When Arwyn had first come returned to the Glimmerlands, the rules and morals of Cat’s Court still engrained in her humanish mind, nothing had shocked her more than her first esbat. On the way home she had seen fairies devour other fairies, but these had been grotesque, like the monsters in tales. Though it had frightened her, as Orren had explained their story and long-lost memories had crept back, she had stopped being surprised. Like wolves and sheep, this world too had it’s predators and prey, she’d thought then.
She had been completely unprepared for the ritual dance of the sacrificial fae. Like everyone, when she’d first seen it, she had been entranced by their beauty. The dancers’ movements were so fluid that it was difficult to see where one stopped and another began. Difficult to care, also. Their voices intermingled in an ethereal song that seemed to come from inside her head the more she listened to it, and it had taken Orren’s nails piercing the skin of her upper arms for her to come back to herself. Only then had she seen how the ones in the middle seemed to vanish in a starbound shower of light; how, every time it happened, she felt a little less of the hunger for sunlight that had haunted her since she’d returned from Cat’s Court.
She had denied it at first. The Glimmerlands were full of glamour and illusions. Perhaps these fae were simply pure manifestations of magic. But when she had asked Orren, he’d told her they were prisoners.
“Those child-like things?” she’d asked. “What was their crime?”
He’d laughed. “Being human.”
She’d stared at him in disbelief. He had gestured towards them nonchalantly and turned away to speak to someone else. She turned her gaze back on the sacrifices, scrutinizing them now. Sure enough, this time she’d noticed the small, round ears, the short limbs, the lack of a third knuckle. The panic in their eyes.
Orren had grabbed her in time. Glamouring them invisible, he’d carried her, struggling, back to the castle, to her tower, and locked her inside without saying a word. She’d banged on the door, tried to escape through the window only to find he’d somehow managed to place a barrier around the entire room; screamed at his silhouette walking back across the gardens to one of the exits. When she’d exhausted herself trying to escape, she’d curled up on the floor and sobbed her soul to sleep.
In time, she seen the sense in letting go of the human rules that kept her from reintegrating fairy society. Orren had helped her. He’d explained that the humans in question had been caught trying to catch fairies, and she knew what happened to captured fairies from tales both human and fae. Children were cruel – even the human in her knew that. The ones that tried to catch and torture fairies would often do the same to insects, small animals, and even other children. Neither did their youth make them more precious: children could be birthed whenever they were needed, but elders were rare and should be valued for their wisdom. And the children in question were replaced by changelings, so it wasn’t as if their families suffered from their absence.
Everything he said made sense. It wasn’t his fault she still felt for them.
In an attempt to distance herself from these humans, she pelted Orren with questions.
“If they are human, why is their blood blue?”
“It isn’t,” he told her. Sometimes he had the air of a teacher she’d once known as a human, minus the beard. “The esbat dance transforms moonlight into ether, and when they die, the energy dissipates into the living things around them. The concentration of ether turns everything blue. You didn’t notice it because of the darkness, but once your eyes finish adjusting, you’ll be able to see these things, too.” He smiled mirthlessly. “If you meet our Queen one day, you’ll see what I mean. She holds so much power that the very air around her is blue.”
“I’ve only ever seen fairies evaporate like that, when they die,” she said. “You told me this was because fairies are lighter than humans, and humans that die here die the normal way.”
“The normal way for humans,” he corrected her. “Here, evaporating upon death is what you call normal. In fact, ‘normal’ is one of the human concepts the Seelie prize themselves on having, and the reason we Unseelie despise them.”
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
He sighed. “Esbats always take place in fields of songrass. That’s where the song comes from, if you hadn’t noticed. It’s not the same kind of song it usually uses to lull people; the esbat song is one that agitates and calls to dance. Humans, especially feeble-minded children, can’t resist it. Their bodies move on their own. The dance boils their blood, which excites the songrass further until they reach a point of exhaustion that kills them, one at a time. Their spirit rises the way ours do, and their bodies are absorbed into the ground very quickly. The energy released by the death spreads to all other energy sources, including the sacrifices themselves, allowing them to continue a little while longer.”
Arwyn shuddered. “How can you not pity them?” she murmured. “What a terrible way to die, being trapped in a body you can no longer control.”
Orren raised his eyebrows. “There are far worse things that could happen in such a case than to be danced to the point of exhaustion. Don’t you remember the Thrumli?”
Something about the way he said that word – Thrumli – told her that they shouldn’t be talking about this.
“You look nervous, brother.”
“Do I?” He reinforced his glamour. “I’m just checking the sound glamour. Mother doesn’t like us talking about him.”
“Thrumli means ‘nightmare’ in one of your human languages. Nobody knows who named it that, but it fits.”
“It? You said ‘him’ just now.”
“Him, it, we’re not sure. It’s… a bad spirit. One that possesses fairies. Our Queen keeps it trapped in a room in the palace, but there are rumours she can’t control it well. Sometimes it escapes.”
“It possesses fairies? Like a ghost?”
“You might call it that. It’s a mad thing, anyhow.”
“What does it do that would be worse than dancing to the point of exhaustion?”
Orren’s laugh was high and mirthless. “You really can’t think of worse?”
Arwyn frowned. “I suppose I can, but if it possesses fairies, then it feels their pain, too, doesn’t it?”
“That’s the whole point, sisterling. The Thrumli likes pain. It revels in fear. It is a trickster of the worst sort. No fairy, Seelie or Unseelie, does not fear it. Even our Queen would admit it. She tries to keep it under control, and she has sufficient power to resist possession, but she cannot destroy the thing.”
“How does she control it?”
“By appeasing it as best she can. Don’t you remember this, sisterling?” Something was wrong. His glamour was flickering. “This is why you got trapped in Cat’s Court. Don’t you remember?” Do I have to tell you? She heard the words as though he’d said them.
She closed her eyes. She remembered playing with him and the others as a child, she remembered him leaving her in the forest in Cat’s Court. He had told her Mother was waiting for her there, but the woman that had found her had not been her mother, although she’d gradually forgotten that.
“I’m sorry, Orren.”
He attempted a smile. “Mother had managed to offend Queen Morgana. I don’t even remember how, now, I was too young to understand at the time, but it was common knowledge that you didn’t offend the Queen because of the tithe. In recent years, the tithe had become less and less frequent. The Queen was surely gaining control on the monster, we thought. We ought to have feared her power.
“Mostly the children were abandoned, or came from poor families. Sometimes they were given. Some were kidnapped, of course – it was said that the Queen would reward families who willingly gave up their children for tithe. That it was a sacrifice for the entire people. In the Seelie Court they’d say it was worthy of honour, but honour isn’t one of our concepts over here.
“So Mother insulted Morgana, and Morgana, knowing how much Yorwen loved her daughter, decided that she should be the tithe this cycle. In her mercy,” – he laughed – “she gave her a week to say goodbye. Mother charged me with a mission.”
“I remember the part where you left me,” Arwyn said. “I don’t remember any other little girl, though. No human.”
“You never saw her,” he said. “She met the Thrumli. She may have died… but we know that since then, we haven’t had a tithe. Perhaps her heavier body allowed her to stay alive, being forever possessed by the Thrumli.”
Arwyn gasped. “But… she didn’t do anything wrong! We have to save her!”
Orren shook his head. “You’re mad. Take on the Queen and the Thrumli? Morgana was merciful when she realised the sacrifice was human, because she saw the advantages. It didn’t take her long, despite the glamour. The girl’s probably dead. If she’s not dead, then even if you somehow managed to free her, she’d be mad from all those years of possession. Killing such a child would be a mercy.”
Arwyn felt tears prick her eyes. Sighing, Orren pulled her into his arms.
“It’s so awful,” she sobbed. “That little girl was tortured and killed so I could live. How am I supposed to live with that?”
“She’d been caught in a fairy ring,” he murmured into her hair. “Probably trying to catch us.”
“I don’t care!” She pushed him away. “You should have just let me die!”
The look on his face wrenched her heart. There was no trace of glamour left on him. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
She stared at her hands in her lap, doubling through tears. She knew it wasn’t his fault. “Mother made you, didn’t she?”
“Why did I let you do that?”
“You didn’t understand,” he said. “You were very young, and we didn’t tell you.”
“Everyone is so cruel in this world,” she spat. He didn’t reply.
Eventually she asked, “Is there anything else I should know about this place? Things you’re not telling me, that everyone assumes I know?”
He hesitated. “There have been rumours recently that the Thrumli is back. Some went as far to assume it had somehow been slain by its human host, but the Queen has denied it bluntly. So we know it still lives, if such a thing can live. There have been what seem like Thrumli attacks on a few remote families and solitary fairies. Though of course, you can never be sure it was him unless there are witnesses, and there never are.”
“Great,” Arwyn said. “An innocent child is sacrificed in my place and I spend years thinking I’m someone I’m not, and as soon as I get back I’m in danger of the same fate anyway.”
“Not really,” he said cheerlessly. “The Thrumli usually attacks only children and poorer families. It has never been known to attack rich houses. It is said to prefer the more primal emotions of simpler minds.”
Arwyn snorted. “It has an easier time possessing less powerful fairies, more like.”
Orren nodded. “Of course. Speaking of which,” he added, “as cruel as this world is, you do have allies. I am here to arm you, and that is why I push you so hard. I want you to know how to defend yourself.”
Arwyn glared at him. She wanted to scream at him, punch him, hug him, find Yorwen and scream and punch her, too. She wanted to find Queen Morgana and kill her. She wanted to destroy the Thrumli, avenge all the children it had tortured and killed and save all the ones it would have.
She wanted power.
“Teach me,” she ordered.