Note: If you haven’t already, go back and check out Chapter One!
CHAPTER SEVEN: The Decision
Queen Bronnagh awoke to a crack of lightning, followed by a crash of thunder so loud it shook the heavy posters of her bed.
The rumbles went on forever, followed shortly by another brilliant blast of white arcing across the sky.
In the infinitesimal pause between the lightning and the thunder, she heard it—a scream echoing off the stone walls of the castle corridor.
Gwen! The Fae have come for her after all.
Bronnagh reached into the darkness for the sleeping form of her husband, but the heavy blankets were cold and untouched.
Of course. He always spent the night away from her on Gwendolyn’s birthday. The memories proved too much to bear, and he ended up sprawled in the library, a horn of whiskey clutched tight to his breast.
The scream came again, and Bronnagh hurried out of bed, shivering in the damp night air. There was a fierce ache in her lower back—her final child was proving a hefty one, and she prayed it wasn’t another set of twins.
Out in the corridor, the booming roar of the storm was muffled somewhat, and Bronnagh realized that the frightened shouts weren’t coming from the south wing, where Gwen had her rooms.
They were coming from the north wing. From Deirdre and Doreen’s tower.
Her steps increased. She held one hand to the ache in her back, wincing against the pain.
It’s just old mother’s labor. I’m not as young as I once was.
The baby isn’t due for another six weeks. Thank the Gods this will be the last one.
And be grateful it isn’t another set of twins.
Bronnagh didn’t think her body could handle it. Not after the last time.
Her first pair, Sean and Seamus, had come easily into the world—an irony considering how much pain they seemed to enjoy inflicting now that they were out of it.
Six years later her belly had swollen again with twins. Colm and Caleb, slipped into the world as quietly as two shadows. Now ten years old, they were still the most enigmatic of her children. They spent most of their time studying with their tutors, and Bronnagh rarely saw them outside of mealtimes.
It was a bitter irony that her third set of twins should both be such gentle souls, given that their births had nearly killed her. And irrevocably scarred both of them.
The stone corridor ended in a short staircase and a heavy door carved from solid oak.
Another wail from behind the door. Bronnagh knocked three times, then twice more—an old game they used to play to let them know it was her.
“Mama!” a voice cried tearfully from the other side.
“Deirdre?” Her heart pounding, imagining all sorts of terrible things on the other side, Bronnagh pushed open the heavy wooden door.
Her two daughters sat in matching narrow beds with doves carved into the headboards.
“What happened dear? Did the storm wake you?” she asked, bringing the candelabra in to brighten the room.
The fire in the bedroom grate had long gone cold. Near the mantle was a long rope, and Bronnagh pulled it, ringing for the servants.
“No, Mama,” Deirdre answered, her gaze fixed softly on the wall in front of her. “It was Doreen. She had a bad dream.”
“Doreen?” Crossing to her other daughter’s bed, Bronnagh set the candelabra down and felt Doreen’s brow. “Is something wrong, my darling?” Doreen’s vividly blue eyes fixed on her mother’s lips. She nodded in response, but did not speak. Instead, she gestured toward the window and began making frenzied motions with her hands.
Bronnagh watched them in the dim light. “Gwen? You saw Gwen?” Her heart began to beat faster. The ache in her back was now almost unbearable, and she sank down on Doreen’s bed, hissing as her spine screamed in agony.
Doreen nodded, her hands moving so fast that Bronnagh had difficulty keeping up.
“Gwen…in the forest…horse…Doreen slow down! Did the Fae come for her?”
Still sitting upright in her bed, Deirde shook her head. “No. Doreen says that Gwen went to them.”
Bronnagh’s heart clenched violently, as if it had burst open.
She felt a rush of wetness between her legs.
“Doreen says the Fae have Gwen now.”
Her fingers trembling, Bronnagh brought her fingers to the stomach of her gown.
They came away soaked in blood.
“What do you mean, you’ve been waiting?” Gwen asked. Every hair on her body felt like it was standing on end. The power emanating from the fairy circle was as alive and electric as the lightning still arcing overhead.
The Fae male stood on the other side of the circle, lounging against one of the ancient stones, smirking at her.
His eyes were wide set, and sparkled an incandescent violet, the color of galaxies yet to be born. His face was thin, with sweeping cheekbones and a wide, pouting mouth. His dark brows slanted downward, giving the impression of anger, or arrogance.
He gazed at her through lidded eyes for so long that she thought he would not answer.
“I’ve been waiting for you for years, Gwendolyn Setterwind.”
Gwen’s hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Give me a real answer, demon. Or I’ll leave and never look back.”
His ruby lips stretched into a grin. “Oh, I don’t think you will. You came seeking answers. And you know that I have what you seek. I don’t think you’ll be leaving so soon.”
Her chest heaved; she glared at the Fae furiously.
He was absolutely right.
“What is your name?” she asked, determined to put them on more even footing.
The Fae gave an exaggerated bow. “Prince Cillian of Erilea. I’m very pleased to meet you, after this time.”
Gwen took a step back, until her spine pressed against cold stone. All around her she felt she could hear whispering, as if the rocks themselves were beckoning to her.
Lightning split the sky above her head, but the thunder that followed was damped, as though she were hearing it from very far away.
“You can already feel it, can’t you Gwen?” the Fae—Prince Cillian—asked. His violet eyes gleamed brightly in the eerie light from the circle. “You can feel it calling to you.”
“Why have you waited until now to come?” she demanded. “Why now?”
His grin broadened. “We could have taken you at any time, Gwen. But that would not have completed the bargain.”
Within the circle, the wind began to rise, whipping her hair about her face. “What completes the bargain?” she asked.
“You had to come to us,” Prince Cillian answered, his dark gaze fixed on her. “Of your own free will. Only then can you be taken to the land beyond the winds.”
Gwen licked her lips, weighing her options.
“And what awaits me there?” she asked, trying to maintain her composure.
“That I cannot tell you. You must make the choice. After all, you have wished for this for many years.”
She had wished for this, longed for an emissary from the Fae to come for her. To end her endless waiting, once and for all.
But now that this creature was in front of her, she was filled with a fear greater than she had ever known.
He looked so normal, and yet utterly ethereal. His cheekbones were too perfectly chiseled. His lips too full, and so red they looked stained with cherry juice.
Don’t forget what he is.
A beautiful predator.
I must not go with him.
She eyed the stones on either side of her, trying to gauge how quickly she would need to make her exit.
I should have brought a sword. But no, Grainne had told her the legends often enough when she was small. No mortal weapons could be brought inside the fairy circle.
I could run. Try to escape through the forest and back to the castle.
“You may, if you wish,” the Fae said. He examined his sharpened fingernails. “Return to the castle. Live out your days. Marry a fat husband. Give birth to seven fat children. All of it can be yours.”
“And the Fae would never come for me? I’d be left alone?” Gwen asked. A future she’d never been able to envision for herself suddenly sprang fully-formed before her eyes.
Prince Cillian glanced at her, his lip curling at the side. “Yes. To live a perfectly normal life. Like your mother. And your sisters. Just as you’ve always wanted. All you have to do is walk back of that circle.”
“Fine. I’ve been cursed from the day I was born. All I ever wanted was to be rid of it!” Gwen said. She strode purposefully toward the edge of the fairy circle, her body tensed in case the Fae tried to drag her back.
He didn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow.
Gwen reached the edge of the fairy circle. Her feet came together right where the boundary of shimmering light ended. She hesitated.
“If I go now, can I ever come back?” she asked, not turning to look at the Fae.
“No,” he answered shortly.
Gwen heard the rustling of leaves behind her. She spun around, her hand immediately going for a sword she wasn’t carrying.
Prince Cillian was standing inches from her. Her cheeks were pale, almost luminescent in the sparkling light from the stones.
There were dark flecks of onyx in his eyes. Like the midnight sky. His ears were delicately pointed beneath his thick black hair. She saw that one of them was notched in three places along the side.
“You must choose, Gwendolyn Setterwind. The Fae cannot take you against your will. If you wish to return to your old life, you may. But if you wish to know the answers to the questions you have been asking, then come with me.”
A muted roll of thunder echoed overhead.
He held out a moon-white hand.
Mother cried out in pain, and Deirdre heard her slump to the floor.
“Mama? Are you alright?” she cried, reaching out on my blanket to see if I could feel her.
“I’m…alright…darling.” Then there was a weak mewling sound, like a newborn kitten, but then nothing.
Deirdre started to crawl out of bed, but a warm hand clasped around hers, gentle fingers spreading her palm wide.
Something…wrong…mother… Doreen wrote into her hand.
“Where is she?” Deirdre asked, moving her lips carefully.
After a moment, she felt Doreen’s fingers moving again. Fall down…needs help…where Moira?
“Mother rang for a maid, to build up the fire. Someone should be here in a moment. Help me find her..” Deirdre held out a hand, and Doreen took it. Gently, she eased Deirdre off the bed, and helped her reach out until she found Mother’s form.
There was a sticky wetness covering the lower half of her body, and a heavy, metallic smell bit at Deirdre’s nose..
“What should we do?” she asked Dorreen.
Baby…coming…Too much blood. Doreen signed into her hand. They’d been communicating this way since they were two years old, and Deirdre understood her words instantly.
“Mama said the baby isn’t ready to come yet,” Deirdre cried. She reached forward, feeling the muscles of her face slackened by unconsciousness.
“The baby isn’t supposed to come yet!” Deidre cried.
Sitting up, her hands coated in her mother’s blood, she screamed for help.
The girl watched him as a field mouse watches the snake it has suddenly spied in the grass.
Ever ready, ever watchful, but knowing in the end that the battle was over before it begun.
That resistance was only an effort in futility.
Knowing she had no real choice. Only the illusion of one.
“Make your decision, girl. What is it that you want? To stay here, or to venture onwards?”
Her crimson hair was plastered to her body by the pounding rain. She shook her head. “What I want is for you to rot in hell.”
He had to admire her bravado. It spoke to a part of his soul that had not been stirred in years.
But now was not the time for sentiment. He had waited too long for this plan to come to fruition. He could not make the tiniest error.
Cillian smiled at her. “Don’t you want to know why you were the price that was paid?”
The girl’s face hardened. “I care not.”
Her lips were the color of ripe cranberries. He forced himself to give an insolent shrug. “Then go. Stop wasting my time.”
“After all this, after my father’s bargain, you would just let me go?” the girl asked over her shoulder, her body tensed for attack.
“It would be required of me, yes.”
“And what of the payment exacted by my father?”
“It would be forfeit.”
Gwen stepped to the side, her body poised for attack. “How can I believe you, demon?”
Cillian held up his hands, showing his own vulnerability. “I am bound by the ancient rules of my race. I cannot lie to a mortal. I cannot take you without your consent.”
She paused, eyes still swiveling for potential defenses. “And if I go? What is the price paid?”
Cillian pivoted to face her. “If you turn back now, you will never again be offered a chance to journey to Erilia.”
He could see the girl pause, considering. She tilted one ear to the skies, inhaling deeply as if trying to scent any threat in the air.
A thrum of energy split the air around him. Cillian sniffed the air, reading the winds.
The girl’s mother was in jeopardy.
He had to act fast.
Cillian folded his arms over his chest. “My patience wears thin.”
The girl took a step closer. The wind blew her damp hair off her shoulders.
She smelled of fresh pine and wildflowers. Cillian closed his eyes, savoring the scent.
He opened his eyes, smiling at her. Gently, without the exaggerated courtesy he had displayed before, he extended his hand, palm up.
“Gwendolyn Setterwind, I’m here to escort you to Erilea,” he said, his voice a husky murmur. “Will you join me?”
The girl gulped, the sapphire choker on her neck bobbing up and down.
“If I go, I’ll never see my parents. My brothers and sisters…”
“But you’ll discover your destiny…” Cillian whispered.
Gwen’s eyes closed, her body swaying back and forth like a bewitched snake.
“Okay.” Slowly, infinitely slowly, she lay her hand upon his.
At the moment of contact, an electric jolt stronger than any bolt of lightning struck through them.
A wave of something that was not quite pain and not quite pleasure shuddered through him, and into her.
There was a sizzle and a crack, then a brilliant flash of light.
The rain continued to fall on the ancient stones of the fairy circle.
And on the empty space within.