Jack waited until the voices died down and the fires began to burn low. Hours he waited, even after he thought the last man had finally gone to sleep. He had to be sure. He could not get caught.
At last, he slung his bag of food and supplies over his shoulder, picked up his rifle, and crept along the edges of the camp, disappearing into the shadows of the woods. He had only gone a few paces into the cover of the trees when a strong hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
Jack nearly cried out in fright, but managed to keep silent and turn to face his pursuer with his rifle ready to fire. He was getting out of this war, dead or alive.
Wilkins, one of the men from his regiment, put his hands up to show he meant no harm.
“You runnin’?” he asked Jack in a whisper. “I saw you packing and watching everyone else like you were waitin’ for something.”
“Maybe I am,” Jack replied. “But it’s no concern of yours.”
“You let me come with you,” Wilkins said.
Jack stared at Wilkins for a moment without answering. Wilkins’s skin was so dark that in the shadow of the forest, Jack could only see the whites of his eyes and the glint of moonlight on his rifle.
“Why should I do that?” Jack finally said.
“Two is better than one,” Wilkins replied. “We can look out for each other.”
He had a point, but Jack didn’t like the idea of someone else tagging along. He had always preferred to do things alone.
“I gotta find my family,” Wilkins said. “They ran up north a few months back. I don’t even know if they made it.”
Wilkins was a slave from a tobacco plantation near Richmond—one of only three slaves Jack had met who had volunteered to fight for the South.
Jack and his brothers had volunteered as well—Michael and William because they believed in the cause, and Jack because he had wanted to get as far away from home as he could. But now the ideas of honor and glory and adventure and escape seemed like silly childish fantasies. Michael and William had died within a week of each other, barely a fortnight after the three Fairleigh brothers had left their home.
“Fine,” Jack agreed, already regretting it. “But if you get caught, I’m not sticking around to save you.”
“Fine by me.”
They camped out in the woods, climbing high into the branches of a big oak tree as soon as they saw the first grey light of dawn in the eastern sky. They would hide and rest during the day, Jack decided, and travel at night.
“So,” Wilkins said on the second day as the two men huddled by their small fire, “You’re Indian, huh?”
Jack frowned at him. “My grandmother was Cherokee.”
“What part of Virginia you from?”
“A ways south-west of here,” Jack replied. “A sorry heap of dying land that used to be a horse farm.”
“Used to be?”
“It failed long before I was born. My father had a gambling problem. We sold the land to the plantation north of us.” Jack sighed. “The land my grandparents bought and built from nothing, and in the end we’re paying someone else so we can keep living on it.”
“I see,” Wilkins said. Jack thought he seemed much older than his eighteen years. “So you joined up to get away, is that right?”
“Something like that.”
Wilkins shook his head in a sad sort of way. “That’s all this war is, on our side. A bunch of poor white folk and a few slaves fighting so they can stay slaves or stay poor, while everyone else just sits back to watch.”
“When you get north, to your family, will you fight for the other side?” Jack asked.
“No,” Wilkins replied. “Don’t make no difference to me which side wins. This war isn’t for us. Whoever wins, nothing changes for the likes of us. If I stay here and the North wins, things’ll be even worse for me, and the rest of the slaves.”
Wilkins thought for a moment before he answered. “You ever hear of Robert Haworth? Or the Haworth plantation?”
“Sounds familiar,” answered Jack.
“It’s not a big plantation. Tobacco. Strawberries in the summer. But Mr. Haworth—he’s a good man. A decent man. He never mistreated us. We always had plenty to eat, and decent houses to live in. He never beat us. He even tried to keep families together. He taught us to read and write, too.” Wilkins paused, thinking. “If the North wins and we ain’t slaves anymore, we’ll have nothing. Haworth don’t make enough money to keep all of us on as paid workers.”
“You’d just be more poor farmers,” Jack said. “Like my family. So why run away? Why not stay and fight for the South?”
“Because we still ain’t free.”
“None of us are free, my friend,” Jack remarked. “We never will be.”
“Maybe not the kind of free you’re thinking. But even with nothing, it still means something to be your own man.”
Jack shrugged. “I suppose so.”
The last of the daylight faded and they started moving again. Jack had pored over maps of the area surrounding White Oak Swamp for weeks. He and Wilkins travelled north-east, towards a small farm Jack knew to be near the edge of the woods. He prayed it was still abandoned so they could scavenge whatever clothes and supplies they could find and get back into the cover of the woods without anyone noticing them. If it wasn’t abandoned… well, they’d have to deal with that problem if it arose.
Clothes were the important thing—they needed to get rid of the grey uniforms.
Jack led the way in the dark through the woods. A sliver of crescent moon shone blue in a clear sky. The two men came to the edge of the woods and through the break in the trees, they saw the overgrown fields and the lopsided farmhouse in the distance.
Keeping close to the tree line, and then running alongside a low stone wall, Jack and Wilkins crossed the fields to the house. Little more than a shack, they saw as they approached the rotting wooden steps of the porch. No lights burned in the windows, and many of the shutters dangled from broken and rusted hinges. Vines crept up the porch and up the side of the house. It definitely looked abandoned.
Jack and Wilkins went up the steps, the wood crumbling beneath their feet. Jack had just reached out to open the door when someone yanked it open from inside. Jack jumped backwards, right into Wilkins, who went crashing into the porch railings.
“Don’t worry,” said the person in the doorway. “It’s just me here, and I won’t turn you in.”
Jack couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman—the voice could have belonged to either, and the person stood too far inside for Jack to see them properly. Then the tall, elegant figure stepped out into the moonlight.
been waiting for you, Jackson Fairleigh.”
Jayne waited just inside the double doors, squashed into the corner so she wouldn’t stand in the way of the rush of other students all fleeing the Fairvale Middle School after the last bell. She zipped up her orange ski jacket and made sure she tucked her fuzzy lime-green scarf in nice and snug, so the January chill wouldn’t find any gaps. The traffic-cone-orange shade of the jacket and the neon green of the scarf clashed magnificently, especially when added to her sunshine-yellow Wellington boots. When she left for school that morning, Desmond had claimed her outfit made his eyes water.
After a few minutes, Jayne spotted Thomas coming down the hallway with his friends, Billy and Calvin. Their last class of the day—history—was in a classroom at the other end of the school.
“Awesome outfit,” Calvin remarked with a grin.
“Thanks.” Jayne gave his blinding neon yellow windbreaker an appreciative nod.
They wandered outside to the waiting row of buses in the parking lot between the middle school and the elementary school next door. Only three buses waited, as Fairvale was a pretty small town. Most kids never bothered with the buses and walked home instead, but in the bitter cold days of winter, they opted for the heated buses. Thomas, Calvin, Billy, and Jayne hurried towards the bus in the middle, but then Jayne stopped and grabbed her brother’s arm.
“Thomas,” she gasped, pointing across the street.
The glint of sun on a head of silvery-blonde had caught her eye, and she recognized the solitary figure across the street immediately. The almost colorless fair hair, the purple leather coat, and the arrogant stance—Jackfairy was unmistakable, even though they had not seen him in nearly two years.
“You think he’s looking for us?” Thomas asked.
“No, Tommy. He’s probably just picking his kids up from school.” Jayne’s words dripped with sarcasm.
“You’re such a smart-a—”
“Hey, you guys coming?” Calvin called from the doorway of the bus.
“Uhh… I think we’re gonna walk,” Thomas said.
“You sure?” Billy asked. “It’s like two degrees out!”
“Yeah,” said Thomas. “We’ll see you later.”
He and Jayne waved goodbye to their friends and crossed the lawn in front of the middle school to get to the sidewalk. They had to wait a few moments for a break in the traffic before they could cross the street. At least by then, the three buses had gone and the lot outside the school was relatively empty.
Jackfairy stood against the wall and looked somewhat embarrassed as Thomas and Jayne approached him.
“Hey,” Jayne said.
Jackfairy gave them both a curt nod. “Take a walk with me?”
“Sure,” said Thomas.
They set off down Main Street, heading towards the center of Fairvale.
“So,” said Jayne, “how are things?”
Jackfairy shrugged. “Same old.”
“Same old running from demon children and working for creepy magical dudes and hanging around in goblin markets, you mean?” Thomas asked.
Jackfairy failed to suppress a smile. “Yes. More or less.”
“So what’s new in your world?” asked Jayne. “I bet everything’s way more exciting than here. The most fun we have is magic lessons every week with Bianca and Agnes.”
“Well…” Jackfairy thought for a moment. “We’re on our second helping spirit since Maerin retired. Lilith and several of her children have made a sort of permanent home in New Jersey. There’s a new Fairy Queen for the first time in more than two hundred years.”
“Fairy Queen?” Jayne said.
“Yep. She’s younger than both of you. Doing very well so far, though,” Jackfairy said with a proud smile.
They continued on in silence for a few minutes, coming into the center of Fairvale and passing the first few shops—CVS, Coram’s Ice Cream Parlour, Vanessa’s Café, and the Fairvale Florist.
“What brings you here?” Thomas asked Jackfairy. “I’m guessing you didn’t come to town just to walk us home from school. No offense, or anything…”
“I need to see Maerin,” Jackfairy replied. “I hoped maybe you guys could convince Desmond to let me in. I still can’t get anywhere near the house.”
“Yeah, we heard about that,” Thomas said.
“Bianca cast the spell for him,” Jayne added. “She seemed kind of excited to do it, actually…”
“Not surprising,” said Jackfairy.
“Why do you need to see Maerin?” Thomas queried.
“I just need to ask her something.” Jackfairy pushed a strand of pale hair behind his ear. “No favors or magic or anything like that, I promise. Just questions. And she’s the only one I can think of who might know the answers.”
“Well that sounds okay,” Jayne said. She looked at Thomas. “Desmond should be okay with that, right?”
Thomas made a face. “I guess so…”
“How is Desmond these days?” Jackfairy asked. “I was at the wedding, but that’s the last I saw of either of them.”
Thomas frowned. “We didn’t see you at the wedding.”
Jackfairy pursed his lips and for a moment looked like he might not respond. “I was a cat. I hid in the back.”
“You can turn into a cat?” asked Jayne.
Thomas and Jayne looked confused.
“Long story. Another time.”
They had reached Deepdale Lane already. Jackfairy got more nervous the closer they got to the house.
“Don’t worry,” Thomas reassured him. “It’s been a long time since everything happened. Desmond’ll be fine.”
“What is he doing here?” Desmond stood at the top of the steps outside his front door, arms folded across his broad chest.
Jackfairy stopped at the garden gate. Thomas’s and Jayne’s permission had allowed him to get that far, but Desmond had the final say with the house. And Desmond looked twice as muscular as Jackfairy remembered.
“He said he just wants to talk to Maerin,” Jayne explained.
“He said he wants to ask her something,” added Thomas.
Desmond raised an eyebrow. “That’s it?”
Jackfairy raised his right hand. “Scout’s honor.”
After a moment of tense silence, Desmond stepped aside. “Fine,” he said. “But I’m watching you.”
“Why such hostility?” Jackfairy huffed in his usual haughty manner. “I never actually did anything to harm you.”
“I just don’t like you,” said Desmond.
Jackfairy sighed and followed Thomas and Jayne across the front garden, up the steps, and into the house. The smells of baking cookies greeted him the moment he entered the hallway. The house had not changed much since he had last seen it, except now framed photos of Thomas and Jayne hung on the walls—school portraits, Thomas and Jayne at a carnival, on a beach, sitting on matching sleds on a snowy hill—along with a few photos of Desmond and Maerin’s wedding, and a number of Jayne’s drawings and paintings.
Desmond led the way into the kitchen, where Maerin had just taken a cookie sheet out of the oven to cool on the counter.
“I’m making your favorites,” she said with her back to the doorway. “Peanut butter chocolate chip.” She turned around and her radiant smile flickered, her sky-blue eyes widening when she saw Jackfairy.
“Goodness, what a surprise,” she said.
She looked much the same—petite and rosy-cheeked, with her golden curls pulled up into a messy knot. Maerin looked the perfect storybook-mother, Jackfairy thought, and he wondered if Desmond, Thomas, and Jayne knew how lucky they were.
“Sit down.” Maerin pointed to the kitchen table.
Before Jackfairy could think of anything to say, she produced a steaming pot of tea, sugar bowl, and jug of milk and set them down on the table, along with some cups and saucers.
“What brings you here, Jackfairy?” Maerin asked.
“Apparently, he needs to ask you something,” Desmond said, taking the seat across from Jackfairy and giving him a look that clearly said he would not stand for any funny stuff.
“Me?” Maerin came and sat down at the table, looking curiously between Desmond and Jackfairy. She frowned, her gaze piercing, and Jackfairy looked down at the table. “Something is different about you. You are troubled.”
Jackfairy opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again. After a moment, he said, “You look good, Maerin. Happy.”
“I am happy,” she said. “But what about you?”
“Well…” Jackfairy chewed a fingernail, and then looked sideways at the kitchen doorway where Thomas and Jayne stood listening.
“Why don’t you two go upstairs and start your homework?” Maerin said.
Jayne made a face and opened her mouth to protest, but Desmond stopped her with a, “NOW.”
Jackfairy turned to Thomas and Jayne with a pleading look on his face. Both Thomas and Jayne nodded. They turned and left, and no one spoke until they heard them thudding up the stairs.
“What’s wrong?” Maerin asked with a worried frown.
“I need my soul back,” Jackfairy said. “My human soul. I need to know how.”
Maerin looked shocked. “But… But if you give up the Nothing, you’ll die.”
“I have a plan for afterwards,” Jackfairy told her. “And… And to be honest, if it doesn’t work and I do die, that’ll still be better than this.”
Maerin stared at him for what felt like an eternity. Jackfairy tried his best to contain what few emotions he had left.
“It’s her, isn’t it?” Maerin said. “Those stories the goblins used to tell years ago, of the fairy maiden and the Nothing—they are true, aren’t they? And they are about you.”
“Yes,” Jackfairy replied, and he looked utterly woebegone.
“You would need to go to one of the Watchtowers,” Maerin said. “They will take the Nothing from you, probably for a price, or so I have heard. But you will probably only have days before the years catch up to you.”
“I’ll risk it,” Jackfairy said. “I’m no good to her like this. The Nothing drains more and more every year. And… And I can’t live without her. It’s been nearly twelve years, and it feels like twelve-hundred.”
Maerin looked sympathetic. Desmond looked stunned.
“Go to the Watchtower, then,” said Maerin. “And tell them what you need. I do not know what the price will be, but I believe they have the means to do what you are asking.”
Jackfairy nodded in a disconsolate sort of way. “Thank you,” he said, and stood up from his chair. “That’s all I needed to know. I won’t take up any more of your time.”
* * *
In the hallway, after hearing Jackfairy get up, Thomas and Jayne hurried to the stairs as fast as they could without making any noise. They had made a show of stomping up the stairs only to creep right back down again after Desmond ordered them out of the kitchen. They waited, crouching in the upstairs hallway as Desmond walked Jackfairy out.
“Who do you think she is?” Jayne asked. “Maerin said a fairy maiden. You think that’s true?”
“Dunno,” Thomas answered. “But whoever she is, she must be pretty spectacular for him to care that much.” He paused. “Kind of romantic, really.”
Jayne made a face and pretended to gag, but stopped as Desmond reached the front door. He opened it to let Jackfairy out.
“Hey,” he said as Jackfairy began going down the front steps. “Wait a sec.” The sound of Jackfairy’s footsteps stopped. “If you need any help,” Desmond continued. “I mean, I don’t know how much help we can give you, but all the same… I feel like I’ve misjudged you, and I’m sorry for that.”
Jackfairy was silent for a moment. Thomas and Jayne wished they could see him, but from their spot on the landing, they saw only Desmond standing in the doorway.
“Thanks,” Jackfairy said. “I appreciate it.”
They heard his footsteps going down the steps before Desmond closed the front door.
“I think we should help him,” Jayne said after Desmond had returned to the kitchen.
“What?” said Thomas. “How could we help him?”
“I don’t know.” Jayne shrugged. “But he did a lot for us. I just think we should try. I’m going to, even if you won’t.”