They’re not coming to get you. They don’t know where you are. Anyhow, if I’ve done this right, they’re too scared to come after me.
I’m sorry. I just had to say that. I’ve been thinking about this moment for weeks now – yes, that’s how long I’ve been planning it – thinking of what to say to you. “Don’t cry” has been in every speech.
Why aren’t you crying?
I wish the wind would stop howling. It sounds like people screaming. And when it whips the snow up like this, there’s nothing but white vagueness everywhere I turn. No way to see my father’s men coming.
Tuck your hands into your furs -- yes, that’s right. No reason for you to be cold. I’ll take care of you until... well, until we get where we’re going.
It’s not that long a journey, though these hills seem to roll on forever. It must seem long to you; your mother tells me you haven’t left the manor grounds for four years. Four years surrounded by stone and tapestries and gilded furniture... no wonder you felt safe.
But I did it in less than a month. I did it sick and hurt and confused, in a ripped and terribly impractical gown, barely knowing where I was going. Not with good clothes and provisions and a knife. I know how to use this knife, you know. I’ve been practicing for months. I started the second I stepped into my father’s house. So that when I held it to your throat and warned them to let me leave, they would believe I meant it.
You love him, don’t you? Why shouldn’t you? He’s your grandfather and he adores you. Don’t think that will stop him from using you for his interests, marrying you off to whomever he pleases. He adored your mother and me just as much.
He loved us, but he never saw us – not then, not now. He didn’t see how much I had changed in my years of being queen in that wild northern land they sent me to. How much more I had changed when I saw my husband’s murdered body, and when the duke’s soldiers tried to take my daughter away from me.
Stop looking at me like that.
Damn it, you’re only six years old! Why don’t you cry?
Do you hear that?
That was something. Wasn’t it?
Don’t you ever talk?
It’s them. They followed me.
Didn’t they believe me, when I said I would kill you if there was any pursuit?
Don’t be afraid. I won’t do it. I need you.
We’re going to hide now. This way, down the slope – follow the lines of white dust, and watch for the shiny black rocks. They’re slippery.
There are caves all over these hills, too many for them to search. And I won’t kill you, but if you make a sound, I will hurt you. I will hurt you more than you’ve ever been hurt before.
Stay back, out of the cave. I have your daughter. Do you still doubt how far I’ll go?
When did I tell you about these caves?
Of course. How grateful I was to you back then, for coming all that way to visit me, and with a newborn child no less. I told you to guard your daughter’s cradle, to keep the windows laced with witchherb. Did you listen to me?
I was sure your child had been switched. I waited to hear of her death. But no, you got to keep your child, and mine -- mine ---
Don’t be stupid, Annabel. I can’t come home and you know it.
You make me want to vomit. What you mean is that you can forgive me – which is a lie – but that doesn’t matter. I’ll never, ever forgive you.
Don’t you dare tell me how much you love her. You know I have a daughter. You know my daughter is alive. You don’t care.
Forget your own daughter, now, and see how easy you find it.
It’s a fair trade, Annabel. Even you have to admit it. You might not like it, but it’s fair.
You can speak to your mother, child. Just a few words, to let her know you’re all right. Before she lets us go.
You will let us go, Annabel. You have no choice –
Stop it -- Annabel -- I swear --
Ugh! Damn you, let go -- let go or I’ll --
Ouch! You stupid --
You’re still here?
Why are you still here when you had so many chances to run? While I fought her. While I took care of the man crouched on the black rocks behind her. You’ve been standing this entire time, next to your mother’s unconscious body, and you haven’t run?
You haven’t even touched her.
I don’t understand you. But then, I don’t understand anyone. I never thought she would attack me. It never occurred to me that she would have a knife. My sister with her coiled hair and pinched-red cheeks and gowns drowning in lace.
I suppose I underestimated her too. And that would have been the end of this, if you had run.
Do you not understand what we’re doing? Do you actually trust me? After you saw me bash your mother’s head against a jagged rock?
Speak to me!
No. No, I won’t hit you. There’s no need for that. I was just -- I’m just frustrated. I’m sorry.
Are you mute? I didn’t notice, back in the manor, whether you spoke or not. I was too wrapped up in my grief and my plans. If I had noticed, I would have assumed you were just afraid of your father.
Did you ever cry back then?
Well, don’t cry now. Now there’s no one who cares.
All right. Now’s our chance. Let’s go.
Should I let the other men see us, so they’ll come look for her? She’s only unconscious. If they bring her home, if they treat her --
But they won’t. They’ll be following my father’s orders, to capture me no matter what. Because I’m more valuable, he’ll have told them. Not because he can’t bear it that I defied him. That would be unworthy of a king.
I’m sorry, Annabel. So sorry. For everything. But you are dressed warmly enough – maybe you’ll wake up on your own, before you freeze. Maybe you’ll see your chance to run, and let them believe you’re dead.
No. I’ve been through too much for petty lies. I believe you might wake, but I know you won’t run. You’ll go back to him. To them.
You can have another baby, Annabel. It will be better that way. Because I have a feeling this child I took isn’t your daughter at all.
I’ll leave this here, for when you wake. Enough provisions for you to make it back. If you’re lucky. If I haven’t hurt you too badly.
Quietly, child. Quietly. I don’t want to have to kill anyone else.
They’re getting closer. But it won’t be long now.
It’s cold, isn’t it? It might be warmer on the main road, away from the shade and dampness of the forest; might feel friendlier, too, without these dark trees hovering over us. But the duke’s men might be watching the road. Besides, even on the main road, the sunlight is pale and weak. I wonder why you aren’t shivering, you who’ve spent all your life on the warm coast.
Nobody knows why it’s so much colder here. They say the proximity of Faerie sucks the warmth out of the land. They live with the idea of Faerie quite easily here. That was the first thing that unsettled me when I first came. They don’t spit, or walk backward, or do any of the things we do to keep the faeries from harming us. They’ve accepted that it’s of no use.
Nobody likes it, of course, when unaccompanied travelers come back aged twenty years in a day, or young men are stricken with love for faerie maidens and die because they won’t eat, or – worst of all – when healthy babies are replaced by strange sickly things that weaken and die. But they accept the risk, just as we know that sometimes boats sink and swimming children drown. They’ve learned to live with it. They’ve even learned to use it. There are sorcerers where we’re going.
You look at me so strangely. It’s as if you get stranger with every step we take.
I do believe you were switched – but that’s only because I want to believe it. If you’re a changeling, then all I’m doing is taking you home. Nothing terrible. Maybe even something good.
Why do you want to go home, though? If they sent you out, it must have been for a reason. Do they love their children, in Faerie? Do their children love them?
Finally, a reaction out of you. No use turning stone-faced now. I know what I saw.
This is why you didn’t make a sound, why you waited for me. You were afraid that they might find us and take you back.
Now I know why you’ve been so cooperative. I’ve barely paid attention, because I would have been just as docile when I was your age. But you’re different from me. More different than I knew.
How is it that you’re alive, though? I thought all changelings sickened and died. It’s said that’s why the faeries do it – because human children are healthier than their own. They need human blood to thrive.
A sorcerer at court once said Faerie is dying, and that’s why they’re switching now more than ever. But nothing anyone says about Faerie is more than a guess.
And here you are, strange but strong. Are you the exception? Did they make a mistake? Or do they switch for some other reason, something we haven’t guessed at, and do most of the babies die because they can’t adjust to the human world?
It doesn’t matter. We’re almost there.
They aren’t patrolling that carefully any more. Look at how thick the snow is – nothing but tiny forked deer tracks. It’s been six months. They don’t know where my daughter is – they can’t – and I’m sure they assume she’s dead.
She could be dead. Strange that I can say that to you, when for so long I couldn’t even say it to myself. Maybe if I had left her behind, they wouldn’t have killed her. Maybe there would have been another rebellion and she would have risen to power. Maybe she’s dead because of me.
I had no choice. There was nowhere else I could hide her, nowhere they wouldn’t have found her. I had no choice.
This is where it was. I thought I might not find my way back after so long, but now I know I’ll remember this narrow path until my dying day.
Right here. This clearing. It’s so pretty when there’s no fog, with the ferns and flowers lit by swaths of sunlight. Three young men picnicked here the year before the rebellion, and came home brooding over beautiful maidens they had seen. They all died soon afterward. It wasn’t spoken of, but everyone knew to avoid this place.
It wasn’t pretty when I came back, but it was beautiful. The higher branches of the trees gleamed like crystal, a criss-cross of diamond light. It seemed like a promise to me. Of course, I was half-mad.
I wish this fog would dissipate. How can you stand like that, with the wind swirling the snow straight into your eyes? I can feel it melting into my hair. It’s colder than ever. I’m so very cold. I don’t care. I’ll be with my daughter soon, and that’s all I –
Did you just speak, or was that the wind?
If what I heard wasn’t my imagination, then you’re right, child. You’ll be with your mother too. A fair trade all around.
They never take something for nothing, it’s said. It’s always a trade, unless a person walks in of their own free will. Of course, they interpret free will liberally. My daughter went because I told her to, and I said back then that I brought her freely, but really I had no choice.
I’m not here of my own free will, do you hear me? Not this time. I’ve brought you this girl, but it’s a trade. You can have your daughter. I want mine. That’s fair, isn’t it?
See the forms twisting in the mist? That’s them. Your people. You’re really not afraid, are you? I’m not either. I don’t even care about the cold. But it’s so very cold.
Is that my imagination? A woman and a girl. Laini?
It’s so cold.
Where are you? Don’t let go of my hand – no – wait –
There you are –
No, it’s not you. It’s – oh, gods!
Laini. Laini, you’re all right. I was so afraid. I love you so much. Hush, dear, it’s all right. Mother’s here. It’s all right, don’t cry. Everything’s going to be all right.
Don’t look at me like that. The daughter I left would never have looked at me like that. Don’t turn faerie on me. You’re all I have, and we’ll find our way out.
I should have known better than to trust the sorcerers. It was a sorcerer who betrayed your father, have I told you that yet?
Well, they were wrong about Faerie. Faerie is dying, but it doesn’t make the faeries weak. It just makes them desperate to get out, before the warmth is gone, before Faerie dies and they’re trapped here. They’re sending out their children first. Most of them die, but it’s worth it for them, because if they stay here they’ll die for sure.
I understand why they do it. I know their choice.
I hate her, that silent strange girl who wasn’t my niece at all. I thought I was using her. I thought I was bringing her, to trade for you. But all the time it was the other way around. She wanted to get her mother out, and she needed a trade.
Don’t cry, Laini – no, do. Cry. Cry. Faeries don’t cry. It means you’re not faerie yet.
We’re human, both of us. We don’t belong here. We’ll find our way out. Don’t worry, darling. I’ll get us out.
It’s so cold.
Thanks, Leah, for a great story!
You can visit Leah at her website. Her novel MISTWOOD came out last year, and the companion NIGHTSPELL comes out next week!