There were no happily ever afters. If anyone turned out to be a long-lost princess, a budding sorceress, a chosen one of some kind it should have been her. She lived in a mountainous area that filled with mist if anyone so much as thought 'rain,' she knew how to spin and weave and all those traditional skills that were supposed to get you bespelled into a fairy coma. She knew how to ride horses. She even had three years of archery under her belt, one of fencing. She'd prepared all her short life to be whisked away to a magic land where everything would be all right again and adventures would always end with everyone home safely.
When the adventure finally came it was over in a night, it involved her scratching her nails till they were raw and broken on stone walls and floors, skinning her knees, going hungry for an entire day, and getting so mad her face flamed up in that awkward, pre-tears way. With puffy eyes and cheeks and an urge to kick a guy in the balls, paired off with the shameful feeling that she was overreacting. Unbearable smugness is not an offense punishable by violence, she heard her mother say. Which might be true, but she never got points for resisting the urge to punch someone.
She got back safely, and in the final confrontation decided that kicking him in the balls was an overreaction. But if there was a proper gesture for ew gross get away from me combined with why can't you be a normal boy and ask me to a movie like the rest of them, she didn't know it. She wanted him to be just as hurt and frustrated and confused as she was, though she knew it was unfair and felt guilty afterwards for that, too.
And then nothing happened. Anti-climax. Everyone was safe and her parents were none the wiser, and all she had to think about was next year's college applications and the English test that Monday. Normal, except that she still pulled feathers out of her mouth some mornings. Saturday afternoons where she used to think about going to the movies by herself she now sat at her vanity, twirling a feather that started from gold and faded into a soft puff of white.
The school bus dropped her off where it picked her up; at the foot of the hill with a long march up to her house. It was a safe neighborhood, it wasn't that her parents didn't trust her, it was more that she didn't trust herself with the tree shadows reaching out for her ankles, the leaves whirling up to her fingertips. Every time she heard birds taking off out of the trees she looked around. Noisy buggers.
"You all suck!" she turned and screamed at the empty street, the blue jays and cardinals evacuating the bushes at the sound of her voice. She hadn't meant them. Okay, yes she had. Them too.
And then she was at her front door, stomping through and out of the rain, locking it behind her. It should have made her feel safe, but after being abducted from her bedroom for late night adventures in other worlds, it was hard to feel safe anywhere anymore.
Out of spite and belligerence she'd worked to fix that. Now she had all her protections up, her friends facing outwards at the windows and the door. The mirrors on her vanity were covered unless she needed to use them. The white banners up along the edges of the ceilings did their work. She'd read every book she could get her hands on about magic, or magick, depending on which publishing house you looked at. She knew how to defend herself now.
She shucked off her shoes and crawled onto her bed, tucking her feet under the folded blanket at the foot. Homework before dinner, dinner before books. Books would soothe her to sleep, stories of people who went through hard times but came out alive and on top of things in the end, and most importantly had their lives together. Hers had fallen apart.
Summer vacation meant she could stay out at the stables where her family boarded their horses till after dark, as long as she could get a ride back with someone. Jude had her license but no car of her own and her parents weren't sanguine about her ability to navigate the curvy roads in the dark, especially as distracted as she'd been since the incident. It was a flat-out miracle that she got her driver's license at all, and the next day she scraped the undercarriage of her mom's suburban driving it into a shallow ditch. They'd given her the cost of the tow to get it out, but from then on she wasn't driving either of their cars without an adult present. She could get a job and save up for her own car.
That conversation led to a threat of keeping a horse in their backyard and riding it alongside the freeways when she needed to go somewhere. But it was so absurd they hadn't believed her, though at least they hadn't laughed, and she'd stomped upstairs to her room in disgust. With herself more than anything.
Tonight she had a ride; the stable bookkeeper or whatever his official title was had decided to stay over in order to clear out the month's accounts, and all she had to do was knock on his door and let him know when she wanted to leave. So she called her parents, stole a burrito from the stable fridge, and went into the tack room to get her horse's saddle. She hauled pad and saddle with bridle draped over it down from the oversized peg, puffing feathers out of her mouth as she staggered.
Always with the damn feathers. Was somebody's saddlepad or overnighting pillow stuffed with them? Had there been a horrible bedding item accident here that nobody had told her about? They might be escaping from somebody's left-over coat, the horses did chew on the arms. It was more possible here, with down jackets and fancy saddle pads. She preferred not to think about the unmistakeable meaning of waking up with feathers in her mouth when all her pillows were polyester. At this point he could be standing there with a wind machine behind him blowing them into her face and she'd wonder aloud who'd opened up a featherbed factory.
"You suck and I'm not coming back," she said to a stable half full of horses, just in case he was lurking in there. One barn cat, a nest of sparrows, the horses, and a lost and possibly drunk blue jay heard her. He did not. "Stupid jerkface."
Jude had to modulate her swearing; the bookkeeper was elderly but in stark contradiction with every other old guy she knew, somehow had the vulgar capacity of a mouse. He always gave her shocked and rebuking looks when she swore. When she'd realized what was going on, when she'd had her little adventure, she'd cussed a blue streak right to the bastard's face and he hadn't blinked an eye.
Her horse, Apple Pucker, was an easy-gaited horse who used to be on the show circuit with her mother, back in the day. She also was prone to starting before her rider had got her leg fully over the saddle.
"Stupid fucking horse!" she yelped, getting her other foot in the stirrup quickly and her hands on the reins before she slid off. By the time she thought about the old man's poor sensibilities she was already out of the barn and walking around the first ring, down to the trails.
Pucker slowed down once she got past the ring and the familiar territory of the stable grounds. Around and down to this corner of the stable was all park land and conservationists, she was allowed to ride there so long as she didn't go wild and start chopping trees down or pulling up all the plants. She kept Pucker to a trot at most, not knowing where the dead roots or gopher holes were, but riding along the trails helped clear her mind.
She and Pucker were both nodding off when she realized they were off the trail, too. Not heading back to the barn, they were going in the completely wrong direction, the moon was on the wrong side. Years ago, she would have assumed they were lost. Years ago she would have been with her mother, a flashlight, and a compass.
"Hey, you jackass," she screamed to the unfamiliar sky. "This isn't funny anymore!" Pucker didn't think it was funny anymore, either. She bolted.
After the next moments she couldn't think how it started and had no idea where she was going. The sounds of branches breaking and hooves pounding were lost on her. She knew to keep herself facing front and leaning forward, but beyond that it blurred. The horse knew to keep from running into things. She wanted to stop running away.
After the second or third downed tree, which Pucker nearly unseated her jumping over it, she managed to pull the damn horse up to a jouncing trot, then to a walk. And now she had even less of an idea where she was. She'd saddled her poor horse with the intent of getting lost on the mountain, and now she was. Not for long, with any luck. When she didn't come home by midnight her parents would call the police, they'd get searchers out, or someone would be wandering around with a flashlight. Something she could see, rather than hear, with the way sound echoed out here. But for now she was really damn lost.
"I'm sorry if I scared you," she apologized to her horse as she slid off, patting its lathered neck. Pucker had run hard enough that she was sweating all over. Not hard enough, Jude noticed gratefully, that her breathing was labored. So the stupid thing hadn't managed to kill them both yet, and that was something. "When we go back we'll go slower, yes? Assuming we can find our way back..."
The horse said nothing, lowering its head to crop grass.
Jude sighed, looked up and around to see if she could recognize any landmarks, find any kind of a beaten path. Or an unbeaten path. A goat track. People had goats around here, they would go wandering, eat people's bushes or front door mats or trash bags. If she was near any of the farms there should be a path back to civilization and home, shouldn't there?
As the sun lowered itself onto the mountain she realized it hadn't been the smartest idea to go tearing out of the barn without a blanket or a bite to eat or anything. "At least you can eat grass," she told her horse, who went on ignoring her. "Stupid horse." She could wrap herself up in the saddlepad, but that wouldn't go very far around her shoulders. Maybe if she curled up under it. The important thing to do when you were lost, especially out here, was to stay put. She'd be out here all night.
Half a lean-to later she was out of the wind but was too distracted by hunger to want to finish it, and she ended up sitting with her arms around her knees and her back against the rough side of a tree, rubbing her arms to keep warm.
The blanket that fell on top of her was both unexpected and too heavy for her to react to that surprise. She froze underneath it, waiting for some sort of explanation. After a second to get used to it she wasn't sure it was a blanket at all. Which demanded even more explanation.
"You're a tiny thing to be out so late with a horse for company."
The voice was hoarse and shrill all at once, and she couldn't tell if it belonged to a man or a woman. It made her not want to peek out of the whatever it was that had been dropped on her. She wrapped her hands around the edge and felt the outside of it. It felt like feathers just plucked from the chicken, with bone and down and everything still attached. And the inside felt like soft leather. She thought of stories about selkies and pulling off their skins and decided not to think about it anymore. At least the feathers were too big to push her over that last precarious edge. Too long, wrong shape, wrong texture. She decided that and then put it out of her mind before she could focus on how she knew what his feathers felt like.
"Thank you," she managed to say, because manners were important when you were talking to fairies. She'd learned that one good and hard. She'd also learned that their idea of manners was different from humans', and remembered it too late. Maybe he, if it was a he, would take pity on her because she was from the uncultured mortal world.
The owner of the voice was behind her and the tree now. "And what are you doing out here in the woods at night?" it asked again.
She climbed to her feet and tried to circle round the tree. "It wasn't night when I came out." She thought this was a reasonable argument.
"But you haven't gone back. Surely you know the way home." It wasn't on the other side of the tree, whoever he was, or she. The voice no longer sounded so much like a man's. "Or are you lost?"
"I'm not lost," she told her. Him. Too quickly, but she wasn't lost. She was out in the park land, most likely, in a national forest, she couldn't have gone that far. So she was probably up the parkway some. Big deal. All she had to do to get back home was find which way the sun was moving and pick her point east by that, and keep going. She'd hit the highway or the river sooner or later. "I'm just..."
"Out of doors when you shouldn't be. Disobedient. Unruly."
Cold fear tightened her throat. The free folk took away disobedient children, that's what she'd already heard, and her encounter a couple years ago seemed to prove it. She hadn't been running away from home exactly, she'd been catching some bit of freedom outside of home in an allowed manner. The horse had run away from her, and it wasn't her fault. "I am not. I went out for a ride. This is my own horse, I didn't steal her."
It came around the corner now, and she saw that it was a man, but without his cloak he looked stick-thin and had a pointy face. He was dressed in half-cured leathers that looked like they had been snatched off the stretching racks and stitched together with bare sinew. He still had gray-black down shed from his cloak dripping from his neck and shoulders, and his feet were bare and covered in scars and fresh scratches.
"I know that," he told her.
She wondered how much he knew. "Then why did you ask?"
"I didn't ask."
No, he hadn't. She took a couple of steps towards him, wanting to give back the cloak except the night was even colder now that it was full dark, and the cloak of feathers and skin was the only thing keeping her warm. "What do you want?"
"To meet the girl who got away." His arms had been wrapped around his waist as though they were bound there, but now he freed one hand to catch her chin and tilt up her head so he could look into her eyes. She shouldn't have stepped close. She wanted to pull away, but his fingers ended in talons and she was afraid they would cut her deep if she moved. "Why are you out here?"
She was too scared to lie to one of the free folk of the woods. "I hate being inside," she babbled, her lower face caged by the owl-man's claws. "I hate going to school, after what he did to me, what he put us through, it's all boring. I don't get to see my friends anymore, because he said so. They're my friends, not his." She stopped because the owl-man was laughing at her. "It's not funny!"
"Of course your life was the very pinnacle of excitement and interest before you were so challenged."
She thought about all those hours spent daydreaming, all those hours wasted on homework or waiting for other students to figure out what a single file was. Lectures on English grammar. Minding her manners for endless boing holiday dinners with her grandparents. She pulled the cloak tighter around her again. "It doesn't matter. I beat him. I'm free."
"Yes," the owl-man agreed. "Which is why he is asking for your help instead of commanding."
She wasn't sure she called dragging her out here to an unknown woods and then accusing her of running away asking. But you didn't argue with the free folk. And when he looked at her all sharp points and hard edges like a picture in a book that was supposed to be only a story, she remembered that.
Something pinched the curve of her ear, till she listened. He had accused her of running away, which meant he didn't know how she came here, assuming he was sincere and not trying to scare her with that. He had then said that His Lordliness Samael needed her help. But one of the ways you became Samael's was by running away, by getting lost, all he needed to do was scoop her up and take her off to his castle. Again.
"He can't come and ask for himself, can he?" She felt slow, like she was trying to put the pieces together but either she didn't have all of them or she was too stupid to understand what she was looking at.
The bird creature looked at her like she had done something surprisingly smart. "No, he cannot. And before he disappeared he asked us to find you, if something were to happen to him. If you could best him, he guessed, you could best the one who has taken him."
Jude pulled the feather cloak over her head and put her face into her hands and didn't say anything to that patently ridiculous assertion.
"Where are we going?" She followed behind on her horse, and they should have caught up with him easily but for the way he moved through the trees. It wasn't human, this jerky swiftness that made her nauseous when she stared hard at him. Wasn't like anything she had seen outside of movies. That herky-jerky blur of motion and then he was somewhere else thing. There was a technical term for it, but she'd never been much interested in the making of movies.
He didn't seem much interested in answering her questions. She cleared her throat and asked again, more obnoxiously this time. She was a teenager, she was good at being obnoxious. "Where are we going?" And. "Doesn't this count as running away?"
"It's different," he called back to her. "You were invited."
As though that would explain everything. It didn't explain why it was different, it didn't explain why she had been invited, or by whom, since Samael was out of the picture for a while. That was her guess, otherwise he would have come for her in person and with some kind of big dramatic entrance. Especially with some kind of big dramatic entrance that involved enough sparkles and lens flares to make an 80s fantasy artist blush.
So the spindly twerp had gotten himself into some kind of trouble. So there were problems with the neighboring kingdoms, and she was the only girl smart enough to get him out again? How did that make sense?
One of those Kid in King Arthur's Court type books came floating back to her as she pictured herself, a modern teenager, dealing with the free folk and their weird ways. In the book, Lancelot had been mocked for jousting against a girl and getting beat. Was that what was going on here? The other kings or princes had found out that Samael had been beaten by a fifteen year old girl and they were taking it out on him? Did that make any kind of sense?
Maybe to them. It didn't to her. "Where are we going?" she asked for the umpteen billionth time. "And what's your name, anyway?"
The creature man thing didn't turn around and look at her, he turned around and flat out wasn't there, and in the next second he was crouched on the thicker of two branches right in front of her face, glaring at her.
Name. She'd asked for his name, and names had power. Stupid, Jude, stupid not to remember that. "I mean, what should I call you?" Always asked what he or she or it or they wanted to be called, never what their name was. That meant you were asking them to give you power over them, and only one of the free had ever done that to her. And that had been a power play, too. Not genuine. Spindly, sneaky bastard. Their first conversation he'd tricked her out of her full name by giving her one of his, knowing he had more names than her. Another thing to want to kick him for.
"You may call me Raven," he said after another minute or so of staring at her to make sure she got the message about not asking free folk for their names. Message received loud and clear, yes, sir.
Message received so loud, in fact, that she didn't say anything out loud about how that was a stupid, clichéd name for a raven creature and couldn't he pick something more interesting like Diabolus or Blackheart or whatever. She didn't say that. She certainly balled up the thought and threw it at the back of his head, though, just in case he was telepathic. If he was, she didn't see him feel it. Maybe she was just crappy at throwing telepathic missiles.
Maybe she was thinking about this to avoid thinking about the fact that they were going deeper and deeper into the woods. Apple Pucker wasn't panicking, though. Did that mean it was safe or the horse was stupid? "I'm Jude," she called up to the bird-man. He didn't stop to reply. She couldn't even tell if he'd paused in his weird hopping flitting pace. "Jude, short for Judith. Why do I bother, again?" But she kept her voice low and hoped he couldn't hear her.
"It's not much further." He darted back a little ways, to make sure she was following without delay or to reassure her? Or both, considering he was gesturing her onwards. By the end of her first tour of the kingdom she'd gotten used to reading the body language of her new friends. This guy had a completely different set of gestures.
And that wasn't what she'd asked, but now that he'd called attention to it she could see the trees starting to thin out, the grass receding into the ground and everything coated in spider webs with mushrooms growing out of the sides of trees. Even the rocks had bigger than usual lichens on them. The kind of lichen that looked like it would crumble or slime your fingers if you touched it. Up by the gates to the city there had been barely a few scrub trees, a bunch of rocks, some dirt or mud or sand that suggested water underneath but definitely no grass growing, nothing green. The green stopped abruptly, like he'd thrown up a huge bubble around his land and said all of this is mine, and to prove it I will kill everything here.
Of course she hadn't thought that until she was safe at home and thinking and drawing everything she'd seen. She was glad she hadn't thought of it until after the fact.
The sky had been orange. Purple and orange, like a vibrant sunset that never ended until she came out of the castle and it was pitch black. What color was the sky now? Dark blue in evening? No, yes, it was starting to turn purple.
The sound of Pucker's hooves on the ground changed. Judith slumped over her neck and let her plod on, following the bird-man whose name couldn't be Raven, it couldn't be that simple or that dumb. But okay, it was the simplest and easiest answer to give when it was just the two of them and she had to call him something.
"Hey, Raven." Like now. He stopped, too. So he'd answer to it even if they both thought it was silly. "Are you going to tell me what's going on before or after we pass the towering walls and big thuddy gates?" Heavy and cast-iron and probably weighed more than her Mom's car.
He looked back at her and didn't blink, then tilted his head and did. Now she knew he was playing up the bird thing to bother her, since he'd acted human when he was walking around the tree and dropping shit on her head. Though she was pretty sure ravens and crows and blue-jays did that dropping thing too. "After," he said. Then, when she pulled Pucker back and dug her heels downwards in the stirrups, he laughed. "You will be safe within the walls, I promise. On my honor as a Prince of the Air, if you wish to leave, you may."
She couldn't find a good way to object to that, knowing how seriously the free folk took their word. It was one of the reasons why running away was considered grounds to abduct kids. That and the betrayal of the caregiver being punished by the abduction, and a few other things less noble-sounding. "Okay." She had his word, that'd have to be good enough.
They reached the gates, which stood closed but unguarded. They hadn't been unguarded when Samael had first brought her here. She was surprised they weren't broken. She was surprised about a lot of things right now, none of them related to her traveling from a perfectly ordinary park in an ordinary hillbilly town to an orange-skied fairy land. There was no one at the gate, no towering spider-thin guards in black steel armor, no squat stone gargoyles, no one to greet them or guard against them. There were cobwebs everywhere on the doors and the posts along the walls, but they looked like the residents had abandoned them. The dripping water no longer dripped, and it smelled stale.
"Where did everybody go?" she whispered. She hadn't meant to whisper, it just came out that way.
The bird-man shrugged, shook his head. He sounded tired and sad. "Retreated inwards. Fled to safety, where they could find it."
"Safety...?" she asked, but she didn't want to know. Safety from what? No, better not to ask. She didn't want to know.
Everything looked smaller as she came through the door of the palace. Sure, the door was grand as ever, and the tall stone walls that formed a corridor for several feet outside of it. But once she was inside the hallway, passing the antechambers and into the throne room itself, it all looked smaller. Like she had grown a foot or so in the many months between her last visit and this one. She didn't know if that was because she'd grown up, because she'd defeated him and now his magic no longer worked on her, or if that was just a feeling she had rather than the reality. If she perceived it that way because she'd defeated him and learned he wasn't so tough after all.
Or because he was kidnapped and gone and who knew where, or killed, or worse, and now his magic no longer worked on anyone because he wasn't in a position to work it. She found that thought more disturbing than he deserved.
"Wait here," Raven told her, and she didn't argue because there wasn't anything there.
Goblins and rats and ferrets and a couple other things she couldn't identify had poked her and cavorted around her legs the last time. That was definitely the right word for it, cavorted, shaped like something out of a Renaissance book and with a good hard 'v' in the middle for sinister emphasis. The goblins had cleared out, and the rats hadn't even left dropping pellets anywhere. It smelled musty. It smelled like the bottom of a hamster cage, but nothing so much as twitched a nose under the piles of discarded armor, padding, extra bits.
Raven didn't come back soon enough for her to keep from getting bored, so she found a spear propped up in a corner and used it to start poking through the piles of stuff. She'd learned, watching movies and reading books, that you didn't poke piles with your fingers and hands when you didn't know what might be lurking in them. And a good thing too; after a couple of piles a hissing, irritated snake gave a couple of good strikes at her spear. She stopped poking after that and went and flung herself into the throne.
"Trying it on for size?" Raven asked, with the dry amusement of stuffy old men in British comedies. "We're ready for you now."
Her heart pounded too hard for her to catch her breath, let alone ask him who the 'we' was. Of course, now that she was here and in the throne she found it difficult to get out again. "That chair is hard on the ass," she muttered, hauling up from it. It was stone, like the rest of the wall and the pit in the front of the room. In fact, it looked built into the wall. Which didn't mean anything here, necessarily, but there were other things she wanted to know about it. "Has it always been there? Just that... shape? And there's no queen throne either."
Raven led her up a winding staircase into one of the protruding towers, she assumed by the archway and the direction of the stairs. But they were so narrow that when he stopped to turn and stare at her she almost fell backwards down the stairs. The only reason she didn't was because tilting backwards slammed her into the wall. The steps were skinny, too. Not enough room for her small feet. "Are you applying for the position?"
"No!" she shouted. It didn't echo as she'd expected. "What? No. Keep going," she added, grouchy. Grouchier.
He laughed to himself as he went up the stairs, continued on to the smallest landing she had ever seen. She was pretty sure she'd fall off of if the wall on the spiral staircase hadn't been so close behind her. At least the door opened inward. She wasn't sure there was room enough for the door to open and someone to stand on the landing.
Goblins, sprites, and fairies, she reminded herself. They were all smaller than a human girl, but he had been taller than she was, and would have scraped his head on this ceiling. Were they coming in the back way?
The servants' entrance, she decided, when the door closed behind them and melded seamlessly into the wall. Servants' quarters had those invisible doors to them, these were the servants' quarters for whom?
She got a good eyeful when she stepped through the door and saw the little council sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor like some mad fairy tale sleepover. The bed was canopied at the top with faded gray and a velvet roof, the same cut velvet on the curtains at the windows. She hadn't noticed those curtains in any room she'd seen before. The rug was even more worn, it looked out of place with how threadbare and shabby it was. A souvenir from home?
Which might mean this wasn't his home originally. So where had he come from? Or was this just some gift from longer ago than the bed curtains.
There was a wooden trunk at the foot of the bed with a few dents in the sides, a wardrobe, and that was all she had time to see before Raven or whoever he was tugged her to sit down at the council. "Everyone, this is Jude. Jude, this is..."
"Linden," one of them raised a hand, and another one grunted. "Pebble." And they went around the circle and introduced themselves with ordinary sounding names and ever more extraordinary appearances.