Dariel called a greeting to the young woman hanging laundry outside the farmhouse. The clothespins tumbled from her hand.
“I’m looking for Cleon and Larrer.”
All the blood drained from the woman’s face. “What’d they do?”
His gaze skimmed the property. Typical farmhouse, outbuildings and fields. Nothing looked illegal or suspicious. Why would she be afraid to have a Chevalier on her land? “I understand they helped search for little Famie?”
Tension spilled out of the woman. “Oh. Oh, yes. They’re in the barn. Should be anyway.”
He continued up the dirt road to the battered red barn. From its state, he wouldn’t suspect them of subsidizing their farm through illegal activities. Paint chips fluttered to the ground as he brushed against the door on his way inside the dim cavernous space. A faint scraping noise provided the only clue that someone was about.
A tousled blond head poked out of a stall. A darker, messier haired older boy appeared at the edge of the loft.
“Chevalier,” the one on the ground breathed. The older boy pivoted, ran to the ladder, and almost slid to the ground. Hero-worship lit both sets of eyes as they approached. The elder nudged the younger aside. “How may we assist you, sir?”
Dariel introduced himself and learned the older was Larrer, Cleon the younger. “I understand you two helped look for Famie the morning she disappeared. Can you tell me what happened?”
Cleon’s eyes grew huge. Larrer sighed and shook his head. “We were fishing, heard screams, and ran up there to see what was going on. We found Bellande screaming her head off, beating on the Fairy Crossing stone.”
The name kicked Dariel in the gut every time. He’d already heard this story from the constable and at the general store. He’d been braced for it. Still he had to clasp his hands to not betray himself. Why must the local folk have a place name using that word?
Of course, they didn’t understand. The Fair Folk were nothing but a tale until they took you prisoner and tortured you out of your mind. It took everything in him not to shake and betray his weakness before these boys.
“Loisea was trying to calm her. She told us to look for Famie in the river. We couldn’t see her so we both kicked off our shoes and jumped in.”
“We swam all over the place, but couldn’t find her. I dove to the riverbed five times,” Cleon added.
The Merrid was muddy with a fast current. Their inability to see an infant drowning in it meant nothing. He unclenched his jaw. “How long did it take you two to reach Bellande after you heard her scream?”
Cleon and Larrer exchanged a look and shrugged. Larrer said, “Three minutes?”
“Did you run along the bank or the road?”
“And you saw no sign of the baby on your way to the stone?”
“Babies can’t swim,” Cleon said. “She would have been underwater if she was in the river.”
“What was Bellande screaming?”
“Nothing. Just noise. You know.” Cleon screamed. Larrer smacked him.
“She was screaming Famie’s name too. And ‘no’ a whole bunch. When we got out of the water, she was screaming for them to give her back, that she never meant to.”
Dariel’s heart leapt. “Never meant to what?”
Both boys looked at him as if he were stupid. “Give her to the fairies.”
He fought and won the battle not to vomit at the word.
Loisea spoke to him in a packed and busy kitchen. Two adolescent girls giggled together over a pile of vegetables. A girl of about twelve stirred a pot of something tomato-based on the stove. Loisea herself kneaded bread on cramped counter. A toddler banged on a pot at her feet.
“I was only a few yards from that clearing when she screamed. Reached her before those wild boys.” The older three girls all giggled. “I ordered them into the river. Just in case.”
“Did you know it was Bellande screaming before you reached her?”
“Oh, yes, I saw her step into the clearing.”
“You were on the road? Had you just passed her?” The words tumbled too quickly from his mouth. This was the witness who could help. The one who’d prove no Fair Folk were involved.
“No, no. We were both coming from town. I spotted her half a mile or so ahead of me when I reached the road.”
“Had you seen her in town? Spoken to her?” Loisea shook her head. “Tell me how she appeared when you spotted her.”
“Tired. She looked to be dragging her feet as she walked. I noticed she veered towards the river a few times, like she was drunk.” That set off another round of giggling.
“She was sick, of course. We all know that now. Not that I thought she was drunk, of course. Even then I figured she must be ailing. I couldn’t run to catch up.” Loisea smiled and patted her pregnant belly.
“Wasn’t surprised to see her move off the road. Assumed she needed to sit down. Wouldn’t have chosen there to do it, myself. Doubt Bellande was thinking clearly enough by that point to realize where she was.”
“How long was she out of sight before the screams began?”
“Maybe fifteen, twenty minutes.” Dariel’s eyes widened in surprise. Loisea shrugged. “I’m not moving too fast these days.”
Fifteen, twenty minutes alone in that clearing. If she’d drowned her child, the current would have washed Famie well out of sight before the boys knew anything was wrong.
Except why then scream?
Well, alibi, right? If Loisea saw Bellande, Bellande had probably been aware of Loisea walking behind her.
“How long before you reached her once she did scream?”
“Minute. Two.” Loisea punched the dough. “She was beating the stone bloody, screaming her head off for them to give her baby back. She cried at me that ‘they took her’ when I pulled her away from the stone. She fainted when the boys came back and said they couldn’t find Famie.”
Dariel narrowed his eyes. “She told you ‘they took her,’ but was then so shocked by the boys’ failure she fainted?”
“I don’t know if she heard them. She was screaming and begging for her baby. Practically hyperventilating and running a fever so high I about burned my hands to touch her.”
“Do you know Bellande well?”
Loisea made a face. “Not really. I married long before she was out of pigtails, and as you can see I’ve had my hands full for years. Gossip around town was that she was having a hard time. Colicky baby. Been stressed and sad since the birth.”
“What do you think happened to Famie?”
Loisea’s hands froze in the dough. “If what she says is true, then the Fair Folk took her.”
“Do you have reason to believe she’s lying?” His heart beat unsteadily. He willed her to say yes.
Other than the incessant drumming on the pot on the floor, the entire kitchen froze. Wide eyes stared at him from every direction.
Dariel cursed silently. He hid his hands so no one would notice how he trembled as he took his leave.
He knocked on the door of Hayth and Bellande’s farm. Again. The whole place was eerily quiet. Couldn’t hear any people nor animals. Not a bird chirped, nor insect buzzed. Even the wind stilled. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Felt like something watched him. He turned slowly but caught sight of nothing.
It felt like them. He took a deep breath. Tried to slow his panic. He could do this. His fingers traced the hexes embroidered on his hems. Played with the iron and rowan rings on his fingers. They couldn’t hurt him. Not again.
And the child hadn’t disappeared from here. There was no reason at all for them to be about this farm. Unless they had her and knew they’d taken something not offered. He pressed a hand against his chest. Did nothing to soothe the battering from his pounding heart. Dammit.
He pounded on the door. “Hayth? Bellande? I’m here about Famie.”
The door flung open. Wild hair proceeded the big bear of a man into the doorway. His red-rimmed eyes darted about before latching onto Dariel. “Did you find her?”
With a slight shake of his head, he introduced himself. “I’ve just begun my investigation into her disappearance.”
Hayth turned his head and spit. “Disappearance. Don’t you mean death?”
“Is that what you believe? That she drowned?” He could breathe again. A drowned child was a tragedy, but so much better than the alternative.
Tears filled the baby’s father’s eyes as he slumped and stared at the ground.
“Why would you think she did that? Was she unhappy?”
“Could you tell me about your home life? What was going on to in the days preceding Famie’s disappearance.”
“Nothing. Normal life. I don’t know.”
He didn’t know what to do with someone who refused to talk. Years ago he would have. He could have charmed the man. Sympathized with him until he felt relaxed enough to share. No matter what his superiors said, Dariel knew he was too shattered to do this job properly.
“Perhaps I could speak to your wife?”
The man snarled. “She’s not here. Didn’t want her. She’s at her parents’.”
Okay, then. He had to do his best here before he talked to Bellande. “Others have told me that she’d been having a hard time since her pregnancy. Would you say that’s true?”
Hayth stiffened. Raised his head to glare. “Does that make killing our baby okay?”
“Of course not.” He held up a hand. “I’m trying to find out which story is true. That’s all. I’m not judging anyone. I’m not excusing anyone.”
Hayth shook his head. “The rock is just a myth. A story about something bad that happened in someone’s great-great-grandfather’s time. No one disappears there.” He finally looked up. “There is no portal to the Fair Folk’s realm there.”
He wanted to hug the man for his words. He’d kiss him if that would make the words true.
But they weren’t.
The farm had an eldritch feel about it. No matter what Hayth wished to believe, this village and the Fair Folk’s realm touched each other.
Bellande’s mother and sister Callen let him into their home. Both had pinched, anxious faces, but anger filled their eyes.
“My daughter did not hurt her baby. She loved Famie more than anything. Loved her to bits. She would never have hurt that child, no matter how sick or upset she might have been. Never.” Bellande’s mother, Agara slapped her thigh in emphasis.
“No matter what that husband of hers says,” Callen muttered.
Dariel looked from one to the other. “Had they been having problems?”
“No!” Agara spat. “They adored each other. I cannot believe he kicked her out of their home. I thought he was a good man. A good husband to her. I know she was happy. I saw her the day before. Sure, she was tired and a bit overwhelmed, but smiling every time she looked at Famie or Hayth. She wouldn’t have let this happen if she hadn’t been so sick. She has pneumonia, you know?” Her face twisted in worry, waiting for his acknowledgement of that statement as true. He nodded. Almost everyone else he’d talked to had told him as much.
The sister shook her head in the background. “He was a bad match for her.”
“Callen, she loved him.”
“Doesn’t make it not true.” Callen shook her head. “Yes, she was stupid, crazy in love with him, but it wasn’t good for her. She’d lost herself. Bellande never wanted a family. Never wanted to work a farm or care for a home. You know that. She dreamed her whole life of going to Maun to study music and spending her life traveling and playing the flute. She fell in love with Hayth and gave up everything. She hasn’t played in three years–”
“Please. She stopped expressing her own opinions. Hasn’t shown interest in anything she liked since he started courting her. It’s all ‘Whatever Hayth likes. Whatever Hayth wants.’ Nothing in that farmhouse looks like Bellande. Loving him sucked the life from her.”
The two women glared at each other.
Dariel took a deep breath and addressed Callen. “Do you think your sister was unhappy?”
She made a face. “I know she loved them. She sacrificed all of who she was for them. Doesn’t mean it made her happy. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t killing her.”
“And your niece, what do you think happened to her?”
She drew up straight. “My sister would never have drowned her. Never. That idea is ridiculous. You can only pretend to be someone you’re not for so long before it kills you, but she wouldn’t hurt Famie. No matter what how much she grew to hate her life. And no, I don’t think she’d reached any point of desperate unhappiness yet. That would have been admitting she made a mistake and she wasn’t ready to do that. But in this she told the truth.
“The Fair Folk took her.”
The words hit Dariel like a sucker punch to the gut, knocking all hope out of him.
Late afternoon sun burned behind the curtains, casting much of the room in shadow. On the bed, Bellande lay curled on her side. One skeletal, bruised and beaten hand trailed out from under the blankets, trembling where it lay. Her eyes were raw and as empty as they could be in a still living, conscious person. Deep, dark shadows underscored them.
Seeing a Chevalier in her room, life flickered in her eyes. She struggled to sit up. Her mother helped her before pulling aside a curtain to allow more light into the room.
Regret tweaked Dariel’s frenzied nerves. Whether he saved the child or not. Whether she lived to be saved, he wouldn’t be bringing her home to her mother. Death hovered over this woman.
When they were alone, he sat on the chair by the bed and asked, “Can you tell me what happened?”
“It’s all a blur,” she whispered. The words were hard to hear over her wheezing breath. “I was dizzy. It was so hot. Famie so heavy. I needed to set her down. Just for a minute. But I kept a hand on her. To let them know. She wasn’t an offering. And so she wouldn’t fall in.” She stopped and wheezed a few times, clearly trying to catch her breath.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Take your time.”
“I coughed. Instinct. Covered my mouth. Let go for a second. Maybe two. She was gone. Vanished. They took her.
“Can you get her back?”
Dariel stepped through the break in the trees and cursed. Just a story? How ignorant did you have to be to believe that? A perfect semicircle of mushrooms stood in front of an arch of trees curling around the stone. The mushrooms grew exactly six inches from the trees and another six inches of wild thyme stood between them and the dirt around the stone itself. How could someone look at this and think “natural?”
And the feeling of the place. He shuddered. Couldn’t believe Bellande would chose to rest here no matter how bad she felt. His skin crawled.
Then there was the stone itself. A huge hulk of flattened rectangle with two points fused at either end on the side that hung out over the river. Looked like a dock grown out of stone. With its exact mirror on the opposite side of the river, this stone was exactly what the locals believed. A gateway into fucking Faerie.
Bile rose in his throat. He stepped alongside the stone and stared out at the river. The current was quick, but slower than he’d hoped from the reports. If Famie had fallen in, seemed like someone would have seen her in the water. She wouldn’t have been carried away in seconds.
He closed his eyes. He wished she had. He wasn’t ready for his first solo trip back into Faerie. He’d been four times since they trapped him. Always with a superior. There’d been a measure of reassurance in that backup.
But his supervisors insisted he was ready. Thought he’d learned his lesson from before. Wasn’t proud or arrogant any more. Took the threat of Faerie seriously.
They refused to understand that he’d learned too well and wanted to flee from the threat.
Darkness crept from the corners of his brain. Memories of what they’d done to him. The nightmares he’d participated in. He gritted his teeth and wrapped one tremulous hand around the hilt of his sword.
He had protections. He knew the dangers. Those memories couldn’t hurt him. A sobbing laugh escaped his clenched teeth. Who was he trying to fool here?
He rubbed a hand across his eyes. He could lie. Say Bellande had been too sick to know what was going on. That she created this imagined story to make up for her child falling in. Pass it all off as a terrible accident.
And condemn a helpless child to that world.
He couldn’t do that. Would never be able to live with himself if he did that to a child. He knew too much about that place. About them.
No one else here could go in after her. He’d chosen not to retire–foolishly, stupidly. A sure sign his broken mind had not been repaired. Why hadn’t those in charge noticed that?
He would not fail in his duty. Not forsake Famie as he’d been forsaken.
With a quick step over the mushrooms, he vomited into the trees. He wasn’t ready. No matter what anyone said.
Still no choice.
He stepped up on the stone. His still trembling hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. If they took her, they’d take him.
He closed his eyes.
BIO: Lynn Rushlau graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in Anthropology and minor in Sociology–which seem like awesome planning for a life creating cultures and societies, but she’ll admit to not have been thinking that far in advance. She lives in Addison, Texas with two attention-needy cats, and can be found online at lynnrushlau.com.