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American Changeling

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She is the Vice President of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit www.maryrobinettekowal.com

Half-consciously, Kim put a hand up to cover her new nose ring. It pissed her parents off no end that she could tolerate touching cold iron and they couldn't.
Iron still made her break out sometimes, but didn't burn her. It had taken forever to find someone to make an iron nose ring, but the effort would be totally worth it.
"Kimberly Anne Smith," Mom's voice caught her in the foyer as surely as if she'd been called by her true name. "I've been worried sick. Do you know what time it is?"
"11:49." Kim dropped her hand and turned to face Mom, her Doc Martens making a satisfactory clomping on the hardwood floor. "I'm here. Home before midnight. No one with me." Sometimes she thought about bringing friends home to show them what her parents really looked like after their glamour dropped.
Everyone thought Mom was so pretty, so Betty Crocker, and Dad was all Jimmy Stewart. Whatever. Maybe if people saw that her parents were freaks like her they wouldn't look at her with such pity.
"I specifically asked you to come home straight after school, young lady. I tried calling your cell I don't know how many times. You have no idea how worried I've been."
"I was hanging out with Julia and Eve on Hawthorne."
Mom took a step closer, wearing pearls, even at home. "What's that in your nose?"
Kim blew her dyed-pink hair out of her face. "It's called a nose ring." Having people stare at her for the piercings and hair and leather was way better than having them stare at her because she looked prematurely old like a Progeria victim.
From the den, her father called, "Is she home?" A piece of ice clinked against glass. She so did not want to deal with Dad if he'd been drinking. He got maudlin about the old country and if she had to hear one more story about how life was so much better in Faerie, she'd scream.
"Yes!" Kim shouted. "I'm home and I'm going to bed so I don't have to look at myself."
She ran up the stairs two at a time, Utilikilt swinging against her legs. Mom hollered up the stairs at her, but Kim didn't care. She hopped over the salt line on her threshold, slammed the door to her room and threw herself on the bed without even bothering to turn on the lights. What was the point?
The mantel clock downstairs chimed midnight.
Kim's mom knocked on her door. "Kim? Come out honey, your father and I need to talk to you."
"Why don't you come in?"
"If you'll sweep the salt aside."
Rolling her eyes, Kim dragged herself off the bed and opened the door. With midnight, the glamour masking her mother's appearance had dropped. Mom had shrunk and twisted, aging one hundred years at the stroke of the clock. Gone was her carefully coiffed platinum hairdo in exchange for sparse, dry hair. The hall light gleamed off her scalp. Her nose nearly touched her chin, where a wart sported more hair than was on the rest of her head.
The thing that burned Kim like cold iron was that, aside from her dyed hair, she knew she looked just like her mother. All changelings were born looking old. That might be fine if you lived in Faerie with other people of your species, but here, Kim was just a freak. "What."
Mom smiled, showing her scraggly teeth, but her chin trembled and her eyes were moist. "We've had a message. From the old country. Come downstairs so we can talk about it."
Despite herself, Kim stepped over the salt line, into the hall. The only time she could remember Mom crying was when their dog had died. She'd held Buffy's head and wept like her heart had broken. Dad had said the golden retriever had been the first mortal thing Mom had ever loved. Death wasn't common in Faerie.
Seeing her on the verge of tears now freaked Kim out. She followed Mom downstairs without speaking.
Dad sat in his easy chair, holding a glass of whiskey loosely in his left hand. The reading lamp lit his arm and lap, but left his face in shadow. On the walnut end table beside him lay a piece of parchment at odds with the magazine-perfect living room.
The cream Berber carpet and the cranberry French toile curtains and the tan leather couch all seemed dirty and smudged by the introduction of this one thing from Faerie. It forced itself into her vision with a crisper focus than anything of mortal origins.
Her father set his drink down and leaned forward into the light. Like her mother, he looked scary ancient. His gray wool sweater hung from his shoulders as if he were a first grader playing dress up. His broad, pitted nose was bright red. Dad wiped his hand across his face and covered his eyes for a moment.
He inhaled deeply and dropped his hand. "This is difficult." Dad picked up the parchment. "We knew it was coming, but. . . Do you want to sit down?"
"No, sir." Kim bit the inside of her cheek, uncertain about what was going to come next.
Even though her parents had always told her they'd come to the mortal world for the sole purpose of conceiving her, even though her childhood had been filled with fairy tales in which she was the chosen one, even seeing their glamour, Kim had never fully believed them. Because the alternative, that she was the first fairy born into the mortal world since the gate closed, was crazy. She gestured at the parchment. "Can I see it?"
Dad handed it to her and took another sip of his whiskey while Mom dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
To Mossblossom, daughter of Fernbrooke and Woodapple
Right trustie and welbeloved, wee greete you well.
Grat is the task which wee must aske of you, but wee know you will fulfill it in such a way as may not onely nourish and continue our love and good will towards you, but also encrease the same. Our good and most loving Subjects, your worthy parents, have striven to raise you out of the sight of certaine devilish and wicked minded enemies of ours. These enemies who style themselves the Unseelie Court, have most wickedly and unnaturally conspired to have stirred up (as much as in them lay) a generall rebellion throughout our whole Realme. It pleases us to. . .
"I don't get this." Kim lowered the parchment. "I mean, she can't even spell."
Her mother winced and took the parchment out of her hands. "The Faerie Queen is using the high court language from before the gate closed during Bloody Mary's reign. Your father and I had to learn modern English as a second language, of course we were both very young, but--"
"Fern, we need to get moving." Dad nodded at the brass and mahogany mantel clock. "She wanted us at St. Andrew's after mass."
"What?" Kim scanned the parchment again, but the spelling was so poor she had trouble making any sense of it. The cathedral was five blocks from their house, and though she knew it held the key, they weren't supposed to open the gate until her sixteenth birthday which was still months away. "But it's after midnight."
Her mother sniffed. "If you'd come home when I asked this wouldn't be a problem."
"Yeah, well, you didn't tell me why."
"I didn't want to distract you at school. Your grades have already been slipping and--"
"Oh, as if that matters. What? My SAT scores will get me into the best schools in Faerie?"
"Stop it." Draining his whiskey, Dad stood and pulled the letter from her hands. "The Unseelie Court know about you."
That cut her retort off. The rebel faeries who formed the Unseelie Court had nearly torn the realm apart 300 years ago when they closed the gate. The only people through since then had been a handful of changelings, like her parents, who'd worked a complicated magic to change places with mortals. "When you say know...?"
He snapped the parchment at her. "There's a traitor in the Queen's Court. She knows not who it is, but it is clear that they have found out about you and the plans to reopen the gate. If we give them any time at all, they will send a changeling and kill you rather than let that happen."
"Woody, you're frightening her."
"What would you have? A child not frightened, but without the information to make good decisions? Fern. We can't go into the church with her. She has to know that the Unseelie have likely alerted the Catholics and that someone might be there."
"Let's just go and get it over with." Kim flipped the hood of her sweatshirt up to give herself at least a semblance of privacy. Underneath everything, a film of sweat coated her body. Her joints ached with anticipation. "Opening the gate is what I'm here for, isn't it?"
Even though it was only five blocks to the church, her parents drove in case they needed to make a quick getaway. They stopped the Prius across the street from St. Andrew's and got out with her. Farther down the block, the laughter of late-night hipsters drifted down Alberta Street. Mom put her hands on Kim's shoulders and kissed her forehead. "I want you to know that your father and I are very proud of you, no matter what happens."
Kim's heartbeat rattled through every bone of her body. She knew their allergies meant that her parents couldn't go into the church with her, but for a second, she wished they could. "Any last words of advice?"
Her dad leaned in close enough that she could smell the whiskey on his breath. "Just be safe. You see a priest, you hightail it out of there. We'll figure out some other plan."
"Right...." It had only taken the Faerie Queen five hundred years to cook this one up. Before she could chicken out, Kim got out of the car and crossed the street to the cathedral. She'd read everything her parents could find about the place, knew all about its French Gothic style of architecture, had studied the floorplan until it was printed on the inside of her eyelids, but she had never set foot on the property before.
Once, when she was six, she'd run the five blocks from their house to the cathedral. Her mom caught her just before she got there. Kim had wanted to work the magic so she could get the key out of the altar. She'd thought her reward would be to get wings like the fairies on TV. Mom had set her straight, explaining that there might be alarms set if any of Faerie blood approached. Since then, she'd always walked down the other side of the street rather than chance it.
Not tonight though. Tonight, she walked straight up the marble steps and pulled out the keys Dad had gotten hold of years ago. It would suck if they'd changed the locks. She put the keys in the lock, braced for something to scream or an alarm to go off.
The door wasn't even locked. All Dad's effort to get the keys and she didn't even need them. Kim hauled open the heavy door and slipped into the nave. She had been to the church's website dozens of times, but the photo galleries had not conveyed the arcing height of the ceiling. Despite the simple beauty of the oak carvings, which adorned the plaster walls, her pulse ratcheted up to quad-espresso rate.
Her parents had refused to teach Kim any spells but those she needed to open the gate, because glamour would interfere with her ability to handle iron. Well, after tonight, baby, that restriction would be lifted and she'd be working it like any good Fae.
Kim sauntered down the middle of the church. Beyond a few guttering candles visible in the side chapel, the building was still and empty. At the altar, Kim put her hand on the cold marble.
All around her, wood splintered as the oak carvings forced their mouths open and shrieked.
Panicked, Kim lifted her hand off the altar, ready to run out of the church--but if she did, her chance to get the key out of the altar was blown. Whoever had set the alarm already knew she was here.
She pressed her hand back on the altar, crooked her little finger into a fishhook and shouted the words she'd learned as a nursery rhyme:
"Stone, stone, earth's bone,
Once hid, now shown!"
Under her hand, the center of the stone burst. Its halves tilted and thudded to the ground. In the exposed middle was a small, ornate iron casket, no larger than a paperback. Above her, the carvings still screamed bloody murder.
A door on the side of the church slammed open and a priest, tousled white hair sticking out like a halo, ran into the sanctuary.
Kim grabbed the casket, leaped over the broken altar, and sprinted down the aisle with the reliquary tucked under her arm like a football.
She hauled open the church door. Yelling incoherently about thieves and sacrilege, the priest chased her. Kim vaulted down the steps of the cathedral, momentum carrying her forward to her knees. The pavement tore through her striped stockings.
Before Kim could rise, the priest grabbed her. "What did you do?"
Kim tried to shrug free, but the priest had a grip like a bulldog. "Let me go!"
"Stealing is a sin and what you've done to the altar..." His other hand grabbed for the iron reliquary.
Kim kicked and twisted to keep him from taking the Key.
Out of nowhere, her father punched the priest in the nose. He staggered, blood streaming down his face.
Dad yelled, "Get in the car!"
Kim tore down the sidewalk. Hipsters and neighbors gawked in the street.
Dashing into the road, Kim headed for her parents' car. When she stepped off church property, the carvings went silent. The cessation of noise rang like tinnitus.
Their Prius pulled away from the curb. Her mom leaned out the window, "Hurry!"
Kim opened the back door and scrambled into the seat. Dad half fell in after her. As people ran for the car, Mom peeled out, which Kim didn't even think a hybrid could do.
Mom dodged the onlookers and drove down Alberta to the I-5 onramp. Kim stared out the rear window at the crowd milling around.
"Do you have it?" her mother asked.
Kim turned around to face the front. "Yeah. It's what I was born to do."
"Don't get cocky." On the seat beside her, Dad had his head down, trying to catch his breath.
Mom peered at her in the rear view mirror. Seeing only her eyes, it was easy to forget how old she looked right now. "We still have to get to Stonehenge to open the gate."
Kim leaned forward. "I didn't bring my passport with me."
"No, no, dear. The replica at Maryhill. We should be able to use it as a mirror with the real one."
"Oh." That was a change from the original plan. Kim had been looking forward to going to England, but she'd practiced the ritual every summer at the replica.
"Dammit." Dad leaned against the seat, still gasping for breath. His face was swollen and puffy.
He tried to smile, but his breath wheezed in his throat. "Allergies. It'll pass."
It sounded like he could barely breathe. His left hand had swollen to water balloon tightness. "Mom...?"
Dad put his hand on her knee. "Don't, you'll worry her for no reason."
"What is it, dear?
Kim bit the inside of her cheek. "How much farther is it?"
"Mmm... an hour and a half, I think. Why don't you take a nap, hm? It's been a long day for you and it’s not over yet."
As if napping were an option. "You should have seen me. It was ten types of awesome. The rhyme worked like you said and boom!" Kim leaned forward and rested her chin on the seat. "How did they make the carvings scream? I mean, this church was built way after the wall went up, right?"
Kim's mother tapped the steering wheel. "Well... you know how, according to the rules, things may only cross between if there's a one-to-one exchange. The carvings could be like that. They could be something someone prepared in Faerie and exchanged for the ones here. Or, I suppose there could be an Unseelie agent sent as a changeling. Or it might have been Catholic magic of some sort. We've never been able to really study the spells built into their rituals."
Dad's breath was more labored now. His face lolled against the window.
"Dad?" Kim whispered.
In the passing light from a truck, his skin had a distinct blue pallor. Kim put her hand on his shoulder. "Dad?"
"Mom?" Kim kept her hand on his shoulder, as if she could hold him here. "Something's wrong with Dad."
Mom didn't answer, and Kim thought for a moment that her mother had not heard her, but the Prius slowed and pulled to the side of the interstate.
Still silent, her mother grabbed her purse and got out of the car. Kim could not swallow or breathe or do anything except keep her hand on her dad's shoulder.
Mom pulled the back door open, her face impassive. As the door opened, Dad started to slump out. Kim tightened her hand on his sweater and hauled him back.
"Fool. Foolish, foolish man." Mom's hand trembled as she touched his face. Her breath hitched visibly.
Kim stared at Dad, whose face had all the wrinkles puffed out of it. She did not recognize this moon-faced man in her arms. "What is it? Is he under a spell or what?"
"No. His allergies..."
A hard laugh escaped Kim. "Allergies? I've seen your allergies before; he's not sneezing, Mom. He can't even breathe."
Her mother didn't answer, but rummaged in her purse and pulled out a vial and a pack of handiwipes. "He hit the priest, didn't he?"
"Yeah, but... What? Holy blood is dangerous?" She hated the scorn coming out of her, but the anger was easier to manage than fear.
"Perhaps. Wipe the blood off his hand." Mom ripped the handiwipe open and handed it to Kim. "We don't fully understand the way Catholic magic and Faerie magic interact. I don't know what spells their priests are under, but I do know this is the sort of protective spell one would lay." She lifted Dad's head and held the vial to his lips.
Kim stared, fascinated, as Mom tried to get some of the amber liquid past his swollen lips. Her mother said, "Kim, I asked you to do something for me and I need you to do it."
"Sorry." When she touched her dad's hand, Kim flinched. The flesh was turgid with pressure but gave slightly under her hands, like a rotting pumpkin.
"How come this didn't happen to me? I mean, I cast a spell and, you know, desecrated an altar." She couldn't tell if the blood was the priest's or Dad's from where the skin had broken on his knuckles. "Oh, and stole."
"You didn't steal. Fae don't steal things. The Key belongs to us."
"Still." Kim passed the handiwipe between her father's fingers. "Why Dad and not me?"
Mom capped the bottle of whatever and tucked it into her purse. "We had you baptized."
"Think of it as an inoculation against allergies." Mom slid out of the car. "Ride up front with me."
"What about Dad?"
Mom stood by the side of the car, her skirt flaring every time a car passed them. She bent down so Kim could see her face. "If we get the gate open fast enough, the Faerie Queen will heal him. He doesn't have much time. I need you to start thinking."
Kim swallowed. "Yes, ma'am." She got out on the passenger side and closed the door as gently as possible to keep from jarring Dad.
Sitting in the front seat, as her mother drove, Kim replayed the events in St. Andrew's. It wasn't her fault touching the altar set off an alarm. And Dad should have known better than to hit that priest. Right?
She prodded her scraped knee. He shouldn't have tried to protect her. And now he might die. The pain did nothing to distract her. Dad had to get better. Kim dug her nails into the raw flesh. The Faerie Queen had to fix him.
On a bluff overlooking the Columbia Gorge, the monument loomed out of the dark, silhouetted by moonlight. The water below caught the moon and tossed its silver light like a ball on the surface of the river. This replica of Stonehenge had been built as a World War I memorial by a railroad industrialist. He'd built it out of "modern" materials, concrete and rebar, but made it look like Stonehenge had when new. The monoliths ringed the center, none fallen on their sides. Even so, it had an air of being decrepit beyond its years. The concrete had its share of graffiti and had crumbled in places.
They'd left Kim's father in the car because Kim's mother was worried the spell would think he was an offering in addition to the Key.
Kim huddled against the side of a monolith and tried to stay out of the wind. She ran her fingers across the sculpted surface of the reliquary as if she could read its history in braille. The heavy cross embossed on its surface bumped under her fingers in a constant reminder of what Kim had to undo.
In the middle of the monument, her mother did something on the flat altar. Kim wanted to yell at Mom to hurry and, at the same time, tell her to slow down. As soon as Mom finished prepping the altar, it would be Kim's turn. What if she didn't get it right? Dad could die. She clutched the reliquary.
Mom gestured frantically. "Kim, quickly now."
She joined her mother at the altar stone and put the reliquary in the middle of it. How many times had she pretended to do this while playing in her backyard? She felt split into two halves, the one which knew exactly what to do and the one which was sure she'd screw up. Inhaling to steady herself, Kim pressed her thumb against the catch holding the reliquary shut and let it prick her finger. She bit the inside of her lower lip as the blood welled up on her thumb.
This had been Bloody Mary's genius; the reliquary would only open to one of pure Faerie blood, but it was made of iron and would burn all Fae who touched it. She had collaborated with the Unseelie Court to close the gate in order to prevent the Faerie Queen from aiding her enemies during the Wyatt Uprising. The Unseelie stooped to her aid, ironically, to keep mortals and their taint out of Faerie. The reliquary was a perfect blend of Catholic and Faerie magics.
Carefully, Kim slid the catch aside, exhaling in a rush of relief as the lock opened. Her thumb stung where the iron had cut her, but no more than with a sunburn. Kim could feel her mother, more than see her, shifting with impatience at her side.
Digging her fingernails into the crack between the covers, Kim pried the reliquary open.
She had expected a flash of magic like in the Lord of the Rings movies, but nothing even glowed. Inside the reliquary lay a mat of dried leaves. Kim held her breath for fear of disturbing the thing lying on them.
Curled in a fetal ball lay the tiniest skeleton Kim had ever seen. All her life she had heard of the other breeds of Fae but had never seen anyone besides her parents. With birdlike bones, this skeleton could only belong to a pixie, the most delicate of the Fae.
Kim slid her hand under the leaves and they disintegrated. Shaking, she picked up the pixie's skull. Dried to almost nothing, it felt like papier-mâché and was no bigger than her thumb. She set the skeleton on the altar piece by careful piece. Most of the bones were still attached with mummified tendons and leathery skin. She did not like to think about how hard it would have been if she'd had to piece the hands together.
"Don't miss a single bone." Mom leaned forward, as if she could stick her own hand in the reliquary and fish around.
"I know." Kim scowled. They'd spent enough time telling her bedtime tales about little changelings who didn't follow the rules. Kim sifted the ashy remains of the leaves until she was confident she had all the bones.
Bowing her head over the remains, Kim held her hands over them in benediction and said the words she had been taught.
"Child of Faerie, blessed are ye in your innocence. Return ye to the state from which our ancestors preserved us, free from the knowledge of the tree of good and evil. I release ye from your bonds to the mortal world. Go in peace."
Light, golden as sunset bloomed out of the arch behind and cast her shadow across the altar. Now this was more like it. This was magic.
Her mother hissed, "Bow. The Faerie Queen is coming."
Kim's mother lowered herself into a deep curtsy. Kim tried to follow suit, but her legs gave way and dropped her on the ground. Her scraped knee sent a bright flash of pain up into her forebrain and snapped her attention to the fact that this was happening. She was about to meet the freakin' Faerie Queen.
For the first time in five hundred years, faeries set foot on mortal soil without needing to take a human in exchange. A retinue of faerie men and women stepped through the gate. Kim's heart sank as she looked from beautiful Fae to Fae. This was worse than high school; the disdain was apparent even on their inhumanly beautiful faces. Every one of them was beautiful and she... She looked like ass.
Her mother even looked panicky at the sight of these beautiful Fae.
The light frothed over, spreading to all the arches of the monument. The interior lit up like Kim was standing center stage in the auditorium at school. Trumpets sounded. If silver were a sound, then it bugled out of the arch. The light boiled within the confines of the stone.
The radiance in all the other arches coalesced into a horde of other Fae. They sent up a cheer as they streamed through into the mortal world.
None of her parents' stories had prepared Kim for the full diversity of faeries. She'd known about the different species of Fae, but did not realize they came in every shade of skin known to humanity and then some. Brown, black, green, blue and red -- some with tall pointing ears, others with noses drooping to their chins. The sight of a scattered few who were as ancient in appearance as she was, relieved her somewhat. She wouldn't stand out like a freak in Faerie after all.
Amidst the horde stampeding into the space, strode a woman who made every model ever born look dull and ordinary. She was made of beautiful.
Kim's mother turned from the group of Fae who had come through the first arch and gasped. "Majesty!"
This was the Faerie Queen? Then who were these other guys? The Queen saw them and her perfect face blanched in horror. Kim's mind caught up. The Unseelie court had found them.
A tall elven man with fox-red hair, drew his sword and stepped between the Queen and the Unseelie. "Majesty, we are ambushed."
Only then did Kim realize that each of the first group of Fae carried a weapon and wore a red band on their sleeves. Before she had time to register more than that, the Unseelie court fell upon the Queen and her retinue. Metal clashed against metal and sparks flew.
Her mother shrieked and scrambled toward the Queen. Kim turned to follow her, but an Unseelie man with leaf-green hair stopped her with a sword to her chest.
Kim bent back across the altar to get away. One of her hands landed on the reliquary. Desperate for a weapon, Kim swung it up and swiped at the him. The corner nicked his cheek.
His skin sizzled and peeled as if she had hit him with a flaming poker. Holy shit. Iron raised welts on her parents' skin, but nothing like this. Kim didn't waste any time wondering why, she just started laying into the Unseelie faeries attacking her.
Kim wielded the reliquary as if it were a book in a room full of jocks. At first the Unseelie retreated from the cold iron but the reliquary gave her a shorter reach than their swords and daggers.
Another beautiful, lean Unseelie man, with eyes like ice nearly took her arm off but a gnome stopped his blow with a shovel. Kim retreated, dodging blows that pushed her farther from the Faerie Queen. The Unseelie man drove the point of his sword over the gnome's shovel and into his chest. Wrenching it free, he stepped toward Kim.
Kim staggered and fetched up against the hard surface of one of the monoliths. He had the sword leveled at her before she had time to draw breath. As he thrust it at her, she raised the reliquary to block. The shock of impact sent tremors through the bones of her hands.
She tried to swipe at him, but he twisted the sword under the reliquary and flicked it out of Kim's hands.
A squeak of horror escaped her throat as the piece of iron flew out of her grasp.
The Unseelie smiled the coldest smile Kim had ever seen. "What now, changeling child?"
He pressed the sword against her chest lightly but with enough force to pin her against the concrete block. "By the powers, you reek like a mortal. If the Unseelie Court didn't have use for you, I'd gut you like the spelless outcast you are."
Kim tried to twist away from the sword but he pressed it forward, cutting through her shirt and into her breastbone. She grunted at the sudden pain.
And then she got pissed. "I'm not spelless, you bastard."
Kim pressed her hand flat against the concrete behind her. "Stone, stone, earth's bone,
Once hid, now shown!"
The concrete exploded. Chunks spun through the air, slamming into the mob. The blast knocked Kim flat, forcing the air from her lungs. She rolled frantically to get away from the falling concrete and rebar.
Her chest burned, screaming for air but she could not draw a breath. Kim pawed at her throat as if she could open it by hand.
Howling, the Unseelie man pushed a block off his chest. A host of other Unseelie, bloodied and furious turned toward where Kim lay. She dragged air in with a terrified wheeze. A part of her brain wondered if this was what her dad felt like.
Her anger rekindled. Her dad was dying because of these traitors.
Kim grabbed the first thing she laid her hand on--a twisted length of rebar torn from the stone. Her hand stung from its rough surface, but Kim didn't care. She rose to her feet and ran at the Unseelie as he was dragging his sword from under another chunk of cement.
Double-handed, Kim brought the rebar down on his wrist. The rod passed through his arm in a crackle of flesh. He screamed and fell, leaving his hand still clutching the hilt of his sword.
No blood dripped from the wound. The blackened skin had cauterized as the rebar had passed through. Kim stared at the rod in disbelief. Of course...it was iron. She had, like, a freakin' light-saber against these guys. And since she'd grown up here, it only stung her a little.
Kim dove forward, hacking with the rebar. Even a glancing nick with the iron made their skin bubble and peel. The Unseelie retreated before her.
This was the best weapon, ever.
Gnomes, changelings and other of the Queen's Fae came to her side and formed a phalanx, cutting through the host of Unseelie. Kim fought without grace, but the terror that her weapon brought turned the tide quickly to the Queen's favor.
Time lost its meaning until Kim found herself standing, rebar in hand, next to her mother.
And the Faerie Queen.
"Bravely done, good Mossblossom."
For a moment, Kim wondered who she was talking to, and then remembered her Faerie name. "I--thank you, your Majesty." There was probably something else she should say, but Dad didn't have time for formalities. She pushed away the possibility that he was already dead. "So, could you--"
The fox-haired Fae stepped in front of her. "I am Oreyn, the Queen's champion and I, too, thank you for your service, but I must ask you to release your weapon near the Queen."
"Oh." Kim looked at the length of iron stupidly and let it drop to the ground. "Okay. But listen, my dad needs help."
Oreyn shied as the rebar rolled toward his toe. "Of course." He stepped past it and put his hand on Kim's shoulder.
She had never been this close to anyone like him. He smelled of honeysuckle and salt. His cheeks bore no trace of fuzz and had the poreless perfection of porcelain. He lifted his left hand and put a knife to her throat.
"Oreyn! What means this?" The Faerie Queen's shout came at the same moment as a wordless cry from Kim's mother.
Oreyn spoke three quick words in some language Kim did not recognize.
The world inverted, spun and sharpened into a painful clarity. The replica of Stonehenge had vanished, replaced by crisp trees and a stark blue sky.
The iron ring in Kim's nose burned. As it seared her flesh, she screamed.
Kim didn't care about the knife at her throat. The thing burning her had to stop. She grabbed it. Her fingers flared with pain.
She jerked them away.
Oreyn laughed and let his knife fall. "The touch of iron is worse here, is it not?"
Sick, twisted traitor. He was the one who had told the Unseelie Court about her. He was why her dad was dying.
Tears filling her eyes, Kim let the sleeve of her shirt fall over her fingers. With that slight protection, she yanked the ring out of her nose. The skin tore, but the pain was nothing to what she had felt.
Kim drove the point of the tiny piece of iron into Oreyn's throat. Flame curdled the skin around it.
He shrieked.
As he tried snatching it, the fire leaped from his throat to his hands and then to his sleeves. His screams turned to hoarse wheezes. Arms outstretched, he staggered toward Kim.
She dodged, then turned and fled deeper into Faerie's perfect woods. Careening through the trees, Kim ran until her legs collapsed under her. With her arms wrapped around her head, Kim lay on the ground and sobbed.
She woke in an unfamiliar bed. Every thread in the silk sheets chafed, as if her skin were too sensitive from a fever. Light filtered through carved filigree windows and caressed rich tapestries. Kim squinted to hold out as much of the too-crisp vision as possible. Her head ached from all the intricate detail.
"Kim, honey?" Her mother's voice drew her gaze to the side.
She had thought Mom seemed old before, but worry had added new lines to her forehead. Or maybe she could see more in Faerie. "Dad?" Her voice cracked on that one syllable.
"Right here." From her other side, Dad took her hand and held it firmly. "How do you feel, little girl?"
She whispered, "I want to go home."
Her dad froze. "You are home, sweetie."
"Hush, Woody." Mom patted her hand. "Let's go."
They helped her stand. Then Kim's mother spoke in the same language Oreyn had used. The world twisted, spun and Kim staggered into her living room.
The soft toile fabric and Berber carpet looked as they had left it. The clock on the mantle said it was just after seven. Outside the window, dawn was beginning to light in their yard.
Her mother said, "Why don't you run on up to bed?"
Without words to even think about everything that had happened, Kim nodded. Later there would be time to talk, but she felt too battered for thought. Kim hugged her parents for a long time and dragged herself up the stairs to her room.
She hopped over the line of salt, then turned. Squatting, she brushed the barrier aside.
Kim turned out the lights and crawled into bed.
She left the door open.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 17th, 2010

Author Comments

There's this thing that happens in stories where there's a young person who's the Chosen One and everyone keeps it a big secret. It drives me crazy. So I wanted to write a story in which the Chosen One knew exactly what her role was, had trained for it her entire life and still has things go wrong.

- Mary Robinette Kowal
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