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Faires are cute aren't they? They're just sooooo cute! Cutey, cute, cute, cute cute....
Rules of War
The creature in the cage wasn’t moving. It sat still and silent in the centre of its prison watching Arathy approach, impassively and unconcerned, with its dull violet eyes. When Arathy’s father, Kyther, had returned from patrol duty and unloaded the cage from the cart, the creature had been shouting in its own language and rattling the bars that surrounded it, but it had quietened down when Kyther had threatened it with an iron rod, and it hadn’t moved since. Even so, Arathy still felt nervous as he crept towards the cage. His heart was pounding, his breathing was ragged and his palms were slick with sweat, but he knew that was as much to do with the fear of his father coming back out of the farm house and catching him avoiding his chores, as it was because of the nervous anticipation he felt at finally being able to see one of the fey.
They had been at war with the faerie race since his great grandfather’s time, but Arathy had never actually seen one. He had heard stories about them since he was a child, how they stole mortal children and enslaved them, made women and animals infertile, spoiled crops, soured milk and sank ships, but he had always thought that he would have to wait until he was eighteen, and joined his father and older brother, Rodir, on patrol, before he would catch a glimpse of one. He had never thought that his father would actually capture a faerie, so he had no intention of wasting this opportunity, even if he would face a thrashing if he were caught.
Inside the wooden cage, hung all over with its iron disks to keep its prisoner secure, as everyone knew that the fey were terrified of iron, was a female faerie. She was a slender, androgynous creature, but her breasts, small and delicately formed, clearly defined her sex. She was probably as tall as Arathy, but in the small space of the cage, with her long limbs curled up around her, it was hard to tell. She seemed to be wearing nothing more than sheer piece of gossamer as a dress. It was like a spider’s web, draped around her, cut low at the back for where her wings would have protruded through her skin, only they were gone now. All that remained were two stubs, no longer bleeding, surrounded by red and torn skin, and dried blood. Kyther had chopped the wings off to make sure that she couldn’t fly away, and he was bound to profit from that deed as faerie wings were prized at markets, like the faeries themselves. Faerie women and children were very marketable and could sell for a small fortune sometimes. The men were less desirable as they were considered more dangerous, but Arathy wasn’t sure about that. The look in this faerie woman’s violet cat-slit eyes was one of pure murder.
But she looked scared, too.
“Can I get you anything?” Arathy asked her softly, not sure that she could even understand him. “To eat or drink?” There was a pause and then the faerie woman shook her head, milky-white hair flying about her face. “Are you in pain?” There was another pause and then an uncomfortable nod. “I will get you something, some water from the well, try and clean you up. Just hold still-.” Another nod and Arathy turned and hurried away, heading towards the well.
Arathy worked quickly to fill the bucket with icy cold water and then stumbled back to the cage as fast as he could across the uneven ground, spilling a little of the water as he went. When he reached the cage he gave the faerie a nervous smile, one that he hoped would comfort her, before he headed around the back of it to squat in the dirt behind her. He soaked the hem of his cloak in the cold well water and carefully reached through the bars to dab it against the faerie’s pale skin.
The faerie girl cried out at his touch and flinched away.
“I’m sorry,” Arathy whispered. “I really am-.”
“No,” the girl said, in a soft, lilting voice that showed that she could not only understand him, but speak his language. “Please, continue.”
Arathy hesitated but the girl squared off her shoulders and shoved a fist into her mouth to mask any cry that she might make, leaving Arathy no choice, but to take a deep, slow breath and raise the damp cloak corner again to dab at her back.
He did his best to clean away the dried blood and soothe the sore flesh without hurting her, but every now and then the faerie would hiss in pain, or flinch away from his touch. Arathy didn’t blame her for that. Her once glimmering wings were gone and nothing remained but the stubs and sore and cauterized flesh. It had to hurt, it had to be distressing, but there was nothing that Arathy could do to except dab at her skin carefully with the well water.
And then his mother was calling him in for breakfast.
The barn where Kyther moved the faerie, to keep her out of his way, was draughty and cold and hung all over with tatty cobwebs that fluttered in the breeze, but at least it was private. He had moved her there the same evening that she had been brought to the farm, and since then, hadn’t shown her any interest at all! He had left her care to Arathy and Rodir, after having set down his stringent rules: neither Arathy, nor Rodir, were to spend any time with her, other than to push her food through the small slot in the cage and to empty her chamber-pot; they were not to talk to her; they were not to look her in the eye, and they were not to touch her.
Faeries were evil creatures and could cast a spell on a man just by looking at them, Kyther had said, so they had to be very careful. But in the week that Arathy had been helping Rodir to take care of the faerie, he had not seen anything about her that he could consider evil, in fact, she seemed rather vulnerable and sad, and very fascinating! He knew that he should avoid her, that he should have nothing to do with her, that she was the enemy, but he couldn’t help himself. She was an exotic creature, strange, mysterious, with her violet eyes, white hair and feline features, and he wanted to spend time with her, he wanted to know more about her, he was captivated.
He tried to win her affection by taking her gifts: his mother’s healing salve, for the wounds on her back; a blanket, to keep her warm at night; a comb and a mirror, so that she could make herself look pretty; and food, that he stole from the larder and supper table so that she wouldn’t have to eat the table scraps that his mother set aside for her. And the faerie girl certainly seemed to appreciate his care and attention.
After only a few days of coaxing she had told him her name, Ash’ia, and now she always smiled at him when he entered the barn and asked him how his day had been. Arathy knew that she didn’t do the same for Rodir! In fact, when his brother was in the barn Ash’ia wouldn’t lift her head, she became cowed, frightened, although Arathy was sure that, sometimes, he saw a glitter of something in her violet eyes, a look of anger, barely kept in check, but then the look was gone and Arathy couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined it after all.
Sometimes, when Rodir wasn’t around, and Arathy had enough time, Ash’ia would tell him stories about her life back in the Faerie Realm. Although she did avoid telling him anything that was personal about herself, she was full of stories about her brothers and sisters, one of whom was a scout in the Queen’s Army, a warrior, which Arathy found incredible. A woman fighting alongside the men! But, judging from Ash’ia’s stories, things were very different in the Faerie Realm. Women could rule, they could fight, they didn’t have to get married and have children, they were equal to the men, and worked alongside them. Ash’ia had actually been horrified at the idea that, in the Mortal Realm, a woman was expected to stay home and raise children and she couldn’t understand why any woman would accept just this for herself.
It was these differences, and the stories that she told, that intrigued Arathy more than anything else and lured him back, even when he should have been doing his chores, eating his meals, or sleeping in his bed.
As usual, when Arathy slid into the barn, Ash’ia’s eyes lit up. “It is good to see you this evening, Arathy,” she told him. “I grow bored alone in here. It is nice to have someone to talk to.”
“I brought you your supper,” Arathy said. He dug out the food that he had procured early in the evening, two apples, a chunk of white cheese and half a thick sausage. Ash’ia took them with a bright smile, her soft hand gently touching his as he passed them through the slot.
“Thank you.” She took a bite of the apple. “How . . . . how much longer will it be until I am taken to market, to be sold?” Her voice shook a little as she spoke which didn’t surprise Arathy. She had to be terrified of what was to come. He knew that he would be, in the same situation.
“We are taking you next week,” he said quietly.
“Oh.” Ash’ia’s mouth twisted. “Oh.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Would you?” she countered. “If you were locked away in a small cage, with no room to stand up, would you be all right? I can’t stretch my legs or my arms, they are so cramped that they are a mass of pain.” Her violet eyes welled up with tears. “It hurts,” she said, “so much, that I am even looking forward to being taken to market! Can you imagine, I am looking forward to being paraded around in front of gaping mortals, listening to their catcalls, being bid on as if I were a fine cow, just so that I can get out of this damn cage!”
Arathy swallowed. “I-I wish that I could let you out-.”
“I know,” Ash’ia said, with a forced smile. “It’s all right. I do understand. I am an exotic creature, a pet, I am worth a lot of coin, you can’t take the risk that I might escape if you were to let me out for a bit.”
Arathy flinched as he shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s not that. I can’t let you out. My father has a key for the lock and he keeps it with him all the time, I don’t see any way that I could steal it from him to be able to let you out for a little while. I am sorry.”
“Oh.” Ash’ia’s gave him another weak smile. “It’s all right. I. . . I will be free of this cage soon enough and you have made it very comfortable for me. Thank you.”
Arathy smiled. “My father would tan my hide if he saw half of this! I wasn’t even supposed to talk to you! He said you would put a spell on me!”
“No,” Ash’ia said. “No spell. If I could use magic in such a way, I would not be here now, away from my family, from my friends.”
Arathy blinked. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I suppose that is true.” He bowed his head, reaching through the bars of the cage to touch Ash’ia’s slim fingers gently. Her touch was warm, her fingers calloused beneath his. “You . . . you do not blame me for this, do you?” he whispered. “I-I couldn’t bear it if you held me to blame for all this.”
“Why would I blame you?” the faerie replied softly. “You are just a child, it isn’t your fault. Our people are at war, this is how your people fight, they kill our men, imprison and sell off the women and the children. It is one of your rules of war and I knew what might happen to me when I came to your world, I knew the risks. This is my fate and it is no one’s fault but my own.”
“Oh.” There was a long pause as Arathy struggled to think of something comforting to say, in the end he just shrugged. “Will you . . . will you tell me another story?”
Ash’ia smiled fondly at him as she shook her head. “It is getting late, Arathy, and your father will wonder where you are, and I would like to eat my meal in peace. I will tell you another story tomorrow.”
“Can I get you anything? Do you need me to tend your bruises . . . or . . . or . . .”
“The stubs? No. No they are fine, your mother’s healing salve did a good job, I would thank her for it, if she did anything more than spit at me.” Ash’ia yawned, a clear sign of Arathy’s dismissal. “I will talk to you again tomorrow night? I do look forward to our talks.”
“Yes,” Arathy said. “Yes of course. Good night Ash’ia.”
Ash’ia was quiet as she carefully dabbing healing salve onto the large, fresh burn on her arm. It was starting to blister and it looked extremely painful. Arathy wouldn’t have believed it was caused by iron touching the faerie’s skin, if he hadn’t seen it for himself.
When he had come into the barn that afternoon, following his chores, it had been to catch his brother threatening Ash’ia with an iron bar and mocking her with tales of what would happen to her when she had been sold. Arathy had told his brother to stop, threatened to fetch their father, but the older boy had just laughed and Arathy had struck out at him, the first time in his life that he had laid a finger against his bigger, strong brother. When Rodir had recovered from the initial shock of it, he had turned his attention towards Arathy instead and the two had fought until the commotion had brought Kyther running.
When he could breathe easily again, Arathy had explained what had happened, and the burn marks on Ash’ia’s skin from where the iron had touched her had been enough proof to convince Kyther. He had beaten Rodir for what he had done, called him all sorts of names, angry that Rodir had damaged his prize, and then he had forbidden him from entering the barn again, leaving the faerie girl solely in Arathy’s hands, much to Arathy’s secret pleasure. But the look of pain in Ash’ia’s eyes, as he had returned to her hand her the healing salve, had quashed that. He had wanted to be the only one to take care of Ash’ia, but not at this cost. He didn’t like to see her hurt.
“Are you all right?” Arathy asked. The faerie girl nodded her head, but the tears shinning in her violet eyes betrayed her. “I am sorry about that . . . about Rodir . . .”
“No,” the girl said, “you saved me from him.”
“He would not have killed you! Just . . . just . . .”
“Tortured me?” Ash’ia shrugged. “I am glad that you came in when you did. I am glad that it was you who saved me.” She lifted her eyes. “Was . . . was it true what your brother said?” she asked in a quiet voice. “Am I to become a whore?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” Arathy whispered. “I have heard . . . I have heard that there are brothels in the cities now, where a man can buy a faerie woman to bed. . . but Rodir was just saying that to be cruel. I am sure that it won’t happen to you. I am sure that you will be well taken care of-.”
Ash’ia’s face became very pale and pinched. “As well taken care of,” she said slowly, “as I have been here? Locked in a cage in a draughty barn, threatened with iron, mocked and called a . . . a monster?” Arathy swallowed back a tight lump that had formed in his throat and he slowly shrugged.
Ash’ia’s jaw set. “You have been kind to me,” she said in a flat voice. “But I am not a fool to think that I will always be so well looked after. I am to be sold into slavery. If I am lucky, I will be put on display like a prized animal, if I am not, I will be raped day and night while men pay another man for that privilege! This is the life that awaits me and I do not see why I should lie to myself and pretend it will be otherwise.”
She tilted her head to regard Arathy with flat eyes. “But you can pretend it is otherwise, Arathy, if it will make it easier for you to spend my blood money. You can pretend I am well and looked after, with kind masters. You can pretend that I do not miss my family and my friends, or my freedom, if it makes it easier for you and your family to enjoy your new farm tools or new clothes, or whatever else your father and mother purchase with coin for my life! You can pretend what you wish, Arathy, but do not hate me if I do not do the same!”
“I-I could never hate you!” Arathy gasped. “And please, please, do not talk this way! Ash’ia, please! You said that you don’t blame me for this, that I am just a child, that this isn’t my fault!”
“I do not blame you, Arathy,” Ash’ia said, in a flat, empty tone of voice. “I blame no one for my fate but my self.” She turned her back, presenting the still fresh scars from where her wings used to be. “Please, leave me. I want to be alone.”
“Ash’ia!” Arathy whispered, a protest, as a tight lump seized his chest. “Please, I am sorry, but none of this is my fault! Ash’ia, you said yourself that it is a rule of war! It’s what we do! I-it’s not my fault . . .” But the girl’s back was a hard line and when she refused to even acknowledge him, Arathy had no choice but to leave.
Arathy could hear the sound of Ash’ia sobbing as he lay in his narrow bed and tried to sleep. He tried to ignore it, tried to pretend that he couldn’t hear it, but it was impossible. In the past week, since Rodir had attacked her with the iron bar, she had not said more than two words to Arathy. She had been detached, aloof. Arathy had tried to coax her out of it, tried to make her laugh, to make her smile, but she had barely acknowledged him until that afternoon when he had told her the news, that the following morning she was to be taken to market.
And she had started to cry, and she hadn’t stopped. Even now, in the dark stillness of the night, Arathy could hear her crying. He didn’t blame her for it, not for one moment, it had to be terrifying, to not know what awaited you, to be so helpless, to have no control over your own life. And although Arathy felt sympathy for her, for what she would face in the morning, he was relieved to.
He was glad that she would soon be gone and he would no longer have to look at her or live with the guilt that came with having her trapped in the cage in the barn, because that guilt was incredible. Even though her eyes were violet and her hair was white, even though she had scarred and bloody stumps where wings had once fluttered in the breeze, she was little different to Arathy. She had a family, just as he did, and friends, and hopes, and fears. He found it impossible to see her as a monster, the way his parents did, he couldn’t even see her as an exotic pet anymore. No, now she was just a sad, tragic figure and the sound of her crying tore at his heart.
Arathy rolled over, pulling a pillow over his head to try and mask the sound of weeping, only it seemed to be inside his head, still echoing through his mind, heavy gasps, whimpers of pain, of misery. It was a never ending flood of tears and he could see her, in his mind’s eye, her pale face red from crying, her violet eyes watering, her slim body shaking. He couldn’t get the image, or the sound, out of his head, it was as though it was trapped there, like a captivating song, and nothing he could do seemed to shift it.
When it finally grew too much for him to bear, Arathy knew that there was only one thing left that he could do. He had to go and see her.
Arathy fumbled to strike his tinderbox so that he could light his lantern and see things more clearly, and then he reached for his clothes. He dressed quickly, his heart racing and his mouth dry, and crept out of his bedroom. He had to walk carefully, avoiding the creaking floorboards, as he made his way through the house, so as not to alert his parents. His heart was thundering inside his chest the whole time, like an insistent drum, and the only thing that drowned it out was the sound of the faerie girl crying.
“I want to go home!” the girl gasped, as soon as she saw Arathy. Her face was red, just as he had imagined it, her nose running; she looked a state, miserable and small. “I miss my sister, and my mother!”
“I am sorry,” Arathy said, setting down the lantern before sinking to his knees beside the cage. He pushed his fingers carefully through the bars to try and touch her, hoping that would bring her some comfort. “I-I really am. I-I wish things were different, I-I wish-.”
“They will never find me, Arathy! My family! I sat here and I hoped and I prayed to the gods that they would find me, that somehow they would rescue me, but they haven’t come! They have left me, and tomorrow, I will be gone from here and they will never find me!” She buried her face in her hands and her body shook with sobs so violent that even the iron disks on the cage rattled, clanging together.
With a heavy heart Arathy got to his feet. There was nothing he could say, nothing he could do. He turned, but as he was leaving he caught sight of his father’s tool rack, and the glint of metal from Kyther’s work knife. Arathy had it in his hand and was cutting the ropes that tied the iron disks to the cage before he even knew it.
“What . . . what are you doing?” Ash’ia whispered.
“Setting you free.”
“Won’t you get in trouble?”
Arathy hesitated and then he shrugged. “Probably,” he said. “If my father finds out, but I will feign innocence and perhaps he will think it was someone from the village, someone who was jealous of the money he would have made from you. Even if he does discover it was me there isn’t a lot he can do. He can beat me, I suppose, but he has done that before. He may decide I can’t be trusted and try to stop me going on patrol, or something. But I doubt he can actually do that. It is the law, after all, that all men of eighteen take their turn on patrol, to protect us all from the ‘evil’ fey.” He gave Ash’ia a quick smile as the last disk fell away and he turned his attention towards the lock.
“You will join the patrol when you come of age?” Ash’ia asked, sounding strangely calm.
“Yes,” Arathy said. “Of course.”
“And you will kill any faerie that you come across?”
Arathy hesitated before nodding slowly. “It’s war,” he said. “They are the enemy.”
“Yes,” Ash’ia agreed. “It is war. But you will not kill me?”
“No!” Arathy said, surprised that she had even had to ask. “You’re a friend! I can’t kill you!”
The lock broke and Arathy swung the cage door open, clearing away the iron disks so that Ash’ia had a safe path to walk along. She smiled at him, gratefully, and then climbed from the cage and stretched her whole body, the way that a cat would after a sleep.
“Thank you for giving me my life back,” she said, and her slim arms slid around him as she hugged him tight. “Thank you so much. Thank you for saving me.” She smelt of dirt and grime, her hair was lank against his face, and Arathy could feel the pounding of her heart, beneath her breasts that were pressed close against him. Her body was slim and all too real, all too warm, in his arms. She was all too real.
A sudden blast of pain shot through his back, making him cry out and pull free of Ash’ia’s grip. Blinking back the sudden flurry of tears that had filled his eyes, Arathy twisted his arm up behind him, seeking out the source of the burning pain.
And his fingers closed around the hilt of Kyther’s work knife, buried in his back.
Arathy gasped, with surprise and pain, and collapsed to his knees with a bone-jarring jolt. His mouth was full of blood, it was thick and salty, and when he coughed, dark red droplets sprayed onto the ground. “Why?” he asked. It was all he could think of to say. Tears burned in his eyes and his vision was cloudy as he struggled to stare up at the faerie woman he had considered a friend, the faerie woman who had just taken his knife from his hands and plunged it into his back.
Ash’ia only shrugged. Her violet eyes were suddenly dry and they were clearer and calmer than Arathy could remember them being before. They weren’t the eyes of Ash’ia, the frightened faerie in the cage, now, no, these eyes were cold and calm and they regarded him impassively as he collapsed onto his side, gasping like a fish out of water. “It was nothing personal, Arathy,” she said. “In a few years you would have joined the patrol with your father and killed any of my kind that you came across. I have just saved a few lives by taking yours.” She stepped over his fallen body as she headed towards the barn door. “It’s a rule of war, Arathy, to never leave a live enemy behind you. That’s all it is, a rule of war.”