“You’re special.” She smiled sadly, tucking a lock of golden hair behind the young girl’s ear. “I get why she chose you.”
The woman’s warm fingers lingered on the child’s jaw for just a moment too long, as something moved behind the woman’s eerie silver eyes. Something that did not match the calm she was trying to project.
The child had power, though what kind likely wouldn’t be clear until she hit puberty. What she could sense from the girl pointed to an ancestor many generations ago who had a tumble, willing or no, with someone of the Courts. At that thought, the woman quickly pulled her hand away as though burned, and grimaced. The girl didn’t react.
The two were in the child’s room, which was decorated in pink frills, unicorns, and fairy lights. The irony of the fantastical design wasn’t lost on the woman. People rarely looked beyond the pale beauty of the unicorns to see the faded stains on their horns. And fairies? The woman’s eyes cut to the closed door, as her keen hearing picked up snippets of the hushed conversation on the other side.
“—almost got her this time.”
“There’s too many bodies, how will we—”
Thadria closed her eyes and took a deep breath, shutting the voices out. She exhaled slowly and turned her gaze back toward the child, who still hadn’t said a word since they arrived.
She stared blankly at Thadria, her emerald green eyes dull. A soft, floppy rabbit half the size of the child sat limply in her lap and arms, while her feet dangled over the side of the bed. They’d handed her the stuffed animal after they’d cleaned her up. All the pictures of her featured the toy, and the worn ‘fur’ indicated it was well loved. Yet it had done nothing for her. All of them had tried talking to her, and they’d been given no information to indicate the child was mute, or unable to communicate. Of course, trauma was its own monster. The one that lurked in the shadows after an event, slipping into your mind and whispering words coated in bittersweet poison.
The humans would be coming for her soon. They were waiting for the all clear from her captain that the girl harbored no magical remnants that could hurt other humans. Some lessons were learned the hard way by the human agencies, and that had been one of them.
Until then, though, Thadria was tasked with keeping an eye on her, and trying to coax the child into talking, as long as it didn’t appear to stress her further.
Thadria held back a tired sigh, and looked around the room. When they’d gotten there, the window over the porch roof had been open, and the gauzy white bed curtains were fluttering from the cool, late spring breeze. When they removed the girl—Charlotte, according to the cotton candy pink letters on the outside of her door—from the scene of the crime, they brought her back to her room, and promptly closed the window.
All the bedroom furniture was a pristine white, which included a vanity table with a pink upholstered stool, and a bookshelf. Between her long day and the girl’s unresponsiveness, Thadria decided to take a different approach. Her footfalls were noiseless as she moved across the carpet to the bookshelf, grabbed the first book she saw, and then picked up the stool. She set the stool down in front of the girl, but not too close. She didn’t want to crowd her. When she sat on the stool, Thadria’s head was just above the level of the girl’s knees, since her bed was tall—tall enough for the child to need a stool to climb in.
Thadria looked up at the girl, who now stared over Thadria’s head. She was looking at the wall, but not looking. It seemed as though no one was home. So, Thadria bowed her head, opened the book written by a man who wasn’t a real doctor, and read the child a story about creatures with stars on their bellies.
Thadria’s people weren’t known for their books, but they were known for their skilled oral storytellers. Even the homeliest of elves could carry a tune and charm their audience. As she moved from one story to the next, she kept her eyes on the book and her voice calm. When she reached the end, she closed the book, looked up, then froze.
The child was watching her, eyes boring into Thadria’s, who scarcely breathed for fear of sending the girl back into whatever hole in her mind she’d fallen into. The girl’s body was still limp, not holding the rabbit, with slumped shoulders.
When she spoke, it was in a hoarse whisper, as though her throat was raw; “Another?”
Instead of saying yes, Thadria nodded then stood up. She went to the bookcase, pulled out a random book and showed it to the girl. Already her eyes were becoming distant once more, and Thadria had to suppress the panic clamoring at her to do something. Despite this, the girl gave a single, slow nod.
Thadria went back to her seat, and opened the book, this one about winter naps. The boy in the story was trying to go to sleep, but animals kept knocking on his door and asking to come in, out from the winter cold. When Thadria got to the end of this one and she looked up, there were tears running down the child’s face, though she made no sound.
“That’s what I did,” she said, her voice thick from the tears.
“Did what?” Thadria asked, keeping her voice soft and neutral. The twisting in her gut and the whisper across her thought said; “You already know what.”
“She said she was cold, and it must be nice for me to have a warm house. She would visit my window every night and say that. I felt bad, so I let her in.” The more she spoke, the wider her eyes got, and she started to take short, sharp breaths. “Then she…Then she…”
Thadria’s heart clenched at the girl’s words, and the rhyme all her people’s children learned floated through her mind:
Do not ask them for the gift,
Or retribution will be swift.
Freely given, fairly taken,
Is how the Darkness will awaken.
Knife of bone and chalice white,
Call him forth in Middle Night.
Into their heart you plunge the knife,
And thank them kindly for their life.
If the blood is pure and sweet,
The Dark God you’re sure to meet.
If the blood is false or wicked,
Then your mind will start to sicken.
Be careful if you tread this path,
Lest you court the Mother’s wrath!
It was an old rhyme, from a time before the Dark Elves worked with the humans, and killed them instead. They thought Nenia had been trying to do something like this, but the girl’s words confirmed it. Nenia didn’t ever ask to be let in. She didn’t ask for their lives. She’d manipulated, charmed, and twisted words much in the way of the elves, be they Light or Dark.
The girl was getting dangerously close to hyperventilating, so Thadria quickly put the book down and touched the girl’s hand. She’d been about to call out to the team’s medic, but the girl’s reaction stayed her tongue.
The child shuddered at her touch, and immediately calmed down with a relieved sigh, like a junkie taking a hit of their drug while trying to detox. This made the situation ten times worse, far sadder, and it reinforced Thadria’s growing rage at what Nenia had done.
Thadria didn’t remove her hand, though, and when she managed to finally unclench her jaw after taking a few calming breaths, she called out for her captain.
The door opened slowly on silent hinges, and a man who was as discordant from the theme of the room as one could possibly be stooped to get through the doorway. Deron Thornwood had a dark, neatly trimmed beard that graced a perpetual scowl, and lean muscles on a long frame. He wore their non-descript black fatigues, with no identifiers except his name tag. His eyes were as dark as his beard, and when he came in he looked between Thadria and the girl, raising an eyebrow in question.
“We have a problem,” Thadria said. “She’s elf-struck.”
Before Deron could reply, the girl took her hand from Thadria’s, who turned at the movement to face the girl again. The girl, her eyelids heavy from elven magic, leaned forward and lightly touched Thadria’s cheek.
Her expression and smile were vague as she said; “You look just like the pretty woman at the window.”
The girl’s pale skin was a stark contrast to Thadria’s, whose was the black of a raven’s wing. At the words and the gentlest brush of tiny fingers, Thadria’s heart wrenched and blood drained from her face. Her stomach turned threateningly at the enraptured gaze from the tiny human, and she swallowed back the bile rising to her throat.
“I see,” Deron said. His voice rumbled in the small space, like thunder at a great distance. Then he sighed. “This isn’t going to go over well.”
“No, it won’t,” Thadria said.
Being elf-struck was something that happened to only a small percentage of the human population. Most humans were fascinated with the fae, much the way they were with famous people. The average fan is excited and star-struck when meeting their preferred celebrity, but there were those select few fans that took things too far. Who were too intense. That rabid desire was similar to being elf-struck.
However, to the people it impacted, seeing the fae was like being drowned in the highest quality, feel-good drug imaginable, and smiling right until their last breath. If they did manage to detox, they were left with a yearning so strong, most didn’t last long beyond that. No one knew why it impacted some more than others, and most not at all. The best guess elven scholars had, was that the people it affected the strongest had fae blood somewhere in their heritage. Thadria supposed it was as good a guess as any, but it didn’t do a whole lot of good for anyone right now.
The girl had scooted forward, letting the beloved toy slip from her lap. It landed with a soft wumph on the floor, and it took everything Thadria had in her not to jerk her hand away from the girl and break the connection. She remained still as the darkest hour of Middle Night, while the girl reached for Thadria’s head.
“Pretty,” she said, as she smoothed her hands over Thadria’s silken, porcelain white hair.
Thadria was glad now, more than ever, that their dress code required her to have her hair pulled up and in a bun. While contact with the child was the only thing keeping her from either slipping into a near-comatose state or descending into hysterics, it was also a double-edged sword. More contact would mean a greater dependency to elven touch, and it might already be too late. The fact that the child didn’t try to get closer to Thadria when she first came in the room, or outright climb all over her now, was a bad sign. A sign that the child could slowly fade away, until she was nothing more than a shell of a human, and then die.
“Go get the humans. The quicker we get her started on the meds, the better,” Thadria said, her voice hushed as she kept her eyes on the girl.
The problem wasn’t just with the child, either. Elves in general had an unhealthy fascination with humans, as did most fae. Blend human genetics with that of elves, and the combination was nearly irresistible. She wanted nothing more than to cuddle the child. Care for her. Kill for her.
The final urge was sharp as broken glass, and twice as deadly. The longer the child’s hand remained on her, the harder she had to fight against the rage howling to be released. To slaughter everyone and everything that was remotely a threat to her.
“Are you okay?”
“Just go. I’ll be fine,” she said, and almost managed to say in a calm tone. The only thing that betrayed her was the slight whine to her voice in, ‘fine’.
Deron grumbled as he walked away, and Thadria leaned away from the girl. Shuddering as contact between them was broken. She had to get herself together, because it was going to be difficult enough to convince the humans of what needed to be done. If they came in here, and she was twitching and growling at them, there was zero chance they’d go along with it.
So, she took a deep breath, and concentrating on centering herself. The girl slipped back into lethargy, and the two of them waited in silence for the humans to show up.
It didn’t go over well, but Thadria hadn’t expected it to. In the end, the only thing that convinced them was when the child’s mood violently swung in the opposite direction. They were hopeful that they could reattach the social worker’s ear. When Deron offered to send their medic to the hospital to help with the healing, they were met with cold eyes, snarls, and one cop barely refrained from spitting on the captain.
It also helped that there were no living relatives, distant or not, to take her. Given the explanation they gave the humans along with her outburst, it was better she didn’t become a ward of the state. There was precedent with other species of supernaturals, where an afflicted child was given to a group to care for. Deron had called in to the social worker’s office, and they grudgingly agreed to send over the guardianship paperwork.
“I’m assuming you’ll need some time off to sort this out?” Deron asked from the driver’s seat.
Thadria was in the back with the girl…Charlotte. She was fast asleep, her head on Thadria’s lap, and clutching the floppy rabbit. Even though she tried to keep her hands occupied, they inevitably found their way to Charlotte’s hair, running her fingers through it. The girl sighed, content, while Thadria did the same in exasperation.
“Yes. I have to get her somewhere safe, and started on the meds—for both our sakes. Plus, Nenia is still out there, and given how I’m reacting to the girl I wouldn’t put it past her to try and snatch Charlotte.”
“It’s that bad?” Deron asked, the concern in his voice growing.
“It’s…not good. I’m ready to tear apart anything that breathes in her general direction. We don’t have many cases of this, so I’m not sure if such a strong reaction is normal, but I know she has elven in her line somewhere. It might be that a Power among my people is her ancestor, which could explain it.”
Thadria had her doubts about this. Powers rarely deigned to associate with the regular elves, let alone humans, who were viewed as barely better than animals. However astronomical the odds, though, it was her best guess. It also made her feel a little better in the face of her own powerlessness to resist the pull to care for the girl. She could never stand up to a Power, so what hope would she have against any of their offspring?
Deron grunted. “Looks like you landed yourself in a hot mess,” he said, in a tone that implied he didn’t envy her.
Thadria’s laugh was humorless, and then she said; “You have no idea. I’ll be lucky if the Elders don’t skin me alive for bringing her to the city, but there’s not much choice. She needs the meds, I need approval from them to watch over her until she reaches adulthood, and I imagine that whatever power lay dormant in her will need training.”
Thadria had had no intentions of being a mother in her own right, and it would be a disservice to Charlotte and her mother’s memory to insinuate herself in such a role. There was a whole mountain of responsibilities and things to work out that had fallen on her head in the last day. They’d just have to take it one obstacle at a time.
“Maybe you’ll get lucky, and they’ll be struck dumb like you over how adorable she is. Better you than me, though,” Deron said, though not unkindly.
Thadria huffed out a laugh, and continued to stroke Charlotte’s hair. The road hummed beneath their vehicle, and the first tendrils of dawn were stretching languidly across the sky.
“If only I were so lucky.”
No, the odds of the Elders falling all over themselves to help her care for the girl was slim. Looking down at her, though, as her slender shoulders rose and fell from the steady breathing of sleep, it didn’t matter. She’d fight them, oh, how she’d fight. Settling back into the seat, Thadria rested her head against the window. She had a suspicion that she’d need all the sleep she could get.