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 Four: Her Own Person

CHAPTER FOUR: Her Own Person

 

KING CORMAC

 

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.

 

QUEEN BRONNAGH

 

“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.

 

***

GWENDOLYN

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.

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Three: The Fated Princess

Haven’t read Chapter Two? Click here!

GWENDOLYN

Lush green fields raced by 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. 

In the distance, thunder growled low. 

The horse 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, Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke clung to the horse’s mane.

Come on girl. You can do it. 

Ahead of her, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high. 

Gwen 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.

It was made of sturdy stone, stacked almost five feet high.

Gwen’s stomach surged with adrenaline.  

Almost there…

Now!

Gwen leaned forward, digging her fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane. 

Her gasp was lost to the rising wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered her powerful muscles and launched over the wall. 

For a sudden, breathless moment, they hung in midair. Gwen’s blue cloak fell back, revealing a mass of untamed, curly red hair. 

Then the horse’s front hooves touched the muddy ground on the other side, followed by her hindquarters. Gwen felt the impact radiate through her hips as the mare continued her wild gallop, hardly breaking stride.

She sat up slowly, giving the horse a signal to come 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.

Gwen patted the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!” 

Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and she wiped them away with a careless hand and took a deep, exhilarating breath.

The freshly turned earth from the surrounding fields smelled of rich, peaty earth. 

Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the rsing wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders. 

Triumph still glittered in her 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 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 Gwen leaned laid a calming hand on her flank. 

“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. 

Rain began to fall, darkening Gwen’s auburn hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head. 

Within minutes, they 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.

“Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approvingly, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.

The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at the horse’s well-muscled flanks. 

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.”

A jolt of guilt hit her in the stomach, and 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 her horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself. As she walked, she reminded herself to take small, feminine steps, lest her skirts fly up and show that she was wearing men’s riding leathers under her skirts. The deerskin was worn shiny by years of use.

“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her. 

Gwen rolled her eyes, but a smile tugged at her lips. “Oh don’t worry. I’m sure they’ve invited enough pretty girls to satisfy you.”

“There are never enough pretty girls to satisfy me,” Ronan laughed. 

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.

Her smile, already weak, faded entirely.

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.

 

***

 

KING CORMAC

 

King Cormac watched from the northern tower as Gwen rode her horse into the central courtyard of the castle.

As always the sight of his eldest daughter unsettled him. He tried, whenever he could, not to lay eyes on her. For every time he did, he was reminded of the bargain he                                         had struck with the Fae. 

And the price he had paid. 

In the early days, he had ordered Gwen’s nurses to keep a constant vigil, fearful that at an unguarded moment, the Fae might whisk away his tiny daughter.

But he soon found trouble keeping a reliable nurse for the princess. The nursemaids would come, stay a few months, then leave after rumors came to their ears that the babe in their charge was promised to the Fae. This went on for months before his wife wrote a letter to her noble family back in Peralorne. A suitable woman, with a reasonable head on her shoulders and no time for “superstitious nonsense” arrived two weeks later.

Cormac never found out exactly who leaked the terrible truth about his bargain to the outside world. Nor how they had known in the first place. It had certainly not been his queen.

When he had returned to Bronnagh after his dealings with the Fae, he had found her sleeping peacefully, with a tiny child asleep at her breast.

He had cast one look at his child, his firstborn–and shut his eyes against her. It would do no good for him to love this girl. But at least his bride had been spared. Bronnagh lived, and together they could have more children.

The midwives had been petrified, white-faced and shaking. They had seen the queen draw her last breath–had known the utter hopelessness of saving the baby entangled the child in her womb.

And then without warning–Bronnagh had cried aloud, sitting almost upright on the birthing bed. Another shout, and she had pushed her daughter, pink-faced and screaming, with no cord wrapped about it’s neck, into the world.

Later, when the girl had been taken away to be fed by the wetnurse, he had told Bronnagh of the bargain he had made with the Fae. The queen howled like demon and struck him over and over with fists made weak by her recent brush with death. Cormac restrained her, holding her arms at her sides and begging for understanding and forgiveness. 

Eventually the two of them had both dissolved into tears, the first Cormac had shed since the death of his father. Then, with the practical mindset which she had always possessed, Bronnagh ceased lamenting the past and turned her eyes towards the future. 

Cormac had tried to do the same, though he stayed away from the nursery in the western wings as much as possible. 

By the time Gwen was six months old, her eyes had changed to a clear blue-gray. “Spirit eyes”, the peasants whispered under their breath. Many people in Dunnhawke had blue eyes, but they took any opportunity to whisper of any unnaturalness in the baby princess.

As King, Cormac had every right to strike off the head of anyone spreading slander against the royal house, but he never took action. It did no good to punish simple folks for knowing the truth.

The whole kingdom held its breath on Gwen’s first birthday. Many were already certain that the baby had been long ago replaced by a changeling–a vile twin from the faerie realm.

But Cormac had known that the Fae had not come for her yet. Their messenger–or whatever foul thing he had treated with inside of the circle that night–had made it clear.

Gwen would not be replaced. She would be taken. 

The air in the tower was warm, but Cormac shivered under his richly embroidered doublet. He watched his daughter dismount her mare with an easy grace. She was strong and beautiful and Cormac wished he could just be rid of her already. Anything to be rid of the constant, wrenching guilt that came every time he saw her. 

As Gwen had grown, the nurses and maids had carried tales of the accursed child beyond the wall 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 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 Bronnagh gave birth to a healthy son only eleven months later, the people had rejoiced to hear of an heir in the cradle. The boy was named Ronan, after Cormac’s father. 

And barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh had given birth again, this time to twin sons who were named Sean and Seamus.

Thus, a healthy legacy was secured.

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 Cormac’s sons and daughters 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 of 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, hissing or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against bad luck.

They all feared to get too close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.

Cormac watched from high above as Gwen led her horse into the stables. She did not smile at those around her, and they did not smile at her. 

He shut his eyes. Eighteen years had passed since the long ago day when he had offered up his own flesh and blood in exchange for his crown.

I wish they would just take her already.

Cormac wasn’t sure when his guilt towards his daughter had blossomed into resentment. All he knew was that anything had to be better than this constant, neverending reminder that the sins of his past were still waiting to revisit him. 

Song of the Siren: Chapter Three

Be sure to check out chapters One and Two!

 

CHAPTER THREE: Betty and Veronica

 

Doctor Lydia Wu was a tiny woman in her mid-fifties. Her jet black hair was shot through with gray, but her eyes were lively as she addressed the group of four graduate students standing on Surveyor’s foredeck. All of them were sweating profusely under the tropical summer sun.

“Welcome everyone, to the Tonga trench. Over the next three days, we will be collecting saltwater samples from different depths using these two manually controlled ROV submersibles.”

She gestured towards two machines that resembled overly-engineered pool cleaners. One was a shiny daffodil yellow, the other a gleaming ebony. Both were mounted with a framework of powerful LED bulbs and equipped with a row of glass vials for collecting samples.

“By now you’ve all completed a virtual demonstration on how we control these remotely operated vehicles, but you’ll soon find that the real thing is much different. For example, Betty–” she laid an affectionate hand on the fiberglass hull of the yellow submersible, “Betty’s left arm sticks a little when retracting, and you’ll have to be careful negotiating any tight spaces, or it could become bent out of shape.”

Doctor Wu turned and ran her other hand along the black frame of the second machine, “Now Veronica, she’s a spitfire. She responds to the slightest change in the controls, and if you’re too heavy-handed she’ll rocket straight into the bedrock. 

“Both of my girls can take a few bumps and keep going, but have a care. It would be a shame if anything happened to either of these machines because they cost me five years of begging for grant money. Most of the modifications, I’ve done myself. Basically–I like both of them far more than I like any of you,” 

Her words were stern but the professor grinned as she continued outlining the technical aspects of the ROVs. 

Both Betty and Veronica had been specially designed to navigate the crushing pressure and pitch dark of the deep ocean. Their fiberglass hulls were nine inches thick, and metal rods around the bottom formed a kind of roll cage around the inner workings of the battery-powered motor. 

Both submersibles had arms that could be extended and used to remotely manipulate objects. Three cameras, enclosed in titanium pressure casings, were spaced at various intervals along the side of the machines, facing downward, outward, and back in toward the submersible itself. 

They were operated by a combination of computer navigation and manual controls that resembled two old Nintendo joysticks. A portable electronics bay had been assembled on Surveyor’s deck, complete with three HD display screens, a sonar system, and an infrared sensor. Every available bit of data would be recorded and sent to the backup drive in the main science laboratory. Whatever the ROVs saw, the control team would view instantly.

With a sweep of her arm, Doctor Wu stepped aside so that her class could have a full view of the machinery. “Who wants to take one of my lovely girls for a spin? Mr. MacGregor?”

Malcolm blushed scarlet red as all eyes suddenly turned towards him.

Doctor Wu either didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care. She waved him forward. “As the sole gentleman among us, would you care to ask Betty for a dance?”

The three female students in his research group tittered as Malcolm hesitantly left the safety of the group and joined his professor next to the yellow submersible. It was about the size of a Labrador, and something about the positioning of the lights suggested curious, friendly eyes. For a robot, Betty was really quite cute.

Now he just had to make sure she stayed that way.

A thick cable extended from the back of the submersible, which was currently attached to a metal winch. Doctor Wu moved to a large control panel, which was lit up with green and red buttons. Malcolm fumbled with the joysticks, trying to get a feel for the buttons that controlled the ROVs arm movements. 

The metal davit which held Betty began to swing in a slow arc. The little robot was lifted into the air, swaying gently as the mechanical arm swung across Surveyor’s deck until Betty was poised expectantly over the side of the ship. 

With a creak of metal, the winch was released and she dropped into the aquamarine waters of the Pacific. The monitors flickered to life as Betty’s motion-activated cameras turned on.

 “We’re at your leisure, Mr. MacGregor,” the professor said dryly. 

Malcolm stared at the controllers in his hands, struggling to remember the hours he had spent with the simulator back at university lab in San Diego.

Forward. He cautiously pushed the joystick forward a millimeter.

Nothing happened. The eyes of the rest of the class burned into his back, and Malcolm felt his cheeks flood again with heat. Competition among graduate students was fierce, and while Malcolm was on friendly terms with his fellow research assistants, he knew they would secretly love to watch him fail.

He applied more pressure on the controls, and there was a whirring sound from beneath the deck as Betty’s battery-operated generator came to life. The group peered over the sides of the ship as the little yellow robot came to life.

Malcolm watched on the monitors as the submersible pushed quietly through the crystalline waters. He waited until the ROV was a safe distance from the belly of Surveyor, then began exploring the underwater world that teemed beneath their feet.

It was a riot of color and movement. Schools of fish were swarmed under deep belly of the research vessel, drawn by the promise of cool shade and shelter. 

Malcolm smiled and felt himself relax when he turned Betty’s in the water just in time to catch an enormous swordfish, at least ten feet long, shoot past and out of sight.

As Betty ventured further away from Surveyor, the metal davit extended over the deck continued to feed out a thick black cord. This cord ran from a port on Betty’s back, onto the deck and down into a large storeroom in the main hold of the ship. 

This cord was nearly two miles long. Veronica’s was even longer, at three miles. These cords could be attached to create one single length that would extend nearly five miles down into the Tonga Trench.

This was why they had come. The goal was to land a submersible on the bottom of the abyss. 

Malcolm shifted forward, and Betty began descending. The darting schools of fish were left behind as the waters began to grow darker. Colder. He flipped a switch on the central control panel near the monitors, and the ROVs powerful LED flashlights clicked on, their bright beams shining in all directions but focused on the area directly ahead and beneath the submersible.

Everyone gathered behind him, watching the monitors as Betty’s lights cut a path through the increasingly dark waters. Malcolm ignored them, completely absorbed in the silent, eerie world displayed in the view of Betty’s cameras. A pinging came from the navigation system, indicating that they’d reached their target. A wide grin spread across his face.

This was it.

Far below Betty’s gleaming yellow body, like a fatal wound carved into the surface of the Earth, was the trench. 

“That’s far enough for today, Mr. MacGregor,” Doctor Wu said from over his shoulder. Malcolm had no idea when she had appeared at his side. Reluctantly, he passed the controls over to one of his classmates and moved to the back of the group.

“Well done, Malcolm. You were a natural,” the professor said approvingly before turning back to the monitors. She began outlining their various duties over the next three days.

 

****

 

Later that evening, Malcolm climbed exhaustedly into his tiny cabin. He yanked off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and threw it in the corner. He followed this with his pants and shoes then collapsed onto the narrow bed, groaning with frustration that his window didn’t open. 

He had just spent the last eight hours in the confines of the main scientific laboratory on the main deck of Surveyor. His task was to run various saltwater samples that were collected by Betty and Veronica as he and the other graduate assistants took turns learning how to operate the ROVs in preparation for tomorrow’s long descent into the trench.

The process was long and tedious, but he normally loved the quiet repetition of lab work. Malcolm tended to stammer through any conversation not strictly on the topic of marine biology, he reveled in the relative silence of sample analysis.

The problem was that the science lab, like everywhere else on the ship, was unbearably stuffy. The rooms were temperature controlled, and since the samples they were currently studying had been taken from warm, tropical waters, the graduate students sweltered in rooms that were kept at a constant 82*F.

Thousands of miles out on the open ocean, Surveyor had different priorities than air-conditioning. She was only two hundred feet long from port to stern, and ran with a crew of ten, plus Doctor Wu and her research assistants.

Any available space that wasn’t strictly necessary to keep the ship afloat was given over to science labs. Surveyor had four temperature-controlled wetlabs for keeping live specimens. There were also three dry labs that were used to analyze the saltwater samples taken each day. There was a tiny room with a salinometer, which was used to track changes in the salt levels of the various ocean depths. There was a separate lab which could be used to study those deep-sea organisms that would die away from the crushing pressure of the abyssal region.

The ship was teeming with research equipment that Malcolm had been itching for to use in a practical environment for more than four years. Being chosen for this internship had been a huge achievement, and competition had been fierce. Sometimes Malcolm could still hardly believe he had been chosen, especially since at twenty-two, he was the youngest member of the team by three years.

That said, Surveyor had been built with a mind towards its fishy inhabitants, not its human ones.. He rolled over on the thin mattress, staring at the rivets and steel beams that crisscrossed the ceiling. 

The gentle rocking of the ship, combined with the intense heat, was beginning to give him a splitting headache. Malcolm pressed a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed.

This trip was the culmination of seven year’s worth of work and sweat and determination and dreams.

And here he was, fighting down a wave of seasickness. 

“Get a grip,” he said to himself sternly.

But there was nothing to be done. The tiny walls of the cabin were closing in.

He thought about taking a shower, but the communal bathroom was even more claustrophobic than his bunk, and was shared between all five of the graduate assistants. Just yesterday he had been washing in one of the three stalls when Molly Parker walked in nonchalantly and took the stall next to him. The walls of each stall were almost floor-to-ceiling, and made of thick, white plastic, but that had not stopped Malcolm from nearly having a panic attack at her proximity.

He was not very comfortable around women. Even women who had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever outside of a professional capacity.

It had been this way for years.

Sighing, Malcolm decided instead to go head back up to Surveyor’s top deck. Doctor Wu had given her research team the evening off, and there were plans for everyone to meet in the ship’s rec room to watch Jaws.

Because what else would you want to watch when thousands of feet of water sat between you and solid ground?

Coming up next, Syra meets with the High Priestess. Click here for Chapter Four!

Mirror Image: Chapter One: The Interview

 

“Hannah! Move your ass we’re going to be late!” I called down the hallway, then turned back to the bathroom mirror.

My heart pounded in my chest as I leaned in close to my reflection, trying to keep my hand steady as I swept light brown eyeshadow over one closed lid.

Perfect. Everything has to be perfect today. I started on the other lid.

“Holly, have you seen my black leather jacket?” came a jarring voice directly behind my ear. Startled, the makeup brush jolted upwards, painting a swatch of eyeshadow over my brow and up to my forehead.

“Dammit, Hannah,” I said with a sigh, reaching for a tissue. “Your leather jacket is in the front closet. Where I hung it last night after you threw it on the ground.”

My hands shook as I wiped off the errant makeup.

“Thanks, sis. You’re a dream,” Hannah said, coming up next to me and giving me a swift kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and picked the makeup brush off the counter.

For a moment, I looked back at my own reflection, and its mirror image standing beside me. Hannah’s waist-length blonde hair was the same honey-gold shade of my own. She had the same blue-green eyes, the same slender physique.

We were carbon copies of one another, down to the identical spray of freckles across our noses, though Hannah’s were harder to spot under her deep brown tan. She’d recently returned from a semester studying abroad in Australia and, in addition to the tan, now sported a steel bar through the upper cartilage of her left ear.

Hannah’s numerous piercings, as well as the red-and-gold tattoo of a phoenix that spread across her shoulder blades, were the only way that people could really tell us apart.

My twin’s reflection in the mirror met my own. Hannah’s eyes traveled down my outfit, her brow raised in disapproval.

“You cannot wear that,” she said.

“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I cried in dismay. I looked down at my watch. We needed to be out the door in seven minutes if I was going to drop my sister off at her audition.

“You look like you’re going to an interview at a Catholic school, not one of the top advertising firms in Chicago.” Hannah said, her pink-stained lips pulled sideways into a smirk.

“It’s not…that bad,” I said, but my heart plummeted as I looked down at the brown tweed skirt and the loose jacket I was wearing over a collared white shirt.

Okay so it was a little conservative, but I needed to be taken seriously today. I needed to look like someone who was ready to be a junior copywriter at Fleischmann and Carter.

Hannah laughed. I took in her outfit, torn mesh leggings over a neon yellow skirt and a black t-shirt with a rainbow zebra on the front. Her eyes were rimmed with thick black eyeliner, and several hoops dangled from each of her ears.

“So you think I should dress like you, Ms. David Bowie?” I said.

Hannah was already crossing to her bedroom, so I was spared her sarcastic mumblings. I used the brief moment of peace to finish adding the final touches to my makeup.

I met my eyes in the mirror. You can do this, Holly.

You’ve already been there for four months. You’ve earned this.

I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself.

I’d spent the summer after graduating from the University of Illinois doing an unpaid internship at Fleischmann and Carter. For four months—sometimes for more than twelve hours a day—I’d run in heels through the corridors, fetching coffee, organizing files, and generally being the office gopher along with nine other recent college grads.

Now that the summer was over, the board of directors was prepared to offer full-time positions to only two of us. And I was determined that one of them would be me.

Hannah came stomping back into the bedroom, holding a creamy blush-rose dress over one arm and a black Neiman Marcus blazer in the other.

“Put these on,” she said, thrusting the clothes into my arms and crossing her own impatiently.

“Where did you even get these?” I said, taking a look at the designer labels on the clothes. “Dad said no more credit cards after that debacle in Sydney.”

“Yes—well—I bought these before that,” Hannah said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.

Hannah had what our father wearily referred to as “champagne taste on a beer budget”.

Thankfully, she also had excellent taste in fashion, and I yanked off my jacket and skirt right there in the bathroom and pulled the dress over my head.

The slippery satin hugged my curves like a second skin. It had a deep, cowled neckline that hinted at cleavage without actually revealing any. I tugged on the blazer and fastened the middle button, noticing as I did how well it fit.

It helped to have a roommate with my exact dimensions.

Hannah ran off to locate her leather jacket, and I took one last appraising glance in the mirror. She was right, this dress looked classy and sophisticated. Like a woman ready to take on the world, not a nervous twenty-one year old woman with all her hopes on the line.

I fought the urge to fidget with my hair, which was smoothed back into a glossy high ponytail.

Okay Holly. Now or never.


“Are you sure it’s okay if you skip class today?” I said to Hannah as I turned down headed east towards Lake Michigan. The September sun felt more like mid-July; the city was practically baking with heat even early in the morning.

“I told you, I already cleared it with my professors. I only have two classes on Friday anyway. Stop worrying,” Hannah said, her nose buried in her phone.

“Someone has to worry about your future, it’s not like you’re going to,” I replied, prickling with irritation. The only reason my sister had two classes on Friday was because she had dropped all of the others when they threatened to interfere with her “auditions”

“I’m singing at Lymelyght!” she cried, finally looking up from her phone. “It’s one of the hottest nightclubs in the city and they want me to audition! Don’t tell me I’m not thinking about my future.”

I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was in no mood to provoke Hurricane Hannah this morning. “If it’s a nightclub, why is the audition so early in the morning?” I asked instead, searching for neutral ground.

“Because I’m auditioning for the opening act, at seven o’clock at night. I’m not important enough to get to sleep in,” she said dryly, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.

I smiled at the familiar gesture. I fidgeted the same way when I was nervous, it was one of the reasons I’d pulled my hair back into a ponytail for my interview.

Benedict Carter couldn’t stand useless fidgeting–he’d told me once when I’d delivered his mail.

I turned off LaSalle and headed north. The streets were so jam-packed with other cars, bicycles, and hapless tourists that my Jeep Wrangler could only move forward a few inches at a time.

I checked my watch again. 9:15. I still had forty-five minutes until my interview.

“Are you okay to get back on the train?” I asked Hannah. “I probably won’t be back at the apartment until later tonight.” Normally we used the complex network of trains and buses to get downtown, but today I had made an exception, fearful of any public transit delay outside of my control.

“Yes, Mom,” Hannah replied, once again focused on her phone.

I pulled up in front of Lymelyght, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the deliberate misspelling.

“Text me the second it’s over. Break a leg, Banana,” I said, using my childhood nickname for her.

“You too, Jolly. Knock ’em dead,” Hannah said, leaning over the center console to give me a fierce hug.

A truck honked its horn loudly behind us. “Gotta go, sis!” she said, giving me one more hard squeeze before swinging open the door of the Jeep.

Words of caution rose to my lips, but I bit them back. Hannah wouldn’t appreciate my mother-henning. She never had.

I watched her walk towards the darkened nightclub, tall and confident in knee-high combat boots. She looked utterly fearless, which of course she was.

I was the twin with the pile of anxiety.

I met my own gaze in the rearview mirror.

I can’t worry about Hannah now. I’ve got my own date with destiny.

***

Two of my fellow interns were already waiting outside the boardroom of Fleischmann and Carter when I arrived. James had his dark brown hands clasped fervently together as if in prayer. Vivian eyed me with cool disdain, already mentally dismissing me as a rival.

I fought the urge to chew on my bottom lip and took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs next to James. “Who’s in there now?” I asked quietly.

“Tommy,” he grunted, not looking up.

I breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy Hawthorne was a lazy little bastard who thought his Daddy’s name could get him whatever he wanted in life. He’d spent the summer lounging in the break room, cracking jokes while the rest of us worked our asses off. If there was any justice in the world, he’d be in for an unpleasant surprise when he faced the board.

I leaned back in the comfortable leather chair and closed my eyes, mentally checking off the four people I would need to impress today.

David Fleischmann was the only remaining member of the original advertising team that had opened back in the 1960′s. Now nearing eighty-five, he was still as sharp-eyed and razor-tongued as ever. I’d managed to earn praise from him only once during my short time with the firm—for a piece of copywriting that had been chosen by one of their top clients—and desperately hoped he’d remember me.

Janet Choo would be tough, but she probably knew me best. The head marketing director, she had a no-nonsense personality and I knew she loathed privileged little toads like Tommy Hawthorne. I had worked directly under her for months, and I knew she saw how hard I worked by the way she didn’t dog my heels the way she did some of the other interns.

Evelyn Fleischmann, David’s daughter and sole heir, didn’t scare me too much. She had little interest in the day-to-day running of the business, preferring to spend her father’s millions jet-setting around the globe. When I’d learned she would be among the interviewers, I was secretly surprised she deigned to notice us lowly interns at all, let alone that she would care which of us was chosen to work there permanently.

It was more likely that she was in town because she had her eyes on Benedict Carter, the fourth member of the board and the one I was most worried about impressing. Mostly because every time I was in the same room as him, I had a strange tendency to drop whatever I was holding at the time.

The first time I met him was my second day at Fleischmann and Carter. I’d been shown a bulky metal pushcart bursting over with undelivered mail and told to discreetly place it in the inboxes of the various cubicles and executive offices. The cart had a broken caster, and kept veering to the left no matter how hard I tried to correct it. I bumped my way down the carpeted hall, too new and frightened to make eye contact with anyone.

When I got to the frosted glass door marked “Carter”, I paused nervously. My hair was in a long braid over my shoulder, and I found myself nervously fidgeting with the blonde tail of it, running the smooth strands between my fingers again and again as I tried to summon the courage to enter the Vice-President’s office.

I stayed there so long my eyes must have taken on a glazed, unfocused look when the door opened outward, banging into the corner of my pushcart. A scowling head popped over the door, glaring in my direction.

“Do you mind?” a cool voice asked. It belonged to the most gorgeous face I’d ever laid eyes on.

Benedict Carter had thick, wavy brown hair and a chiseled square jaw covered by a day-old’s growth of beard. His nose was straight and fine, framed by hazel eyes flecked with green. Right now, they were narrowed at me in annoyance.

“I seem to be trapped in my office,” he said with a raised brow. His voice contained a hint of a laugh.

My cheeks flamed scarlet. I tried to move the pushcart but the broken caster caught on the edge of a rug and wouldn’t budge. “I—sorry sir, I—”

With one powerful motion he slammed the door open, sending the pushcart flying backwards. I gaped at him, taking in the tailored charcoal suit that didn’t quite hide his powerful muscles.

Mr. Carter looked at me, his eyes trailing over my nondescript black pants and blue blouse.

I was mortified. “Sorry, sir. I was just about to—” I stammered, still nervously running my fingers through the loose end of my braid.

“Stop fidgeting,” he snapped. I froze, my hands falling from my hair. The vice-president of Fleischmann and Carter had the power to fire me at whim. My career in advertising could be over the moment it began if he decided I wasn’t worth keeping around.

Terrified, I flicked my eyes up to meet his. His face softened as he took in my rigid posture, my inflamed cheeks. He leaned forward, bending his tall form to whisper in my ear. “It betrays you, Never let them see your fear.”

Mr. Carter had straightened and walked off without another word. That was my only day delivering mail before I was assigned to Janet Choo’s copywriting team, and I barely saw him in the following weeks. When I did, he didn’t acknowledge me or show any sign that he recognized me at all. Not that I blamed him. I was just another grunt, entirely beneath his notice.

But that didn’t stop my eyes from drinking him in every time I saw him in the halls. Over the months I learned that he favored dark gray suits and had a tie in every color of the rainbow, though he seemed to favor red.

I also heard some scandalizing rumors about him from some of the other interns.

Apparently our vice-president was a total playboy, only interested in chasing the next piece of tail across Chicago. And once he’d claimed his prize, he was off in search of different prey.

Not that I cared. I only needed to get through this one interview without getting tripped up and tongue-tied every time I looked at his hazel-green eyes and full mouth.

Without imagining that mouth kissing the skin of my neck, his large hands trailing down my arms to caress my breasts before traveling south to my—

“Miss Mason? Are we disturbing your beauty sleep?”

My eyes snapped open. I’d been resting my hand against the back of the chair for so long it probably did look as though I’d fallen asleep.

Benedict Carter was standing in the doorway of the boardroom, looking down at me with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression on his face.

My jaw dropped open, and I shut it with an audible click. “No, not at all—I was just preparing—”

He knew my name.

My heart kicked up twelve notches in one second, leaving me slightly dizzy.

“I’m sure you were,” Mr. Carter said, one side of his mouth pulling upward into a smirk. “And while I’d hate to deprive you of your rest, it’s time for your interview.”

Blood rushed to my face. I glanced at James, whose jaw was clenched tightly. Then to Vivian, who looked like she wanted to dig my eyes out of my skull.

“They—they were waiting here first,” I stammered, desperately hoping for twenty minutes with which to compose my thoughts.

He quirked a dark brow. “I won’t ask again, Miss Mason,” he said, then turned and went back inside the boardroom.

I bolted out of my seat, cast a guilty—yet somewhat triumphant—look at James and Vivian, and followed Benedict Carter into the interview.

***

Fifteen minutes later, I exited the boardroom from the back door, casting a silent thank-you to the heavens that I was spared facing my fellow interns as tears welled in my eyes.

I brushed them away with one hand, straightening my shoulders as I made my way down the main hallway of Fleischmann and Carter towards the bathroom.

Never let them see your fear.

I held it together until I had locked the stall door behind me.

Only then did I allow the tears to fall.

The interview had been a disaster. I’d been flustered from the start, unable to organize my thoughts into a coherent thought pattern. When David Fleischmann asked me about where I saw myself in five years, I’d blinked dumbly at him before mumbling something about “higher positions” and blushing furiously.

Hannah never blushed. From our earliest years she was the twin who could lie with a straight face, who could put on that smooth stage mask and hide her true feelings from the world.

Right now, I hated her for it. Wished that my every emotion wasn’t broadcast across my forehead like a Las Vegas billboard.

Benedict Carter had asked only one question during the interview. It was in between Janet Choo’s praising of my dedicated work–for which I definitely owed her a box of her favorite macarons—and Evelyn Fleischmann’s off-hand compliment about my dress—for which I definitely owed my twin a box of her favorite truffled chocolates.

Mr. Carter had leaned forward from his place on the other side of the wide conference table. There was a predatory gleam in his eye. “Miss—Mason,” he’d said, pausing to look at my resume as if he needed help remembering my last name, “Most of the products you’ve worked on during your time here focus on products that cater towards women ages nineteen to twenty-five, correct?”

“Yes, I particularly enjoyed working with Ms. Choo on the Perkins soap campaign–” I stopped when he held up a hand.

“I see that. My question is in regards to your–adaptability. How would you change your marketing strategy to cater to say–men ages thirty to forty-five?”

My mind went completely, utterly blank. All I could think about was that he was about that age, maybe around thirty-five or so. My restless hands traveled towards my neck, but I clasped them firmly in my lap.

No fidgeting. It betrays you.

“I—I would try to—” I stammered uselessly. “I guess I would try to give them whatever they desired.”

The moment the words left my mouth I felt my cheeks grow hot. I hadn’t mentioned SEO, hadn’t given my rehearsed blurb about not being daunted by new challenges..

And Benedict Carter’s gaze was still piercing into me. I felt his eyes on the neckline of my dress and thanked Hannah that she had chosen something relatively modest.

I opened my mouth to continue, but a harsh cough from Evelyn Fleischmann cut me off. I couldn’t make out her exact expression through the Botox in her face, but her eyes were flinty. “Thank you, Miss Mason. We will make our decision by the end of next week and let you know.”

I saw the accusation in her eyes. I’d stared too long at the vice-president, when she’d already marked him for herself. Even though she had to be at least fifteen years older than him.

But there was nothing I could do except shake hands with the board and exit through the back door. Now I sat on the cool porcelain lid of the toilet, trying to rein in my tears.

My phone buzzed in my purse, and I fished it out.

HANNAH: How’d it go?

HANNAH: Are you a big time exec yet?

I chucked the phone back into my bag, resisting the urge to fling it across the bathroom floor. How could I face my sister after ruining my first real chance at getting my dream job?

My phone buzzed again but I ignored it, too deep in my misery to want to see Hannah’s encouraging texts. But when it buzzed again a split second later, I couldn’t resist digging my phone back out. Then I gawped, open-mouthed, at the screen.

I had two new texts, but they weren’t from Hannah.

They were from Janet Choo.

My fingers trembled as I unlocked the screen.

JANET: Unconfirmed, so don’t shout about it online just yet…but you’re in.

JANET: The board was very impressed by your work.

My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe as I typed back a reply.

HOLLY: ARE YOU SERIOUS??

HOLLY: Janet, I can’t even begin to thank you.

HOLLY: You stuck up for me in there.

JANET: Perhaps too much, it seems.

HOLLY: …

HOLLY: What do you mean?

JANET: Carter is pulling you off my projects.

HOLLY: He wants you on his personal team.

Book Review: Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

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Review 2.34

*this review contains spoilers*

I just finished this book about ten minutes ago, it’s 1:02 am, and I’ve had two (*cough* three) glasses of wine, but I just had to drag my tired ass over to my computer because I’m legit annoyed and I can’t quite determine why.

Except I do know why.

Kristin Hannah Stepmomed out on me.

I just invented this phrase, so allow me a moment to explain. When I was young, one of my mother’s favorite movies was Stepmom, a 1998 drama starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. If you don’t remember it, don’t worry. It was an emotionally manipulative tearjerker.

Just like this book.

In the film, Julia Roberts is a young hot-shot somethingorother who is dating some random male who is utterly unimportant to the story except as a plot device for drama. His former wife, Susan Sarandon, is super jealous of Julia Roberts and her shark-smile and the kids are acting out and blah blah blah none of this is really important at all except at some point all hatred and jealousy and teenage rebellion grinds to a screeching halt because of one terrible word…

I’d spell it out, but you can probably guess.

Please don’t take this to mean that I am belittling cancer victims, cancer survivors, their families, or the scientific and medical community; everyone that has been battling this disease with unending hope and bravery and fervor. Or that I mean to disparage the author, who lost her own mother to cancer. I lost my own grandmother this previous summer, and am still reeling from the loss.

I just didn’t like how it was addressed in this book. It felt shoehorned in.

I spent four hundred and fifty pages with Tully and Kate. I got to know them, got to love them. I was heavily invested in their friendship, which felt real and visceral in a way that female friendships are rarely depicted.

And then in the last thirty pages…cancer.

I don’t know why, but it cheapened the entire experience for me. I get that Hannah has felt the personal grief of the disease and wanted to share that with her readers, but it came so late in the game that it felt more like a plot device than a genuine moment in the narrative arc.

Maybe that’s just a horribly cynical thought. If so, sorry? I guess? I don’t know.

I’ve read a lot of really amazing books that deal with cancer and grief and loss. This book was not one of them. It is; however, an amazing portrayal of the lasting power of female friendship and I applaud Firefly Lane for that accomplishment.

Despite the turn towards high melodramatics, the ending was genuinely affecting and well written. This can be judged by the fact that it’s now 1:25 in the morning and I’m still here writing about it. Also, I cried so much I’ll have to put cold spoons on my eyes in the morning. *helpful hint – this reduces swelling and puffiness!*

My rating: 4.5/5 (any book that forces me to face the next day on less than five hours of sleep deserves that much)

You can find Firefly Lane here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!