’re beautiful and…” He stopped, as if he couldn’t speak another word, as if something were gripping him deep inside, swallowing his words before they could fall from his lips. “I can show you. I want to show you.”
And here they’d finally arrived at the point. Ari quirked a single brow, saying nothing. When Zach stared purposefully across the table at her, she finally sighed and asked the question he wanted her to ask, “How do you propose to do that?” Zach had been in another city when this had supposedly happened, and it wasn’t as if either of them could afford a train ticket.
“There are ways,” he answered, as if he had read her thoughts. “Tomorrow, during twilight before the moonrise. I can meet you at your place and we can go. Okay?”
Ari didn’t want to agree. Whatever it was Zach was really going to show her was probably nothing she cared to be involved in, but she knew him well enough to know that he wouldn’t give up, so she lifted her gaze heavenward, as if praying for patience, and nodded.
When she looked at him again, he was smiling victoriously all over his face, and now, having gotten what he wanted, he picked up his toast and took a bite off the corner. “You’ll see,” he said quietly, though she suspected it was more to himself than to her.
Twilight draped itself over Amherst in a glowing umbrella, the light making even the most mundane look both eerie and magical. Arianna waited for Zach outside her house, as they had agreed. As she suspected, he was late, and so she passed the time by kicking at tufts of snow, piling it up on the toe of her boot and flinging it off into the distance.
She’d wanted to amuse herself, and so Ari had decided to take her coat that strapped across the chest, it’s hood so wide it would hide her face from view were she to draw it. Fairytale games called for fairy tale costumes.
Zach arrived ten minutes after he was supposed to, out of breath with his hair in a ponytail and a smile on his face. Arianna’s mood was not on the forgiving side, so she frowned at him and tucked her gloved hands deeper into the pockets of the coat, “About time,” she grumbled.
“Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t find my gloves and-” He shook his head, brushing away the conversation. “Anyway, are you ready?” He looked eager, like a puppy or, more closely, a child.
Arianna resisted the urge to roll her eyes as she gave a sharp, impatient nod. Yes, she was ready, ready for whatever this new game was to be over with so she could go home, curl up in an armchair with a nice book, and drink some coco. Her hands were freezing, despite their home in her pockets, and she was regretting choosing cotton pants over something warmer.
“Okay, this way.” Zach turned, leading into the forest as he had done the night before, ducking his head to avoid knocking into a low, snow-laden branch. Arianna followed, her sigh gusting out in a cloud of white.
Snow covered the ground. Though no more had fallen during the night, the day had not been warm enough to melt the ice, and it collected in glittering piles, dusted over the trees, and made the ground slippery where it had been kicked away. Arianna could see their footprints from the night before, outlined in brown where the dirt had mixed with the ice. They followed the path they’d marked out, but halfway to town, Zach turned suddenly to the left.
She was silent as they walked, and for once Zach had no idle babble to fill the quiet with. Perhaps he could sense her ire and thought it was best not to push his luck. They carried on in silence, the sound of their boots crunching over the snow, and their breathing the only sounds to permeate the air. He lead her deeper and deeper into the trees, until the area around was so packed that they had to carry on with stooped shoulders and ducked heads, lest they get a face-full of tree branch and snow.
The glow of the twilight was melting away into darkness; soon the moon would rise, bringing with it the twinkling stars, and Arianna had never been to this part of the forest, had never gone so deeply inside, she wasn’t sure they’d be able to find their way out again if it got too dark to see.
“Zach-” she started, prepared to give her concern voice, but he held up a hand and shushed her.
“We’re almost there,” he promised, and though she wasn’t sure she believed him, she let her worries die in the back of her throat and did not speak again.
It wasn’t long after that they arrived in a space big enough for them to, at last, stand up straight. Arianna’s shoulders ached, and her fingers had gone numb with cold. She stared around; the earth below was packed dirt, and the trees here all seemed to form a circle. She had the eeriest feeling that small eyes were watching her from their branches, but when she tilted her head back, all she saw was darkness, and the rustle of leaves in the breeze.
“Great,” she said, rolling her shoulders back, wincing as her bones cracked with the stretch. “What now?”
“He’s coming.” Zach’s expression of childlike joy was gone, now solemn. Frowning, Arianna followed his line of sight and squinted into the darkness ahead. She saw nothing, and was about to say as much when, suddenly, the shadows drew shape, and she could see a tall figure approaching them from the distance.
Curious despite herself, Arianna watched, until the figure emerged and stood in the clearing with them. He was quite tall, perhaps the tallest man Arianna had ever seen; his skin was a ghostly white, his eyes dark brown, with a long fall of jet black hair that fell to his hips. He wore what appeared to be silver armor; the breast plate glinted impressively even in the low light, and Arianna thought she saw a vague pattern of flowers around it’s base. The stranger was handsome, with a pointed chin and high cheekbones, but something about him made Arianna feel like a deer facing down a wildcat.
“Arianna,” Zach’s voice brought her out of her stare. She turned to look at him as he introduced her, “This is Nirthaniael. Nirthaniael, this is Arianna, the girl I told you about.”
Arianna looked back at the man; Zach had told him about her? He gave a slow nod in greeting, but did not speak.
“Great,” said Arianna, unable to hide her irritation, “so I’ve met your friend. Awesome. Can I go home now?” She glance at Nirthaniael side-long, adding a quick, “No offense,” just in case. What had this even been about? Was this guy Zach’s new boyfriend or something? The idea seemed outrageous enough for her to laugh, but she held it back, glaring at Zach pointedly, her expression saying quite clearly that they would discuss this later.
Zach, however, shook his head, either ignorant to her displeasure or purposefully ignoring it. “No, no. You don’t get it; he’s going to take us under the hill.”
“The fuck are you-”
“Show her,” said Zach, motioning with one gloved hand to the man who stood, like a silent statue, watching them from his great height.
With a sigh, Arianna turned, and froze. It was like watching ice slowly melt, how the man’s face seemed to change. She blinked several times, hoping she was imagining it, as subtle as it was, but the rapid beat of her heart knew the truth.
Jet black hair shifted in colour like the changing of the leaves in fall, slowly turning the deep, dark red of blood, cascading down Nirthaniael’s back like water. Ears that had been rounded moments ago began to knife up at the edge into subtle points, and his eyes went from brown to an all-encompassing black. Perhaps strangest of all was his mouth; it turned a deadened white at the edges, like a victim of frostbite, with hints of pale blue and silver, the texture that of fish scales overlapping.
Arianna yelped, taking a step backward that brought her back up against a tree. Distantly, she felt the pain of her shoulders connecting with hard bark, but her eyes were drawn to the strange man with the crimson hair and the dead lips, and her heart was beating so fast that she could scarcely draw breath.
“Arianna,” It was Zach. Suddenly he was in front of her, blocking her sight of the creature almost completely. His hand on her arm was gentle, fingers gripping her, his eyes imploring. “It’s alright. He won’t hurt you.”
“Won’t hurt me!?” Arianna snapped, suddenly finding her voice in her outrage. “What the fuck is he?”
“Fey, he’s fey. I told you.”
Arianna’s mouth hung open in silent shock and outrage both, her brows knitted together; but he had told her, hadn’t he? In the diner, he had told her and she hadn’t believed, and here was all the proof she needed.
“Zach,” she hissed, “we should leave. Go home. I want to go home.” Her plea was a cloud of ghosty air.
“Oh please, Arianna!” His fingers tightened around her arm, squeezing not ungently, “I want to show you the place under the hill.”
He kept saying that, under the hill, and Arianna wondered, with a brief flash of apprehension, what he meant. Surely he couldn’t mean it literally, but her gaze slid past him, to the face of the faery, whose dark eyes bore into her like a snake’s; there was no white visible, making their fathomless blackness all the more unnerving.
“He won’t hurt us?” She whispered, aware that the faery could hear her still.
Zach grinned, shook his head, and at last released her, now that he was sure she was going to go along with his idea. “He won’t hurt us, promise.”
She didn’t want to. Everything within her screamed that she ought to turn around and find her way back to town, to her house. She wanted to forget what she’d seen, and felt rather like a caged animal, backing into a corner. But Zach was grinning from ear-to-ear at her, and she remembered how harsh she’d been in the diner. Guilt made her nod reluctantly.
Ari followed Zach as he walked across the clearing to join Nirthaniael. At his side, he beamed up at the fey, “Shall we?” and his tone was chipper as chipper could be, but Arianna felt like ice inside, the cold anxiety spreading when Nirthaniael nodded, then turned a blank, hardened stare down on her. She looked away, but could still feel his eyes on her for a moment, until he turned and lead them through the trees, back the way he had come.
As the sky bled black, it became impossible to see. The armored faery moved through the woods seamlessly, while Zach and Ari stumbled over their own feet and had to pause to untangle themselves from bushes. It was shortly after the third time this happened that spots of bright light danced into existence. They hovered a few feet off the ground, tiny orbs of moonlight that guided them forward.
It was the strangest thing; where a moment ago Ari had wanted to turn and go home, now she wanted only to keep going, to follow the trail of these strange, bobbing lights, and the faery that led them forward. Her worries seemed to quiet, turn into a gentle, untroubling buzz in the back of her mind.
At one point, Ari had the most absurd urge to touch one. She reached forward, fingers outstretched, but Zach pushed her hand down, shaking his head when she turned to meet his eyes.
“Willo the wisp,” he whispered.
Though she didn’t understand, Ari nodded, eyes glazed, and slid her hand back into her pocket. The armored faery continued on, as if he hadn’t heard the exchange at all, or was untroubled about whether or not they would continue to follow him. They had to quicken their steps to catch up, his armor, as if lit from within, acting as a guiding light.
They came to another clearing, here the lights spread out before them in twin trails, making an aisle for them to walk through. By their shining light, Ari could see what appeared to be wide, open rings of wood, like twisted branches, one after the other, almost like a spiral. Ari’s heart stuttered in her chest, momentary fear making her pause even as their guide, and Zach, continued forward. This was no mans land, and her feet felt stuck, as if in mud, unwilling to let her go forward.
She heard a whisper, the sound like wind through tall grass, gently urging her forward. She shivered, looking around at the bobbing lights like stars suspended in the air, then she stepped forward, onto the path, and carried on.
As they walked, the tiny lights winked out behind them, two by two, turning the path they’d left behind into a tunnel of pitch darkness. It would be hard to tell how long they had been walking for; it felt very long and very short all at once, but at last Nirthaniael stopped in front of the mouth of a cave,over which hung a curtain of thick, flowered vines that he brushed aside with an elegant wave.
Zach stepped through first, then Ari, avoiding the black eyes of the faery as she did. He entered behind them, the curtain falling shut. It was light inside, dimly lit in gold, though Ari could no lamps or bulbs, only packed dirt walls and a rough dirt floor that lead forward, with no other entrances in sight. Nirthaniael took his place at their head and lead them forward, down the path that rounded a corner, where smooth, dirt steps lead downward.
Ari had a mounting feeling of dread as she descended into relative darkness, but it was too late to turn back now. After a while, they came to an archway, like the widened mouth of a cave, and stepped through it into a large, circular room.
The room was full of chattering monsters, as if they’d walked into a party. Ari sucked in a surprised breath, heart hammering, as they walked forward. At one table sat a man so tall, he may as well be a tree. He was stooped forward, head bent to avoid hitting it on the ceiling. A floral patterned robe opened over his huge, brown legs, and a nest of tree roots sat coiled atop his head.
Sitting at the same table, as if for comedic effect, was a boy so small, Ari could have rested her chin atop his head. He wore treebark pants that stopped above his knees, and his skin was as brown as the earth. His eyes were like Nirthaniael’s; fathomless and black, a head of messy dark hair, and thin, twig-like fingers capped with needle-sharp claws.
Ari saw women with skin gnarled and bumpy like the oldest of trees, tiny things with ladybug wings and wide mouths full of sharp teeth, and more; things she had no desire to see again. The walls and floors here were the same packed dirt as the entrance up above had been, and hairy tree roots dangled from the ceiling. Creatures clung to them; small things like dolls, with bodies like glossy sticks, butterfly wings protruding from their backs. They hissed at Ari as she passed beneath them, and she had to swallow a shriek, ducking her head.
Parts of the walls were covered in dark red moss, inside of which hundreds of tiny, black eyes watched as they passed. They crossed a dining table of rough wood, covered in leaves and flower petals, whole branches that housed deep purple fruit. Crystal bowls of thick, dark liquid stood at the center, and scraps of fossilized treebark acted as plates. The food actually looked delightful, little cakes with fluffy pink frosting, crowded with shining blue, purple, and red berries. Ari felt her mouth water, and had to quickly look away. Something about the offering made her feel uneasy, despite how delicious everything looked.
“Ari,” Zach hissed in her ear, making her jump. “Are you alright?”
He was smiling all over his face, eyes bright and excited. Ari wanted, very suddenly, to shove him. It was his fault she was here, in a room full of monsters that watched them pass with laughing eyes. She shook her head, glaring, but a voice at the front of the room distracted her, and she turned away.
“My Crimson Knight, what have you brought me?”
Ari hadn’t noticed the raised dais before, and now she wondered how she could have missed it. An impressive throne of twisted branches housed a woman whose smile was like a shard of glass. She was pale, as crisply white as freshly fallen snow, and her eyes were the clear blue of water. She wore a large, diaphanous dress of white and silver that left her shoulders bare and was so long that it hid her feet from view. Her lips were pale, and her hair was not hair at all, but long, thin icicles that clinked musically when she moved. From her back sprouted long, translucent wings that shone iridescently, twitching as she shifted in her seat.
Beside the throne was a sword, it’s hilt twisted silver. The blade was massive, pale blue, translucent like glass, though Ari knew it had to be ice.
“Mortals from ironside, my Queen.”
They had come to a stop before the dais. Nirthaniael dropped to his knees, Zach following, but Ari remained standing, her gaze frozen on the woman whom the knight had called Queen. She felt an insistent tug on the hem of her coat, and, distracted, looked down to find Zach pulling at her, mouthing ‘get down’.
She did, falling to her knees and bowing her head as she had seen Zach and the knight do. The Queen spoke over them, her voice a cool melody.
“This one is familiar to me, but you bring me a girl I have not yet met, and do not know.”
“The deal that was made-” started Nirthaniael, but he stopped suddenly, as if the Queen had raised a hand to silence him.
“I have not forgotten, Nirthaniael. You have done well. Rise.”
As one, Nirthaniael, Zach, and Ari rose to their feet, and Ari lifted her gaze to find the Queen staring, head inclined, a smirk dancing about her pale mouth.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Arianna,” Ari answered immediately, surprised as her own voice rang out across the room. “Gilmore. Arianna Gilmore.”
“Very well, Arianna Gilmore. You are our guest of honor tonight, however, you are not dressed for the occasion. Wouldn’t you agree?” Her gaze landed on the crowd, searching the faces of the other faeries for their approval. It came in a chorus of murmurs and a rumble of laughter.
Ari looked down at herself, frowning. What was wrong with her outfit?
“Take them away,” the Queen waved her hand dismissively, and Ari felt fingers grip her arm.
Nirthaniael steered her to the left, until she shook herself free of his grasp. Zach followed along beside her, strangely subdued. There was another opening in the wall up ahead, curtained with the same flowering vines. The Knight pushed it aside, ushering them into a dimly lit hall, where doors lined the dirt walls. He chose the second one, rapped with his knuckles until it opened.
Inside the doorway stood a tall, thin creature with alien black eyes, a pinpoint white pupil that contracted and grew wide again when it settled on her and Zach. There was a shine to their sharp cheekbones that glimmered, and straight, jet black hair framed an impossibly thin, pointed face. Robes of black encircled the creatures shoulders and torso, but from within, Ari could see eight arms, each hand folded together, save for the one that had opened the door.
“Yes?” said the creature, their voice a whisper that made Ari want to shiver and hide under her blankets.
“The Queen has instructed that the ironsiders be dressed…,” The knight paused, his black eyes sliding sideways to glance at them, “for a place of honor.” Then he smiled, wicked and sharp, and the creature in the doorway bobbed their head and stepped aside.
Zach walked in first, easily, as if he’d been there before and was merely visiting an old friend. Ari followed after him, hesitant, heart pounding as the creature closed the door behind them. The room was small and busy; dress mannequins crowded the floor space, pinned with gauzy fabric. They looked as if they’d been rescued from the dumpsters behind high fashion stores at the mall. Low wood tables were covered in bolts of fabric, detailed sketches of costumes, and piles of things that glittered, shimmered, and winked in the low light.
It would have been an interesting sight, had Ari not seen the gigantic webs that formed in the corners of the room, stretching up to the ceiling in sticky, near invisible ribbons. Ari swallowed a scream and took a step back, as if she thought to run. In an instant, Zach laid a hand on her arm, and she turned her head to look at his smiling face, his expression an attempt at reassurance.
“Don’t worry,” he soothed, “this is Ithika. She makes the garb for the courtier fey.”
This did nothing to appease Arianna’s fear. Zach, however, didn’t seem to notice. He took a seat on a low cushioned stool, watching as the creature called Ithika pushed a bolt of fabric off a notebook and studied the picture within.
“Hm,” hummed the faery. She turned to Arianna, appraising her with her insectile eyes. “You first,” she declared, and pointed a too-long finger at her, snapping, then pointing to the other end of the room, “Girl, stand there.”
Though Arianna didn’t much appreciate being called ‘girl’, not to mention a stranger barking orders at her, she obeyed, crossing the room on nervous feet to stand beside a looming mannequin, this one covered in wilted purple roses.
The many-armed woman approached, not quite looking at Ari, but all around her, her eyes moving quickly enough that Arianna couldn’t follow their gaze. She reached forward, ignoring Ari’s flinch, and ran cold fingers down her arm. This continued; shoulders, neck, hands, until Ari closed her eyes to avoid looking at the eight arms and their eight hands. She wished she could wake up in her own bed, see this all as a dream, laugh at it over coffee with Zach. Instead, she heard papers rustling, and the click of what could have been tapping fingernails or snapping teeth.
Ari chanced a glance at the faery and saw she was biting off thread with pointed teeth, while two of her hands quickly unwrapped a bolt of fabric.
“Remove your wrapping,” said the woman. Ari gave her a questioning look, her gaze moving over her shoulder to where Zach sat, watching with interest.
“Your clothes,” he clarified.
Ari hesitated. “Remove my… clothes? I can’t-all of them?”
Ithika didn’t reply, blinking at her.
“No,” argued Ari, shifting away. “I don’t want to.”
“Humans are stupid, modest creatures,” Ithika had followed her gaze to where Zach sat. When she turned back, one of her arms reached for Ari, quickly unbuckling the front of her hooded coat until she yelped and recoiled.
“C’mon Ari,” Zach encouraged, “you’ve seen me in my underwear loads of times!”
It was meant to be comforting, but Ari glared at Zach’s smiling face. Still, it would appear as if she had little choice in the manner, and so after a moment she began to disrobe, letting her clothes fall into a dark pile at her feet. Ithika seemed satisfied, for she began to circle Ari with fabric coiled in her arms.
It would have been impossible for Arianna to tell how long she stood there, eyes trained on the rough earthen ceiling, but after a while, the fey woman snapped her fingers, announced she was finished, and shooed her away so that Zach could take her place.
When Ithika had finished with him, she brushed off all eight hands and promptly left the room, the door closing behind her. Arianna rounded on Zach immediately, “I want to go home,” she hissed.
He ignored her, busily looking down at himself and what the faery had dressed him in. He wore a long sleeved top of deepest crimson, a high collar sharpening into points around his neck, with sleeves that flared into soft tulle around his wrists, so long that, when he lowered his arms, they would cover his hands almost completely. His trousers were feathers, the same deep red as his top, overlapping each other, ending at his knees. Ithika had not given him shoes, leaving them both barefoot, but he pulled on his boots and did up the laces with a few quick, messy loops.
Zach wore a crown of roses; fat, red blossoms that complimented his fall of dark hair. He was lovely, she had to admit.
“You look beautiful,” he told her, ignoring her angry hiss.
Arianna looked down at herself, though she’d already thoroughly scrutinized the dress, and frowned. Where Zach was all crimson, Arianna had been dressed in lilac. The bodice of her dress was covered in rose heads of dusty purple, their petals aged and soft. The skirt was long and sheer, soft to the touch, like chiffon, trailing long to her pale, bare feet. Looking down, she noted that the nail polish on her toenails was badly chipped. Taking a leaf out of Zach’s book, she crossed the room to where her combat boots had been abandoned and pulled them on, giving the laces a quick, tightening tug.
“I want to go home,” she repeated, brushing fingers through her short red hair.
Zach opened his mouth, but just then the door opened and Ithika strode in, Nirthaniael just behind her. He’d taken off his armor, now in a soft white tunic that laced up in the front. He crooked a finger at Zach, who crossed the room to his side, Ari just behind him.
They were silent as they walked down the hall, but Ari could hear music up ahead, and when they entered the room with the throne, there was dancing. Fey twirled wildly in dresses that shimmered dizzily, and a man with goat legs and horns crouched against the wall, blowing into what Ari thought must be a sort of panflute. The music was a twinkling sort, haunting and beautiful. Sometimes it sounded like wind chimes in the rain, other times like a broken music box. Suddenly, she had the queerest desire to dance with the monsters who had frightened her so, but she could not join them, not when Nirthaniael was leading them through the room to the dais, where the Queen sat and smiled.
“My lady,” said the knight, as he crouched into a one kneed bow. Zach and Ari followed his example, though the hard floor hurt her knees.
“Rise,” said the Queen, and they did. Her gaze travelled over Ari and Zach, making Arianna feel stripped bare; she resisted the urge to duck her head and shield herself.
“Lovely,” the Queen announced after a moment. “Ithika has done well. You will give her my praise, yes?”
The knight gave a quick nod, “If you wish it, it will be done.”
“Zachary Boothe,” The Queen rose to her feet, her dress fanning out around her legs, trailing behind her as she stepped across the dais, “you have kept your word, and as fey, we are bound to ours. You have free roam of the court, you will live as we live.”
She waved her hand out at the dancing masses, who had calmed somewhat to watch, but still continued to move to the twinkling music.
Ari’s heart constricted, she turned her head to look at Zach questioningly; what did she mean, live as they live? But he was not looking at her, rather his gaze was transfixed, adoringly, on the Queen.
“Lady Selwyn,” he murmured, bowing his head, his curtain of brown hair falling forward.
“What does she mean?” Ari couldn’t stand it any longer, the question bursting forth. “What does she mean ‘live as they live’? Zach? You’re going home with me, aren’t you?”
Zach did not answer, nor would he look at her. It was the Queen who replied, a tinkling laugh falling from her lips.
“Arianna Gilmore, you belong to the court now.”
The world seemed to fall away, and Arianna felt as if she were floating in still, icy darkness. “W-what?” She took a hesitant step backward, trodding on the train of her dress and almost falling. “No,” her eyes were on the Queen’s face, her skin impossibly white, the smirk that curved her mouth. “No. I want to go home. I’m done playing with the faeries now.” Blindly, she reached for Zach, felt only air. “Come on Zach, let’s go. We’re leaving.”
“You do not wish to be among us?” The Queen’s eyebrows lifted, as if Arianna had just impolitely declined a dinner invitation.
“No!” She shouted, “No, I want to go home! You’re all fucking crazy!”
“Very well,” a petulant, heavy lidded look replaced the Queen’s smirk. She waved a delicate hand in Ari’s direction, “Kill her. It will amuse me.”
Arianna’s eyes were wide, wide as a trapped animal. She took another step back, thinking to flee, but felt herself come into contact with something warm and solid. She tilted her head up and found the knight hovering over her, his black eyes bearing into her, his face horribly blank.
“As you wish, Lady Selwyn.” He reached up to clasp her around the arms and she shrieked, kicking wildly. She looked around for Zach, but he was not where he had been a moment ago. That space was empty, and the Queen was stepping gracefully down from the dais. She smiled a cold smile, but when her gaze followed Ari’s, the expression vanished.
“Where is the boy?”
Nirthaniael did not release Ari, but he did turn to look, expression twitching, momentarily troubled before it smoothed back into blankness once more.
“Find him,” said the Queen, “I would like for him to watch while we enjoy the gift he has brought us.”
Nirthaniael released her and Ari stumbled away, aware she could not run, not with the Queens eyes on her, tracking her every movement, and certainly not without Zach.
There was a sudden shout from behind them. It would have been the perfect moment to run, if Ari had had the presence of mind to do so. Instead, she spun toward the sound, and her expression fell into open shock.
Zach came soaring through the air; it looked as if he had launched himself off of one of the tables, and in his hand was a blade of jagged, curved silver. He screeched as he flung himself on the knight who, surprised, stumbled backward. Somewhere in the distance, a faery was shouting. My blade, my blade! The boy has taken my blade!
But it was too late; Zach plunged the dagger into the knights shoulder, again and again, until Nirthaniael flung him away and he flew, hit the floor on a roll, and sprung to his feet again.
Blood the same colour as the knights hair stained the front of his tunic, flowing much too quickly, yet still he drew his sword against Zach, his expression a twisted coil of rage. The Queen let out an angry shriek. Arianna had almost forgotten about her, she spun around once more to find that Lady Selwyn’s eyes were on the duo as they circled one another. Something had caught the corner of Ari’s eye, and she followed it to find the sword, leaning against the throne. It was a chance, but Ari hesitated; could she even lift it? Would someone stop her before she had a chance? But what other choice did she even have?
She flung herself forward, leaping onto the dais to seize up the sword. It was heavier than she had thought it would be, and she thought it would be quite heavy to begin with. Still, she was able to steady her arm, dashing carefully back down to where the Queen stood, and now she had been noticed.
Lady Selwyn rounded on her with clenched fists, a wing twitching behind her.
“Wretched human brats,” she snarled, taking a step forward. Ari mirrored her by stepping away.
“You will regret the day you spit on the hospitality of the fair folk. You will die screaming. Now unhand my blade, your filthy hands are not fit to touch it.”
They circled each other, Ari’s grip on the sword tight, “Let me go,” she demanded. She could hear Zach shouting, but couldn’t look for him, not now. The Queen was like a viper, and Ari knew that the moment she took her eyes off of her, she would strike, and Ari’s chance would be wasted. “Let Zach and I go, and we’ll never come back. We’ll never bother you again.”
The Queen laughed, the sound high and mocking. “You dare try for bargain? Is your head filled with nothing but air?” And then she lunged, and Ari shrieked and thrust the sword forward, clumsily, but it hit it’s mark, the tip of the blade plunging through the Queen’s chest. She released a horrible noise, a noise of howling wind, of nails on chalkboard, an unearthly shriek that made Ari want to run.
Instead, she gave a harsh tug, pulling the blade free, and plunged forward again, cutting through the Queen’s dress, into the soft flesh underneath. This time Lady Selwyn made no noise as she fell to the ground and did not move again.
The sword fell limply from Ari’s grasp to the ground, it’s edges stained with the Queen’s blood. Lady Selwyn’s eyes were open wide, staring blankly. Ari noticed, with a horrified sort of fascination, that her blood was of the deepest blue, and it gathered in an ever-growing pool around her, like the sea.
Zach came rushing out of the crowd, and Ari was relieved to find that he was uninjured, save a few scratches across his face and neck. His crown of roses had been destroyed, only half remaining now, their petals bruised and falling.
“We need to get out of here!”
“What happened to the knight?” Ari demanded, fearful that at any moment Nirthaniael would come lunging out of the sea of monsters, sword in hand, to finish the job.
“Dead,” said Zach, and for the first time, Ari saw blood, on his hands and staining his top, the deep red fabric the same colour as the knights blood had been.
He gripped her wrist, leaving a ring of sticky crimson on her skin, and tugged her toward the entrance they had come out of. The battle had not gone unnoticed by the gathered fey, however, and with both the Queen and their Knight down, they converged on them in a sea of claws, forked tails, and cloven hooves.
“Stay back!” Zach shouted, stepping in front of Ari. In his free hand, he held a small corked bottle, inside of which glimmered a fine, silver powder which he partially dumped into a cupped palm.
Unheeding of his warning, a creature with hair of tiny, twisting snakes dashed forward with a hiss and swiped at his face with sharp, black claws. Zach blew the the powder at him, the silver dust flying into the air and into the creature’s eyes. He screamed and flailed backward, his skin bubbling where the powder had hit him.
Ari wanted to ask what Zach had done, what the powder had been, and where he had been hiding it for that matter, but for just a moment, the mass of monsters were recoiling, afraid of Zach and his silver powder, and it was just the moment they needed.
He pulled Ari through the earthen door and up the steps, running so fast that she almost tripped on her dress several times before they broke out into the trees.
The sun was rising, giving the forest a purple glow. It was still too dark to see very well, but Zach wasted no time in yanking her forward, pulling at her until it hurt. Her dress caught several times as they hurtled through the trees, tearing to expose strips of pale skin. At any moment Ari expected a horde of faeries to come chasing after them, to kill them for what they had done, but no one came, and when the sun finally rose completely, it was light enough to see by and Zach finally stopped running.
Ari recognized the area. They were close to her house, the idea so comforting she could cry, if her chest did not burn and her face did not sting from the cold.
Questions chased themselves around Ari’s head, but she did not speak until they reached her front yard. Her father would be at work by now, thankfully, for she didn’t know how she could explain the dress, or it’s many tears, or the blood on her wrist where Zach had gripped her.
“We’re home,” Zach breathed, his relief palpable.
Suddenly, Ari was angry. It seemed to come from nowhere, a blossom of hot rage, “No,” she snapped, rounding on Zach furiously, “I’m home. Your home is back there, with those monsters you tried to trade me to.”
Hurt flashed across Zach’s expression, but for once Ari didn’t care.
“Yes,” she cut in, “it was. I heard what the Queen-what she said. You traded me to be one of them.”
“You don’t understand...”
“Then please, be my guest and explain!”
Zach looked down at his feet, shifting uncomfortably. She stared, waited, a sort of hysterical fury rooting her to the spot.
“When I was on Statican Island with my dad, I hated it there. Boring... So, I went for a walk in the woods and I found…” He hesitated, brows furrowing, as if it disturbed him to remember. “I found a circle of mushrooms. They were blue, I’d never seen them before. You know how I am,” he looked up with a hesitant grin, but Ari did not return it, and he ducked his head again.
“I wanted to see them up close. I went inside the ring and… I don’t know how to describe it-it was like I’d been transported into a wind tunnel, and there were ...things all around me, dancing and… Their faces were horrible, but… So beautiful. I saw him-the Crimson Knight, Nirthaniael. He was… The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” His tone had taken on a wistful note, and Ari hated him for it as she remembered claws and teeth and cold black eyes.
“It’s called an elf circle,” Zach looked up, meeting her eyes. “Once a human steps into it, you’re trapped forever. I was scared at first, but Nirthaniael took care of me. At least… I thought he did. He gave me food, and it made me want to dance forever. I don’t know how long I was there, Ari--hours? Days? He told me I belonged to the court, and it scared me. I wanted to go home. I thought I was special and… I wasn’t, I was just some stupid mortal that got caught in a faery trap. I begged him to release me, and he punished me.” His frown was bitter, angry. Ari wanted to shout at him. Zach’s need to be everyone’s favourite, his desire to be unique and admired, it was something he’d carried with him since he was a child, and where it had exasperated her before, now it made her want to strangle him.
“I know faeries like to…” He continued, still not looking at her, “Collect pretty things, so I made him an offer.” Here was the root of it, Ari knew, with a cold, sinking feeling in her stomach. “I said… Give me a chance, let me go home, and I would return to him with another human, in exchange for freedom. He told me I belonged to the court-but that if I did as I said, the Queen would give me free reign, and I could never go back to ironside, but I could reside with them under the hill forever.”
A horrible silence fell, a chill colder than the winter air. “So you sold me.” Ari tried to let the understanding sink in, but it felt as if she were stranded in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. “You sold me so that you could play with the faeries.”
“No! No, Ari, I had a plan! I knew if I could get you down there, the Queen would want to keep you, and I knew if I could just find a moment, if the timing was perfect, I could kill him, and we could run.” He reached for her, a plea in his eyes, begging her to understand.
She recoiled, jerking herself out of his reach. “Is that all you wanted? To be free? Or were you getting revenge on him for toying with you?”
He didn’t answer, not with any words, but his expression went dark and guilty, and he couldn’t meet her eyes, aiming his gaze on the ground once more.
A numbness encased Arianna as she watched him. “Get out,” she murmured. He looked up, surprised, but she pointed in the direction of town and said, louder this time, “Get out! Leave me, and don’t you ever fucking come back.”
For a moment Zach didn’t move, as if he expected her to retract the statement, or perhaps he was too shocked to obey. But then, slowly, he turned, and as he walked away, Ari shouted at his retreating form, “Do you hear me!? Never come back! Stay away from me!”
She didn’t wait for him to be gone from sight before turning and dashing up the front steps of her house.
In the week that passed, Ari moved through the motions of everyday life. Coffee with her breakfast, showers so hot it burned her skin but did nothing to erase the memories of her time under the hill. When her father asked her why she was spending so much time in her room, rather than with Zach, she made up a story about being sick, and threw away the cold medicine he brought her home.
It was undeniable that Ari missed Zach; they’d been best friends since she moved to Amherst as a child, and had spent everyday together since. His presence had been a staple in her life, but though her heart ached with his loss, she could not forgive the fact that he had used her to enact the revenge of his hurt pride.
No matter how she tried to talk herself into forgiving him, the excuses she used; he was scared, he didn’t know what else to do, he never intended for her to be hurt or even killed, still she could not make herself let go of the memory of his face, joyous among the fey, guilty when she’d called him out. The memory that her best friend had sold her, even as a ruse, to a court of monsters was more than she could ever forgive.
Ari was sure she’d never see him again, at least not until they started school in a couple of weeks, at which point she’d keep her distance. One evening, however, there came a tap at her window.
She’d been asleep, though lightly, and the tap-tap-tap of knuckles on glass inserted itself into her dream, until her eyes opened and she turned her head to squint at the digital clock on her nightstand. It said 2:00 AM in glaring red. The tapping continued. Ari’s heart slammed into her chest as visions of clawed fey reaching for her through her bedroom window assaulted her mind. She sat up, the covers falling away from her chest, and stared at the fogged glass. She could see the smudged outline of piles of snow and the line of trees that lead into the forest, and, closer, the silhouette of a familiar dark head. Zach.
Ari heaved a sigh, threw the blankets off her legs, and crossed the room to the window. Perhaps enough time had passed for the fire of her rage to subside into a gentle burn, for she threw the window open without hesitation and leaned out, pinning Zach with a pointedly irritated look.
Zach smiled guiltily. He had tied his hair into a low bun, a beanie pulled over the tops of his ears, and his gloves were fingerless, leaving his nails free for the tapping that had woken her.
“What do you want?” She snapped.
His smile vanished. “Ari, I--”
Ari held up a hand, “Don’t. I don’t want to hear it. I want to know what you want so I can go back to bed.” Already the cold was getting to her, sending gooseflesh up and down her bare arms.
“I’m sorry,” said Zach, for the first time. “I didn’t mean for you to… I never wanted you to get hurt. I didn’t know what to do.”
She had known that much, but forgiveness was not something she could offer, though a large part of her wanted to. She said nothing, wondering if that was all he had come for, but after a pause, Zach went on.
“They’ll come for us, you know.”
The dread of the statement turned Arianna to ice, but she knew he was right, had known, deep inside, even before he’d said it.
“I’ll deal with it when it happens.”
“Look, Ari, I know you hate me but--”
“I don’t hate you.”
Zach looked up in obvious surprise, but Ari just shook her head. “I thought I did, for a while. I wanted to kill you. But I don’t hate you-” She wasn’t sure she could ever hate Zach, he had been such a huge part of her life, and she loved him even now, not that she would admit it to his face.
Zach smiled, a hopeful look, but Ari crushed it quickly, “I don’t think I can ever forgive you though. What you did was--” She stopped, shook her head. “Maybe I can’t forgive you, but you’re right, we should stick together for a while. It’ll be harder to kill us that way.” Because thats what he had come for, she knew, to offer a truce, as well as to ask for her forgiveness.
He smiled faintly at her, though she could tell he was disappointed. He wanted her to say it was okay, for everything to go back to normal, his childishness and lack of discipline had taught him that a plea and a promise to do better could get him whatever he wanted. Ari could see he knew it wouldn’t work this time, and that the knowledge hung heavily over him.
She stepped away from the window, gesturing for him to follow, and after a moments hesitation, Zach climbed through, shutting the window behind him.
“I have ideas,” he said immediately upon turning, the faux protection her dark room offered making him bold.
Ari shook her head as she climbed into bed, “Not now. Tomorrow, but not now.” She patted the empty spot next next to her, watching as Zach tugged off his shoes, his gloves, casting them aside, his hat and coat following before he climbed up beside her. She pulled the blankets over them both and nestled into them, turning her back on Zach.
Maybe she could never forgive him, because she could never forget, but she would stay by his side until this was all over, and for now she just wanted to sleep. Tomorrow she would deal with planning and protection, with the heavy, horrible truth that they would be hunted. Tonight she would sleep beside Zach as they had done as children, and allow the memories of the past to lull her into a comfort of sorts, as if nothing had changed at all.