MAGGIE shrinks back against the concrete walls of the Pit. She closes her eyes and buries her head between her knees, but she can still hear Leon’s tortured cries. The worst is when he calls for her, begging her to help him.
When he falls silent, the shadows fly across the ceiling and out through the barn door, tearing it off its hinges. The wintery chill leaves with them. She doesn’t move for a long while after that, not until she hears someone say her name, someone who is not in the throes of anguish.
Slowly, she opens her eyes and lifts her head. Rush peers into the Pit. He beckons for her to climb the ladder. She wants to go to him—at least, she thinks she does—but her limbs are frozen, protectively holding her knees to her chest. He sees that she’s not going anywhere, and with the same grace his brother exhibited, Rush jumps into the Pit, barely making a sound as his feet hit the bottom. He extends his hands to her, but Maggie can’t make her body obey.
Rush sighs heavily and then bends over, wrapping his fingers around her upper arms. The physical contact sends a jolt through her. With a sudden burst of energy, she slaps his hands and curls in on herself even more.
“Is he dead?” she rasps, pushing her voice past the thickness blocking her windpipe. Rush lifts one eyebrow.
“Who? Leon? Not unless the ghost children took his carcass to-go. But based on all the blood and gore up there, he probably wishes he was dead.”
Rush doesn’t seem at all surprised to find her huddled and afraid at the bottom of the Pit, nor does he seem all that shocked by the fate of Leon. And the shadows… “How do you know about them?” Maggie eyes him warily and tries to put more distance between them. He looks almost hurt by the accusation in her tone.
“Come on, Mags. You’re pretty tough for a human, but not even I would leave you to fend off Leon all by yourself.”
Bile rises in her throat. She endeavors to swallow it, but in the end she turns to the side and vomits. “Why?” she croaks. Maggie coughs and spits saliva and stomach acid into the dirt.
“Why?” Rush repeats. “Maggie, do you still not believe that I like you?”
Maggie shakes her head, not daring to look him in the eye. She can’t believe that. It is one thing to attempt murder when the situation is life or death, and you have no other option. It is another matter for Rush to try to kill his brother just to lend her a helping hand. She can’t be the inspiration for all the violence of late.
“You don’t kill for a toy or a pet,” Maggie argues. She tries to get her breathing under control, tries to cease her shivering.
“I never said those things about you,” says Rush earnestly. “I’ve consistently maintained that you are more than that. I never even called you a House Pet.”
Maggie is prepared to scoff, but then she realizes that he is right. Not once has Rush ever called Maggie a pet.
“Why didn’t you?” It’s not the most important thing she could ask him, but this question is suddenly pressing on her mind. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Sticks and stones may break your bones,” Rush says, “but words will always hurt.” Once more he extends his hand to her. “Now come on. Let’s go back to the house.”
She doesn’t take his hand on the way back, even though he offers to heal her wounded shoulder and to assist her whenever she stumbles. She feels about Rush the same way she felt about him when he was a child; his presence bears a strangeness that is new and foreign.
They reach the farmhouse to find everyone resting on the lawn. Amazingly, no one is dead, and they look well, all things considered. Fitz is the only one among them who truly appears worse for wear. Well, Matthew looks like he has seen better days too, but Maggie is not really sure what he’s doing here when all the other Fighters from the exhibition seem to have fled.
“We parked the van at the end of the driveway,” Rush says. “Fitz, Matt, can you two walk yet, or do you need a piggyback ride?” Both changelings claim they can walk on their own even though Fitz glances at his feet dubiously and Matthew still looks sickly pale.
Rush turns back to Maggie. “Is there anything you want to bring with you?”
“You’re going to take care of them?” she asks and motions to the others preparing to walk down the long driveway toward the van.
“I guess so,” he says. “I haven’t thought much about it. But who else is going to do it?”
“Good.” Maggie bobs her head decisively. “Then I don’t feel guilty for staying.”
Rush frowns. “You’re staying here? But there’s nothing left for you.”
“The Board of Brothers,” Maggie replies. “When the other changelings ran, we potentially endangered an entire human town. Do you think that they won’t send people to here to investigate?”
“So? Let them investigate.”
“They’ll find out what happened here!” Maggie hisses. “They will find six faeries murdered, and if they consider any of us to be a threat, then they are going to hunt us down. You know they will! If someone doesn’t stay here and take responsibility for everything that transpired, then the Board will never stop chasing us.”
Rush stares at her, caught somewhere between anger and astonishment.
“So, you’re the sacrificial lamb, is that it?”
Maggie squares her jaw. “I’m less of a lamb than you might imagine.”
“I know you lied.”
Maggie jumps and drops the bag she was helping Luke pack. They are in the living room putting together supplies for the changelings that are leaving with Rush. “What do you mean?” she asks and shifts away from him minutely.
“When you said that eating the Fairchilds was a last resort. If the produce hadn’t started rotting at an accelerated rate, then the meat would have gone bad first.” Luke’s dark eyes bore into her. “There was no extra slop in the freezer, was there?”
Maggie is paralyzed under the weight of his gaze. He’s not asking her because he doesn’t know the answer; he is just giving her the chance to confirm what he already thinks he knows. Nothing she says will change his mind. Seeing no way to save her reputation with Luke, Maggie mutely hands him another newly filled suitcase.
He accepts the bag with an air of quiet disappointment, taking her silence as confirmation in and of itself. She lets him think that. However, there is one thing she wants to know.
“Are you going to tell them?”
He doesn’t leave the room immediately or start shouting, which she supposes is a good sign. He considers her question for what seems like a long while. They stand in the living room facing each other in the facsimile of a western standoff. It’s not that Maggie has changed her mind about staying behind, but she would rather no one attempted to tear her limb from limb before they leave. If it came down to her word versus Luke’s, she has no doubt who the others will believe.
“No,” Luke finally decides. “Not at this juncture anyway. It does make me wonder, though.” Maggie shouldn’t ask, but she does regardless.
“It makes me wonder what else you may have lied about.”
She is left alone in the farmhouse. Maggie is sure that, at one point or another, it has been this quiet here, but now the silence feels so much more pervasive. Now and then, the house shifts all around her; every creak, every groan that pierces the heavy quiet sets her nerves on edge. The grandfather clock thunders with each stroke of the second hand; she hears the stairs creak even though no one is walking on them.
How has her life come to this: sweating, quaking, waiting for the ax to fall? Her mind races around in circles digging itself into a rut. Every little sound pulls the knot in her stomach tighter knowing it might be the last thing she hears. How long will it take the Board to come here? What will they do to her when they arrive? The urge to run fast and run far causes her legs to twitch, but if she runs now, then Rush and the other changelings will be chased and captured for sure.
After twenty minutes of fruitless, heart-pounding anticipation and anxiety, Maggie stands up, shakes the tension out of her limbs, and speeds to the kitchen. She drags a chair over to the counter. Climbing on top of it, she stretches to the uppermost cupboards. She feels around inside blindly until she finds a familiar bottle two-thirds full of clear liquid labeled in a strange language.
Maggie pours a glass of water, adds two drops of Rush’s sleeping tincture but then hesitates. Sleep, at this point in time, would be a double-edged sword. Unconsciousness will certainly make the time go faster, but magically induced sleep means that Maggie cannot guarantee that she will wake when people from the Board of Brothers show up, and she would rather not be defenseless when that inevitably happens.
Shaking her head, Maggie puts the glass into the refrigerator untouched.
Enough hours pass that Maggie starts to wonder how long the Board is going to wait. What if they don’t arrive for days? That might render her sacrifice worthless. But around half past five in the evening, she sees Darrius approach the farmhouse alone. He lopes up the driveway, a serious expression staining his usual good spirit. She doesn’t see anyone else with him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is by himself. Her eyes follow him up the driveway, up the porch steps, and to the front door. Darrius raises his fist to knock but then pauses. He turns his head and spies Maggie through the curtains in the foyer. The corners of his lips lift into a half smile, and he waves. The elf points at the front door then, indicating she should open it.
Maggie’s hands shake and sweat, but she has to let him inside. Dealing with Darrius first is a blessing actually. He likes her, so there’s no reason to let her nerves get the better of her. Brown eyes awash in concern greet her as the door swings inward.
“Maggie,” he says, his voice laden with sympathy. She swallows.
“Are you here to take me away?”
Darrius shakes his head. “I came here before the investigative team. Since I know you guys personally, I thought maybe I could minimize the collateral damage. My superiors wouldn’t allow me to come any sooner, not until they were sure my presence wouldn’t cause more harm than good.” He walks into the foyer and looks around. “This place never changes, does it?”
Maggie nods. It’s like the Fairchild’s home exists in a bubble where time stands still. The only time anything here ever changes, it’s for the worse.
“Do you want something to drink?” Her voice is unusually high pitched. Maggie clears her throat. Darrius shrugs and says sure, trailing behind her as she leads him to the kitchen. The day is a hot and humid one, and even though the sun is hiding behind the clouds, it’s still rather muggy.
He goes and leans on the kitchen island while Maggie retrieves a glass of water from the refrigerator. She grabs a second glass from the cupboard and fills it with well water from a pitcher in the fridge. She passes the first glass to Darrius, who nods in thanks.
The air in the room is rife with unspoken words and questions. It’s difficult enough, what she is doing, without having to put it off any longer. It is obvious why Darrius is here; he wants to know what happened and try to save whoever he can save from a harsh punishment. What he doesn’t know is that he can’t save her.
“I did it,” she blurts, getting straight to the point. Darrius’ head snaps to attention. Maggie’s heart stutters thunderously, clawing its way up into her mouth.
“What?” The elf looks at her, stunned.
“I killed the Fairchilds,” she says quickly and releases a shuddering breath. “And by killing them, I put the rest of the changelings in an impossible position, which in turn endangered the humans in town. The fault lies with me and no one else.”
The surprise on Darrius’ face is replaced by skepticism. “You expect me to believe that you are responsible for the death of the Fairchild clan?” He shakes his head in denial. “Maggie, I know you. They may not have always treated you well like you deserved, but you loved them.”
Maggie’s eyes prickle and sting. She has to look away from him. “It’s the truth,” she insists.
“Then give me a good reason to believe it,” he pleads, though she can tell that he is hoping she will fail in this. He tilts his head so he can look her in the eye. Those brown eyes of his are so full of warmth and the promise of safety that Maggie wants to cry and tell him everything. For the first time in their friendship, she wants to let him fix all her problems. He slowly reaches across the kitchen island and gently places his hand over hers.
“Tell me the truth, Maggie. What’s going on here?”
She sighs. He doesn’t believe her, which is almost a relief, except the story about Annabelle is just as unbelievable as the one she just told him. What if he doesn’t accept either one of her explanations? Then the Board will send a team to track down Rush and the other remaining changelings. She can’t let that happen, not when she knows for a fact that they are innocent. Well, perhaps Rush is slightly less innocent than the changelings, but he has saved her life on numerous occasions. She definitely owes him something for that.
“The truth?” she says softly.
“Yes.” Darrius smiles and squeezes her good hand. “Please Maggie. You’re my friend. Let me help you!”
She takes a deep breath. She has to make him believe the story about Annabelle, otherwise she has no way to protect the others. If this doesn’t work, Maggie does not know what to do. Pulling away from him, she leans against the counter.
“The truth isn’t much more believable,” she admits. “Do you remember Annabelle?”
Darrius nods, and so she recounts the tale for him.
In roughly eighty-eight years of coexisting with faeries, Maggie has learned many things. But if she has to choose one thing to sum up all of her experiences—a running theme if you will—that describes her life with the Fairchild clan, then this is the chunk of knowledge that she has gained and held close:
Faeries are like spiders. They spin tales made out of something slippery and invisible but existent nonetheless. They weave those strands into a story, something meant to trap other creatures. How does she protect herself against such clever, sneaky beings? Well, by transforming into a spider herself, of course. Survive by becoming like them.
There is one problem, though. She is not truly a spider, not like Rush and Leon are. She tries to weave stories that are fabricated out of riddles and facts, but she is not nearly as good at it. Pieces of her web keep snapping off, and she hurries to mend them, except her web is unraveling faster than she can spin it.
Darrius takes the bait hook, line, and sinker.
He is aware of Annabelle’s hopeless obsession with Leon and their dysfunctional relationship. He knows about her psychotic pregnancies. So, why wouldn’t Anna stage the bodies after she killed the Fairchilds? After all, deluding herself and pretending everything is A-Okay is her modus operandi. And Darrius does not doubt for a moment that Maggie had no foreknowledge of Madam Fairchild and Tilda’s plan to have her put down, so she had no motive to kill them.
For the first time in at least a week, everything seems to be working out perfectly. Maggie feels she can finally relax. If this continues to go her way, she will have to ensure that Darrius doesn’t drink too much out of the glass she gave him. In case he gave her trouble, Maggie presented him with the water she poured earlier which contains the sleeping tincture. It’s just a contingency plan, though; something that could backfire if it turns out he’s already on her side.
“Wow,” he says and shakes his head once she brings her story to a close. Darrius picks up his glass of water and brings it to his lips. Maggie almost reaches forward to stop him but then decides otherwise. Preventing him from drinking the water she gave him would look odd—and besides, a few sips won’t knock him out.
“Personally, I believe you,” he goes on, honesty hanging on his every word like static cling. “When the investigative team arrives, they’ll see for themselves and we can get this situation sorted.” The elf smiles encouragingly.
The synapses in Maggie’s brain come to a screeching halt. “What do you mean see?”
Nonplussed, Darrius gestures around the kitchen. “The Board will bring in someone—a mage usually—to pull imprints from the structure of the house. Then they’ll project those imprints for the investigative team to see. It acts as a sort of holographic play-by-play.” Maggie blanches and grips the edge of the kitchen island for support. At the sudden change in his friend’s demeanor, Darrius hurries to say, “Of course, you won’t be expected to relive the events. You and I can wait outside while they do their business.”
All the moisture in her mouth evaporates. She thinks furiously, but she can’t find any discernable escape route this time. There are quite a few people she can fool, but it looks like the Board of Brothers may not be one of them. Maybe she is going to need that sleeping tincture after all.
“Darrius,” she says. Maggie sips at her own drink hoping he will follow suit. He raises his eyebrows, raising his glass and prompts her to continue. “What I said earlier… Well, it sounds like the Board is going to find out anyway, so I might as well tell you before you hear it from them.”
The elf’s face rapidly falls into a confused frown. Maggie grinds her teeth and breathes in deeply through her nose. “Right,” she says trying to build up her courage. “The truth this time.”
“What do you mean?” Darrius asks cautiously.
“I mean the first story I told you was the real one.” Maggie’s entire body stiffens, steeling herself for his reaction. “The truth is that I did it. I killed them.”