Home > Sleep No More (October Daye #17)(2)

Sleep No More (October Daye #17)(2)
Author: Seanan McGuire

I would have done it anyway, of course. I knew my duty almost as well as I knew my place.

Eion frowned. “Surely there must be a scrap of ground, somewhere, suitable for us to stop a while,” he argued. “Somewhere out of the way, outside the garden walls.”

“And had you come any time but immediately prior to Moving Day, I might have been able to find you something,” I said. “If we allow you to root here now, with the year about to turn, you would be able to cry for hospitality, and my lady mother would be left with no proper choice save to grant it. We dwell here, between demesnes, because she has no desire to guide or guard a holding, only to live in peace with her family and be left alone.”

“We wouldn’t do that,” blurted one of the women. She stepped forward, putting herself level with the man, reaching for me, and I managed, barely, not to recoil. Like him, her hair ended in flaming red, as if the seasons had hold of her in body, not only custom.

“I swear, we wouldn’t,” she continued. “Only it’s been such a long walk already, and the children are so tired, and we have such a long way left to go.”

“Maia, please,” said Eion sharply.

“What is your destination?” The question drew me dangerously close to showing them the kind of concern that could be taken as an expression of responsibility, and yet I found I couldn’t help it. The children truly did look exhausted. If not for their human heritage, I doubted they would still have been on their feet.

Hamadryads are closely related to the true Dryads, although their weakened ties to the purity of flower magic have left them unable to truly bond with their trees. Instead of spending their lives tied to a true and sacred grove, they flit from vessel to vessel, renewing their roots with dips into the soil, hot-blooded enough to procreate with humans. In our lessons, Mother had taught me they were the best Maeve could do in imitating her better sister, and should be pitied but never trusted.

Most Hamadryads chose gestures and the sound of wind or birdsong for their names. That these spoke their names in a shape my tongue could echo told me they had been among a proper Court for some time before setting out on this ill-advised journey. That, and the quality of the clothes worn by the three adults, made me wonder if they traveled now of their own free will, or at a noble’s command.

“Golden Shore,” said Maia. “We have heard that such as we can be welcome there.”

This time, I was unable to control my face quickly enough to hide my moue of distaste. “Yes,” I said, pleased when my voice came out level, if not kind. “They are likely to welcome you.”

The Kingdom on the Golden Shore stocked our shelves with the things my father could not grow himself, or that we lacked the room to cultivate; for all that Mother liked a good quiche from time to time, she hated the sound of poultry and wouldn’t allow Father to keep chickens. As she also refused to allow any member of her family to shop in mortal lands, we had to purchase our eggs from Golden Shore, where they were laid by good, honest Alectryon fowl as Oberon intended. Meat was likewise acquired from their vendors, and all the other luxuries to which August would have been heir, had not Maeve so cruelly cut us off from the deeper lands of Faerie.

Golden Shore provided these wonders through backbreaking labor, and as few among the true fae would choose that life when offered any alternative, they swelled their workforce with changelings seeking a place that would accept them for what they were.

It seemed a cruel life to condemn a child to, unfair in the extreme. But then, it was the best any changeling born without a promised place could hope for.

“You have as far to go as you have already come, and I am not empowered to offer anything which might be taken for hospitality this close to Moving Day,” I said. “Why did you choose to travel now, if you know where you’re bound?”

“Our girls,” said Maia, miserably. “Ashla and Gable. Gable is to be sixteen at Ostara, and our liege—our former liege—had begun to speak of placements.”

The children, whom I had taken for younger than the age she claimed for them, glanced over at the sound of their names, then went back to watching the garden with hungry, weary eyes.

“There are households in Wild Strawberries glad to have changeling service,” she continued. “They call themselves benevolent, for being willing to be so tarnished. For being so very generous. But the children they claim rarely last a handful of seasons. They break. Their employers carry none of the blame, of course, and there’s no crime in the death of a changeling, but still, they . . . they break.”

Either she had caught enough of the angle of my cheekbones in the shadows of my hood, or she already knew my nature. Still, it was dangerous for her to speak so to a stranger. Not all changelings are sympathetic to our own kind. Not all have had my advantages in life.

The children moved closer to the as-yet-unnamed woman, seeking some sort of comfort, their exhaustion evident in the way they pressed themselves under her arms, baby birds seeking the warmth of the nest. Impulsively, I grabbed for the parcels Father had made, taking two in each hand, and thrust them at Eion.

“My father baked this bread himself, with wheat he grew in the fields between here and Shadowed Hills,” I said. “The herbs are of his garden. The cheese is from your destination, and should strengthen you. Take this as well.”

I plucked a jar of half-eaten blackberry jam from the counter and held it out, pleading silently for him to catch the implication.

“No one claims the blackberry tangles beyond the swamp, which is unreasonably infested with pixies,” I said. “It would be deeply unsafe to venture there, especially in the company of children.”

“Who makes the jam?” he asked, warily.

“My father and I,” I said. “We gather blackberries from the very edge of the tangle, when the pixies allow it, and then we boil them down in this kitchen.”

He feared goblin fruit, then, as was only sensible for someone who traveled in such . . . mixed company. I had heard rumor that Hamadryad changelings were more resistant to the call of the fruit than most, but “resistant” is not the same as “immune.” Best to avoid temptation until they could reach Golden Shore, where they would be protected by the Kingdom’s customs.

Hesitant, he took the jar from my hand. “No one claims it?” he repeated.

“Not past the verge,” I said. “The thorns are too thick, and the ground too soft to anchor a knowe. If any venture there, we do not know them.”

“Your kindness is noted, and will be remembered,” he said, with a small bow. The women didn’t mirror his gesture, but watched me with hope and relief in their faces.

I glanced away, not wanting to see them look at me as if I understood their struggle. I didn’t, and I knew that. The lives of changelings were short and brutal, better than humans only because they could see the glories of Faerie, worth less than both humans and fae in every other possible way. They were protected by no Law save the rules of hospitality and fealty: by leaving their liege, these people had left their daughters open to all the threats Faerie had to offer. Who was I, orchestrated, wanted, and beloved, to pretend at understanding what they suffered? I had never lived a day outside this tower, and Oberon willing, I never would.

If Mother tired of me and cast me out before August was ready to establish a household of her own, I had little doubt that I wouldn’t survive the year. I have never had a head for survival. Mother has made sure I knew that well and truly.

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