The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Six: The Birthday

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Chapter One!

Gwen stood before the burnished copper looking glass that sat propped against the wall of her bedchamber.

“It’s no use,” she said with a raised brow at Moira, “you’ll have to stuff my bodice full of rags again.”

“Yes, princess. You do lack a woman’s figure,” Moira said despairingly, clucking her tongue at her charge.

“It isn’t my fault. I eat more than Ronan.”

“And then burn it all off runnin’ wild like a hill pony when you should be inside sewin’ with your sisters,” Moira grumbled, tugging at Gwen’s dress to make her figure appear fuller.

But there was a note of pride in her voice, and she nodded with satisfaction at Gwen’s blurred reflection. 

Gwen rolled her eyes and grinned back at her. The older woman liked to disapprove–it seemed to be her favorite occupation in life. But that didn’t stop Moira from having a kind, gentle heart underneath her bluster. She’d come to Dunnhawke as a lady’s maid and companion for the queen, and had known Gwen since the day she was born. 

Besides, she was partially right. It was downright unseemly for Gwen to be so thin and wiry, not when she ate at the royal table.

In a country often threatened by starvation, curves were a sign of wealth. Only those who had enough to feed their families through the lean winter months could afford to grow fat.

Most of Gwen’s sisters were plump, with swelling bosoms and the wide, fecund hips of their mother.

Her younger sister Kaleigh, in particular, was considered the beauty of the Setterwind daughters. With raven dark hair that fell in thick waves past her waist, and the pale, milk-white complexion of someone who rarely went out of doors, Kaleigh had already drawn the eye of several noble suitors.

Next to her, Gwen, with her untameable red curls and long, thin face covered in freckles, looked more like a simple farmer’s child than the eldest daughter of Dunnhawke.

“Well, what do you think?” Moira asked, adjusting the dress and stepping back.

“I think I can hardly turn my neck, and this collar itches like it’s made of fleas.”

“You would know,” Moira muttered.

Gwen bit back a retort. It was true, she had gotten her share of fleabites from her nights spent sleeping in the stables with the horses. 

“Well, it’ll have to do. You’re late as it is, and it’s hardly fitting to keep everyone waiting. It is your party, after all.

My party. More like a funeral.

Gwen wished she could wear her riding breeches underneath this monstrosity, but her mother would have a fit if she suspected. 

Queen Bronnagh had sent one of her own gowns for Gwen to wear to the ball this evening.

It was a deep forest green, with thick, stiff white lace edging the collar and sleeves, which trailed almost all the way to the floor.

Moira had stuffed the bodice with rags to make it appear as though Gwen had the hourglass figure prized by noblewomen of the court. The effect was decent, but all the padding made her feel heavy and awkward.

I  don’t think the Fae give a damn what I look like, she thought resentfully. They’ll mostly be interested in ripping my clothes off.

“Thank you, Moira. I’m going to go say good night to Deirdre and Doreen, and then I’ll come down.”

Instead of arguing about the princess’ lateness, Moira nodded sadly, then left the room.

Gwen eyed her reflection in the looking glass for another moment, and then went to make her goodbyes.

 

***

Her foot tapped impatiently, at odds to the rhythm of the music, as she stared out over the throngs of richly dressed courtiers. The men were almost as ostentatiously dressed as the women, and the Gallery was a sea of rich fabrics and expensive jewels. 

A group of minstrels played from one corner, and the music of lyres and drums filled the large room. A space had been cleared for dancing; couples had arranged themselves into lines and were twirling to the traditional steps. 

Seated at her father’s side–a place of honor typically reserved for visiting ambassadors and dignitaries–Gwen tried to keep her face schooled into a calm mask.

Where are they?

She eyed the enormous wooden double doors of the castle’s central keep. They had been propped open tonight–by the weight of two full-grown tree trunks–in welcome to their guests.

No matter which world they came from.

Gwen had asked for this, had argued with her parents until they relented. She wanted to send a bold invitation to the Fae.

Come. Claim what is yours.

I am through waiting. Let it be done.

But by the clocktower, it was already eleven o’clock, everyone was in full festivity, and still there was still no sign that an emissary would come from the lands beyond the winds.

There is still an hour yet. They will come.

They have to come. 

I can bear this waiting no longer.   

Gwen saw her sister Kaleigh among lines of dancers, the dimples flashing in her cheeks as she smiled coyly at her well-dressed partner. Even at thirteen, she knew how to wind boys around her little finger, and had a steady stream of suitors and admirers.

Next to her was their sister Imogen, a year younger than Kaleigh and deeply envious of her older sister’s beauty. She was so focused on matching her steps perfectly to Kaleigh’s that she was completely oblivious to the handsome man dancing opposite her. 

Gwen smiled to herself. Both of them would probably be glad to see her gone. Kaleigh had hinted on more than one occasion that she would make a far better match if her “accursed” elder sister didn’t frighten off the foreign princes.

Her twin brothers, Sean and Seamus, would probably also be happier once she was taken by the Fae. She had yet to see either of them all evening, and assumed they were in the brothels. At least she hoped they were. 

If they were out terrorizing the young women of Dunnhawke village again, she would have to teach her little brothers another lesson. 

At least Ronan will be around to keep them in line. As heir to the throne, he was one of the few whose authority Sean and Seamus still obeyed. And Ronan would miss her, Gwen could be certain of that. Of all her siblings, he was closest to her both in age and temperament. 

Yes, Ronan would mourn when the Fae came to claim her, though she knew he would never let any personal grief show on his face. He had been too well trained in the arts of diplomacy. And everyone knew this day was coming.

Gwen would miss Ronan in return. He was one of the few people she knew who didn’t flinch, sob, or sneer at the sight of her. 

And Deirdre and Doreen. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving them as well.

Over the past eighteen years, Queen Bronnagh had given birth to three sets of twins, all of which had lived–a feat almost unheard of in a land where one child in every four did not live past their weaning year. 

Her four-year-old brothers Colm and Conor, were mere toddlers. Gwen barely knew them, as she rarely visited the royal nursery and they were rarely allowed outside of it.

But she knew Sean and Seamus very well, and had avoided them as much as possible for years. Bronnagh’s eldest set of twins had come into the world screaming and squabbling, and had never stopped. Grainne, Gwen’s grandmother, had once said that they were born with anger in their hearts, and often Gwen wondered if it were true. Now nearing sixteen, they were already more than six feet tall, with barrel chests and bruised, calloused knuckles. 

But if Sean and Seamus had anger flowing through their veins, then Bronnagh’s second set of twins had been born with nothing but gentleness in theirs. Deirdre and Doreen Setterwind represented the only time in King Cormac’s life where he wondered if his bargain with the Fae had been a fool’s errand. 

The queen had been miserably sick during the whole pregnancy; while her belly grew bloated and purple, her limbs had become sticklike and brittle. For almost three days she had sweated to bring the babies into this world, and for the second time in her life she was pronounced on the brink of death on the childbed. 

But in the end, the Fae’s promise had held true. Queen Bronnagh delivered two living daughters, though both were irrevocably scarred by their traumatic entrance into the world. Or perhaps the fact that they had developed differently in the womb had been what impaired the labor. The midwives had been either unable or unwilling to provide an answer, and had left hurriedly with their thumbs between their forefingers in the ancient spell to ward off Fae magic.

Either way, many of the peasant farmers would have left the newborn girls to die in the snow, and it was only the loving heart of the queen and the fearful heart of the king that saved the tiny, deformed infants. Still, it was not for nothing that both of their names spoke of sadness. 

Gwen had gone to see her sisters before coming down to the ball. They were more than welcome to attend, but both–particularly Deirdre–were intensely shy, and hated the prying eyes of strangers. Before she had gone down to the gallery, she had visited their rooms. They had wept together when she had told them that tonight she must go.

She looked again at the clock. Eleven fifteen. 

Forty-five minutes left until she was eighteen years old. Give or take a few minutes. The legends–and Gwen hated that there were already cautionary tales about her–said that she had been born at the very stroke of midnight. But storytellers loved to exaggerate, so it was impossible to know for sure. Her mother had certainly  been in no fit state to remember.

Gwen sighed deeply, sitting back in her carved wooden chair. Her mother. Her father. Her ten younger siblings–eleven if you included the one still growing in the queen’s belly. 

All of it was due to King Cormac’s bargain. If he had not agreed to the Fae’s terms, none of them would be here today. And she herself would have died in the womb.

When put in such harsh, unforgiving terms, it was hard to hate Her father for the decision he had made that night, when he had been utterly desperate—and only a few years older than Gwen herself was now. 

But it was hard to love him as well. Especially when he hadn’t so much as glanced at her all night.

More than anyone, her father avoided her gaze, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the colorfully spinning dancers. Since the long-ago day when he had told Gwen of his bargain with the Fae, King Cormac had removed himself from her life. When she asked to ride, he provided her a horse. When she began training with Lorcan Wolfsbane, she was certain he knew from the beginning and did nothing to stop her simply out of disinterest.

He is as eager as I am for this ugly business to be done with. Gwen could hardly blame him. It must be terrible waking up each day knowing that he had consigned his eldest child to a horrible fate. 

But it was far worse being the one chained to it.

Her mother, who sat on King Cormac’s other side, was greatly pregnant with her twelfth child. She cast sidelong looks at her eldest daughter now and then, but said nothing. She had long ago resigned herself to Gwen’s loss, and had dedicated her life towards raising the children she knew had a future. Again, Gwen couldn’t hate her mother. She actually admired Queen Bronnagh’s pragmatic attitude towards life.

Some things could not be changed. Best to focus on the things that could. 

It mirrored Gwen’s own perspective.  

Eleven thirty. Half an hour to go. Gwen sipped from a glass of wine brought to her by a steward. It was her third, and her head was beginning to feel a little muddled. She reminded herself to stop after this glass. She would need her senses about her if the Fae came.

When they came. Surely they had been waiting for her eighteenth birthday. No one could understand why the Fae had waited this long. Everyone knew they had no interest in the old, the weak, or the infirm. Those that lived beyond the winds liked their victims healthy and ripe–in the prime of their lives.

I will leave Dunnhawke tonight.

One way or the other.

 

***

 

The wretchedly tolling clocktower told her it was two-thirty in the morning.

The guests had long since left. So had her parents, first with a sad look at her, and then at one another.

Ronan had offered to stay up, to see in the dawn, but Gwen shook him off. He’d given her a hard look, as if reading the tumultuous thoughts in her mind, but ultimately nodded and gone to bed. 

Leaving Gwen alone except for the servants, who were already cleaning up the mess–and probably helping themselves to any leftover wine.

Anger hurried her steps as she left the central keep and went out to the courtyard. Her whole body felt rigid, pulsing with tension. Her heart pounded dully in her ears.

The Fae hadn’t come. 

The bastards. Once again, they had left her waiting in the misery of a life she could never fully be a part of, could never enjoy with one foot planted firmly in another world.

Fine. If she could not be free of this anticipation by one way, then she would find another.  

Gwen headed for the stables. It was silent at this late hour, even Rylan the groom was curled up on a bed of hay. She half-heartedly thought of waking him for a rendezvous of their former tryst. If she were successful with her plans, tonight would be her last on earth, perhaps she wanted to experience the embrace of a lover once more.

But she left the lad sleeping. Their previous encounter had been awkward and unfulfilling–had awakened no passion within her veins. And there was no room for lust now, all of Gwen’s being was consumed by despair.

Eighteen years she had wasted, waiting for the culmination of a bargain that might never come. For all she knew, the Fae had long ago forgotten about her. It wasn’t as though her life mattered in the slightest to the immortal ones. They merely liked to toy with humans for sport.

She was through being toyed with. Aoife was asleep standing up in her stall, but she roused with a whicker when Gwen approached with a soft word and a handful of oats.

“Come on, girl. One more ride.” She slipped a halter around the mare’s gray muzzle and mounted her bareback. With a kick of her heels into the horse’s flanks, they took off at a canter through the rough-stoned courtyard and through the open doors of Dunnhawke Castle. 

 

***

 

The summer air was damp and heavy. Gwen thundered west, towards the towering white cliffs that descended more than eighty feet to the crashing sea below.

She dismounted and threw Aoife’s reins lightly over a branch.

Once Gwen was gone, the mare would have no problem freeing herself and finding her own way home.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Gwen said. “Ronan will take good care of you. He’s always been jealous of your speed.” Tears rose in her throat as she pressed her forehead to the horse’s silky muzzle. 

Aoife whuffed out a breath and nibbled her hair. 

With a deep breath, before she could lose her nerve, Gwen gave the mare a final pat on her silvery neck, then turned and walked towards the cliffs. 

From across the horizon, purple thunderheads were advancing upon her like ancient gods out of the abyss. They stacked upon themselves, building higher and higher as they stretched out darkened tendrils across the lesser blackness of the starlit sky. 

The wind picked up, whipping her long hair about her shoulders as she peered over the edge of the cliff. It plummeted straight down, a sheet of jagged, chalky stone ending in a foaming white surf as the waves hurled themselves against the side.

All she had to do was take that one, final step.

The water would rush up to meet her, and if the impact didn’t kill her instantly, she would be dashed against the rocks by the pounding sea.

It would be quick. It would be certain.

It would finally be over.

A crackle of thunder boomed overhead, and a large wave crashed up against the cliff, hard enough to spray Gwen’s face in a salty mist.

She licked her lips, savoring the taste. Her arms trembled as she spread them wide.

She closed her eyes. Felt her body curve forward in an arc, as if being pulled towards the edge.

One step. And it would be an end to this eternal, pointless waiting.

Except…

Over the rising wind, she heard Aoife’s nervous whinny. Rain began to fall, coating her face and hair in moisture, mingling with her tears. 

Except if she fell from this cliff, she would never know. Never know why the Fae had bargained for all those years ago. What they wanted with her.

If her father’s sacrifice had been worth it. 

She could not give the Fae that satisfaction. There had to be another way.

The wind suddenly switched directions, pushing at Gwen’s back until the toes of her leather riding boot edged out over precipice. She pinwheeled her arms, falling backward into the soft earth around the cliff.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she kicked back from the edge until she was ten feet away.

The temptation of ending her fated life had ended, but the desire to face down her foes on her own terms remained.

Thunder crashed overhead as lightning arced across the sky. Aoife reared, pulling her reins free of the rope just as Gwen reached her side. 

“Come on, girl,” she shouted, hauling herself over the mare’s bare back, “I know where to go.”

She turned the horse’s head east, further into Hawkthorne Forest, and kicked Aoife into a trot. When she was young, Gwen had spent hours searching for the ring of fairy stones hidden somewhere in the forest. She’d even tried to map its secrets, spending most of a summer in the effort, but it was like the trees themselves had changed their trunks when she wasn’t looking. Eventually she’d stopped looking. 

But Gwen had the feeling that she would find her way to the fairy rings tonight. 

Above the trees, the storm was rising, but here within the closeness of the forest the sounds were muffled. Rain continued to fall steadily, soaking her blue riding habit until it was as black as the woods around her.

Aoife picked her way through the trees, feeling her way by some deep unknowable instinct.

The fairy circle was calling to her–to both of them. Gwen could feel it, like a nearly silent hum in the base of her skull. 

Thunder continued to boom and roar, and streaks of brilliiant lighting occasionally lit up the forest as clear as day. But the canopy grew thicker, the forest even blacker.

There was a bitter, metallic taste on her tongue, and Gwen realized she’d bitten her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She spat into the forest and thought she heard it gratefully accept her offering. 

An icy chill flooded her veins. Up ahead, maybe twenty yards into the trees, she felt rather than saw a flicker of movement.

Aoife hesitated, snorting. Gwen kicked her lightly, and the mare took another two steps, but then balked, skittering back on her hind legs and throwing her head back in fright. Gwen clutched at the mare’s pale gray mane as the horse continued to rear and shake her head.

“Shhh, it’s okay.” Gwen stroked Aoife’s lathered neck, then dismounted. Without waiting, the horse spun and tore off through the forest, the sound of her hooves quickly lost to the pouring rain.

Gwen would have to continue alone.

She cast a longing glance in the direction of her horse, longing suddenly for a warm fire and a hot brick under her coverlet. 

But her fate lay deeper into the trees. The wind was now a howling gale high above her head, the rain a torrential downpour that sought to drive her into the earth. She stumbled on through the forest, trusting only her instincts to know the way.

This had to be it. She was coming for them. 

Before they could come for her.

There. A faint light flickered. Her clothes heavy and sodden, Gwen advanced toward it. Her outstretched arms eventually met a smooth stone surface. She ran her hands upon the weathered runes blindly, trying to discern anything familiar in the whirls and curls of the language of the winds. 

The light grew brighter. She felt a warmth on her face. She took another step, and now she could see two small circles within the towering outermost layer. 

A man stood in the center of those two circles. His dark hair gleamed in the light, which was emanating from his softly glowing skin. 

She entered the light’s circumference, and he smiled. His canines were sharp and pointed. His eyes burned like winter amethysts. 

“Welcome, Gwendolyn Setterwind,” he said. His voice was the texture of honey and cream. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I’ve been waiting for you.”

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