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 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.

Song of the Siren: Chapter Five

If you haven’t checked out the first four chapters, be sure to click here first!

 

CHAPTER FIVE: THE ASCENT

What on Earth am I still doing out here? Malcolm thought to himself, staring out at the vast expanse of glittering stars.

He heaved a sigh, casting a glance around once more for Claude, or anyone else who might take an issue with his being on deck. As if star-gazing was a crime. Seeing no one, Malcolm nestled back down on the long bench he’d found on the starboard side of the ship. 

I should go inside. It’s got to be past midnight by now. And those lab samples will be done at six am sharp.

And he was going to have to face Molly Parker tomorrow. They were partners in the saltwater lab for this trip. Malcolm groaned, thinking of their uncomfortable encounter a few hours ago. Molly was older than him by a year or two, and Malcolm had assumed she was like the other two female grad students in thinking that he was “just a kid”.

But that assumption had quickly been proved false. He’d been sitting on one of the rec room’s battered sofas, watching Jaws with his fellow grad students. Lindsey and Sameera had been on one couch, he and Molly on the other. It was a large sofa, and there was plenty of room for both of them, so he had been mostly unaware of her presence.

Until the scene in the film when the crew of the Orca sees the killer shark for the first time. Malcolm had been prepared for the sight of the robotic great white, but utterly unprepared for the soft weight of Molly’s head on his shoulder. Or the feeling of her fingers coming to rest, butterfly soft, on his thigh.

Startled, Malcolm had jolted as if he’d been electrified, upending a bowl of popcorn over both of them in the process. Then, mortified, he’d stumbled off the couch, his long legs moving in a jerky, puppet-like fashion. 

From the other sofa, Lindsey and Sameera had collapsed in fits of giggles at his slapstick performance. Molly’s eyes were filled with reproach. She’d hurriedly brushed the popcorn off her jeans and left the rec room.

“Way to go, Romeo,” Lindsey scoffed, still fighting back laughter.

“Hey! Be nice,” Sameera said, trying to soothe any potential conflict. She turned to Malcolm. “Really, we’re sorry for laughing. But you looked like you sat on a cactus!” 

Malcolm’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He stammered something about getting some air, and headed towards the upper deck, the opposite way as Molly. While he trudged step after step, the echoing voices of Lindsey and Sameera followed him.

“Shit. I feel terrible. We shouldn’t have laughed.”

“Whatever. It’s not our fault that Ginger can’t figure out when a girl has a crush on him. What does Molly even see in that kid?”

“Aww…I think he’s sweet,” Sameera replied. Somehow, her defending him almost hurt worse than Lindsey’s deliberately spiteful words.

***

But there was no getting around it. He would have to face Molly Parker in just a few short hours. With a groan at how much work he had to get done tomorrow, Malcolm sat up on the bench. Then he paused, looking once more towards at the glittering spectacle of the heavens above him. 

Just a little longer. How could he go inside? It was like the heavens themselves had split open and revealed themselves to him. The brilliant white and pink band of the Milky Way stretched like a lazy tendril across the sky. Next to it, all other stars paled in significance, but Malcolm could still make out the bold bright arc of the Southern Cross.

Completely different stars than at home. But for Malcolm, this wasn’t entirely unusual. Some of his earliest memories had been of stacked cardboard cartons, and dusty moving vans that arrived at regular intervals to cart their belongings from one Navy base to another. By the time he was twelve, Malcolm had attended more than seven schools. By the time he graduated high school, he’d become an expert at not letting himself get close to anyone except his younger sister, Jo. 

It was just easier that way. Easier to not bother making friends that he would have to leave again in six or eight or twelve months. To not lie and make false promises about keeping in touch, when both parties knew that there was no point. Instead, Malcolm focused his attention on his books. On his schoolwork. And on the water.

One major perk of his mother being a Commander in the U.S. Navy was that Malcolm’s family was almost always stationed near the coast. From his earliest days, the ocean had fascinated him. Its ever-changing moods. The secrets hidden away beneath its depths. The way it could lap at the shore like a playful puppy one hour, only to crash into the rocks with brutal force the next. While other boys had spent their hours playing football or sneaking cigarettes, Malcolm more often found himself splashing around in tidepools, examining the various forms of life.

Vibrant blue starfish. Wickedly barbed purple sea urchins. He’d even found an octopus once, shyly tucked into the hollow of a large conch shell. It spat black ink at him and dashed off for a safer place to hide. Something about those tiny ecosystems–whole worlds that existed for only a few short hours in between the tides–fascinated him. 

Unlike the majority of his classmates, who were obsessed with surfing and sport-fishing, Malcolm felt no need to conquer the sea. And unlike his mother–and later Jo when she enlisted at eighteen–he didn’t see the ocean as a military tool to be wielded against one’s enemies.

No, for Malcolm, the sea represented one of the only constants in his life. He’d watched the sun sink into the horizon over the waters of Belize. He’d seen it break across the sky while standing on the pink-tinged sands of the Caribbean. 

Even now, aboard the cramped and uncomfortable Surveyor, Malcolm couldn’t think of a single place he’d rather be. On the wooden bench, Malcolm folded his hands behind his hand and took a deep, calming breath.

Clad only in a thin T-shirt and board shorts, the night air felt blessedly cool on his skin. The constant rocking of the ship was less pronounced up here, and Malcolm felt his earlier headache subsiding. His eyes fluttered shut, but the blazing path of stars still winked beneath his closed lids.

Like a waterfall of diamonds, he thought before he fell asleep.

 

***

 

As the highest-ranking and most seasoned warrior, Syra usually swam at the head of her warriors, her keen black eyes on the lookout for any danger. But not tonight. Tonight her sisters-in-arms swam around her in a protective phalanx, their krakanas poised and ready. Ceremonial tradition dictated that they escort her to the Barrier.

Normally, the Sereen never ventured this high, except for the unlucky scouts who were sent at intervals to scan the waters for offerings. So many of these females perished–eaten by sharks, or attacked by schools of ravenous tuna–that the expeditions had been limited to only three of four times a year.

A miracle, really, that this offering had been found in time to appease the restless gods. Syra took the human male’s timely arrival as a sign, a message that her time had come to take her place in the ancient ritual. And to avenge her mother.

Surrounded by her warriors, Syra swam upwards. The others rotated their bioluminescent flashes, creating a symphony of flickering light that sent a clear signal to any other forms of life who might be swimming in the vicinity.

These are our waters tonight. Do not trespass.

At some unknowable sign, some intangible change in the biological chemistry of the water, the warriors came to a halt. This was the Barrier. They could all sense it. The border between the silent darkness of their world, and the sunlit dangers of the Realm Above. From here, Syra must venture alone.

“May the gods send strength to you, my leader,” Mara said, pressing a hand to her forehead.

Regally, Syra nodded her head, then extended the arm that clutched her shark’s-jaw krakana. “In case I do not return. May it always strike true.”

This too was part of the tradition. Even though Syra’s second-in-command was not of her bloodline, she would be responsible for leading the hunters, should Syra fail to return. 

Should she be caught, and butchered by the humans. Just like her mother. 

Mara bowed deeply, and accepted the krakana on outstretched limbs. “I will watch over it, until your safe return.”

The sacred vows exchanged, Syra swam away from her comrades, up towards the surface. There were no tearful goodbyes, no pleading for her to stay. Everyone knew their duty. Syra most of all. 

The magic required to undergo the transformation was as old as the Sereen themselves. Ancient legends told of groups of females as many as twenty strong–all capable of changing form to lure young men down beneath the waves as offerings to the ever-hungry gods. But now, there was only Syra.

In a season or two, she would reach full maturity, and be ready to begin reproducing. Appropriate males were already being selected based on their virility. Her mother had died so young, after only one breeding season. It was of the utmost importance that her bloodline continue. 

But first, Syra must pass this test. She must lure the human down into the waters. And drown him.

For only the second time in her life, Syra felt the immense, crushing pressures of the deep ocean loosen their grip on her body. For many of the creatures that lived in her environment, an ascent to the surface would be a death sentence. But the Sereen were well equipped to withstand a variety of conditions, and Syra’s lungs expanded slowly to compensate for the difference in pressure. 

Her skin underwent a change as well, losing its scaly silver lustre and becoming smooth and golden-tan. This was the first part of the transformation, and Syra eyed her changed limbs in curiosity and revulsion. The fingers were shorter, with rounded nails instead of the pointed claws that Syra used to snatch up smaller prey.

Useless. However do the humans manage to survive? She felt the  straight, smooth ridges that had replaced her usual needle-sharp fangs. They have no teeth to speak of, either. Without these weapons, and absent her krakana–which was as much a part of her as her own tail fins–Syra felt naked.

The steadily brightening waters only added to her unease. For most of its residents, the ocean would appear as black as ever, but Syra’s enormous eyes, built for piercing through total darkness, were already beginning to ache from the light of the moon.

But then the next step of her transition began, and Syra’s eyes shrank back into her face, their solid black color gradually replaced by irises of vivid purple, rimmed with white. For the first time since beginning her long journey, Syra paused her upward swimming–alarmed as her keen night vision faded, leaving her nearly blind in the churning ocean waves.

She was near the surface now. She just needed to go a little farther. 

A few struggling moments later, Syra’s head broke through the waves. Her sensory tendrils were gone, replaced by flowing hair of the darkest black–the color of the waters of the Abyss. Her tail was intact, for the most part, though its dull purple undertones had brightened to the same bright purple as her eyes. But at least these eyes were designed to see above water, and she looked around at the surface, blinking in the light of the moon.

The light. Syra held one hand over her brow to block out the glow. Besides the half-moon, the sky was alight with stars. It was more light than Syra had ever seen in her life. It would take a hundred thousand teora to compete with this radiant brilliance. For a minute, she bobbed with her head above the water, transfixed by the beauty of the Realm Above.

Her body felt different, heavier in places than it had before. Where before there had only been sleek, well-trained muscle, now her upper body was curved and supple. At least my gills and tail fins are unchanged. As long as I remain mostly submerged, I will be able to swim to safety. But if she were to leave the water entirely–no, that must not be allowed to happen.

Syra lifted an arm, watching the way the drops of seawater sparkled under the stars. Then, she realized that hunting on the surface presented her with a significant disadvantage. With all this light, her prey would be able to see her coming before she got close enough to strike a killing blow.

Not that it mattered. Her most deadly weapon didn’t require close contact. But losing the ability of surprise only intensified the feeling of dread that had been building in Syra for hours. There is a touch of destiny on the seas tonight. Premonition tingled up her spine, and she flashed blue streaks up her bioluminescent ridges.

Except–nothing actually happened. Reaching around with one hand, Syra felt along her base of her spine, running carefully up and down. Her bioluminescent ridges were gone. They must have disappeared in the transformation. 

Syra clamped down on the panic that threatened to rise in her veins. Fear was unacceptable. She had known the risks when she accepted the honor of venturing to the Realm Above. She turned in the water, peering out with her surface-adapted eyes.

Still, she spotted the vessel easily. A long, hulking shadow, silhouetted against the bright sky. Her prey lay within. Syra dove beneath the waters, carefully not to make a splash as she kicked her tail powerfully, headed towards the ship.

An offering. It could mean the difference between survival and destruction for her people. The last time the Sereen had failed to deliver a sacrifice in time to appease the rage of the gods, the results had nearly meant their extinction. 

Syra’s head felt strangely heavy as she broke the surface once more, weighted down by the strange black hair that swirled around her. 

Finally, she was near enough to the vessel to begin summoning her prey.

The Sereen mainly communicated through clicks, flickers, and silent hand signals. But Syra’s transformation had shifted the arrangement of her vocal cords, allowing her to make more complex sounds.

Looking out towards the silently floating boat, Syra’s violet eyes narrowed with purpose.

She began to sing.

Song of the Siren: Chapter One

MALCOLM: AWAKE AT MIDNIGHT

Malcolm MacGregor awoke with a start in the middle of the night, and for a long moment he had no idea where he was. 

The room was pitch black; the only illumination coming from a pale strip of light under the door. 

He fumbled blindly in the dark until his seeking fingers found the switch to a bedside lamp and clicked it on. 

The melody of a dream still rang in his ears. Malcolm shook his head, trying to shake away the last echoes. He looked around, blinking rapidly in the sudden harsh light.

The room was tiny–designed to maximize efficiency. The bed was narrow and far too short to comfortably fit his lanky frame. A small wooden desk was bolted to one wall. A small, circular window stared out onto an inky darkness. 

The entire room seemed to be gently rocking. Malcolm’s disorientation lifted as he realized that he was in his quarters on board the scientific research vessel Surveyor, which was currently anchored ninety off the coast of Samoa. The view from outside his window was black because, as a lowly grad student, his bunk was in the lowest deck of cabins. 

The only reason he had a private room in the first place was because he was the only male grad student chosen for this internship. The three female graduate students shared a larger room on one of the upper decks.

Not that he minded. He preferred his privacy, and he had an amazing view of the colorful schools of fish outside his porthole window. 

Sleep faded from his mind, but Malcolm’s heart still hammered in his chest. What had woken him? The past three nights of the expedition he’d slept like a rock, lulled away by the faint hum of the ship’s engines and the peaceful rocking as it moved with the calmly lapping water.

Malcolm sleepily pulled on his glasses and checked the time on his phone.

3:45. Ugh. No point in going back to sleep; he had to be up and dressed in barely more than an hour to begin prepping the day’s saltwater samples. The sun would be up soon anyway; the summertime days in the Pacific began early.

Malcolm crept out of his cabin and down the silent hallway before making his way up the metal stairs at the end of the corridor and up to Surveyor’s top deck. It was eerily still and silent up here; no one else was stirring at this early hour and Malcolm felt like he had the ship to himself. 

Finally away from the low ceilings and cramped belowdecks of the research vessel, Malcolm stretched to his full height and uttered a quiet sigh of contentment. Then he raised his arms above his hand, continuing the stretch and raising his head towards the night sky.

His breath caught in his throat as he beheld the blanket of twinkling stars that stretched from horizon to horizon. Hundreds of miles from the nearest city, the stars shone in their hundreds of millions. The constellations were new and strange to Malcolm’s eyes.

Of course. They’re completely different stars than San Diego.  

 

A tiny splash from the starboard deck snapped Malcolm out of his stargazing, and he peered over bulging walls of Surveyor.

If possible, the water was even blacker than the sky. 

The ship was anchored just off the northern tip of the Tonga trench, a fifteen hundred mile-long gash that ran from New Zealand all the way up to Samoa. Beneath his feet, the ocean floor descended more than thirty-five thousand feet into an abyss.

As always, when Malcolm pictured the six miles of crushing pressure between him and solid ground, an involuntary shiver of apprehension ran down his spine. 

Thirty thousand feet of blackness.

Feeling suddenly unbalanced, he backed from the metal railing. 

Splash.

There it was again.

Probably just a sea turtle. They adored the shade provided by Surveyor’s broad belly, and were constantly bumping into the research equipment.

Malcolm stared out into the expanse, willing his night vision to be sharper than it was. Hovering at the edge of his vision, he thought he could see a shadow. A shape bobbing–almost indistinguishable against the darkness–low in the waters to the west.

CRASH!

Malcolm jerked in surprise, as one of the metal doors leading downstairs was thrown open and a bright light temporarily blinded him. 

“What the hell!” he shouted angrily as the intruder clomped up the stairs in heavy boots. He looked back at the water quickly but the dark shape–if it had been there at all–was gone. 

With a sigh, Malcolm turned back to see who had interrupted his peaceful pre-dawn quiet. 

It was Claude, one of the ship’s navigational crew. A burly man with thick, meaty biceps covered in tattoos, he gave Malcolm a long, measured glance when he saw him.

Fishing a lighter out of his pocket, Claude crossed to the deck railing and lit a cigarette, drawing deep and blowing the smoke out of his nostrils. 

“The fuck are ya doing up here, kid? Top decks supposed to be off limits to students after dark.” He spat the word as if it were a vulgarity.

Malcolm flushed under the man’s accusatory gaze. “Sorry, sir. I had no idea. I woke up early and thought I’d get some fresh air.” He immediately began backing towards the still-open door.

“You kids need to be careful. Maybe you especially,” Claude said, turning his back to Malcolm and leaning heavily on the railing.

“Why me especially?” Malcolm asked in confusion. He was getting fed up with being referred to as “kid”.

Claude shrugged his broad shoulders. “Just keep to your bunk, kid. And we won’t have a problem, now will we?” 

Now Claude did turn his head to give Malcolm a conspiratorial wink.

“I–guess not,” Malcolm replied uncertainly. He headed back down the narrow metal stairs to his room. He swore he heard Claude give a soft chuckle behind him.

 

***

 

One hundred feet from the gleaming red hull of the ship, two dark pairs of eyes watched from the water as the young man was replaced by another, this one larger and uglier than the first. 

The figures turned in the water, and with a few powerful thrusts of their muscular tails, they descended into the sea.

The nighttime blackness of the shallow coral seas quickly gave way to the true, infinite darkness of the ocean depths. As the two strange creatures swam down and down, the raised ridges along their spines began flickering bioluminescent reds and greens, sending a very clear message to the hungry ocean life that shared their world.

Danger. Stay away.

The flashing lights allowed the figures to see one another in short bursts. Long, thin fingers began moving rapidly, combined with a series of high-pitched clicks and whistles. A message was being communicated between the creatures.

Alert the High Priestess. An offering has been found.

***

The hunt is on in Chapter Two! Click here to continue reading Song of the Siren.

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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: China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2) by Kevin Kwan

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Review 2.31

 

**contains mild spoilers**

Being the second novel in a trilogy is a thankless task. The freshness and originality of the first installment has worn off, and the author needs to lay groundwork and build exposition before the final chapter can answer all the open questions. This is why for so many trilogies, both in literature and film, the second chapter is the weakest of the three.

China Rich Girlfriend sadly falls into this “middle child” sinkhole; it gets bogged down trying to resolve all of the plotlines from the first novel while introducing all the people that will become more important in the finale. That isn’t to say that Kevin Kwan’s second novel isn’t fun; it definitely is. But there’s something missing.

For one thing, there are a lot of new characters to acquaint ourselves with. Having just managed to gain a general understanding of the complicated Shang/Leong/Young/ family tree, now the reader must also get to know Rachel’s newly-found extended family (this is not a spoiler, it’s revealed in the prologue) as well as an absolute entourage of new supporting characters.

Perhaps it is that the “label-dropping” reaches a saturation point in China Rich Girlfriend, though it’s possible that someone who actually knew something about fashion would heartily disagree*. The numerous descriptions of luxurious locations gets a bit ridiculous as well; at one point the male protagonist Nicholas Young notices that a yacht’s barstools were upholstered in “genuine whale foreskin” and I actually burst out laughing. Also, turns out that’s a real thing that actually exists in the world.

China Rich Girlfriend also does an incredibly efficient job of tidying up all of the unresolved plotlines from Crazy Rich Asians. The enmity between Rachel and Eleanor Young is swept away in the first fifty pages as if it never really mattered and is never again mentioned in any real capacity. Considering that I just spent four hundred pages watching Eleanor systematically destroy Rachel’s life, this easy resolution was unsatisfying.

Things aren’t all bad, and Kwan’s delight at bringing this secretive and showy world to life is both obvious and infectious. At the very least, I think we can all agree that no matter what happens to Nick and Rachel (who remain almost painfully milquetoast) it is Astrid who truly deserves her happy ending.

My rating: 4/5

You can find China Rich Girlfriend here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

*full disclosure-my annual clothing budget is somewhere in the range of seventy-five dollars

Book Review: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians, #1)

Review 2.30

I’ve been putting off writing this review for ages, because I can’t think of the best way to describe Kevin Kwan’s debut bestseller, Crazy Rich Asians. There’s been a ton of hype around this book since it was released in 2013, and it’s already been adapted into a film starring Constance Wu and Henry Golding.

So what can I say that hasn’t been said by a thousand readers and reviewers before me? Not much really. But I can say it again, and in slightly different words. What fun!

Speaking of fun, Crazy Rich Asians was a runaway bestseller for a reason; it’s pure unadulterated escapist fun. Instead of trying to avoid all of the cliches associated with the “chick-lit”* genre, it revels in them. At one point, a character literally pulls out an unlimited AmEx card and utters the words, “This is a fashion emergency!” (or some paraphrase thereof).

Crazy Rich Asians is shamelessly capitalist, and I spent the entire novel in a weird swirl of awe and envy that was nonetheless highly enjoyable. The name-dropping and label-obsession went completely over my head most of the time, but it was certainly an education  For example, I had no idea that “Hermes-orange” was its own color.

The thing that really sets this book apart from the myriads of forgettable chick-lit is that it is also opened my eyes to a culture I previously didn’t know much about and will, in all likelihood, never experience. I imagine this novel will do wonders for the Singaporean tourist industry, already a huge part of their economy. Personally, the numerous descriptions of delicious Hokkien street food were enough to have me poking into flights.

The central plot of Crazy Rich Asians is breathless, exciting, silly, and self-indulgent. The central character, Rachel Wu, isn’t terribly interesting at all and serves mainly as our introduction to this world of extravagant wealth. The bustling, busying, nosying, prying members of the Young family are the highlight of the book, and rarely have I enjoyed soap-opera-esque plot developments so much.

I loved spending time in Kevin Kwan’s world of extreme opulence and backstabbing family members. I also feel like I learned a lot about a culture completely different from my own, which is always a good time.

My rating: 5/5

You can find Crazy Rich Asians here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

** Personally, I find this term odious but it is a highly-effective description of the genre.

Did Not Finish: The Witches by Stacy Shiff

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It had to happen eventually. Over the past sixteen months, I’ve published reviews on more than one hundred and twenty novels. There’s been good books and bad books and occasionally a book that is truly great.

But The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff, is the first book that I am giving up on.

I don’t have a car, so I mostly walk or use public transit to get around Toronto. While commuting to various locations, I like to use Audible because my earbuds are easy to stash in my pocket once I reach my destination.

I prefer nonfiction because if I have to tune out for a few minutes in order to cross the street or dodge the ever-present construction in the city, I can quickly pick up the thread of the narrative once more.

For more than nine hours I listened to The Witches, and today I could not tell you anything about the Salem Witch Trials that I didn’t know beforehand. This is because the book is all brain and no heart. It’s filled with facts and quoted and diary excerpts, but it fails entirely to make the historical figures into living, breathing people with motivations.

I always like to know the why of things. For example, I knew the basic facts about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt before I read Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King. What her book provided was the historical context of the period. Using educated guesswork and a dash of wild speculation, Cooney was able to paint a portrait of Egyptian life that allowed me to better understand Hatshepsut’s reign as a whole.

That’s what is sorely missing from Schiff’s book. She spends countless pages describing what the teenage girls of Salem were doing when they were supposedly bewitched. They tore out their hair, contorted their bodies, and screamed the invisible “spirits” tormenting them. These are facts. What I wanted to know was why. If it wasn’t witches, which it clearly wasn’t, then what on Earth would possess an entire community of teenage girls to behave as if they were, in fact, possessed?

If this book had been a little shorter, I probably would have been able to stay the course. But The Witches is more than five hundred pages. Like I said, I listened for nearly ten hours. Then I looked, and saw there were still eight hours to go. And I just couldn’t spend another eight hours in that particular version of Salem, no matter how technically accurate.

My rating: N/A

Normally I leave links here for anyone who would like to purchase the book, but given what you’ve just read, why would you?

Happy reading everyone!