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By the time Tessali got to the house, her side hurt like she’d been stitched up with needle and thread. She didn’t know how far it was, but she was panting and her heart pounded and she was as tired as if she’d been hauling hay bales all day. Grass, dirt, and leaves stuck to the crusty blood on her foot, and she must have stepped on a thorn because the other foot hurt as well.
Chance had reached the house before her, and parked his car just off the drive. She crouched down behind a bramble patch and watched. She couldn’t see if he was in there, but if he was, he’d see her. If only she’d learned that servant’s cantrip for making herself invisible. Her mother didn’t like for her to use it, said it was tacky to use magic in front of your betters, but it would come in handy right now.
She waited, but saw no movement from the car. Where was Chance? Where were Luke and Christine? The house seemed to be empty. It was silent. Even the birds and frogs had grown quiet. Nothing but the wind and the distant rumble of thunder as the storm moved south away from them. Were they even there? Maybe they’d taken the boys already? The lights were on in the basement. She saw the faint glow illuminate the broken clothesline. If the light was on in the basement, the boys might still be there, and she could still rescue them.
When the moon went behind a cloud, she risked it, and dashed across the yard. Halfway there, the moon came out again. She gasped in alarm and glanced at the car, but it was empty. She almost laughed at herself.
Maybe she could break the basement window and pull them out that way? No, they were too big to fit. She’d have to go around the back and sneak in through the kitchen. She’d slip in through the kitchen and get the boys. She still had the key, tangled in the matted clump of hair at the back of her neck. Get a knife, hack a chunk of hair loose, pull out the key, unlock the door. She’d get the boys, and then what? Steal Chance’s car? She didn’t know. Get the boys first, then plan.
Luke stepped out of the shadows and grabbed her. “And where have you been, missy?”
Tessali screamed. She didn’t mean to, it just came out. Luke pulled his arm around her throat. She heard footsteps, and two figures appeared, running swiftly.
“Drop her,” one said. It was a male voice she didn’t recognize.
“Or what?” Luke pulled her back so she arched uncomfortably. She put her hands on his forearm, trying to relieve some of the pressure so she could breathe.
“Or we’ll kill you,” the guy said. He didn’t sound convincing. He sounded frightened.
“You’re not cops. What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Does it matter?” the other one asked.
“You smell funny,” Luke said. “You a meth addict?”
“We’re vampires,” the first guy said. It sounded like he was moving to the side, but Tessali couldn’t see because it was so dark.
Luke laughed. “Vampires don’t exist.”
“Put her down,” the nervous guy said. She didn’t know why he cared. He didn’t even know her.
Luke scoffed. “Okay, mister vampire. Let’s find out who will win the werewolf-vampire showdown.” Luke tossed Tessali aside. She stumbled and fell on her back again, hitting the bruises caused by the collapsing shed.
“Let’s find out which of us is more badass. Show me what you got.” Luke snarled at the nervous guy, hands raised in claws. Then he rushed them.
The two vampires raised their guns simultaneously, and the night exploded with gunfire. Luke pitched forward and fell. The two vampires were on him before he hit the ground. She thought she heard slurping, but she didn’t look. She was already up and sprinting towards the house.
Get the boys. Save the boys.
The kitchen door had been broken open. She slipped in and quietly latched it behind her. The pizza box towers had collapsed, and she picked her way around the spilled cascade of greasy cardboard. Her feet still hurt, and the cut on her foot had started to bleed again. The blood made the linoleum slick, but she kept her eyes on the basement door just past the hallway. Get the boys. Save the boys.
The door opened behind her.
“Get down!” a woman shouted, from inside the house.
Tessali obeyed, dropping to the floor. She landed on pizza boxes, crushing them. More gunfire, and this time it sounded even louder, as if the world were breaking open. She pressed her hands to her ears, but it was too late. Something heavy fell across her legs and hips. The world gave off a high pitched whine. She wriggled out from under the weight. A body.
He blinked at her, mouth working silently. He blinked again, and then he stared blankly at nothing. What happened?
Chance didn’t reply.
The woman crouched and put two fingers on Chance’s neck. Satisfied with what she found, she extended her hand to Tessali to help her to her feet.
“What happened to him?” Had he died?
“He went to the dead lands.”
Wasn’t there supposed to be a portal? She’d gone through a portal when she came to the dying lands. Tessali realized with a start that the woman had spoken in Vargel. Cypress accented Vargel. “Who are you?”
“I’m Kit Melbourne.” The woman smiled. “I’m here to rescue you.”
Tessali stared at her, mouth agape. It was just like in an opera. Tessali had a rescuer, and her rescuer was perfect. She was fierce, and powerful, and she had come in here against all odds to save her and the boys. Maybe not perfect. Kit was a little short, it was true, but most humans were short. She had a high rank, so that made up for it.
“Are you okay? Are you injured?” Kit’s face had been fierce, but it melted into concern. She was still holding a gun in her right hand.
“Oh.” Tessali started to cry. She’d never been so happy.
Kit glanced at the basement door, then extended her hand to help Tessali to her feet. “I have to get the boys, but I can take you to a hospital.”
She shook her head. “Save the boys.”
“Any minute now. They’ve gone to get a crowbar to open the door.”
Tessali reached behind her neck, fishing in her hair until she found the key. She tugged and yanked, tearing hair out in her urge to loosen it.
A figure appeared in the doorway, a man, not smiling. He had a long face and a soft voice. “Mel—“ he broke off when he saw Tessali. “Who is that? She one of them?”
“No, this is Tessali. We’re rescuing her too.”
When the key came free, she handed it to Kit. Kit took it and sprinted to the door. Tessali wanted to follow her, but she couldn’t bring herself to return to the basement.
Another figure came into the room, a pretty young woman wearing a lot of pink. She glared at Tessali with a face like a knife. She turned to the dark haired man and asked him a question, but Tessali couldn’t hear.
“I agree, seems a little fishy to me,” he said.
“She saw too much,” the man said darkly. He glanced at Chance, still lying dead on the floor.
The woman looked at Tessali the way Christine had, like a problem that needed to be cleared out. Another man appeared at the doorway, this one younger and slender, holding a crowbar. He asked the others something in a quiet murmur that Tessali couldn’t hear. The woman replied in kind, and he seemed to hear her, even though she spoke lower than a whisper. Tessali clasped her hands low in front of her, and glanced at the basement door.
The young man handed over the crowbar, and picked Chance up. Chance was larger than the young man, but he tossed him over his shoulder as if Chance were made of clothes stuffed with straw.
Kit came back up the stairs carrying Caleb and holding Mark’s hand. When they saw Tessali, they started crying, and rushed forward to hug her. Tessali fell to her knees and embraced them.
“You kids wanna go home?” Kit asked.
Caleb and Mark clung to Tessali’s legs.
“Yes,” Tessali said. “They want to go home.”
Kit reached out her hands for the boys to take, but they wouldn’t go to her. They clung to Tessali. She led them outside, following her rescuer, but when they got past the porch, Kit held up a palm.
“Wait here,” she said, and loped off into the night.
As soon as she left, Tessali’s heart clamped with fear. The night creatures hadn’t resumed their song, and she heard nothing. Chance was dead. Was Luke dead? Christine? Were they going to shoot her next? Maybe she should run. She thought she could trust Kit, but Kit wasn’t here. Tessali heard someone coming. A man approached. She couldn’t see him well, but she heard his feet crushing weeds as he walked.
“Hey,” he said. “You okay?”
She didn’t respond, but put the children behind her.
“Sorry,” he said, stopping fifteen feet away. “Didn’t mean to frighten you. I just wanted to know, how many of them were there?”
Headlights illuminated him, and he flung a hand over his eyes. He wasn’t much older than her, maybe in his mid-twenties, with dark hair and tattoos peering above the neck of his shirt. Skinny, he wore jeans and a long sleeved shirt which had probably once been black. The headlights bobbed and dipped as the car drove over the muddy ruts in the yard. A minivan pulled up in front of them and stopped.
Kit got out of the minivan. “Sorry about the light.”
The young man cringed. “Melbourne, what about her? Kids will say anything, but she looks like an adult. She can testify. I don’t like loose ends.”
Tessali’s heart clenched in fear.
Kit turned towards Tessali. “Tessali, would you put the boys in the van please?”
Tessali did as she was told. She climbed into the minivan. There were two car seats already prepared for the children. The seats had an assortment of buckles and levers that she wasn’t sure how to operate, but Mark helped her with Caleb’s seat, and then he insisted on buckling himself in without her help. The seats and the minivan seemed to comfort the children. Caleb pointed towards a box tucked into the pocket in the back of the seat and whined. She pulled it out. Gummi dinosaurs. She opened the box and portioned out the packets inside. Caleb grinned and he devoured brightly colored blobs.
Kit talked to the others, the long-faced man with the brown clothes, and then the pretty blond girl in pink, the young man with the tattoos peering above the neck of his shirt, and the skinny one with dark hair. They said something to Kit that Tessali couldn’t hear, low, serious voices. Kit shook her head, glancing sidelong at Tessali. The woman in pink said something in return. Tessali fussed over the boys, stroking their hair, kissing them. She put on her servant’s face, not letting them see her fear.
“Trust me,” Kit told the others. “I’ll take care of her.”
Christine had told Chance to “take care of her” too. Tessali held the boys, but she kept watching the others.
“What if she says no?” The man with the long face asked. The blond woman in pink and the slender young man watched him.
“She says no, I send her somewhere she can’t talk to anyone,” Kit said. The man crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow, then shrugged and nodded. The other two relaxed, as if they recognized his authority.
The door opened, and the minivan chimed as Kit put the key into the ignition. “Well, I’m ready to get out of here. How about you?”
Tessali climbed into the front seat. She buckled herself in. Out in the yard, the pale young man was watching them. “He doesn’t trust me.”
“He’s going to help the others find Chance and that woman. They managed to get away before we could catch them.” Even when Kit wasn’t looking at her, she was a terrible liar.
“You don’t trust me either,” Tessali said, in a small voice.
“They got away,” Kit said, slowly, intently, looking directly at Tessali. “The bad guys got away. We don’t know what happened to them. We may never see them again.”
“Chance got away,” she agreed. “I saw him running south.”
Kit nodded and smiled, her face relaxing into relief.
Tessali saw the young man walk past from the house. He was carrying a shovel.
“Did they all get away? Christine and Chance and Luke and Michael too?”
“Yes,” Kit said. “Far, far away.”
“Good,” Tessali said. She smiled. Let the dead lands have them.
* * *
Tessali heard the boys crying. Her neck hurt, and her arms were pinned. She heard a man and a woman, also crying. She felt cold. She was so tired, so worn out from the fear and the running, that she couldn’t stay awake. She drifted in and out of nightmares.
Hours later, she jerked awake, fearing that she was in the basement again. Cool air from a vent blew on her. She’d been sleeping against the door of the minivan. The boys were in the back, still strapped into their car seats, talking into a cell phone which had been put on speaker. The voices stopped.
“Auntie Kit,” Mark whined, holding out the phone.
“Just lost reception, Honey. Don’t worry. We’ll see them in person soon enough.”
Dawn had come, and the light of morning revealed rush hour traffic on a six-lane highway. Kit was driving. Empty paper coffee cups filled most of the cup holders in the front seat, and the greasy wax paper remains of some kind of a sandwich lay on the dash. Tessali stretched. Every piece of her hurt.
“I was going to ask you to drive, but you slept so soundly, I didn’t have the heart to wake you,” Kit said.
“I can drive,” Tessali said, automatically. She was going to show Kit what a good Indel she was.
Kit shook her head. “We’re almost there. You okay?”
“I’m okay.” She had to pee, and her stomach cramped with hunger. She put the seat back and stretched out her legs as far as they would go. The coagulated blood on her bare foot flaked off in black crusts.
“Where are we?” Tessali looked out the window. They were on a freeway, entering a fairly good-sized city. The air felt cooler, thinner, and judging by the numerous evergreens lining the shoulders, they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
“Wyoming,” Kit said. “We were going to take them directly to Montana, but Brad and Laurel didn’t want to wait, so they’re meeting us halfway.”
Tessali had heard of hotels, and had seen them from the road, but she’d always stayed at motels or campgrounds, and had never been in a building like this. It loomed as large as a hospital. They pulled into a giant circular driveway where someone ran out to take care of the car.
Kit handed Tessali her phone, and gestured to the videotape button. “Video this, would you? I promised the others. Waterson loves this sort of thing.”
As soon as Kit opened the car door, Mark’s nostrils flared. “Mommy!”
“What?” Caleb asked, taking his thumb out of his mouth.
“Mommy! I smell mommy!”
Mark and Caleb opened the back door and ran out of the car towards the lobby of the hotel. The doors opened and an elderly couple dodged the two boy bullets racing inside. Kit and Tessali were behind them.
The lobby seemed like something outside of a dream, stranger even than the palace of Clan Holly would be. There were other people, adult people, smiling, talking normally, not shouting. They stood by their suitcases, or talked in groups, and they could come and go as they pleased. The open space echoed, voices and ambient music bouncing off of terrazzo floor and richly pattered carpet. Tessali caught sight of a large man falling to his knees and crying as he held out his arms for the boys. A pretty woman stood next to him, supporting herself with a walker. She cried too, smiling like her face would break.
The boys were crying, their parents were crying, everyone grinning and laughing through their sobs. The woman sank to the ground, and her boys clambered up to her. She kissed one, then the other, then the first one. She held them and kissed them and smelled their hair, sobbing and laughing. The man knelt next to them, wrapping his arms around the three of them as if he would keep them safe. Kit was grinning, tears brimming out of her eyes. A crowd gathered, people watching the reunion with puzzlement, some holding up their phones to videotape.
Tessali tried to hold the phone still through her sobs, and she wiped the tears away with the back of her hand.
Kit gently hugged the injured woman. She reached out her hand to shake with the big man, but he ignored it and picked her up, hugging her so her feet came off the ground. She laughed, and put her hand on her back.
Kit turned back to Tessali, reaching out her hand for her phone.
“What happens now?”
“Well, we have a suite here, but I think Laurel and Brad want to take the boys home first thing tomorrow. I have some errands to run, so spend some time with them, because you won’t be seeing the boys again. Tomorrow morning, you can decide if you want to come work for me.”
Tessali nodded. A sick worry made tears brim from her eyes, and she spoke in Vargel. “You said … in the Realm, you said you were going to make a proposal. I thought. I’m sorry, Honored one, I thought you meant …”
“I meant to offer you a job,” Kit said. “As a nanny.”
“I can watch children,” Tessali said.
“I know you can,” Kit said. “I think you’ve proven that many times over. I can get you paperwork to make you legal. There are back ways to get into the system. The vam—some of my associates know how to do that. We’d want you to live with us, but we have a suite set aside for you.”
“What’s wrong? Why are you crying?”
She was safe. The boys were safe. She had a new job. It should be good enough. It wasn’t perfect, but it should be good enough. “Nothing.”
“It’s not nothing. You look like I killed your puppy. What’s wrong?”
“I just thought,” Tessali slipped into Vargel again. “I’m sorry for my presumption. I should have realized my birth was too low for you.”
“You don’t want me as your spira?” she said, in a small voice.
Kit leaned back and exhaled slowly. “You’ve had a very exhausting time. I think you need some good food, and a rest. Spend some time with the boys, say goodbye to them. We’ll talk about this later.”
Tessali looked down at the plastic hotel key Kit handed her. She nodded. A good Indel was obedient.
Tessali followed the boys and their parents upstairs to their hotel room. The boys clambered over their father, and over their mother as much as her injuries would allow. Christine said that she’d left the boys’ mother for dead, but this woman looked nowhere near death. She had scars on her neck and face, and she could only move slowly without her walker, but the boys presence strengthened her. The parents were kind, and shared the mountains of salty comfort food they’d ordered for the boys: pizza, chicken nuggets, french fries, milkshakes, hamburgers. Aside from that, they didn’t even seem to want to look at her, as if she were a reminder of a horrible time.
They didn’t seem to notice when Tessali slipped quietly out of the room into the adjoining room she was meant to share with Kit. The second room was dark and empty, with identical beds and a tepid watercolor that matched the ones in the hallway.
She couldn’t bear to be trapped indoors any longer. Tessali walked out the door, down long corridors with garish carpeting. She pushed open a heavy door and took the stairwell to avoid the sidelong glances at her torn clothes, her matted hair, her muddy and bleeding feet. She walked across the parking lot to the road. Cars whipped by, but no one stopped her. She was free. No one would keep her imprisoned again.
From the road she could see a new housing development, a freeway, and the back side of a strip mall. Tessali walked along the narrow shoulder, wincing as the rough asphalt and weeds cut her tender feet but enjoying the cool wind in her hair and the sun on her skin. She walked until the sun grew high in the sky. She watched the cars pass, going east and west, going north and south. For so long, she’d just wanted out of the basement, to freedom and safety, and now that she had it, she wasn’t sure what happened next.
Tessali came to a bus stop. She sat under the shelter, resting her aching feet. Another woman already sat there, leaning against the shelter, resting her eyes. When Tessali sat beside her, the woman reflexively pulled her shopping bags closer. Then she opened her eyes and gave Tessali a once over. Suspicion eased, then changed to concern.
“You okay girl? You look like you got some trouble. Some man hurt you?”
Tessali nodded. “But he won’t hurt me again.”
“Damn straight,” the woman said. “That’s the right attitude. Kick that asshole out if he touches you.”
Tessali thought of the vampires and their shovels. Luke would never touch anyone again. She smiled.
“You got a home you can go to?”
Home. Yes. Tessali’s mind became clear. That’s what she wanted. Home. She wanted a place where she belonged. She wanted a home.
She had a job offer, a good job offer. She could swallow the humiliation of having her offer refused. A good job offer with a nice human who could take care of her. Silly to want more. Silly to think she could finally bond with a karla. Silly to think any Vargel would want her, even a human Vargel. Especially a human Vargel.
“Yes,” Tessali said. She rose to her feet. “Yes. I have a place I can go to. Thank you.”
The woman gave her a puzzled wave as Tessali turned and walked back to the hotel. It took her longer to get back than she thought it would. She must have been walking for hours. She slipped in the side entrance at the hotel, the servant’s entrance, which any Indel of her rank could find almost by instinct.
The lights in the room had been turned on. Tessali went to the bathroom. Tessali took a long shower, soaping and washing her hair three times. Rivulets of brown and red snaked towards the drain, then grew clearer. She thought she’d stay in until the water grew cold, but it never did. Her fingertips became wrinkled, and the air grew misty with steam. Finally she turned the water off and stepped out into the warm bathroom. She wrapped herself in a blissfully clean, fluffy robe, and used a thick towel to wrap her hair.
The cooler air from the open door caused the steam to whorl and billow. Tessali stiffened when she heard a soft snick. Someone was in the room. Two people. Kit, and a man she didn’t know.
Tessali wanted to close the door again, but the smell of food made her stomach growl. She heard that soft snick sound again.
“Tessali?” Kit’s voice called out. “Are you decent?”
“I try to be decent, but I am of low birth,” Tessali said meekly.
Kit laughed. “Come out and meet my husband, Fenwick. He wants to meet the girl who helped save his cousin’s children.”
Fenwick stood, a pale man of intimidating height. He greeted her with open arms. Lifting her in a bear hug, he patted her a few times on the back and set her down again. “We’re so glad you’re going to come home with us, Tessali. When James told me he’d summoned a nanny with a spell, I had no idea it would turn out like this. I’ll never doubt his witchcraft again.”
Tessali was going to ask who James was, but then she saw something that made her gasp in delight.
Three dishes made of wood: one filled with earth, one filled with water, one filled with salt. A branch of hawthorn. A branch of cypress. Iron wire to bind them. Tessali knelt, and cupped her shaking hands.
“So I guess you know what this is all about?” Fenwick asked.
“Shh,” Kit said. “I have to remember how to do this.”
Kit knelt on the other side of the low table, speaking the ceremonial words in her reedy, Cypress-inflected Vargel.
“By root and branch.” Kit placed the cypress twig and the hawthorn twig in Tessali’s left hand.
“By soil and water.” Kit placed a pinch of soil and a splash of water into Tessali’s right hand.
“By the salt of life,” Kit sprinkled salt over the soil in Tessali’s hand.
“And the iron of death.” Kit placed the iron wire on top of the branches, wincing at the welt it left on her hand. Unlike iron in the Realm of the Faerie, this iron was rusty and coiled in a tight spiral. “I bind you to my house and rank. I bring you into my clan.”
“By soil and water.” Tessali ate some of the soil in her hand. She could hardly believe this was happening. She was sharing soil and salt with her own karla. The wet dirt tasted like impossible dreams coming true. She extended her hand, placing a daub of wet soil into Kit’s open mouth.
“By the salt of life.” Tessali pinched some salt of the bowl, and also placed it in Kit’s mouth.
“And the iron of death.” Tessali took the iron wire with her clean hand and her muddy one, and wrapped the coil around the two leafy sprigs. The pain of the iron wire cut through her as if it were on fire, so she worked as quickly as she could. “I tie myself to your house and rank, and step into the palace of your clan.”
She let the bound branches, the cypress and the hawthorn, fall to the table. She’d bound them well. The branches should hold together until they could place them and the wire into a fire.
“I guess I’m witness,” Fenwick said. “You need me to sign anything?”
“I’ll do that in the Realm of the Faerie,” Kit said. “Next time I dream. I have to say, I had a hell of a time finding cypress this far north. Went to four nurseries, and finally had to dismember a poor bonsai tree. At least the hawthorn was easy enough.”
“Well, here’s to new beginnings.” Fenwick pried the lid out of a magnum of champagne, which popped softly and fizzed all over the carpet. He poured some into glasses for the three of them. “And to safely going home.”
Like the book, but short on cash? New chapter next week!