Home > Sleep No More (October Daye #17)

Sleep No More (October Daye #17)
Author: Seanan McGuire



October 28th, 2015

Methought I heard a voice cry “Sleep no more!”

—William Shakespeare, Macbeth.

SAMHAIN AND BELTAINE ARE the hubs around which the rest of Faerie’s year turns. The two Moving Days, when the least among us—those ranked even lower than changelings like myself—are free to pack up their lives and move along to their next home. That freedom extends not only to the forgettable. On the Moving Days, courtiers, changelings, and servants can move between demesnes without concern for the possibility that they might offend the Lords and Ladies under whom they serve, for Oberon himself has granted his blessing. The skies go dark with flocks of pixies, Piskies, and leaf-winged sprites, and the roads are thick with traveling petitioners, all of them seeking a new place to belong.

Since I reached my majority, it had become my duty to man the door and watch the gate during the weeks surrounding each Moving Day, providing the levels of hospitality required by Oberon’s decree and not a crumb or comment more. It was simple work, beneath the others who dwelt in the household, and yet still I took pride in it. On those fleeting nights, I felt shamefully as if I held some actual station in our house.

A family of Hamadryads were the latest to find their way to Mother’s tower, three pureblooded adults and two children, both of whom carried the distinct marks of human heritage. The five of them approached along the road connecting us to Shadowed Hills, and one of the children glanced back over her shoulder with glossy eyes and a quivering lip, making me wonder whether they had first sought sanctuary in my uncle’s halls. Fools. Wherever they had been before they started this journey must have been glad to see them go, to have released them early and so very unprepared.

I adjusted the drape of my cloak and moved from the window to the hall between the sitting room and kitchen, where I would be able to hear them knocking at whichever door they chose to approach.

If they came to the kitchen door, cutting through the back garden, I would give them parcels of bread and cheese Father had prepared for this very purpose. The bread was rich with herbs he had grown himself, and I sometimes suspected he enchanted it in some small way, to give petitioners luck on the journey yet ahead of them. These people would need it, clearly. For them to have removed changeling children from the household they were born to serve was not a violation of the rules, but it was unseemly at the very least, and unwise by any measure. Such children’s lives would always have been short. Now they would likely be hard and brutal as well, for what liege would ever trust them not to flee a second time?

If they came through the front garden to the main door, I would give them nothing at all. It was not Moving Day proper yet, and even if it had been, Mother’s careful avoidance of any title save the one she was born to—Firstborn—meant the laws of hospitality had little claim over her. These travelers could no more demand the comforts of her house than they could shake away the evidence of their transgressions.

What happened next was entirely on them. I stood in the hall, eyes closed and head tipped back, breathing in the comforting scent of smoke and roses. I knew the truth of my parentage. Mother could never have gotten August a handmaid through her bridal bed, and there was nothing of Father’s lineage in me. Still, it would have been nice to find something familiar in the attenuated air of my own paltry spellcasting. The copper spoke to Mother’s blood, at least in the abstract, but freshly cut grass? What self-respecting daughter of a good family smelled like a lawn?

The word was devoid of context in my mind, and I opened my eyes, blinking into the dimness. What was a lawn? I knew it as a term for fine linen, but laundry had nothing to do with the smell of my magic. No, I had thought of the word as something to do with grass . . . but why?

A heavy knock disrupted my attempts to puzzle out the meanderings of my own mind. At the kitchen door, thank Oberon and his beautiful bride. I started for the kitchen, pulling my hood up to hide my ears and shade my features. Everyone local knew of Amandine’s two daughters, the tarnished and the true. They would never doubt my loyalties. Even so, those who traveled with changelings were all too often inclined to take my visible mortality as a sign that I might sympathize with them, that I could be called upon to offer aid beyond what tradition required of me, and those things could not have been less true. There is no shame in standing by the rules of your house.

There is still shame, I feel, in misleading someone, however unintentionally. My blood and magic clearly felt the same, for they had never been inclined to illusions, however hard I struggled to master and call them forth. Nothing in me wished to lie.

The knock came again, not impatient, but harried, as if the knocker were on the verge of panic. I stepped up to the door, unlatched it, and pulled it open, allowing the migrants on the step their first and only glimpse of the interior of my mother’s tower.

The kitchen is and has always been Father’s domain. Cuts of meat and dried alliums hung from the ceiling, suspended alongside sacks of fresh potatoes, squash, and onions. Wheels of cheese and bottles of oil crowded the shelves, and everything smelled of fresh-baked bread and spices.

I have always felt most comfortable in the kitchen and the kitchen garden. The rest of the tower is like the front garden, meant for Mother and for August. I am better left behind the scenes, protected and anonymous. Father sees that need in me, and has always done his best to nurture it.

From the way the Hamadryads stared past me into the gloom, that simple kitchen must have seemed a paradise. I gave them a few seconds to gape at what they would never touch, then cleared my throat, snapping their attention back to me.

“Greetings,” I said, tone formal. “I am October, daughter of this house. What do you seek?”

A question was not an offer of aid, nor did it create the expectation of same. The light that had been growing in the eyes of the man at the front of their group flickered out and died, extinguished in an instant. It was better that way. A blunt dismissal might ache, but it was preferable to leading them on.

“I am Eion,” he said, touching his chest with one slim-fingered hand. His skin, like many Hamadryads, was a dusty grayish-brown, the color of ash bark, and his hair was the same but several shades darker, trending toward a flaming autumnal red at the tips. A direct descendant of Melia, then, most likely, only two generations removed from Maeve’s dishonor.

That made the presence of changelings in his company all the more appalling. The children of the Firstborn are meant to know better, to be better as an example for all of Faerie. Even those who claim descent from Maeve should hold themselves to a higher standard.

All the ritual responses I could give would involve offering him the comfort or the kindness of the house, neither of which I was authorized to give, and so I held my tongue, and waited for him to continue.

“We have come from Wild Strawberries,” he said, reading my silence for the refusal that it was. “We departed on the first hour of the Moving Day festivities and have made our way this far entirely on foot. The children are weary. We seek a place to rest for the coming day, to let our roots dip into living soil and feed our tired bodies.”

“There is no room for wild planting in my mother’s garden,” I said, and was relieved to know my words were true, for the children looked around themselves with wide-eyed yearning, drinking in the sight of so many green things growing so very, very well. It would have pained me to lie to them.

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