“It's like the old folk ballads,” April tells him. “They'll change me into all kinds of monsters and nightmares and deadly things. They'll do anything they can to make you let me go. But you can't let go, Ram. No matter what you do—don't let go.”
It's easier said than done, easier to make a promise than to keep it. A wish isn't the same as an action, and just because you think you can do something doesn't mean you can actually do it. Ram knows this, even as he promises April that he will hold her and never let her go. Here, as he lies on the forest floor amid wild roses and fallen leaves, staring into the mesmerizing blue of April's eyes, it is easy to believe that he will be brave enough to keep his arms around her. But at midnight on All Hallow's Eve, with the shadows of barren trees looming above him and the roar of the Shadowkin horde in his ears, Ram isn't sure he can believe in anything.
April had not been born with faery blood in her veins or a shadow on her heart.
It was all her father's fault, really—her mortal father, Huw, lover of fiddle and drink, who had slung his eight-year-old daughter across the back of his saddle as he went off to hunt, only to kick his steed so hard it bucked, and April fell. It was the Shadowkin King who caught her and claimed her for his own, for he had need of a changeling whose heart he could bind to his own. Corakinus had never cared much for the child, seeing her only as a means to keep his failing heart beating, but he taught her the art of the scimitar nevertheless. Soon their half-hearted human was a fearsome warrior, second in skill only to Corakinus himself, though she refused to slaughter others with her own hand.
April was never allowed to join the Shadowkin when they raided the human realm to pay their so-called teind to hell. Nor did she want to, lest she be forced to kill her mother, her childhood playfellows, even her father. Instead, Corakinus had given her Coal Hill, and told her that any maiden or man who trespassed on that ground was hers, to do with as she pleased. For April, that meant watching silently as they gathered roses or bathed in the sunlight. April never revealed herself, never demanded anything, never asked them what it was like to be human and free. She had a feeling it would only make her own loss seem deeper.
And then Ram Singh came to Coal Hill in search of flowers to strew over his lover's grave, and before he could pull a single one, April found herself running toward him, her half-heart beating wildly.
"Don't," she said, grabbing his wrist to stop his hand. "That's not a normal petal. It feeds on your blood and uses it to multiply itself into a swarm of thousands. And then the swarm devours you whole."
Ram pulled his hand back, then turned to look into April's eyes. "Who are you?" he asked.
She blinked slowly, wondering what she could say to save this beautiful boy, to win his love and her own freedom, then settled on the truth. “My name is April MacLean,” she said, “and we're all in terrible danger.”
When Ram has gathered up his courage, charged at the Shadowkin raiders, and pulled April down from her horse, they change her in his arms into the Shadowkin that killed Rachel.
He nearly lets go of her in shock. Memories rush back to him, the touch of smouldering stone and the smell of burned skin throwing him back into the hell of his memory, reliving the moment Rachel died over and over again. He can feel himself covered in blood, watching the scimitar tear right through Rachel's body, watching his lover's remains collapse into ash. He wants to throw the Shadowkin onto the ground, to beat it again and again, because how dare they take the woman he loves and turn her into this—and then he remembers April, whose heart keeps beating every day in defiance of that kind of violence and everything it stands for, and so he pulls her close and keeps his arms around her.
They change her again, this time into a dragon whose claws slice under his skin as if the creature means to flay him alive. Terror seizes up his body. He was too full of rage to be terrified before, but now he's truly, properly frightened. If I don't let go, it will kill me, he thinks. And then: Maybe that's what I want. To die, and never again to see these things I've seen. But in the end, it doesn't matter, because he keeps his hold on his lover. Either he'll save her and let her heal his guilt and grief, or he'll die trying.
They change her into a vine that twists around his limbs and then his neck, strangling him like the devil's snare. They change her into the carnivorous petals he almost fell prey to when he and April first met. They change her into a burning meteor that tortures him with his own insecurities—April doesn't love you as much as you love her, a voice whispers in his mind, and she never will. She has Shadowkin blood in her veins, she cannot love you with all her heart, so all of this is in vain.Give up. Go home. He screams and nearly crushes the rock with his bare hands. It's true, he knows it's true. But he also knows she can only begin to love him when she is free, and so he pulls her closer and whispers, “We're almost there. We're almost there.”
The last form she takes is a pinprick of yellow light that he holds in the palm of his hand. He can feel time rush through his body, months flying by in seconds, his hair and beard growing rapidly. How much of his life is he losing, keeping his hold on her?
The light grows blindingly bright. Ram cannot help but look away. But when he looks back, April is naked in his arms, her skin soft and warm against his. He wraps her in his cloak and kisses her gently, and meets Corakinus's rage with an even gaze.
“If I had known you would betray us this night,” the Shadow King snarls at his former charge, “I would have torn that heart of ours out of your chest, maggot.”
April smiles icily at him and says, “But you did not, and instead, I took yours.” And the Shadow King falls to the ground, the heart they once shared now fully restored to its human owner.
April MacLean is a mortal woman now, the wife of Sir Ram Singh of Coal Hill. She plays the fiddle at the wedding feast of Prince Charles and sings lullabies to the baby daughter of the last Quill matriarch. And when that daughter changes shape in her cradle, from human to hedgehog to faery and back again, April picks her up, rocks her to sleep, and never lets go.