Secrets when in shadow lie,
watch the farce of truth pass by,
hidden, they absolve the crime,
until the passing of the time,
breaks the spell that sets truth free,
and unlocks the tragedy.
Ryan opened his eyes and lay still for a moment, staring up at the dark trees overhead.
He was in the forest, then. Come dawn, when the sunlight filtered through the trees, his flesh would ignite and anyone who cared would find ash instead of bones.
But--he squinted up at the trees and found them blurry. Why was he alive?
The last thing he remembered was the axe arcing down towards his unprotected throat and his last desperate struggle--not that he could ever win free of the triplets--twins, he supposed, now that their sister was dead.
If they had cut off his head, then how was he still alive?
Ryan managed, after a bit of thought, to raise his arm and touch his throat. He felt no scar, no sign at all that they had killed him, but he couldn't imagine that his executioner had missed. Or that anyone would have bothered to stop their vengeance.
He'd killed their sister, after all. Their vengeance was just. And after weeks of captivity--maybe months--he'd rather looked forward to death.
Again. He frowned, struggling with murky memories. Hadn't he died before?
Somewhere on the edge of hearing, he heard the jingle of a horse's bridle; an innocuous sound any other time but this; and he wondered if they'd left someone behind to make sure he died this time.
This time. Ryan closed his eyes. He had died before.
The front of his shirt was sticky with blood; enough blood to make him dangerously weak if he tried to stand. But standing would have meant he'd made some sort of a decision to try to escape this death--how many times had he died before?
He rolled over, tasted leaf mold against his lips. Managed to get to all fours and crawl across the forest floor until he reached an insurmountable obstacle; a fallen tree, its trunk immense. There was a depression of sorts under the trunk--shallow enough to hide a body.
But hidden enough to save him from the sunlight?
Ryan didn't care. He squirmed under the tree trunk, vaguely surprised that something inside of his mind obviously wanted him to live.
But why? What sort of life would he have as a fugitive? He closed his eyes again and nestled deep down inside the litter of leaves and twigs and dirt. At least if the sun caught him here, he'd die at peace.
If he would even die from the sun. Ryan truly did not want to wake up from burning.
Hours passed with the moon's slow march across the sky. Sometime past midnight, Ryan fell asleep again. This time, he awoke to voices.
"This is none of your affair," someone said--Ryan's mind provided his name as Erik, one of Nadia's humans and the triplet's gofer. The watcher, more than likely, sent to ensure that he was dead.
"You're in our territory," another voice stated, a girl this time. "Why are you here?"
"To see justice done," Erik said shortly. "If I am truly on your land, then I'll remove the body elsewhere and resume my task."
Ryan felt his muscles jerk in protest. He opened his eyes wide and tried to see through the darkness, but he couldn't see through the trees.
"The body?" Another voice, half-familiar. His mind tried to supply a name, but failed.
"Whose body?" the girl asked.
Erik must have not wanted to answer, because his horse burst through the vegetation a moment later, and he stared right at the spot where Ryan had awakened.
The spot which was--now--empty.
Ryan watched from his hiding place as Erik dismounted and knelt beside a patch of bloody ground. When two more horses appeared behind him, Erik turned to face them, his hands clenched into fists, his face white in the darkness.
"What did you do with it?" he asked, and Ryan knew he wasn't the only one to hear the hysteria in his voice.
"There was no body here when we passed through," the girl said, and spread her hands as if to show him they were empty.
"Whose body?" her companion asked.
Erik straightened up and glared at them. "Why should I tell you?"
"Because if this person you've killed isn't truly dead, then which way would he flee? To your land or ours?" The girl this time, her voice sharp.
"He was dead," Erik snapped. "They cut off his head."
Involuntarily, Ryan's hand inched towards his throat.
Both the girl and her companion seemed shocked by his words; they stared down at Erik, horror on both their faces.
Familiar faces. But Ryan couldn't remember their names.
"Doesn't beheading normally do the job?" the girl asked softly.
"Not this time," Erik replied. "This is the fifth time they've killed him; Nadia charged me to make sure he was truly dead and now I'm going to have to kill him again." He started towards his horse, but they blocked his way.
Five times? Ryan's mind reeled under the shock. No wonder he had no strength. No wonder he couldn't think.
"No more," the girl's companion snarled. "You're tresspassing. I suggest you leave--now--before we invent a reason to murder you."
Erik stared at them both in disbelief. "If you kill me, it will be an act of war," he said, but he sounded uncertain again, and knew it by the expressions on their faces. "You can't--"
"Our land," the girl reminded him. "Our territory. Not yours. Not your mistress'."
"Whose body?" her companion asked for the third time.
Erik stepped back, fumbling for a weapon, but of course he'd left it tied to his saddle.
The girl leveled a sword at his throat. "Answer my brother's question and I'll let you go free."
"Ryan Grey," Erik spat, but Ryan thought they already knew the answer. At least, they didn't seem very surprised. "Traitor!"
"If Ryan Grey is still within our territory, then he is our problem now, not yours," the girl said. "Go. Report your failure to your mistress."
"He was sentenced to death," Erik shouted. "To death!"
"Not by us," the girl said as soon as he'd mounted his horse and rode away. "Not by us." She glanced at her companion; her brother. And Ryan knew they were not his friends; his allies, but he doubted they would try to kill him again.
"Five times?" her brother asked. "Is he still sane?"
"If they cut off his head, I doubt he could have gotten very far," the girl said, and dismounted. "Search near the creek; I'll try to find his trail."
"We should have brought a dog," her brother replied, and spurred his horse into the trees.
Ryan watched as the girl knelt near the puddle of his blood, then turned her head directly towards his hiding place--the only obvious place to look, in truth. She walked slowly, bending here and there to touch something on the ground, until she reached the tree trunk.
Then she sat, only a few feet away, her legs within arms' reach.
"Five times?" she asked, her voice soft.
Ryan surprised himself by replying, but he hardly recognized his own voice. "I don't know."
"Maybe it's better if you don't remember," the girl said. "I wasn't sure you were under there--"
"Dawn's coming," Ryan whispered, which should have explained everything.
"Yes. It is." The girl seemed to think for a moment, or maybe she just didn't want to say what she knew she had to say out loud. "Will you come with us?"
Ryan's throat ached when he spoke, but he welcomed that pain. Pain meant he wasn't quite healed; that his wounds still sapped his strength. "Do I have a choice?"
"Do you know who I am?" the girl asked in reply.
"Merian Crowe's daughter." He thought that was right, at least, but he still could not remember her name.
"Yes. My name is Sarah."
"Sarah Crowe," Ryan whispered.
"Yes." She was silent for a little while again; Ryan thought she might have been waiting for her brother. "What did you do to deserve a death sentence, Ryan Grey?"
Ryan struggled to remember, but the memories would not cooperate. "I killed--someone."
"Alice," Ryan breathed, and remembered; the cold blade she'd shoved through his chest; the sting of silver poison as it raced through his veins. Her shouted cry of 'traitor'; her accusations.
And then, waking up whole. And he'd killed her so she wouldn't try to kill him again.
Her brothers had taken care of that. Five times.
"You killed one of the triplets?" Sarah's voice rose too loud; her brother appeared a moment later with his sword drawn.
"I didn't find him," he said with a questioning glance at the tree trunk.
"I did," Sarah said. "He's alive. And he killed one of the triplets."
"She killed me first," Ryan hastened to say, as if that would matter.
"Did you think that would shelter you from the sun?" her brother asked curiously.
"I just wanted--to get away," Ryan whispered, and felt tears on his cheeks now, washing away both blood and grime.
"Do they know?" Sarah asked abruptly.
"Do they know what?" Ryan asked, and started to raise his head before he remembered the tree trunk above him.
"Do they know that you are with us?"
Was he with them? Was he truly a traitor? He could not recall. "Am I with you?"
"You were," Sarah's brother said. "Are you still?"
Ryan sighed. "I don't know. I don't remember--" But then, just like before, he did remember. Merry--Merian Crowe, arguing. She hadn't wanted to let him leave the house. There was a traitor. Once they found and disposed of the traitor-- "I did not betray you." He thought he'd better say that, even though he had no idea if it were true.
"That is neither here nor there, nor would you be blamed if you did," Sarah said. "You've been gone for over a month, Ryan. Five weeks. We thought you were dead."
"I was," Ryan whispered, and throttled the insane urge to laugh. But then he was crying again, his breath hiccuping into sobs and he curled under the tree trunk and desperately tried not to let them hear.
Sarah knelt in front of his hiding place, her face troubled. "Give me your hand. I'll help you out of there."
Ryan extended his hand. Her lips tightened at the sight of it; bony and knobby and much too thin. The rest of his body was no better. Even Sarah's brother's calm mask slipped a bit when he slid out of his hiding place to huddle on the ground in front of them.
"A blanket," Sarah said quietly, and her brother hastened to obey.
The blanket gave Ryan a bit of dignity, but he couldn't keep his eyes open, not after losing so much blood. He tried to tell them, but they knew, of course, and they'd brought provisions. But he knew as well as they did that he needed more than bottled blood to recover both his wits and his strength.
Somehow, they managed to bundle him onto a horse. Somehow, with Sarah seated behind him, holding him upright, they made their way through the forest and to safety--the dubious safety of Merry's fortress where no one would try to kill him and he could rest in peace.
Four Years Later
Ryan sighed and let his gaze travel across the rows of boxes and piles of discarded possessions. This was supposed to be a quick task, in and out, especially this close to Nadia's territory. In and out, and yet he'd been searching through boxes for the past three days and now it was too late.
He knew very little about the old man who had died, and even less about auctions. But this close to Faerie, he wasn't surprised to sense the presence of magic in one of the boxes. A protection spell, perhaps. He'd figured out that he searched for a necklace, but the spell evidently worked both ways.
No one had bothered to brief him on the ways an auction worked, but he knew enough to realize that if the necklace was in one of the boxes and the auctioneer's helpers carried it outside to sell, he would be out of luck. The sun had risen this morning, as it did every morning, and he was, in truth, trapped, at least for the day.
That left him with two options: find and pocket the necklace before anyone realized it was gone, or find someone willing to bid on it for him--someone able to get a bidder's number who wasn't hampered by the sunlight outside.
He scanned the crowd without much hope. Most of them seemed to be just what they appeared to be--humans out on a weekend to find a treasure or two amid the junk. He'd done enough research to know that there would be dealers here as well--both antique and junk dealers, but he had no idea how to tell them apart.
Most of the people were dressed warmly and even Ryan had felt the last remnants of winter's chill these past three nights. He'd brought one blanket with him; it hadn't been enough.
And he hadn't dared to leave, not this close to Nadia's territory. He had, after all, avoided all spotlights since Sarah and James found him in the forest; it had taken him months to truly heal; and more months than he cared to count to find enough courage to let someone touch him, much less find the courage to step outside Merry's house.
He'd only left to find things for her; a small talent of his, nothing more and nothing less. A talent. Harmless.
Although in this case, Merry knew that if they caught him, he'd have a better chance to survive. And if he did return with the necklace and someone was able to breech the spell's protections, it would become a nice addition to Merry's wards.
He hadn't died for four years. He truly didn't want to die again.
The girl who caught his eye had made her way down the first row of boxes with only a passing glance; she was obviously looking for something other than moldy paperbacks. Ryan rose from his seat on the hayloft ladder as she moved back into the gloom where the auctioneers had piled the broken furniture.
She looked--different than the others. More present, somehow; and he felt an aura of magic around her, not such a surprise this close to Faerie.
She looked human, but then again, so did he.
The movement saved his life, because some enterprising patron of the auction actually managed to push open the sliding door, letting in a wash of sunlight that illuminated the hayloft ladder and the very place Ryan had been sitting only moments before.
He stared back at the ladder and wondered if the past three days had been a good idea after all. He'd been well in his rights to refuse; Merry hadn't insisted and she would have understood, even after four years. But he shouldn't have let down his guard; he shouldn't have seen the crowd just as mere humans, because they were all dangerous, even the girl.
He wondered what would have happened if he'd burst into flames. Surely they would have stopped the auction, and someone else could have spent precious time searching for the thrice-damned necklace.
The auctioneer announced something as Ryan rounded the corner--a last call for numbers, and the girl tore her gaze away from a broken and battered settee and frowned at the wall.
"Excuse me," Ryan said, just as he realized that she wasn't human, not at all. Glamour could only hide her elvish features for so long, and he'd always been fairly good at seeing through spells.
He took one step backwards, not holding any hope that she wouldn't realize what he was. Elves and vampires weren't quite mortal enemies, but it was close. And he had, of course, approached the only elf at the auction, the only--
She glanced at him; he saw wariness in her gaze along with simple curiosity. And then, surprise. And, almost, delight, which confused him.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I thought you were someone else." He turned to go, his back prickling. Expecting an attack. He had to fight not to hunch his shoulders.
"My glamour must be working," she said, her voice low. "Else you never would have approached me. What are you doing here?"
Ryan turned to face her from the other end of the short wall. "It works from far away," he said, keeping his voice civil and soft. "And I've already apologized--"
"What did you want to ask me?" the girl asked. There was no challenge in her voice, only curiosity.
"Nevermind," Ryan said, uncomfortable now, because he'd never seen an elf alone, much less a girl. She had to have others with her; minders, at least, and they would fault him first for speaking to her, no matter who had extended their conversation.
But this elf--this girl--wore her yellow hair short, and she wore human clothes that didn't look to be mere costume. Her sapphire eyes watched him from her heart-shaped face, lovely like all the elves, but different. Not so--lordly.
"I thought--perhaps--that I might ask you to bid on something for me," Ryan said, almost stumbling over the words. "But I didn't realize you were--"
"Elvish," the girl offered, amused.
"Yes," Ryan said, and glanced behind him, half-expecting to see her minders behind him. "Are you alone?"
Her face stilled. "I don't think that's any of your business," she said after a moment. "Didn't you think things through when you came here? How did you think you would be able to bid on something in full sunlight?" She folded her arms. Leaned against the wall as if she didn't have a care in the world.
"I didn't intend to bid on it at all," Ryan said, annoyed by the truth of her words. "I've been here for three days--"
"Ah." She nodded, as if she'd finally found the answer to a particularly vexing question. "I wondered why the barn smelled so much like vampire."
Ryan's eyes narrowed despite his efforts. "What do you mean by that?" His voice cracked.
The girl waved one hand. "Not smell like you're thinking, it's more a particular sense. Don't worry. You don't stink." She actually smiled at him. "So this thing you're wanting to bid on; you were just intending to take it? Steal it?"
"No one else here would have use for it," Ryan said. Except for the girl herself, of course; but what would an elf need with a protection spell?
"How do you know we didn't come here for the same thing?" she asked as if she had read his mind. She took a step forward; he took one step back, keeping plenty of distance between them. "Look. I'm not going to sound the alarm. I saw you when I walked in the barn and you didn't look like you were hurting anything--"
"I would hope not," Ryan said, offended by her tone.
"And I'm fully aware that vampires live nearby," the girl continued, ignoring him. "So it's perfectly plausible, although improbable, that one of you might be interested in something here. Although I thought you'd send a human, perhaps, or one of your pet werewolves." Her lip curled slightly, the only sign of the legendary elvish disdain. "There are two Houses. One run by Nadia something-or-other; the other run by Merian Crowe. Are you a something-or-other or a Crowe?"
Nadia's last name was Wosjeviak, but Ryan wasn't about to tell this girl that. "I'm not a Crowe, but I'm with the Crowes," he said carefully. Since Nadia would rather be caught dead than align herself with the elves, he figured the girl had no desire to kill him--yet.
"And what is it that you want me to bid on?"
"I didn't ask--"
"But you intended to," the girl said. "And I don't see anyone else lining up to lend you their aid." She glanced pointedly around them, as if searching for a hidden human. "Why is it so fantastically improbable that I would be willing to help you? Do you intend to use this thing you want for ill?"
She seemed to like the word improbable, Ryan noticed, but he did not mention it. "You're an elf," he said. "I'm a vampire. Elves don't help vampires. And, no, I don't intend to use it for anything but what it was intended to be used for--" He saw something glitter out of the corner of his eye, and turned his head to look through a crack in the rough wall. Someone had lifted a tangle of costume jewelry from a battered blue box, and the internal compass he'd been trying to follow for three days finally swiveled to attention. "It's in that box," he said before he could stop himself. He pointed through the crack in the wall. "The blue one."
The girl glanced through the crack, then back at Ryan. "A box full of worthless junk jewelry?"
Ryan tried to make his shrug seem nonchalant. "Not so worthless. I'm willing to pay--"
"I thought you intended to steal it," the girl said, raising one eyebrow as if to pin him in place.
"I--" The compass throbbed now, demanding that he venture out into sunlight to claim the prize and--potentially--kill himself for a necklace. "Please?" He pulled a crumpled wad of money from his pocket; whatever Merry had given him.
"I thought elves didn't help vampires," the girl said.
"They don't." Ryan sighed and glanced out at the sea of boxes again. "I'm sorry to have bothered you." Maybe if he figured out who bought the box, he could offer to buy it from them. If he could do such a thing without stepping out into the sunlight.
"Wait," the girl said. "I didn't say I wouldn't bid on it for you."
"You didn't say you would, either," Ryan said. "And I cannot be in your debt. I--" He saw the auctioneer's helpers in the main room of the barn now, and they were lifting up boxes to take outside. Including the blue box.
He must have made some sort of noise, or protest, because the girl glanced through the crack to follow his gaze.
"Be glad they're not selling the boxes in lots," she said, amused. "Have you ever been to an auction before?"
"No," Ryan admitted. "Is it that obvious?"
The girl smiled. "Just a bit. Zipporah Williams."
After a moment, Ryan realized that was her name, although 'Williams' was not what he would ever guess to be an elvish name. "Ryan Grey."
Zipporah held out her hand. "I will need some money to bid," she said when he stared at her. "And there will be no debts between us. Not for this."
Ryan handed her all the money and stepped back quickly, still wary of her presence. She seemed to realize her effect on him, but she made no move to assure him of his safety.
"Thank you," he said, belatedly.
"I haven't won it yet," Zipporah said, and turned to go. "And after I buy your box? When the auction is over, where will I find you?"
"I can't leave here until dusk," Ryan said. "You know that."
Zipporah shrugged. "For all I know, vampires have found a way around the sunlight," she said, "but I'm assuming that's not true."
"No, it's not," Ryan said softly. "I'll be here. Thank you. Again."
"My number is sixty-nine," Zipporah said, and vanished into the sunlit world where she belonged. Ryan watched her go with a queer ache in his chest when he realized that everything hinged on a stranger now; an elf, even, someone who should have been an enemy.
He wondered if she would betray him. The way the past three days had gone, he wouldn't have been surprised.
He watched from behind the wall--in safety--as the auction began and number sixty-nine purchased five items in a row--a box of old kitchenware, a wooden cane; a different box of jewelry. The blue box came and went, sold to number sixty-nine for forty dollars; evidently someone else wanted it as well. And maybe Zipporah was trying to throw someone off the scent, because she bid on a couple of other things before he lost interest and let boredom lower his guard.
He'd intended to go back up to the hayloft, but that way was closed to him now, unless someone shut the door.
It was going to be a long day.
Ryan sighed, turned away from the crack in the wall, and had only a moment of warning before someone grabbed hold of his right arm and twisted it behind his back; only a second of realization before that someone slammed him against a listing chest of drawers hard enough to strike the breath from his lungs.
He recognized that voice. And cold terror left him quivering in its wake.
Somehow, he found enough courage to keep his voice calm. "Adam."
"You bastard." Adam shoved him against the wall; Ryan felt splinters pierce his skin. "Did you think you could hide from us forever? I owe you a death to avenge my sister."
"You killed me five times already," Ryan said, and somehow, his voice was still calm and unafraid. "Don't you think that was enough? Where is your brother?"
"Right here," the other twin--Aaron--said, and as Adam pulled Ryan around to face him, Aaron buried a stake in Ryan's chest. "Since you're so hard to kill, we don't want you to escape from us too soon, Ryan."
Adam released him, and Ryan slumped against the wall, unable to defend himself; unable to do anything but wheeze. Aaron twisted the stake and Ryan tried to scream; Adam covered his mouth with one hand and leaned over him.
"We don't want any screaming. We don't want to attract attention." Adam glanced at his brother. "Is there a better place to do this in here?"
Over the roaring in his head, he heard the auctioneer's voice echo into the barn. Number sixty-nine had purchased something else; something big enough for the auctioneer's helpers to carry back inside the barn and set against the very wall Ryan leaned against, blocking his view of the doorway.
What was an elf doing at a human auction, purchasing human things?
Aaron snatched his stake from Ryan's chest. "There's a root cellar," he said, and grabbed one of Ryan's arms.
Ryan wasn't awake for the journey; he fell into darkness so complete that he was certain he had died again. And perhaps he had died, because when he opened his eyes, the twins had tied him to a wooden beam--a support beam, he thought, and Adam had cut open his shirt to expose his chest, which was now, of course, unmarked.
"How is it that you're so difficult to kill?" he asked, almost conversationally.
Ryan stared at him dully. In the back of his mind, he felt panic bubble, but it couldn't break past the residual shock of death.
"It's not that he's difficult to kill," Aaron said. "It's that it's difficult to keep him dead. You were born a vampire, Ryan; we know some of your history. What makes you so special?"
"Don't make us cut off your head again," Adam said sharply.
Ryan shivered, and then couldn't stop. He tried to force his mind to think; tried to figure out a way to get away from them, but his mind had turned to mush.
Adam slapped him. "Answer the question. Why are you so special?"
"Why should I tell you?" Ryan whispered. "You're just going to kill me again." He twisted his hands around, trying to find a way out of their ropes, but they'd tied the knots too tightly and he hadn't been awake to try to fight them.
"That's true," Aaron said. "We do intend to kill you again. Will sunlight work?"
Ryan's mouth turned to dust. He tried to swallow, realized he could not hide his fear from them, and redoubled his efforts, twisting his wrists around the ropes until his hands were wet with blood.
"Will sunlight work?" Adam asked with a glint in his eye.
Sunlight would hurt much worse than beheading, or silver, or anything else they had tried. Sunlight might work. But Ryan wondered if it would. If they scattered his ashes to the winds, would it just take him a bit longer to reconstitute himself?
He did not want to find out.
"I don't know," he croaked, barely able to speak the words.
"What were you searching for?" Aaron asked. "Do you want to know who told us you were here?"
Ryan sagged against the wooden beam. "A necklace," he whispered, knowing he couldn't lie to them now. "Something Merry wanted. I didn't find it." He raised his head and tried not to flinch at their closeness. "Who told you I was here?"
"If we tell you, we'd have to kill you," Adam said, and smiled. "However long it takes until you're truly dead. It's after one now; how many hours do we have until dusk?"
"Six and a half," Ryan whispered, because he always knew when the sun would set; that was something all vampires knew. The triplets weren't vampires. He wasn't sure if that would have saved Alice, even then.
"When will they miss you?" Aaron asked. "When will someone come for you?"
Ryan tried to focus on his face. "Merry knows the auction is today," he whispered. "She'll expect me back tonight. With or without the necklace." He had to cling to the hope that Zipporah wouldn't come looking for him while the twins were still busy, or wouldn't leave the blue box sitting inside the barn for the twins to find it.
"We can't do this with so many people around," Adam said. "What if someone sees us?"
"What if someone notices that I burst into flame in sunlight?" Ryan asked. It was almost amusing, and perhaps it would have been if the situation had not been so dire.
Aaron scowled at him. "Did she send you with someone?" he asked. "A human? To bid?"
"No. I was to steal the necklace if I found it," Ryan said. "And I didn't find it. I spent the last three days sorting through those damned boxes--"
"Only to end up here, with us," Adam said, and smiled. "It's almost fate."
Ryan didn't reply to that. He was watching Aaron, who seemed to be the elder of the two, or at least the one with brains. Or cunning.
"We'll secure him here, and come back tonight," Aaron said after a long moment of thought. "We don't want anyone to find him, and we don't want to be seen by one of Merry's mongrels."
"Would that make you Nadia's mutts, then?" Ryan asked before he could help himself, and Adam picked something--an iron pipe, Ryan thought--up off the floor and slammed it against his head. Not once, not twice, but for long enough to send him into darkness again.
He wasn't alive to hear the rest of their plan.