CHAPTER FOUR: Her Own Person
King Cormac had waited five years before telling his daughter of the bargain he had struck. She had been in the nursery, playing with her infant sister Kaleigh, then only a few months old.
“Gwendolyn, come and talk with me for a moment,” he said. With a wave, the nursemaid took the infant Kaleigh and hurried into the next room.
Her red curls bouncing, Gwen had run to her father and placed her tiny palm, utterly certain in her love of him. The infinite, innocent trust in that small gesture nearly brought him to tears.
“Why do you look so sad, Papa?” she asked in her precise, childish diction.
Even at the relatively young age of twenty-five, Cormac’s gingery beard had been streaked with gray, and deep shadows cut valleys under his eyes.
“I’m afraid I am quite sad today, little one,” he said.
“Then let us go outside!” she sang. “It’s always so gloomy indoors, and the flowers are growing!”
Cormac allowed himself to be tugged into a sunny courtyard. The afternoon light was buttery and soft, streaming through the profusion of colorful blossoms that hung from the trees and burst from potted vases.
Gwen pulled him cheerfully to a low stone bench, and crawled up on it. Cormac sat beside her. He took a deep breath, inhaling the rich aroma of the jasmine and honeysuckle.
He would always remember that–the heavy perfume of flowers the day he’d broken his daughter’s heart.
“I have a story to tell you, little one,” he said, not quite knowing where to begin but knowing in his heart that he could not allow her to grow up not knowing what awaited her someday.
“Is it a scary story, Papa?” she grinned. Even as a child, Gwen had been fascinated rather than frightened by the ancient tales told by her grandmother, Grainne.
Cormac had nodded to her slowly. “I’m afraid it is quite a scary story. You will have to be very brave.”
“Oh I am, Papa. I won’t be afraid!” she cried in her girlish voice.
If only that were true, my daughter.
With that King Cormac told Gwen of 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.
King Cormac had watched Gwen’s face change as he told her his tale. First, fear and childish anguish had screwed up her face. Cormac had lain a gentle hand on her shoulder, and Gwen immediately straightened, blinking away her tears.
The King nodded approvingly: Gwendolyn was a Princess of Dunnhawke. Even at the tender age of five, he expected all of his children to master their emotions with noble grace.
Little Gwen had instead turned her blue-gray gaze up to meet his own. Gone from them was that boundless innocence, the pure and simple love that a child has for its parents.
That kind of love is born from faith. And Cormac had shattered hers that day.
“Imogen, watch your posture. You’re slumping,” Queen Bronnagh chastised her twelve year old daughter. The girl pulled her shoulders back, casting a puppyish look at her sister Kaleigh in the hopes that the older girl hadn’t noticed.
Kaleigh, as usual, sat erect and proper on her low wooden stool, a bundle of infant clothes in a heap at her feet. She gave a faraway sigh, her eyes on anything but the mending in her hands.
Bronnagh smiled to herself. At thirteen, her second daughter was on the verge of womanhood. Everyday her figure grew a little rounder, her eyes a little dreamier.
Was I ever that youthfully eager for life to begin? Bronnagh wondered. Probably, but those days were many years behind her.
Beneath her billowing gown, the child in her belly pressed a firm hand or foot under her feets. Bronnagh absentmindedly pushed it back down, clucking to the unborn baby for its rude interruption.
“Mama, may I work on my dress for Gwendolyn’s party next week?” Kaleigh asked. “It’s nearly finished, I’ve just got to put on a new hem.”
Kaleigh cast a sly glance upwards, and Bronnagh met her honey gold eyes.
Fox eyes. Like Mab’s when they would play together in the caves and burrows of Peralorne.
Bronnagh suppressed a shudder. “That’s fine, dear. But Imogen–” her younger daughter froze guiltily, “not you. Look at the uneven stitching you did on Colm’s shirt. Those’ll come right out after one wash. I want you to take it out and do it over.”
‘Oh but I need to sew my dress too!” Imogen begged. “And Kaleigh is going to take the last of the Andorallian lace!”
“You know the rules,” Bronnagh said gently. “Finish working for the family, and then you can spend time on yourself.”
Imogen grumbled under her breath, but began taking out her uneven stitches.
“And Kaleigh,” Bronnagh said without looking up from her sewing, “Make sure to leave plenty of that good lace for your sister.”
Kaleigh, who had been about to stuff the entire swath in her pocket, turned crimson and put it back. Imogen stuck out her tongue.
The two of them would fight over a crumb of stale cake if they felt as though the other desired it. And Kaleigh, with her early curves and exquisitely beautiful face, had the strong upper hand over her sister. So Bronnagh took it upon herself to even the odds where she could.
Perhaps once Imogen begins her monthly bleedings, grace in womanhood will find her. Kaleigh had certainly found roundness after becoming a woman, and Bronnagh knew it was only a matter of time before suitors began hovering about like raucous gulls.
Let’s hope she doesn’t take after Gwendolyn, Bronnagh thought, briefly closing her eyes. At nearly eighteen, her eldest daughter was tall, but had nothing of feminine curves or softness. She was all hard angles and thinly stretched skin, no matter how many platters of chicken sopped with gravy she consumed every night at dinner.
It’s the mark of the Fae. Her tallness. Her silent way of walking.
They’re way of marking her as their own.
Bronnagh stared absently at the fireplace, watching the flames crackle and spin in the grate.
One flame, the fiery auburn of Gwen’s hair. A crackling ember the hue of a burning midnight horizon. Another, the crimson brightness of blood.
When her daughter had been about Imogen’s age, she’d heard a rumor in the village that the Fae were waiting for the eve of her first month’s bleeding.
Gwen, a few weeks shy of twelve at the time, had come bursting into Bronnagh’s chambers, terrified about a rumor she’d heard in the village.
“They say I will begin to bleed, and this will tell the Fae that I am ready for them to come and take me away!” the girl had cried, her face wrenched in a mixture of fear and fury.
“Who is saying such things?” Bronnagh had demanded, knowing that it made little difference.
“One of the fishwives! I was playing on the docks with Ronan, and I hid behind a large crate, and I overheard them saying that soon I would begin to bleed and the Fae would come for me!” Gwen’s youthful voice rose until it broke, her face a mask of dread and horror.
Bronnagh wished she could find the gossiping fishwives and throw them in the tidal caves for a week or two, but how could she punish them for speaking the truth?
She had told Gwendolyn the truth–how many prophecies said that Fae males were attracted to a young woman’s first bleeding, that it was considered an especially dangerous time for vulnerable girls.
“How can I stop it, Mama?” Gwen had asked, her freckled cheeks pale.
“You cannot, my child,” Bronnagh had answered gently, patting her daughter’s hand. “It is something that all woman must endure.”
“But not all women must go to the Fae,” the girl countered.
“No,” Bronnagh said, bowing her head. “That is true.”
“Well then I hope they do come,” Gwen had said. Her face had been pale, but resolute. “At least I’ll be ready.”
Later that week, Bronnagh’s maid informed the queen that blood had been found on the princess’ sheets. Moira had laughed grimly when she explained that they had also found downy white feather’s mixed in with the blood.
Princess Gwendolyn had sprinkled duck’s blood on her sheets, in order to to tempt the Fae’s hand.
“At least she takes things as they are,” Moira had said. From the stern old woman, it was high praise.
“Yes,” Bronnagh had agreed. “And yet I fear that she will succeed in provoking them. She is too young yet, to survive in the lands beyond the winds.”
“I’m too young for that, my lady. And my grandchildren are old,” Moira said, cracking a mostly toothless smile.
“My lady,” the voice of her lady’s maid, Moira, startled the queen from her thoughts.
At around twelve-years old, when Gwen’s figure had begun to ripen, there had been a sudden burst of activity around 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 cook, for some duck’s blood and sprinkled it on the white linens to shock them.
Her mother, Queen Bronnagh 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.
By the time she was fourteen, Gwen had decided that she simply didn’t care when the Fae would come for her.
She couldn’t, 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.
Queen Bronnagh 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 fifteenth 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 fifteenth 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.
The queen 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 heavy around them. Dusk came late, 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 fourteen 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.
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 spent the endless hours gazing into the fireplace, allowing her eyes to unfocus until the flickering flames turned into dancing hearth sprites that whirled and twirled around one another in an endless waltz.
Eventually, dawn broke 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.
As the years passed, and Gwen grew older, she was increasingly left 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. Or, more to the point, she refused to apply herself to them.
In her early years, her mother and Moira, the queen’s companion and maid, had tried to instill in her the gentle character of a lady. They stuffed her into confining, heavy gowns, and taught her to walk with tiny, mincing steps and to curtsy and flirt and prepare herself for marriage.
But after the disastrous affair of her fifteenth birthday, her mother had finally realized what Gwen had known from the start. Her eldest daughter would never marry a foreign prince or a high-born duke.
She could, at any time, be taken to the lands beyond the winds.
Where it was unlikely that the Fae would be impressed by her ability to dance the steps of the court songs, or sew pretty needpoints.
So Gwen had been allowed–out of logic, pity, or just plain exasperation–to abandon her rigid etiquette lessons. And in doing so, she was given an opportunity that few women in the kingdom of Dunnhawke could ever experience.
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 spent her days climbing and falling out of trees, savoring the sweet fruit she snatched from the upper limbs. Or swimming in the nearby River Nuile, always staying carefully away from the deep and dangerous currents of the icy water. Sometimes, she crept out of the castle in the middle of the night, to sleep in the barn with the cats and horses. And if at times she was unbearably lonely, she tried not to notice.
She had few friends. Her sisters cared nothing for the outdoors, preferring to spend their days engaged in needlework and idle gossip. And Ronan was being raised as the heir to Dunnhawke, and was forced to spend his days immersed in political history or training on the fields.
She also enjoyed reading, although she liked it better without her tutors breathing down her neck. It’s thankful really, that Gwen had a keen intellect, else it’s likely that she would have ended up as a half-feral illiterate wilding.
To her benefit, however, Gwen ate up any information she was given, and on any confining rainy day–of which there were many in the fertile lands of Dunnhawke–she could most often be found in the library.
She devoured books as quickly as she put her hands on them, learning stories of the ancient legends of the Setterwinds, the kingdom of Dunnhawke, and the magical, perilous realm of the Fae.
As Gwen grew older, her curves blossomed and bloomed into those of a woman while her muscles grew lean and toned from her many hours spent outdoors. Her untameable red curls lengthened until they reached her waist. By all usual standards, she would have been considered beautiful. But her blue-gray eyes held no warmth or softness. There was a fierceness in her gaze, a distance that was meant to give others pause except those few who knew her well.
As Gwen neared her seventeenth birthday, a new rumor came 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 had 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.
“The Fae prolly like ‘em feral. Poor lass. If ‘twere me I’d be wild too. Try to get some life in before it’s too late,” muttered 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. Her chafed knuckles were 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 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 horsewhipped 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.”
Gwen gasped, digging her fingers so hard into Aoife’s mane that the skittish young horse stamped a foot, snorting 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 a fated princess.
Plus they had unwittingly given her a valuable piece of information.
The Fae could not take 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 stools.
She handed Aoife over to Rylan, one of the castle grooms. As he took the reins, Gwen looked him 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 her own room, away from the constant noise of her younger siblings, on her fourteenth birthday.
Gwen knew it for what it was–yet another symbol of King Cormac’s guilty conscience.
That night, when the stars were bright against the sky and the rest of the castle was asleep, she crept out of bed and got dressed in the simple muslin gown she had borrowed from one of the chambermaids.
If she were honest, she’d stolen the garment–but left behind a purse of silver heavy enough that she felt assured the maid would not weep overlong.
On silent feet, Gwen had padded 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, then she would simply remove the impediment.
Rylan the stableboy had been dozing in a bed of hay when Gwen pressed a finger to his lips. With her flaming hair tucked under a linen cap and her maid’s disguise, he did not recognize her as a princess of the realm.
And 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.
Back in her room, she’d torn the stolen dress to shreds and hurled the scraps onto the fire.
“Well!” she’d hissed to 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, slashing ache within her center. Tears came to her eyes.
“I am a virgin no longer! You are free to do as you will. What are you waiting for?” she screamed into the fire, knowing that there was no one listening.
No Fae had come that night. Or the nights that followed. It had all been for nought.
If Rylan ever realized that he had actually bedded a Princess of Dunnhawke, 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.
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.
Gwen had long ago stopped caring.
At least the waiting would finally be at an end.
She 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.