He saw the mortal from a long way off – saw him, and stopped where he was, suddenly hesitant. This mortal, this simple human man, exemplified all the things he had heard about his kind. He was old, his face wrinkled with the passage of time, too much of it spent in the sun. He was missing teeth and, even from here, this youngest of the Sidhe lords was certain he smelled of tobacco. The remaining teeth spoke of it too strongly for it to be otherwise. No, this couldn't be right. Not this man.
And yet, this was where the directions led him – to this building that was more a shack than anything that could be dignified with the term “house”. To this old man in a rocking chair, squinting into the setting sun as he whiled away the evening on a dilapidated porch.
A few more steps and he paused again. He started to turn away when a voice called him back. The voice was old, as worn as the face, and yet strong for all of that.
“What're you doin' there, boy? Are you coming to see me or ain't you?”
Thus encouraged, he turned back, resumed his climb, this time with a more certain stride. Dust billowed at every step, coating his black suit in a fine brown powder. When he'd reached the house, he took another look. Yes, all the signs of mortal frailty, of weakness, were even more apparent now that he was closer. It was hard to keep from sneering and he didn't bother to keep all the hauteur from his voice when he spoke. “I heard you teach the fiddle.”
“I reckon I do. Or I did once, some years back.” The old man looked him over. What he saw, the Sidhe couldn't say, though he used the glamour that was nearly so much a part of him as the desire that brought him here to influence that perception. He had no doubt whatsoever that he would get his way – he was young and inexperienced, but not ill-trained. This mortal would do his will.
Yet he was surprised to see skepticism writ clearly across the wrinkled face. “You've got a pretty face, boy. Maybe too pretty. Sure you're willing to work?”
“I am.” He was no stranger to work after all. Not menial labor, of course, no need to dirty his hands with that. But he'd spent more years than this man had been alive training one skill or another, though he bore little outward sign of it.
“Well, we'll see.” He spit, the brown tobacco juice hitting the dirt not far from a boot that was just new enough to stand out. “Come back tomorrow and we'll get started.”
“Tomorrow?” He was startled enough that the disappointment was plain in his voice, undisguised and unsoftened by even a hint of glamour.
“It's supper time and I'm an old man. Come early. We'll begin after breakfast.”
He nodded and turned to leave, but he'd only taken a step when his new teacher called him back. “What's your name, boy? Got to have something to call you.”
The pause before he answered was small, the briefest of hesitations. “Willy. Willy Silver.” It wasn't his name, not quite. But it was close enough.
He adjusted his hat, pulling down the brim in a gesture of respect he didn't truly feel before he turned to leave once more. This time, no voice interrupted.
The Court at Midwinter was beautiful, all glittering icicles and so many white lights on the snow that it shone as though strewn with hidden diamonds, their presence revealed solely by the sparkle. By mortal reckoning, Willy had already lived more than one lifetime, but by the standards of his people, he was still very young indeed, and he was not unaffected by the sight, though it was not the first time he'd seen it.
He had, however, been away from Faerie for most of the year and was but newly returned for the occasion. Midwinter was an Unseelie holiday; the ball presided over by the darker Lady, but there were some things a lord in his position could not miss without repercussions he preferred to avoid.
Likewise, merely showing up was not enough. Protocols must be followed; ancient traditions and manners maintained. So here he was, making obeisance to the Queen of Air and Darkness. He removed the hat that seemed so incongruous in this company, with their modes of dress that varied so much, but rarely toward the modern, and bowed, rather than kneeling – that was for the lesser fae, not the nobility, be they of the other court or no.
Willy expected her to wave him away as she had so many others, her expression never wavering from one of boredom. But she did not. Instead, when he rose from his bow, she met his gaze and slowly smiled, her lips very red against her pale skin and the gleaming white satin of her gown.
“Willy Silver, is it not?” Strange, to hear the name he used among mortals from these inhuman lips, but he'd grown so used to it that it felt more his own than his true name. “You have spent little time in Faerie these past few years.”
“Yes, Lady.” It was true, but he wondered that she had noticed, even more so that she cared. What had the disposition of one Seelie lord, kin to the White Lady or no, to do with her?
“We would be pleased if you remained with us a short while. Perhaps you could share the tales of your travels. It has been long since we have spent much time among mortals.”
There must be more to this request than the obvious; he was certain of that. But they were under truce and it would be rude to refuse, so he nodded and approached, taking the chair she had brought for him. It was placed close enough to hers that the edge of her full skirt whispered against the fabric of his trousers, near enough that he could smell her scent, smoky yet somehow as cold as the night that surrounded them.
He didn't know how to explain what fascinated him so about the mortals and their world. He had no idea how to describe the music he had learned to play and why he found it so captivating. It was often rough, even more frequently imperfect, nothing like the crystalline strains he could hear being played for the dancers who were not so far away. Further, for all that he knew her reputation well, he was not immune to her presence, and could not quite escape the impression that she was laughing at him behind that beautiful, practiced smile.
“But surely you know all this,” he said at last, abandoning his efforts. “I have often been told that I am young and foolish. It is I who would be honored by any tales you would be willing to share.”
Once he had spoken, he wished he could call the words back. Willy was certain that the tales of the Queen of Air and Darkness would not be ones he wished to hear and he raised his chin proudly to hide his sudden sense of dread.
But she merely laughed, a surprisingly warm and genuine sound from a woman who looked so coolly elegant. “I believe the time for tales has passed. Tell me, will you honor me with a dance?”
He stood and bowed again, then offered her his hand. The hand she gave him was as warm as her laugh, almost hot, and he was surprised. Perhaps he should not have been, but then they were a distant people, not fond of the touch that mortals seemed to crave, and she was such a creature apart, even among the Sidhe, that he did not know what to expect.
Her hand might have been warm, but the lips she pressed to his at the close of the dance were not. They were shockingly cold, as though it were an icicle that had kissed him, and he felt the burn of it, a lingering chill even after she drew away. It was hard not to raise his fingers to his lips in her wake.
“I've found your company most diverting. Perhaps I shall see you another time, Willy Silver.” As she walked away, hips swaying with each step, the words rang in the air like a threat.
The girl was young, pretty in the way that mortal youth so often was, perhaps because it was so fleeting. The night was a bit chill to be wearing only a skirt, but she was dancing near the fire and didn't seem to care.
It was the dancing that caught his attention, not her looks or her state of undress. There were many girls not so dissimilar at this festival, but none who danced quite like this one. There was something in the way she did it, the way she seemed to give it her full attention, as though nothing and no one else here seemed to exist, like they were all just shadows cast by the flickering flames, only there at the edges of her awareness. She almost seemed to glow and Willy couldn't look away.
Instead, he joined her. He danced by her side and though there were still the beat of the drums, the ever-moving flames of the fire, and people all around, he saw none of it. Nothing but her.
And when she tired, he picked up his guitar and played while she sang. They'd barely spoken and somehow didn't need to. Had he not been sensitive to magic's touch, he would have suspected it in this, but much as he searched for even the slightest touch of enchantment or glamour, he still found none.
Her voice was like the rest of her – strong, but imperfect. Nothing particularly special, but it charmed all the same. When she didn't know the words, he sang them to her instead, watching the way she tilted her head as she listened. Her smile was wide, relaxed – the expression of a woman living in the moment, living for herself, uncaring what anyone else thought.
When they tired of that, it seemed only natural that she accompany him to his tent. She was more aggressive than Willy expected; it took him by surprise when she shoved him back onto his sleeping bag. She rode him the way she danced, as though it were the center of the universe, long brown hair swaying as she moved, eyes so dilated he couldn't tell their color meeting his without hesitation.
But when he woke, she was gone. He knew almost nothing of her, just a name – Lily – that one quite possibly not the one she'd been given at birth. She might almost have been illusion, a master's work, but he was certain she wasn't.
Willy spent three days looking for her, through the end of the festival, asking everyone he met if they knew her, but wherever she had gone, he couldn't find her. When it was over, he moved on, in more ways than one, but he wondered a little – had this been the love at first sight he'd heard so much about?
When he first saw the woman the phouka had chosen, this Eddi McCandry, Willy was disappointed. He'd said she wasn't pretty and she wasn't, but he'd still expected something else, someone less ordinary. A woman who caught the attention and held it without even trying, the way the Lady walked into a room and all eyes turned her way. The way he did, just by existing, if he didn't cover it with glamour.
He followed her for a week before he decided he wanted to see more. The phouka had seen something and, as he counted himself more observant than a mere phouka, he must not be looking closely enough. From that decision, auditioning for her band was the obvious next step. It was a simple way to get close to her without suspicion, for he knew both that she wouldn't find another guitarist like him and that the phouka wouldn't dare breathe a word about what he was.
He'd been right on both counts. Right, too, that he hadn't been looking in the right places. When she played, when she sang, he saw it – a glimmer of something he couldn't name but kept searching for all these years. Something mortals had that he did not. It drew him, made something special, almost magical, of someone ordinary.
He was Sidhe; he was true to his nature. When Willy saw something he wanted, he went after it. Why should he not? Was it not what anyone would do? The glamour, as he saw it, wasn't even cheating. It wasn't manipulation, or at least not anything frowned upon, particularly when it took so little. Just a touch here or there smoothed over all the little awkwardness that might otherwise have been present. Wasn't that something mortals valued and wished they had?
Though he didn't think he'd done wrong, he expected her anger when she found out the truth, expected a reaction of self-righteous betrayal. Willy did not understand it, but he'd seen such things before. What he did not expect was the hurt he felt afterward. He'd been using her, hadn't he? Chasing after the magic he saw in her, like a child catching fireflies in the dark and marveling at their glow, though the light never lasted. But what he felt was more than the usual disappointment when the glow faded and it was time to move on.
So he asked for another chance. Asked, bare of glamour or anything that might influence her response beyond his words and presence. It was not something he was used to doing, nor something he enjoyed. It hurt his pride to have to ask like that, even with no audience but Eddi. But it didn't hurt so much as when she refused him.
“Is it still because of the glamour? Because I hid what I am?” It would have been better to leave it be, to accept her refusal for what it was, but not even his Sidhe pride could stop him from asking. He wanted – no, he needed to understand.
“No. And the problem wasn't that you hid what you are, damn it. It was that you became someone else, and made me like him.”
“But still, that's not the problem?” He should let it go. Willy was good at letting things go, especially when it came to mortals. What else could you do? Their lives were so brief. Even a young Sidhe knew that and he'd spent enough time in the mortal world that he'd accepted it. But somehow, this was different.
“Oh, hell. You don't love me.”
He stared at her a moment in silence. Was it true? Once, he'd thought it was, but now, he simply wasn't certain. He couldn't name what he felt, nor the moment it had changed, if it had. “Are you sure?”
Eddi closed her eyes, eyes he'd once thought thoroughly mundane, but now found lovely enough that he almost regretted even such a brief gesture. “Willy, you don't know how to love.”
“Then teach me.” It would be so easy to convince her, to use glamour to smooth the way as he usually would. It was so automatic a response that he had to consciously stop himself from doing it. “Oak and Ash, Eddi. It doesn't mean I'm not capable of it!”
Their eyes met and there was a long moment of silence, but finally, she shook her head and turned away.
“I'm sorry, Willy. You're my lead guitarist. You might be my friend. But right now, you can't be anything more.”
He stared at her as she walked away, but this time, he made no move to stop her. He didn't know what to say. So he did as he had always done – he sat down in the empty hall and picked up his guitar, letting the words and music of other people speak for him, though there was no one left to hear.
He didn't see the man in the trees, didn't recognize him or the gun he held. Later, that's what he would think – that he hadn't seen him, and he'd wonder how that happened. Maybe it was because Stuart had been near Eddi and, next to her, he was barely noticeable, just a shadow cast by her bright light.
Willy only noticed him when the first bullet hit, when he fell to the ground, hands automatically moving to cover the wound, trying to stop the blood, though it welled between his fingers, turning his white shirt red faster than he would have expected. He heard other shots fired, but he couldn't tell if they hit him or not. There was so much blood, but little pain. Little sensation at all, actually.
He didn't expect to live after that. The fae were immortal, but only until they died, and wasn't part of the whole point that here, in this battle, they could? He smiled at Eddi, lifted one bloody hand to try to touch her. “Love and death,” he breathed, though it was hard to talk and his vision was going dark. “I guess it's death, after all.”
When he opened his eyes again, he was confused. What happened? Wasn't he supposed to be dead?
“It was Eddi,” a voice said, somewhere off to his left, and he turned his head, a head that felt so heavy he didn't think he could lift it, and tried to focus on the phouka. He couldn't quite interpret his expression, but there was something self-deprecating in it, a wryness to his smile. “We all believed you dead, but it seems the mortals have invented a thing or two. There's something called CPR.”
“Oh. Yes, I've heard of it.” Heard of it, but never thought of learning it, never considered it something that might be applied to himself.The phouka moved back and Hedge shuffled forward, head tilted down even more than usual, eyes invisible behind his hair. "'M sorry," he mumbled, peering at him through his bangs. He always looked shy, a little frightened of the world, but right now, he looked terrified. Willy wondered if he would have seen it before last night and suspected he wouldn't. It wasn't that he'd ever intended to ignore or dismiss the feelings of the other fae. It was simply that he didn't see them, had never even realized that there was something there that he was blind to.
"I know," he said, though in truth, he hadn't remembered what Hedge had done, not at first. He tried to sit up, intending to say more, but a single hand placed lightly on his chest kept him in place. Was it weakness, or merely that he recognized the hand?
“Don't try to move.” Eddi's voice, more ragged than he would have expected. Had she cried for him?
“Perhaps there's time to learn love after all,” he said, looking up at her face. But then he saw the way she looked away, the way she glanced at the phouka. Time enough for it, but not with her.
But as he turned his face up to see the gradually lightening sky, he felt surprisingly at peace with it. Eddi was still talking and he was listening, but it wasn't registering. Willy smiled, lay back, and waited for the sun.