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The Fixed Stars

An October Daye Story

Seanan McGuire

The bay trees in our country are all wither’d

And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven.

—William Shakespeare, King Richard II

The Castle Brocéliande, Albion, 572

The ravens that dipped and wove their arcane patterns in the sky above the castle walls were out in full force, their black wings painting prophecy across the dusky purple sky. I wanted to look away, leaving those transitory etchings unread, but I could not force my eyes to close. Too much death and too much dying were scrawled there, spelling themselves out one scavenger bird at a time.

A footstep on the battlement behind me told me that I was no longer alone. I started to turn, and stopped as Michael’s voice rumbled, “No, sister. Stay as you are; I need your eyes to guide me.”

“Guide you to what, a hard fall to the rocks below?” But I smiled and did not turn. Michael was the youngest of my brothers in those days, still feeling out his place in the hierarchy of our strange family. His antlers were only as broad as two hands splayed wide, and his parchment-pale eyes could almost seem to track motion across a room, even though they had not seen a single thing in the eighty years he had lived thus far in Faerie. All his sight was borrowed from the eyes of others.

“To your side, fair sister,” he said and stepped up next to me, almost towering in his nearness. He had grown quickly to a man’s stature and had been the taller of us since he was scarce ten years old. Not that I was possessed of any great height; my nature had always been protean, inclined to twist and change as need demanded, but when I allowed myself to sink into my natural shape, I was a small, slender woman, easily lost in the crush of a crowd. I could be overlooked, if I so willed it, and I willed it often.

But the time for silence and solitude was past. I kept my eyes fixed on the fields outside the castle walls, letting Michael see what he would never be able to behold on his own: men, camped close enough that the shit and feathers dropped by the flocking ravens landed on their heads. So many men, and all of them touched by our manipulations. They must have numbered in the hundreds, and before that day, I would not have thought that so many merlins lived in all of Albion.

Michael was quiet for a time before he asked, “Has Father come?”

“No.” The word was small, and simple, like a key being slipped into a lock. “No,” I repeated, and this time jagged laughter followed the word, impossible to catch or to contain. “The great Oberon come here, for us? The least of his children, guarding the least of his frontiers? Eira will come to fight beside us, and feed you sweets and braid my hair before our father comes to us. There is no cause to count on him. His mercies have never been ours to claim.”

“Antigone.” Michael’s voice was almost chiding now, like he had somehow become the elder, and I the stripling child in need of soothing. “Father loves us. He has always loved us, and he always will.”

“I wish I shared your certainty, Michael.” I turned my eyes away from the battlefield-to-be as I leaned up and pressed a kiss against his cheek. His flesh was cool from the evening air. “Do not stay outside too long. You’ll catch your death of chill.”

He chuckled. “Yes, sister.” My eyes were useless to him now; he would be borrowing vision from the ravens, using them to gain a hundred views of the men who camped below us. By the time he came back into the castle, he would know everything there was to know about their defenses, the weapons they had brought with them, and the items they were scavenging from our land. His information would be invaluable, as it always was during times of war.

A pity that we were going to lose this fight, as we had lost so many others since the merlins took up arms and rose against the many cruelties of their fae progenitors.

I turned my back on him, glad that he did not have eyes of his own, and that he could not see the marks of my betrayal on my face. Shoulders bowed with the weight of a burden that should never have been mine to carry, I descended the rough stone steps toward the waiting castle door.

* * *

There are those who yearn to know the future. You can see them at every fair and gathering, skirting around the edges of the crowd and looking for someone who claims to have the Sight. Will I live long, will the crops be good, will I have many children, they ask, and the fortunetellers tell them what they want to hear—those who have the ability to lie, that is. I have never been able to force my lips to form falsehoods, and so I have never found favor in the courts of kings or queens, whether they be mortal or fae. Too many dark truths have fallen from my mouth like poison berries, and no one wants a fortune teller who will not pretend that tomorrow will always be better than today.

The upper halls of the castle were deserted. The household staff would be below, shoring up our defenses, while the nobility prowled like chained beasts, eager to wet their swords on merlin blood. The fact that the men outside our walls were our distant descendants didn’t matter to them. My brothers and sisters had raised their children to believe that nothing outside of Faerie had value, and merlins were outside of Faerie from the moment of their births.

Brocéliande had been one of Titania’s places to begin with, intended for the pleasure of her children and designed as a beautiful poem of a building, rather than a properly defensible fort. Fortunately for the fools who gathered in the halls below me, the construction of the castle had been given over to Trolls and Gremlins, Coblynau and Hobs—people who understood that a wall needed to do more than simply decorate the landscape. It needed to keep the people inside safe and dry, and it needed to keep the people outside at bay until they were invited to enter. They were not difficult tasks, and the castle performed them well.

But there are other tasks to set before a castle: tasks involving secret passages and hidden ways through the walls, tasks best performed at noon, when the uncaring sun sends most children of Faerie to their beds to sleep the daylight hours away, and such private assignations as must not be seen by the ever-judgmental moon may be carried out. These, too, were performed by the palace at Brocéliande, and performed well enough that even though I made my way from the top level of the castle all the way down to the lowest in the wakeful twilight, not a soul saw me, nor marked upon my passage.

I stepped out into the courtyard, shivering from a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the air. What I was doing…it was unforgiveable, and yet I had been given no choice in the matter by the people who claimed to love me best. They would not listen to reason. They wanted blood.

The castle gates were latched, but it was a simple matter to murmur my desires to the sturdy oak, which remembered me well and warped itself enough to allow me to slip out of the stronghold and onto the smooth cobblestone of the castle bawn. Here, too, could you see Titania’s arrogance at work: the moat was deep and wide, yes, and home to strange beasts that would rend and tear any flesh that came too close to their terrible jaws. And at the same time there was the bawn, wide and smooth as a village square, and there was the bridge, which could easily hold a palanquin drawn by two Dragons walking side by side. There was no safety here. Even if the battle went in Faerie’s favor, blood would flow like wine.

Full dark had fallen, blinding Michael’s ravens. My cloak was the color of the sky, blue-black edged with runnels of red. I pulled it close as I hurried across the bridge and toward the camp on the other side of the field. The smell of smoke and unwashed human skin assaulted my nostrils as I drew near, reminding me that I ran toward a different world than that which I left behind me. This was a rawer place, harder, because it had been given no other choice.

The first watchmen were stationed near the boundary fires, where the light was bright enough to dazzle sensitive fae eyes and buy a few precious seconds to sound the alarm. I heard them rustle in the brush as I drew near, doubtless reaching for their weapons. I did not stop or slow, but continued walking forward with my chin held high and my eyes fixed on the distant tents. If they killed me here—if a spear crafted of rosewood and tipped with blessed silver found my heart, and iron nails were driven through my flesh—then the tides of war would turn. Mankind would lose, and my family would maintain their position over all. It was not the right outcome, I knew that much, but if things should go that way, it would be outside of my control and none of my fault. I would betray no one. And so I walked, and waited for the spears to fly.

No one raised a hand against me. I was, in my own way, as well-known here as any of their own forces. So I continued on across the moor until I came to the second ring of fires, this one set around the main encampment, as if keeping the dark at bay could do anything to dissuade the creatures that called it their home.

“Halt!” called a voice. “Who goes there?”

“I have many names, and I cannot tell you which of them is true,” I replied with utter honesty. “But your leader calls me ‘Nimue,’ and so that is my name, to you.”

“How do we know you are who you claim to be?”

I rolled my eyes, glad for once that the fire hid the face of my challenger. It would have been difficult to keep the claws from my fingers, and thence from his throat, if he had looked me in the eye and challenged my honesty. “You don’t,” I said flatly. “But here is a riddle for you: Nimue, it is said, never lies, although her truths can be ribbons that a man may use to tie himself in knots. If I am Nimue, then I am not lying to you, and will be direly offended by your question. If I am not Nimue, then what’s to stop me from reading the future in your entrails before any man could come here to your aid?”

There was a chuckle from the darkness, rich and slow and beautifully familiar. “You never have learned to suffer fools gladly, have you, Auntie?”

“No,” I said. “I have never seen the need. Come out of the firelight, Emrys. I wish to see you, and I am tired of standing here alone.”

“The firelight is my friend, Auntie; it keeps Faerie’s wolves from my door,” said Emrys, even as he walked forward and out of the flickering distortion. He was a tall, strong man, with black hair and a bushy beard that he had allowed to grow since the siege began. His eyes were very green. If any had questioned his heritage, they need only have looked at those Roane-bright eyes and known him as a member of my line. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight.”

“Give me your arm and lead me to your tent,” I said.

He frowned. “My men will talk.”

“A pox upon your men,” I spat. “They will have more than enough to talk about soon, if you and I do not have this conversation now. Will you take me, or have I come all this way for nothing?”

Emrys’s frown deepened as he moved to stand beside me, linking his arm firmly through mine. I put my hand against the hard muscle of his forearm, matching his pace as I allowed him to lead me into the encampment.

“I do not like this,” he murmured.

“You were not meant to,” I replied, and we walked on. “You put too much faith in fire, Emrys. There are people fighting on the side of Faerie who are born in fire, who can juggle flame like a human man juggles a ball. It would be a small thing for a child of the Fire Kingdoms to turn your wall against you.”

“And are there any children of the Fire Kingdoms come to fight for Brocéliande?”

“No,” I said, with absolute honesty and no small satisfaction. The binding that keeps my tongue true was set upon me by Eira, looking to win the favor of her mother, the fair Titania. It was intended as a punishment, and it has been, in its way. But it also allowed me to betray my people without hesitation. How could I be blamed for telling the truth when Eira saw fit to steal away my choice in the matter?

Emrys nodded, satisfied by my answer. “That is good to know. Has the Undersea come?”

“Not yet,” I said. There were men in the shadows, creeping forward as they watched me walk through the camp on the arm of their leader. I kept my eyes on the path ahead, not acknowledging their presence. I was the intruder here.

It should never have been like this.

“Good,” said Emrys, and together we walked on.

* * *

His tent was as plain as any of the others on the outside: plainer, even, with visible patches on its side and no banner flying overhead. His personal coat of arms flew above an empty tent on the other side of the camp, a decoy against attacks from above. I smiled a little when I saw that. He had listened to my advice after the last battle and was adjusting to the tactics of the fae.

Inside was another matter. Inside, the tent seemed to go on for the length of a great feasting hall, with an oaken table suitable for gatherings of men, and a bedchamber almost as large as the one which I enjoyed at Brocéliande. The air smelled faintly of heather, the single-note signature of his magic. Unlike their pureblood and changeling forebears, merlins were too thin-blooded for complexity. It was a small price to pay, given all that they had gained.

Emrys walked me to the table and guided me to a seat on the long bench like the gentleman that he was. I unclasped my cloak and slipped it from my shoulders before folding my hands demurely in my lap. In the fire-lit tent, my white samite gown glimmered like a star.

“Why are you here, Nimue?” he asked. “It can’t be to tell me not to march against Brocéliande. You know that I will not call off this attack.”

“No,” I said with a small shake of my head. “You will not, and more, you cannot. If you stand down now, the war is over, and you will head the losing side. That cannot be allowed to happen.” If Faerie won, everything would change, and not for the better.

Emrys frowned as he sat down beside me. “You say that every time we speak. Why won’t you tell me your reasons?”

“Is it not enough that I will side with you against my own kind?” I unclasped my hands, reaching up to touch his cheek with the back of my fingers. He was a handsome man, in his way, more like his father than his mother, who had shown her Roane blood more clearly in the curve of her neck and her longing for the sea. She had been my granddaughter, and Emrys was my great-grandson, and when I looked at him, I was still looking, in some small way, at her.

“Believe me, I am more grateful than you can know, but Nimue, I need more.” He pushed my hand gently away. “My men wonder why this is the battle we press above all others, when there are Faerie mounds and hollow hills near-undefended all over Albion. This is a castle.”

“This is an icon,” I corrected gently. “Fly your flag above it and assert that you have a place in this world, even if you are not allowed a place in Faerie. That is what must happen here.”

“And how many will die for an icon?”

I turned my eyes away, lest he somehow see the fields of carrion birds reflected in them. Ten merlins for every fae warrior, that was to be the cost of a free and fair tomorrow. His breed would be near-decimated by the battlefield at Brocéliande. “Too many,” I said softly.

“Then give me a reason, Nimue, or leave my tent. You have given us enough information to know the castle’s weak points.”

“I didn’t think my brother would come.” The words escaped before I could stop them, a truth compelled by Eira’s damn geas. I looked back at him, the near-mortal man with my family’s eyes, and said, “His name is Michael. He won’t die tomorrow—it is difficult to kill the Firstborn, and none of us will fall, win or lose—but his presence changes the field. He can borrow the eyes of any living thing. Your men. The birds that fly above the battle. There is nothing you can do that he will not see.”

“Then we are lost.”

“No.” I shook my head fiercely. “I would not be here if you were lost.” I would be far away, sunk deep in the grieving tides, weeping into the sea, who would always, always forgive me my shortcomings. “There is still a way you can emerge triumphant from the bloodied day to come. But you must trust me now, and you must decide, once and for all, to believe me when I say that I have never lied to you.”

Emrys looked at me silently for a time. Finally, he asked, “Nimue, what happens if we do not carry tomorrow’s field? Why are you so willing to betray your people?”

I closed my eyes. “Please don’t ask me that.”

“No.” His fingers closed around the flesh of my upper arm. Because he was family, I did not pull away. Because I loved him, at least a little, I did not sink my teeth into his throat to punish him for his transgression. “I have come here because you told me that this battle was the one to turn the tide. I have listened as you changed your song a dozen times because something had shifted. I have told my men that you will not betray us, and watched their faith in me weaken every time you went back to your own kind. I may die tomorrow. We may all die tomorrow, and grant Faerie the victory it so dearly wishes. You will tell me.”

“I am willing to betray my people because my people betray themselves by taking up arms against you. Faerie was…” I hesitated, searching for the words to frame a truth too big to be contained. “Faerie was pure in the beginning. Untainted by mortality. We were always a house divided, but we were all one family.”

“You, too, Auntie?” Emrys pushed himself away, releasing my arm at the same time. I heard him stand. I did not open my eyes. “I always thought that you were different, but you’re just like the rest of them, mewling over blood purity and hating us for what we represent.”

“No, Emrys. That’s not it at all. Faerie was pure, and had Faerie stayed pure, we would not be here. But my brothers and sisters couldn’t resist the mortal world—the candle that burns the briefest often gives the brightest flame, and they were drawn to touch the fire. They had children, and those children had children, and the children of those children had children. Faerie is so joined with the mortal world now that there’s little sense in pretending the two can ever be separate again.” I opened my eyes to find him scowling at me, mistrust written plainly on his face. “The changelings were our responsibility. We failed them. Their children were our responsibility. We failed them as well. Now we’re on the verge of failing you.”

“And this would make you betray your kin?”

“You are my kin,” I said. “All of you, through one parent or another, are kin to us. If we kill you…” I faltered. Again, the words seemed too small for something so great and so terrible. “Faerie stands at a crossroads. If we lose here at Brocéliande, our parents will step in. They will say ‘You have managed your children poorly,’ and my father will change the rules.” I had seen them in my dreams, Oberon’s hope chests, with the power to make changeling children fae, or to rip the magic from the hands of merlins. We needed them. I didn’t know why yet, but I knew that one day, all of Faerie would depend on those trinkets.

“And if you win?”

“If we win—if the tide of battle runs toward Faerie, and not toward her descendants—then our parents will keep their distance, as they always do. The merlins on the field will be slaughtered without mercy, put down as dogs who dared to bite their masters.” I closed my eyes again. It didn’t stop the images that flowed like water through my mind, but it saved me from the sight of Emrys’s face as I continued. “The children of fair Titania will call for a cleansing, and the children of Oberon will be blood-mazed enough to agree. The children of Maeve will argue against it, and we will lose, and the Wild Hunt will ride.”

“Who will be left for the Hunt to take?” Emrys sounded horrified, as well he might. It was the slaughter of his people that I spoke of.

“Your wives and daughters; your sons,” I said. “Your mothers and your fathers, until every heart that beats with a mingling of fae and human blood has been extinguished. They will kill you all, Emrys. Every changeling, every weak-blood, every merlin, and when the gutters run red, they will say ‘We have done well’ and go back to the arms of their mortal lovers.” And when those unions brought forth more children, they would be left on the hillsides to die, until the night-haunts were reduced to a flock of squalling babes, none of whom had been allowed more than the first fragments of their lives.

Silence fell between us. I opened my eyes to find Emrys staring at me, his cheeks as pale as paper and his eyes filled with unshed tears.

“We will carry the field,” he whispered. “Only tell me what must be done, and I will see to it that it is so.”

I nodded gravely. “You are a wise man,” I said. “Sit beside me.”

He reclaimed his seat upon the bench.

I told him what he would have to do.

May Faerie one day forgive me.

* * *

Morning dawned bright across the fields of Brocéliande. The air grew heavy with the stink of dying magic as the sun ripped down the small illusions of the night, and an army of men appeared at the gates.

Illusions are strange things: when cast simply enough, using primitive enough methods, they can become undetectable to the strongest among us. I leaned against the wall of my secret passage, catching my breath, and listened to the guards on the battlements above me as they sounded the alarm. Emrys’s merlins had crept close under cover of their single-natured spells, until they covered the broad, boastful bridge and stood near the very walls of Brocéliande. Feet thundered in the hallway outside.

“Now?” hissed Emrys. I turned to find him all but dancing in place, eager to join the battle that was even now getting underway. It had grieved him dearly to come with me, rather than standing by his men. Some of them would never trust him again, nor follow him anywhere; that would come to trouble him more and more in the days to come. But his was the hand that held the sword. I knew that.

“Not yet,” I replied. More feet thundered past. “Wait.”

“I will not wait forever,” he snarled. The men behind him—five good men, hand-selected for this mission—grumbled their agreement. My hold on him was wavering, and without him, I had no hold at all over them.

“You will not need to,” I softly replied. “Soon.”

Men roared both inside and outside the gates. The battle would be joined by now, merlins casting their subtle spells and swinging their swords as fast as they could, and my siblings and their children mowing them down like wheat in a field. Ten for every one that fell, that was the cost of this battlefield. Ten for every one.

The sound of footsteps finally faded. I pushed myself away from the wall, looking to Emrys, and asked, “Do you remember what you must do?”

He nodded. “Yes.”

“Then we move.” The hidden entrance to the castle proper was not far; I led them there and pushed it open, revealing the empty hall. All who could answer the alarm had gone already, and those of us who were not warriors were expected to be high on the battlements, casting support spells, or hiding in our rooms, waiting for the carnage to pass. No one would question my absence from the field.

Together, the seven of us ran fleetly down the hall. Two serving girls peeped out from a closet, and two of Emrys’ men stopped to subdue them, tying their hands and covering their mouths to keep them from screaming. Those men would live. We continued on as five, until we could see the open castle gates ahead of us, and the backs of my brothers who held the field, and the carnage unfolding beyond.

The clash of metal and the stink of a thousand mingled magics drifted on the wind, obscuring the smells of blood and shit and urine that were the true perfumes of battle. A hawk the size of a stallion dropped from the sky, grabbing a merlin in either talon before soaring away again, and a volley of arrows pursued it. A Silene who had come to the fields of Brocéliande only to please her mother fell, her skull cleaved in two by the axe of the merlin who now stood across her body, waiting for his next challenger.

“Now,” I murmured. Emrys—dear boy, who understood what we did this day—grabbed me from behind, one arm locking around my neck. I cried out, the sharp, anguished sound of a dying seabird. It pierced the other sounds of battle, washing them away.

When my siblings turned, this is what they saw: a merlin man holding the oldest of Maeve’s daughters, an iron knife in his hand and pressed to the soft flesh beneath my chin, which was already beginning to blister from the metal’s nearness.

“I have silver,” he shouted. “This castle is ours now, or you can explain her body to your parents.”

Aoife stepped forward, one hand raised in the beginnings of a spell. “Let her go, merlin, and you can walk away.”

“Leave this castle,” he replied. “It is ours now.”

I closed my eyes, sagging in his arms. It was all down to choice now; all down to how my siblings played their fated roles.

The twang of a bowstring came from somewhere close, and I heard the arrows strike home in the breasts of Emrys’s men. They fell. Emrys did not let me go.

“Leave this castle,” he said again.

Oh my brothers, oh my sisters, you spent the lives of your descendants like so much coin, but the deaths of our own? Those had always been rare. Those had always mattered. I heard the horns blow to call off the men still fighting in the fields, and still Emrys held me. The servants and the noncombatants were moved from the castle, and still Emrys held me. My throat ached where the iron burnt my skin, and I did not move, and he held me. The surviving merlins came in from the fields. I opened my eyes to see the gates swing shut on the forces of Faerie, standing on the bridge with murder in their eyes.

“You will need to unmake the bridge,” I rasped, my voice low and strained from the iron against my skin. “They cannot attack the castle walls, but the bridge…”

“It will be done,” he said, and ran the knife across my throat, and I knew no more.

* * *

I awoke on the moor, face down in the bracken, the front of my white samite gown stained black with my own blood. Michael crouched nearby, his hands on his thighs and his milk colored eyes turned in my direction. A raven perched on his shoulder, doubtless lending him its eyes.

“How long?” I rasped.

“A day,” he replied, and offered me his hand. I took it, allowing him to pull me from the muck. “He should have used the silver as well, if he wanted your death to keep.”

“Mercy is a virtue,” I said, standing on unsteady feet and feeling the smooth skin of my throat, already healed from what Emrys had done—what I had ordered him to do. “Brocéliande?”

“The merlins hold it. The spells in the walls were woven well. Too well. We can’t reclaim what’s ours.”

I nodded. “Then the battle is lost.”

“Yes.” The raven on Michael’s shoulder looked at me intently as he asked, “How were you taken, Annie? You are my cleverest sister. You shouldn’t have been caught so easily.”

“Ah,” I sighed. “That is easy, dear brother. I betrayed you. I betrayed you all.”

Michael nodded. “I thought as much. Father is here.”


“Truly.” He smiled. “Let us go and tell Oberon that his stronghold is lost, but his daughter lives.” There was no judgment in his expression. Michael understood better than most that what I did, I did for good reason.

“I would like that,” I said. “Borrow my eyes.” There was a tingle as his magic slid into my mind, and then the raven that had been serving him took flight, racing to join its family in the feast that covered the fields. Together, arm in arm, we walked away from Brocéliande.

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