"Ms. Montgomery?" Penny's voice burst from the intercom on my phone, startling me out of a wonderful daydream that involved a book, a beach, and no reporters.
I jerked upright. "Yes?" Did my voice betray the fact that I'd been asleep?
"There's--someone here to see you," Penny said. Her voice dropped to a whisper. "I think--I think he's blind."
For a moment, my mind went blank as I tried to imagine who my visitor could be. Not a reporter--or at least, not a reporter that I'd seen before. Someone local? A concerned patron who wanted more books in Braille?
"Send him in if you don't think he's a reporter in disguise," I said. "What does he want?"
"He said he wanted to talk to you," Penny said. "And he looks familiar. He might have been at the Christmas party."
The Christmas party. My mind cast back, struggling to remember a blind--
"Oh." My heart leapt. What was he doing here? "Ask him what his name is before you bring him back."
I heard Penny's voice, distant now, as if she didn't just sit down the hall. "Sir, can I ask your name?"
I didn't hear his reply. His voice was too soft for the microphone to pick up.
Penny picked up the phone again. "He says his name is Malachi."
I would not make a member of the Wild Hunt wait. "I'll be right out."
He stood in the reception area, his sightless eyes fixed on Penny's desk, his hands clasped together, as if in prayer. When he heard my footsteps, he raised his head. I could barely see the scars that ravaged his face. I still didn't know the story behind those scars. Considering my lack of authority concerning the Wild Hunt or any other supernatural person who lived in the county, I doubted I ever would.
"Ms. Montgomery." His voice was just as smooth as his Master's, but I sensed something hidden behind his calm. "I apologize for disturbing you without notice."
"You're not disturbing me," I said. "In fact, I'm delighted to see you. Do you want to come into my office and talk? Is everything okay at home?" With Penny only a few feet away, I had to watch what I said about the Hunt's cave in this world, and their rambling house in Faerie.
Malachi cocked his head. "You are--delighted to see me? Why?"
"Come into my office," I said, keenly aware of Penny's sharp ears. I held out my hand, then realized he couldn't see the gesture. "Do you need to--" How did I phrase an offer of help without sounding facetious? "Do you need my help?"
"If you allow me to touch the back of your arm as we walk, I will be fine," Malachi said. "I can't--I do not know this place." He hesitated. "That's one of the reasons why I came."
I stepped in front of him and turned around, offering him my arm. "I'm right in front of you, then. We don't have far to go."
He was silent until we reached my office, his fingers trailing across the walls here and there to familiarize himself with his surroundings. I noticed that he touched the chair I led him to, swiftly determining its height and width so he would not become off balance when he sat down.
He sat stiffly, as if unused to human furnishings, tense and wary, his face a mask.
"Would you like something to drink? I have tea--"
"No, thank you," Malachi said. "I won't take up much of your time. I came--" His hands clutched the arms of the chair, hard enough to make the old oak creak.
"Did you come here by yourself?" I asked, hoping to put him at ease.
He bristled. "I am not helpless!"
"I didn't think you were," I said. "But I've never seen you without another member of the Hunt." In fact, I'd only seen Malachi three times. Once, in their house when I delivered the invitations to the Christmas party. The second time, at the Christmas party, in human form, just as unhappy as he was now. The third time, in the library with Emle and Eri, almost three weeks ago.
And now, of course--so four times. Math was never my strong suit in school.
Malachi took a deep breath. "I am unused to this," he whispered, but I didn't know what he meant. "And I need--help."
Speaking those words out loud drained much of the tension from his body. He slumped in the chair, shrinking in on himself until he lost much of the otherworldly quality that made the Hunt so--seductive. They were, after all, the Wild Hunt. Ancient creatures out of myth and legend.
But like all the stories, once you moved past the myths and legends; once the fairy tale was over and you looked beyond the happily ever after, they became something more. Something vibrant. Alive. Individuals in their own right, with their own wants and desires.
I kept my voice soft. "What kind of help do you need?"
"I feel no pity from you," Malachi said. "And you are a good person. I am not. But I think I would like to be. Now that the Hunt is not bound, now that we are free, I think I would like to learn."
This was the most I'd ever heard him speak. I gaped at him for a moment, unsure how to respond. Why had he chosen me? And what was I going to do about it?
"Why aren't you a good person?" And why did I feel like I was interviewing a potential employee? "And bear with me if I ask you a stupid question. I'm still new at this, after all. I don't know more than you realize."
He nodded slowly. "You know the stories of the Hunt. You know what we once were."
"I've heard the stories," I said. "Some of them, at least. As much as the Council everyone holds in such high esteem has allowed me to know." Which wasn't much. Ivy had told me much more than the Council.
In fact, the press releases about the library's endowment had been Council-approved. But only the Director knew that.
"The Council is a necessary evil," Malachi said. "And while I did not agree with their binding, it helped us become what we are now." He hesitated. "Some of those stories--most of those stories hold grains of truth that cower in our darkest memories. I would rather those memories remain in the darkness. Our Master calls us family now, but we still serve him with our lives and loyalty."
We meaning the Hunt, of course. And I had noticed more than once their deference to their Master, even now.
"You said the Hunt was free. But you still serve your Master, so you're not really free, are you?"
Malachi's eyes narrowed as he tried to put his thoughts into words. "Free--it depends on whom you ask," he said. "I gave my loyalty to my Master, yes, and he still holds my life in his hands. But we are free enough to make our own decisions now, up to a point. We are allowed to argue. To protest. Before--before, we obeyed without thought or question."
"What happened if you questioned an order before?" I asked. Again, I'd heard stories. Mostly from Ivy, who was not at all impartial, and could give an opinion on almost everything. Sometimes I forgot she was older than me by almost thirty years.
Malachi shuddered. "Sometimes we died." He caught his breath, as if the memories had grown too strong for him to bear. "I disobeyed him once. And he almost killed me."
"Is that when you lost your sight?" There wasn't any tactful way to ask. But if Gabriel had blinded him, then why keep him around? What good was a blind Hound to a Wild Hunt?
"No." He did not elaborate. "Gabriel did not blind me. In fact, I expected him to cast me out when he found out I was blind, but he did not."
"I see," I said, but I didn't, not really. Not yet. "But let me get this straight. You think you're a bad person because you obeyed your Master's orders without question? Only, if you had tried to disobey him, he would have killed you?"
"After that first time, I made the choice that I wanted to live," Malachi said. "And people suffered because of my choice. People died."
It was an interesting dilemma. But I had no idea why he thought I would be able to help him resolve his guilt, if that was what he truly wanted. I was no priest to absolve him, or grant him redemption. But libraries were often confessionals of sorts, something I'd never understood.
Before I could speak, he continued, the expression on his face tortured now. More memories. How could they sleep with such horrible memories lurking in their minds?
"We spent most of our time with the Hunt as Hounds. And we truly could not disobey--when I am a Hound, I feel compelled to do whatever my Master wishes. But when I am in human form--when I am in human form, I realize what I have done." He shuddered. "Do you understand?"
I thought I did, at least this part of it. "Hounds have no conscience. But when you're in human form, you have one?"
"As a Hound, when we are told to hunt, everything is potential prey." Malachi twisted his hands together. "I am not explaining this well. I'm sorry."
When had I left my job as Assistant Director and become a Psychologist? "What do you need me for?" I asked, still unclear about that piece of the puzzle. "You can't change the past, Malachi. I know you know that. And you certainly don't need me to tell you that."
He licked his lips. "Yes, I know that. But how--how do I live with the past?"
"By focusing on the future," I said. "And learning from the past. No matter how hard that might be. You'll never be able to forget what Gabriel forced you to do. You could hate him for it, but I don't see that happening. Instead, you seem to be working together to learn to be a family."
Perhaps I did have a chance at being a Psychologist. Or would that be a Psychiatrist? I could always write a bestseller along the lines of Everything I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in my Local Library. Which, in essence, was true.
Malachi was silent for a long moment. "And what if I have no resources to focus on the future? What if I have spent the last thousand years blindly obeying my Master, save for that one time? How can I change so swiftly?"
"Well, what do you like to do? Besides hunt for prey?" I hesitated to say 'kill people', even though I knew they had killed many people over the years. And that was the reason why the Council had bound the Hunt a century before.
I knew that much, at least. From somewhere, Ivy had produced a photocopy of a journal written by one of those long-ago Council members, chronicling the Hunt's binding. I had read it a month ago. The photocopy had vanished soon after, and I'd not dared ask her where she had found it. Or stolen it from.
The story of the breaking of that bond was less than a year old. The original binding had been meant to last a century, and the Council had freed the Hunt honorably, thus allowing Gabriel and the Hounds to live as they pleased. Within reason, of course.
I had gotten the impression from more than one person that in the beginning, the supernatural community had waited with bated breath for Gabriel to return to his murdering ways. And that, grudgingly, these same individuals had later agreed that perhaps the destruction of the binding had been a good thing.
"I like--" Malachi struggled for words. "I like to play with Eri." He hesitated. "I would read to her, but I can't. So I make up stories."
"What kind of stories?" Now he piqued my interest. A librarian's first love is stories, after all, closely followed by research.
"I tell her what I know of Faerie," Malachi said, relaxing now that I hadn't mocked his devotion to his charge. "And I make up adventures." A small smile touched his lips. "Eri the Bold." The smile broadened. "I think she likes my stories."
"I imagine she would," I said. "Eri's a lucky little girl." Not only did she have loving parents, she had the rest of the Hunt as well to dote on her every desire. Some children didn't even have the loving parents part of the equation, especially in this modern day and age.
An idea slowly formed in my mind. "We have an after-school program here at the library. It's sponsored by a local non-profit daycare, and we provide programming for the children twice a week."
Malachi cocked his head. "And a daycare is--?"
"This particular one is for low-income families," I said. "Families who might not be able to afford childcare, even if both parents have jobs." My mind recalled his question. "A daycare is a place where children can stay while their parents are at work. Most of them are prohibitively expensive."
"I think I understand," Malachi said. "But humans' ability to leave their children with strangers--how do they feel when something happens to their child?"
"Guilty, I'm sure," I said. Having no children of my own, it was a bit difficult for me to relate. "But there aren't as many stay-at-home mothers today, or fathers, for that matter. Most of them have to work, or else there would be no food on the table." I truly had no desire to participate in an argument concerning the pros and cons of childcare with a member of the Wild Hunt.
"You mentioned a program your library provides," Malachi said. "What do you do?"
"We--well, the youth librarians tell them stories. Sometimes we have guests come in, local authors or artists. Or storytellers." Which was why I'd had the idea in the first place. Most of the local authors and artists in town had day jobs to make ends meet. It was difficult at times to schedule a guest even once a month.
"And you want me to do what?" Malachi asked. "Tell them stories?"
"To prove that you're not a bad person?" I countered. "But of course."
He opened his mouth, I thought, to refuse. And then something passed across his face, an emotion I could not interpret. He bit his lip and looked down at his clenched hands.
"How many children?"
"Between ten and fifteen, most days," I said. "We run the program on Tuesdays and Thursdays."
I watched him do a quick calculation in his head. "Tomorrow is Thursday."
"Four o'clock. The program usually runs until five." Would he accept? The Hunt was mercurial in its strangeness. What seemed normal for them one day changed the next. I could no more predict how Malachi would reply than I could predict which book would become the next bestseller.
Malachi took a deep breath. "I will come."
And he did come. He was waiting for me when I pulled into my parking spot the next morning.
I climbed out of my car. I'd even beat Penny to work, which should have been engraved on a plaque and bolted to the front door for everyone to see.
"Good morning, Malachi."
He wore different clothing today, greens and browns that would blend into the backdrop of the forest. He carried a long polished stick, too, the Hunt's version of a blind man's cane.
"Ms. Montgomery." He nodded in my direction. "I thought I would come to familiarize myself with the library before this afternoon--if I have your permission, of course."
I would have to warn the librarians on duty, just so they wouldn't think it strange for a member of the Wild Hunt to be roaming the halls.
"This is a public building, Malachi. We can't keep you out, even if you have library fines." My poor attempt at a joke flew right over his head. "Are you staying all day?"
"If I may," he said. "I requested, and received, permission to come." He indicated a small tote bag at his feet. "Emle asked that I return our library books."
"Well, then I'll give you a tour," I said. "We don't officially open for another hour, but I doubt the Director will mind."
Malachi stiffened. "She's already here?"
"No. She's on vacation." Receiving one hundred and nine pounds of gold from the elves as payment for a bargain made almost two centuries ago had certainly made things interesting around the library. After most of the interest had died down, Ivy had created an exhibit using one of the gold coins. The director had taken to standing in front of the display for hours on end, muttering about gold. "So I'm in charge for the time being."
"Dragons don't care for Hounds," Malachi explained as he picked up the tote bag. "Although I've never been able to figure out why. We never Hunted them."
I would not pretend to know the reasons behind the dragons' displeasure. So far, the only dragon I'd met was the Director, and I half-hoped it would stay that way. If our Director was any indication, dragons were eccentric, inhuman even in human form, and had a fetish for gold that no amount of money could satisfy.
"You've been here before, so interrupt me if I tell you something you already know," I said. "Let's go in the front door. That would make it easier to show you around."
We walked around the building to the front door. Malachi seemed to have no trouble navigating the steps or the sidewalk. But he had been to the library before. And perhaps I should stop marvelling that he knew his way around. It probably didn't hurt that he was a member of the Wild Hunt who could shift shape on a whim. After all, blind humans got around just fine on their own.
I gave him the complete tour, both the public and private sections of the library, and left him listening to an audiobook in the media room with instructions to ask for me if he needed any help. Then I retired to my office to collect my messages and pretend I was a normal Assistant Director in a normal small Ohio library system.
I am 80% certain I forgot to eat lunch.
At three forty-five, Penny buzzed my office to tell me that Malachi was waiting in the reception area. I hurried out to meet him.
"I'm sorry, Malachi. I should have asked if you brought any lunch. I've been--busy." It was a poor excuse for ignoring him all day.
"I'm fine," he said, tense again. "Are you certain this is a good idea?"
"Did the Hunt eat children?" I asked, only half-kidding. And forgetting to keep my voice down, by Penny's shocked gasp.
"Of course not!" Now I'd offended him, but he seemed to regain some of his courage.
"Then let's go," I said. "Do you remember the way?"
As soon as we walked through the door to the meeting room, I realized something had changed. Mrs. Green, the elderly lady who usually brought the children to the library, was gone. In her place was a young woman wearing a gauzy silk dress straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Her honey-blond hair fell down her back in thick waves, and she wore dainty slippers on her feet. She did not look the type to be an employee at a daycare. Any child she would have would be raised by a nanny and have carefully organized play dates with his or her peers.
She smiled at me as I entered. "Good afternoon. You must be Ms. Montgomery. I've heard a lot about you from my aunt."
"Your aunt?" My mind did not want to connect old Mrs. Green with this beautiful young lady. I wondered what Malachi would think, forgetting for a moment that he was blind.
"Mrs. Green. I'm Jenny." She held out her hand. Golden bracelets gently clinked together on both wrists.
"Pleased to meet you," I said, and shook. Her grip was soft, but firm. And from the way the children quietly awaited the start of Malachi's storytelling, I revised my opinion of her child-caring skills.
Her smile slipped a little when Malachi stepped into the room. For a moment, I thought she would say something--denounce him as a Hound, perhaps, but she pasted her smile back on and clasped her hands together.
"My aunt is training me to take over her business," she whispered.
She certainly didn't sound very happy about it. And behind me, I heard a low growl slip through Malachi's lips.
I turned. Malachi stood in the doorway, his white-knuckled grip on his stick his only sign of distress.
"I didn't know there was anything special planned for the children today," Jenny continued, her voice just as unhappy as before. "Aunt Janet said this would be a good day for me to come."
"And do what with them?" Malachi asked. Even his voice held an echo of a growl.
Jenny's face crumpled. "We just got back from the park."
I saw the children watching this mind-boggling scene with a growing sense of unease. One of the little girls bit her lip. In a moment, they would all start to cry, and then I would have to figure out a way to make them stop. I liked children--don't get me wrong--but I was an only child and had none of my own.
"Malachi's quite a good storyteller," I said, trying to steer the conversation back on solid ground. "I'm sorry we couldn't tell you about this in advance, but it was all a bit last-minute."
"I love children," Jenny whispered.
"I'm sure you do." Malachi sounded so much like his Master that I had to look twice to make sure Gabriel had not appeared.
"You don't understand!" Jenny's voice did not rise above a whisper. "You don't know how hard it is to survive!"
It took me a bit to catch on. "Wait a second. Are you--"
A small hand tugged on my skirt. I glanced down to find a little girl staring up at me, her big brown eyes wide.
"Jenny's a fairy princess," she said, loud enough for the other children to hear.
I glanced at Jenny. "A fairy princess?"
She flushed. "Well. Not exactly." She took the little girl's hand despite Malachi's warning growl. "Go sit down, Rianna. Everything--" her voice shook, just a little. "Everything will be just fine."
"Do I need to call one of the youth librarians in to tell them a story while you two work things out?" I asked. The name 'Jenny Green' didn't ring any bells, nor did her style of dress. If she was a supernatural being, I didn't know which mythology she'd fit into. I had been doing some research on my days off, but even this library's collection was not complete.
Malachi folded his arms. "We've killed your kind before."
Jenny raised her chin. "I know you have. But we've changed."
They were both ignoring me. I sighed, pushed past Malachi, and motioned to one of the librarians. Once she was safely entrenched with a pile of books and a few of our new handpuppets, I stepped in between Malachi and Jenny. "You two are coming with me."
As soon as I had them alone in the small meeting room, Malachi's lips drew back in a snarl. "Did you think you could hide from the Council like this? How transparent can you be?"
Jenny opened her mouth to reply, but I cut her off.
"Wait a second." Now I could define myself as a referee as well as a psychiatrist. Psychologist. Whatever. "This is my library, and I'm the one in charge. Explain."
"Now," I ordered, trying my best to sound like his Master.
"Jenny Greenteeth," Malachi snapped. "A Water Hag. Notorious for one thing: stealing and eating children." He bared his teeth. "Look her up in your books, if you wish. And then you'll see."
I glanced at Jenny, whose face had frozen at his condemnation. "Is this true?"
Jenny licked her lips. "M-my aunt has been in business for almost ten years. And she's not lost a single child."
"Outside Council control," Malachi said. "They don't even know you're here, do they?"
Jenny shook her head. "Aunt Janet said it was too risky. That they'd drive us out. Or kill us. If we were to survive, we'd have to change. And so we have."
"You expect me to believe that?" Malachi asked. "My Master killed one of your kind less than a year ago at the lake. And I heard her speak of sweet little lost children and what she had done to them."
"Not one of my kind," Jenny whispered. "There are other Water Hags, and plenty of creatures who eat children." Her eyes flashed. "And what would those same books say about the Hunt?"
Malachi opened his mouth to reply, then closed it again. He cocked his head. "You are truly--caring for these children?"
"I would guard them with my life while they are in my care," Jenny said. "Tell the Council if you wish. They will cast us out, or kill us, and these children will return to empty homes after school. And perhaps fall prey to humans that are worse monsters than we will ever be." When Malachi did not reply, her voice softened. "It is our atonement, this small thing we do for them. For the children who did get eaten."
"Let me get this straight," I said. "You're a--" What had Malachi called her? "A Water Hag? And you used to eat children?"
Jenny nodded. "That's right."
"And now you--is your aunt a Water Hag, too? Nice little old Mrs. Green?"
"'Nice little old Mrs. Green' probably ate a dozen children a month," Malachi said stiffly.
Jenny glared at him. "And how many people did you kill?" She put her hands on her hips. "You're all the same. Ready to convict us without cause. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were a member of the Council. You're certainly acting like one."
Malachi growled at her. "You dare--"
"Wait just one minute!" I had no desire to be torn limb from limb by an angry Hound and a furious Water Hag, but their bickering was getting on my nerves. "Jenny has a point. A very good point. Malachi, you came here because you said the Hunt has changed. Why is it such a stretch to believe Water Hags can change as well?"
"She could be lying," Malachi said. "I've heard they're good at that."
"Just as your Master could be lying to you," I said. "Just as you could be lying to me."
Malachi's face paled. "No. I would never--"
I touched his arm. "But you could have."
He jerked away from me and stumbled against a table that someone had slid against one wall. His stick clattered to the floor. I picked it up, not knowing how I should try to reassure him.
Not knowing if I could. Some battles were better fought alone, after all.
"You could truthspell me and find my words are true," Jenny said. "Is it so bad that others have learned from your example?"
Malachi stiffened. "Our example. If the Council had not bound us--" he hesitated. "If the Council had not bound us, we would still terrorize these forests."
"Or you'd be dead. You don't really know what would have happened, because it didn't happen," I said. "If it makes you feel any better, I've met Mrs. Green many times and I've never seen her mistreat a child. In fact, I've never seen her raise her voice to a child. They all seem to like her, and they obey her. Not out of fear. Out of love. And respect."
"I should never have come here," Malachi whispered, bowing his head. "I should never have come." He leaned against the table, his arms bearing most of his weight. "I'm sorry. You're right. I've treated you no better than I expect to be treated by others. Who am I to say whether or not you're telling the truth? I am just a Hound, nothing more."
"And both of us are attempting to make our way in this world without falling into darkness," Jenny said. "I bear you no ill will."
Malachi nodded without speaking. When he bent to fumble for his stick, I handed it back to him.
"Are you still willing to tell the children a story?" I asked.
"Any story I tell them now would be a sad story," Malachi said. "I think it's time for me to leave." He slipped out the door before I could stop him. By the time I regained my wits enough to follow him, he was gone.
Jenny's charges were picked up by their parents by five-thirty. Not a single parent questioned her capabilities or species. And all the children seemed well-adjusted and happy to believe that their caregiver was a fairy princess, a creature of the light instead of the dark.
For three days, nothing unusual happened in the library system. A clerk left on maternity leave, Ivy delivered a building inspection report on all four branches, and I spent my waking hours poring over facts and figures and trying to come up with a proposal to bring before the board concerning two new buildings. Since it was my first proposal of this kind--the Director had given the entire responsibility to me--I wanted it to be perfect, of course.
Bright and early Monday morning, I pulled into the parking lot--before Penny for the second time in my life--and saw Malachi waiting for me.
I climbed out of my car. "Malachi? I didn't think I'd see you back."
"Did you see the news this weekend?"
I'd spent the entire weekend holed up in my apartment with the TV off. The newspapers still lay on my dining room table, unread.
"No, I didn't. What happened?" Whatever had happened could not have concerned the Hunt--the Council would never allow a newspaper article or newscast to spill that particular pot of beans.
"A little girl vanished yesterday afternoon," Malachi said. "She was last seen playing with her dog in her backyard." He waited for that to sink in before delivering his coup de gras. "Her name is Rianna Morgan."
My mind flashed to wide brown eyes and pigtails. "That Rianna?"
"The very same." His voice was thick with some unexpressed emotion I dared not name.
"You don't think--" I didn't want to finish the sentence.
His face closed completely. "I hope not."
But what if we'd both been wrong? What if Jenny Green, a.k.a. Jenny Greenteeth had lied to us? Maybe I should have realized, or known not to trust her. I had researched. I knew the living myths and legends could be tricky. And I knew the Council's treaties between species were just signatures on a piece of paper, easily broken.
If she had lied to us, and if we'd both blithely gone on our way without another thought, I would never be able to forgive myself.
I saw an inkling of what Malachi had to live with, just in that one thought.
"The Hunt is searching for her," Malachi said. "I'm supposed to be at home. Useless. I can't help but think this is too much of a coincidence, but I have to know."
"Why is the Hunt searching for her?" I asked. "What about the police?"
Malachi's grin was truly terrible. "Would you trust humans to search this forest knowing what you know about those who live within it?"
"Well, no," I said. "But I don't understand why it has to be you. You don't know she was taken by anything--or anyone--supernatural. She could have just wandered off."
"The owner of the daycare she attends is a Water Hag," Malachi said. "And anyway, the forest falls under our jurisdiction. We've found other lost children in the months we've been free."
I wondered how many missing children had supernatural connections. Knowing what I knew, which seemed to be very little at times, I would safely bet two out of three.
"Do you know where Jenny Green lives?" So much for beating Penny to work. A lost little girl was much more important than which of us could get up earlier. And I'd never told Penny that we were competing in a contest, anyway. It was much more fun to have a silent victory than to suffer through smug assuredness, since she won nine and a half times out of ten.
"I--took the liberty of finding out," Malachi admitted. "I did not intend to use my knowledge. But now--now I have to."
"I'm going with you, then," I said, opening my car door. "I'll drive. You can navigate."
Malachi hesitated. "If she lied to us--"
"If she lied to us, she'll have the Council to answer to," I said, sick at heart. "Come on."