Coming Home” is a prequel short story introducing the characters of the Crown of Seasons world.
Two weeks ago, Abend watched helplessly as her parents were slaughtered in the chaos following the High Queen Autumn’s murder. Orphaned and on the run in a wintry mortal forest, Abend stumbled upon an ondine who promised to take her back to Faerie–but for a price. If she agreed to protect a certain faerie child with her life, then she herself would be given protection, shelter, and what’s more…a home.
But Abend had failed to prevent her parents’ death. How could she now hope to protect a girl who is prophesied to become queen? The reigning queen of this backwater realm of Faerie has plans to commit a murder of her own….
Abenddämmerung leaned back against the oak tree in the Mages’ garden and tried not to miss her parents. She pulled up her knees, curling around herself as if that could fill the aching hollow in her chest. A fortnight had passed since her parents’ murder, and the pain had yet to lessen.
She clutched the dagger the Mages had given her, bracing against the softness of moss beneath her toes. The sheath’s metal design pressed against her palms, a scrolling pattern of verbena flowers twining through holly.
If she focused on the dagger, she wouldn’t have to see the Mages’ garden around her. She wouldn’t have to notice the similarities. She wouldn’t have to ache at the differences.
Home had been a forest grove that resembled nothing of this garden’s neat rows and careful planning. Papa had guided the forest to grow anything they had ever wanted, to follow any whim, to meet any need. But as many hours as he had spent tending his comparative disarray of trees and plants, mushrooms, herbs, and flowers, he spent many more reclining on his back with his hands laced behind his head, relaxed with Mayr beside him fondly weaving crowns of moon violets and daylilies to grace his russet hair.
And now they were gone.
The night of her parents’ murder a fortnight ago—plastered in muck, splattered with wolf-giant blood, and lost in the woods of a mortal world—she had begged the ondine Rixende for help: “Take me home.”
“I will not take you home,” the ondine said. Water plashed as the ondine lifted a hand to cut off Abend’s protest. “I didn’t say I would not take you to Faerie, only that I would not take you home. From the look of you, there is no home left, and from the stains on your clothes, its location would be the first place they would search for you. Come. I will take you where you might be safe instead.” She beckoned.
Drawn inexorably closer, Abend did not remember crouching beside the river. “And in return?”
“In return, you will perform a task for me, oh slayer of wolf-giants,” the ondine said with a sharp smile.
Abend gripped the ice’s edge. “What task?”
“You will understand when you arrive.”
Abend had arrived in the midst of an unknown stream in Faerie—shivering, frightened—to find a girl waiting for her. A girl not much older than a child, really, perhaps four or five years younger than her own twelve years, with hair the color of the blood Abend had spilt and fingers as brilliantly white as the snow blanketing the wolf-giants’ castle. Fingers that were lightly furred—and extended towards her to help her out of the water. “I’m Madelgarde,” the child had said, eyes wide with a wary earnestness that—strangely—had released the knot of tension in Abend’s chest.
The task, when Madel’s father—one of the Mages whose garden this was—had described it, was to serve as companion and bodyguard to Madelgarde, who had the unfortunate burden of a prophecy that she would one day rule as queen. Naturally, the realm’s current queen and crown princess found this deeply unsettling, he had explained, and they had been trying to kill her ever since.
The Mage had not pressed Abend for details about the bloodstains on her clothes nor why the ondine had brought her to them and not to her own family. Instead, with uncannily clear, green, feline eyes, he had handed her the dagger carved with verbena and holly she now held sheathed in her hands. Keep my daughter safe. Keep her alive.
She had not voiced her greatest doubt: how could she keep Madel safe when she had failed to protect her own parents? That failure had ended in her parents’ death, but she had given the Mages her word. She had promised she would try.
Abend unsheathed the dagger and watched as the diffuse light of Faerie gleamed along the bronze surface of its blade. A dagger of protection, crafted to repel enchantments, Madel’s father had instructed. Use it wisely.
“You are daydreaming,” Madel said from where she lolled in the moss at Abend’s feet, staring up at the canopy of shifting oak leaves overhead.
“Why do your parents remain here?” Abend asked suddenly, keeping her gaze fixed on the blade’s edge and away from the sight of Madel flopped on her back with her hands behind her head. “If the queen wants to kill you, wouldn’t it be better to leave her realm? Go live where–” her throat seized “where no one wants to kill you.”
Moss and fabric whispered with Madel’s illustrative shrug. “The queen says she does not want to kill me. She sends an apology whenever her disobedient daughter tries, and promises severe punishments.”
Abend made a face and snicked the enchanted dagger back into its sheath.
“Also, my parents swore fealty to the queen before I was born. They can’t go back on their word,” Madel said solemnly.
Abend had given her own word—her oath—to the Mages that she would remain with them and guard their daughter in exchange for their shelter and protection. She knew the price; she could never go home, even if she had a home to go back to. Words given in oath were binding; they could never be undone.
The Mages’ garden with its tamed beauty, Papa’s haunting absence, the promise she made, and the certainty she had traded one unsafe realm for another all collided in her heart-mind. She stood, suddenly restless. “Are you allowed beyond the garden?”
Madel sat up eagerly. “Let me call Cor.”
Madel’s bodyguards and faithful attendants were three obsidian gargoyles: Cor, the crow, Valor, the dog, and Hemlock, the cat. Cor was off observing from the treetops, Valor was sniffing cheerfully about their perimeter, but Hemlock was lounging in the grass several paces away, ostensibly too drowsy to guard anyone. Madel had said Hemlock was clever, but beyond a shared feline kinship and an enthusiasm for presenting Madel with gifts of dead rodents, Abend had yet to see it.
A dark shape gusted air against Abend’s cheek and landed on her shoulder with a bruising crash. “Ow!” she protested, fighting a wave of panic too late for any defensive action. The obsidian crow gave a smug caw as it ruffled its glass-like feathers.
Madel laughed—then snorted when Abend turned her scowl on her. “What? Cor says he likes you.”
“Likes to torment me, you mean,” Abend said, rubbing at where the gargoyle’s stone claws burrowed into her flesh for purchase, feeling herself go hot and cold all at once. If the crow’s arrival had been a threat, Madel might already be dead.
Madel shook her head, but she was grinning—and flashing cat’s teeth. Madel had a tendency to slide towards her feline aspect whenever she spoke silently to her gargoyles. Abend thought Madel was unaware of it, but she wasn’t about to point it out. Madel had yet to fully shift in front of her. She wondered if Madel’s feline form was meant to be a secret, although she could guess what the girl might look like by the pristine white fur softening her fingers. Abend may have sworn an oath to be Madel’s bodyguard and companion, but there was a hesitation between them still, an undercurrent of wariness beneath Madel’s constant playfulness.
Abend’s own secrets were like a mountain, heavy and insurmountable; a barrier between them. But even before…before a fortnight ago,…she had been alone. Her parents had been her whole world; she hadn’t had any other friends.
If she doubted her ability to be a successful bodyguard, then she had no idea how to be a companion, oath or not.
“Cor says he will let the huntswoman know where we’re going,” Madel said breezily, seemingly oblivious to Abend’s awkward discomfort. Cor shoved off into the air, winging away.
Abend winced, rubbing at her shoulder, then extended a hand to help Madel up. As Madel’s furred fingers slid into hers, she felt a wave of dizziness, as if they had been transported back to that moment in the garden stream, where she had been blood-splattered and soaking and frightened and Madel had helped her up the bank.
“Come on,” Madel said, eyes alight with mischief. “Let’s go play in the woods!”
Stepping into the woods was a relief. The Mages’ garden was beautiful and their manoir inviting, but she felt like a stranger in their midst; they were a protective fortress that did not feel at all familiar. The trees of the woods beyond the garden stream, however—oak, spruce, fir, pine, juniper, aspen—belonged to no one but themselves despite growing on the Mages’ lands, and their verdant presence welcomed her with open branches. She felt like she could breathe again beneath the shelter of their canopy. Here, she did not have to worry about binding oaths she’d sworn but could not possibly fulfill. Here, she did not have to feel so lost or alone.
She sucked in a breath rich with the scent of lichen and loam and felt her tension ease. The trees whispered in her heart-mind, words she could almost understand—if she but stopped and listened.
Madel was scampering in front of her, arms spread wide as she twirled in a flare of skirts, saying something exuberantly. Beyond her, Valor was bounding ahead, his black tail wagging.
Abend shook her head to cast away distractions. “Hm?”
“I was asking what games you know!”
“Oh. Um.” Abend pressed her lips together, tamping down on a flare of panic and dismay. “I don’t know any games.”
“No games?” Madel repeated, shocked.
“Well—” Abend shrugged awkwardly. “My parents were solitary fae; we didn’t belong to any court. We lived in a wooded realm, slept beneath the branches or in a hollow, and gathered herbs and tended the plants and the wild. Sometimes we traveled, and—and Mayr—my mother—met with luminaries. But I didn’t have any friends. It was just us.”
“But you must have played sometimes together!Isn’t that what families do?” There was a curiously bitter note in Madel’s tone.
Abend thought back to when lessons had melded into something playful. Romps through the woods that never lasted long with the trees whispering into her heart-mind, unerringly guiding her. “We did play seek-and-find,” she began doubtfully.
“Then let’s play that! I will go hide,” Madel gestured extravagantly into the deeper woods, “and you all can try to find me!”
Panic flared and stole her breath. “I don’t think that’s a good idea—”
“Of course it is!”
“We’re supposed to be protecting you—” Images flashed through her mind and seared her heart: herself, alone, racing through the woods to stop her parents from being killed—too late, too late, too late.
“I’ll be hiding, silly!” Madel scoffed, her chin thrown back in defiance. “Enemies won’t be able to find me, either! I’ve been practicing! I’m quite good.”
“Even so—” Abend clenched her fists, struggling to know when was here and cast off where was then.
She must have blanched, must have shown more terror than fear. When she came-to, Madel was looking at her strangely. “Fine,” Madel said, her voice too casual, as if it mattered more than she wished to let on, but her brow furrowed in concern as she searched Abend’s expression.
Warm metal holly leaves pressed against her palm: the dagger’s hilt. Something polished smooth knocked against her ankle. Abend looked down and discovered Hemlock rubbing his silky, stone side against her leg, purring. She clutched at the idea that leapt to mind. “Hemlock can hide, and we’ll seek him. Together.”
“All right,” Madel declared, with a trifle more enthusiasm.
Abend let out a breath in dizzy relief. She bit her lip and waited for the disorientation to pass, ignoring the concerned questions Madel poured out as too difficult to answer. Instead, she jammed the dagger’s sheath into her belt, freeing her hands. Around her, the trees were still whispering in the breeze. She opened her heart-mind to them and took another breath suffused with earthy minerals and the reflected light of many worlds. She felt Madel beside her now. Hemlock had already bounded away from her side. A cluster of ferns ahead whispered of the passage of living stone.
She opened her eyes, the woods still flowing around her. “When will we know Hemlock is ready for us?” she asked softly, ignoring the depth of concern in Madel’s now-feline gaze.
“He said to count to one hundred, no cheating. I told Valor he’s not allowed to seek with us but stay here and guard our backs.” Madel sniffed haughtily. “He’s sulking. He said we can’t possibly win without him!”
A smile tugged on Abend’s lips despite the residual knot of anguish and flutter of anxiety still in her heart. “Oh, we will win.”
“Of course we will!” Madel grinned, her concern apparently forgotten as she left Abend’s side to spin in a delighted circle, her arms flung wide. “Counting is boring, though. You can do it!”
Abend snorted. “Fine.” As the numbers fell one-by-one from her lips, Valor dashed after Madel, his limbs flying in all directions as he chased at Madel’s flaring skirts and dove for her dancing ankles. Madel giggled as she dodged and scampered away, and Abend’s heart squeezed at the sight.
Abend would have counted—and let them play—longer, watching the easy companionship that made her heart both ache and soar in a strange new way. But Madel grabbed her hand before she’d even reached eighty-nine. “That’s enough, let’s go!” Madel said in a rush and tugged her into a run, leaving Valor whining plaintively behind them.
Madel pulled her deeper into the woods, leading her in a direct line from the manoir garden. Abend squeezed Madel’s hand meaningfully and changed direction. “This way,” she said, hearing the trees’ beckoning, following their whispers of the cat-who-wasn’t-quite slinking past them.
“Trust me.” A smile touched Abend’s lips as she stepped between two linden trees twined with aspen, their interlocked roots thrumming as one beneath her feet—and she among them. The forest was opening to her, welcoming her passage. Her steps were now as silent as roots moving through soil. She broke no twig and rustled no leaves that weren’t already speaking to her.
Behind her, Madel gasped and clutched her hand tighter, furred fingers locked around hers.
Abend glanced over her shoulder, looking askance at the girl whose blood-red hair and snow-white skin were not the only things that made her stand apart from the scenery, as if she were a painted figurine on a woodland backdrop.
“How—how are you doing that?” Madel asked, her feline eyes wide in astonishment.
Abend’s smile grew. She’d never had a chance to show off before. Papa had always known what she could do; he’d been the one to teach her how. And even though Mayr did not share their forest-born abilities, she had somehow always been able to see them. “It’s my glamour,” Abend said, offhand as if the ability that had saved her life didn’t matter. At the reminder, she went cold and shivered, her smile faltering. “Come on,” she said, more soberly.
Madel nodded, still awed—but now a seriousness shadowed her young face.
Oddly reassured by Madel’s furred fingers clasped in her own, Abend opened her heart-mind wider and cast her senses further, becoming one with the woods until there was no difference between them. Madel’s soft exhalation of surprise meant Abend had disappeared entirely from her view. Yet, Abend felt more real, alive, and connected than she had in a fortnight. She breathed the forest in: every leaf, every twig, every stone—until she found one carved into the shape of a cat, curled up within the shadowy hollow of a log teaming with mushrooms.
“Found him,” she murmured, and Madel exclaimed in delight.
But as she withdrew her heart’s gaze back to herself, something snagged her attention. Another figure—of humane aspect, like her: not a tree, not a rock, not a rill, but somehow all of these. The figure was crouched twenty paces away, their fingers splayed against an oak’s trunk. Their face was hidden behind a full-faced wooden mask with no slits for eyes or mouth. Yet their slim arms and legs were bare, their brown skin spotted and scented like a fawn’s, and their feet in the shape of a doe’s. Their torso was wrapped in a vest made of pungent grey wolf and ermine fur. They bore a single weapon: a long hunting knife sheathed in a belt at their hip that tasted of deadly iron.
Another faerie, one with the woods. And by all appearances, not any older than her either.
Abend jolted to a halt, pulling Madel in sharply behind her. Was there a chance this faerie was merely another guard, tasked to protect Madel in secret? —No, the Mages had introduced her to everyone in the manoir staff before they left, explicitly stating when each went on duty and where….
“What’s wrong?” Madel whispered, barely vocalizing. Abend was abruptly glad that Madel—for all her brightness and cheer and exclamations of delight—knew exactly when to be hushed and wary. Madel’s fingers clutched at the back of her dress, seeking her out.
Abend kept her inner gaze locked on the masked faerie and squeezed Madel’s hand in a plea for stillness. The faerie had not moved, but any moment now, they would realize Abend knew they were there. That she was a creature of the forest, just like them, for all her night-dark hair and the sand-pale skin of Mayr’s people, and neither of them could use their woods-borne glamour to be truly overlooked, now.
Abend felt a surprising ache of yearning in her heart. The masked doe was kin. One of Papa’s people, even if distant. And yet—that pelt of wolf’s fur made her head spin, and that musk…. It brought her back to a castle surrounded by brilliant snow and the terrible day-star and stark shadows of a mortal world. To freezing white beneath her and a wolf-prince’s smirk glinting above her. To a room filled with drugged wolf-giants and a knife in her hand.
The figure’s wooden mask tilted sharply towards her in recognition. Even without eye-slits, Abend felt their inner gazes lock, felt the stranger’s evaluation. For a split-second, she was torn: the masked faerie was not born a predator—no more than she was—and yet the wolf’s fur belted across their torso and the knife at their waist…. This faerie could easily have been her if her story had turned another way. If she had continued on, alone and unaided in the forest, and no one had taken her in—
The masked faerie’s inner gaze shifted to Madel behind her. Abend felt their intent hone into sharp focus just as they reached for their knife. All feeling of kinship dropped away. This masked fawn—whatever terrible reason might have brought them to this moment—was here to kill Madel.
In a panic, Abend whirled around and shoved Madel towards the manoir, even as the assassin sprang forward. “Run! Call Hemlock!”
Madel stumbled; Abend pushed her upright and forward, her own feet finding their ground unerringly. Madel tripped over a tree root, surprise and terror turning her graceless. Abend considered pulling Madel into the folds of her glamour, into the welcome of the trees, but she had never done it before, could she—
The masked fawn had bounded forward and was two steps behind them. No time—
Abend squeezed Madel’s hand tighter as she ran and pulled. With her heart, she yanked Madel downwards and within, bringing her into a plane of trees and roots and growing, living things—
Madel gasped in shock, but instead of running on sure feet through the welcome of the woods, she whirled around and met the masked assassin’s gaze. “I see them now!” she exclaimed, eyes wide. “I see—”
“I told you to run!” Abend shouted in exasperation born of terror. Keeping hold of Madel, she drew her enchanted dagger with her left hand and leapt in front of Madel just as the assassin bounded at her, knife in hand.
They all went crashing down. The fawn plunged their knife towards Abend’s heart as they fell. Abend dropped Madel’s hand and grabbed the fawn’s wrist, desperate to keep the steel blade’s tip away. The fawn grappled for Abend’s dagger; their mask was fierce in its smooth, smiling blankness. Wild with terror, Abend slashed with her enchanted dagger, feeling it slice through fur and fabric: folds of glamour fell away.
The masked fawn—now visible—grunted in pain and frustration; they shoved their hunting knife towards her heart with all their weight behind it. Abend dropped her dagger to brace against that downward plunge with both hands, her heart pounding in fear—
A feline yowl, a white kitten was suddenly clinging to the fawn’s bare arm, sinking its teeth into their skin and kicking ferociously with its back paws.
The fawn recoiled. Their mask turned a blank scowl on the kitten, and they yanked their arm to throw it off. The pressure on the knife released.
Abend shoved upwards with hands and hip then rolled over the fawn, pinning them down. She dug her thumbs into the pressure point at their wrists and flung their hands to the side, forcing them to drop the hunting knife. It went spinning away.
The assassin bucked and rocked in protest, desperate to escape. They jerked their hands down with a twist, breaking through Abend’s grip. Abend lost her balance and toppled forward. Hands free, the assassin sought her throat and squeezed with surprisingly strong hands, to steal her breath. Abend tried to cough—and choked. In a panic, she scrabbled first at the fawn’s hands, then their elbows, trying to break their strength.
The kitten—its white fur soiled with dirt and twigs—ran forward with a screech and raked its claws at the assassin’s neck. Bounding up from their other side, Hemlock leapt—and landed on their chest: pounds of obsidian and glass-sharp claws, digging past fur and into skin.
The assassin released their grip with a cry.
Abend could barely hear the forest’s whispers now; her glamour must have fallen away. She clung to the tenuous connection she had left as she rasped for breath. She scoured for a solution as she held the masked fawn down, and they writhed and fought for freedom. If she let the assassin escape Hemlock’s claws, they, in turn would be able to go for Madel. She couldn’t bear to be this close to keeping Madel safe and not succeed. She couldn’t bear to be too late again. She needed a solution, she needed—
With the forest in her heart, the wind of stone wings gusting through leaves above was not subtle, nor was the crashing through ferns and old fallen leaves as Valor rocketed up behind them, nor the pair of booted feet swiftly following him.
Cor’s wing-beats disturbed the air at her neck. In shock at his timely arrival, she shoved herself backward and out of Cor’s way as he plunged past her to land with a crash on the assassin’s wooden mask. The assassin moaned, and they ceased struggling. She did not envy the fawn what must have felt like far more than a punch to the nose.
She searched in her heart for Madel: the kitten was hissing and spitting, safely out of reach beyond the assassin’s head.
“Madel?” a vaguely familiar voice called. “Madel! Abend, are you all right?”
Valor came to a growling halt at the fawn’s hooves, grabbing hold of their leg in stone jaws.
“It’s safe to let go now, Abend,” the huntswoman’s voice said in her ear. Hands slid beneath hers to hold the assassin down. “You did good work. I’ve got them.”
Abend withdrew, edging away so the huntswoman could take over. She tipped onto her elbow, her hands throbbing from the release of so tight a grip. Relief rushed through her. She had done it, she had really done it. Madel was still alive. They had stopped the assassin. And she hadn’t been alone, she wasn’t alone. She couldn’t believe it.
A bundle of fur and dirt rubbed against her cheek, purring loudly. She flinched backward with a start of surprise. The kitten peered innocently up at her. “Madel?”
Fur flattened, limbs lengthened, bones grew. Abend would have been disturbed at the transformation, except those green, feline eyes remained the same, full of depth and delight, edged with pain, yet bubbling with enthusiasm.
Madel threw her arms around Abend’s neck and toppled them over. “What was that! I had no idea you could become the forest like that! And you glamoured me too, and we took down the assassin! We did it together! It was amazing! Hemlock says he couldn’t sense us at all in your glamour. Let’s do it again! Let’s sneak back into the manoir and see if anyone notices! Do you think you could make it work in the garden? What about indoors?”
For a moment, Abend lay stunned, frozen, then as her heart eased into an ache equal parts sweetness and grief, she began to laugh.
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