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.”

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Five: Training, Waiting

“Come on! Stop trying to fight and fight!” Gwen cried as she brought her practice sword up to meet her opponent’s. 

The sound of metal rang throughout the forest meadow as they clashed and whirled. She ducked to one side as he pivoted and swung his sword, narrowly missing her leather-armored side.

“What are you waiting for?” she snarled as his blade met nothing but soft grass. She twisted to one side, her arm raised to meet his attack. 

Steel clashed against steel. Gwen’s blood sang in her veins.

Parry. Step.

Parry. Lunge.

Pivot. Thrust.

Again and again, the movements so ingrained in her muscles that she didn’t even think as she raised her sword to defend against her brother’s strike. 

Ronan’s face twisted with effort as the side of her blade came within inches of his face. Their blunt-edged practice swords wouldn’t cut skin, but they would leave a nasty bruise.

Sweat poured down Gwen’s face. They’d been at it for so long that the sun had made a wide arc across the clearing. Their shadows stretched long over the grass. Neither of them had given so much as an inch since the duel began. 

Ronan’s chest was heaving, his movements growing heavier with every clash. Although a year her junior, he had more than a foot in height over Gwen. And with it, the benefit of reach.

But Gwen had the advantages of speed and determination. 

As did her refusal to wear any sort of armor. 

Ronan’s heavier practice gear weighed him down, and several times she had been able to get within his range to deliver quick, brutal blows to his torso and kidneys.

Now she spun, adrenaline coursing through her veins, to meet Ronan’s latest blow. The steel sang as their swords rippled against each other, bringing their faces close together.

“Yield,” Gwen hissed.

“Never,” Ronan panted.

She was unwilling to go back to the castle. Not just yet. Not until the sun had finally completed its lazy descent into the horizon. 

Ronan knew it too, had skipped all of his lessons this afternoon to come out and fight with her until Gwen’s limbs ached and her mind was finally too tired to think.

One day closer to her eighteenth birthday. A landmark she could not bring closer merely by sneaking off with a stableboy.

What was to say the Fae would come for her two days from now? 

What’s to say that they wouldn’t?

There hadn’t been an ambassador to the realm of the fae in more than a century. The rumor was that the last one had been sent back alive, but missing his eyes, tongue, and thumbs. 

So he could not speak or write about what he had witnessed.

An icy shiver ran down Gwen’s spine and she redoubled her efforts, pushing back hard enough that Ronan was knocked off his feet and tumbled to the ground.

With a guttural cry Gwen launched herself at him, knocking aside flailing limbs and shoving one knee into his chest, the dull tip of her sword poised an inch from her brother’s throat.

Ronan rolled his eyes and released the grip on his weapon, admitting defeat. The sword clattered onto the damp grass.

“You fight–like a madwoman,” he said, groaning as Gwen pulled the sword from his neck and stood aside, pressing a hand to the stitch in her side.

“You fight–too much–like a knight,” she managed to gasp between breaths. “You just–stand there–hoping your armor will protect you.”

Ronan raised himself into a seated position and tenderly felt his ribs and torso. They would both be stiff and dotted with bruises the next day, as they always were after one of their more ferocious training bouts. 

Four years ago, when Gwen had first expressed interest in learning to fight alongside her brother in the training yard, Ronan had balked. 

Then only thirteen, it had wounded his young pride to have his sister train beside him in skirts. 

But the king’s master swordsman, had recognized in Gwen an apt and hungry pupil.

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 having long ago won 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.

No one expected Gwen to be a knight, or to fight in battle alongside the men of her father’s armies, so her training differed vastly from Ronan’s. 

Recognizing within his young female charge a deep-seeded desire to fight, to survive, Lorcan vowed to do all her could to teach her to defend herself. Where Ronan was taught to face an oncoming force without flinching, Gwen was trained to know when to flee. Unburdened by the heavy hammered-metal breastplate and helmet of a warrior, she learned how to protect vital areas and to keep her body turned to the side, to present a smaller target. 

She made up for her lack of height with speed and a calm head, essential tools to surviving battle that few soldiers possessed. 

She was also ruthlessly single-minded, unwilling to give up while there was a shred of fight left in her. 

All of this, however, only served to help even the odds against her brother. Ronan had been raised to lead legions, to command the armies of Dunnhawke in war, and he had been raised as a warrior from the time he could walk.

He might be slower than Gwen in his armor, but the extra weight had also developed his muscles. He was far, far stronger than she could ever hope to be.

But for the moment they were both utterly exhausted. Gwen’s red curls dripped sweat down her neck under the tightly-fitted cap she wore for training. 

She extended a hand towards her brother, and Ronan grasped it tightly, pulling himself up with a grunt. 

“Filthy wench,” he hissed, rubbing his backside.

“Stupid jackass,” she grinned back at him. 

Once she had put on some weight and muscle through training, Gwen showed no mercy during Lorcan’s supervised training bouts. Ronan’s initial sullen attitude wore down quickly when he realized he was going up against an actual rival, not just a sister.

“I would have beaten you in the end,” her brother grumbled.”

“As you say, Prince Ronan,” she said with mock obeisance. 

“Both of you were shoddy in your footwork,” Lorcan interjected, dragging at his stubbly cheeks. “And Ronan, you’re so focused on the short-term jab that you forget the killing shot. You had Gwen three minutes before she pinned you. But you were too focused on taunting her to see it.”

“I saw it!” Ronan snarled. “I was just…trying to see if Gwen could get there on her own.”

“Well, that was very grand of you indeed, your highness. I’m sure your backside will be thanking you for your sacrifice in the morning.” Lorcan couldn’t hide the grin from his face.

Ronan’s furious expression flickered, then vanished, and he let out a snort of amusement.  “That it will,” he said, rubbing his tailbone. “Well struck, Gwen.”

“Well struck indeed. But if I don’t get you both back to the castle, it’ll be hell to pay. ‘Specially for you Gwen,” Lorcan said with a dismal look. “I reckon the Queen has noticed your absence.”

Gwen looked at the sun, which was far lower in the sky than she wished.

She should have been back at the castle hours ago, to begin the arduous process of bathing and washing her riotous hair into some semblance of order.

They turned towards their horses. Gwen felt a chill as the sweat began to cool on her skin.

The thoughts she’d been trying to keep at bay all afternoon began to force their way back into her mind.

Everyone was saying the Fae would come for her tonight.

But they’d said that before.

Click here to read Chapter Six: The Birthday!

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Two: The Sealed Bargain

Click here for Chapter One

KING CORMAC

Cormac took none of his usual guards with him.

No one must know of this night.

He entered a copse of birch trees and continued, certain of his route due to his mother’s constant folk tales and his own youthful wanderings.

After half a mile, the stately trunks gave way to a thick tangle of scrub pine and briar bushes.

Cormac was forced to walk his horse, and eventually, when the thorny bushes coated the ground like a carpet, to leave the animal tied to a low branch and make his way on foot.

Unlike the thick heat of Dunnhawke Castle, a thick, cold mist was ettled on the forest, giving a damp chill to the air.

Out of the fog, Cormac began to make out looming shapes. Weathered gray stones, more than twice the height of a man, formed a rough circle in the small forest meadow. 

An icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine. The faith of the priests had no power in this place. 

These stones had stood for aeons before the gods of the outsiders came to this land.

Before the Fae, his crown meant nothing. He was just nothing but a pile of flesh and bone that decayed in a blink of their ageless eyes.

He had no authority between those rings of stone. The immortals had inhabited this land long before the rise of man.

The power of the ancient stones held them within their shadow realm. If a man wanted to converse with the Fae, he must enter their circle.

And he must do it unarmed. To do otherwise was to court death.

With a shudder, Cormac loosened the scabbard across his back that held his axe in place.

 The two-sided blade fell with a dull thud onto the dry grass.

I am a king. I cower before no one.

Cormac kept his shoulders straight, his chin held high, as he passed within the outermost ring.

A tingle, electric as lightning, ran all the way down his spine. It passed as quickly as it had come, but it still left him shaking.

From the pocket of his cloak, he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet of such superb craftsmanship that its worth could have fed a peasant family for a year.

An offering.

Cormac’s heart thundered within the chest.

He crossed the threshold of the innermost stones.

Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.

His mother’s parting words, said as he mounted his horse and charged off into Hawkthorne Forest.

The atmosphere around him quivered with magic.

Before his courage could fail him, Cormac said the words, the ancient words tripping on an unfamiliar tongue.

Hear my name and answer my plea.”

He laid the silver bracelet upon it, then turned to face the silently watching eyes of the forest. 

“I am Cormac Setterwind, King of Dunnhawke. I offer precious goods in exchange for the peaceful continuation of my reign.”

His words came slowly, haltingly. He’d learned the old language at his mother’s knee, but hadn’t spoken it aloud since long before his father’s death.

Cormac swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Ones, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation.

 “Spare them. Spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.” A tear drifted down his cheek.

He slipped back into the modern tongue, but he was far too consumed in his panic to notice.

A king does not beg.

Nevertheless, Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his hands. 

“Please. Accept my offering.” 

“And do you think it a worthy offering, King Cormac, for the mighty gift that you ask?”

A silky voice sounded, and Cormac’s pulse jumped as he spun around.

Cormac’s pulse jumped as he beheld a member of the Fae for the first time in his life.

It was a youthful male with jet-black hair that glinted softly under the rising moon.

He looks so human.

 “We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said. 

He was dressed in simple hunting garb, a green leather tunic and brown pants. 

Like the king, he appeared to be unarmed.

To the casual observer, the Fae could have passed as a rather beautiful young man.

But there was nothing human whatsoever in the Fae male’s eyes.

They gleamed in the moonlight, an unnatural, emotionless violet that froze the blood in Cormac’s veins.

The Fae knelt down and picked up the silver bracelet, examining it carefully from all sides. 

“Its value is great, I assure you. It was part of my wife’s dowry.”

“Ah yes. The little queen from Peralorne. Tell me, Cormac Settermind, do you think if we listen hard enough, we will hear her dying scream?”

The Fae put a hand to his ear mockingly, as if trying to make out a distant sound.

Even though the creature’s words were meant to be taunting, they gave Cormac a fierce burst of hope.

His queen yet lived. At least for now.

“Will you accept the offering?” Cormac asked. The words were nearly squeezed out by the fear in his throat.

“You ask much, King of Dunnhawke. Life and life and life again.”

The Fae’s face barely moved as he spoke. It was as if his immortal features had been carved from marble.

 “And yet you offer only metal. Pretty, to be sure. And yet dull. Lifeless.”

He clucked under his tongue, as if in disappointment. “I think that this is not enough. Not for all that you ask.”

“But you can do it!” Cormac insisted.

The Fae scoffed. “Of course I can. I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”

Run. While you can.

“What do you ask?” Cormac’s voice shook when he asked. 

“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said. 

His kingdom. 

His queen.

His…

“What of the child?”

The Fae lips curled ever so slightly. “She would be given to us.”

Hot, violent rage washed away Cormac’s fear and despair. “Get back to hell you demon. You will not harm my child!” 

“We have no intention of harming the girl, the Fae said, his smile growing.

“A girl,” Cormac shuddered. “You know this for certain?”

Not a son, but a daughter.

Useless when it comes to inheriting the throne.

Perhaps if Bronnagh could live–we could try again.

As if reading his churning thoughts, the Fae quirked a dark brow. “Your wife is of fertile stock, Setterwind. If she lives, the child will be the first of twelve born to you.”

“Twelve?” Cormac felt weak in the knees at this prediction from the future.

The Fae nodded. “Seven of them boys.”

Seven sons. 

A dynasty to carry on my name. 

Cormac felt sick. His stomach clenched and roiled. 

“What would happen to the girl?” he asked, hating himself for asking.

The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings.

“She would no longer be of your concern.”

“She is my blood!”

“Setterwind blood.” the Fae’s eyes gleamed with sudden hunger. “Yes, King Cormac I know. It is an ancient and noble bloodline. I assure you, your daughter would be treated with all the respect due her rank.”

Cormac’s heart wrenched with guilt. How could he ever know that were true?

“If you agree,” the Fae continued, “once the girl was ready she would be escorted to Erilea, to live out the rest of her days in the realm of the Fae.”

~Erilea.~ Cormac’s skin crawled at the word. The land beyond the winds. A place of desolation and death from which no mortal had ever returned.

It was spoken of only in children’s stories, meant to frighten young ones into bed on a cold winter’s night. 

The Fae stepped forward. “The time has come to make your choice, Cormac Setterwind. Your young wife will not last much longer.”

“When will you come for the child?” Cormac said, knowing his decision had already been made.

The Fae knew it as well. A wide grin came to his lips. 

“Who can say? The people of the winds have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps it will be a year. Maybe twenty? Perhaps she live out her entire life without anyone in Erilea even remembering she exists. Immortals have such a poor concept of human lives, after all.”

“Why my daughter? Why are the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unable to resign himself to what he was about to do.

“That is not your concern,” the Fae said. His eyes narrowed. “And your time is up. What is your answer, Cormac Setterwind?”

Cormac closed his eyes, begged his unborn daughter for forgiveness, then opened them again. “Yes,” he said, feeling his soul shrink with the small, cowardly word.

The Fae’s mocking smile slid away. From within his tunic he drew out a shining silver dagger and used it to cut a line down his palm.

Ancient blood dripped onto ancient stones.

His face inscrutable, the Fae held the blade towards King Cormac. He held a shaking hand out, and the Fae ran the blade along his palm, cutting a thin ribbon.

Blood welled from the cut and fell to the ground.

It gleamed crimson on the weathered stones of the fairy circle.

“I sweat it,” Cormac said again.

“So be it, Cormac Setterwind,” the Fae said, his eyes gleaming triumphantly.

END OF CHAPTER TWO

KEEP READING

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter One – The Wartorn King

KING CORMAC

The land was dying.

From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that seemed to wither before his eyes in their dry and dusty fields.

The crashing waves of the nearby sea mocked him with their constant pounding. So much water at his fingertips and yet it would not save him.

You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.

The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms, so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.

Now, weeks into August, the late afternoon sun still shone a merciless blue, with not a cloud in the sky.

A distant scream echoed down the stone corridor, and Cormac turned suddenly, his stomach wrenched with fear.

His wife, Queen Bronnagh, was in labor with their first child.

It had been a hard pregnancy, and the delivery was taking longer than expected.

The royal midwives were in attendance. He had seen them exiting Bronnagh’s bedchamber with bowl filled with bloody cloth.

The screams persisted all day, until Cormac thought he would tear his own heart from his chest to make it cease.

He had fought many battles in the war to reclaim his kingdom. The cries of dying men still echoed through his dreams. But none would haunt him like the cries of his beautiful new wife. Never before had he felt so utterly helpless.

Cormac took a deep, wavering breath and deliberately turned back towards the unpaned window. His kingdom, so newly won, was crumbling to pieces around him. How could he expect the people to support his rule when their livelihood stood dying in the fields? In the one hundred days since his official coronation, it had not rained a drop. All over the peasants were whispering.

They were displeased.

The hidden ones.

The people of the hills. 

The Fae.

Whatever name people chose to call them, they did so in hushed undertones and subtle gestures.

Cormac shook his head. He had ridden himself of such foolish fancies the moment he had been exiled at twelve-years of age to a crumbling manor home on the isle of Soorninoor.

The brutal coup that had usurped his father, Ronan, had resulted in the death of the King had ended with the rule of Ronan’s younger brother, Odhran.

Then followed year after long, lonely year. Soorninoor was a desolate rock in the middle of the sea, constantly on the verge of being swept into oblivion by a severe winter storm. During this time young Cormac had shed no tears for his murdered father, nor did his mother who had escaped into exile with him.

Instead he had begun training with sword and shield and bow. Over time, he had grown broad and tall, a bear of a man with a barrel chest and a gingery-red beard. Support for his cause grew, as did his armies waiting on the mainland.

When he’d come of age at sixteen, Cormac had begun his war. Carrying an enormous two-sided axe, he led his forces against those of his Uncle Odhran. The violence had raged on both sides for more than four years. His armies depleted, his support waning, Cormac had thought his cause lost.

Deliverance had come to him in the strangest of places. A gleaming wooden carriage had arrived at his war camp on one afternoon more than a year ago. Out of this magnificent vessel had climbed a young woman with laughing blue eyes.

Princess Bronnagh captured his heart the moment Cormac had laid eyes on her. Tiny, bird-like in proportion, her chestnut-brown head barely reached his shoulder and yet he found himself utterly within her power.

She had been sent as an emissary, her father the King of Peralorne being unusual in giving important royal positions to his daughters as well as his son. At seventeen years old, Bronnagh was the youngest of eleven children. Her elder siblings had ensured that she was fluent in four languages as well as science and mathematics. 

But above all of that, Bronnagh’s royal lineage stretched back more than five generations, offering a second layer of legitimacy to his claim to the throne of Dunnhawke.

His armies joined together with the legions of Peralorne to crush Odhran’s forces in a great battle near the River Nuile. It’s generally muddy brown waters had flown crimson with blood as men died along the banks. More on battle, wading through shit and mud, he found him on the field, the pike boys stopped to watch their kings fight.

Finally, with one sure stroke of his axe, Cormac had severed the head from his Uncle Odhran’s shoulders and reclaimed the throne of Dunnhawke after eight years in exile.

In the year they had been married, Cormac had come to love his wife deeply, though his stoic reserve made it difficult for him to demonstrate his affection.

Another wrenching scream came from the open door of Queen Bronnagh’s bedchamber, making Cormac feel half-mad with worry and grief.

A few short months ago, everything he ever wanted had been in the palm of his hand.

Now, his kingdom was plagued by drought, there were rumors of plague in the nearby villages, and it seemed likely that his hard-won alliance with the kingdom of Peralorne would die alongside his wife and newborn child.

Maybe he was cursed.

Perhaps one of the Fae had put an evil curse upon his reign.

He had never paid much mind to the old-wives tales before, but desperation was high and tight in his chest.

“Your Grace?”

A voice from behind caused King Cormac to start, and he turned to see the midwife, her face bone white in the failing light of the sun.

She looks like an omen of death. Cormac thought as a shudder ran up his back.

The plump older woman shook her hand, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done, sire. The babe is turned in the womb, and the cord is wrapped about its wee little neck.”

Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eight years ago, but now he felt a sob rising to his throat.

“And…and the Queen?” he choked, dreading the answer.

Again the midwife shook her head, and now Cormac’s knees threatened to buckle. He raised one hand to steady himself against the stone wall of the castle.

“I understand,” was all he was able to reply. 

His beautiful, young wife.

The babe in her womb.

His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.

All of it lost.

The peasants were already on the brink of revolt given the lack of food in the region. The whispers of curses reached his ears even here in the castle.

I have to do something!

Cormac slammed a futile fist against the wall, resting his head for a moment against the cool stones.

“My son, something must be done,” his mother said from his shoulder, having crept up in that silent way that she had. She echoed his own thoughts, as she so often did.

Grainne Setterwind was a tiny, wizened woman with a face full of sagging wrinkles, but her posture was kept rigidly erect by the sturdy oaken cane she carried.

She had been old since Cormac could remember, having borne him late in life after the deaths of her two elder sons, both of whom had died in battle before he was ever born.

“Mother, what else can we do? The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.

I am frightened. He wanted to say, but a king must never betray any faintness of heart.

Even when he stood on the brink of ruin.

“There is always something to be done, if one knows who to ask,” his mother replied. Her blue woolen gown was closed high at the throat, but it did not hide the tremor that shook her frail bones.

Cormac’s own blood chilled at the thought. “We cannot go to them. They are not trustworthy. Mother you know this.”

“I know that if you do not ask for help from the Fae, you will lose your kingdom within the fortnight, and all your long years of struggle will have been for naught,” Grainne said in her measured voice.

Bronnagh cried out in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased weakness in her voice that they were both running out of time.

“Be wary, my son. Make no bargain that you are unable to keep.”

Cormac didn’t respond. He knew the risk of what he meant to do this night.

But he had no choice. 

He must go to the Fae.

***

PRINCE CILLIAN

The barrier separating the mortal realm from the world of the Fae was simultaneously as vast as an ocean and as close as a lover’s breath.

On one side of this distance, King Cormac saddled his mighty black stallion and galloped into the woods.

On the other, Prince Cillian of the Fae observed all of this with bated breath. His military bearing was straight and erect, his slim shoulders belied not a shred of emotion.

Likewise, his youthful face was utterly impassive, every muscle schooled carefully into place.

But nothing could disguise the hungry gleam in the Fae Prince’s eyes.

Their plan was finally coming to fruition.

The prophecy would be fulfilled.

The wartorn king was on his way.

His is the blood we need.

The blood of the Setterwind.

For years, Prince Cillian had watched.

Waited.

For the opportune moment, when the Setterwind king was at his most desperate.

Cillian gazed into the waters of the Looking Pool. 

The king had entered the thickest part of the forest. He’d been forced to bring his horse to a walk, and was now slowly picking his way through the tangled trees.

The trees that had been planted as a warning to the mortal realm.

Go back. Stay away.

Beyond lies the realm of the Fae.

Cillian waved his hand over the floating image in the water, and the image vanished.

His reflection stared back, his skin silvery white. 

The pointed, predatory teeth.

Summoning his magic to the surface, Cillian enveloped himself in his usual glamour.

The only thing left unchanged were his eyes.

His new, full mouth parted in a triumphant smile.

Tonight, he would strike a bargain with the Setterwind king.

For the future of the Fae.

Book Review: Tiger Lily by Jodie Lynn Anderson

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Review 2.29

Before Peter Pan belonged to Wendy, he belonged to the girl with the crow feather in her hair…

Fifteen-year-old Tiger Lily doesn’t believe in love stories or happy endings. Then she meets the alluring teenage Peter Pan in the forbidden woods of Neverland and immediately falls under his spell. [Source]

The world of YA fantasy is largely dominated by romances that are painfully trite. Too often the relationships in these books can be boiled down to a collection of tropes. We have the obligatory love triangle, the dangerous stranger with a secret softness, and my personal favorite, “the heroine predictably falls in love with the first man who is described in any detail whatsoever”. Even my some of my favorite authors of the genre, like Sarah J. Maas, fall entirely into this pitfall.

For a book that is marketed towards the under 16 crowd, Tiger Lily, the short novel by Jodie Lynn Anderson tells a very mature story. Not in the sexual sense, but in the way it approaches its characters. Tiger Lily is a fierce, competent warrior who knows the risks and the threat inherit in her choices and makes them with calm certainty. For all her ferocity, Anderson captures the vulnerability of Tiger Lily with all the insecurities and passions of youth.

Peter Pan has been portrayed by boys and girls, men and women of all ages for nearly one hundred years. J. M. Barrie’s original source material left so much of Peter’s true motivations up to interpretation, which in my opinion is part of the enduring magic of the story. Here Anderson has made him a complex and romantic boy on the very cusp of manhood; older than in most iterations, Peter is meant to be around seventeen. And while there are no overtly explicit scenes, Peter Pan has always carried sexual undertones and Anderson does not shy away from the sensuality of the story and its characters.

If I had to describe Tiger Lily in one word, it would be enchanting. Every once in awhile there comes a novel that so truly encapsulates the feeling of first love and first heartbreak that it sweeps its reader away on a river of shared experience. The emotional power of Tiger Lily took me completely by surprise, before I even knew what was happening I was lost in Neverland.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find Tiger Lily here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Note: By far, the best film adaptation of Peter Pan is the 2003 version, starring Jeremy Sumpter, Rachel Hurd-Wood, and Jason Isaacs. It is the only one to adequately capture the magic in a similar way to this novel.

 

Book Review: The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden (2019)

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Review 2.11

 

Note: I highly recommend reading The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower before reading this review.

Following their adventures in The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower, Vasya and Morozko return in this stunning conclusion to the bestselling Winternight Trilogy, battling enemies mortal and magical to save both Russias, the seen and the unseen. [Source]

The Winter of the Witch has all of the ingredients necessarily for a dark, mature fairy tale. There is a twisted villain, a mysterious king, an enchanted forest. There are swordfights, helpful sprites, and magic horses. Front and center of it all is the courageous heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna. Vasya is a marvel, at once vulnerable and indomitable. Her journey from a scared girl in the snow to a crusading warrior-witch has made the Winternight trilogy one of my favorite finds in recent years.

Of course, all these elements would amount to nothing without the beautiful and poetic writing of Katherine Arden. She has constructed a world that feels simultaneously ancient and immediate. The best fairy tales exist in a world of misty morals, and The Winter of the Witch is no exception. No one, no matter how seemingly good or evil, is ever quite what they seem. This comes as a natural development rather than a sudden cheat, and I never felt as though Arden had sacrificed her characters for the sake of a easy ending.

After the climatic events of The Girl in the Tower, Vasya has just risked everything to save Moscow from the flames. Her secrets are now exposed, and the obsessed priest Konstantin has her cornered. After suffering a devastating loss, she flees into the realm of Midnight, a land of eternal darkness. Weakened and grieving, Vasya must search the midnight lands for Morozko, the king of winter.

I won’t say anything more, for fear of spoiling the surprise. I am definitely looking forward to buying the entire Winternight trilogy on hardcover once it’s released. These books swept me away.

My rating: 5/5

You can find The Winter of the Witch here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: The Mermaid by Christina Henry (2018)

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Review #85

Once upon a time there was a mermaid who was curious about the lives of men. One day she swam too close to shore, and was trapped in a net by a fisherman. Moved by her alien beauty, the fisherman released the mermaid back into the sea. But the mermaid, entranced by the loneliness in the eyes of the fisherman, used an ancient magic to give herself legs and join the fisherman on land. He named her Amelia and together they lived a long and happy life, until the day came when the fisherman went out to sea and didn’t come back. Isolated in her small cabin on a cliffside, Amelia spends her days watching the sea and missing the fisherman. Many years pass, until another man comes into her life. A man by the name of P.T. Barnum.

Christina Henry has published several revisionist fairy tales, included Lost Boy which I reviewed earlier this year. I would describe her latest novel, The Mermaid, as a re-imagining of the classic story of a mermaid who dreams of life on land. The plot of The Mermaid bares almost zero resemblance to the original Danish fairy tale, choosing instead to follow its own path to 19th century New York City.

The opening of The Mermaid reads very much like a classic fairy tale, with very little dialogue and an omniscient narrator who constructs a sweet and believable love story between a mermaid and a fisherman. The rest of the novel switches to a more modern narrative with the mermaid Amelia as its heroine, a creature who is older and stranger than anyone around her realizes. Christina Henry does a wonderful job of portraying Amelia has inhuman but not inhumane. She has difficulty identifying with those around her but is filled with empathy for the everyday struggles of the people she encounters in New York.

If The Mermaid is lacking anything, it’s a solid antagonist. Because Henry has grounded her story away from its Danish roots, Amelia never makes a deal with a vengeful sea witch. There is no pressing time limit for her to win her true love and remain human. The nearest thing to a villain is P.T. Barnum as the immoral collector of freaks and oddities, but even he is presented as distasteful and greedy rather than actively monstrous.

So far I have enjoyed both of Christina Henry’s novels. I love the imaginative way she transports her readers to another time and place. Her writing is captivating and begs to be read. I’ll keep my eyes open for her next fairy tale interpretation.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Mermaid here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Lost Boy by Christina Henry (2017)

 

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Review #73

Have you ever wondered what sparked the endless hostility between Peter Pan and Captain James Hook? What is Peter wasn’t the happy-go-lucky boy that everyone loves and remembers? In this revisionist fairy tale, the world of Neverland is explored as never before, through the eyes of a boy named Jamie and his best friend, Peter.

J.M. Barrie’s classic children’s novel has remained popular for more than one hundred years. Since 1904 kids and adults have been captivated by the story of the boy who never grew up and instead had thousands of adventures with his troop of lost boys in the woods of Neverland. One of the many factors that have contributed to Peter Pan’s enduring popularity is the ambiguity surrounding its main character. Peter has been depicted by both male and female actors. He has been the brave hero, rescuing his friends from the clutches of Captain Hook. He has been the coward who flees from responsibility in favor of his eternal games. My favorite adaptation, 2003’s Peter Pan starring Jeremy Sumpter and Jason Isaacs, shows Peter as a boy on the brink of puberty who lacks the maturity to deal with adult emotions such as love and instead hides behind a false bravado.

In Christina Henry’s re-imagining of the Neverland world, Peter is portrayed as an emotionally indifferent sociopath who lures boys away with promises of a life filled with fun and adventure. Countless years of fighting pirates, crocodiles, and the enigmatic creatures known as the Many-Eyed have left Peter twisted and morally decrepit. His lost boys exist only to admire and love Peter and to participate in the violent and dangerous games he invents. If the boys become sick, injured, or homesick for their former lives, Peter turns a blind eye to their suffering and often orchestrates for those boys to meet with some fatal “accident”. His oldest and most loyal friend, Jamie, is the one who has shouldered the burden of caring for the lost boys and trying to keep them alive for as long as possible.

Henry’s vision of Neverland differs wildly from the version we’ve seen in the past. Certain elements such as the fairies and the mermaids are barely recognizable from the original source material while other characters aren’t present at all. This is a dark and dangerous Neverland that presents a daily struggle for survival. The rivalry and violence between the lost boys is often more reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies rather than the cheerful Disney characters we remember from childhood.

At under two-hundred pages, this is a relatively short novel. I honestly found myself wishing that I could have spent more time in Henry’s version of Neverland. The climax in particular, felt rushed. Going in, we all know how Jamie’s story is going to end, but getting there was a wild, exciting, and often sad journey. After all, all little boys grow up…except one. Never has that sentence sounded more sinister.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Lost Boy here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (1968)

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Review #13

 

As a child I was obsessed with fantasy and fairy tales. I was also completely horse-mad, as only a little girl growing up in farm country can be. The 1982 film adaptation of this book was one of my favorite movies back in the glory days of VHS. So how I managed to go thirty years without picking up a copy of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn is a complete mystery to me. But I’m so very glad I finally did.

The Last Unicorn is the purest form of fairy tale. Between its slim pages contain a marvelous world of decrepit old witches, terrifying monsters, heroic princes, and miserly kings. Coexisting with all these fantastical creatures are a wonderfully diverse cast of ordinary folk.

It is also a classical fairy tale in that it is was not written as a children’s story. In the tradition of the Brothers Grimm, The Last Unicorn is like a rosebush, lovely on the outside but beware the thorns. The descriptions of the harpy and the Red Bull are sure to frighten small children. There is a sadness and a weight underlying Beagle’s narrative, and a happily ever after is no guarantee. I do think this would be the perfect book for parents to read to children who are old enough to handle more mature themes. The overall plot is simple enough to understand and they will delight in the vivid descriptions of the unicorn and her companions.

I criticized an earlier fantasy novel on this blog for its use of overly flowered, obnoxious metaphors. That author should take a page from Beagle’s book, for every single sentence in this story flows naturally and fluidly into the other. Take, for example:

“The unicorn lived in a lilac wood, and she lived all alone. She was very old, though she did not know it, and she was no longer the careless color of sea foam but rather the color of snow falling on a moonlit night. But her eyes were still clear and unwearied, and she still moved like a shadow on the sea.”

That’s the opening paragraph from the novel. With these few short sentences, Beagle draws his reader in and paints in their minds the portrait of a lone unicorn in a magical forest. The rest of the story continues in a similar fashion, leading the reader on a delightful journey that ends too soon.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, fairy tales, or just a really beautifully written story.

My rating: 4.5/5

You can find The Last Unicorn here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!