Vicious pounding thudded on the door of the YMCA. Surprised by the sudden noise, Karen MacGregor looked around to see if someone else was on it, but no one was. She was the youngest of the volunteers, and most of the time the others seemed annoyed to find her underfoot. But how much damage could she do by opening the door? The pounding came again, this time accompanied by terrified shouting in Fey.
Theresa, Karen's volunteer supervisor, looked up from ladling food and snapped, “Would somebody please get that door?”
“Ah, get it yourself,” Karen muttered rebelliously under her breath. Theresa either didn’t hear her or chose not to respond. Karen ran to answer the door as one last shout thundered from behind it.
As she pulled the door open, the wind nearly blew it out of her grasp. Two Seelie Fey in the green uniforms of the Summer Court, a Brownie and an Undine, stood outside with a similarly clad Sprite sagging between them. All three were soaked, muddy and bleeding. The Undine was a water Fey, and in this violent weather she appeared to be formed of the rain, skin glittering like collected dew, blood pale against her waterfall of hair. On the side of her face, a dark burn the shape of a hand marked her skin. The Brownie was about three feet tall, hairless and nut brown, and had a head wound that was turning the mud on his cheeks red. The Sprite in the middle wasn’t moving at all.
Karen opened her mouth to speak, but the Undine gave her an indecipherable look and thrust the limp Sprite into her arms.
“Here,” grunted the Undine in accented English, placing one silver hoof inside the door, “She is not well. Take care of her.”
The Sprite’s weight almost toppled Karen, but she managed to keep her feet. The creature was delicate, with long hair that shifted color and bones that looked sharp against her thin skin. She looked as if she could ride the currents of a warm breeze despite the solidity of her body in Karen’s arms. The Sprite stared with flat, unblinking eyes. An unpleasant smell reached Karen’s nose as she lowered the Sprite to the mud-tracked tiles. Was the Fey bespelled? Could sorcery cause the same nauseating smell as new death?
Karen just stared at the Sprite for a moment, waiting for a clue or an explanation. She couldn’t possibly be dead, could she? She was Fey. They were immortal.
As Karen stared at the creature she heard Theresa’s voice from behind her shoulder cry out, “Oh my God!” The woman hurried forward, shouting, “Someone call 911!” Kneeling beside the Sprite, the older volunteer tilted the Fey’s mouth open to clear her airway and breathed into it. Karen watched the narrow chest rise in response to the rescue breathing.
People were pushing past Karen to get at the downed Sprite, jostling her. She looked around for the Undine and the Brownie who had just come in, but they were nowhere to be seen, gone without explanation. There was a wall of people between Karen and the Sprite now, and she had to stand on her tiptoes to see over them. From the crowd around Theresa, a voice said, “I think it’s too late, Theresa, she’s gone.”
“Gone where?” Karen exploded, loudly and more angrily than she had intended. A few people looked up at her, but none of them had any answers. “Ogres can’t kill the warriors of the Wild Hunt! She can’t be dead! Try again!”
Theresa emerged from the crowd. She was disheveled; her dark braid had come loose during the chest compressions and strands of it were straggling around her face. Her eyes were shadowed with weariness.
“Karen,” she said, as if surprised that the young volunteer still existed. “Honey, why don’t you go sit down for a few minutes? The paramedics will be here in a while and I don’t want you in the way.”
Karen almost became indignant at being dismissed again, but something in Theresa's posture made her pause. She doubted if Theresa had anything in her soul that could be surprised anymore. She didn’t know how many dead Fey Theresa had seen. Karen had only been working at the Arborville Y for three weeks, since her Civics teacher had assigned volunteer work and a report for their final exam. Karen had chosen this out of some misguided sense of cultural responsibility. She wished fervently that she hadn’t.
There was more commotion at the doors. Karen shook off her thoughts, found Theresa gone, and disobeyed her by going to find out what was happening. Someone shouted, “Does anybody speak Fey?”
Karen pushed her way through the crowd. “I do. Can I help?”
Another of the volunteers, a man named Mark with a paunch and balding head said, “What is this guy saying? It seems important.”
Karen nudged her way through the crowd to the Dryad who appeared to be the center of the group. He had bark growing from the backs of his arms. His hair was dark green and stringy with rainwater. He wore the blue robes of a wizard. Mud had been ground into the hem. He was wringing his hands and babbling in Fey to whatever volunteer would listen. None of the other translators were nearby and Karen's fluency was strained by his frightened stammering.
Alarmed by his behavior, Karen shouted in Fey to get his attention. “Hey! What happened? What’s wrong?”
The wizard seemed to notice Karen for the first time. He turned to her with wild eyes, whites showing all around his irises, and then stammered in the same language, “The ogres are in Avalon, in the palace. They have won. We are conquered.”
Karen’s mind chattered insane questions, but her mouth was still. The thought of the Ogres inside the palace seemed impossible. If there was one thing she knew High King Thael Quintinar was capable of doing, it was holding his house against attack. The High Queen, his wife, had served with Karen's mother in the Wild Hunt for centuries, and Karen had grown up playing with their youngest son. Each of Thael’s children was a stronger wizard than the last. When they all stood together, no Ogre could cross their threshold. She wondered if she had misunderstood, briefly.
But Karen hadn’t learned Fey in school. She had learned it from her mother, who spoke it natively, and had even been placed in special classes as a child because she came from a bilingual home. It didn’t matter that the wizard’s dialect was more scholarly than the language she spoke with her family. She knew what she'd heard.
“No." Karen shook her head with denial, held up her palms to ward his words away.
“What is it?” Mark demanded. “What’s going on?”
Karen ignored him. The Dryad continued, “I saw the flames of funeral pyres before I escaped the city. They came from the courtyard.”
Karen felt her heart stop for a second and she gasped, “It’s impossible.”
“I wish it were,” the wizard said. He shook his head, sadly, and pushed through the ring of onlookers.
Karen watched him go. “I really don’t think this is funny,” she called, voice high and near hysteria, but he did not look back. Karen watched one of the volunteers try to give him a cup of coffee, but he ignored it and made his way to the windows.
Mark surprised her a little by placing his hand on her shoulder. Karen’s thoughts felt foggy, as if she was watching herself through a badly out of focus movie camera.
“What did he say?” Mark asked again.
Karen blinked, struggling to bring her thoughts back under her control. “I think he said the war was over,” she replied. “He said the Ogres are in Avalon, and he said he saw flames from the palace courtyard.”
Going pale, Mark whispered, “Dear God.”
Karen nodded and walked away from him without speaking. Dear God, she thought. She started to cry. Her sobs were painful, burning her throat and her face as they tore loose. If she'd had a moment to prepare, she would have found somewhere to hide her grief. But it overcame her too quickly for that.
“Karen?” Theresa said. She sounded frightened. “Karen, are you okay? What’s wrong? What happened?”
Funeral pyres. It could not be so. What did all of this mean for her brother? She wondered if Julian would stumble into the YMCA, another refugee, soaked with his own blood and haunted with the nearness of his own death. Or was it really possible that he had died when his fighter jet was shot down over the Enchanted Forest, as his Colonel claimed? She had spent four months refusing to believe it. But now...this war was over. He would be coming home. Or he wouldn't, and that would be her final answer.
She doubted Beri would ever leave his home, even while it burned. He’d rather die. She had begged him last summer to come out to California. She'd couched it in terms of a vacation, keeping her fear for him secret, but he had told her that he could not be spared. She had wondered at the time how he could have suddenly become so dedicated to his homeland. Now, with his house burning, that newborn sense of responsibility might have proved fatal.
For a moment, she hated her brother, whom she'd worshiped, and her best friend, who should have been safe in his palace, protected by his father's knights and his own strong magic. Why hadn’t Julian stayed home? He hadn't needed to join the Air Force and become a fighter pilot; he could have taken the VP spot at Dad's firm. And Beri should have swallowed his pride and fled for Earth last summer when Karen has begged him to.
Karen cried harder. She wanted to go home. She thought she would, actually, they didn’t really need her, and there were enough bilingual Fey in the room to translate the Avalon library into English.
“I’m going home,” Karen announced to Theresa, who was still looking at Karen with frightened concern. “You don't need me...”
Theresa nodded, eyes understanding. She patted Karen on the shoulder as the younger volunteer moved past her. Karen didn’t think she would return tomorrow. She had chosen a community service for her civics assignment that was far too close to home. She could have cleaned up trash along the highway, but no. Karen had wanted to ‘make a difference’ in the world.
She hunched her shoulders in anticipation of the cold rain and walked through the back door into the parking lot. Her father’s silver Mercedes was dull as a closed eye in the filtering illumination from the street lamp above. Rain plopped into her hair and slid down her spine in oily slug tracks. Karen pulled on the thin gloves that would protect her hands from the steel in her keys, then unlocked the door and started the engine. The car started with a pleasant hum as she put it into gear. It made her think of Beri, who had been an awful driver and crashed three of the nicest cars she had ever seen.
Karen sobbed, horrified as her thoughts of him became past tense. She almost wished she had never loved them, those missing boys that would leave her empty if they passed. She wished that she could be an.0y other girl, one who might realize in passing that the Ogres had conquered Avalon, and then quickly forget.
Karen scrubbed at her face and put the car in gear. The weather was getting worse.