Ravenna had barely crossed the lane before her instinctive fear of the stone circle — no, call it what it was — the fairy ring came flying back to her.
The snow barely gave a squeak under her boots, for all that her feet shifted. And somehow, despite all the snow, a few lone stalks of grass still peeked out among the stones. The trees themselves were still green, or maybe they’d just become green early. Ravenna couldn’t tell.
But what she could sense — now that she was here — was the magic that hummed throughout the ring. If she squinted, she could see rays of it jumping from stone to stone. She was amazed that one couldn’t feel it across the lane.
Or … had the Emryses done something so that they couldn’t feel it? Wards, perhaps?
Ravenna looked almost longingly over her shoulder back at the school. From this distance, every window had a cheery yellow glow, twinkling like familiar stars in the black of the night sky. She was so close …
Ravenna looked back into the stones, took a deep breath, and walked through the first ring of stones.
There was no going back now.
Ravenna looked up at the megaliths, pausing, listening. But there was no sound other than her own quickened breathing and the pounding of her heart. And that in itself was odd. Even now, in the winter, there ought to have been night-animals out and about, making a few squeaks of the snow. Perhaps an owl could have glided overhead.
Except animals didn’t come to near to fairy rings. How many tales were there of a hunter who had chased a deer into the center of a fairy ring, never to come out again? Or he’d come out again, but not until ten or twenty or fifty years after he left. His wife would be old and gray, or perhaps gone; his children would have left the nest years ago. Some said that the only deer who dared to run into the fairy rings were fae themselves with ill intent in their hearts.
Ravenna took a few steps forward, scanning the area inside the first ring. She looked for — well, anything, really. A flash of dark on the white snow. A cloak, a hat, something left behind from George. She could walk all through the ring, watching for a sign as she went …
But that would be the coward’s way, wouldn’t it? True, there was a deep gully here, someplace George could be hidden just out of sight. But Ravenna doubted it. The stones were still and stark in the moonlight, but other than the stones, there simply wasn’t much here. If George was around here in the first ring — in wherever she was, between one ring of stones and the next — she would see him. She knew that as surely as she knew her name was Ravenna.
She kept walking.
She hesitated at the entry to the second and innermost ring of stones. She could, after all, see just fine into the stones, couldn’t she? And George clearly wasn’t there. There weren’t many places for him to hide. She could even walk all around this first ring, observing from all angles, just to see if maybe George was hidden behind what looked like a stone altar or one of the smaller laying stones.
No. There was a faint shimmer of magical energy between the stones. It wasn’t the sort of thing you would notice in daylight, but the moon caught it, glistened off it like it would glisten off a thin waterfall. There was something about those stones, something separating there from here, something that would keep her from seeing all there was to be seen in there.
Ravenna took a deep breath, and so she wouldn’t lose her courage, closed her eyes and broke into the second circle at a run. She gulped in air, opened her eyes, and saw —
Nothing? Or at least, nothing she wouldn’t have been able to see from outside the inner ring. But she had been so sure …
Ravenna started to walk around, checking each of the smaller stones that lay studded around the ring. A thin dusting of snow coated each. It was exactly what you would expect to see if the had all sat here, undisturbed, for months and months. The wind would blow the worst of the big piles off. She hesitated to touch one — then did, brushing away the snow to see what lay underneath.
Just rock. And if her hands told the truth, the snow was just snow. It was cold and wet. Ravenna cursed herself for forgetting her mittens, murmured a warming charm on her hands —
And froze. You weren’t supposed to do magic in a fairy ring, were you? The fae would get very angry if you did —
But the seconds, counted out by her pounding heart, passed one after the other. And nothing happened.
Ravenna continued to wander through the inner ring. But no matter how many times she checked the small stones and the altar, no matter how many times she peeked around the megaliths, no matter how many times she crossed and recrossed her own footsteps, George stubbornly refused to appear.
Had she been wrong?
It was hard to believe — she had been so sure! She hadn’t merely thought George was here; she had known George was here. But he clearly wasn’t in the innermost ring …
Maybe he was in that deep gully between the two rings? Ravenna might not have been able to see him … Her heart leapt into her throat, thinking of the things that could happen to an unconscious Sim left to lie out here for minutes or hours while Ravenna wasted her time checking the altar five times.
Except, except … she didn’t really believe that, did she? But what else was there to believe?
“Looking for something?”
Ravenna gasped and spun around —
But there was no one to be seen.
“Yoo-hoo!” There was the voice again — a crystal-clear, floating, fluting voice. But a male voice all the same. A man’s voice, or, at least, a male who was no longer a child. “Up here!”
Ravenna looked up.
There was a man sitting atop one of the lintel stones. He was dressed all in green, that Ravenna could see, and had long brown hair that framed his face on both sides. And his face …
And his skin …
He was blue …
He wasn’t human.
Ravenna gasped and stumbled backward, her foot catching on the hem of her gown.
The — male — being turned his head to one side as he watched her, one foot tapping against the lintel stone. He looked for all the world like a curious bird. Then, in a moment too fluid even for a cat, he pushed off the stone …
Front-flipped through the air …
Effortlessly cleared the small stone in front of the megalith …
And landed neatly on his feet before her.
He looked up, white teeth and small gold nose ring flashing in the moonlight as he smiled. “Hi!”
Ravenna could hear the shallow pants — her own — rather than feel any air entering or exiting her lungs. She mewed somewhere deep in the back of her throat. She wasn’t even sure if the sound properly managed to hit her voicebox.
But she couldn’t just stand here and stare at him — that would be disrespectful. And everything she had read, everything she had heard, had been clear on one thing: always respect the fae. You may not live very long if you did.
So Ravenna croaked out, as loudly as she could, “G-greetings, s-sir.”
He cocked his head to the side again, only this time he looked more like a wounded puppy than a curious bird. “Sir?” he asked. “I haven’t been called sir since …” He scratched his head and asked the listening air, “Have I ever been called sir?”
Ravenna gulped, but shrugged, since some kind of reply seemed wished for.
The fae walked closer to her. Ravenna watched the snow around his feet. It didn’t seem to be kicked or shoved out of his way as much as it seemed to clear the way of its own volition. And once he no longer stood someplace, the snow slid back to its prior position. So it was true what they said, that the fae left no tracks.
But when Ravenna looked up, she found that the fae was standing very, very close to her indeed. She would have stumbled back again, but fear held her in place.
He looked at her with his blue — an impossibly bright blue — eyes narrowed. “Child, you needn’t be afraid! I mean you no harm!”
“Um …” Ravenna swallowed. Yes, replied the sassy voice in her mind, you might not mean me any harm, but when a child plays with a butterfly, the child doesn’t mean the butterfly any harm, does she? But that doesn’t help the butterfly after its wings are torn and its body turned to slightly crunchy juice …
“And even if I did — which I certainly wouldn’t, though others might — there’s none to harm you and yours, by order of Auberon himself,” the fae continued. “Er … well, there’s none to harm your mother or hers, but either way, you count, aye?”
“My — my mother?”
“Aye! For what she’s doing for us. All of us.”
Ravenna blinked — then her eyes narrowed. “You — you mean Chloe and Pascal?”
“Who else?” the fae blinked.
“I … I don’t know. Sir.”
“Then it must be them, mustn’t it?” he asked, that wide grin blooming forth again. “And she’s doing a lot. She and your father both. Pascal and Chloe will never know a lack of love — do you know much that will mean to them? To us?”
Ravenna shook her head.
“It’s not something most of our children get — at least, those raised in your world. Their human parent can sometimes summon up only a half-love for them, or not even that; and as for their fae parent …” The fae shrugged. “They can love from afar, but love from afar means little if the child doesn’t even know about it.”
“Oh,” Ravenna murmured.
“But you’d know all about that,” the fae asked, “for that’s what brought you here this night, isn’t it?”
Ravenna jumped and stumbled back. “I — what?”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” the fae pressed. “For your Georgie? Your Georgie-Porgie?”
Ravenna blinked. “Georgie-Porgie?”
It was the fae’s turn to be taken aback. He scratched his head. “You’re … not here for him? But you came right here …”
“I — I’m here for George!” Ravenna gasped. “I am! But — I … I never heard him called that.”
“You haven’t?” the fae asked, his jaw dropping.
Ravenna shook her head.
“But by that name we called him, and by that name he came!” the fae replied, frowning and pulling at his lower lip. “But if you know it not …”
Did — did she know it not? She certainly never would have — wait!
“Wait!” Ravenna called. “I — I remember now. The day when we first met — his grandmother called him that!”
“His mother’s mother. Wid–Widow Parkinson, I think her name was. They were very close. I know that. George … George tried to keep her from dying. I know that much.”
“You say tried. He didn’t succeed?”
Ravenna shook her head. “She died last year.”
“Hmm. And yet he shows such promise …” The fae rubbed his chin. “Did he say why he didn’t succeed?”
Ravenna only shook her head. “He — he wasn’t talking very much about … all of it …”
“Well, all must fail sometimes.” The fae shrugged and shot Ravenna another huge grin. “And Death is the wiliest of foes, even for us. He would have claimed us all, you know, wiped us clean from the earth, were it not for me.”
“I … I see,” Ravenna replied, even though she didn’t really.
“But now he won’t! Not as long as folk of Chloe and Pascal’s blood walk the earth, as long as folk of your blood walk the earth. We will all live on, one way or another, no matter what Death says on the matter. And as long as there are a few of us and my spell, and mortal men willing or deserving in spite of their unwillingness, we can always make more of us!” The fae grinned at Ravenna, as if inviting her to share in the joke.
Ravenna couldn’t. She wasn’t sure she had heard anything less funny in her life. “Not — not George!”
The fae cocked his head to the side once more. “Eh?”
“He — he doesn’t deserve that! He doesn’t! He can be a bit of — ok, he can be a complete ass sometimes, but he’s got a good heart! If you’re going to do something like that, why don’t you do it to Sir Bors!” Ravenna’s nostrils flared and she very nearly stamped her foot. “Or Sir Elyan! I hear he’s just as bad!”
The fae’s head stayed cocked to one side. “Eh?”
“You — you took him dancing with you, didn’t you?” Ravenna accused. “Didn’t you?”
“And — and I know what that means! That’s where — that’s where Chloe and Pascal came from! George doesn’t deserve that!”
“You … you think …” The fae’s lips pulled back in a snarl. “You think I would make a child with child! That, that, my dear, is what mortals do!” He spat out the word as a mortal would spit out “barbarians.”
Ravenna swallowed. “My — my mother says that Chloe and Pascal’s other parent wasn’t exactly … willing. Or deserving, as you put it. So how was I to know that you wouldn’t do that to George?”
The fae’s eyes grew sorrowful. “That decision was not mine,” he replied. “But … but that other parent, he had choices too. Had he chosen differently, he would not bear the sorrow he bears now. But that other parent — he was an adult, and a man, for all that you point out he was not entirely willing and not deserving, either. George is not. So George is in no danger … of that, anyway.”
“Of that?” Ravenna squeaked.
“He shows promise,” the fae continued. “Much promise. We could use a wizard of his talents with us.”
“But …” The fae scratched his head. “To take a man — or boy — from his true love … that we couldn’t do. That would be wrong. If his true love came for him, why, we’d have to let him go.”
His true love … but … Ravenna’s heart sank. “She’s not here — wait — let me get her! I’ll call my broom, and –” Break into Gwynedd castle, pull Delyth out by her hair if I have to —
“She isn’t?” the fae asked, head tilting to one side. “But you’re here.”
“I …” Ravenna looked to the side. “I don’t think I count …”
“Don’t think you count? Why not?”
“Well … I was sort of … awful to him for a long time …”
“The course of true love never did run smooth,” the fae shrugged.
“And … well, he likes someone else …”
“Is that what you think?” asked the fae.
Ravenna looked up at him with a half-smile and a shrug. “Can you think of another reason why he’s always up at the Tricross with his lips attached to hers?”
“Oh, aye! He’s a young man,” the fae nodded, “and they often think with their privy parts, and not with their heads, or even their hearts.”
“.. Oh …”
“And let me tell you something, Ravenna.” The fae leaned closer to Ravenna and grinned. “If that other lass is his true love, then where is she, eh? Why is it you who knew where he was? Why is it you who braved the fae on their own ground to go after him? It’s not an attraction of the privy parts that will do that, Ravenna. It’s love from the heart. And if he loves you back …”
The fae’s eyes sparkled in the moonlight. “Then I daresay you’ll find him cresting the hill just yonder, for you’ve brought him back sure and certain.”
Ravenna glanced over her shoulder …
And she saw that the fae was right.
“George!” she shouted, running for him — forgetting the fae entirely. “George!”
“Goodbye, Ravenna!” called the fae. “Say hello to your mother for me! And your cousins, too — the ones who haven’t got their heads lodged up their rears! And all the rest of my …” There was a pause, as he had to stop to count. “… great-great-great grandchildren! And the great-great-great-great grandchildren, too!”
But Ravenna didn’t acknowledge him as she ran towards George. After she passed through the innermost ring of stones, she wasn’t even sure if she could hear him. Or if he was even there to be heard anymore.
She crested the hill, half out of breath, while George smiled a silly smile at her. Ravenna vaulted up the last few steps between them. “George!”
And then … she was never sure if she ran into his arms, or if she stumbled into them, or if he flung his arms out and caught her. She never knew what she had been thinking, either. But she knew — she always knew — that it had been the right thing to do.
She smashed her lips against his in what was quite possibly the least skillful first kiss on the record books.
Ravenna was fairly certain, for instance, that one’s teeth weren’t supposed to ring from the impact. And you weren’t supposed to imprison your lover’s arms behind his back. You also weren’t meant to practically jump on top of him. And your eyes were supposed to be closed, too.
But … Ravenna’s eyes did close after that first second. And George’s mouth moved under hers, with hers, guiding hers into a position more comfortable for both of them. Then … then there were stars, and fireworks, spells to light the sky and shake the ground under her feet, lightning to course through her veins and hot blood pumping all through her —
Then she and George sprung apart, gasping.
Ravenna wiped her mouth with her sleeve, her arm shaking, not daring to meet his eyes. Any minute now, George would bring up the fact that he had a sweetheart, ask what the hell she had been thinking. She was never going to be able to look Delyth or Dilys in the face again —
But instead of that, George grinned. “Whoa,” he whispered. He pressed his lips with one finger. “Damn, Ravenna, if I knew that’s all it would have taken to get you to kiss me, I would have gotten myself kidnapped years ago.”
As the fae had said — the course of true love never did run smooth.
“Are you joking?” Ravenna yelped. “You’re insane! Do you — do you have any idea how close you came to not coming back?”
“Whoa, Ravenna –”
“I’m serious! Do you know what he said?” Ravenna pointed to where the fae had been standing. “That they wanted to take you — elsewhere! To their home! That you had promise! If — if somebody hadn’t come and gotten you, you — you could have been dragged under there!”
“And think of all of us, George! Think of your parents! Your brother, your sister! They would have been heartbroken if you had disappeared! And what about all your friends? And the Professors? And Delyth?”
“I didn’t think about any of them,” George shrugged.
“How could you not?”
“‘Cause there wasn’t room,” George shrugged. “Look, Ravenna … they … the Gentry, they danced with me, all right? Or I guess I should say they let me join their dance, because let’s face it, I’m not all that great. And it was … it was …” George’s eyes grew far away, and his gaze went somewhere Ravenna couldn’t follow. “It was … everything. Everything, good and bad, all at once. There wasn’t room for anything else.
“And then they asked — they asked me, Ravenna — if I wanted to come with them. Back to … wherever they go when they’re not here. And I …”
Ravenna’s heart sank. She’d just dragged him back when he really wanted to go, hadn’t she? But the fae had said …
“I didn’t think about my parents. Or Dannie or Freddy. Or my friends, or the professors, or even Delyth. But I … Ravenna, I thought about you.” George reached out and grabbed her hand. “I couldn’t leave. I’d miss you. And with you — there wasn’t room for them,” he nodded his head to the standing stones, “you see?”
“I …” Ravenna’s voice grew small and far away. “You stayed — for me?”
“Aye.” George wrapped his arms around her waist and drew her closer. Ravenna stumbled into him. “Who else would I stay for?”
It was a question Ravenna couldn’t begin to answer … but luckily …
She didn’t have to.