Tithe Page 3

"I cannot draw the arrow myself," he said softly. "They are waiting for me to bleed a little more before they come against my blade."

"Who is waiting?" It was hard to understand that someone had shot him with a tree branch, but that seemed to be what he was saying.

"If you would help me, draw this arrow." His eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. "If not, then push it in as deep as you can and hope that it kills me."

"It will bleed more," Kaye said.

He laughed at that, a bitter sound. "Either way, no doubt."

She could see the despair in his face. He obviously believed her to be part of some plan to kill him. Still, he slid his body back until he could lean against the trunk of an oak. He was braced, waiting to see what she would do.

She thought of the faeries she had known when she was a child—impish, quick things—no mention of wars or magical arrows or enemies, certainly no lies, no deception. The man bleeding in the dirt beside her told her how wrong her perceptions of Faery had been.

Her fingers flinched away from the wound in his chest. Her lungs turned to ice as she looked at the grisly wound. "I can't do it."

His voice stayed soft. "What do they call you?"

"Kaye," she said. There was silence for a moment as she noticed the cold cloud of her breath rise up with the word.

"I'm Roiben." Faeries didn't give their names easily, even part of their names, although she had no idea why. He was trying to show her that he trusted her, maybe trying to make up for the assumptions he had made about her. "Give me your hand."

She let him take her hand in his and guide it to the branch. His hand closed over hers, both of them chilled and wet, his fingers inhumanly long and rough with calluses. "Just close your hand on it and let me pull," he said. "You don't even have to look. As long as I'm not touching it, I might be able to draw it out."

That shamed her. She had told him that she wanted to help him, he was in a whole lot of pain, and it was no time for her to be squeamish. "I'll do it," she said.

Roiben let go of her hand, and she gave a sharp tug. Although his face constricted with pain, the branch only pulled out a short way.

Were there really other faerie folk in the trees, waiting for him to be weak enough to defeat? Kaye thought that if so, now was a great time for them to come down and have a go at it.

"Again, Kaye."

She took note of the angle of the armor this time, changing her position so that the branch couldn't catch on one of the plates. She raised herself to one knee, braced, and then stood, pulling upward as hard as she could.

Roiben gave a harsh cry as the branch slid free of his chest, its iron tip black with blood. His fingers touched the wound and he raised them, slick with blood, as if suddenly disbelieving that he had been shot.

"Very brave," he said, touching his wet fingers to her leg.

Kaye tossed the stick away from her. She was shuddering, and she could taste the ghost of blood in her mouth. "We have to stop the bleeding. How does your armor come off?"

He seemed not to understand her at first. He just looked at her with a kind of incredulity. Then he leaned forward with a groan. "Straps," he managed.

She came and sat behind him, feeling over the smooth armor for buckles.

A sudden wind shook the branches above, raining an extra shower of heavy droplets down on them, and Kaye wondered again about faeries in the trees. Her fingers fumbled in her haste. If those faeries were still afraid of Roiben, they didn't have to worry for much longer—she was betting that it would be only a few more minutes before he passed out entirely.

To get off his breastplate, she not only had to detach it from the backplate at his shoulders and sides—there were also straps that connected it to the shoulderplates and to his legplates. Finally, she managed to peel it off his chest. Underneath, the bare skin was mottled with blood.

He tipped back his head and closed his eyes. "Let the rain clean it."

She pulled off her coat and hung it on one of the branches of the tree. Her shirt was ripped already, she reminded herself as she took it off. She tore it into long strips and began winding them around Roiben's chest and arms. He opened his eyes when she touched him. His eyes narrowed, then widened. Their color was mesmerizing.

He straightened up, horrified. "I didn't even hear you rip the cloth."

"You have to try to stay awake." Kaye's cheeks felt so warm that the cold rain actually felt good against them. "Is there somewhere you can go?"

He shook his head. Fumbling near him, he picked up a leaf and wiped it against the underside of the leather breastplate. It came away shining red. "Drop this in the stream. I—there is a kelpie there—it is no sure thing that I will be able to control her in this weather, but it is something."

Kaye nodded quickly, although she had no idea what a kelpie was, and made to take the leaf.

He did not let it go immediately. "I am in your debt. I mislike not knowing how I must repay it."

"I have questions…"

He let her take the leaf. "I will answer three, as full and well as is within my power."

She nodded. Like a faerie tale. Fine; it wasn't as if she had wanted anything from him anyway.

"When you drop the leaf in the water, say Roiben of the Unseelie Court asks for your aid."

"Say to what?"

"Just say it aloud."

She nodded again and ran in the direction of the water. The steep bank of the stream was choked with vegetation and broken glass. Roots, swept bare of the mud that should have surrounded them, sat above the bank like overturned baskets or ran along the ground like the pale arms of half-buried corpses. She forbade herself to think of that again.

She squatted down and set the leaf, blood side down, into the water. It floated there, spinning a little. She wondered if it was too close to the bank, and tried to blow it farther out.

"Roiben of the Unseelie Court asks for your help," she said, hoping that she had gotten it right. Nothing happened. She said it again, louder, feeling foolish and frightened at the same time. "Roiben of the Unseelie Court needs your help."

A frog surfaced and began to swim in her direction. Would that have something to do with a kelpie? What kind of help were they supposed to get from a shallow, polluted stream?

But then she saw that she had been mistaken. What she had taken for the eyes of a frog were actually hollow pits that quavered as something swam through the water toward her. She wanted to run, but fascination combined with obligation rooted her to the spot. Hollow pits formed into flaring nostrils on the snout of a black horse that rose up from the black water as if created from it. Moss and mud slid from its dripping flanks as the thing turned its head to regard Kaye with luminous white eyes.

She could not move. How many minutes passed as she stared at those mottled gray flanks, smooth as sealskin, and stared into the impossible glow of those eyes? The creature inclined its neck.

Kaye took a half step backward and tried to speak. No words came.

The horse-thing snuffled closer to her, its hooves sinking in the mud, snapping twigs. It smelled of brackish water. She took another careful step backward and stumbled.

She had to say something. "This way," she managed finally, pointing through the trees. "He's this way."

The horse moved in the direction she pointed, speeding up to a trot, and she was left to follow it, nearly shaking with relief. When she got to the clearing, Roiben was already straddling the creature's back. His breastplate had been haphazardly strapped on. She let out a breath she hadn't known she was holding.

He saw her emerge from under the canopy of branches and smiled. His eyes seemed darker in the moonlight. "Were I you, I would stay clear of the Polk in the future. We are a capricious people, with little regard for mortals."

She looked at him again. There were scratches on his armor that she didn't remember. Could he have been attacked? He could barely lift his head before—it was impossible to believe that he could have fought with someone. "Did something happen?"

His smile deepened, wiping the weariness from his face. His eyes glittered. "Don't waste your questions." Then the horse rode, moving like no living thing, darting between trees with unearthly speed and grace. Leaves flurried from kicks of its hooves. Moonlight glowed along its flanks.

Before she could think, she was alone in the wood. Alone and shivering and proud of herself. She moved to retrieve her coat, and a glimmer of light caught her eye. The arrow.

She knelt and picked up the branch with its iron tip. Her finger ran up the rough bark and touched the too-warm metal. A shudder went through her, and she dropped it back in the mud. The woods were suddenly menacing, and she walked as quickly as she could back toward the road. If she started running, she didn't think she'd be able to stop.

Kaye dug her feet into the muddy slope that marked the edge of her grandmother's lawn and heaved herself up. She slid past the overflowing trash can, the broken-down Pinto, the rusted coffee cans wired together as a fence for a wilted herb garden.

All the lights in the house seemed to be on, highlighting the grubby curtains. Blue lights flickered in the living room where the TV was.

She opened the backdoor and walked into the kitchen. Pots and pans, crusted with food, were piled in the sink. She was supposed to have washed them. Instead, she went to the cupboard and took out a bowl, filled it with milk, then put a piece of stale white bread on top of it. It would have to do, she thought as she carefully opened the door and set it on the step—after all, the only things likely to come for it anymore were neighborhood cats.

Kaye crept into the living room.

On the other side of the staircase, Ellen was sitting in front of the television, eating one of the miniature Snickers Grandma had bought for the trick-or-treaters, "Leave me the fuck alone," she muttered to the drink in front of her.

"You think I don't know anything. Okay, you're the smart one, right?" Kaye's grandmother said in that too-sweet voice that pissed off Kaye so much. "If you're so smart, then how come you're all alone? How come all these men just use you and leave you? How come the only one to take you in is your old, stupid mother?"

"I heard you the first million fucking times you said it."

"Well, you're going to hear it again," Kaye's grandmother said. "Where is your daughter tonight? It's almost one in the morning! Do you even care that she's out gallivanting around who knows where, trying her damnedest to turn out just like—"

"Don't you start in on my daughter!" Kaye's mother said with surprising vehemence. "She's just fine. You leave her out of your bitching."

Kaye bent her head down and tried to walk up the stairs as quickly and quietly as she could.

She caught her own reflection in the hallway mirror, mascara and glitter eyeshadow smeared across her cheeks and under her eyes, running in crusted and glittering streaks that looked like they were made by tears. Her lipstick was smudged and dull, arching across her left cheek where she must have wiped it.

Kaye turned to take a furtive look into the living room. Her mother caught her glance, rolled her eyes, and motioned her up the stairs with a furtive hand movement.

"While she's in this house she's going to live by the same rules that you lived by. I don't care that she's spent the last six years in a rat-infested apartment with whatever hoodlums you took up with. From now on that girl's going to be raised decent."

Kaye crept the rest of the way up the stairs and into her room. She closed the door as quietly as she could.

The tiny white dresser and too-short bed seemed to belong to someone else. Her rats, Isaac and Armageddon, rustled in their fish tank on top of the old toy box.

Kaye stripped off her clothes and, not caring about the wet or the mud or anything, climbed into the small bed, wrapped a blanket around herself, and folded her legs so that she fit. Kaye knew what obsession was like—she saw how her mother craved fame, pined over men who treated her like shit. She didn't want to want someone she would never have.

But just for tonight, she allowed herself to think of him, to think of the solemn, formal way he had spoken to her, so unlike anyone else. She let herself think of his flashing eyes and crooked smile.

Kaye slid down into sleep like water closing over her head.

Chapter 3

"A cigarette is the perfect type of perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?"

—Oscar Wilde, "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

Kaye was standing in a little stream clutching a Barbie doll by its blond hair, the cool water tickling her toes. Heat beat down on her back, and she could smell green things and the rich mud of summer. She was nine.

It made perfect dream sense, even though she knew that it hadn't happened quite this way. The warm green memory was younger than nine. But in this patchwork dream, Spike sat on the carpet of moss that ran along the bank. He was sewing a doll's dress and purse out of leaves. Lutie straddled the waist of a sitting Ken doll, her iridescent butterfly wings fluttering slightly while she sang bawdy songs that made nine-year-old Kaye giggle and blush at the same time.

"I could pretend that he could bend, But I'm bound to be sad when he is unclad. A smooth plastic chest doesn't make up for the rest; Even a boy-doll has to try to make a girl-doll sigh."

Gristle stood silently beside Kaye. Laughing, she turned to him, and he made to speak, but the only thing that dropped from his mouth was a single white stone. It splashed into the stream, settling along the bottom along with the other rocks, shining with a strange light.

"A shiny plastic boy's not a proper toy. Each and every girl's got a pearl."

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