They say if you go dancing in the wildwood, on Midsummer's Eve, the faeries will steal you away.
Cole was not afraid of the faeries stealing him away. He would be a poor prize for them. He had always been weak and sickly, ever since he was a babe: youngest and useless, with strange pale eyes as green as young leaves. There was something wrong with him. Even though the village doctor brewed herbal potions, and even though the village priest chanted blessings, none of it helped. Only being in the wildwood, under the shining moon, made Cole feel better and stronger. So he ignored the warnings, and breathed in the sweet summer air.
Until he heard the howling.
The Wild Hunt, Cole thought. He clutched the iron amulet around his neck, heedless of how it bit into his palm and stung like hot embers. He prayed for it to protect him. But even though the howling chilled him to the bone, it stirred a strange thrill in his blood. Instead of running away, like anyone sensible, he ran towards it.
The hound was bigger than a wolf. Its shaggy pelt was white as snow, and its eyes burned with an eerie green flame. It had cornered a man against a stand of trees, its teeth bared. The man held a drawn sword in one hand, but his other hand clasped his shoulder, where blood seeped through.
"Hey!" Cole shouted, throwing a rock at the hound. The rock skittered past its paws, but it was enough to make the hound turn to face this new threat, snarling. Cole picked up another rock. "Go! Get away from him."
And it stopped. It bowed its head, as though in recognition. Then it turned tail and disappeared into the darkness between the trees.
"You fool," said the man, sheathing his sword. "What did you do that for? You should have killed it."
"Hey, I was saving--" Cole trailed off. This was no man. No mortal man, anyway.
He looked close to the same age as Cole, but there was a luminous glow about him, like the memory of candlelight. His eyes were blue as summer skies, and his hair as golden as sunshine. He was garbed in flowing silks of many colours, and his boots shone iridescent like dragonfly wings. An elegant rapier hung by his side. He moved with ethereal grace. He had to be a lord of Faerie.
Cole was all too aware of his plain homespun tunic, his patched trousers, and his muddy boots. A lump rose in his throat as he gazed upon the faerie lord, so impossibly beautiful. But strangely, the faerie lord was gazing back at him, not with disdain, but with curiosity, as though he had never seen a mortal before.
One had to be careful when conversing with faeries. If they took offence, they could make your life very unpleasant indeed. "How might I address you, my lord?"
The faerie lord considered him, with the flicker of an eyelid. "My name is Aurien."
Cole was shocked at this careless revelation. "I thought your kind did not reveal their names to mortals." Names had power. Names could summon, bind, and command.
"They can if they choose. Besides, you're not a mortal, are you?"
Cole froze. "What do you mean?"
"As if a mortal could drive off a ghost hound. The blood of Faerie is in your veins." Aurien stepped closer, examining Cole with a puzzled frown. "Do you really not know what you are? You must know you're different. A changeling swapped for a mortal child."
The world seemed to spin. It was everything Cole had dreaded. Every doubt he had about being normal. And yet, maybe there was a reason for his strangeness, maybe there was a place where he belonged. "Is that why you're here? To take me there? To where the faeries live?" He didn't dare say the word home.
Aurien shook his head with impatience. "Hardly. Do you think I'm welcome there? The ghost hound was hunting me. And now it's gone to tell its mistress where we are."
Cole didn't need to ask who its mistress was. He knew the stories. It had to be the Queen of Faerie, the most powerful and terrifying of them all. "Why?"
"She wants to steal another child," Aurien said, heavily. "It has been one and twenty years since last time. I intend to stop her."
"On Midsummer's Eve, the road between the realms is open, from moonrise to moonset. I have to protect the child until then." Reluctantly, Aurien said, "We have to protect the child."
Aurien looked away. "You are my only ally."
Cole wanted to protest. What could he do, against faeries and magic and monsters? He didn't even understand who he was, not really. But he knew what he couldn't do. He couldn't leave this man to try to fight the Queen of Faerie on his own, not when he had faced down the hounds of hell and bled for a child he didn't even know.
"Let me look at that shoulder of yours," Cole said. "And then, tell me about changelings."
They walked through the wildwood on a moonlit path that Cole had never before seen. Aurien had taken a golden brooch from his pocket and had sung a spell over it, and the path had revealed itself, as withered leaves fell from his hands.
Cole asked him about life in the realm of Faerie, hungry for some crumb of his heritage. But Aurien told him of a bored and idle court, who played petty games to divert themselves from the long centuries.
"Mortals have a vitality that is attractive to faeries," Aurien told him. "They are kept as pampered pets, feted at banquets and dances, and given every ornament and bauble they desire."
"That doesn't sound so bad," Cole ventured.
"Do you know what happens to discarded pets?"
"Neither do I."
They continued in silence, ribbons of cloud sliding past the moon. Aurien kept glancing sideways at Cole, distracted by something.
"What is that?" Aurien said at last, eyes narrowed at the amulet. "Let me see."
Cole covered it protectively, even though it stung his fingers. Aurien saw him flinch. "Just a talisman. It guards against evil spirits. I'm not supposed to take it off."
"They make you wear that?" Aurien said, incredulous. "That chunk of iron?"
Cole gave an uncomfortable shrug. "I'm used to it." He knew to wear it outside his clothes. Sometimes in his sleep, it slipped out of the folds of his nightshirt and lay against his bare skin. He would wake to fiery welts that took days to fade.
Aurien set his jaw and stepped close. He tore the amulet away, snapping the chain. Cole swayed with dizziness as warmth flooded into him, like the moon had become the sun. The wildwood seemed a thousand times brighter. For the first time he could remember, he felt whole. No, better than whole, overflowing with abundance. On instinct, he waved a hand, and a shower of sparks flew from his fingers, falling starry through the night.
"They chained your magic inside you," Aurien said, in a hard voice. He crushed the amulet in his fist.
"Wait, what about you?" Cole seized his hand, opening it. Around the pieces of iron, the skin was smooth and unmarked. "It didn't hurt you?"
Aurien shook his head, with a thin smile. "That's because I'm not a faerie. I was stolen away."
The cottage was covered in roses and ivy, like something out of a fairytale. Cole peered through the latticed window: the glow of a hearthfire, a rocking cradle by the bed, a woman singing a soft lullaby. He wondered if his mother had ever sung to him, or if she had known even then that he was somehow wrong.
"Come on," Aurien said, beside him, blinking rapidly and turning away. "We have work to do."
They warded the cottage three times: with lines of salt at the windows, a horseshoe of iron above the door, and a circle of holy water around the walls. Then they waited.
It was midnight when she came.
The Queen of Faerie looked like a woman in the prime of beauty, with flawless skin and lustrous hair, her glittering gown showing her curves to advantage. But she wore her form like a cloak over something inhuman, as bright and cold and beautiful as the moon. When she encountered the wards, her hiss was like a wordless curse.
"Leave them be," Aurien said, stepping forward, hand on the hilt of his sword.
She shook her head. "Is that any way to speak to your beloved queen?" Her attention passed from Aurien to Cole, and her gaze focused. Her eyes were the same pale green as his own.
Cole said, in a shaking voice, "Mother?"
She smiled, pityingly, and brushed his cheek with a gloved hand. "You poor creature. I'm not your mother. You have no mother."
Cole could not speak, or even breathe. He stood there, staring at her helplessly.
"What do you mean?" Aurien said sharply. "He's clearly a changeling--"
"My darling. What do you think a changeling is? Did you really imagine I would trade one of my own children for a mortal, even a mortal as pretty as you? He is no faerie. He is a fetch. Nothing more than enchanted clay, shaped like a child. A creation of my magic. He has no magic of his own."
Cole hardly knew what to think. Faeries were known for trickery and deceit. He looked down at his hands. They felt like flesh and blood. Or did they seem more translucent than before? No wonder he felt drained after every spell. It was like emptying water from a cup.
"I am surprised he lasted this long. Most of them fade away after only a year or so." The Queen turned from Cole, dismissing him without further thought. "But you, my rebellious one. You have challenged me, defied me, and stolen from me. But I shall forgive you, because I love you. Come home and forget this nonsense."
Her voice was as sweet and soothing as honey and wine. Aurien swallowed. "I don't believe you. You mean to replace me." He was wavering, Cole saw in dismay.
"My darling. I would never discard you. But I would like to give you a baby sister." From the folds of her gown, she brought out a wrapped bundle. It moved. "Put this in the cradle, and bring the mortal child to me."
Cole snapped out of his reverie. He dug in his pockets for the broken amulet, ignoring the sting of cold iron against his skin. He hurled the pieces at the Queen, who raised her hands to deflect the attack. The wrapped bundle fell, and Cole dove to catch it barely in time. It was instinct. He stared down at the sleeping babe. He knew it was a fetch. Just dirt and magic. But so was he.
Cole looked up. The Queen stood over him, her gloves and gown smoking with tiny charred holes. Her glamour flickered, like lightning, and what he saw underneath he could not describe in words. With a wave of her hand, she pulled the magic from him in a long shining arc. Cole cried out in agony, his strength draining away like blood flowing from an artery. He curled around the fetch protectively. It had known only a little of life so far, and he had already lived many years beyond his time.
Suddenly, the pain stopped. Cole lay gasping, dizzy and weak.
Aurien stood between them, brandishing his sword. "Begone, before the village wakes, and raises cold iron against you."
The Queen laughed, but it was full of darkness and anger. "So be it. You are banished from my sight. Enjoy your mortal life in the mortal world." She vanished, leaving behind only silence and moonlight.
Aurien dropped to his knees beside Cole. "Hold on." He tipped out his pockets, pouring to the ground all manner of enchanted jewellery: brooches and bracelets, pendants and rings. He shattered them all with his sword, releasing the power locked inside them. The magic swirled into Cole, filling the void within him, as the jewellery withered into old leaves.
Cole sat up, still cradling the fetch. "Aurien. You shouldn't have. That was all your magic."
Aurien shrugged. "I'm only human after all."
He looked lost. Cole touched his arm. "Well, that's not so bad. Come home with me. There are some people I'd like you to meet."