It is the sound of thunder in a cloudless sky that stops me.
I know it: the dry echoing rumble that hides their howling and the ferocious clatter of the horses. But it is not Yule or Midsummer, and there is no reason for them to be so near to my city.
Unless they’ve come for me.
I am in one of the south suburbs, surrounded by stone and plaster, wood and glass. If only the steel cages of downtown were nearer. Here, there is nowhere to hide. They will sniff me out no matter how mismatched my clothes, how many red ribbons I tie around my wrists and ankles, no matter the bells in my hair or the iron rings in my pockets.
The asphalt stretches ahead, silent as a frozen river. All the people sleep. It is early in the morning and lights are off. Dark porches, dark windows, dark yards with swing-sets and gardens heavy with shadows. Cars sit like beetles, paint gleaming in the cold moonlight. I crane my head up at the stars. They burn crystal-clear through the light pollution of the city.
The thunder roars again. Coming from the south-east. As they near, the growls will quiet as the hounds put their noses down and hiss their breath out through their sharp teeth.
One last glance around: no, none of the cars are old enough or big enough to be enough iron to protect me.
I must meet them. But they will not take me back Underhill. I would rather die, be torn to pieces and slammed beneath hooves.
The most open ground for battle is the football field behind the high school. Folding bleachers block the wind from the north and there are nine tall poles with stadium lighting. Nine points.
A place of balance is a good place to die.
I don’t hear the thunder, but feel their whining howls run over my skin with the tender breeze. I close my eyes and tighten my fists around my weapons: a yew wand wrapped with copper and steel wire, and a plastic pirate sword. They hate plastic. Its unnatural edges slide through their bodies better than iron these days.
A bark shatters the quiet. A white dog stands opposite me, just outside the field. It is white and ghostly, thin as a racing dog but far larger. It’s ears are tipped with red: rusty, fired, blood-blood red. It bares its teeth and twists its head back. The bay rips through me and I tremble. My knees are weak and I clench my weapons. I am not weak. I am not weak.
But they are everywhere now. Three hounds, eight hounds, seventeen hounds, pacing slowly toward me. I cannot defeat them. I am only a boy, only a runaway faerie slave, with no home in the iron world, no home Underhill. I am alone. Alone!
The despair twists inside me. I know it is their weapon, one that plastic and iron cannot defeat, but I am helpless to stop the tears pricking at my eyes. I blink and I bare my teeth back at them.
The piercing wail of the horn stops my heart.
They charge. I scream and run at the nearest. It leaps; I swing my sword and the plastic blade slices its neck. I am covered in milky moonlight blood and shove past, ripping at the next and stabbing with my wand. I pray to the Virgin Mary, incoherent jumbles of words from different verses, becoming a war cry as I am overwhelmed by the hounds. I kill them and they will return at the edges of the pack to come at me again.
Their blood is cold and their teeth like ice as one latches onto my elbow, tearing at my sleeve. I scream and punch at it, but an caught by another. I am bowled over and keep flailing. My sword flies from my grasp and I taste mud and grass in my mouth. I buck as the hounds push me into the earth, pain ricocheting up my bones and my muscles straining. My throat is raw and I can’t move my hands or legs. I can barely breath for the weight on me, pressing me down.
They won’t tear me to pieces. They’re holding me still. Holding me down.
They will not take me alive back to my Prince, back to the dark hole with its dripping roots and glittering insect-goblins. Not to his hall where they dance and caress my cheeks and make me sing and kiss and watch their feasting and gaming.
My face is in the dirt, my cheek rough against the dry grass. Hellhound breath freezes the sweat and blood on my neck. I hear nothing but their breathing and growling and barking.
Except the tinkle of bells.
But I can’t move. They have me under their massive cold weight.
Her voice is like fresh spring water against the blackened ground of a burned forest. Like the tiny green shoots pushing up through black dirt, like petals unfurling for the moon.
The dogs slink back. I roll over slowly. My weapons are gone and my arm aches with pain. Blood drips slowly from my elbow. Blinking, I shove myself up into a crouch. It is so bright now, surrounded by the ghost-dogs. They glow like the moon. I am in a circle of them, panting and grinning with tongues lolling out over bloody, sharp fangs.
Beyond is the Hunt. Skeletal horses with rangy manes and tails, done up with gilded bridles and jeweled saddles. The Riders wear armor from all ages of human history: Roman centurions and medieval samurai beside US Marines in modern combat fatigues. They all wear bestial, horrid masks of twisted passion.
She dismounts from a horse as pale as the dogs with red-tipped ears. Her skirts and long jacket swirl around her legs as she slowly walks toward me. All pale and white but with the black, black eyes of a birch tree. Like my prince.
My name from her lips makes me want to die. He’s come for me, my prince, at last.
But she stops in front of me and I see it then: the curling horn of the Crier.
She has not come with the hunt to bring me back to her father. She is the Hunt.
"You’ve grown," she says.
I straighten my legs. I’m taller than she is. I can’t remember her name. If I ever knew it. I squeeze my eyes shut and see her: a tiny little girl curled up beneath the feast table with a beetle-boy in her lap. Feeding it drops of honey because it could barely open its lips.
"Lady," I reply, opening my eyes. My insides are trembling again. As the hounds back away and the glow of moonlight lessens, I see she’s still only a girl. Thin and fragile, but with the power of the Wild Hunt behind her. "You’re… dead."
"My father did this to me."
"You haven’t come to bring me back to him?"
Her smile is one of theirs, despite the young and simple prettiness of her face. "No, Thomas. I’ve come to help you."
I know I should kill her again, should drive the plastic through her sternum and flee. Help from them is no help at all, no matter what the bargain or outcome.
But my sword is flung away somewhere. And the hellhounds – her hellhounds – continue to make widdershins circles around us. Horses stamp impatiently. Swords and shields clatter as the Riders wish to move on to a kill. They’re hungry for souls.
I glance back at her. "Tell me your name."
Her eyes widen. But she knows I’m bargaining.
She parts her lips slightly, then smiles. And she tells me.