When the strange boy stepped out of the rose bushes by the back fence, carrying the soccer ball Cameron had accidentally tossed back there, Cameron did not initially notice the little goat horns on his head that were poking up amidst the boy's black hair.
He did not notice the thin, whip-like tail sprouting from the boy's behind, nor the tuft of black fur at the tail's end, nor the distinct point of the boy's ears. He did notice the boy's strange clothes-- a long green coat with dazzling patterns and pictures woven into it, the strange and equally elaborate vest under it, the pants that only went to just above the boy's ankles. But he noticed all that in juxtaposition to the boy's bare feet-- which were completely normal looking, but were standing on some of the fallen rose vines.
Cameron leapt backwards from the bush and said, "don't your feet hurt?"
The horned boy looked surprised. He glanced down at his feet, then said, "No."
The two stood across from each other, each staring at the other with unabashed curiosity.
"How come you were in there?" Cameron said. He did not ask, how did you get in there or, who are you, though those questions were begging to be asked.
"I found your ball," the boy said, dodging the question. He held out the soccer ball, but Cameron didn't move. "It's alright," the boy said. "Come, take it back."
Cameron stayed still. "How come your hair is like that?" he said instead. He'd never seen a boy with a long braid before. "And your clothes. And your--"
"You have horns," he said.
"And a tail," said the boy.
Cameron stared. He could feel the gears in his brain trying to figure out what to do with this information.
"Why?" he said eventually.
"I could ask you why your ears are round," the boy said. "The clothes are fashionable where I am from, as is my hair. The horns are what I have inherited from my father, and the tail, from my mother."
"You talk funny," Cameron said. He could catch the gist of what the other boy was saying, but it was hard. "Who are you?"
The boy smiled, and suddenly it was like the sun coming out. It was like the whole world had been smokey and dark, and he hadn't even noticed until the air in front of him cleared. It was like he could breathe again, or breathe for the first time. He gasped from pure feeling the boy's smile gave him.
The boy didn't seem to notice the effect he'd had. He gave a little bow and said, "I am someone who would like very much to be your friend."
"Oh," said Cameron. He found himself smiling back at the boy and hoping beyond hope that they would be friends, that they would be best friends, forever.
Some part of him knew this wasn't how things were supposed to go. Friends didn't just crawl out of your backyard. Friends were people you met in school, or at church, or when your mom was already friends with their moms.
But this town was new. Dad kept saying as much; country folk were different. Maybe this was how things worked in the country.
"Okay. My name's Cameron."
The boy jerked back, his expression shocked.
"What? What's wrong?"
"Nothing," the boy said, quickly regaining composure. "Nothing at all. Cameron. Cameron. Cameron."
Cameron stood there, enraptured, while the horned boy repeated his name again and again, tasting the word and its different variations.
"Cameron, Cameron Cam-- what else?" the boy said suddenly. There was no hiding the eagerness in his voice.
The boy beamed, his eyes bright. Cameron has never seen such shining green eyes before. When the boy spoke next, his voice was like layers of pouring honey. It was still recognizably him speaking, but there was some inescapable quality to it that seemed to weigh in Cameron's head, making him sleepy, and warm, and happy.
"It is a lovely name," the boy said. "I am pleased you've shared it with me. But it isn't your only one, is it? There's more, isn't there?"
Cameron nodded happily. "Yup."
"Tell me," the horned boy said. "What's your entire name?"
"Cameron Asher Galway," Cameron said, amused by how important the boy thought this was. It was just his name.
The boy's face lit up, and it was enough to break Cameron's heart. He looked so happy.
"Tell me, Cameron Asher Galway, can you lie?"
"Speak things that are not true. Can you do it?"
"Yes," Cameron said, giggling a little at the absurdity of the question.
"Lie for me!"
Cameron laughed again. "Why?"
"I want to see! Lie for me! About anything."
"Uh." Cameron tried to think of something to say, his mind suddenly going blank. Panic gripped him; he did not want to disappoint his few friend. "I-- uh. Um. Uh. I have a dog."
The boy frowned. "Do you?"
"No," said Cameron. "That was a lie. I don't have a dog."
The boy's smile returned. "Do it again!"
"The sky is green and made of cheese," he said, suddenly inspired. "I have no arms. Your name is Bill, and the grass is blue."
The boy laughed, and the beauty of it struck Cameron like a blow. The sound cut through to the core of his being, and there was nothing on Earth that Cameron wanted to do more than to make the boy laugh forever.
"More," the boy said. "Tell me more lies. I've never heard any before!"
Cameron smiled shyly. This was the first time anyone had encouraged him to lie.
"Do you want to play?" he said, gesturing to the ball. "If you kick it over, I'll lie some more."
The horned boy immediately kicked the ball over. Cameron picked it up, then ran away, laughing.
"Hey!" said the horned boy, chasing after him. But he was laughing too, so Cameron didn't think he was mad. The two chased one another around the yard for a time, Cameron shouting more lies as he did-- it's raining right now! There are no trees! Your coat is blue!-- and at some point, Cameron kicked the ball to the horned boy, who kicked it back. Soon, without quite knowing how they'd gotten there, Cameron was teaching the boy the ins and outs of soccer, with the space between two flower pots being one goal and the space beneath the patio chairs another.
While they played, the horned boy asked him questions, and Cameron answered without hesitation. The boy asked him about himself, about his family, about what a 'school' was and why he had to go, about how cars worked and what TVs did, and why humans had round ears and a million other things. Cameron answered every one as best as he could, and the horned boy didn't seem at all upset that he didn't have an answer for most things.
When Cameron asked why the boy had so many questions, the horned boy had said, "I want to know everything, and I like the sound of your voice. This seems like a way to satisfy both. Talk to me."
And so Cameron did. He talked and talked and talked about anything and everything he could think of. He told the horned boy about how his seventh birthday was in a few days, but how his friends couldn't join him because that was at the old town. He told him how his family had moved to the countryside only a week ago, and how he was anxious about starting the second grade soon. About how his mother was a veterinarian and his father was a welder, and how sometimes his mother would tell him stories of the animals she had met.
The boy listened with rapt attention, offering him encouraging nods and smiles and questions whenever it seemed he was slowing down. At some point, they had stopped playing with the ball, though Cameron couldn't remember when. They sat in the grass beneath one of the many oak trees, and the horned boy watched him intently. To Cameron, it was as though he boy was pulling the words out of him with his eyes, his eyes that had been green earlier, but now flashed gold in the light.
"Tell me more," the boy said. "Tell me everything."
An Cameron did. Anything and everything he could think of. A dog who had gotten loose at the school once, over whom all the students had fawned until the yard duty sent them inside. The time he'd been downwind of a squirrel and had managed to touch its tail before it fled up a tree. The time he got an extra chicken nugget in his happy meal. The time he accidentally went into the girls' bathroom and a big third grade girl pushed him outside-- random half-stories and flashes of memory attached to nothing that meant nothing.
Then, he started talking about things he would normally never say to anyone, much less a stranger.
How he had cried himself awake the other night because he'd dreamed a giant hammer was chasing him. How he sometimes thought that, if he moved fast enough, he would catch his reflection doing something other than copying him, and how the thought of it terrified him. How when his kindergarten class went to the beach on a field trip, he had taken a seashell, even though his teacher had told them all not to (because taking empty shells was as bad as stealing homes from the hermit crabs and other critters who needed them), and how after he had gotten home, guilt weighing on his heart and the shell weighing in his pocket, he had become so overcome with shame that he'd buried the shell in the garden, and how the shell was still there, back at the old house.
How when he'd been shopping with his mom, he'd hidden in the circular racks of clothes and waited for her to find him, but she hadn't come looking for him, and how he'd gone crying to the first adult he could find for help, and the man had taken his hand and led him to the front, but not to the clerks, to the exit, until a store worker called out to them, and the man let him go and hurried away. How Cameron had been so confused that he started to follow the man outside-- he was helping, after all-- but then his mother and a worker came up behind him.
The horned boy's face, so open and encouraging before, was unreadable at that last story. When Cameron asked, he only said, "The man would have stolen you. I am glad you did not go with him."
"You tell me something now," Cameron croaked. All the speaking and running had taken its toll, and his throat felt sore.
The horned boy grinned, and he leaned back against the tree. "What would you know?" he said.
"What's your name?" Cameron said.
The boy laughed again.
"Good try," he said. "I'm not as careless as you are. But you can call me Halidon."
"Halidon?" Cameron said, trying it out. And then he had to say it a few more times, because Halidon said he liked the way it sounded when Cameron said it.
"Tell me about where you're from," Cameron said eventually. "It's someplace magic, right?"
"Yes," Halidon said. "Very much so."
And now it was Cameron's turn to be enthralled.
The horned boy told him stories of the strange creatures that lurked in the deep forests and the waters, who would eat the arrogant and ill-mannered, of shapeshifting tricksters who would pretend to be horses, then drown any mortal tricked into riding them, of beautiful lights that would lure travelers off the safety of the road and into danger. He told these stories with obvious glee, relishing in Cameron's shocked or horrified reactions.
Then he told him of the grand parties he and his father attended, ones that lasted all night and started with beautiful lords and ladies, all prim dancing and fancy adult drinks, but then at the sundown transformed into mad revels of excitement, pleasure, and horror, and how the next night, they all did it again and again, sometimes for weeks in a row. He told him about the jeweled fruits that grew in Faerie, and how they tasted like candy when eaten fresh off the bough. He told him about the horses with dragonfly wings, and deer made of flowers that were favored by the gentry, and giant frogs and snails that commoners used for travel, and about the women who were trees, and the tiny, biting dragons that nested in hives, and a hundred other strange things.
And he told him about how his mother was gone, struck by an assassin's iron arrow when Halidon was a baby. How his father was often too busy to pay him any mind and left him to wander the grounds like a feral cat. How he had servants who fed and clothed him when necessary, but otherwise let him be and made sure the very few children they had steered clear of him as well-- how could they do otherwise, when he had the rank to have them dragged away and beaten if the mood should take him? Why expose anyone to that kind of danger?
After that, the two sat together in silence, watching the sun set through the brambles.
"Today was fun," Halidon eventually said.
"Yeah," said Cameron.
"I cannot recall a time I've better enjoyed myself, nor had better company."
Cameron snickered. "You're talking funny again."
Halidon blinked, his expression blank for a moment, then he smiled. "I beg your pardon."
They sat together for a time longer.
"There are very few children where I live," Halidon said suddenly.
"Oh," said Cameron.
"I have always wanted a sibling," Halidon went on, as though he hadn't spoken. "Sometimes, I watch the fox kits that run through our gardens as they frolic with one another. Sometimes find burrows of young rabbits, all sleeping snugly together. I sometimes see the kittens in the stables, grooming one another, or the pups of my father's hunting hounds playing."
"Aww," said Cameron. "That's cute."
Halidon looked at him, his expression neutral. "I would throw rocks at foxes out of envy. I'd frighten the rabbits awake and make them run. I would chase away families of ducklings and quail. Sometimes I separate pups from their litters and listen to them cry for one another."
"Oh," said Cameron, heart sinking. "That's. . . That's--"
"It wasn't fair!" Halidon snarled. His face contorted in rage, and for a moment, the unearthly beauty transformed into a horror that froze Cameron in place. Nothing had truly changed; this was the same Halidon, with the same green eyes, the same face, the same black hair and baby-goat horns. But now the indescribable allure was gone, replaced by a visceral revulsion.
Cameron's breath caught in his throat, and he dared not move.
Halidon went on, apparently oblivious to the change. He turned his attention back to the birds. "Why should they have what I could not? We are the highest order of beings-- my father says so. He says that is why we do not frequently have children. It is the will of the gods, of life itself. One a pairing-- if they are lucky. Two is a blessing often separated by centuries. But many families go without heirs. It isn't fair."
His voice cracked on the word, and Cameron was horrified-- and a little embarrassed-- to see that he had started crying.
The fear was gone. He could move again. Some part of him thought that perhaps he ought to leave, but pity won out.
"I'm sorry," he said, putting his arm around Halidon's shoulders.
Halidon barked out a laugh and wiped his eyes.
"Don't be," he said. "This is the happiest day I've had in memory."
Just then, Cameron heard the back slider-door open at the house.
"Cameron!" his mother called. "Cam, it's time to come in now."
Cameron sighed. It was getting a little cold out, but somehow, being here with Halidon made it not bother him as much.
"Right now?" he yelled, not moving from his spot.
"Right now!" his mom yelled back.
"I gotta go now," Cameron said, getting to his feet.
"Why?" said Halidon.
"That's my mom," Cameron said. "It's time for bed."
"She tells you when to sleep?" Halidon said, confusion plain on his face.
"Yeah. You don't have a bedtime?"
"No," Halidon said."I sleep when I'm tired."
"I suppose." He gave Cameron a long, hard look. "Do you want to see my home?" he said. "I could bring you."
"Yeah!" Cameron said. "You mean like tomorrow?"
Halidon rose to his feet. "I mean right now. Do you want to see? It won't take long."
"I do," Cameron said. "But I can't. My mom said--"
"Crows can take your mother!" Halidon snapped. "If she wanted you so badly, she should be out here with you."
Cameron stepped back, surprised by the venom in the other boy's voice.
"I gotta go," he said again, turning away.
"Cameron Asher Galway," Halidon said, "Stop."
His voice was beguiling and sweet, even as it commanded him, and Cameron stopped.
Halidon crept up from behind and placed a hand on Cameron's shoulder.
"What are you doing?" Cameron said, unable to hide the fear in his voice. "How did you do that?" He tried desperately to make himself move, and could not.
"Cameron," Halidon said, coming around front. He let his hand slide up Cameron's neck, up to his head, and ran his fingers through his hair. "Cameron, Cameron, Cameron. My Cameron."
Cameron tried to shake him off. Halidon chuckled.
"Shh, It's alright," he said. "Don't be afraid."
"Stop," Cameron said.
"Cameron Asher Galway," said Halidon, his voice once more full of heavy sweetness. "Don't be afraid of me."
Cameron stopped struggling. The pounding in his chest slowed, and he relaxed under Halidon's touch.
"What are you doing?" he said again, this time much calmer.
"It isn't fair," Halidon said. "You humans can breed like rabbits. You can have child after child-- sometimes more than one at once. So it isn't fair that they keep you, when I have no one."
"What do you want?" Cameron said.
"I want a brother," Halidon said. He held Cameron's face in his hands. "You're perfect. You're everything I ever wanted. And you wanted to see my home, didn't you?" At the last words, his voice once again took on that strange, honeyed tone. "You said you wanted to come see."
"Yeah," said Cameron, suddenly dozy. Halidon was right; he had wanted to go. "That would be fun."
Cameron allowed Halidon to take his hand and guide him towards the back fence, to the rose bushes where the horned boy had popped out from earlier.
"Yes," Halidon said, still in the same voice. He spoke in a low and constant stream of words, as though he were comforting a frightened animal. "There's no need to be afraid. You want to come with me. I know you do. And it will be fun, just like today. I can show you so many things, I can show you the orchards and the moss horses, and the castles. You will have the best of food and drink and clothing, and servants who will do whatever you ask of them, and me. You'll have me, forever. I will take care of you. I promise I will, forever. Forever and ever."
Cameron smiled. All of that sounded very nice, and Halidon was his new best friend. Why should he worry about anything?
He followed him into the rosebush, and out the other side.
* * * * *
Halidon's heart pounded as he led the mortal boy through the rosebush, through the brambles at that threshold between worlds, and into the forest on his father's land.
The boy, Cameron--
Cameron! Cameron, my Cameron! crooned his heart
--was quiet. He was afraid, Halidon suspected. He must be, even through the glamour.
The knowledge pained him. Everything about the boy pained him. The sound of his voice, his laughter, the the way he'd looked when Halidon had told him stories of home, his patience at teaching the ball-chasing game-- a game! A mortal game, with rules and numbers, how strange!-- and the happiness he'd shown when they played, even as he lost point after point. Each moment was a painful new joy, a kind of happiness Halidon had only dreamed of, and anguish of which he would never tire.
His heart felt full to bursting.
He had a brother, he had a friend. Someone to play with on sunny days. Someone to whisper secrets to at night. Someone to read to, to tell stories to and have told in return. Someone to talk to. No more quiet rooms and empty halls when his father was away and all the servants were avoiding him. No more wandering the gardens alone, hating the foxes and birds in envy--
"Ow," said Cameron, knocking him out of his reverie. "You're hurting me," he said.
Halidon gasped and loosened his grip, unaware that he had been squeezing his new brother's hand so hard. But he did not let go, nor allow Cameron pull away from him.
"I'm sorry," he said, heart pounding. "I will be more careful."
His brother was silent, but kept the pace.
That was something he would have to keep track of, Halidon realized. Mortals were delicate. They needed regular food and sleep, warmth in the cold and coolness in the heat, and all kinds of other things. And they were vulnerable. Hadn't Halidon himself magicked the boy several times that day? He would need to teach him ways to protect himself from less benevolent Folk.
His brother's hand-- his brother! -- was warm in his. Halidon found himself absently stroking the outside of the boy's hand with his thumb, as though it were instinct to comfort him.
The walk was slow going. Several times, Cameron tripped, and when Halidon glanced back, he saw the boy looking at the ground with an expression of deep concentration. Halidon grit his teeth and slowed his pace. He was so eager to get home, to show his new brother his new home, but he had to remember that he was still only a mortal, and mortals were not as lightfooted in the wilds as he was, nor could they see as easily in the dark.
"You can have one of the empty rooms near mine," Halidon said, mostly to distract himself. "There's one directly across the hall from mine, or one of the ones beside mine--"
Cameron stopped walking.
"I feel weird," he said faintly.
"That's the air," Halidon said. "Faerie air does odd things to humans. It will wear off in a few days time."
"My head's all swimmy."
"Can you walk?"
Cameron took an unsteady step forward and nearly fell. Halidon was beside him in an instant, holding him steady. Carefully, he guided him forward, through the woods.
"Your mind will clear when the sun is up," he said. "The first night hits humans the hardest, I've been told. You won't be entirely free of it for a week or so, but things will get easier. Do you hear me, Cameron?"
"Yes," his brother said with a soft sigh. The boy shivered a little, and Halidon felt gooseflesh rise on his brother's bare arms.
Halidon's heart twisted. If he were bigger, he would have scooped him up and carried him home. At that moment, he wanted nothing more than for his new brother to be within the safety of his father's hall, sitting beside the fireplace and wrapped in the softest blankets. Safe, and warm, and within reach.
* * * * *
He didn't remember when he first decided he would steal away a mortal child. It had been as though the idea were always there, planted in his mind and growing without his attention.
Of course he knew of clever Folk who had managed to steal away interesting mortals. There were a few humans at the Court his father attended; servants, mostly. Attendants standing behind their lords and ladies, pet artists and musicians doted upon by their patrons-- the occasional consort. One or two wives. Some of the humans, he knew, had been in Faerie for hundreds of years, barely aging a few years past when they were taken. He'd heard stories about how lovely and pleasant some human children could be, and how some Folk in other Courts, or the wild, Courtless ones who lived by their own laws, would snatch babes away from their beds in the night, leaving enchanted wood behind for the human parents to coddle.
But the members of the Court of the Bloodied Lilies thought themselves sophisticated. To seduce and entrap an artist was a feat worthy of acclaim and resulted in having a useful creature with talents to flaunt. To somehow gain a claim on a worthy mortal showed some level of skill; how you tricked the would-be hero into becoming your servant, how you turned the tables on a witch who'd thought to ensnare you, how you had come between two desperate lovers and somehow managed to get both under your power. The better the story, the better the trick, the more challenging the task, the more interesting the human-- all things that contributed to the status gained.
Nobody in Halidon's Court had stolen a child in a very long time, or else he might've had someone to play with.
As soon as he was old enough to open a threshold, Halidon had started sneaking away into the mortal realms. There hadn't been much thought in it, at the beginning. He had wanted to leave his father's estate, and he knew that among the mortals he could hide himself indefinitely, even if anyone did think to look for him there.
The first few trips were hard. The first time, he opened up in a city, and it was the worst experience of his life. The air stank like burning chemicals and iron. Everything had that weak, fake iron in it, the iron that didn't seem like iron at first until you touched it and burned your hands. He'd wandered the street for maybe twenty minutes, nearly getting hit by the speeding metal carriages that chugged out poison gasses for his trouble, before he'd finally collapsed against the side of a building and curled up in on himself, projecting as much magic as he could muster to make himself unseen. There might have been something worthwhile in the city, but if there was, he didn't give himself the opportunity to find it. As soon as his strength had recovered, he'd opened up a portal home and had spent the next long time scrubbing himself in spring water, trying to get the poison smoke off his skin and out of his eyes.
Later, he'd asked around and learned that not all of the mortal world was like that, a lot of it was tolerable. Some of it was almost pleasant. You just had to open the world the right way.
From then on, it was a case of trial and error; he practiced opening and closing thresholds over and over again, always making sure to peer inside before stepping through. He hopped place to place to place until he got the knack for sensing where he was headed-- not location, per say, but the kind of place he wanted to go. Soon he could open to forests and mountains and meadows on command, and when he was certain that he could manage it, he allowed himself to try another human town.
This town was much, much smaller than the first one had been, and it wasn't stacked up high like a termite mound, but spread out over unkempt, grassy fields. There were cows in most of the fields, and horses, and sometimes sheep or little goats-- though those flocks were smaller than the numerous groups of cows.
So pleased was he at having found someplace interesting, pleasant, and home to humans, Halidon decided that it would be his second home. Every day, he'd leave his father's house and return to the little, dusty town, where he'd spent his days wandering the streets unseen, stealing what he liked, playing small pranks when the mood took him, and quietly envying the families of humans he saw--families that had mothers, and attentive fathers, and multiple children playing together and teasing one another.
Then he'd found the school. An entire building filled to the brim with other children. Ones older than him, ones smaller, ones who were cruel, ones that were kind, ones that laughed with their friends, or kept to themselves. It was shocking; he'd only ever seen a small handful of other children his entire life, and here humans had so many that they needed to be organized by age and cram thirty of them into a room at a time.
It was there that he had seen Cameron for the first time, though he hadn't known his name then. He'd spied this small, sandy haired boy sitting alone in the grass in the front of the school, waiting for his mother to collect him. While other children stuck together in clusters, he was alone. Small.
It had taken Halidon three days to gather up the courage to speak to the boy. Three days of patiently watching from the shadows, three days of following him through his school day, and during the errands his parents chose to bring him along for. Three days of peering into his windows at night.
And now he'd done it. He had him, and could hardly believe how easy it had been.
Cameron Asher Galway
His brother had a beautiful name.
* * * * *
Along the way to his father's house, they met a hag in the woods. She was enormous, the size and a half of a grown man and twice as wide, covered in layers and layers of ragged black cloth.
"Ah, the young master out for a stroll," she said, her jagged teeth catching the starlight. "And what's this? A tasty little mortal." She pointed her gnarly cane at Cameron.
Beside him, Cameron made a small, fearful noise that cut Halidon to the bone.
"Don't be afraid," he said softly, layering his voice with magic. "All is well."
He felt Cameron relax. To the hag, he said proudly, "This is my brother."
The hag peered down at Cameron and sniffed. Cameron stood there, a dreamy expression on his face. It occurred to Halidon that perhaps future introductions should wait until after Cameron had acclimated to the air in Faerie; he doubted his new brother would remember this encounter.
"I smell nothing of your father's blood in him."
"I've adopted him."
"Huh," said the hag. "It's been some time since anyone's brought a living child in these parts. What will you trade for him?"
"He's not for trade."
"Are you certain? I'd planned on goat meat for tomorrow's stew, but if you're willing to sell--"
"He is my brother!" Halidon said hotly. "You will not entertain such a notion again."
The hag scowled, but hag her head. "As you say, young master."
Halidon pulled Cameron away, leaving the hag behind, but with his sharp ears, he heard her mutter under her breath, "Brother? Feh! Let's see what the boy's father has to say about it."
Halidon scowled at her words and drew Cameron a little closer.
"Do not speak when we meet my father tonight," he said, letting the magic seep into his voice. "I will speak for us both."
"Okay," Cameron said, barely above a whisper.
After that, Halidon was sure to keep his brother near, and he kept watch for anyone else they might meet, but they encountered no one else for the rest of the walk home.
Like all the wealthy manors hereabouts, Blackbriar Hall wasn't visible from the outside, with most of the home being underground, running beneath the hill like an anthill. The hill it was under was no smooth, rolling affair, but a steep and craggy hill, over grown in places with thorny vines and blister bush and other plants pleasing to the eye and poisonous to the touch. The only clue that there was anything within the hill itself was the occasional slash of glass windows visible in patches of stone-- if one knew where to look.
At the base of the hill was an enormous and jagged boulder jutting out from the cliff side. When Halidon approached, the sigils cut into the stone began to glow green, and an archway appeared in the rock,leading inside.
I'll have to teach him how to open the front door, he thought, guiding Cameron inside. There were other ways in and out too, some of which didn't need magic to use, but he would be damned if he was going to force his beloved new brother to use the servant's entrance.
The archway led them into the entry hall-- all warm wood walls and polished stone floor, with luminescent ivy growing along the ceiling. As soon as they were within the safety of the house, Halidon immediately began fussing over his new brother, concerned by how cold he'd become and how quiet he'd grown.
There were a few servants around-- some hobs whose families owed his father a debt and had been sent to work it off. One was scrubbing the floor, and two others were on ladders, tending the ivy. They paid no mind to him when he entered, barely glancing in his direction, and a hot spike of anger flared in his chest.
"Ahem," Halidon said loudly.
They all turned towards him and bowed as best they could.
"Young master," they said in unison.
Halidon pushed Cameron forward.
"Masters," he said. "There's two of us now. This is my brother, Cameron. You are to treat him with the same respect due to a son of the House." He very intentionally did not say, the respect you show me. He didn't want Cameron suffering their thin veneer of politeness and hostility, he wanted them to treat him right.
"Hi," said Cameron quietly. His voice still had that unsettling, distant quality to it, and Halidon fervently hoped that he'd adjust to the air soon.
The servants stared, uncomprehending.
"It's a human," said one.
"He will be my adopted brother," he said with complete confidence. "My father will declare it so. He's cold and air-addled, and will need something to eat. Something good that's safe for humans. Tell the kitchen staff."
None of the three moved.
He pointed at the hob on the floor. "You! Go! Go tell the kitchen! Have the food brought to my room."
The hob blinked, as though waking up. "Yes, of course."
And then he scurried out of the room.
Halidon watched him go, then glanced at the two on the ladders. They were staring at him and Cameron still, their eyes wide.
He treated them with a sneer and said, "Don't you have jobs to do?"
The said nothing, but averted their eyes and continued their tasks. Halidon took Cameron's hand and led him down the hall. Just as they passed the doorjamb, he heard one of the servant say quietly to the other,
"Bet you my Moonday shift the human is dead by next week."
Halidon froze. The edges of his vision had gone red and splotchy, and rage closed his throat, choking him. He would go back and have them beaten. It didn't matter which one had said it. He would have the guards drag them both outside, have them bound and dragged behind his horse for a day and a night--
"Halidon?" said Cameron. He felt his brother tugging on his sleeve. "Halidon, I'm cold."
He swallowed his anger and smiled. "Alright, Cameron," he said, trying to keep his voice cheerful and light. "We'll get you warmed up and introduce you to father."
He pulled his brother away from the door, away from the vile words, and went in search for blankets.
* * * * *
It took Halidon longer than he liked to find something for his brother. He'd introduced Cameron to several more people while searching for his father, and none of them had been useful-- only staring at him like he'd grown another head when he told them that this human was his new brother. In the end, he'd gotten so fed up that he ordered one of the staff to give Cameron his jacket, rather than wait for the sprite to get it through his head that, yes, this was a human. No, he was not a servant, toy, or pet.
The jacket was far too big for Cameron, with the hems going nearly down to his ankles. But it was warm from use, and it warmed Halidon's heart to see him snuggle into it.
Not long after, they found his father's seneschal.
The seneschal was a tall, thin man, with pointed ears and shining silver eyes that had no pupil and equally shining silver hair. He was prim, and proper, and originally came from one of the big castles from the distant High Courts, and Halidon was certain that the man hated him.
"This is Cameron," Halidon said curtly, already tired of having to explain and knowing that he would have to do it more and more as time went on. "He is my brother. He lives here now. Where's my father?"
His father's seneschal looked nonplussed, but still bowed to him, and then to Cameron. "As you say. Your esteemed father is in his study--"
"Good. Come, Cameron, let's go find him--"
"Wait," said the seneschal. "Lanius specifically asked that he not be disturbed--"
"Then he should have thought of that before having a son," Halidon snapped. He did not add that his entire existence seemed to be a disruption to his father, though he could have. It wasn't a lie.
He left before the seneschal could say anything more, half-dragging Cameron behind him. He led him deeper and deeper into the bowels of the house, where the wooden walls started cracking through with roots, and the air grew quieter and quieter, until they reached the double doors of his father's study. Once there, he stood for a moment, and took a deep breath.
Then Halidon threw open the doors to his with enough force to make them bang the wall on either side.
"Father," he said speaking loudly and strutting in in the most imperious, adult way he could. "I've found a brother."
From his writing desk, his father glanced at the two of them, then went back to his work. "That is a human, Halidon."
"Yes. He will be my human brother. You can declare him as your second son and have him recognized as a member of our House."
His father set his quill down with a sigh. "Halidon. . ."
"What?" Halidon snapped. "You refuse to-- or are incapable of-- providing me a brother, and so I found my own." He reached back for Cameron's hand and drew him forward. "Look," Halidon said. "He's perfect."
Cameron gave a sleepy little wave.
His father studied Cameron for a moment, then sighed again. "You've acquired a playmate for yourself," he said. "I am glad. You need something to keep you occupied. By all means, keep him. Clothe him, feed him, do what you will for as long as it pleases you. He may be your pet. He may be your servant. He may even be your companion. But he is not your brother."
"I disagree," Halidon said, trying not to shout.
Halidon stood there a moment, waiting for him to say anything, but his father didn't bother with a response.
Scowling, he took Cameron by the hand and headed for the door.
"Halidon," his father called after. "When you tire of the boy, be sure to return him to the mortal world, unless it suits you to see him lost or devoured."
The urge to scream was overwhelming. He wanted to run back to his father's desk and knock all his papers off. He wanted to topple the bookshelves, to smash glass and scream and set fires and hit his father until he took the words back.
But Cameron was watching him with wide, hazel eyes, so Halidon swallowed his rage and bit the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood. And on the outside, he smiled at his new brother-- because Cameron was his brother, no matter what his father said.
"Don't listen," he said as they walked. "I won't ever tire of you. I won't let anyone hurt you. And I will never send you away."
Cameron said nothing, but Halidon felt the weight of his silence press against him.
"We cannot lie," Halidon said, more because he wanted to break the silence than because he thought Cameron wanted an explanation. "We can bend the words and slink around meaning, but we can't break a promise, and we can't lie. But we can be wrong."
"Okay," Cameron said. He was still so quiet, so sad, so unlike the smiling, laughing boy he had met in the garden just that day. As far as Halidon was concerned, he couldn't recover from the air fast enough.
They came to the door of Halidon's room, and here Halidon had a choice. There were several empty rooms around his. After a moment's consideration, he led Cameron to the room directly across from his.
Like all the rooms in this wing, it was furnished, but hadn't been lived in since long before Halidon was born. Unlike the other rooms, this was one of the few that had a window to the outside, high, high above, right near the ceiling. The illuminating ivy on the ceiling had dried out long ago from lack of care, and there was a thick coating of dust on the carpeted floor. But there were shelves on the wall for books, an armoire and bureau, an empty toy chest at the foot of the large bed, and a fireplace off to the side. He imagined what the place would be once Cameron started living in it, how he would fill the wardrobe with the best quality clothes for his brother, how full the toy chest and book shelves would be, how bright and alive the place would become.
"This will be your room," Halidon said grandly. He had seen the glorified shoe closet that served as Cameron's room in the human world, and this bedroom was three times the size of that, at least.
His brother hugged himself and looked around, his small face unnervingly pale in the dim light.
"In here?" he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
"What's wrong?" Halidon said.
Cameron stared at the floor and only shook his head in answer. His face scrunched up, and Halidon was terrified that he was about to cry.
"Please don't," he said, half panicked. "You don't have to stay here if you don't want to."
He looked around the room and tried to see what could be so upsetting. Yes, it was dark, and dusty. There were spider webs in the corner. The bed hadn't been turned out--
His heart sank. The longer he actually looked, the more unpleasant the room became.
"You don't have to stay here," he said, taking his brother's hand. "You can stay in my room. Would that be better?"
Cameron nodded and wiped his eyes. Halidon gently led him towards the other room while his stomach hurt with a sudden, stabbing guilt. It had been less than a day-- less than an hour, and already he'd made his brother cry.
In Halidon's room, resting on the bedside table, was a small, silver bell in the shape of a downturned flower. No sound came out when Halidon rang it, but he knew that somewhere in the house, the seneschal had heard it and would be sending someone to check on him. In the meantime, he set about seeing to his brother.
Though Cameron was not, relatively speaking, that much younger than him, he was much smaller. Halidon searched through his clothes chests and wardrobes until he found some old sleeping clothes that would fit him. While Cameron was changing, Halidon went to his desk and started making a list of things his brother would need-- things he realized now that he ought to have prepared in advance, rather than just hoping would appear.
Soon after, one of the servants finally arrived, a redheaded elf with a foxy look about the face. As with most of the people who served in his father's house, Halidon didn't know his given name and didn't feel bothered to learn it.
"My brother needs a bed," he said.
The servant blinked, then glanced at Cameron, and back to Halidon. He leaned forward and said, "A bed?"
"Did I stutter?"
"It's just that-- it's a human," he said slowly, as though Halidon were stupid. "Surely a cushion on the floor would suffice--"
Halidon slapped him. It was an awkward slap; even bent forward, the man was still much taller than Halidon, and he had to reach up to hit him. There wasn't much force behind it, but it was loud. The servant did not move.
"I'll need some people to move the room around to fit the bed," Halidon said. "And I asked for food when we arrived. See why it isn't here yet."
The servant bowed. "I will see to it immediately," he said.
Halidon scowled at him as he left and waited until he was well and truly gone before checking on Cameron.
The boy was wearing Halidon's old pajamas, but he hadn't properly buttoned the shirt; somewhere along the line, he'd gotten one button matched with the wrong hole, and now the entire shirt was oddly lopsided on him. He was also staring at him.
"What?" said Halidon.
"You hit him."
"He deserved it," Halidon said. He moved towards Cameron, intending to fix the buttons.
Cameron hurriedly stepped back, and the way he looked at Halidon now was the same as the way he had looked at the hag in the woods.
Halidon froze. Panic clawed at his chest, and it felt like spikes of ice were growing in his belly, piercing him from the inside-out.
No no no no--
"Cameron," he said gently. "I won't hurt you."
He stepped forward again, and again Cameron stepped back, keeping the distance between them.
"I don't believe you," Cameron said.
Halidon felt as though he'd been slapped.
"I cannot lie," he said. "I promise, I will never hit you." Just the thought of doing so made his stomach churn. "I want to take care of you. I promised, remember? I promised I would take care of you. I want to be your friend."
He moved forward again, and this time Cameron did not shy away. He was silent as Halidon helped him fix the shirt, and remained silent when Halidon touched his face and his hair.
"Cameron," he said, his voice full of glamour. "Do not be afraid of me."
And his brother relaxed.
Halidon smiled, but it was a pained, brittle thing. How many times would have to do this? How many more times would he have to tell Cameron not to be afraid of him? He who wanted nothing more than to keep him happy?
"Hey," Halidon said, as much to distract himself as give Cameron something to do. "Come look at the toys I have."
Cameron did, and the two spent some time taking each one out of the chest, with Halidon explaining where it had come from, or what it was made out of, and what stories and games he played with it. At one point, some more servants arrived with a bed stolen from another room, and he left Cameron to play alone while he told them where it was to go, and what needed to be moved and where in order to fit it. But he did so carefully. Calmly. And when he wanted to shout at them for being stupid, or push them, or hit them, he stopped himself, because Cameron was just on the other side of the room, and doing any of that would make him unhappy or worse-- afraid.
Halidon didn't think he could handle Cameron being afraid of him again.
Sometime in the rush of activity, the food for Cameron arrived. When Halidon saw what was on the plate, he had to bite his tongue to keep from yelling. The food was plain and dull and clearly unfit to be eaten by the son of a lord-- which Cameron should be, even his his father refused to declare him so. Dry oat cakes, some sort of gnarled, rooted carrot, a slice of pear.
Halidon scowled at the plate and said to the servant, "What is this?"
She bowed her head and said, "It's human food, young master. Or food that's safe for them."
"Can't he eat our food? I know the musicians at the court do, and they're human--"
She kept her eyes down. "It was a precaution from the chef," she said. "If you sent him home after eating our food, he'd like as not starve to death."
"Why does everyone think I'm sending him away?" Halidon hissed. He glanced over his shoulder, but Cameron was still busying himself with the toys. "He will live here forever as my brother, and that is that. Go bring us some real food."
She bobbed her head and left with the plate. It wasn't long before she returned again, this time with a cart loaded with platters of food. Proper food this time. There were numerous pastries and chopped fruits, slices of glitter fish and roast boar and other meats, a dozen kinds of edible flower petals, and a number of other small dishes. It looked like the chef had sent up a sampling of everything for Cameron to try.
This was more like it.
The two spread out the plates onto the bed, and Halidon watched, delighted as Cameron devoured nearly all of it.
When they were done and the remains had all been stacked haphazardly onto the cart for someone else to take away, Cameron rolled out of Halidon's bed and waddled his way into the bed that had been brought for him. It was too tall, clearly meant for an adult, and Halidon had to give him a boost into it. Once there, the boy collapsed, asleep, not even nothing to tuck himself in.
Halidon watched his little brother sleep with a strange giddiness. He grabbed a blanket off his own bed and gently placed it over Cameron-- humans didn't like being too cold, he remembered-- and returned to his own bed.
For the longest time, he could not sleep, too excited and eager for morning to come. When sleep finally did take him, the last thing he remembered were the soft sounds of his brother snoring.
* * * * *
The first days in Faerie were a blur to Cameron. He mostly remembered Halidon.
Halidon leading him by the hand into strange, wild places. Halidon laughing at things-- though Cameron didn't remember what. Halidon sitting beside him and telling him stories. Sometimes they were outside, eating foraged foods and sleeping in the trees or soft grass, and sometimes they were inside the manor, stuffing themselves with the expansive meals at the long table, sleeping in the soft beds in Halidon's room.
He remembered Halidon trying to teach him things-- how he had to wear his jacket and socks inside out-- the jacket to stop spying spells, the socks to stop get-you-lost magic. How he had to keep salt in one pocket and lick it if he thought he was being glamoured. How he had to have a handful of holly berries in on him, because most of the wild things were burned by the touch of it. How he had to have grains in another to throw at anyone coming after him because sometimes, some folk would be compelled to stop and count them. It wasn't a sure thing, but it was better to try than not.
He remembered Halidon trying to teach him how to go inside the house on his own, and then, when that didn't work, having to get the hag from the woods to make a magic stain on the back of his neck that would open the door for him. She had smeared some nasty, purple-ish gunk on his neck-- he remembered the foul, rotting-flower smell that seemed to seep into his clothes and cleared his sinuses, and he remembered the way she's scratched something into the gunk with her long, dirty nails, and how he'd had to lie in the sun for an hour after, not permitted to touch it at all, before he could wash it off.
Vaguely, he remembered stuffing his face with colorful fairy food-- strange fruits and pastries and meats and weird puddings he didn't recognize. And he remembered Halidon watching him earnestly, insisting he eat more.
In all the memories, Halidon was with him.
But at some point, Cameron woke up. His head had acclimated to the too-fresh air, to the too-flavorful food, to the unreal nature of the world around him.
It happened when he and Halidon were riding through a field of flowers on the back of a shaggy horse, whose mane was thick with flowering vines, and whose fur was made of moss.
"Halidon?" he said. "How long have I been here?"
Halidon glanced back at him before turning his attention back ahead. "Only a week or so."
"What about my mom and dad?"
Halidon made a gesture, and the pony slowed to a stop. "What about them?" he said, turning to see him better.
"They're probably worried about me," Cameron said. "I should go back."
Halidon shook his head. "No," he said. "Out of the question." He turned to face the front again, and spurred the pony on.
"But I'm missing school."
"It doesn't matter. If you want to be educated, we can find tutors here for you."
"But my mom and dad--"
"No," said Halidon again. Then, in his honeyed voice, he said, "Cameron, do not ask me about them again."
Cameron tried to open his mouth to ask again anyway, but couldn't form the words. He tried again and again, staring into Halidon's back and trying to make the words come, can I go home? Can I see my parents? but no sound left his lips.
He was silent for much of the day after that.
When they went to the river to watch the warring clans of nixies bicker with one another, when they rode through the waters on the back of a pooka that had promised not to drown them, when they ran across a traveling musician who played them a few songs in exchange for directions, Cameron said not ten words in all.
And when Halidon led him to the crystal groves where the jeweled fruits were grown, he was reminded of the gnarled apple tree back home, his real home, not the new country house, but the old one. The shining fruit made him think of the cut glass bead that hung from the rear-view mirror of his mother's car, or the earrings his mother wore when she and his father would go on date nights. Halidon insisted he try the fruit, swearing it would be the most delicious thing he'd ever eaten, so he did, unenthusiastically.
The glass-like skin of the fruit cracked and dissolved in his mouth, and the meat was delicious, far tastier than anything he'd ever eaten. He attacked the fruit with gusto, and Halidon's golden laugh filled the air. The two sat beneath one of the trees, working their way through a pile of pilfered fruits.
But even as he gorged himself, the oversweet taste reminded Cameron of home, and he remembered how his father always brought him a lolly when he came home from work. He remembered running up to his dad every evening when he got home, and how his father would sweep him up in an embrace, then carry him over to where his mother was standing and give her a kiss--
"Cameron?" said Halidon. He let the fruit he was about to eat fall away from his mouth. "Cameron, what's wrong?"
Cameron, mouth full and face stained with juice, stared down and the fruit cores on the grass in front of him and silently wept.
"Brother, please," Halidon said. He crept up close, and Cameron was distantly aware of arms wrapping around him. "Please don't be sad."
"I want my mom and dad," Cameron said. It wasn't a question. He could say those words fine. "I want to go home."
For a time, Halidon was silent, though he held him tighter. But at length, he spoke.
"Cameron," he said quietly. "I want you to be happy, so I am going to make it stop hurting, alright?"
Part of Cameron wanted to ask what he meant by that, or how he intended on getting it done, but the other half was too miserable to care.
Gingerly, Halidon put his fingertips to the sides of Cameron's head. They pressed lightly, tapping their way around until they settles on his temples. There was a strange tingling where his fingers touched, and a warmth that was nearly uncomfortable spread inside his head. He imagined it as a creeping vine taking root in his brain, tangling itself up and pressing behind his eyes.
Then, there was a flash of white. So fast, so quick, he would have thought he had blinked funny if he hadn't been anticipating some strangeness. Then it was just him and Halidon, sitting in the grass beneath the crystal fruit tree.
"Why are you crying?" Halidon said. He was watching him with unnerving intensity, and his tail was swishing anxiously behind him.
"I. . . I don't know," Cameron said. He looked around, confused. There was a pile of uneaten fruit between them, glistening and lovely, and the pile of cores they'd already finished, and the beautiful crystal trees around them, and nothing that he could think should make him cry.
"I'm sorry," he said, face burning red. He tried to wipe his face off as best he could, but only succeeded in making a bigger mess of tear stains and fruit juice.
Halidon pulled a kerchief from his coat pocket and began helping him clean up.
"Don't be sorry," Halidon said. "How do you feel now?"
"Fine,' said Cameron. "A little headachey."
"Do you feel well enough to be out?" Halidon said. "I had wanted to go to the river and play some more, but we can return home and do something else."
Cameron yawned. "I'm tired," he said. Whatever he'd been crying about had taken a toll on him, and every part of him ached for sleep.
"Alright," Halidon said. "We can stay here a while until you're rested."
Cameron nodded and leaned back, partly against the tree, partly against Halidon's shoulder, and closed his eyes.
* * * * *
Halidon watched as sleep slowly took Cameron. The smaller boy rested his head against Halidon's shoulder, and any thoughts of moving from his place fled; Halidon would not disturb him.
He shouldn't have done it.
Cameron was his brother, not a servant or pet-- no matter what his father said. And if he was his brother, that meant he was his equal, and shouldn't be manipulated in such a fashion. Calming him, helping him sleep. Those were-- well. He shouldn't be doing those either, but they were at least excusable bad habits. But to seal away entire memories?
His stomach churned with a foreign, uncomfortable misery. Guilt. That's what it was. He almost laughed; in the one week since he'd brought Cameron to Blackbriar Hall, Halidon had felt more guilt than he had in his entire life until that point. It weighed in his belly, raw and heavy.
And yet. . .
Slowly, so as not to wake him, Halidon wrapped his arm around his brother's shoulders. More than anything, he wanted Cameron to be happy here. Desperately, achingly, so badly that it hurt, he wanted Cameron to be happy. Wanted him to want to be here.
And there was no way that could happen with the thought of his mortal parents looming over him.
"I love you," Halidon said. The words came out small and strangled; his throat was suddenly tight. "I love you."
Cameron didn't hear him, he was clearly deeply asleep, but he sighed softly and turned a little, burying his face partly into Halidon's shoulder.
And softly, with no one around or awake to witness him, Halidon began to weep.
* * * * *
Time passed strangely in Faerie.
Some days felt short. Some days were long. The short days tended to have nights that seemed to go on forever, as though to make up for it, while the long days barely had any night in them at all near the end, and it was as though the sun hadn't truly set, just sunk almost below the horizon, only to slide back up again.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the days for Cameron began to blur together.
Some days, the boys didn't sleep inside. Halidon had a number of hiding places around his father's land-- little caves and tree houses and huts made of trees he convinced to grow together. Some days, the two would sneak out with blankets and pillows and stay overnight in one of the hiding places, feeling bold and daring until they started inevitably sharing scary stories, after which they would pretend to feel bold and daring.
On the days where the boys slept inside, he would wake up in Halidon's room-- which was rapidly becoming their room as more and more of it was rearranged to accommodate his presence-- and the two would race downstairs to scarf down breakfast (often stealing the ingredients for what would become breakfast, rather than sitting at the table), then run, giggling, out of the house before anyone could find them and make them put on proper clothes or brush their teeth, or bother Halidon about tutors or anything else.
If it was a long day, they filled the hours outside, soaking in as much of the daylight as they could. They found long sticks and pretended they were swords (Halidon's father had forbidden them from playing with real ones), and went looking for frogs and the tiny winged mice that Halidon's Folk considered pests, but that Cameron greatly admired. They would splash in the stream and throw rocks to scare away the small, nearly-harmless grindylow who lived there, though only in the small, shallow areas. In the places where the stream poured into the river, they stayed resolutely on shore, out of grabbing range, and were content to watch the waters and the things within it from afar.
Some long days, they would raid the gardens or orchards, either for the love of stealing and getting away with it, or because they were actually hungry. Sometimes they did diverting, pointless things, like digging large holes, or damming the stream with sticks and mud, or stacking rocks and making little towers.
And when they weren't in the mood for that, Cameron taught Halidon mortal games, like tag, or paper scissors rock, or hide-and-seek (though Halidon didn't much care for hide and seek, saying it was too much like inviting trouble). Cameron also considered it something of a civic duty to teach Halidon some of the many, many hand-clap and counting songs.
Despite these, in Cameron's opinion, being significantly less fun with only the two of them to play, Halidon was enthralled with each one, and often repeated the songs ad nauseum unless Cameron could find something else to distract him. Halidon, it became apparent, didn't know many games. Whether this was because of his specific upbringing, or a quirk of all Faerie, Cameron couldn't be sure.
On the short days, where it wasn't worth leaving the house because by the time they did the sun would already be setting, the boys stayed inside. Sometimes they played their games there, chasing one another around the labyrinthine manor, rough housing and playing swords, uncaring of their surroundings, who they ran in to or what they broke along the way. Halidon also approved of hide and seek if they were inside the house on the grounds that it would be much harder for one of them to go tragically and permanently missing, and so that became one of their go-to indoor games. And when run-around games didn't have any appeal, and they were bored with the simpler, time-killing mortal games like tic-tac-toe or hangman, the boys would go into the great library.
The library was massive. Cameron had no idea how far under ground they must have been, but it had to have been far, because there was no way the hill could fit the library in it. Wall to wall shelves interrupted only by an enormous fireplace, comfortable sofas laden with thick cushions that made for good pillow-fort materials, and more books than Cameron had ever thought possible.
While most of the books in the library were ancient tomes written in languages he couldn't read, there were some that were recognizably English. Of those, a small percentage were in words Cameron could actually understand. Many of them had intricate drawings and paintings inside along the margins or mixed in with the paragraphs, all of which Halidon told him were done by hand.
They took turns reading to each other, both simultaneously wanting to show off their skill while also wanting to be read to. Halidon was thrilled to find that the old, tired tales he'd grown up with were all new to Cameron, and he delighted in seeing his brother's reactions to them. Cameron was the less skilled reader out of the two, and the archaic language in the books often gave him difficulty. When he struggled, Halidon patiently helped him through the words or meanings that troubled him, and before long both of the boys' skill and speed had grown.
Once, after a particularly engrossing chapter in a story about cruel knights and clever dragons, the boys looked up and found that they had gathered an audience.
Halidon's father stood a short ways away, giving them an appraising look. Beyond him, on the threshold of the library, they were in time to see several people peering in, only to hurriedly duck out of sight.
"Yes?" Halidon said, mustering all the haughtiness he could muster. Beside him, Cameron pulled the book into his lap and hugged it to his chest, as though it were some measure of protection.
His father gave him a wan smile. "I hadn't known you could read."
Halidon's face burned.
"If that's all you have to say, then we would appreciate your leaving us," he said, injecting as much venom into the words as he could. "My brother and I are busy."
The smile widened, more mirth behind it. Smiling-- smiling! Halidon could count on his fingers the number of times his father had smiled at him, and here he was doing it to mock him.
"Of course," he said. "I'll leave you to it." He swept towards the exit.
"And close the door!" Halidon shouted.
His father did not close the door. Halidon scowled and got up to do it himself. There was no sense inviting more of an audience.
"What was that about?" Cameron said.
"Apparently they find us amusing," Halidon said. "Never mind him. It's my turn now."
Cameron handed him the book, and he settled back into the sofa and began to read.
* * * * *
Living in Faerie means building a lot of new habits. Always have your salt and holly berries. Always have your socks inside out. Never accept any gifts from anyone-- at least nobody outside of Blackbriar Hall, because inside the Hall, the rules were a little different. But always ask if something was freely given, always speak politely. But the hardest habit of all was the one he had to stop doing: Halidon warned him not to say thank you. People at Blackbriar Hall wouldn't give him any trouble over it, he was assured, but outside, folk were likely to get ideas if they thought that Cameron thought he was in their debt.
"But it's just being nice!" Cameron had said.
And Halidon had laughed at that until his eyes watered.
"People here aren't nice for no reason," he said. "So you shouldn't be, either."
Privately, Cameron thought that was a terrible way to live, and besides, wasn't Halidon always nice to him? But it was just one more weird thing about Faerie he'd have to get used to.
The strangest thing-- well, not strangest. There were too many actual, impossibly strange things in Faerie to properly compare. But an unexpected and confusing thing was the way people started coming to Cameron when they had something they wanted to tell Halidon.
On the occasions someone needed to ask Halidon a question-- the cook's assistant asking what he wanted for dinner that night, the laundress wanting to know where he'd thrown yesterday's clothes, the gardener wondering if he could please, please stop leaving rotting fruit around the grounds-- they would wait for the rare occasions Halidon was out of earshot of him, then ask Cameron to convey the message.
Cameron didn't mind at all, but he found it all strange when Halidon was clearly the one they wanted to talk to.
"How come you don't ask him yourself?" he said once.
The hob he was speaking to, a fellow who went by Garda and worked as a go-fer in the kitchen, and who currently wanted to know if Halidon was attending the dinner his father was hosting that night, or if he was going to go gallivanting off into the woods, shook his head.
"Oh no. No no no. I've been on the wrong side of that lad's temper before. I'd soon as not do it again."
"But Halidon is nice!" Cameron said.
Garda stared at him a moment, then laughed. "Right," he said. "I forgot humans could lie. Very convincing."
"I'm not lying! He's always nice--"
"He's nice to you," said a voice behind them.
He turned to see the seneschal coming down the hallway. In his hand was a small stack of envelopes and papers.
"Hello Thistlebone," Cameron said politely. "What do you mean?"
Thistlebone treated him with a small, fleeting smile.
"Hello, Cameron," he said. "And what I mean is that the boy's a menace to everyone and everything else around here. Even Lanius can barely stand him. But he clearly adores you. I don't know how long it will last, but while it does, we intend to make the most of it."
He handed Cameron a handful of envelopes. "Give this to him, will you?"
"What are these?"
"Letters from and about potential tutors. His father is adamant that he start lessons soon, and I'd rather someone else deliver the bad news. Preferably someone who's not at risk of being taken out and horsewhipped for being the messenger."
Cameron stared, trying to figure out the joke, but Thistlebone's face was dead serious.
"He would, can, and has. Will you deliver them?"
"And ask about the dinner tonight?" Garda added hopefully.
"Yes," Cameron said, taking the letters. "I'll talk to him."
He reached Halidon's room just as Halidon was leaving. The horned boy's face brightened when he saw him coming. "There you are," he said, holding the door open for him. "I was about to go find you."
Cameron smiled weakly and went inside.
"These are for you," he said, holding up the letters for Halidon to see.
"What are they?" Halidon flopped onto his bed.
"Letters about tutors."
"Ugh," Halidon said. "Just toss them into the fire."
Cameron did as he was asked. He stood at the fireplace, staring as the flames devoured the stack of papers, but his mind was elsewhere.
"Are you going to your dad's dinner tonight?" he said.
Halidon snorted. "What do you think?"
So no, then.
"I'm bored. Are you bored? I am. Let's do something," Halidon said.
"We could go riding," Cameron said. "We could have a race."
"We could paint. I think all of our painting stuff is still out from the last time." Halidon had specifically ordered that nobody clean up the mess they'd made of the empty bedroom to the right of his. It was, he'd said, their new art studio.
"Nah. Not feeling inspired."
"We could nap and read and be quiet up here."
"We could talk about this by the stream."
Halidon perked up at that, and soon the two were headed outside again.
As it turned out, the stream didn't do much to inspire them, but at least there was a nice breeze.
"Lie for me," Halidon said.
The two of them were lounging by the stream, Cameron against the base of a gnarly tree, and Halidon further down in the grass nearer the bank, one bare foot in the water.
"Uh. The sky is red."
Halidon frowned. "It can be, sometimes, if the conditions are right."
"Well it's not red right now, so it's a lie."
"Tell a better lie. One more clearly false."
"It's too hot to think. Why don't you tell a lie?"
"I told you. I can't."
"You can lie," Cameron said.
Halidon chucked. "Good one."
"You can! You tell stories all the time!"
"Those are stories," Halidon said, waving his hand. "That's entirely different."
Cameron wanted to argue, but before he could say another thing, Halidon leapt to his feet.
"Come," he said, already walking away. "Walk with me."
With a sigh, Cameron heaved himself up and dutifully trailed after.
The two walked along the streams edge, saying nothing much until Halidon said, "Is something wrong?"
"It's just that you appear pensive," Halidon said.
"You look like you've got something on your mind."
"I-- yeah. Halidon?" he said, voice uncertain. "Do you. . . hurt people?"
Halidon blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I was talking to Thistlebone--"
"Your father's seneschal. And he said--"
Halidon snorted. "Figures he'd be the one putting poison in your ear."
"Not just him though! They say you hurt people. Or you get the guards to do it for you."
Halidon looked out at the water and said nothing.
"You told me once you were upset nobody wanted to be with you," Cameron said. "You said it like they were mean, but they aren't. They're all scared of you."
"That's their own problem."
"But you've done it before, haven't you?"
Halidon didn't answer.
"I don't want you to hurt people," Cameron said. "You're nicer than that."
"You don't know that," Halidon said.
"You're nice to me."
Halidon barked out a laugh. "I love you," he said.
"So I love you. I wouldn't hurt you for anything in the world."
"I don't want you to hurt anyone," Cameron said. "Especially not the people who are nice to us."
Silence stretched between them.
At length, Halidon said at last, "Fine."
He threw up his hands. "Fine, I won't have any of the servants beaten, or whipped, or any of that any more. I won't send the hounds after them, or set their homes on fire, or anything else. Fine, I will attempt to control my temper. If it pleases you, then I promise it."
His face was flush and scrunched up, and he refused to look up. It was the most flustered Cameron had ever seen him.
Cameron smiled and threw himself at Halidon, drawing him into a hug.
"Thank you," he said.
"You shouldn't say that here," Halidon said. But the words were automatic, and he allowed himself to be embraced.
After a moment, Cameron, still holding him, said, "Uh. Did you really set people on fire?"
"Just their houses," Halidon said.
Well, Cameron thought as the two continued their walk. That wasn't as bad as it could have been. Cameron supposed he ought to have been grateful for that.
* * * * *
The weeks passed quickly, even the ones that were heavy with long days. Then months.
People in Blackbriar Hall stopped being surprised to see the little mortal accompanying their lord's son. They stopped being surprised to see the lord's son smiling with the boy, stopped being surprised to see him running around with human, playing foreign games and treating him with more compassion than any of them had ever thought he could possess.
And when it looked like the lord's son would once again lose his temper and begin to hit things and people alike, when his teeth were bared and his eyes flashed from green to gold, they saw the little mortal boy calmly place his hand on his shoulder and speak soft words, and he would calm down immediately. Eventually, a few months after the mortal's arrival, even the start of tantrums would become less frequent.
There were no more beatings, no more fires, no more raids on homes, or hunting dogs sent to run down travelers, or anything else Halidon used to do or have done when he was angry or bored.
Word spread quickly though the tenants under Lord Lanius. It was a miracle. A human child had tamed the hellion that ran amok in Blackbriar Hall.
Even if Halidon hadn't gone around warning people that Cameron was his, the Folk around Blackbriar Hall would have left him alone anyway. Only an idiot would try and break the chain holding the rabid dog back.
* * * * *
The one thing they never got around to doing in the first few months Cameron was in Faerie was go to a revel.
Halidon had talked them up when they'd first met. How they were insane, days-long parties where the folk went absolutely nuts. Drinking, dancing, enormous nightly feasts. No rules at all, except what was funny and what you could get away with.
"How come we don't go?" Cameron said. It was night time on the first day of the sixth month, and the two were in their bedroom, playing army with Halidon's toys.
"Aren't you having fun?" Halidon said.
"That's not what I asked," said Cameron. He'd long since cottoned on to Halidon's way of avoiding questions. "Why don't we go?"
"They're loud," Halidon said. "And crowded."
"And perhaps more dangerous that I had implied in my telling of them." His face was blooming red around his cheeks, and he refused to look at Cameron. "I am afraid what would happen if we brought you to one."
Cameron sighed and idly toyed with one of Halidon's elven soldier figures. He loved his brother, but it seemed like Halidon spent a disproportionate amount of time being afraid on his behalf.
"I would like to see one," he said. "I've only ever been to birthday parties. Not grown up ones."
"Then you are in luck," said someone at the door. The boys poked their heads out from behind the bed and saw Halidon's father standing in the doorway.
"Hello, sir," Cameron said.
"What do you mean?" Halidon said.
"I've come to inform you that tomorrow night, I will be hosting the Autumn Concord, and that you should prepare yourself accordingly."
"You're hosting a revel here?" Halidon said.
Lanius' face was expressionless. "It is long past our turn to host," he said. "I have been granted reprieve the last several years, but now I feel it is time to uphold our duty to the Court."
"Why the change?" Halidon said, frowning.
His father's face remained carefully blank. "I will raise the Hawthorn Hill tomorrow," he said, and Cameron realized where Halidon got his habit of ignoring questions he didn't want to answer. And without waiting for any response, he left.
"Well," Halidon said. "It appears your wish has been granted."
"I'm sure it'll be fine," Cameron said.
Halidon glared at his army toys and didn't answer.
"It'll be fine," Cameron said, this time with more feeling. "You'll be there, won't you?"
"So if anything bad happens, you can stop it," he said. "And do you really think your dad would let anything bad happen? On his land?"
Halidon sighed. "No, I suppose not. Even if not for our sake, he wouldn't suffer the insult."
Cameron beamed. "It will be fine," he said again.
"Very well," Halidon said. But he gave Cameron a hard look. "But no dancing unless I am there with you, or else--"
"Or else I'll dance until my feet bleed and my legs break," Cameron said, tone bored. "I know."
"And don't accept any--"
"Any gifts or favors from anyone unless they say it's freely given. I know."
Halidon sighed. Cameron grinned and gave him a playful shove.
"It's going to be fine," he said again. "Better than that. It's going to be fun."
* * * * *
The next day, Halidon woke Cameron before the sun had finished rising. He shook him awake and, when Cameron wasn't moving fast enough for his liking, he pulled the covers off the bed.
"Hurry," he said. "They're going to raise the hill soon! I want you to see."
Cameron grumbled and blearily flopped out of bed. When he started for the clothes chest, Halidon took his hand and instead guided him towards the door.
"Don't bother dressing," he said. "It will take too long, and nobody cares if we're in our sleeping clothes."
"So what's a hill raising?" Cameron said, trying to keep up.
"It's when we raise a hill."
Cameron waited for more.
"And?" he said when it became clear nothing else was forthcoming.
"Why are we raising a hill?"
The two had made it to the entrance hall and together stepped out into the misty morning air.
"For the party!" Halidon said. He led Cameron around the outside of the huge hill that housed Blackbriar Hall. There was, Cameron noticed, already a path tromped out, as though a large group of people had already passed.
"Won't the party be inside the house?"
Halidon snorted. "I told you, people go crazy at the revels. They start off prim and proper, and by the end they invariably devolve into hedonism and madness. My father would never allow that inside his house, so we have a separate hall we raise when it's our turn to host."
Cameron sighed. "You used big words again."
"Heed-something. And devo-something."
Halidon explained the meaning of the words as the two walked, and they still weren't there when he'd finished. The steep, craggy hill for Blackbriar Hall was enormous, and Cameron wasn't sure they'd make it in time.
Behind the hill was a flat, grassy area where Halidon and Cameron sometimes raced their mossy ponies. There was a decent number of people already there, and among them was Halidon's father, who seemed to be in deep conversation with Thistlebone.
Someone shouted, "they're here!" And suddenly all eyes were on them as they came up the path.
"Ah! They arrive at last," said Halidon's father. He gestured for the two to join him.
"Good morning," said Cameron as they approached. "Were you waiting for us?"
"Yes," said Lanius. "I'd like Halidon's help with this."
Halidon said nothing, but his expression was part glare, part confusion, and Cameron could imagine him wondering what the trick was.
"Why?" Cameron said for him.
Lanius didn't seem to mind Cameron asking. Most people seemed to accept it when he butted into conversations in Halidon's stead. "It's something he needs to know how to do. Now is a good time as any to teach him."
"Is it magic?" Cameron said, this time asking for himself.
"Very much so."
Halidon glowered, but Cameron couldn't stop the grin spreading across his face. "Come on, Hal," he said, giving Halidon a playful shove. "You get to do magic!"
A slow smile crept across Halidon's features. "Alright," he said. "You have to watch. But if I mess up, you can't laugh."
"Promise," said Cameron.
"Well now that that's settled," said Lanius dryly, "perhaps we can actually begin?"
Thistlebone herded Cameron off to the side with the rest of the watchers, leaving Halidon and his father out in the open.
Lanius said something to Halidon, who nodded, and the two of them took a few steps away from each other. Once in position, they both put out their hands, palms facing up, hands about equal with their hips. Then, slowly, they raised them.
The ground rumbled. Then it began to ripple and churn like choppy water. Cameron tugged in Thistlebone's sleeve, pointing excitedly, as the whole of the field before them started stretching and straining, as though something enormous beneath it were breathing. Then, the giant beneath the hill inhaled, and the earth stretched upward. The ground bulged and expanded and sprouted out from itself, and in the span of a few heartbeats, there was a second, enormous hill.
The hill for Blackbriar Hall was craggy and steep and impossible to climb, and it was covered in thorny plants and plants that burned when touched, all to keep people off. In contrast, the hill for Hawthorn Hall, while still craggy and steep, was also covered in soft, green grass and large, red-orange flowers. There were many hawthorn trees with blood-red leaves that fluttered in the breeze, and vines of orange roses that hung from their branches like streamers.
As with the Blackbriar Hall hill, there was a large stone with a flat face at the front. Lanius made a gesture, and the doorway to the inside appeared.
There was a polite round of applause from the onlookers, and then everyone started filing inside the new hill.
Halidon looked exhausted, but he had a huge grin plastered on his face, and when he saw Cameron, he waved and started over.
"You did it!" Cameron said, running up to him.
"Do we go in?" Cameron said. The entrance to the new hill was clogged full of people milling their way in.
"We can," Halidon said. "But there's not much to look at right now."
"I wanna see! I wanna see!"
Halidon laughed and the two made their way to the hill, Cameron dragging Halidon by the hand.
The first thing that struck Cameron about the place was the sheer enormity of it. Vast and empty, save for the workers coming in, and thick with a damp, earthy smell.
The walls and floors were dirt. Thick, dark earth that looked like it had been cut open with a blade. But as he watched, members of the staff ran their hands over the walls, and thousands of stringy roots protruded from the dirt wall like searching snakes. The roots followed their hands, straining out of the dirt to get as near as possible. Then, at a gesture, the roots froze. The wormy roots then wove themselves together and flattened themselves against the side of the wall. More and more came out of the dirt, and layer by layer, the wall was covered in tightly bound mats of roots.
Other people worked the floor. Like the ones doing the walls, they waved their hands over the ground, summoning. However, instead of roots, then conjured up rocks. Enormous rocks, small rocks, rocks that were rough and ugly all burrowed upwards from the ground like wriggling insects. At the behest of the staff, the rocks twisted and rearranged themselves, swimming through the dirt until they were mostly flat, fitting together like puzzle pieces.
Other staff were coming in, carrying mirrors. Some were large, some small, most round or oval in shape, and all framed in gold. They had the disorienting effect of making the place appear even more crowded with all the reflections of the staff, and Cameron was positive that more than once, the reflection in the mirror was several seconds slower than reality.
"Are the mirrors broken?" he said to Halidon. "The reflections are weird."
Halidon waved the question away. "Too much magic floating around," he said. "It messes with things. You see? They're just getting the place ready."
"Can you do that too?" he said. "Can you make the floors and walls grow?"
Halidon frowned. "Why would I do that? That's their job, not mine."
"And it would be best if you were to leave them to it," said Halidon's father, appearing behind them. "You two need to get ready."
Halidon frowned. "We are ready," he said.
Lanius did not look amused. "You most assuredly are not. I will not have you attending the concord looking like feral dogs. You will bathe, clean your teeth, have your hair attended, and will be properly dressed. The tailors will be arriving shortly. Baths are being prepared as we speak."
"Baths?" Cameron said, dismayed.
Halidon crossed his arms. "And what if we don't want to get dressed up?"
His father gave him a level look. 'Then you won't be attending, will you?"
Cameron swiftly grabbed Halidon's shoulder and shook him. "We gotta go!" he said. 'I wanna see!"
Lanius gave them both a small, satisfied smile. "I look forward to hearing report of your good behavior from the staff who will be helping you ready."
Halidon slumped, defeated. "Fine, fine." He slouched his way through the busy crowd, towards the exit, and Cameron followed behind, unable to hide the spring in his step.
* * * * *
After their baths-- which Halidon, in particular, seemed to resent-- they were led to a room filled with hundreds of bolts of cloth that had not been there the day before, and the log and arduous fitting process began. It seemed that Halidon's father had ordered these outfits be made special for the party; instead of selecting something premade, the boys had to stand still and play dress up dummy while everyone around them worked.
They suffered through a flurry of adults comparing fabrics, wrapping them loosely around the two before either discarding them, or setting aside. People sketched outfit ideas and argued about them, and when they did agree on a design, they argued about the color, or the material it should be made of.
Evening found Halidon and Cameron being dressed in what seemed like the stiffest, most uncomfortable clothes the tailor could whip up for them. Two different-- yet equally itchy-- shirts beneath a vest and a jacket that had elbows that didn't bend easy, with pants made from the same material. The thick fabric reminded Cameron of sofa upholstery, and the high collars gave him the feeling of being smothered. The two stood as still as they could while people surrounded them, making adjustments to the clothes, messing with the boys' hair, and painting their faces.
They had been at it for two hours, and Cameron was ready to run screaming into the hills.
"Do we have to?" Cameron asked for what felt like the fiftieth time. He shied away from the woman trying to put the make up near his eyes and shook his head-- much to the displeasure of the man trying to cut it. "We can't just wear normal clothes?"
Halidon, for once, had none of the usual haughtiness he put on when dealing with people who weren't Cameron. Instead, he looked completely defeated, and allowed his face to be grabbed and tilted and painted and repainted while, simultaneously, having his hair pulled and rebraided.
"We have to," he said miserably, also for the fiftieth time.
To try and keep his mind off things, Cameron chattered with the crew of tailors. What were they called? (Willowren, Leaf, Suede, and Throgton). Where were they from? (Blackbriar lands, except for Leaf who was not just from a different court, but a different kingdom entirely). What was that like? (Similar, but more water). Did they have families? (Yes, with a mixing of living parents, siblings, and one daughter, who was Throgton's).
Halidon said nothing during the conversation, but during one of the very few breaks, he told Cameron, "Sometimes I fear you are entirely too friendly."
When they had finally reached the end of the miserable experience, when the two of them were put in front of the enormous mirror to see the results, Cameron could hardly recognize himself.
Their outfits were identical in make and cut, but the colors were inverted. Halidon's coat, for example, was wine red with gold-orange leaves embroidered in intricate detail, thicker along the hems than in the center, while Cameron's was orange with red leaves. Each piece of the outfit sported the delicate embroidery, layers and layers of it in some cases, all depicting different leaves and giving the two a distinct air of blazing autumn. Their faces were painted in mirror opposite: both had black and gold shadowed densely under their eyes, and the gold beneath one eye sprouted off into amber leaves that coiled down their cheeks, down their chins, and tapered out at their necks. However, for Halidon, it was his right eye that grew into leaves, and for Cameron, it was the left.
Both sported the same braid, and their opposite hair coloring only added to the inverted effect.
"We look like twins," Cameron said. "But opposite."
"I'm still taller," Halidon pointed out.
"But aside from that." Gingerly, he touched the top of his head. "Do you think they have fake horns?"
"Fresh out," said one of the tailors. "Otherwise we would have added it."
On top of the rest of the pageantry, there were extra precautions Cameron had to take. They put together a fresh rose and rowan bud necklace, mixing with with gold charms to keep with the theme, and mixed with the assorted makeups were oils of protection Halidon's father had purchased to prevent Cameron from being swayed by glamour or music-- at least, not as easily swayed as he would have otherwise been. The sleeves of his coat had discreet, buttoned pockets at the hems, one with salt, one with holly berries which more than one person burned their hand putting together.
"Your work is excellent," Cameron recited. While thanking people directly was out, complimenting their work seemed to be the acceptable replacement.
"I believe I will be the judge of that."
Heads turned, and Halidon's father stepped into the room. Halidon and Cameron stood still while he inspected the two with a critical eye. But, despite the occasional worrying hmm noise, in the end he said, "Good."
Halidon glowered the entire time, but didn't argue, which Cameron took as a good sign.
"Remember, boys," Lanius said. "Tonight you are representatives of Blackbriar Hall, and I expect you to comport yourselves as such. Halidon, you especially must act as befits your station." His expression went from politely blank to suddenly severe. "No tantrums. No screaming fits, or violence without cause. Nothing that would reflect poorly on your House, your family, or yourself. Am I clear?"
Halidon's tail swished back and forth, angry, but he only looked down and said, "yes."
His father nodded. "Excellent. Cameron, for you tonight will be an exercise in caution and restraint. As a member of my household, you should have some degree of protection, but all the same, it would be best if you stay with an escort at all times."
Halidon reached out and gave his hand a squeeze.
"Don't worry," Cameron said, squeezing back. "I'll stick with Halidon the whole time."
Lanius frowned slightly and nodded. "See that you do."
* * * * *
Not long after, Cameron, Halidon, and a small flock of others from Blackbriar Hall were walking the path to Hawthorn Hill.
Cameron could feel the revel before they had even reached the hill. The closer they came, the more the ground reverberated with the pulsing sound of the music. The air around the hill had an electric edge to it, like the air before a storm. The closer they came, the louder Cameron's heart pounded, the quicker his pulse. They hadn't even reached the party yet, and even though the protections he had, the magic in it was pulling him. Every inch of him was screaming to run, though whether it was away from the revel or towards, he couldn't tell.
"You have your salt, right?" said Halidon, knocking him out of his reverie.
"Yes, Hal," he said.
"And your holly?"
"And you remember about thanking people, right?"
"And what about--"
"I got it! It's going to be fine. You're going to be there the whole time."
Halidon reached for him and squeezed his hand, clearly more for his own comfort than Cameron's.
The first thing they saw upon entering Hawthorn hall were the dancing revelers. Cameron didn't know how many there were-- the wall of shifting, twisting bodies made it look like hundreds, which was clearly impossible since the whole of the Hall couldn't hold that many.
He stopped to stare, even before passing the threshold all the way, and he could only take it in in parts. Though the was light coming from the glowing ivy above, the occasional candelabra on the banquet table, and by ruby red cabochons that looked woven into the walls, Hawthorn Hall was still startlingly dim. The air was thick and smoky, mingling smells of burning incense, perfumed bodies, and the smell of freshly dug earth. He saw flashes of fur and tails and branches and snakeskin and skin in colors from human-like tones, all the way to vibrant greens and lavenders and pitchest black, all robed in a dazzling array of outfits that ranged from as elaborate as the ones he and Halidon wore to graying rags that barely kept their wearers decent.
The music was deafening. Wild and nonsensical, interspersed with screams and animal noises-- it barely sounded like music at all, but it pulsed with his blood and made him want to scream and run into the rest of the dancers.
"Nope," Halidon said, pulling him back. Cameron hadn't realized he'd actually been moving towards them.
He fought a little. Not much, but he resisted as Halidon walked him around the dancers, weaving through the people who were standing around the periphery, mingling among themselves. Halidon half-dragged Cameron to the closest wall. With one hand, he pressed Cameron's back against it, with the other, he dug around in his coat pocket, muttering to himself.
"I just want to see--" Cameron said.
"No, You want to dance, and they'll tear you apart. Did you forget everything?"
Halidon took a small, corked jar. Cameron recognized it as the protective ointment that had been mixed with the makeup. Halidon risked letting him go for a second, smeared a glob of the stuff onto his hand, then wiped it over each of Cameron's ears.
The music quieted.
Cameron blinked. The urge to join the dancers was still there, but it was fainter and farther away. Easily ignored.
"Oh," Cameron said.
"We can ask my father if we can leave," Halidon said. "He's up front somewhere."
Behind him, Cameron could see a beautiful woman in a blue and gold ball gown, enormous butterfly wings sprouting from her back, laughing with a well-dressed man who had a wolf's head.
"No," said Cameron. "I still want to see."
"Of course you do," Halidon said, clearly frustrated. But he held Cameron's hand, and the two started walking along the wall, watching the crowd.
In his time in Blackbriar Hall, Cameron had thought, with the certainty of a child, that he'd seen everything. He had ridden on the giant frogs and chased the tiny dragon-mice, and he'd seen hobs and grindylow and a pooka and men who turn into foxes and women with chicken feet, and he'd just seen his best friend yank a hill out of the ground. He thought himself fairly worldly. On top of that, everyone in Blackbriar Hall was polite to him these days. Maybe not everyone was nice: they were sometimes aloof, sometimes cryptic, sometimes oddly silent, and they usually had the air of very serious adults doing very serious things that he was interrupting.
The guests of the Autumn Concord were nothing like that.
They laughed. They drank wine from cups and from bottles and poured it on one another, laughing. They breathed in bowls of colored smoke and licked golden powders from fingertips (not always their own). They shoved each other and hit each other and and kissed each other and touched each other in ways that made Halidon cover Cameron's eyes and drag him away.
Maybe it was the air, maybe it was the sheer enormity of the crowd, the influx of unnatural and supernatural things all at once, but it seemed to Cameron that he was at first only aware in flashes.
Women wearing dresses made of leaves, whose hair was made of leaves, who had branches coming out of their backs and who were drinking wine and dancing wildly with a group of half dressed goblin men.
Gnarled and rough looking folk, stooped and shockingly ugly, but wearing clothes more elaborately fine than anything else there, with patterns that moved and danced like the revelers at the front.
People with frost-white skin and pitch-black eyes and jagged, shark teeth were tearing into raw meat still bloody from the hunt. The red blood dribbled down their chins unchecked and vanished in their black clothes. When they saw him staring, one woman beckoned him over to their table with a smile, and he backed away, shaking his head.
Bug-winged boys older than he and Halidon but younger than everyone else ran around chasing one another. When one got caught, the others laughed and tore his moth wings off and threw them, crumpled, to the ground. They dragged the boy away-- he wasn't moving on his own anymore-- and lifted him up like he was still part of their game. When Cameron went to check, he found the wings covered with clear liquid he realized was blood.
And then he blinked and found himself standing in the center of the room. He wasn't alone-- there were so very many people around-- but Halidon was gone.
Panic gripped him. He didn't remember walking away from the wall, and he was too small to see through the throng of enormous ball gowns and legs.
"Halidon?" he shouted, and though the music was muted in his ears, it still drowned out his voice. "Halidon!"
Not far from him, he saw a flash of red and gold. Not Halidon, but someone wearing the autumn uniform of the Blackbriar servants. Desperately, Cameron forced his way through the crowd, not botheration to apologize to the people he bumped into or hose skirts he had to press through. He saw the server's back, a tray of silver goblets balanced on the elf's hand.
"Hey!" Cameron said, tugging on the back of the man's glittering coat.
The man turned. He was one of the folk who could have passed for human, if not for the point of his ears, or his orange eyes. And he was entirely unfamiliar. Immediately, Cameron drew back from the man.
"Drink for you?" the elf said, offering one of the goblets.
Cameron shook his head. "No," he said, barely stopping himself from adding thank you.
"It's the will of the host that his guests should be refreshed." The man continued to smile, but it didn't reach his eyes anymore.
"I'm not a guest," Cameron said. "I live here."
The elf should know that if he worked at Blackbriar Hall.
"Excuse me." A tall, thin man also wearing the Blackbriar autumn colors stepped between them, and it took Cameron a second to recognize it was Thistlebone.
"You are not one of our staff," Thistlebone said to the man.
The fake server's lip curled, revealing previously-hidden wolflike fangs. "I never said I was."
Thistlebone grabbed the goblet that had been offered to Cameron and turned it upside down. The dark liquid splashed onto the floor, and with it came something else that his the ground with a small, metallic ting.
When Thistlebone spoke next, there was a strange, hollow quality to his voice, as though he were speaking from the bottom from a well. It wasn't glamour like Halidon sometimes did, but something bigger and deeper that Cameron felt in his bones.
"Leave," Thistlebone said.
The false server paled, but said nothing else. He dropped the tray and other goblets right in front of himself, seeming to ensure they splashed over Thistlebone, and without so much as a backwards glance, he walked away, towards the exit.
When he was gone, Thistlebone picked up the metal thing from the floor.
"What is it?" Cameron said.
"A trap meant to ensnare unwise little boys," he said. He opened his hand, and resting in his palm was a small gold ring, the correct size to fit Cameron's finger.
"You would have caught that in your mouth," he said. "That might've been enough to claim you. If you had put it on, he would have had you entirely." Then, he smiled. "Good lad, telling him no. Keep that in mind as the night goes on."
He tucked the ring into his lapel pocket.
"Let's go find your brother--"
There was a loud crash from across the room. The sound of wood splintering and glass breaking. Something (or someone) roared like an animal, and a shout went up among the guests; people were cheering.
"I am afraid I have to see to that. Find your brother. Or his father. Be careful."
And then he was gone, lost in the crowd.
Cameron tried to make his way to the front of the room. Halidon's father was supposed to be there, seated at a table on a raised dais up front, but there were too many people, too many moving bodies, and he became hopelessly lost. He couldn't even see the wall anymore.
He was pushed, a lot. Not always on purpose, but not always on accident. Sometimes people touched him when he went by; he would feel hands tugging on his braid or stroking his head. More than once, someone touched the rounded tops of his ears, but when he turned to see who had done it, there was no one around-- or rather, no one around paying any attention to him.
Then a small, gray-haired person with gray, fox-like tail ran into him and clung to him. At first, Cameron had thought it was a boy his age, maybe younger, but when he pushed the boy away, he saw that it was a very small man.
"What are you--?" Cameron said. But the small man laughed, took his arm, and began to dance. His hands, Cameron noticed, had gray fur in the back of them.
As soon as they started spinning around, Cameron was overcome with the overwhelming need to dance. He wanted to dive into the revelers and stay all night, giving in to the music he had tried so hard to ignore.
Then, someone yanked on his shoulder, pulling him away from the fox-fairy.
"No dancing for him," said Garda. He glared at the fox-fairy, who only tilted his head and grinned in a way that reminded Cameron strongly of the way dogs did.
"Shoo," the hob said.
The fox fairy winked at Cameron, gave a theatrical bow, and melted into the crowd.
"Garda!" Cameron said, hugging the hob. "I can't find Halidon!"
"He was here not a minute ago looking for you," Garda said. "He can't've gone far."
The two walked through the throng of people, towards one of the small, unoccupied dining tables set apart from the banquet table. Garda pulled out a chair and plopped Cameron onto it.
"Don't move from here," he said. "I'm going to find your brother. Stay put so we can find you again, and don't talk to anyone."
Cameron nodded and slumped into the chair. Now that he was seated, every bit of him was jittery with nervous energy. When he held his hands up, they were shaking uncontrollably.
"Poor little dear," said a woman's voice. "Are you lost?"
Cameron looked up and saw a small group of people standing around his table, and the sight of them took his breath away.
In a world of color, they were colorless, as though it had all been leeched away. Some of them had skin of black and some of white, but not black or white in any human way, but white as paper and black as ink. Their clothing, elaborate ball gowns and suits, was likewise unnaturally monochrome. The white gowns worn by the women seemed nearly luminous, and it hurt to look at them, and the black suits worn by the men felt strangely heavy, as though he were being pulled towards them. Their hair floated around their heads in waves of light and dark, as though they were under water. And they were beautiful. They were beautiful the way Halidon had been beautiful, back the first time Cameron had seen him, and before they had been brothers. The strange, aching, shifting beauty that made him want to cry.
They moved around him, some pulling up free chairs to sit at the table. One of the white-haired women sat beside him.
"What an exquisite child," said the dark man to her right. He knelt down to be level with Cameron and gave him an appraising look, his eyes a striking and pupil-less silver.
"It's frightened," said the woman. She took Cameron's hand from the table and held it. "I can feel it trembling."
"Where is your master?" said another woman. She came up behind him and touched the back of his neck, but Cameron found he didn't mind.
"I don't have one," he said. Many, many times Halidon had insisted he know this fact; he was a brother, not a pet.
"Are you hungry?" said one of the men at the table. He slid over a bowl of fat, plum-dark berries. Cameron had no idea where they had come from, but several of the monochrome people took some and plopped them delicately into their mouths.
"I can't," said Cameron. "No thank you."
The silver woman beside him smiled and stroked his arm. "That's very wise of you," she said.
"But unnecessary," said the man still crouching by him. He took the bowl of berries and popped one into his mouth. "These are freely given. We will not bind you through them, nor will the taking of them indebt you to us." Then, the man glanced up at the woman, smiled, and before Cameron could stop him, he pressed a berry into Cameron's mouth.
Cameron's eyes widened.
They were Delicious..
It must have shown on his face; the men and women around him began to laugh. They passed him the bowl, and he took it greedily. While he ate, there was movement. The woman pulled him onto her lap, and someone took his vacated chair.
With every berry he ate, the more relaxed he became. He found himself giggling at nothing, which seemed to amuse everyone around him to no end. At some point, the berries were gone, and Cameron was left licking the juices out of the bottom of the bowl.
"Was that good?" said one of the women.
Cameron nodded and smiled. "Yup."
They tittered at that. The woman holding him began to hum softly, and he felt her toying with his hair. Cameron sighed and closed his eyes while she undid the braid.
Wait, don't do that, thought some small part of him not enjoying the attention. It took forever for them to get that done.
"Such a lovely child," she crooned, running her fingers through his hair.
"What a waste that he should be hidden here in this backwater sty," said the man.
"We could take him with us," said another. "Shouldn't be difficult. You'd like to go with us, wouldn't you?"
Cameron squinted up at him. That sounded very familiar.
"I gotta stay here," he mumbled. Talking was unusually difficult; his tongue didn't want to move the way it was supposed to.
"You're a human," she said kindly. "No one will miss you here."
"Except for dinner," said one man into his drink.
Chortles greeted that comment, and one said, "I'm surprised they haven't carved him up already."
"Probably waiting until dessert--"
And then the world spun around. There was a rush of movement. A loud crash. Indignant yelling and animal snarling. The next thing Cameron knew, he was on the floor. Dazed, he sat up and tried to figure out what was going on.
The table they'd been sitting at knocked over. The white dressed the women wore were stained now with the wine. The monochrome people were standing, horrified, looking at themselves and trying to clean themselves up. The woman holding him had apparently dropped him in her haste. And standing in front of them, glaring, tail swishing like that of an angry cat, was Halidon.
"That is my brother," he snarled. His eyes were flashing gold and his anger hummed in the air around him, palpable and biting.
"Little monster," said the woman who'd been holding him. The front of her white dress was heavily stained with purple. "How dare--?"
"Ha!" said one of the men. He, alone, had managed to save his cup, and he held it up in toast. "I know that one. That's Lanius's whelp."
The group looked at Halidon with renewed interest. "This is the hellion child?"
"It suits him," spat the wine-stained woman.
Halidon flushed red and turned away from them, focusing on Cameron instead. When he offered his hand, Cameron could only stare at it, confused as to what to do with it. Halidon wound up yanking him to his feet and pulling him away.
Cameron struggled to keep up. Twice, he tripped over nothing, and Halidon had to catch him and hold him steady. Everything was spinny and warm and sort of far-away feeling. His eyes seemed to have minds of their own, staring off and drifting without his say so, and he had to squint to focus.
"Where are we goin'?" Cameron slurred.
"To find my father," Halidon said.
Cameron opened his mouth to ask why, but was interrupted by a fit of hiccups. With each hiccup, a small, white butterfly flew from his lips. He didn't feel them-- there was no crawling or fluttering sensation in his moth or throat, but soon a dozen white butterflies were hovering around his head. Even through the fog in his head, panic gripped him, and when the fit was over, he forced Halidon to stop and check his mouth to make sure there were no more.
"This is ridiculous," Halidon said, leading him on. "I knew this was a bad idea. I knew it!"
At the front of Hawthorn Hall was a raised dais where Lanius and his personal guests were seated. The table in front of them was laid out with a number of things that Cameron was suddenly desperate to try. He giggled when Halidon pulled him up the steps, and when they were near, he tried drunkenly to crawl onto one of the empty chairs in order to get to the food. Halidon grabbed him around the waist and tried to hold him back.
"Not now! You're going to make yourself sick!"
"What is the meaning of this?" Lanius said. He didn't sound angry, mostly resigned.
"One of your guests hexed my brother!" Halidon snarled. He freed Cameron in order to glare at his father "They stuffed him full of flutterwine berries. They were going to take him!"
"They were nice," Cameron said. He reached out for a platter of small cakes, and the man nearest them, a green skinned sprite with dragonfly wings, pushed them closer within reach.
Cameron grinned at the sprite and started stuffing his face.
"Who's this, Lanius?" said one of the guests.
"My son's playmate."
"Brother!" Halidon snapped.
Cameron stopped paying attention around then. Halidon was arguing, his father was not, and the men, women, and weird things here were petting him and feeding him treats, but this time it was okay because if it wasn't, Halidon or Lanius would have stopped them. So he sat on the table amidst the deserts and ate the treats people were handing him. Occasionally, he hiccuped again, and a butterfly came out. But Lanius' friends cheered and told him he was talented, so it didn't bother him as much this time. One woman, who looked like a perfectly normal elf but for the sharpness of her teeth, snatched the butterflies out of the air when they flew past and shoved them into her mouth.
Lanius and Halidon were still in a heated conversation-- or rather, Halidon was heated, and Lanius was polite-- and Cameron was wondering if there was a place to take a nap when there was a commotion at the back of the hall, back by the dancers. There was a crash and a scream. That wasn't too terribly strange; there had been all kinds of worrying noises all night, which made it less worrying.
But then there were more screams. Louder, drawn out ones. Then the everpresent music stopped, giving the air a sudden deadness. People stopped dancing. They stopped talking. In the sudden calm, the crashes became louder-- the sounds of tables being upturned and dishes clattering onto the stone floor. There was the noise of metal clanging against metal, and more screams and shouts.
Cameron tore his eyes away from the snacks and looked where everyone else was.
The crowd was parting, the way schools of fish part when a larger one passes through. They made a clear path to the dais, and two figures were walking towards the front. Off behind them, Cameron saw the upturned banquet tables and a few wounded guards lying on the ground or being helped by some of the other guests.
Nobody tried to stop them anymore. Instead, the guests merely watched, their eyes bright with interest.
Both of the figures wore armor. Metal chest pieces over long leather and metal shirts, which looked enough like skirt to make Cameron smile. They had armor on their legs, which was also metal, but it reminded him of the padding he'd had to wear at soccer practice back home, and they wore them over blue jeans. Their faces were almost entirely covered by helmets, and each of them wielded an unsheathed and bloody sword.
They stopped just in front of the Dais. Lanius rose to meet them and stood in front of the table, looking down on them. Halidon clambered onto the table and crawled to sit beside Cameron.
"Lanius Blackbriar," said the larger figure in a man's voice, deep and loud and strangely reassuring. "We have come--"
"Silence," Lanius said. There was a quiet force behind the words that shut everyone up. All around him, Cameron saw and felt people sitting a little straighter, coming to attention, even Halidon.
It was, Cameron realized, the first time he'd ever heard Lanius angry.
"You have come to disrupt our celebration," he said. "You come wielding iron and steel and are dressed for battle. You have come to wound my knights, harass my guests, and now you would make demands of me." He raised his voice and addressed the crowd. "Does the promise of entertainment outweigh the insult of their presence?"
The audience jeered, some booing, some not.
"I want to hear this, Blackbriar!" said the sprite at Lanius' table. He raised his mug in a mock toast. "Don't shoot the fun before it's started."
"I'm certain they'd make excellent entertainment with or without hearing their reasons," said the butterfly-eating woman. She flashed her fan and partly covered her smile.
An ogre at Lanius' table belched and said loudly, "We could put them to use. The room is drafty; a bonfire would warm the place up nicely."
Lanius' smile was thin and sharp when he addressed the room again.
"I am a magnanimous fellow, given the correct circumstances," he said. He waited for the laughter from the audience to stop, though Cameron had no idea what was so funny. "I will grant you one chance to impress us with your words before we resort to other forms of entertainment."
"We--" said the armored man.
"Hold," Lanius said, raising his hand. "I will not hear you while your faces are covered. Removed your helmets."
After a moment, they did, revealing two humans.
There was something familiar about them. The man was tall and broad, and had short yellow hair and a scruffy goatee. The woman was smaller, but stocky, and her long brown hair was tied back in a ponytail.
A small thought floated up, fluttering like the butterflies from his mouth. She wears ponytails when she's doing tough stuff, said the thought.
The woman stepped forward and pointed at the table with her bloodied sword.
"Lanius Blackbriar, you have stolen our son, and we are here to reclaim him." Then she looked directly at Cameron, and it was as though all the rest of the world shrank away, leaving only her hazel eyes. "Cam, honey, we've come to take you home."
Something cracked inside Cameron's head. Something white and brittle and felt like glass shattered. His eyes stung. His jaw dropped, and the half-chewed cake he'd been eating fell out.
* * * * *
The two humans, wearing pieces of armor over their modern human clothes, removed their helmets and placed them on the ground at their feet. The stench of iron clung to them, and each wielded a crude looking sword.
Beside him, Cameron stiffened.
"Mom?" Halidon heard him say.
"It's okay, Cam-cam," the man said.
"Dad?" Cameron said, his voice cracking.
"No," Halidon said, putting as much magic as he could into the word. "They're nobody important. Cameron, you're feeling tired, you should sit over here. . ."
Halidon helped him to his feet, intending for the two of them to slip away, but they had not even gotten off the table when his father snapped, "Halidon!"
"Do not leave. This concerns you both."
Sullenly, Halidon led Cameron up to where his father stood.
"Father," Halidon said, tugging at Lanius' sleeve. "Father, make them leave. Tell them he's mine."
"He is ours, faerie," the woman said.
"He came with me willingly!" Halidon said.
"He's six!" said the man.
"Seven," said Halidon.
"Hold a moment," Lanius said. He grabbed Halidon by the collar and pulled him aside.
"What--?" started Halidon.
"Silence, boy, and heed me." His father's voice was low enough that he had to strain himself to hear.
"If you want so badly for this boy to be your brother, then this is your opportunity to prove it. I offer you a challenge. If you succeed in causing these two mortals to lose their claim on the boy, then I will accept him as my second son. I will declare to all of the court that he is not some changeling servant or pet artist, but our rightful kin and to be treated with the same respect due to us."
Halidon's breath caught in his throat. He swallowed after a moment and said, "And if I should fail?"
His father looked at him coolly. "If you cannot keep what you claim belongs to you, then you were not fit to have it. The boy will return to his parents and back to the mortal world, and you will be forbidden from seeing him again."
Halidon flinched as though he'd been struck.
"Am I understood?" said his father.
Halidon met his eyes. "Yes."
His father returned to his place at the dais.
"I love my son dearly" he said, his voice ringing in the hall. Halidon jerked, surprised. It hadn't occurred to him that his father would be able to say those words. "It brings him joy to have this mortal boy as his companion. It is his claim that you contest, and so it will be with him that you bargain. Halidon?"
He gestured for Halidon to step forward, and when he had, his father stepped aside and joined his guests at the table.
"I'm not giving him up." Halidon said. "If you try and take him, I can glamour you. I can tell you to give him up and go home."
"You can't," said Cameron's mother. "Our pockets are full of salt and grain and dried holly berries. Our clothes are inside out, and we both have rowan and rosebud and hagstones hanging around our necks. Your words can't touch us."
"And if you try coming at us directly," Cameron's father added, "Our swords are iron." He stabbed his blade into the ground twice, cracking the stone floor.
Around them, the guests tittered. The thought of bloodshed-- especially someone else's bloodshed-- tended to excite them.
It won't come to that, Halidon thought. It couldn't. Because if it did, he would lose.
"You might be protected, but he isn't," Halidon said. "Cameron!"
Cameron blinked to attention. "Yeah?"
When he spoke, Halidon's voice was layered thickly with magic. "You're my friend, aren't you?"
Cameron smiled dreamily. "Yes."
"You like it here, don't you? You love me, don't you?"
"Stop," said Cameron's father. "Stop it."
"Yes, I love you." Cameron said, and Halidon's heart soared.
He would never, ever, ever give him up, not if he had to fight a whole army of iron-clad humans--
"Stop it!" the woman shouted. "You're making him say that!"
"I am not!" Halidon hollered back. "I don't care if you had him first, I don't care if you were his parents. You couldn't keep him, and he's my brother now!"
"I don't know what kind of trick this is--" began the man.
Halidon's face burned red with fury. Why did everyone think this was a trick? Why did everyone think this was a game?
"I love him!" Halidon shouted. "I love him! I love him! Thrice I have spoken and again I say, I love Cameron Asher Galway!" Somewhere in the words, he had started crying again. But he pressed on. "He's the only friend I ever had, and I want him to stay with me forever. He's going to be my brother, and I won't let you take him from me!"
"I'll make him sleep," Halidon continued. "If you try and take him, I'll make him sleep for a hundred years. He'll sleep until you're both dead, and if you take him out of Faerie and back to the mortal world, he'll stay asleep, and he'll grow old and die there, too."
It hurt to say. It hurt to think about. He'd wanted a companion so badly, and now that he had one, the thought of-- of storing him away was painful. But he would do it if he had to. He would do it if the alternative was losing Cameron forever.
The man moved forward.
"Cameron!" Halidon turned to the human boy, his voice heavy with magic. "Cameron, go to--"
"Wait," said Cameron's father. "Wait! I propose a deal."
"Jared!" his mother snapped.
"What deal?" Halidon said with a sneer.
"A wager. If we win, we take Cameron home. He forgets all about this place-- you undo the compulsion the faerie food gave him, and he grows up to be a happy, normal kid."
Halidon tried to look disgusted, to look angry and haughty, but his interest was piqued.
All around the room, the watchers whispered to one another.
His folk liked wagers.
"And if you lose?" Halidon said, despite himself.
The muscles in the human's face and neck tightened. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words would not come out.
"Say it," Halidon said, excitement in his chest. "Say it, or there can be no wager between us."
"If we lose, you keep him."
Cameron's mother began to sob.
"Mom?" said Cameron faintly, starting to wake through is stupor. Halidon felt nothing for the weeping woman-- she was a threat, they both were-- but the confusion and pain in his Cameron's voice was like a knife to the heart. He resisted the urge to run to his brother and comfort him, and instead said, in a voice heavy with magic, "Take a nap, Cameron."
The boy sighed softly and closed his eyes again.
Halidon watched him for a moment before turning his attention back to the two mortals. "Your deal is too plain for my taste; it needs sweetening. If you lose, I keep him and your memories of him. Are we agreed?"
"Yes," snarled the man.
"And I choose the game."
"No!" said the woman.
"You challenged me," Halidon said. "You come into my home and try to steal from me. I choose the game and the rules. Or else there is no wager, and I keep him asleep."
"Fine," snapped Cameron's father. His mother wiped her eyes and glared at him, and Halidon noticed where Cameron got his lovely hazel eyes from.
Halidon thought about it.
"There will be a wager," he said. "And a contest. But you won't be the one I test."
"Cameron's the one at stake. He's the one I'll test."
"That isn't fair," Cameron's mother said.
Halidon didn't bother answering her. Of course this wasn't fair. Didn't they know anything?
"I won't have the rest of the evening ruined, and I will need time to prepare. The trial will take place tomorrow. Guards!"
Throughout the conversation, a half dozen knights had been silently filing into the hall, creeping towards the front. Now, Halidon gestured to the nearest and said,
"Take our visitors to one of the guest rooms. It seems they will be enjoying our hospitality tonight. And you two, sheathe your weapons. You will comport yourselves as guests until our dealings are concluded."
They looked like they wanted to argue, but Halidon turned away and let the knights deal with it. Cameron was still dozing in one of the dining chars, head resting on the table. His mouth was open slightly, and there was a little bit of drool hanging tenuously from his lip.
Halidon almost changed his mind right then and there. To hell with the wager, to hell with their iron, he would fight them all by himself if he had to. But this was it. The way to get them to give up their claim, the way to get his father to recognize Cameron as his true brother. So with a deep shaking breath, Halidon released the magic keeping Cameron asleep, and released the remains of the magic holding back his memories.
Cameron woke slowly, as he usually did, with much blinking and yawning and little mumbling. After a few long moments, he seemed to realize where he was. The confusion on his face vanished when he saw his parents, still arguing with the guards.
"Mom!" Cameron cried out. "Dad!"
Halidon flinched. Cameron wanted them. He wanted them so badly, it hurt to see it.
They have to go, he thought.
That should be him Cameron wanted so badly.
Cameron made like he was going to run for them.
"Stop," Halidon said, pouring heavy magic into the word. Even with the power behind it, Cameron struggled to move anyway. "Cameron," he said, putting himself between Cameron and the humans. "Pay attention. It's important."
"That's my mom and dad!" Cameron shouted. "Let me go!"
"We've agreed to a wager," Halidon said. "A bet. I'm going to give you a challenge tomorrow, and if you win, you can go home with them. If you lose, you stay here with me."
Cameron stared at him, stricken. "Can't I just go home?"
Halidon swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and said gently, "It is the way of it here. It's like the stories we read, remember? There's always a challenge or a bet."
"But-- I--" He tried craning his head, trying to see beyond Halidon.
"What do I do?" he said at last.
Halidon kept his face carefully blank. "That depends on what you want. If you win, you leave with them. If you don't, you stay with me."
"But what do I do?" he said again, exasperated.
Halidon shrugged. "Prepare as you see fit. Go to sleep early. I'll see you tomorrow. Guard!" he said, raising his voice. "Escort my brother to his room."
And then before Cameron could ask anything else, Halidon swept across the dais, back to his father. One of the knights came up to Cameron and, not bothering to speak, lifted the boy up over his shoulder and started for the exit.
"Wait!" Cameron yelled. "Halidon!, wait!"
"I will see you tomorrow," Halidon called back. He watched as his brother was taken away.
* * * * *
Despite Halidon's advice, Cameron could not get to sleep that night. He paced in the room that had been given to him-- the one across from the room he and Halidon shared that he'd never actually slept in before. It was better than it had been that first night; someone had regrown the illuminating ivy and aired the dust out, and when the guard had dumped him in here, the fireplace had already been going, making it a little more inviting. But it still wasn't his room. The bed was stiff and uncomfortable, the blankets smelled like dust, and the unfamiliar shadows cast by the fire made him jumpy.
Mom and dad are--
Don't think about them, he told himself.
Mom and dad!
They were here somewhere. Somewhere in Blackbrair hall, in another room probably similar to this on, his parents were waiting for him.
Frustrated, Cameron went to the bedroom door and rattled the handle again. It was locked from the outside, he had already tried it earlier, but still he rattled it. Then, he began kicking the door and only succeeded in hurting his bare foot.
Prepare, Halidon had said. Prepare for what? What kind of contest would it be? Would Halidon pick something Cameron was bad at? Would he have Cameron compete at a threshold-opening competition? A contest to see who could sing flowers out of seeds the fastest?
No, that wouldn't be fair. Unarguably so. The Folk might like to tip the odds in their favor, but there still had to be a threat of losing, or else it wouldn't be any fun. It didn't matter what was at stake; they were compelled towards the challenge of the gamble. It was like an addiction.
So something he could feasibly win at, but probably wouldn't.
Still frustrated, and now with an aching foot, Cameron threw himself onto the too-stiff bed. Above him, the newly sprouted ivy was slowly pulsing with light.
He needed a way out. The door wasn't any good. The fireplace was full of fire, and besides that previous experiments with Halidon had taught him that fireplaces, in general, were much tighter fits than he'd been led to believe. There was the window, but it was far, far too high up, and it led out onto Blackbriar Hill, which was designed to be impassible. Even if he did manage to stack up enough things to climb, he'd likely kill himself falling off the rocks--
He was looking at the window, thinking about how inaccessible an escape route it was when it suddenly shattered. Cameron yelped and rolled off the bed as broken glass showered down, far enough away that it wasn't any real threat. As he watched, a small, dark figure flitted through the window and leapt down.
The figure landed heavily in a crouching position. When it stood up, Cameron saw it was one of the smaller sorts of fairy, only going up to his shoulders. It had an ugly face and a pig-like snout, gray skin, and moth-like wings on its back. To his surprise, it wore modern looking camouflage in mottled shades of green, brown, and gray,and it had on a dark cap.
Cameron jolted up. "Who are--?"
"Don't be afraid," the fairy said. "Your parents sent me."
His jaw dropped. "You know my parents?"
"Aye," said the fairy with a wry smile. "Known 'em and owed 'em for a while. How do you think they knew where to find you? But look, I can't stay long. They sent me to give you this."
He pulled from his pocket a thin book. Cameron reached out to take it, but the fairy suddenly turned his back to him, facing the window again, and tossed the book carelessly behind him. The book landed with a soft thunk onto the bed.
"I didn't give it to you," the fairy said aloud. "I threw it away, and I have no idea where it's at."
Cameron didn't bother asking why he was doing that-- it sounded like a fairy-rules thing-- and went to retrieve the book instead.
Embossed on the otherwise plain, leather cover were the words: Tales of Faerie and other Lands, with a golden acorn above the lettering.
"What is this?" Cameron said.
The fairy turned around and gave a little bow. "A gift from your parents. A clue for tomorrow's contest.that I did not give you," he added hastily. "If I had given it, it would be cheating. But I am no cheat."
The fairy smiled, clearly pleased with himself.
Cameron opened the book to the page that had been marked. It was a story called The Boy and the Clay Pot. There were whole paragraphs of story-- which made him nervous, but pictures as well. Pictures of a boy in the woods alone, of a boy talking to a goblin creature, a boy trying to carry a large pot. He scanned through the pages and found that part of the ending had been circled in red.
"I don't understand it," he said. "How is this a clue?"
"No idea," the fairy said. "But your parents were certain this would help you with the task tomorrow."
"Can you read it to me?" Cameron said.
The fairy looked startled by the question. Then, he looked a little sad. "I'm not permitted to interfere. Even this is pushing it. If I go any further, it may invalidate the contest, and you'd lose automatically."
"Oh," Cameron said, his voice small.
There was a knock at the door.
"Everything alright in there?" called a deep voice.
"And that's my cue to exit," said the fairy. He game a small salute, then leapt into the air, his tiny moth wings fluttering wildly. Though Cameron was sure that his wings were far too small to actually support him, the fairy hummed up, up, and out the window. He had just passed through the remaining jagged glass when the bedroom door opened, and a guard came in.
"I heard a crash," he said. His eyes scanned the room and caught sight of the broken glass. He frowned.
"You trying to leave? Can't let you do that."
"No," said Cameron. "I broke it on accident. I threw a. . . toy."
The lie sounded weak, even to him, but the guard accepted it blindly, and Cameron remembered that most of the denizens of Blackbriar Hall had never heard a lie told to them before.
"Be more careful, then," he said. "You're needed for the event tomorrow. I'll have someone come clean up the glass." And then, apparently satisfied, he left. Cameron saw the door handle jiggle and heard the sound of a lock being turned into place, and sighed. Maybe worst case scenario, he could break something else and run out when the guard came to look.
With little other choice, Cameron climbed onto the bed, and began reading the book.
Though his reading ability had improved tremendously in the time he'd been in Faerie, the book still gave him trouble. Ruefully he wondered if it would count as cheating if he asked Halidon to read it to him. Probably. And that was if Halidon didn't directly refuse to see him. If he could even get past the guard.
In the story, a boy was captured while trying to steal from a faerie goblin and the two had come to an agreement: the goblin would give the boy three impossible tasks, and if the boy managed, not only would the goblin let the boy go unharmed, but he would give him a pile of gold as well. If he lost, the goblin would keep him for seven years as a servant.
But the boy was clever, and each task he managed to do by twisting the meaning. The goblin asked him to find a golden comb in the forest, and the boy gave him a honeycomb. He asked for a silver crown, and the boy wove together the silver, night-blooming flowers into a crown for him. The goblin grew increasingly angry in the story, and Cameron remembered what Halidon had said about these sorts of things. The goblin wasn't really mad the boy was clever-- they liked clever. His cleverness made him worth having. He was probably more mad that it looked like he was going to lose, and lose in front of the crowd of interested faeries who had gathered around to watch it all.
The final task wasn't to find anything, the goblin apparently having learned the error of that trick, but to deliver something instead. The boy was to go to the other side of the forest and bring back a delivery for the goblin.
But when the boy got there, he found that the delivery was an enormous clay pot twice his size. The pot was empty, but beautifully decorated. For an entire page, the boy struggled to move the pot while a number of faerie creatures watched and laughed at him. He failed lifting it, failed rolling it, failed trying to get it into a cart, until finally fed up, the boy found a large rock and began beating the pot with it.
The pot broke into several large pieces, which the boy carried easily back to the goblin's home in several trips.
Because the goblin had never specified that the pot had to be whole, the boy argued that he had won, and the audience of faerie onlookers had agreed. The goblin was left no choice but to make good on his end of the bargain and send the boy off with a bag of gold.
He read the story twice over, trying to find some clue as to what his parents were trying to tell him. Would Halidon ask him to find things? To move things? Was there a code in the story itself? He checked the pictures for hidden words, checked the first letters of sentences to see if they said anything special, and found nothing. If there were secrets in the story, then it kept them well.
"This doesn't help at all!" he said aloud. Why couldn't his parents have written him a note?
He read the story several more times, then checked the other stories in the rest of the book just in case his parents had marked out the wrong one. They were all the usual sorts of fairytales, most of them ones Halidon had told him. Nothing stood out to him-- which didn't mean anything, he knew, because he had no idea what to look for.
In the end, he spent most of the night throwing himself at the book again and again, and when the words blurred together too badly to read, and all the day's events finally caught up to him, he passed into a fitful sleep, still wearing the uncomfortable clothes from the party.
* * * * *
The next morning, two knights came to retrieve him. They were entirely polite, but also adamant that he go with them to Hawthorn Hill immediately.
"Can I get changed?" Cameron said. His face was still smeared with make-up, and the clothes were no more comfortable the second day, and now he felt gross from the warm night.
"We're under orders to get you down there as fast as possible," one of them said almost apologetically.
Groggily, Cameron wondered if they would at least let him grab something to eat first, but there was no such luck. The guards took him back down to Hawthorn Hill.
When Cameron stepped through the doorway into the hall, he was certain something had gone wrong. The enormous room was gone, and instead he was walking into the entry room of Blackbriar Hall. The knights moved on without him, but Cameron froze at the entrance. He stared for a moment, then took a few steps back outside the hill. Outside, it was still definitely Hawthorn Hill, with the red Hawthorn leaves and the orange roses swaying in the breeze.
When he went back in, Halidon was sitting in one of the chairs-- a chair that was also inside the actual entry Blackbriar Hall entry, watching him. The guards where nowhere to be seen.
"Is this magic?" Cameron said.
"Yes," said Halidon. His face was devoid of emotion, and his voice neutral.
"Is it real?"
Halidon shrugged. "For now. It's not exactly the same as the house, but it's close enough."
"Did everybody go home?"
A chorus of soft chuckling emanated from the walls and ceiling. Halidon's lips twitched into a ghost of a smile, but only for a split second.
"They are still here. They will be watching today. What good is a trial without a jury?"
"What about my parents?"
"They are watching, too."
"Can I talk to them?"
Halidon's voice was unnervingly flat. "No. Follow me."
He turned away, and after a second of hesitation, Cameron went with him.
Halidon said nothing as they walked through the house that looked almost identical to Blackbriar Hall. They passed familiar doors and familiar furniture, though no familiar faces; no one around was visible. The tension in Cameron's chest worsened. His stomach churned. Halidon wasn't even looking at him.
"Are you mad at me?" Cameron said.
Halidon glanced at him over his shoulder, face still expressionless.
"I don't want you to be mad at me," Cameron said. He held out his hand for Halidon to take.
Halidon ignored it.
"I'm not angry with you," he said. "Leave it at that."
Cameron lowered his hand.
The two continued on in silence until reaching the first drastic difference between the fake Blackbriar Hall and the real one: an enormous double doorway that did not normally exist. The doorway led into an enormous room that was the spitting image of the way Hawthorn Hall had been the night before, except perhaps slightly smaller, and completely devoid of guests. The banquet tables were still set and piled high with food, and given the way the chairs were tucked in and the candles were fresh, Cameron imagined that this must have been what the place had looked like right before the revel had begun. The mirrors hung on the walls, ominous and empty. When he passed by the ones at his height, it took his reflection several long moments to arrive.
Halidon walked all the way to to dais up front where the two had been the night before. He hopped onto the platform and faced Cameron, his hands in his pockets, his tail swishing the air behind him.
"Are you ready for the challenge?" he said.
Cameron took a shaking breath. "Yeah, I think so."
"Do you remember the game we played when we first met?"
Cameron blinked. "Soccer?"
"Yes. Somewhere within the confines of Hawthorn Hall, I have hidden your soccer ball. "It is in plain sight, but I doubt that you will find it. If you do, bring it to me before the end of the day. If you succeed, you will be reunited with your parents and will return with them to the mortal world. If you fail, you stay with me, and they go on without you. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Cameron said. "I understand."
Halidon nodded. The two stood for a few more moments, the silence stretching between them.
"When does it start?" Cameron said.
Halidon smirked. "It already has."
Cameron's eyes widened. He turned and ran from the room, back into the fake Blackbriar Hall, and began to search.
* * * * *
The first room Cameron checked was the room he and Halidon shared. Like the other places he'd seen, it looked almost exactly like the real one, only this one was much tidier than the actual bedroom had ever been in Cameron's experience; all their toys were put away, the bookshelves were orderly, the beds were made, and there was no clothing or trash on the floor. So clean was it that Cameron actually took pause before going in to look.
"Am I allowed to make a mess?" he said out loud.
Giggling and whispering came from the ceiling, but nothing clear enough to understand.
"I'm gonna make a meh-ess," he called singsong, dragging out the word.
Nobody stopped him. He toppled open the toy chest. He scrounged around under the beds and tore open the closets. All the small, secret places that could feasibly hold a soccer ball were searched twice over and turned up nothing.
The next one was the bedroom across the hall, the one that was technically his, and that he'd spent the night in last night. This one had fewer things to upturn and open, but he tore the room apart and was still left empty handed.
After, he checked all the other rooms he and Halidon normally frequented. The room besides Halidon's that they had commandeered as their art room, the library, the one parlor where they played their games. He took to knocking over entire shelves and picking through the rubble, pulling out drawers and dumping them out, rather than searching one at a time, and upturning anything he was able to. This was exhausting work; the place might have been fake, but the furniture felt heavy and real, and often, Cameron was too small to actually move furniture out of the way. The best he could do was leverage himself against whatever it was and hope for the best. Every bit of him ached, and he wanted nothing more than to sit down, but he couldn't. What if he lost mom and dad forever because he sat down too long?
When the obvious places were done, he started with the less obvious. He checked rooms they'd never gone in before-- rooms he wasn't even certain were in the real Blackbriar Hall. He checked closets and guest rooms and the cramped servants quarters. He checked the kitchen and larders and both dining rooms, and Lanius' study, though not his bedrooms. The door to those were sealed shut. Apparently, Lanius hadn't consented to having his personal quarters duplicated for the challenge.
No matter how many rooms he looked through, there was always another waiting. At some point, he realized that the layout of the house had changed; as huge as Blackbriar Hall was, it didn't actually go on forever, and the place was designed with twists and turns, with very few long passages. But in this place, he'd reached a point where the hallways stretched out far into the distance, lined with doors he didn't recognize. And once he noticed that, he saw that some of the rooms were repeating. Several times, he encountered the exact same parlor with the exact same furniture, just moved around slightly. He found a bedroom that was identical to another, only with the furniture reversed; what had been on the left hand side before was now on the right.
"Do I have to keep looking through the copies, too?" he said to the air, unable to hide the desperation and exhaustion from his voice. "That's not fair."
The only response he received was laughter from the walls.
He had just finished tearing apart one of the smaller parlors when he turned around and found Halidon watching him from the doorway.
"You have an hour," he said.
"It hasn't been that long!' Cameron said. There was no way it was anywhere close to night time. He was tired, but not that tired! He didn't even feel hungry!
Halidon shrugged. "It's a short day today," he said. "Tough luck."
Anger flared up through the exhaustion. Before he knew what he was doing, Cameron ran forward and gave Halidon a shove. The other boy stumbled into the hallway and had to brace himself against the wall to stay up. Halidon looked at him, just looked down at him with that stupid blank face he'd been doing ever since the party.
"You did it on purpose!" Cameron said. His face burned hot. His eyes stung. "You put it on a short day on purpose! You made the house stretch out and gave it a million rooms. How am I supposed to check them all?"
"I cannot control the length of the day any more than I can control the weather or season," Halidon said. "You know this, so there's no use blaming me for your misfortune in that regard. As for the house--" he stopped speaking and frowned.
"Ha," Cameron said. He wiped his eyes; they weren't crying-crying, but they were close. "You can't say it 'cause it's not true, whatever it was."
Halidon gave him a wry smile. "I am caught. Yes, the house idea was entirely mine."
"Jerk." Cameron looked down the hallway at the seemly unending number of doors. "I'm never going to be able to look through them all, am I?"
Halidon said nothing.
"Can I see my mom and dad?" he said.
"When the challenge is over. Regardless of the outcome, you will see them when it's over."
Don't cry, he thought. Don't cry in front of him. Don't cry in front of everyone watching. Don't cry in front of mom and dad.
He turned away and walked down the hall, away from the unexplored rooms, back towards the main portion of the house.
"Where are you going?" Halidon said.
Cameron couldn't answer. If he did, he would cry, and he refused. So he walked faster, down the familiar rooms until he came to the Hawthorn Hill banquet hall. There, he passed the unoccupied tables and the too-slow mirrors and went straight to the dais. He climbed up and sat.
Halidon arrived shortly thereafter.
"What are you doing in here?" he said.
Cameron coughed, trying to clear the tightness in his throat. "I'm waiting."
"My mom and dad. You cheated. You made everything too big. I can't get it, so I'm going to wait for them."
"In here?" Halidon said. He crept up near the dais, and Cameron had the brief satisfaction of Halidon having to look up at him for once. "You should search elsewhere," he said. "You're wasting what little time you have."
"I'm not going to run around your dumb maze!" Cameron snapped. "What do you care? You should be happy."
"I--" Halidon stopped abruptly, then went on. "I just feel that time would be better served continuing your search of the house."
"Ha ha," Cameron said bitterly. "You tried to lie again."
"Why are you trying so hard to get me out of here?" Cameron snapped. "Why--?" He froze. "What were the rules again?" Cameron said suddenly. "Say them again, I can't remember."
"Tell me the rules!"
Halidon grit his teeth. Cameron knew, just knew he was looking for some way to talk his way around the question without lying.
"Tell me!" Cameron said. "You're already winning!"
"Your soccer ball is within the confines Hawthorn Hall. Find it and bring it to me. Those were the terms."
"Within. . . Within Hawthorn Hall?" He looked around the room, eyes wide. "It's in here?!"
Several emotions flickered over Halidon's face. A few Cameron could pick out-- fear, surprise-- but in the end, it was pride that won out, and Halidon gave him a lopsided grin. "Pretty good, right?"
"You jerk!" Cameron shouted. He leapt off the dais and went to the closest table and checked beneath the table cloth. "I spent forever checking those rooms!"
"I know," Halidon said. There was no hiding the smugness in his voice. "That was the point."
Cameron shouted in wordless frustration. He made a mad dash through the room, tearing off the tablecloths and sent everything-- food, centerpieces, and dishes-- all clattering to the ground. He moved chairs and crawled around under the tables in case the ball was somehow stuck to the underside of one of them.
"How much time?" he called.
"I'm not telling you," Halidon called from his place on the dais.
Cameron, still beneath a table, sat up on his knees. "Why do you have to be such a--"
The words died in his throat.
On the wall directly in front of him was one of the many oval mirrors. The mirror reflected him and the room around him, including the mirrors behind him. In one of those mirrors, there was a splash of black and white. Barely daring to breathe, Cameron went to the wall of mirrors behind him, trying to find the one with the black and white.
"What are you doing?" Halidon said.
Then, when Cameron didn't answer, "Your time is almost up. You should be looking."
And then, "Cameron, don't you want to find the ball? Why are you looking at the wall so much?"
And, "Cameron, please."
But Cameron ignored him. He frantically went mirror to mirror, trying to figure out which was the one he had seen until finally--
He pulled a small mirror off the wall. Inside, the soccer ball sat on top of an untucked dining chair. Though the mirror reflected Cameron's face back at him and the movements he made, the scene of the ball and the chair did not change, no matter which way the mirror was facing.
"I found it!" he shouted. "It's in the mirror! I found it!"
The moment the words left him mouth, Hawthorn Hall exploded with motion and noise. The room was suddenly packed full with the guests from the previous night. Some cheered, some booed, some laughed and drank and pointed at him or at Halidon, or at Lanius, who was suddenly up at the dais with Halidon. Beside him, Cameron saw his mother and father beaming at him.
Silence," Lanius boomed.
A hush fell over the crowd, though there was still plenty of activity.
The only people who appeared unaffected by the command were his parents. They now wore only their modern clothes, no armor or weapons, and a pang went through Cameron's heart; he recognized those clothes.
"Yes! That's my Cam!" his father cheered.
"You did it, sweetie!" his mother said.
Halidon stared at him in despair, but all he said was, "The bargain is incomplete. Deliver it to me." His voice was dull with misery.
Proudly, Cameron held up the mirror for all to see.
Then he threw in onto the ground.
The mirror smashed gloriously, with the shattering sounding just as satisfying as he had imagined it would.
All gathered in the hall stared at him.
"Cam," his mother said, her voice low and horrified. "Why did you do that?"
"It's like the story," he said proudly. "The boy broke the pot."
Halidon barked out a laugh, his eyes wet and gleaming gold in the light. All around him, the watching folk began to laugh and chatter, though still somewhat muted under Lanius' spell.
He looked to his parents, confusion quickly turning to worry. "It was like in the book," he said.
"I win," Halidon shouted. "By the terms of our agreement, I win. Does anyone deny it?"
The audience howled their approval.
"No!" Cameron said, panic rising in his chest. "I found it!"
"And you broke it!" Halidon whirled on Cameron's parents. "As per our terms, you can't have him. He will stay here--"
"No!" Cameron screamed. He ran forward, intending to jump onto the dais, but some member of the audience grabbed him. Cameron kicked and bit and screamed, but the person holding him simply held tighter and covered his mouth, muffling his cries.
"--And you will return to the mortal world without him." Halidon continued. "I am free to take your memories."
"No," said his mother. "No, I won't let you!"
She made as though to attack him, but Halidon said, "stop," in a voice thick with magic, and she did.
"It won't work," his father said. "Even if you make us forget, we have photos, his toys, his room-- there's a police report--"
"Save your concern," Halidon said. Then, with a glamored voice, he said, "Kneel."
They did. He placed his hand on their heads, first Cameron's mother, then his father. They both slumped to the floor. Halidon turned away and said, "Bring it out."
A hob in servants garb-- Garda, Cameron realized, came out carrying a large lump of wood. He placed it down in front of Halidon, who knelt and laid his hands on it. At his touch, the lump of wood rose up. It stretched and strained until it was roughly in the shape of a person, with two arms and legs and a head-like lump. And slowly, it filled out. It grew fingers, hair, toes, and clothes. In moments, it had transformed from a lifeless lump of wood to an alive-looking boy. A boy that looked exactly like Cameron.
Cameron gasped. He knew what it was; Halidon had told him about changelings before. About how his people would sometimes send them to mortals to replace the ones they'd stolen. How the changeling would start off healthy, but grow ill and rapidly deteriorate until it seemed to die. It was how they kept people from coming to look for them, he'd said.
People like my parents, he thought.
"Excellent work," said some audience member near him. "The boy has a knack for them."
Cameron fought harder to escape.
"As I said," Halidon announced to the audience, sounding out of breath. "I have the right to their memories, to alter as I see fit. Father? Can you open the portal for me?"
Lanius nodded and waved his hand. From the center of the dais sprouted a rapidly growing rosebush. It rushed upward, bigger and bigger until it was much taller than any of the adults on the stage. The roses went from buds to blooms in seconds, and the branches in the center parted. Instead of showing the rest of the dais behind it, the branches revealed what Cameron recognized as the bush in his back yard.
"No," Cameron said, so quiet that even he wasn't sure he'd spoken.
"Arise," Halidon said in his glamored voice.
Cameron's parents got to their feet. The changeling went to them, arms outstretched. Cameron watched as his parents embraced the changeling, weeping and speaking to it in quiet voices.
"Take him and go," Halidon said. "When you are through the threshold, you will have no memory of what transpired here today. You will leave, and you will not be allowed to return."
"Good riddance," his father snapped. He held one of the changeling's hands, and his mother held the other. They moved towards the rose bush.
Cameron tore open the hem of his sleeve and holly berries spilled out. He grabbed and handful and pressed them against the fairy who was holding him. They screeched and dropped him, and he hit the ground running. He bolted towards the stage, screaming over and over, "No! No!"
One of the guards by the dais scooped him up as he ran past. Cameron flailed wildly, howling. He tried to get more holly berries, but the guard grabbed his wrist and held it out awkwardly out of reach. His throat burned and his vision blurred, and for a time the hoarse, guttural cries of "No! No!" sounded like they were coming from someone else, some else, belonging to one of the many hideous denizens of Faerie.
But his parents didn't stop. They stepped through the threshold, the fake Cameron following after. The portal sealed closed behind them.
"Release him," Halidon said.
The guard obeyed, dropping him immediately, and he landed heavily on the ground. The crowd around them backed away, their voices low and excited. Halidon hopped down from the dais and went to where he lay.
"I messed it up." Cameron said. His voice came out broken and miserable, and his throat tightened, making speech nearly impossible.
"No, you didn't," Halidon said gently. "You did everything just right."
Cameron stared at Halidon's shining, smiling face, and he felt something inside him crack. He lunged at Halidon, hitting any part of him he could reach. They toppled to the ground together, and Cameron kicked and bit and punched wildly. Halidon shoved him off easily, and when Cameron was on the ground alone, he screamed. He screamed and screamed until all that came out were raw, croaking sobs. He wailed. He wept.
At the end of it all, after ages and ages, he was left lying on the floor, his face pressed against the stone, feeling exhausted and empty.
Cameron felt his hands gently stroking his back, his shoulders, his hair. He allowed it all, not having the strength left to fight it, and part of him not wanting to. He wanted his mom. He wanted his dad. He wanted to set fire to the entire hill and everyone inside. He wanted Halidon and every other fairy around to die-- except he didn't. But he knew he should, so he wanted to want them all to die. He wanted a hug.
"I hate you," he said.
"I know," Halidon said.
"I'll hate you forever," he said.
Halidon only sighed. He continued stroking Cameron's back.
"You could've visited," Cameron said. "we could have been friends still. You could've just visited."
"I love you," Halidon said.
Eventually, Halidon's hand came to rest on Cameron's temple. There was a blossoming warmth in his head, expanding and almost uncomfortable. Cameron imagined it like creeping vines growing inside his skull, twisting through his brain.
"What are you--?" he started to say.
Then, the world flashed white.
Cameron blinked and looked around.
He was on the floor. His throat hurt, and he was all stuffed up, like he'd been crying. His face was sticky and weird feeling from the tears, and there was snot running down to his chin.
Halidon was beside him, looking anxious.
"What happened?" Cameron said, sitting up.
"You were crying," Halidon said. "You scared me."
Halidon offered his hand and helped Cameron to his feet.
"How do you feel?"
Cameron rubbed his head. "Kinda headachey."
"Maybe you should sit down," Halidon said. He took Cameron's hand and led him to one of the dining chairs.
"What happened?" Cameron asked again.
"Nothing you need be concerned about. I will take care of you."
Halidon's voice was beautiful and sweet, and the sound of it was so calming and warm that Cameron found himself believing him entirely. Why he'd been crying wasn't important. All that was important was that he was here now with his brother looking after him.
* * * * *
Lanius watched events unfold with the calm air of someone witnessing a play they weren't particularly invested in. It wouldn't do to appear too eager; if his son lost, he would have to play the entire incident off as a great joke, a father's indulgence to his son's fits of passion. And so he watched with the rest of the unseen audience as the mortal boy toiled in the elaborate trap Halidon had devised for him.
That had been a promising start. Lanius had been certain that Halidon's plan would work. But of course his son couldn't resist going and actually talking to the boy. Of course he would jeopardize the entire wager because of his poor impulse control. It had taken every ounce of self control Lanius had to keep from interfering.
And then, due to Halidon's interference, he had watched as the mortal boy figured out his son's trick-- a clever trick, but not clever enough once attention had been drawn to it. It was sheer stupid luck that the boy had stumbled at the finish. His son was lucky he hadn't chosen the boy for his wit.
He glanced at the broken glass on the ground and gestured for one of the servants to come clean it up.
Perhaps that's wasn't true. Perhaps it was overthinking that had done the boy in. Either way, it looked as though Halidon had won, and he'd have to make good on their bargain. Though he kept his exterior calm, inside, he felt a growing and excited satisfaction. Finally, he thought. Finally there was something his feckless, selfish, capricious son thought worth fighting for.
When his son had first dragged the mortal boy before him-- a small, sniveling creature still suffering from the Faerie air, Lanius was certain that Halidon would be bored of him before the week's end. His son was too selfish to truly care for anything but himself, too fickle to reliably tend to anyone's needs but his own. He would tire of the boy the way he had tired of other creatures he'd taken in in the past, and Lanius fully expected to hear a week's time from then that he'd set the boy off into the woods to die, or had left him somewhere and forgotten about him. That Lanius would receive words from the groundskeeper that there were mortal bones blighting some part of the land, and that Lanius would have to deal with whatever vengeful or mournful spirit took up residence there. He would have been shocked if Halidon had taken the time to return the boy to the mortal world; once his son was bored with something, that was the end of it.
But the week had passed, and Halidon still doted on the lad. Another week, and the boy never left his side. Another and another, and soon it had been a month, then two, then six, and still Halidon treated the boy with more care and tenderness than Lanius would ever have thought him capable of.
The change in his temperament was clear, as well. Lanius had heard it from the seneschal and the chef and the head gardener and anyone else who would speak to him of it; something had changed in his son. He didn't throw fits as he once had. He hadn't broken anything on purpose in ages. He hadn't ordered the guards to torment anyone, nor had he harmed any animals. Oh, his behavior wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the issues now were more akin to usual childish hijinks than any deeper strain of cruelty. Compared to what it once was, it was though Halidon were an entirely new person.
When Lanius had seen the boy-- Cameron. If he was going to declare before the Court that the mortal was his son, he may as well start using his name. When he had seen Cameron find the mirror and the toy within, Lanius imagined his disappointment might have nearly matched that of Halidon's. He was certain that once the boy was gone, Halidon would revert back to his old ways, and Lanius would once again be stuck with a feral hellion running amok in his home.
Lanius approached the two and inclined his head first towards Halidon, then Cameron.
"Remember the terms of our agreement, father," said Halidon.
"Of course. Halidon, we need to talk. Cameron," he said, his voice laced with glamour. "Go to sleep."
They boy's eyelids dropped and he sagged in his chair.
Halidon was up in an instant, and he ran at his father, head low and his baby-goat horns bared. He gave Lanius a mighty shove that barely nudged him.
"Don't do that!" Halidon yelled, pounding his fists ineffectively against Lanius' side. "Don't ever do that!"
"What?" Lanius said. He grabbed his son's small wrists. "What's the matter?"
"He's my brother!" Halidon snarled. His face was very red and filled with a brand of indignant fury only small children could summon. "You shouldn't put him to sleep like that!"
"I witnessed you glamouring him many times. You stole his memories not five minutes ago."
"That's different!" Halidon snapped. "I do it when he's scared, or sad, or has bad dreams. I don't do it because he's inconvenient!"
Lanius stared at his son for a moment, reeling. Halidon could no more have shocked him than if he'd sprouted another head.
After a moment, Lanius released him. "You are correct," he said. "My actions were not as a father to his son. I swear to you that I will not glamour him again for the sake of convenience."
Halidon glared at him-- an expression nearly comforting in its familiarity-- but stopped trying to fight him. Instead, he went back to fussing over his brother, touching his hair and whispering praises and promises to him while he slept.
Lanius watched him for a time.
"What? Halidon said eventually. "What is it?"
Lanius smiled at him. "I am just happy to see you caring for your younger brother so. He is ours now," he added. "Any life he might have had in the mortal world is over now with the changeling."
"I know," said Halidon.
"Even if you tire of him. Even if he grows troublesome with age. Even if you argue and fight and decide you hate one another, you won't be rid of him. He is our family, now."
"I know!" Halidon hissed. "I know! I know. And I don't care. I love him. Everyone thinks I don't mean it, but I do. Cameron," he said. "Wake up. You shouldn't be asleep right now unless you want to be. I-- wait."
Halidon got up and went to where people were picking up the broken mirror. Gingerly, he selected one of the larger shards of glass. He touched the face of the piece carefully. There was a flash of light, and Cameron's soccer ball appeared, as though falling out of the shard. It bounced into the ground with a dull thud.
Halidon tossed the piece back on the ground and grabbed the ball.
"Hey, Cameron," he said. "Look what I have."
Cameron rubbed his eyes sleepily and blinked the last of the magic away. It took him a second to properly focus. When he did, his face split into a wide smile.
"My ball!" he said, clearly delighted. "Where did you find it?!"
"I went back to the mortal world to get it," Halidon said. "Do you want to play the kicking-points game?"
"Soccer!" Cameron said, laughing. "Yeah!"
He clambered to his feet and grabbed the ball. "Race you to the field," he said.
Before Halidon could answer, he was already running across the room, towards the exit. Lanius saw Halidon grin and follow happily after.
For the SciFiQuest 3021: The Quest From the Black Lagoon, originally conceived for Word Enchilada S01E05