MAGGIE doesn’t remember much before the Fairchilds. All she has are vague, blurry memories of her real family and her childhood. She doesn’t recall the details of how Madam Fairchild lured her away, only that she did. This loss of memory used to deeply trouble her. That is, until Maggie realized she had bigger problems to concern her.
One of her earliest memories that have yet to be tainted by the fog of time is when Madam and Master Fairchild left their children and Maggie home alone.
Tilda danced around her bedroom, instructing a ten-year-old Maggie to try on different pairs of shoes the young faery shoved into her arms. Maggie had been teary-eyed since the Fairchild parents left that morning. Sometimes, in the presence of the faery children, an air of potential chaos lurked just out of sight. She got the sense that they didn’t mean to be cruel or overpowering, they just didn’t know any better. Well, that was the case with Tilda. Her elder brother was a different story.
Leon, enjoyed scaring her. After Maggie dissolved in tears, he would frown and tell her “It’s all in good fun,” as if he could not understand why she was upset. Tilda, the second eldest, did not appreciate when her older brother scared her friend. She was more considerate of Maggie’s fragile feelings, yet at the same time, she was even more obtuse than Leon. Tilda possessed an inability to intuit when their games ceased being fun for Maggie and became distressing.
The youngest Fairchild, Rush, was too small to be left alone with the other children and had been swept away with his mother that morning. Tilda and Leon never wanted to include their youngest brother in their games, stating that as an infant, he did not know how to play with them. And perhaps they were correct in their assessment, for Rush seemed content with the arrangement.
If Maggie was being honest, she was happy that Tilda refused to drag her baby brother around with them. She recalled that she had also had younger siblings at some point, before Madam Fairchild whisked her away from her home. She knew how babies his age were supposed to act: they cried, and they babbled, and they regarded their surroundings with constant fascination. Baby Rush did none of those things. In fact, Maggie often caught him looking at her in quiet contemplation with intelligence beyond his years.
It was just one more reminder that these people were not human.
“Try them on, Maggie!” Tilda tugged on her wrists and jumped up and down. Startled, Maggie grappled with the shoes almost dropping them. “Those are my second favorite boots, so I know you will look pretty,” Tilda proclaimed.
Maggie’s gaze drifted down to her bare feet. Three of her toes were swollen, one or two on each foot. The last time Tilda wanted to play dress up, she instructed Maggie to wear a pair of dazzling white shoes. She had attempted to put them on, but the young faery had quite dainty feet. It quickly became apparent to Maggie that the shoes were not going to fit under any circumstances, but Tilda was not convinced. She forced Maggie to sit, and with shocking strength she made the shoes slide onto her feet. Maggie cried and tried to push Tilda away, but the little girl continued in her endeavor until Madam Fairchild came to investigate the ruckus.
She then confiscated the shoes and scolded her daughter, but the damage to Maggie’s feet had already been done.
“Maybe I could be barefoot,” she suggested softly. “You could be a beautiful princess, and I could be a peasant.”
“Ooh, I like that game,” Tilda proclaimed with a delighted coo.
The princess and peasant game was actually fun at first. Maggie did not mind hobbling around on her still healing toes. Master Fairchild had concocted a healing poultice for her that had repaired all but the swelling, and it added a smidgen of realism to her poor peasant façade. At one point, even Tilda remembered to be mindful of her changeling’s injuries after she accidentally trod on one of Maggie’s sore feet and profusely apologized. As their game progressed, Maggie began to relax. It was sometimes difficult to gauge the kind of mood Tilda was in as her moods could change on a dime, but so far she was being cooperative and accommodating.
And then Leon decided that he wanted to play.
Tilda and Maggie ran down the hallway and then skidded to a halt. Leon Fairchild blocked their path.
“You two sound like you’re having fun,” he said petulantly and crossed his arms. Leon’s lips twisted into a pout. Defensive, Tilda mirrored her brother’s expression and stance.
“What do you want Leon?”
“I’m bored,” was his haughty response. Tilda pursed her lips thoughtfully.
“You can play with us,” she said, “but only if you’re the nasty dragon that tries to kidnap us and dies in the end.”
Leon grinned. “I think I can work with that.”
A knot of foreboding settled in the pit of Maggie’s stomach. Leon Fairchild in the role of a fire-breathing dragon could easily lead to trouble. The mischievous gleam in his eyes sent a chill like ice water trickling down her spine.
“And I think,” he went on, circling the girls, “that I will start by…” Leon darted forward, reaching for Maggie, “kidnapping the peasant!”
Everything happened in the time it took her to blink.
Small, strong hands shoved her out of the way before Leon could touch her. Her world tilted, and she stumbled sideways to stop her fall. But when Leon had circled them, Maggie had moved as well, not wanting to leave her back unguarded. Now the stairwell was behind her. Her body’s feeble attempt to stay upright was not enough to counteract the momentum of Tilda’s push, and Maggie was sent tumbling down the stairs head over heels.
She reached the bottom of the stairwell, hitting the back of her head against the wall. Dizziness and sharp pain surrounded her. Maggie squeezed her watering eyes shut and clutched her right leg. In the background, she heard Tilda whining at her brother.
“Leon! You’re supposed to kidnap the princess not the peasant! You spoil everything!”
Maggie, curled on the landing, put her palms on the floor and pushed her body up. Pain radiated from her ankle, sending shooting bursts of agony up her leg. She gasped, abandoning her efforts to sit up, and slumped against the floor again.
“You are so dramatic, Tilda,” Leon scoffed. The next thing Maggie felt was a gentle hand on her shoulder and Tilda shaking her.
“Come on, Maggie. We don’t have to play with him.” The movement jostled her injured ankle, and she whimpered. The faery girl backed away, staring at Maggie curiously, just now realizing that something was wrong. “Wait here,” she instructed. If her leg had not hurt so badly, Maggie would have laughed. There was no way she was going anywhere anytime soon.
Maggie lay on the landing for what felt like hours. She could hear Tilda roving around the kitchen like a miniature tornado. She wondered how much of a mess the little girl was creating and how upset Madam Fairchild would be when she returned.
The young faery finally came bounding back and knelt beside Maggie. She held a cup of murky liquid that threatened to slosh over the sides. A bit of it spilt on Maggie’s cheek as Tilda brought the cup to her lips. She wiped her cheek, and then flexed her fingers; the liquid had made her skin sticky.
“You get hurt a lot,” Tilda explained, “so I’ve been practicing.” She brushed the cup against Maggie’s lips. “I can’t heal anything yet. Papa says that’s for adults, but he showed me how to make pain go away.”
Maggie’s gaze switched between the hazy liquid and hopeful look on Tilda’s face. She was skeptical of the girl’s magical skills, but the twinge in her ankle was insistent enough that she was willing to try. She also did not want to injure Tilda’s feelings.
With some hesitance, she took a sip. The liquid tasted strongly of mint, bitter oranges, and something else that she failed to identify. At first, Maggie coughed violently but managed to swallow. She wasn’t sure if she felt any better, but she certainly did not feel any worse, so she took another larger sip.
Once she had drained half the glass, she could not make herself drink another drop of the noxious concoction.
“Do you feel better?” Tilda asked.
Maggie shrugged. “A little.” The pain had lessened, but her ankle was continuously swelling, becoming mottled with bruises. “Do you know when your mother and father will be home?”
Tilda shook her head. With a wistful sigh, she dropped her chin into her hand. “And we were having so much fun,” she said forlornly. Suddenly, her eyes lit up as an idea came to her. “Maybe Leon could heal you!”
The thought of Leon healing her made her break out in a sweat and her mouth go dry. “I don’t think so,” Maggie squeaked and prayed that Tilda would drop the issue.
When it was clear that running about the house was no longer an option, Tilda reluctantly assisted Maggie to a stiff chair in the parlor. Maggie asked politely if she would pull up another chair so she could elevate her ankle. Tilda’s eyes widened when she caught sight of the bruised and swollen appendage.
“Is your foot going to fall off?” she questioned innocently. Maggie gulped and wiped the tears from her eyes. A mental image of Leon taking a rusty saw to her leg assaulted her mind. The blood rushed from her face, and Maggie wrapped her arms around herself. What if her foot was irreparably damaged? It was a horrid eyesore at the moment.
A knock at the front door startled both girls. Tilda bit her lip anxiously. She and Maggie exchanged looks of uncertainty. The Fairchilds were not expecting visitors today. Should they answer the door, or pretend that no one was home?
The decision was taken out of their hands as Leon slid down the banister and raced to answer door. “I’ll see who it is,” Tilda whispered to her. Maggie started to protest, telling her to stay, but the faery was a blur of motion as she flew from the room.
Maggie was left to sit and wait, sweaty palms gripping the arms of the chair and trying to calm her nerves that were becoming more frazzled the longer she heard the distant voice of Leon and a stranger conversing in the foyer. Then Tilda’s pure, sweet voice beckoned the stranger to follow her. Heavy footsteps in the hallway accompanied Tilda’s pleasant chatter.
Maggie’s heart thundered in her chest. The voices and footsteps were getting closer to the parlor. Where could she hide? She could not go far on only one leg. Tilda entered the parlor leading the stranger by the hand. Maggie held her breath in anticipation and closed her eyes.
“Maggie,” Tilda chirped. “The elf man is here to fix your foot!” Maggie’s eyes popped open at the absurdity of that statement. The elf man?
There was an old man with Tilda, but he looked like an ordinary human being. He crouched beside Maggie’s chair to examine her foot. He ran a calloused, feather-light fingertip where her anklebone was, although the swelling hid it completely. She expected his hands to be cold, like the faeries’, but his touch left comforting warmth in its wake.
“Who are you?” Maggie asked softly. He looked up at her then. His closed-mouth smile was thin but not forced. He moved a strand of his white hair away from his face revealing a pointed ear.
“My apologies, dear.” He extended his hand to her. “My name is Cassius. I am an elf representative on the Board of Brothers.”
“You’re an elf?” Maggie stared at his pointed ear in disbelief.
“That is correct,” he replied kindly. “I was in the area, and a little bird told me you were injured and that there was no one here to treat you.” Sure enough, a blue jay clung to the elf’s shoulder and ruffled its feathers. “I hope you don’t mind the intrusion.” Maggie shook her head mutely and allowed Cassius to go back to his examination.
The procedure took a total of about fifteen minutes. Her ankle began to feel intensely hot approximately halfway through, but it wasn’t exactly painful. After it was over, Cassius gave her instructions to rest for an hour or two.
“It was just a simple fracture, easily repaired. But it will feel a bit tender.”
“Thank you,” Maggie said. She could not stop staring at her foot, amazed by how dramatically the swelling had reduced.
Cassius smiled at her. “Any time, love. Any time.” He patted her knee and then requested that Tilda show him the door.
The Board of Brothers, Maggie learned, was short for the Natural and Supernatural Interspecies Board of Brothers. She had gone through the books in the Fairchild home library—which was quite extensive when one took into account that magic only made it appear smaller—until she found one titled A Comprehensive History of the Natural and Supernatural United Front. According to this book, the Board of Brothers was a relatively new group consisting of representatives from both natural and supernatural races. The goal was to create an alternative to violent conflict resolution, to harmoniously coexist. The only known peoples who had been invited to join the Board and declined were lycans and faeries.
Since elves tended to be seen as a fairly neutral race, they were often employed by the Board as mediators.
When the rest of the Fairchilds returned home, the adults had been none too pleased to hear about Cassius dropping by unexpectedly. Leon and Tilda took turns recounting the story, but as soon as Madam Fairchild heard that Tilda had once again been careless enough to injure the changeling, she promptly banished the child to her room. Therefore, there was no one to refute Leon’s account when he conveniently omitted his responsibility in the incident.
He smirked when he caught Maggie glaring at him.
“Do you want to play a game with me?”
Leon’s sudden appearance caused Maggie to bite her tongue. He took great pride in being able to sneak up behind her. She nearly dropped the end of her skirt, which she held aloft to form a makeshift basket for all the dandelions she was picking.
“No,” she said and scowled at him. “I’m Tilda’s friend, not yours.”
Leon scoffed. “You’re not her friend. You are merely her pet—a house pet.”
Maggie made no reply. She held her head high, as she often saw Madam Fairchild do, and refused to look at Leon. Feeling she had thoroughly snubbed him, Maggie resumed her previous activity. Leon, however, did not take the hint.
“You are twelve years old now, correct?” Once more, she said nothing. Leon lagged a few paces behind her; he stubbornly followed as she trekked through the backyard. “In human years, that means you’re nearly grown,” he continued.
“Do you have a point?” she snapped.
“Only that you’re outgrowing Tilda.” Maggie could hear the mischievous smirk in his voice. “You and I could have fun together.”
Maggie stopped and eyed Leon. The memory of him coaxing an oriole into his open palm came to the forefront of her mind. Once it was sitting in the hand, he then latched onto the bird’s tiny feet and set fire to one of its wings. He laughed as the bird desperately tried to fly away; its fluttering wings only served to fan the flames.
“I don’t think you and I have the same idea of fun,” she said. The smile on Leon’s face melted as quickly as butter on a hot summer day. His expression darkened.
“Have it your way,” he replied evenly. He then stalked back to the house.
Three days after their unsettling conversation, the Fairchilds and Maggie took a trip to the lake. Madam and Master Fairchild reclined on the hill overlooking the beach, each with their own books ignoring each other and their offspring.
“You’re supposed to swim, Rush,” Tilda told her little brother imperiously. Rush, who was now mature enough to toddle and presumably speak, sat in the shallow water silently.
“Does he know how to swim?” Maggie wondered. She was dubious that the youngest Fairchild was yet capable of such coordination.
Tilda regarded her with an unfathomable air. She often looked at Maggie like this whenever she said something the faery thought was nonsensical or ludicrous.
“Why would he not know how to swim?”
“Well, if no one has bothered to teach him…” Maggie trailed off as it was apparent that Tilda was no less confused. “Maybe if you gave him a demonstration, he might better understand.” If only the Fairchilds had taken that approach with her.
Before the Fairchilds, Maggie hadn’t known how to swim, but she learned quickly during her first visit to the lake. Tilda, in her enthusiasm, used her superior strength to drag Maggie into the water with her. The faery hadn’t released her until the water was up to her neck.
Tilda considered Maggie’s suggestion. “I guess that could work,” she admitted. “Bring him out here, and we can show him how to swim.” She said the last three words with derision, like Rush was somehow deficient if he could not ascertain the intricacies of swimming without help.
Maggie waded into the shallows. She was hesitant to pick up the baby, as she had never done so. Glancing up casually to make sure the Fairchild parents had not suddenly decided to pay attention to their children, Maggie reached down and lifted Rush into her arms.
She wasn’t sure what to expect. Most of the time, he was so none-responsive that she thought he might just slump limply against her. So it was a small shock when Rush clung to her shoulders upon being raised out of the water.
Maggie froze. One of his cold hands squeezed the side of her throat. He smelled odd, she thought. Not like a little boy ought to smell. He didn’t carry the scent of dirt or sweat; he did not even smell like his mother. A lock of wispy, flaxen hair tickled Maggie’s nose. He smelled a bit too sweet, like fruit that was just on the verge of spoiling. It was not a horrible smell at first, but the longer it lingered in her nose, the more she caught the underlying scent of something sour.
Or perhaps she was imagining things. It was possible that his ambiguous scent was merely reflective of her own ambiguous feelings toward the child. Whatever the reason, Maggie was eager to pass Rush off to someone else.
She pushed against the lake’s resistance as the water level began to climb higher and higher up her legs. The lake, which had seemed warm moments ago, now felt chilled. Cold fingers pressed against her neck while cold toes dug into her hip. She wondered if Rush’s icy extremities were leeching the heat from her body.
She paused once the water was even with her ribs. Maggie could see Tilda lazily floating on her back only feet away. Something brushed the inside of her ankle, a rather adventurous fish she presumed. But it wasn’t a fish that ferociously latched onto her leg a moment later. Maggie had a split second to gasp and take in a measly mouthful of air before she was lost beneath the surface.
Water flooded her ears, nose, and mouth. She forced her eyes to open, but the murky lake clouded her vision as well. She felt five long fingers griping her leg, relentlessly holding her under. Panicked, Maggie lashed out, but no matter how frantically she kicked, she couldn’t shake off her attacker. Without another thought, she pulled Rush from her side and thrust him toward the surface.
Hopefully, he would rapidly get the idea of swimming. However, instead of kicking and struggling, he cleaved to her. Rush clawed at her arms, dragging himself back to her chest and tucked his head into the hollow of her throat.
Blackness was overwhelming the edges of her sight as the burning in her lungs continued to worsen. Maggie’s arms and legs were heavy and numb; she had no strength left to save herself or the youngest Fairchild. The last thing she felt was the child’s lips against her neck blowing bubbles.
It could have been minutes or hours later, but it was more likely only seconds. The dark blanket of unconsciousness retreated, and the burning in her lungs was driven away by the sweet relief of oxygen. But the oddest thing was that Maggie was not breathing. She could see and feel the water still completely surrounding her.
The second thing she noticed was that Rush had ceased blowing bubbles against her neck.
Then a hand grabbed her by the hair and gave a desperate tug. Maggie’s head broke the surface. The hand released her hair replaced by a thin arm wrapping around her shoulders, propping her up. Maggie gasped and sputtered, dispelling the water from her lungs and blinking the water out of her eyes. When she felt her knees hit rough sand, she lifted her head.
The afternoon sun beat down on her. A cool, small body lay on top of her chest, inhaling and exhaling deeply. Even though she was half drowned, Maggie’s lungs were somehow in sync with Rush’s unfluctuating inhalations. Every other breath, she felt him blow air against her throat. Whenever he did this, her chest would involuntarily expand, forcing her to cough up more lake water.
“Leon, you halfwit!” Tilda screeched.
“Don’t be so hysterical, Tilly. It was only a joke,” he sneered in response.
“You could have hurt her! Humans need more air than faeries!” Tilda’s defense caused an exhausted smile to flit across Maggie’s face. She remembered when she first explained to Tilda that most humans could only hold their breath for about a minute, as opposed to Tilda who, even at the age of seven, could hold her breath for a solid ten minutes.
“What seems to be the trouble?” Master Fairchild set his book aside and calmly surveyed his children on the beach.
“It was nothing, Father,” Leon chimed in before his little sister could say anything. “Just a misunderstanding.”
If Maggie wasn’t still so shaken from her near death experience, she would have glared at him. With Leon, it was always a misunderstanding. As it was, she needn’t have stared him down since his mother was giving him a disapproving look that would have scared anyone else into being a devout, God-fearing creature.
However, the more pressing thought on her mind was Rush. He sat up beside her and started playing in the sand as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, but Maggie knew the truth.
Rush Fairchild had saved her life.
Chilly, autumn days were not an incentive to stay indoors for Tilda Fairchild, and by extension Maggie. Tilda let loose a bark of laughter when she saw the changeling bundled in two sweaters, a winter hat, a knit scarf, and wool mittens. In stark contrast, Tilda wore one of her summer dresses and open-toed shoes.
They walked through the woods, arms linked. Every so often, Tilda extended her other hand and let her fingertips graze the tree trunks. In her wake dull, withered leaves turned vibrant green again. Maggie watched in awe as one branch even sprouted several flower buds. Tilda smiled at her friend’s unabashed delight.
“I’ve been practicing,” she said proudly. “I’ve been practicing on lilac bushes in particular, since I know you’re fond of them.”
It was moments like this that Maggie was sure Leon must have been wrong when he asserted that she was only a pet to Tilda. She did not just give Maggie food and water; she tried to meet her emotional needs as well, even if half the time Maggie had to spell out what she needed. And Tilda did not only use Maggie as her personal playmate; there were times when they just spent time together talking. Leon had to be wrong, she was positive.
“May I ask you a question?” A part of her did not want to ask, the part of her that was fearful of being mistaken. But that was precisely why she had to ask, the other part of her argued. She needed to lay her doubts to rest.
“You just did,” Tilda replied with a grin. Maggie smiled in return, but the gesture was strained.
“Why did you choose me?” she asked quietly. Tilda’s stride faltered.
“I didn’t,” she answered. Her gaze shifted from Maggie to the leaves crunching beneath her shoes. “Mother chose you.”
“But why choose anyone at all?” Maggie pressed. “Why bring a human here?”
“Why do you ask?” she said suspiciously. “Do you want to leave?” The woods became eerily silent at the accusation.
“No,” Maggie answered, taken aback. Four and a half years with the Fairchilds, and Tilda’s sudden mood shifts could still take her by surprise. “Tilda,” she said calmly, “that’s not what I said.”
“But you meant it,” Tilda snapped. Her pale hands fisted in the yellow fabric of her dress. The leaves that she had magically brought back to life a minute ago all wilted simultaneously, turning brittle and brown.
“Do you know what faeries see in words that most people miss?” Tilda stepped forward, and Maggie took a step back. She did not like how much Tilda reminded her of Leon at the moment. “Truth has a color and a scent, like sunshine and rain.”
Tilda clenched her jaw, biting the inside of her cheek. She was either angry or frightened. Maggie saw the second emotion flit across her face, but she couldn’t fathom what the faery might fear. “And lies,” said Tilda, “lies are like every kind of waste and refuse spilling out of someone’s mouth. So tell me, Maggie.” For some reason, it sounded like Tilda was pleading with her. “Do you want to leave me?”
How had this escalated? It was only a simple question. She hadn’t meant anything by it. But Tilda obviously required reassurance.
“Of course I don’t,” she replied vehemently.
In an instant, she knew she had said the wrong thing. Tilda’s blue eyes hardened, and then she turned and fled deep into the woods.
“Tilda!” Maggie called after her. What was wrong with her? Tilda was completely overreacting. And now she was upset. What if she did something reckless? What if she got hurt?
Maggie ran after Tilda, dodging branches. Walking outside, Maggie had been cold, but as she ran she began to shed layers. She dumped one of her sweaters, her hat, and her mittens by a silver maple tree, making a mental note to retrieve them later.
“Tilda, come back!” But it was no use. She had left Maggie all alone in the forest. She came to a halt, panting.
“What happened?” a familiar voice asked. With a startled gasp, she whirled. Leon sat on the ground leaning against the trunk of a willow tree. He took a loud bite out of a blood red apple, slurping the juice and raised his eyebrows at her.
“I have no idea,” she admitted. Maggie held the stitch in her side and struggled to catch her breath. “All of a sudden she became upset and ran off.”
Leon chuckled. “Typical Tilda,” he said, clucking his tongue. “I told you that you were outgrowing her.” He gracefully leapt to his feet and tossed the half-eaten apple over his shoulder.
Maggie eyed him warily as he approached. She tucked her sweaty hair behind her ears and shivered, chilled now that she was no longer running through the forest. He stopped in front of her and extended his hand.
“Don’t mind the rest of them,” said Leon. “My mother and my sister would only hold you back.” On the surface, his words were kind and sympathetic. That deceptive smile would have fooled anyone else, but Maggie knew Leon as well as she knew Tilda.
Thinking fast, she spun on her heels and sprinted in the opposite direction. If she could make it back to the house, then she would be safe. Leon had never harmed her while his parents were watching.
“Maggie!” With gut-wrenching clarity, Maggie realized that his voice was much closer than it should have been if she was putting any distance between them. A cool hand grabbed her wrist. She felt Leon’s long fingers slide across her palm, and with enhanced strength, he intertwined their fingers. He dug his feet into the earth and pulled on her arm, forcing her to come to a standstill.
Leon’s grip between her fingers tightened. Then, he squeezed and twisted.
Blinding pain ripped up her arm and exploded behind her eyes. Distantly, she heard someone scream. Maggie collapsed, pulling her right arm protectively to her chest. Unbidden tears blurred her vision, and her eyelids kept attempting to clamp down and shut out the world.
Leon’s distorted form towered over her, and it might have been her imagination, but for once he actually looked shocked by what he had done.
What had he done? There was obviously something wrong with her right hand, but she could not judge just how badly she was injured without looking at the damage. As she tried to work up the courage to look down, another wave of agonizing pain slammed into her, causing the black spots lingering at the edges of her sight to expand.
Maggie’s eyes rolled back into her head just before she fainted.
She woke to the feeling of cool fingers running through her hair soothingly.
“What happened?” Madam Fairchild hissed.
“Tilda abandoned her in the woods,” Leon replied softly. Maggie noted that he kept his own involvement a secret. With her eyes still closed, Maggie took stock of her body. There was a throbbing pain in her head, and her knees were tender where she fell. She could not feel her right hand at all.
“Well,” Madam Fairchild said caustically. “Have you figured out what the problem is?”
“No,” Master Fairchild answered his wife. “The girl’s bones are not healing properly, and I can’t see why. I’ve given her a numbing spell for the pain, but there is little else I can do.”
“What about that elf, Cassius?” Tilda’s voice sounded quiet and pitiful. The hand in her hair trembled slightly, and Maggie surmised that Tilda was the one gently stroking her head.
“Absolutely not!” spat Madam Fairchild. “That man is not welcome here. Maggie will be just fine under our care and our care alone.” Her assertive tone demanded that the discussion be done. She exited the room followed by Leon and her husband, but Tilda remained by Maggie’s side.
“This was my fault,” she sighed. “I just didn’t want you to leave me.” Her fingers continued to play with the changeling’s hair, weaving it into tiny braids. There were no more words spoken, but Maggie took this gesture for what it was. An apology.
Weeks later, she still avoided looking at it. Her right wrist now rested at an odd angle, and her three middle fingers were twisted and stiff. Her little finger had only been broken in one place, but even so she could not straighten it completely. The tip was now permanently curved like a hook. Every morning, Master Fairchild wrapped her hand in a healing poultice and gave her a numbing spell to drink to ward off the pain.
Maggie had to relearn how to do everything with her left hand. She spent hours in their personal library with a pen and paper, practicing her penmanship. It was long and arduous work; she had difficulty writing her own name. But one of the most frustrating aspects of her new disability was that she could no longer lace up her boots. Writing with her left hand was a cinch compared to tying knots one-handed.
Using her left hand did not feel natural to her. So many times, Maggie caught herself reaching to open a door only to knock her bent fingers uselessly against the handle, which usually caused hot pain to shoot up her arm.
One day, she and the Fairchild children were walking home from town. Tilda stuck close to Maggie’s side while Leon walked with Rush a few feet behind them. Usually, trips to the human town put Maggie in an excited, if a bit melancholic, mood. It reminded her that there was still an ordinary, mundane world outside the Fairchild home, but this trip was different. It was the first since her injury, and it had been a nightmare.
Adults and children alike stared at her and whispered behind her back. One store owner had refused to acknowledge her at all. He conducted business with Leon and Tilda, pretending Maggie wasn’t there.
The weather seemed to be mirroring her current feelings. The sky was overcast; rain was no longer pouring, but it had left the roads slick and muddy. Miserable and cold, Maggie pulled her coat tighter around herself. With an impotent huff, she realized that even a simple action like that was difficult without both her hands.
Maggie picked up her pace, ready to be home where no one stared at her. She imagined sitting in front of the blazing fireplace. Her hand not only ached, but it was freezing since her mittens did not fit properly on that hand. Tilda promised she would tailor the right one soon—another thing that Maggie was incapable of doing with just her left hand.
She gritted her teeth and sped up again. The more she thought about it, the angrier she became. She had forgiven Leon for many of his past transgressions, but this she was having trouble letting go of.
Disgruntled and distracted, Maggie stomped into a mud puddle and promptly slipped. Tilda was only three or four steps behind her, but she had no chance of catching Maggie without dropping their shopping bags.
Instinctively, Maggie reached out to break her fall. Her hands landed palms down in the mud. Both of her hands, all ten fingers splayed perfectly. She stared down at hands, bewildered. For five seconds, it was as if the whole ordeal was just one long, vivid nightmare.
Then, in a flash of shocking pain, her right hand snapped back, twisted and mangled once again.
“Are you all right?” Tilda asked. The boys had caught up now as well. They all seemed unconcerned by this turn of events, leading Maggie to wonder if perhaps they did not see what she had seen.
The rest of the walk home was uneventful.
There were several more similar instances over the winter. She caught herself falling while ice skating with Tilda, and she woke from a bad dream gripping the sheets tightly in both hands. Although, it wasn’t until the spring that she knew for certain that Tilda and Leon were both aware of her strange, new ability.
She and Tilda were playing up in the loft of the barn. Summer had not rolled through the countryside yet, but in the loft it was almost as hot as in the greenhouse. Maggie went to open the window, reaching out automatically with her right hand. Thankfully, she caught herself before she jammed her fingers against the wood. With an annoyed grunt, she switched to her left hand and began fiddling with the latch.
The shutter creaked as she pushed it open, allowing a crisp breeze to waft into the loft. Maggie sighed in relief, wiped the sweat from her brow, and turned away from the open window.
Tilda was blocking her path.
Maggie tried to step around her, but Tilda put her arms out to either side.
“I’m really sorry about this, Maggie,” she said. Tilda grabbed her left wrist and gently pushed, throwing off her balance. Maggie’s breath hitched as he was forced to lean out of the window.
“What are you doing?” she exclaimed. Twisting in Tilda’s grasp, the fingers on her good hand scrabbled for purchase. Maggie frowned at Tilda, attempting to look disapproving yet reasonable. “Tilda let me up.”
“I’ve seen your right hand do things ever since Father started soaking it in magic every morning,” she said excitedly. “It always happens when you’re about to be hurt.”
“Yes, fine. You’re right,” Maggie said breathlessly. “But I have no control over it. I can’t show you.”
“What if I dropped you?” Tilda loosened her grip. “I bet your right hand would fix itself to save you.”
“Yes,” she agreed calmly. “I bet it would. But we don’t know for certain, so please let me up, Tilda.” With a disappointed frown, the faery girl stepped back, pulling Maggie into an upright position so she was no longer leaning out the window.
“I just wanted to see if you could do it again,” she said, pouting slightly. “I wasn’t going to drop you.” Maggie nodded and took a steadying breath. The idea that Tilda would intentionally cause her harm was absurd. As dim as Tilda could sometimes be, even she knew better than to toss her much more fragile friend out the loft window.
“That’s the problem.”
Leon’s voice seemed to come out of nowhere. Dread coiled in Maggie’s gut, an agitated snake getting ready to strike. Leon hoisted his body the rest of the way into the loft and sauntered over to the girls.
“This newfound ability appears to be triggered by a fearful instinct,” he observed.
Maggie felt her mouth go dry as he invaded her personal space.
“It didn’t work,” he said to Tilda, “because she knew you would never let her fall. I, on the other hand…” Suddenly he was crowding Maggie, shoving her toward the open window once more. His grip on her was considerably stronger than Tilda’s.
“Leon!” his sister yelled, but he paid her no mind.
Unlike when Tilda had pushed her halfway out the window, Leon kicked at her toes until her shoes lost all purchase with the floorboards. He dangled Maggie out of the window completely. The only thing keeping her from plummeting to the ground below was his hold on her left arm, which was starting to burn from being wrenched about. She frantically kicked her legs, but her feet touched nothing but air. Her breaths started coming in shallow gasps. She desperately clung to Leon’s coat sleeve with her left hand, but she could feel his bruising grip beginning to release her.
“Untwist your hand,” he threatened calmly, “or I will drop you.” And unlike Tilda, he did not phrase his threat in the form of a question. Leon was serious. “You could take your chances,” he went on. “A fall from this height wouldn’t kill you, unless of course you break your neck. That would be unfortunate.” A wave of nervous energy surged through her body, and without any conscious command from her, she felt her injured wrist and fingers pop back into their rightful places.
“There, see?” Maggie’s voice came out in a panicked whisper. “I did it! Now pull me up!”
But Leon did not move. He stood over her, still as a statue with only the breeze ruffling his light brown hair. Maggie felt tears stream down her cheeks and a cold sweat trickle down her spine. “Leon,” she stared up at him in dismay. “I did what you told me to do!” she cried. His blue eyes stared at her with no more warmth than ice. He looked down like he expected himself to feel some sort of emotion toward her, and yet he did not.
“Stop being mean, Leon!” Tilda tugged at her brother’s coat. “I’ll tell Mother what you did, and you can’t stop me this time!” That snagged his attention. Leon glared over his shoulder as Tilda darted to the other side of the loft and began to climb down the ladder.
For one blood-curdling moment, Maggie thought that he would let her fall in his haste to catch Tilda. Instead, he hauled her effortlessly back into the loft and sent her body skidding across the splintered floorboards. He then tore off after his sister, leaving Maggie alone to nurse her aching shoulder and scraped knees.
She sat there dazed, unable to make herself move. She could feel her thundering heartbeat shaking her entire body. How many times had Leon nearly killed her? Theoretically, this time was no different from the others, but it somehow felt more real. Whereas before, he had merely intended to frighten her, this time he meant to follow through. One moment of hesitation on his part had been the only thing that saved her.
Maggie’s watery eyes slowly drifted down to her hand. It was mangled again, now that she was no longer in any physical danger, and it throbbed fiercely. Combined with the burning in her shoulder and knees, they fueled the previously small flame of anger and resentment. A stark realization hit her. If she continued as she was, fending Leon off only after he attacked, then one day he would take her life. There had to be some way to go on the offensive. She just didn’t know how.
Years later—but before Tessa, Charise, and Kane were born—Maggie finally found a way to strike back at Leon. She was now about forty-eight years old she thought, but she knew that she looked younger than most humans her age. Maggie had stopped noticing changes in her body when she was seventeen, and had apparently not aged much since.
In that time, Master and Madam Fairchild found a hobby for Leon in an attempt to curtail his inclination for tormenting Maggie.
The Fairchild parents and Leon had taken more human children—older children though, teenagers—and cursed them to be changelings the same way they cursed Maggie. They fed these new changelings enchanted food and water.
Maggie had done her research on magical curses, since she often had more free time than she knew what to do with. Food from the table of the Fair Folk was a relatively simple curse as far as curses went, but it was one of the most devastating and almost impossible to break. It was a cyclical curse. The changelings had to continue eating the enchanted food or else the curse would kill them; and the enchanted food only strengthened the curse’s hold. This was something that many of the new changelings discovered the hard way. Eventually, the surviving changelings received the message: stay with the Fairchilds and you will live. Run away and you will starve.
Leon and Rush, now fully grown, trained these new changelings to fight each other. And even though this sport sickened Maggie, it kept Leon so busy that he rarely had time to play cat and mouse with her. Unfortunately, there were occasions when Leon’s hands were idle, and then he fell back on the old habit.
Maggie was in the garden, pulling weeds and removing troublesome stones. She had been assisting Tilda and Madam Fairchild, but mother and daughter had moved on to work in the greenhouse ten minutes ago, assuring Maggie they needed no help if she would just finish her work in the garden. At some point after they left, Leon wandered outside and sat on the porch with a glass of lemonade.
“Maggie, Maggie quite contrary. How does your garden grow?” he chanted the nursery rhyme, modifying it for her. “With razorblades and poor charades and twisted fingers all lined in a row.”
This had gone on for fifteen minutes, and he showed no signs of growing bored. Letting her temper fly and shouting at him would do no good. An event from earlier in the week suddenly resurfaced in her memory.
Maggie was sitting in the home library practicing her left-handed penmanship—which had improved considerably over the years—but she had allowed herself to be distracted by a deck of playing cards. She was on her fifth game of Solitaire, when a familiar face entered the room.
“How is my favorite changeling?” asked Darrius. Darrius was the only son of the elf Cassius. He had taken his father’s place on the Board of Brothers after the older elf’s retirement. Since then, he had made numerous visits to the Fairchild residence, much to Madam Fairchild’s vexation. Maggie had to admit that there were times when she found him grating as well.
Darrius always had a ready smile at hand. He was also constantly trying to win Maggie’s approval.
“Have you found a way to fix my hand yet?” she asked brusquely. Darrius’ smile faded a bit.
“Not without re-breaking the bones and then setting them properly this time. But they have been reinforced with so much magic over so many years that I’m not sure I could even do that.” His tone was apologetic. He had explained to Master Fairchild after his first examination of her old injury that healing magic, when applied to humans, did not automatically realign the broken bones like it would in many other creatures. Human bones needed to be set manually.
“In that case,” Maggie said dismissively, “I don’t believe we have anything to discuss.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Darrius said pleasantly and sat in the chair across from her. “Historically speaking, your people and my people have always been friends. Haven’t you ever heard of The Elves and the Shoemaker? Santa’s little helpers? Dentists?”
Maggie looked up at him and saw laughter in his brown eyes.
“Are you telling me that all dentists are elves?”
“Of course not,” he replied. “But all elves are most certainly dentists.” He paused, but Maggie didn’t laugh. “I guess you didn’t see the NBC Christmas special last December.”
“Don’t let that stoic face fool you. She saw it.” Rush came into the library and sat beside Darrius. “Maggie had her sense of humor surgically removed long before 1965.”
She rolled her eyes. “I have been dealing with Leon all week. He’s had nothing to do recently, and so he’s taken to terrorizing me just like old times.” Darrius pursed his lips into a thin, sympathetic line.
“I wish I could do more to make your life easier, but faeries are not under our authority. Humans are technically protected by the Board, but there are people who debate whether changelings can still be classified as human. It’s not fair, but my hands are tied.”
Rush scoffed. “Maggie doesn’t need protection from Leon. She just needs to beat him at his own game for once.”
“You think I haven’t tried?” Maggie laughed dryly. “I can’t beat Leon.”
Rush nodded in agreement. “Not by playing fair, you can’t.”
Darrius frowned. “I’m not sure I like where this is going.”
Maggie gestured for the elf to shush, her eyes fixed on the faery next to him. Rush grinned. “When you play with faeries, cheating is a part of the game. It’s only against the rules if you get caught.”
His words lingered in her mind. Cheating is a part of the game. If she wanted to put Leon in his place, really knock him down a peg, she would not be able to do that by playing nice. A large rock by the red pepper plants jabbed the sole of her foot, giving Maggie an idea. She crouched low to the ground and dug the stone out of the soil with her good hand. It was cool and moist in her grasp, but most importantly it was heavy.
Maggie felt like a spider that had been biding its time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike, and this was it. The only other person nearby was Rush who was reading under a crabapple tree. But soon, if this went according to plan, everyone would see what a brute Leon was by catching him in the act. She let all the years of anger well up inside her. She thought of all the times Leon had gotten away with hurting her with only a slap on the wrist. She thought of the normal, ordinary life that she should have had—the life that was stolen from her.
Then she lifted the rock and hit herself on the forehead as hard as she could.
The first blow was jarring. Her eyes snapped shut, squeezing out a few tears. Maggie clenched her teeth, trying to block out the way her body swayed dizzily. The second blow broke the skin bordering her forehead and scalp. Warm blood gushed from the wound, pouring into her eye and dripping steadily off the tip of her nose. Leon sat up straighter.
“What are you doing?” He sounded confused, but Maggie didn’t answer him.
The third blow was so painful that she saw black stars dancing in her field of vision. Her arm was unbearably heavy, and her head felt like it was an eggshell about to crack open, but nonetheless she lifted her shaky arm a fourth time and let the rock fall against her skull again.
“Hey!” Leon shouted. She saw him jump up from his chair when she lifted her arm another time to bash the stone against her head. In an instant, he was at her side. “Stop it! Are you insane?” Leon grabbed her arm, physically restraining her. His other hand wrenched the stone from her grasp. As soon as he confiscated the rock, Maggie screamed at the top of her lungs. Rush looked up from his book, startled.
“Please stop!” Maggie begged, sobbing loudly. Leon froze, puzzled by her behavior. Within seconds, her caterwauling brought Madam Fairchild and Tilda out of the greenhouse and Master Fairchild out onto the porch. Realization dawned on Leon’s face. He released her wrist and the rock like he had just laid both hands on a piping hot stovetop.
“Leon,” Master Fairchild sighed and rubbed his eyes.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” Leon insisted. Tilda narrowed her eyes at him and marched over to examine Maggie’s head.
“Then what did happen, Leon?” she spat sarcastically. “Did Maggie hit herself in the head?”
“Oh, Leon.” Rush chided his brother, but Maggie saw a twinkle in his eyes that made her think he’d seen the entire incident. Leon ignored his brother and turned imploring eyes to his parents.
“Listen to me. You know I’m telling the truth.” Before his mother or father had a chance to respond, Rush chimed in again.
“Any skilled rhetorician can manipulate the truth, as you have demonstrated on multiple occasions.”
“Come inside,” Tilda said to her. She helped her to stand lending a supporting arm around Maggie’s waist. “We can patch you up in the kitchen.” Maggie leaned heavily on the faery. A fuzzy quality blurred the edges of her vision, so she could not be sure, but she thought she saw Rush wink at her as she passed him.
Annabelle was the next human to join the changeling ranks. Unlike the changelings that had been dubbed Pit Fighters, Annabelle was granted the title of companion like Maggie, a House Pet as they were called by the Fighters.
Since Annabelle was the only other changeling besides Maggie who was allowed inside the farmhouse, Maggie made a habit of studying the other girl. After the shock of being kidnapped wore off, Annabelle still seemed strangely enamored with Leon. Leon played along, smiling at the girl and whispering in her ear, but Maggie was too old to be fooled by him. Leon Fairchild was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, except poor Annabelle just couldn’t see him that way.
She didn’t often speak to the other faeries or changelings. Annabelle spent most of her time with Leon or pestering Maggie to drive her into town. Although she was oddly drawn to Leon, Annabelle seemed appropriately unnerved by the rest of the Fairchild clan, Rush and Madam Fairchild in particular. She was so wary of the others in fact, that Maggie once caught her stealing a small pistol from Master Fairchild’s firearm collection. The other girl stashed it under her mattress. Maggie was slightly impressed. It was a decent gun to steal, since it was small enough that its absence would probably go unnoticed by the family patriarch.
When the Fairchilds eventually allowed Annabelle to attend high school again, it became clear to Maggie that Leon was still sore over the rock-in-the-garden incident. In the company of humans, Annabelle glared at Maggie and gave her the cold shoulder. She could only imagine the sort of things Leon was telling his girl about her fellow House Pet.
Annabelle’s standoffish attitude soon became irksome. One day when Maggie was feeling especially annoyed with her general circumstances in life—her hand throbbed, her head ached, and she had to listen to Anna moon over Leon for six hours at an insufferable high school—she finally gave in to the temptation to do something that she wasn’t proud of.
She approached Annabelle that evening in their shared basement quarters. The other girl lazed on her bed, flipping through a magazine of little substance, leaving her homework untouched on the bedside table. Because really, what was the point of doing it unless you were completely bored out of your mind?
“Here.” Maggie extended her closed fist to the girl. Annabelle eyed her suspiciously. Maggie opened her hand, palm up. “A peace offering.”
“What is it?” Annabelle asked, lowering her magazine.
“It’s a bullet,” Maggie answered and deposited it on the bedspread next to Anna. “Or didn’t you know that the pistol you stole is not loaded?” Annabelle picked up the bullet and looked at it closely.
“How is one bullet supposed to do me any good?” she criticized.
“Well unless you decide to shoot yourself in the chest, I imagine one will do the trick.” It took a moment for the implication to sink in. When it did, Annabelle gaped at her.
“The gun is for self-defense!” she snapped. Her jaw worked soundlessly for a few seconds as she glared at Maggie with incredulity. “Why would you think that I want to kill myself?”
Maggie shrugged, channeling Rush at his most blasé. “I don’t know. You look like the type?”
Without another word, Annabelle tossed the magazine aside, stalked out of the room, and marched up the stairs presumably to go complain to Leon.
The next day, Maggie began to reap what she had sowed.
In previous years, Maggie was ostracized by humans because of her hand. People avoided her and were at times unintentionally rude or occasionally violent, but all of a sudden she began to hear nicknames being whispered in the halls or scrawled on her possessions. Gimp and Captain Hook were two of the more innocuous ones. Stories started circulating too; humiliating stories about how Maggie came by her deformity.
After enduring three days of this, Maggie managed to corner Annabelle in one of the bathrooms at school.
“I want to apologize,” she said before Annabelle could shove her makeup back in her purse and race out of the room. Based upon the dumbfounded look on her face, this was not the confrontation she had been expecting. Maggie took a deep breath and continued. “I was having a bad day, and I took my frustrations out on you. I had no right to say what I did.”
“Don’t say you’re sorry just because everyone’s making fun of you now.” Annabelle snapped coolly. She turned back to the mirror and dabbed at her lashes with a mascara wand.
Maggie omitted the fact that kids had been horrible to her long before now—Annabelle had only escalated things by adding jeering taunts and malicious names to the mix—and shook her head. “That’s not why I’m saying it.” Annabelle didn’t turn around again, but she did pause and regard Maggie’s reflection. “It really hurts when people you barely know say cruel things about you behind your back,” she admitted. “But it probably hurts even more when someone you barely know says cruel things right to your face. So, I am sorry.”
She didn’t expect Annabelle to forgive her or even accept her apology. Having done what she had set out to do, Maggie tucked her bad hand into the loose pocket of her sweatshirt and moved to exit the bathroom.
“Wait,” Anna said quietly. She was still facing the mirror, but now her gaze was focused on the sink. “I started those rumors.” The words tumbled from her lips rapidly, like she was afraid that they would crawl back into her mouth if she didn’t get them all out at once.
Maggie chuckled and scratched the back of her neck. “Yeah,” she replied, “I know.” Annabelle’s blue eyes cautiously met her green ones in the mirror.
“Do you want to take back your apology?”
A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Nope, you can keep it.” Then Maggie added, “And let me know if you need any more bullets.”