There were faeries in Middleton once. That's what it said in the legends, at least. That's what it said in the stories Michael grew up hearing every night. He knew most of them were just nonsense to put the younger children to sleep. But that one stuck with him. It was a narrative that echoed throughout the kingdom.
The story goes that hundreds of years ago, humans and faeries lived as one. There was still a Gate, but fae were free to cross over to the human world, and vice versa. But after centuries of peace, something happened. The stories varied at this point, but most said that the faeries got greedy. They wanted control of the human world as well as their own.
In every version, there was the war. It was violent and bloody, fire and metal and humans being dragged down into the soil to suffocate and faeries being burned alive until nothing was left but a pile of ash. The fighting could have gone on forever, but there were two women, one faerie and one human. They were lovers, and every night they met in a garden, far from the fighting. But the faerie was the queen, and she was married. When the king found out, he sent a group of soldiers into the garden, and they killed the human.
The queen was overtaken by rage, and became a force more powerful than nature itself. A storm of faerie magic and passion and hatred. No one stood a chance.
The price the soldiers paid for disrupting the peace of the garden and killing the queen's lover was quick and painful. But she wasn't done. She stormed onto the battlefield, on the front lines, and everyone, human and faerie, became frozen. Trapped in thick branches and leaves and flowers. (Michael hadn't realized how dark that was as a kid, but now when he heard the story he could only imagine how it must look hundred of years later. Skeletons intertwined with bushes, flowers blooming from the skulls. Deformed trees in the vague shape of a person. It was terrifying to picture.)
She was the most powerful faerie in existence, and now she was using the full extent of her abilities. The stillness spread as she moved across the field, a growing green speck on the land. As they had destroyed her garden, they became her garden. And soon, the tranquility covered far and wide. They say she uttered her final words in the center of it all, though Michael was unsure who was supposed to have heard her.
"I remain, a silent rebellion. Not a thorn, nor a bloodstained petal, but a rose in its entirety. Not danger, and not peace, but an act of defiance. A reminder of all that was and all that could be. A reminder of life in the midst of death. A reminder of me."
As the words rung through the air, she used the last of her magic to grow a tree. Or, grow herself into a tree. It rose up around her feet, twisting around when legs. Her arms began to sprout leaves. Her skin grew hard and moss began to grow around her torso. And then there was quiet.
(Michael never understood that last part.
"That's her act of defiance? Turning into a tree?" he asked with a laugh.
"No," Jeremy said, frowning as he looked up at the sky. "I think it's more like... choosing to exist as a tree. Like, she had all this power, and she chose to use it to stop the war instead of fighting in it. Her revenge was to end the war." Michael didn't argue with him, because fuck, he was already so far gone, even at the age of twelve, he would have agreed with anything Jeremy said.)
Supposedly, that was the day the war ended. Both sides (what was left of them, at least) banished the other from their world. The Gate was hidden and closed for good. And that's why there were no faeries in Middleton.
Michael didn't know how much of it he was supposed to think was true. Sure, he'd definitely believed in faeries years ago, when he was hopeless and desperate for something to grasp onto. But he wasn't a child anymore. He was almost eighteen. He had a duty to the royal throne. He had people he cared about. He had a life. So now, he supposed he'd call himself a skeptic.
Sure, maybe there were faeries. Who could say for sure? More importantly, who cared? Wherever they were, they weren't here, and that's all that mattered to Michael. That's what he said to himself the night it all began, when, without warning, thoughts of faeries began to dance through his head.
"-you even listening?" Michael blinked and saw Jeremy frowning at him. They were walking down a path in the courtyard, not doing much of anything, really. Just talking, and admiring the plants. They were free to go wherever they chose until nightfall in about an hour, but admittedly, they rarely ventured outside the palace walls.
"What? Oh, uh, yes," he said, hoping Jeremy wouldn't call him out on this one.
"What did I just say?" Michael wondered, briefly, the point of hoping anything, ever. He ran a hand through his hair, and gave his friend a sheepish grin.
"Uh, you were talking... about... how much you love me?" Jeremy just kept on frowning. Which was discouraging, to say the least. "Sorry, I guess I was just spacing out..."
Jeremy smiled. "It's fine, dude. I'm serious though, you gotta hear this. You know Prince Dillinger is staying here for a few months?"
"And King Dillinger, yes," Michael said, feeling that might be a somewhat more pertinent detail in their lives.
"Well, I was hanging around the kitchen with, you know, my... knightly duties-"
"Uh-huh, sure. What did Jenna say while you were eavesdropping?" Jeremy only wasted a moment trying to look innocent before breaking down.
"The word is," he said, lowering his voice to a whisper, "that it's for an arranged marriage." Michael jaw fell open.
"Her highness," Jeremy corrected, looking around nervously. Michael rolled his eyes.
"Dude, relax with that stuff, we're not even on duty."
"That doesn't mean you should be disrespectful."
"She's sick of all that formal stuff, Jer. Isn't it more disrespectful to do things she hates?" He said the second part innocently, with his eyebrows raised and a hand over his heart. Jeremy scoffed and shook his head.
"Fuck you, dude. You're gonna get banished one day, I swear."
"If I get banished, it's not gonna be because I forgot to call my friend by a fancy title, it's gonna be because the apple tree we tried to secretly plant by the bench finally started growing in." Jeremy burst into laughter.
Now, when Jeremy laughed like that (heart-stopping, breathtaking, like he didn't even know what it could do to a person), there were a lot of things that could, theoretically, happen around Michael that he would fail to notice. For example: If you stole his sword from its sheath at the same time as Jeremy laughed, Michael would be none the wiser. In fact, if you planned to steal all of Michael's armor, right off of his body, there would be no better time than right then. Or, if you were to perhaps shoot an arrow at him, just as Jeremy's lips parted and that first hiss of laughter escaped, Michael would undoubtedly be severely injured.
So it was surprising he noticed what happened at all. But to the right of the path, just as his heart fluttered, right as Jeremy Heere giggled at his joke in the middle of the courtyard, a rose bloomed. Michael stopped in his tracks. A single white rose, the only in sight. It had been a bud seconds earlier, Michael was almost certain. Which... that wasn't possible. Something was wrong.
"Michael?" Jeremy asked. "What are you..." He trailed off as he, too, noticed the flower. "That's strange," he said softly. "Only one, on the whole bush." Only one in the whole garden.
Roses aren't supposed to bloom for another five weeks, Michael thought. He opened his mouth to say it, but stopped himself at the last moment. It felt wrong, somehow, to call attention to that piece of information. It felt like shedding light on something that wasn't supposed to be seen. He wasn't entirely sure what he had just witnessed, but he had an illogical and unshakable feeling that it had something to do with him.
Suddenly he felt like someone had punched him in the gut. He doubled over, clutching his stomach. Jeremy was at his side in an instant, placing a warm hand on his arm.
"Woah, woah, Michael, are you okay?"
He nodded. "I'm- I'm fine, my stomach was just..."
"Are you going to be sick?" Michael choked out a laugh.
"No," he said, shaking his head. "No, it's starting to feel better, I think." And it was, if only a little. Dulling to an ache rather than a sharp throb. This wasn't right. Something was wrong. He didn't understand what, not yet, but he knew it was something. Something big, and something coming at him fast.
"I think we should take you to the infirmary," Jeremy said, putting an arm around him and beginning to guide him out of the courtyard.
"No no no no no no," Michael said quickly, withdrawing from Jeremy's grip. "Just take me back to the racks, I'm okay, I swear. I don't want to bother Brooke-"
"It's her job to care for the sick, Michael-"
"I'm not sick!" he protested. "It's probably just something I ate. I'll feel better in the morning, I just need to rest." He was trying to convince himself just as much as he was Jeremy. Rest. That's all he needed. It'd all be fine in the morning. In the morning it'd all be laughable, the stomachache and the rose and- Jeremy was staring at him strangely. "What?"
"Your eyes... they..." Jeremy paused for a moment and then shook his head. "Sorry, it was nothing. I'm not going to be able to convince you to check in with Brooke, am I?"
"No..." Michael said slowly, still trying to figure out what Jeremy had been trying to say. There was still a slight pain in his stomach, and aside from that, his whole body was beginning to feel weighted down. Maybe he really did just need to sleep. Jeremy sighed loudly.
"Okay," he said. "Let's get you to the racks, then." He put his arm back around him, and Michael leaned into it, grateful for the support. Jeremy led him into the palace, down halls and upstairs until they arrived at their destination.
The racks was what the knights' quarters had been unofficially named long ago, and though Michael assumed it was short for barracks, no one really knew for sure. The princess slept in her wing, the servants slept in the servants quarters, and the knights slept in the racks. It was just the way things were. Michael was leaning heavily on Jeremy at this point, beginning to fall asleep even as they walked toward their beds. Jeremy helped Michael out of his uniform, which Michael might have felt uncomfortable with if he wasn't so damn tired, and then Michael fell into bed with a sigh. Jeremy put the covers over him.
"Jer?" he said softly as his eyes closed.
"Yeah?" Jeremy's voice was fond. Jeremy was so nice, Jeremy did all these nice things for him, he was so... nice.
For one horrifying second, Michael was about to say I love you. The words were on the tip of his tongue, teetering on the edge of his lips, just begging to fall out. The terror that shot through his body when he realized that woke him up enough to stop himself. Jeremy was still looking at him, with that smile, and that hair, and those eyes, those ocean blue eyes. Michael opened his mouth again, careful to not let it make the shape of those three words.
"Thanks a bunch," he said quietly.
"No problem," said Jeremy. "That's what friends are for. Get some sleep, okay?" Michael nodded, beginning to drift off once more.
He thought he would he sleep soundly, based on how exhausted he felt. Instead, he was restless all night, with dreams that were a bit too vivid, and a bit too uneasy. Dreams that weren't frightening, per se, but left him on edge when he awoke. White roses and Jeremy Heere and trees in the vague shape of a person. He found himself staring at the ceiling many times in the night. Something inside his brain was screaming at him, some alarm that he couldn't figure out how to turn off. Something's wrong, the voice said as he turned over yet again. Something's coming.
This is only the beginning.