Click here for Chapter One
Lush green fields raced by in a blur as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path. Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon. Thunder growled low in the distance.
The gray mare veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her. Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back was a figure in a blue woolen cloak.
Ahead of the horse and cloaked rider, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. The rider pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.
A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence. Her rider leaned forward, digging thin fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. A breathless gasp was lost to the wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered powerful muscles and launched over the wall.
She came down easily on the other side, barely breaking stride. The rider in the blue cloak came to a seated position, and the horse gradually slowed to a stop. For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside.
The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.
Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke leaned forward, patting the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and the woman wiped them away with a careless hand.
She sat straighter on the horse’s back, taking in the rich, loamy smell of rain and freshly turned earth. Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. Triumph still glittered in moss-green eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.
Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile.
A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen purple thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.
The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and the woman leaned forward to lay a calming hand on her neck. “Shhh Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”
With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter. Raindrops began to fall, darkening Gwen’s bright red hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. Within minutes, the pair rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.
A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.
“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief.
The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.
“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.
“Truly Ronan, I did. Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approving, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.
The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at Aoife. Only a year Gwen’s junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.
“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.
Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”
Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”
Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
Gwen sighed. “I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction. Certain that the horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself.
“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “What party? It’s more like a wake.”
They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.
My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later.
I would know better than most.
Gwen remembered clearly the day her father, King Cormac, had come into the nursery with a grave face. It had been a week before her fifth birthday. She was playing with her baby sister, Kaleigh, then only a few months old.
“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” her father said, extending a roughened hand towards her.
Her red curls bouncing, four-year old Gwen ran to her father and placed her tiny palm in his. His presence was a rare occasion in the nursery and she drank in every ounce of his weathered face.
Despite his relatively young age, King Cormac’s gingery beard was streaked with gray, and there were deep shadows under his eyes. His nose was hooked, making a silhouette not unlike the hawk that flew on the flags above the castle. But his blue eyes were kindly, and if today they were tinged with sadness Gwen was too young to see.
She had never been alone with her father, and a shiver of apprehension went down her spine as he led her by the hand. They went into one of the many small courtyards that were spaced evenly inside the castle keep.
The afternoon sun streamed through the open space, and wildflowers blossomed in the sunnier patches, filling her nose with their sweet fragrance.
King Cormac led Gwen to a low stone bench. For a moment they sat there in silence, watching the colorful blooms of late spring bursting to life around them.
“Your mother does not wish for me to share the tale I am about to tell you,” he began.
“Is it a scary story, Papa?” Even then, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the grisly legends that the nursemaids often told to scare the children into staying in their beds.
Her father had grimaced. “Yes, daughter. I’m afraid it is quite a scary story.”
With that King Cormac had told his young daughter the events that had transpired on the night of her birth.
How he had saved her mother, secured the realm, and brought peace and prosperity to the people.
But at a terrible price.
How one day, a member of the Fae court would arrive to take her to their realm beyond the winds. What awaited her there, no one knew. None who had ventured into their lands had ever returned.
When Gwen first heard her fate she’d crumpled inwards, tears of fear and childish woe welling into her eyes, but her father gave her a sharp look and she immediately straightened her back, blinking away her tears.
From the time she could walk and talk, Gwendolyn was taught the proper decorum for a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of four she had learned to master her emotions.
She swallowed back the sob, her small hands pressed into the cold stone of the bench. “When will they come?” she finally managed to ask.
He sighed deeply, and she felt a strong arm hug her around the shoulders and pull her close. Despite her efforts, a tear slid down Gwen’s nose and onto her dress.
She did not dare to glance at her father as he began to speak.
“We do not know. This is why I have defied your mother’s wishes by telling you of the Fae and what they intend. So that you will know what is coming, and can look it in the eye.”
“Why?” her voice quavered as she spoke.
“So that you might survive.” had come his quiet response.
“And so that you might forgive me.”
Ten years later, Gwen had learned to view everything from a practical standpoint.
Her days had been numbered from the moment she was born. There was nothing anyone could do to change this. Everyone knew that they would die someday, but her fate lie down a far different path.
She might as well accept life as it was.
In the early years, her nurses had kept a constant vigil in the nursery, fearing that at any unguarded moment the Fae might whisk away their infant charge and replace her with a changeling, a vile doppelganger from the fairy realm.
But no emissary from the Fae had come to claim her as a child.
By the time Gwen grew older and learned what fate had in store for her, the story of King Cormac’s bargain had already spread beyond the walls of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.
The villagers were initially been outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.
It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation.
When Gwen’s brother Ronan was born only eleven months after herself, the people had rejoiced at the healthy heir to the throne of Dunnhawke. Barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh gave birth to twin sons, Seamus and Sean, thus providing plenty of sons to provide a secure lineage.
Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.
The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Gwen’s brothers and sisters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.
By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.
But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them up the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess. As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, many of them hissing, or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against magic.
They all feared to get to close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.
At around twelve-years old, when her figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around the court. Rumours pervaded that the Fae intended to claim her on the night of her first bleeding, and the court of Dunnhawke held its breath for Princess Gwendolyn to flower into womanhood. Her chambermaids would hold their breath when they changed the sheets each morning, finally annoying Gwen so much that she had asked the castle’s cook for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.
Her mother had not enjoyed the joke. But when Gwen began her monthly courses two weeks later, no emissary from the Fae had come to take her away. Life had gone on as before.
Indeed, by that time, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her. She couldn’t care, or it would consume her entire life. From her earliest memories she had been known as the fated princess, the doomed princess, the one whose destiny lay in a land that none had ever witnessed and spoke of only in whispers.
Fighting against it would do no good, nor would consulting the various fortune-tellers and soothsayers that occasionally traveled through the kingdom.
Her mother had tried that once, inviting a woman renowned for seeing the future to the castle. The wizened old hag took her coin and—after slaughtering a chicken and studying its entrails—gave the date of Gwen’s fourteenth birthday. The three months that followed were a nightmarish haze of anxiety, anticipation, fear, and excitement. Gwen had stopped eating, stopped playing with her siblings, stopped sleeping as she restlessly paced the echoing stone halls of the castle.
The eve of her fourteenth birthday arrived, and Gwen spent the entire day vomiting her panic into a chamberpot. That evening in the common room with her family, her mother clutched her hand so tightly Gwen thought her bones might crack beneath the heavy rings. Queen Bronnagh had been heavily pregnant at the time with her third set of twins, and Gwen feared that her departure for the land of the Fae might cause her mother to go into early labor.
The late summer evening was still and hot, the air lying thick and heavy around them. Dusk came early at that time of year, and watching the sun finally sink beneath the horizon of the cobalt sea seemed to take an eternity.
The evening passed in tense silence, her younger siblings escorted to bed by their nurses until it was just Gwen, her parents, and Prince Ronan, who at thirteen years of age was deemed old enough to keep vigil with them. Gwen drew comfort from her brother’s presence; they had been close since their earliest days and Ronan was the closest thing she had to a confidante.
The minutes and hours passed by endlessly, one bleeding into the other until the moon was bright against the velvety black sky. King Cormac spent the evening grinding his teeth, barely able to look at his teenage daughter. Ronan sat quietly on the floor by Gwen’s feet, staring into space.
Gwen had spent her time gazing into the fireplace, her gaze unfocused. She watched for so long that the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.
Eventually, dawn had broken across the land. The fortune-teller had been wrong. Fortunately for her sake, no trace of the woman was ever found. And fortunately for Gwen’s peace of mind, this was her mother’s last foray into the unsteady world of prophecy and predictions.
In the three years between that day and this, Gwen had been left very much to her own devices. The strict rules of formality that guarded the words and actions of her royal sisters simply did not apply to her, it was not as if she were being prepared for marriage to a foreign prince, or a high-born duke.
From that moment the sun had crested the horizon on her fourteenth birthday, Gwen had an opportunity to do something that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke experienced.
She was allowed to become her own person. While her sisters were bound to their dancing classes and music lessons, Gwen rode wild across the springtime meadows, thick with heather and honeysuckle.
She began showing up to the daily lessons between Prince Ronan and Lorcan, the king’s master swordsman.
Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger and dragged their pelts back into his village.
Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.
Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness quickly winning out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.
As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned behind the skirts she was still forced to wear. Her untameable red curls had lengthened until they reached her waist. But her blue-gray eyes took on a flinty, unapproachable look.
Last year, as Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor had come to her ears. She had been bringing Aoife—then just a yearling—into the stables when she passed by a group of three washerwomen who were so involved in their scrubbing and their gossip that they didn’t notice their hooded princess holding the reins of the dappled mare.
Gwen always strained her ears when she heard the castle staff speaking.
More often than not, it was the grooms and the gardeners who knew the true secrets of the realm.
Her instincts pricked when she heard her own name.
“Princess Gwen is out riding again. I swear that girl must be completely wild at this point, like a feral cat.” said one of the laundresses under her breath.
“Till the Fae come to claim what’s theirs.” said a second, a plump woman with a rosy face.
“Shhh Dara. They’ll have your head for whispering such things.” the first responded.
Gwen’s heart pounded. It was rare to overhear anyone discussing her at all, let alone in the same breath as the Fae. The first woman was entirely correct, King Cormac’s wrath would be truly fearsome if he found out that members of his staff were chattering openly about his daughter.
“All I’m saying is that the girl should enjoy the pleasures of the world before she is taken.” the plump woman replied, chafed knuckles submerged in a basin of soapy water.
“I do wonder how much pleasure of the world she has enjoyed, if you take my meaning.” the third woman, this one tall and thin as a broom handle, chimed in.
Gwen’s face heated. She twined her fingers into Aoife’s pewter-gray mane. At sixteen, she had some idea of what the washerwoman was referring to. Enough to know that her father would have all three of these women whipped if he learned they had dared question her chastity.
“If she has any sense at all, the princess will keep her virtue until the end of her days. Everyone knows the Fae cannot harm a virgin.”
At the old woman’s words, Gwen dug her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse had stamped a foot, throwing up her head in objection.
All three of the laundresses looked up at the sound. In unison, the blood drained from their faces. They bounded to their feet, though only one still had enough presence of mind to curtsy.
A dark, bitter corner of Gwen’s mind told her to summon the castle guards and have them all thrown into a dungeon for a few days.
But she had no quarrel with these women. It wasn’t their fault that they lived in a castle with an accursed princess. Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.
The Fae could not harm a virgin. At least, that was the rumor.
She merely nodded politely at the washerwomen, and led her horse away. They collapsed, pale and stricken, back onto their low stools.
She handed Aoife over to Andlan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked Andlan over from head to toe. He was perhaps a year or two older than her, with straw-blonde hair and a spray of freckles across his nose.
The Fae could not harm a virgin. Were they waiting to come for her until after she had surrendered her virtue? If she remained a virgin forever, might they never come?
That night, Gwen had tossed and turned, burning with her newfound knowledge. The tower room in the southern corner of the castle was tiny, but it was her own. She had been given it as a gift after the Fae neglected to show up on her fourteenth birthday. Another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience.
Finally, when the stars were bright against the night sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and down the castle stairs. Long ago, she had borrowed a simple muslin gown from one of the chambermaids. She’d actually stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong. She donned the scratchy gown and padded on silent feet into the stables.
Years of useless waiting, of neverending anticipation, made her impulsive, heedless of risk.
If the Fae would not take her as a virgin, perhaps she could speed fate along through her own devices.
Andlan had been dozing in a bed of hay when she pressed a finger to his lips. With her vibrant red hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm. He’d never asked, too surprised and thrilled of his brilliant good luck to do more than whisper his affirmation to her insistent urgings.
A few kisses, a few pumps of the boy’s hips, and a stab of pain was all it took to make Gwen a woman.
Afterwards, she’d taken the scraps of bloody muslin from the stolen dress and thrown them into the fire.
“Well!” she’d screamed into the flames, watching the scarlet-stained fabric curl into cinders. “What are you waiting for!”
She fell to her knees in front of the carved fireplace. There was a deep, tearing ache within her center. Tears finally came to her eyes.
“I am a virgin no longer. You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for!” she hissed to the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.
No one had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.
If Andlan ever realized that he had actually bedded a princess, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps he understood the necessity of silence on the matter.
Castle life went on around her. She rode her horse. She sparred with her brother. Every day that passed, she felt a little less, became a little less involved in the world around her.
Eventually, the rumors began circulating that they would come for her on the eighteenth birthday. Like clockwork, the court had sprung into action, and a flurry of whispering preceded her every entrance and followed every exit.
Now, three days before that date, Gwen bid farewell to her brother and climbed the narrow stairs to her tower room.
A celebration had been ordered, not a quiet, fear-filled evening like that of four years ago, but a true party that included the entire court.
Surely, this would be it.
Surely they would come.
And her life could begin. Or be snuffed out, if the immortal Fae chose.
At least the waiting would finally be at an end.
Gwen strode up the stairs to her tower room and looked out over the kingdom of Dunnhawke. She both loved and loathed every inch of those fertile green fields.
For her entire life, Gwen’s fate had been out of her hands. As she looked out on the crops of wheat and barley for which she had been traded, she laid another brick around the wall she had slowly built around her heart.