Book Review: The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James (2017)

loneliest girl

 

Romy Silvers is the only surviving crew-member of a spaceship travelling to a new planet, on a mission to establish a second home for humanity amongst the stars. Alone in space, she is the loneliest girl in the universe until she hears about a new ship which has launched from Earth – with a single passenger on board. A boy called J.

Based on that summary, you might think that The Loneliest Girl in the Universe is a YA romance novel in a science fiction setting. And in part, you would be right. But one thing that I will say about Lauren James’ is that it surprised me. I went in expecting to get a sweet, simple story about a girl falling in love with a boy she’s never met. But James takes things in a different direction, and the book is stronger for it.

As a girl who hasn’t seen another human face in years, Romy Silvers is definitely relatable, especially considering that I’m writing this under COVID lockdown. The stress and anxiety of extreme isolation is something everyone on the planet understands a lot more now, and on top of all of that Romy has to pilot a spaceship. And you thought Zoom-conferencing was hard.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I’ll just say that this book was unpredictable in the very best way. It genuinely surprised me, something that happens rarely enough in literature, and even more rarely with YA novels. James deftly manages to integrate the twists and turns into her prose. At no point did I ever feel lost, or cheated by a cheap twist. Every chapter had me asking new questions, and trying to figure out the mystery behind J and the supposed fall of the American government. And nearly all my guesses turned out to be wrong, which made it even more fun.

So if you’re interested in some not-to-sciencey science fiction that keeps you on your toes and has a strong but relatable main character, I definitely recommend The Loneliest Girl in the Universe. 

Also this is super random, but I totally want to write a spin off novel based on the character’s of Loch and Ness.

My rating: 4/5

You can find The Loneliest Girl in the Universe here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

You might also enjoy:

A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski

And the Trees Crept In by Dawn Kurtagich

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Happy reading everyone!

Book Vs Film: Interview With the Vampire

 

Welcome to one of my very favorite segments, Book vs Film. Today we’re looking at the 1976 novel, Interview with the Vampire versus its 1994 film counterpoint, starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise.

invvamp

 

Warning: Spoilers for a fifty-year old book and twenty-five year old film. I’m not gonna feel too bad on this one.

1) I had no idea the book was that old until I started writing this article, but now I can totally see it. There’s a timelessness to Rice’s Gothic prose that takes it out of the present day. She also has a penchant for long, descriptive paragraphs that might put off younger readers accustomed to the snappy pace of today’s paranormal novels. But once you sink in to her stories, they sweep you away.

2) Brad Pitt was a great casting choice as Louis. With his long, sexy hair, eerie green eyes, and mouth made for pouting, he was the definition of the hot vampire long before Edward Cullen came along.

twiintvampIn the immortal battle of Can My Face Show Emotion, Brad Pitt wins hands down.

3) I hate Tom Cruise as Lestat. He failed to capture the combination of mischief and anguish that drives the character, and instead just kind of…yells about stuff for awhile and then offers a few moments of fright before “dying”. The movie gets better once he’s gone, which is too bad because he’s actually a very interestingcharacter. Tom Cruise just sucks, and he isn’t nearly as cute as he thinks he is.

Lestat de Lioncourt - Wikipedia

All Rights Reserved, Warner Brothers Studio 1994

4) I read this book for the first time when I was in my early teens, and it sparked a lifelong love of New Orleans. The film doesn’t do this justice, as it relies too much on elaborate sets and CGI backdrops. I wanted to feel the music, the culture, the energy of the city, but it just looked like a standard period drama that could have been set anywhere.

5) Still, the film looks amazing. Director Neil Jordan, whose IMDB is surprisingly lackluster, created a rich, visceral canvas. The wardrobe is lavish, as is the makeup. And while he might not have focused on NOLA as much as I would have liked, the set design as a whole is spectacular, especially the Theatre des Vampyres.

Immortally Masterful: Interview With The Vampire, 25 Years Later ...

All Rights Reserved, Warner Brothers Studio 1994

6) Like I said before, Anne Rice made vampires sexy long before Stephenie Meyers turned them into Mormon propaganda. But Rice  did it in such a strange way that it isn’t really erotica. There aren’t any vivid descriptions of sex, and it’s insinuated that the vampires “discard” their genitalia when they transition from being human. Instead, the novel is permeated by a heady sensuality, much of which is homosexual. The main relationships between Louis and Lestat and Louis and Armand are never romantic by definition, but the novel practically teems with sexual tension.

*Note: If you’re in the market for paranormal erotica, check out The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty series, written under Anne Rice’s penname of A.N. Roquelaure. But be ready for some crazy shit.

7) The film made the wise move of toning down that sexual tension when it came to the relationship between Louis and Claudia. Claudia, played by Kirsten Dunst when she was eleven years old, was meant to be only five or six in the books. She was always one of my favorite characters, and her story is so tragic and haunting that I still wish Rice would give her a follow up book. And again, vampires in Rice’s universe aren’t “sexual” in any real way. However, a person with the appearance of a kindergartener referrring an adult man as her “lover” was always weird, and the film works better with Brad Pitt as more of a Father/Companion/Jailer figure.

Louis and Claudia, Interview With the Vampire | 30 of Our Favorite ...

All Rights Reserved, Warner Brothers Studio 1994

8) The film also doesn’t spend nearly as much time reflecting on the “nature” of vampires. The books contains a lot of monologuing by Louis as he tries to understand the nature of good and evil, of God and the devil, in a world where monsters such as himself are allowed to exist. This is all very interesting, but there are times when you want to tell him to just shut up and get on with the story. Jones cut out a lot of Louis’ philophizing, which makes for a more tightly paced film.

9) But the whole River Phoenix narration thing still doesn’t work. It was annoying in the books, and it was utterly superfluous in the film.

10) Instead, they should have shown Louis and Claudia’s trip to Eastern Europe. One of Rice’s main themes was the juxtaposition of the “old” vampires, the ones that lived in crypts and practiced dying rituals, versus the “new” vampires that lived in mansions and walked among the people as one of them. This idea is never really explored, which is a shame.

11) Antonio Banderas is…not the best thing about the movie. His accent is weird, and he’s trying too hard to play vampire. But damn if his hair isn’t better than mine. Everyone in this universe has better hair than me. Cause vampires may have changed a lot since this book came out in ’76, but some things never changed. We like hot vampires better than creepy ones.

Pin on vampires

I’ll give you my blood in exchange for your hair-care regime.

12) I always hated the ending of the book, which more or less mirrors the end of the fim. It just…stops. There is no real conclusion, unless you continue reading Rice’s books.

Overall, its a solid book-to-film adaptation. Jordan and his cast remain true to the spirit of Rice’s books while amending some of the squiffier aspects. I highly recommend the next two books in Rice’s Vampire Chronicles series, The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned. QOTD in particular is wonderful, kind of like the vampire Avengers, and addresses the vampire mythos in a unique and interesting way. But stop there. Everything from Tale of the Body Thief onward is just fluff.

I would also advise film-lovers to avoid 2002’s Queen of the Damned, staring Aaliyah and Stuart Townsend. It’s bad. Just…really bad.

Akasha And Lestat by SamBriggs.deviantart.com on @deviantART ...

Really, really bad.

Happy reading and watching everyone!

 

Did I get it totally wrong? Let me know what you think in the comments section below!

And check out more of our book vs film reviews!!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Ready Player One

The Shining

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Seven: The Decision

Note: If you haven’t already, go back and check out Chapter One!

CHAPTER SEVEN: The Decision

 

BRONNAGH

Queen Bronnagh awoke to a crack of lightning, followed by a crash of thunder so loud it shook the heavy posters of her bed.

The rumbles went on forever, followed shortly by another brilliant blast of white arcing across the sky.

In the infinitesimal pause between the lightning and the thunder, she heard it—a scream echoing off the stone walls of the castle corridor.

Gwen! The Fae have come for her after all.

Bronnagh reached into the darkness for the sleeping form of her husband, but the heavy blankets were cold and untouched.

Of course. He always spent the night away from her on Gwendolyn’s birthday. The memories proved too much to bear, and he ended up sprawled in the library, a horn of whiskey clutched tight to his breast.

The scream came again, and Bronnagh hurried out of bed, shivering in the damp night air. There was a fierce ache in her lower back—her final child was proving a hefty one, and she prayed it wasn’t another set of twins. 

Out in the corridor, the booming roar of the storm was muffled somewhat, and Bronnagh realized that the frightened shouts weren’t coming from the south wing, where Gwen had her rooms.

They were coming from the north wing. From Deirdre and Doreen’s tower. 

Her steps increased. She held one hand to the ache in her back, wincing against the pain. 

It’s just old mother’s labor. I’m not as young as I once was. 

The baby isn’t due for another six weeks. Thank the Gods this will be the last one. 

And be grateful it isn’t another set of twins. 

Bronnagh didn’t think her body could handle it. Not after the last time.

Her first pair, Sean and Seamus, had come easily into the world—an irony considering how much pain they seemed to enjoy inflicting now that they were out of it.

Six years later her belly had swollen again with twins. Colm and Caleb, slipped into the world as quietly as two shadows. Now ten years old, they were still the most enigmatic of her children. They spent most of their time studying with their tutors, and Bronnagh rarely saw them outside of mealtimes.

It was a bitter irony that her third set of twins should both be such gentle souls, given that their births had nearly killed her. And irrevocably scarred both of them.

The stone corridor ended in a short staircase and a heavy door carved from solid oak.

Another wail from behind the door. Bronnagh knocked three times, then twice more—an old game they used to play to let them know it was her.

“Mama!” a voice cried tearfully from the other side.

“Deirdre?” Her heart pounding, imagining all sorts of terrible things on the other side, Bronnagh pushed open the heavy wooden door.

Her two daughters sat in matching narrow beds with doves carved into the headboards.

“What happened dear? Did the storm wake you?” she asked, bringing the candelabra in to brighten the room.

The fire in the bedroom grate had long gone cold. Near the mantle was a long rope, and Bronnagh pulled it, ringing for the servants. 

“No, Mama,” Deirdre answered, her gaze fixed softly on the wall in front of her. “It was Doreen. She had a bad dream.”

“Doreen?” Crossing to her other daughter’s bed, Bronnagh set the candelabra down and felt Doreen’s brow. “Is something wrong, my darling?” Doreen’s vividly blue eyes fixed on her mother’s lips. She nodded in response, but did not speak. Instead, she gestured toward the window and began making frenzied motions with her hands.

Bronnagh watched them in the dim light. “Gwen? You saw Gwen?” Her heart began to beat faster. The ache in her back was now almost unbearable, and she sank down on Doreen’s bed, hissing as her spine screamed in agony.

Doreen nodded, her hands moving so fast that Bronnagh had difficulty keeping up.

“Gwen…in the forest…horse…Doreen slow down! Did the Fae come for her?”

Still sitting upright in her bed, Deirde shook her head. “No. Doreen says that Gwen went to them.”

Bronnagh’s heart clenched violently, as if it had burst open.

She felt a rush of wetness between her legs.

“Doreen says the Fae have Gwen now.”

Her fingers trembling, Bronnagh brought her fingers to the stomach of her gown.

They came away soaked in blood.

***

GWENDOLYN

“What do you mean, you’ve been waiting?” Gwen asked. Every hair on her body felt like it was standing on end. The power emanating from the fairy circle was as alive and electric as the lightning still arcing overhead.

The Fae male stood on the other side of the circle, lounging against one of the ancient stones, smirking at her. 

His eyes were wide set, and sparkled an incandescent violet, the color of galaxies yet to be born. His face was thin, with sweeping cheekbones and a wide, pouting mouth. His dark brows slanted downward, giving the impression of anger, or arrogance.

He gazed at her through lidded eyes for so long that she thought he would not answer.

“I’ve been waiting for you for years, Gwendolyn Setterwind.”

Gwen’s hands clenched into fists at her sides. “Give me a real answer, demon. Or I’ll leave and never look back.”

His ruby lips stretched into a grin. “Oh, I don’t think you will. You came seeking answers. And you know that I have what you seek. I don’t think you’ll be leaving so soon.”

Her chest heaved; she glared at the Fae furiously.

He was absolutely right. 

“What is your name?” she asked, determined to put them on more even footing.

The Fae gave an exaggerated bow. “Prince Cillian of Erilea. I’m very pleased to meet you, after this time.”

Gwen took a step back, until her spine pressed against cold stone. All around her she felt she could hear whispering, as if the rocks themselves were beckoning to her.

Lightning split the sky above her head, but the thunder that followed was damped, as though she were hearing it from very far away.

“You can already feel it, can’t you Gwen?” the Fae—Prince Cillian—asked. His violet eyes gleamed brightly in the eerie light from the circle. “You can feel it calling to you.”

“Why have you waited until now to come?” she demanded. “Why now?”

His grin broadened. “We could have taken you at any time, Gwen. But that would not have completed the bargain.”

Within the circle, the wind began to rise, whipping her hair about her face. “What completes the bargain?” she asked.

“You had to come to us,” Prince Cillian answered, his dark gaze fixed on her. “Of your own free will. Only then can you be taken to the land beyond the winds.”

Gwen licked her lips, weighing her options.

“And what awaits me there?” she asked, trying to maintain her composure.

“That I cannot tell you. You must make the choice. After all, you have wished for this for many years.”

She had wished for this, longed for an emissary from the Fae to come for her. To end her endless waiting, once and for all.

But now that this creature was in front of her, she was filled with a fear greater than she had ever known. 

He looked so normal, and yet utterly ethereal. His cheekbones were too perfectly chiseled. His lips too full, and so red they looked stained with cherry juice.

Don’t forget what he is. 

A beautiful predator.

I must not go with him.

She eyed the stones on either side of her, trying to gauge how quickly she would need to make her exit.

I should have brought a sword. But no, Grainne had told her the legends often enough when she was small. No mortal weapons could be brought inside the fairy circle.

I could run. Try to escape through the forest and back to the castle.

“You may, if you wish,” the Fae said. He examined his sharpened fingernails. “Return to the castle. Live out your days. Marry a fat husband. Give birth to seven fat children. All of it can be yours.”

“And the Fae would never come for me? I’d be left alone?” Gwen asked. A future she’d never been able to envision for herself suddenly sprang fully-formed before her eyes.

Prince Cillian glanced at her, his lip curling at the side. “Yes. To live a perfectly normal life. Like your mother. And your sisters. Just as you’ve always wanted. All you have to do is walk back of that circle.”

“Fine. I’ve been cursed from the day I was born. All I ever wanted was to be rid of it!” Gwen said. She strode purposefully toward the edge of the fairy circle, her body tensed in case the Fae tried to drag her back.

He didn’t so much as twitch an eyebrow.

Gwen reached the edge of the fairy circle. Her feet came together right where the boundary of shimmering light ended. She hesitated.

“If I go now, can I ever come back?” she asked, not turning to look at the Fae.

“No,” he answered shortly.

Gwen heard the rustling of leaves behind her. She spun around, her hand immediately going for a sword she wasn’t carrying.

Prince Cillian was standing inches from her. Her cheeks were pale, almost luminescent in the sparkling light from the stones. 

There were dark flecks of onyx in his eyes. Like the midnight sky. His ears were delicately pointed beneath his thick black hair. She saw that one of them was notched in three places along the side. 

“You must choose, Gwendolyn Setterwind. The Fae cannot take you against your will. If you wish to return to your old life, you may. But if you wish to know the answers to the questions you have been asking, then come with me.”

A muted roll of thunder echoed overhead.

He held out a moon-white hand.

***

DEIRDRE

Mother cried out in pain, and Deirdre heard her slump to the floor.

“Mama? Are you alright?” she cried, reaching out on my blanket to see if I could feel her.

“I’m…alright…darling.” Then there was a weak mewling sound, like a newborn kitten, but then nothing.

Deirdre started to crawl out of bed, but a warm hand clasped around hers, gentle fingers spreading her palm wide.

Something…wrong…mother… Doreen wrote into her hand.

“Where is she?” Deirdre asked, moving her lips carefully.

After a moment, she felt Doreen’s fingers moving again. Fall down…needs help…where Moira?

“Mother rang for a maid, to build up the fire. Someone should be here in a moment. Help me find her..” Deirdre held out a hand, and Doreen took it. Gently, she eased Deirdre off the bed, and helped her reach out until she found Mother’s form. 

There was a sticky wetness covering the lower half of her body, and a heavy, metallic smell bit at Deirdre’s nose.. 

“What should we do?” she asked Dorreen.

Baby…coming…Too much blood. Doreen signed into her hand. They’d been communicating this way since they were two years old, and Deirdre understood her words instantly.

“Mama said the baby isn’t ready to come yet,” Deirdre cried. She reached forward, feeling the muscles of her face slackened by unconsciousness.

“The baby isn’t supposed to come yet!” Deidre cried.

Sitting up, her hands coated in her mother’s blood, she screamed for help.

 

***

CILLIAN

The girl watched him as a field mouse watches the snake it has suddenly spied in the grass.

Ever ready, ever watchful, but knowing in the end that the battle was over before it begun.

That resistance was only an effort in futility.

Knowing she had no real choice. Only the illusion of one.

“Make your decision, girl. What is it that you want? To stay here, or to venture onwards?”

Her crimson hair was plastered to her body by the pounding rain. She shook her head. “What I want is for you to rot in hell.”

He had to admire her bravado. It spoke to a part of his soul that had not been stirred in years.

But now was not the time for sentiment. He had waited too long for this plan to come to fruition. He could not make the tiniest error.

Cillian smiled at her. “Don’t you want to know why you were the price that was paid?”

The girl’s face hardened. “I care not.”

Her lips were the color of ripe cranberries. He forced himself to give an insolent shrug. “Then go. Stop wasting my time.”

“After all this, after my father’s bargain, you would just let me go?” the girl asked over her shoulder, her body tensed for attack.

“It would be required of me, yes.”

“And what of the payment exacted by my father?”

“It would be forfeit.”

Gwen stepped to the side, her body poised for attack. “How can I believe you, demon?”

Cillian held up his hands, showing his own vulnerability. “I am bound by the ancient rules of my race. I cannot lie to a mortal. I cannot take you without your consent.”

She paused, eyes still swiveling for potential defenses. “And if I go? What is the price paid?”

Cillian pivoted to face her. “If you turn back now, you will never again be offered a chance to journey to Erilia.”

He could see the girl pause, considering. She tilted one ear to the skies, inhaling deeply as if trying to scent any threat in the air. 

A thrum of energy split the air around him. Cillian sniffed the air, reading the winds. 

The girl’s mother was in jeopardy.

He had to act fast.

Cillian folded his arms over his chest. “My patience wears thin.”

The girl took a step closer. The wind blew her damp hair off her shoulders.

She smelled of fresh pine and wildflowers. Cillian closed his eyes, savoring the scent.

He opened his eyes, smiling at her. Gently, without the exaggerated courtesy he had displayed before, he extended his hand, palm up.

“Gwendolyn Setterwind, I’m here to escort you to Erilea,” he said, his voice a husky murmur. “Will you join me?”

The girl gulped, the sapphire choker on her neck bobbing up and down.  

“If I go, I’ll never see my parents. My brothers and sisters…”

“But you’ll discover your destiny…” Cillian whispered.

Gwen’s eyes closed, her body swaying back and forth like a bewitched snake.

“Okay.” Slowly, infinitely slowly, she lay her hand upon his.

At the moment of contact, an electric jolt stronger than any bolt of lightning struck through them.

A wave of something that was not quite pain and not quite pleasure shuddered through him, and into her.

There was a sizzle and a crack, then a brilliant flash of light.

The rain continued to fall on the ancient stones of the fairy circle.

And on the empty space within.

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter Six: The Birthday

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Chapter One!

Gwen stood before the burnished copper looking glass that sat propped against the wall of her bedchamber.

“It’s no use,” she said with a raised brow at Moira, “you’ll have to stuff my bodice full of rags again.”

“Yes, princess. You do lack a woman’s figure,” Moira said despairingly, clucking her tongue at her charge.

“It isn’t my fault. I eat more than Ronan.”

“And then burn it all off runnin’ wild like a hill pony when you should be inside sewin’ with your sisters,” Moira grumbled, tugging at Gwen’s dress to make her figure appear fuller.

But there was a note of pride in her voice, and she nodded with satisfaction at Gwen’s blurred reflection. 

Gwen rolled her eyes and grinned back at her. The older woman liked to disapprove–it seemed to be her favorite occupation in life. But that didn’t stop Moira from having a kind, gentle heart underneath her bluster. She’d come to Dunnhawke as a lady’s maid and companion for the queen, and had known Gwen since the day she was born. 

Besides, she was partially right. It was downright unseemly for Gwen to be so thin and wiry, not when she ate at the royal table.

In a country often threatened by starvation, curves were a sign of wealth. Only those who had enough to feed their families through the lean winter months could afford to grow fat.

Most of Gwen’s sisters were plump, with swelling bosoms and the wide, fecund hips of their mother.

Her younger sister Kaleigh, in particular, was considered the beauty of the Setterwind daughters. With raven dark hair that fell in thick waves past her waist, and the pale, milk-white complexion of someone who rarely went out of doors, Kaleigh had already drawn the eye of several noble suitors.

Next to her, Gwen, with her untameable red curls and long, thin face covered in freckles, looked more like a simple farmer’s child than the eldest daughter of Dunnhawke.

“Well, what do you think?” Moira asked, adjusting the dress and stepping back.

“I think I can hardly turn my neck, and this collar itches like it’s made of fleas.”

“You would know,” Moira muttered.

Gwen bit back a retort. It was true, she had gotten her share of fleabites from her nights spent sleeping in the stables with the horses. 

“Well, it’ll have to do. You’re late as it is, and it’s hardly fitting to keep everyone waiting. It is your party, after all.

My party. More like a funeral.

Gwen wished she could wear her riding breeches underneath this monstrosity, but her mother would have a fit if she suspected. 

Queen Bronnagh had sent one of her own gowns for Gwen to wear to the ball this evening.

It was a deep forest green, with thick, stiff white lace edging the collar and sleeves, which trailed almost all the way to the floor.

Moira had stuffed the bodice with rags to make it appear as though Gwen had the hourglass figure prized by noblewomen of the court. The effect was decent, but all the padding made her feel heavy and awkward.

I  don’t think the Fae give a damn what I look like, she thought resentfully. They’ll mostly be interested in ripping my clothes off.

“Thank you, Moira. I’m going to go say good night to Deirdre and Doreen, and then I’ll come down.”

Instead of arguing about the princess’ lateness, Moira nodded sadly, then left the room.

Gwen eyed her reflection in the looking glass for another moment, and then went to make her goodbyes.

 

***

Her foot tapped impatiently, at odds to the rhythm of the music, as she stared out over the throngs of richly dressed courtiers. The men were almost as ostentatiously dressed as the women, and the Gallery was a sea of rich fabrics and expensive jewels. 

A group of minstrels played from one corner, and the music of lyres and drums filled the large room. A space had been cleared for dancing; couples had arranged themselves into lines and were twirling to the traditional steps. 

Seated at her father’s side–a place of honor typically reserved for visiting ambassadors and dignitaries–Gwen tried to keep her face schooled into a calm mask.

Where are they?

She eyed the enormous wooden double doors of the castle’s central keep. They had been propped open tonight–by the weight of two full-grown tree trunks–in welcome to their guests.

No matter which world they came from.

Gwen had asked for this, had argued with her parents until they relented. She wanted to send a bold invitation to the Fae.

Come. Claim what is yours.

I am through waiting. Let it be done.

But by the clocktower, it was already eleven o’clock, everyone was in full festivity, and still there was still no sign that an emissary would come from the lands beyond the winds.

There is still an hour yet. They will come.

They have to come. 

I can bear this waiting no longer.   

Gwen saw her sister Kaleigh among lines of dancers, the dimples flashing in her cheeks as she smiled coyly at her well-dressed partner. Even at thirteen, she knew how to wind boys around her little finger, and had a steady stream of suitors and admirers.

Next to her was their sister Imogen, a year younger than Kaleigh and deeply envious of her older sister’s beauty. She was so focused on matching her steps perfectly to Kaleigh’s that she was completely oblivious to the handsome man dancing opposite her. 

Gwen smiled to herself. Both of them would probably be glad to see her gone. Kaleigh had hinted on more than one occasion that she would make a far better match if her “accursed” elder sister didn’t frighten off the foreign princes.

Her twin brothers, Sean and Seamus, would probably also be happier once she was taken by the Fae. She had yet to see either of them all evening, and assumed they were in the brothels. At least she hoped they were. 

If they were out terrorizing the young women of Dunnhawke village again, she would have to teach her little brothers another lesson. 

At least Ronan will be around to keep them in line. As heir to the throne, he was one of the few whose authority Sean and Seamus still obeyed. And Ronan would miss her, Gwen could be certain of that. Of all her siblings, he was closest to her both in age and temperament. 

Yes, Ronan would mourn when the Fae came to claim her, though she knew he would never let any personal grief show on his face. He had been too well trained in the arts of diplomacy. And everyone knew this day was coming.

Gwen would miss Ronan in return. He was one of the few people she knew who didn’t flinch, sob, or sneer at the sight of her. 

And Deirdre and Doreen. Her heart ached at the thought of leaving them as well.

Over the past eighteen years, Queen Bronnagh had given birth to three sets of twins, all of which had lived–a feat almost unheard of in a land where one child in every four did not live past their weaning year. 

Her four-year-old brothers Colm and Conor, were mere toddlers. Gwen barely knew them, as she rarely visited the royal nursery and they were rarely allowed outside of it.

But she knew Sean and Seamus very well, and had avoided them as much as possible for years. Bronnagh’s eldest set of twins had come into the world screaming and squabbling, and had never stopped. Grainne, Gwen’s grandmother, had once said that they were born with anger in their hearts, and often Gwen wondered if it were true. Now nearing sixteen, they were already more than six feet tall, with barrel chests and bruised, calloused knuckles. 

But if Sean and Seamus had anger flowing through their veins, then Bronnagh’s second set of twins had been born with nothing but gentleness in theirs. Deirdre and Doreen Setterwind represented the only time in King Cormac’s life where he wondered if his bargain with the Fae had been a fool’s errand. 

The queen had been miserably sick during the whole pregnancy; while her belly grew bloated and purple, her limbs had become sticklike and brittle. For almost three days she had sweated to bring the babies into this world, and for the second time in her life she was pronounced on the brink of death on the childbed. 

But in the end, the Fae’s promise had held true. Queen Bronnagh delivered two living daughters, though both were irrevocably scarred by their traumatic entrance into the world. Or perhaps the fact that they had developed differently in the womb had been what impaired the labor. The midwives had been either unable or unwilling to provide an answer, and had left hurriedly with their thumbs between their forefingers in the ancient spell to ward off Fae magic.

Either way, many of the peasant farmers would have left the newborn girls to die in the snow, and it was only the loving heart of the queen and the fearful heart of the king that saved the tiny, deformed infants. Still, it was not for nothing that both of their names spoke of sadness. 

Gwen had gone to see her sisters before coming down to the ball. They were more than welcome to attend, but both–particularly Deirdre–were intensely shy, and hated the prying eyes of strangers. Before she had gone down to the gallery, she had visited their rooms. They had wept together when she had told them that tonight she must go.

She looked again at the clock. Eleven fifteen. 

Forty-five minutes left until she was eighteen years old. Give or take a few minutes. The legends–and Gwen hated that there were already cautionary tales about her–said that she had been born at the very stroke of midnight. But storytellers loved to exaggerate, so it was impossible to know for sure. Her mother had certainly  been in no fit state to remember.

Gwen sighed deeply, sitting back in her carved wooden chair. Her mother. Her father. Her ten younger siblings–eleven if you included the one still growing in the queen’s belly. 

All of it was due to King Cormac’s bargain. If he had not agreed to the Fae’s terms, none of them would be here today. And she herself would have died in the womb.

When put in such harsh, unforgiving terms, it was hard to hate Her father for the decision he had made that night, when he had been utterly desperate—and only a few years older than Gwen herself was now. 

But it was hard to love him as well. Especially when he hadn’t so much as glanced at her all night.

More than anyone, her father avoided her gaze, his eyes fixed unseeingly on the colorfully spinning dancers. Since the long-ago day when he had told Gwen of his bargain with the Fae, King Cormac had removed himself from her life. When she asked to ride, he provided her a horse. When she began training with Lorcan Wolfsbane, she was certain he knew from the beginning and did nothing to stop her simply out of disinterest.

He is as eager as I am for this ugly business to be done with. Gwen could hardly blame him. It must be terrible waking up each day knowing that he had consigned his eldest child to a horrible fate. 

But it was far worse being the one chained to it.

Her mother, who sat on King Cormac’s other side, was greatly pregnant with her twelfth child. She cast sidelong looks at her eldest daughter now and then, but said nothing. She had long ago resigned herself to Gwen’s loss, and had dedicated her life towards raising the children she knew had a future. Again, Gwen couldn’t hate her mother. She actually admired Queen Bronnagh’s pragmatic attitude towards life.

Some things could not be changed. Best to focus on the things that could. 

It mirrored Gwen’s own perspective.  

Eleven thirty. Half an hour to go. Gwen sipped from a glass of wine brought to her by a steward. It was her third, and her head was beginning to feel a little muddled. She reminded herself to stop after this glass. She would need her senses about her if the Fae came.

When they came. Surely they had been waiting for her eighteenth birthday. No one could understand why the Fae had waited this long. Everyone knew they had no interest in the old, the weak, or the infirm. Those that lived beyond the winds liked their victims healthy and ripe–in the prime of their lives.

I will leave Dunnhawke tonight.

One way or the other.

 

***

 

The wretchedly tolling clocktower told her it was two-thirty in the morning.

The guests had long since left. So had her parents, first with a sad look at her, and then at one another.

Ronan had offered to stay up, to see in the dawn, but Gwen shook him off. He’d given her a hard look, as if reading the tumultuous thoughts in her mind, but ultimately nodded and gone to bed. 

Leaving Gwen alone except for the servants, who were already cleaning up the mess–and probably helping themselves to any leftover wine.

Anger hurried her steps as she left the central keep and went out to the courtyard. Her whole body felt rigid, pulsing with tension. Her heart pounded dully in her ears.

The Fae hadn’t come. 

The bastards. Once again, they had left her waiting in the misery of a life she could never fully be a part of, could never enjoy with one foot planted firmly in another world.

Fine. If she could not be free of this anticipation by one way, then she would find another.  

Gwen headed for the stables. It was silent at this late hour, even Rylan the groom was curled up on a bed of hay. She half-heartedly thought of waking him for a rendezvous of their former tryst. If she were successful with her plans, tonight would be her last on earth, perhaps she wanted to experience the embrace of a lover once more.

But she left the lad sleeping. Their previous encounter had been awkward and unfulfilling–had awakened no passion within her veins. And there was no room for lust now, all of Gwen’s being was consumed by despair.

Eighteen years she had wasted, waiting for the culmination of a bargain that might never come. For all she knew, the Fae had long ago forgotten about her. It wasn’t as though her life mattered in the slightest to the immortal ones. They merely liked to toy with humans for sport.

She was through being toyed with. Aoife was asleep standing up in her stall, but she roused with a whicker when Gwen approached with a soft word and a handful of oats.

“Come on, girl. One more ride.” She slipped a halter around the mare’s gray muzzle and mounted her bareback. With a kick of her heels into the horse’s flanks, they took off at a canter through the rough-stoned courtyard and through the open doors of Dunnhawke Castle. 

 

***

 

The summer air was damp and heavy. Gwen thundered west, towards the towering white cliffs that descended more than eighty feet to the crashing sea below.

She dismounted and threw Aoife’s reins lightly over a branch.

Once Gwen was gone, the mare would have no problem freeing herself and finding her own way home.

“Goodbye, my friend,” Gwen said. “Ronan will take good care of you. He’s always been jealous of your speed.” Tears rose in her throat as she pressed her forehead to the horse’s silky muzzle. 

Aoife whuffed out a breath and nibbled her hair. 

With a deep breath, before she could lose her nerve, Gwen gave the mare a final pat on her silvery neck, then turned and walked towards the cliffs. 

From across the horizon, purple thunderheads were advancing upon her like ancient gods out of the abyss. They stacked upon themselves, building higher and higher as they stretched out darkened tendrils across the lesser blackness of the starlit sky. 

The wind picked up, whipping her long hair about her shoulders as she peered over the edge of the cliff. It plummeted straight down, a sheet of jagged, chalky stone ending in a foaming white surf as the waves hurled themselves against the side.

All she had to do was take that one, final step.

The water would rush up to meet her, and if the impact didn’t kill her instantly, she would be dashed against the rocks by the pounding sea.

It would be quick. It would be certain.

It would finally be over.

A crackle of thunder boomed overhead, and a large wave crashed up against the cliff, hard enough to spray Gwen’s face in a salty mist.

She licked her lips, savoring the taste. Her arms trembled as she spread them wide.

She closed her eyes. Felt her body curve forward in an arc, as if being pulled towards the edge.

One step. And it would be an end to this eternal, pointless waiting.

Except…

Over the rising wind, she heard Aoife’s nervous whinny. Rain began to fall, coating her face and hair in moisture, mingling with her tears. 

Except if she fell from this cliff, she would never know. Never know why the Fae had bargained for all those years ago. What they wanted with her.

If her father’s sacrifice had been worth it. 

She could not give the Fae that satisfaction. There had to be another way.

The wind suddenly switched directions, pushing at Gwen’s back until the toes of her leather riding boot edged out over precipice. She pinwheeled her arms, falling backward into the soft earth around the cliff.

Her heart pounding in her chest, she kicked back from the edge until she was ten feet away.

The temptation of ending her fated life had ended, but the desire to face down her foes on her own terms remained.

Thunder crashed overhead as lightning arced across the sky. Aoife reared, pulling her reins free of the rope just as Gwen reached her side. 

“Come on, girl,” she shouted, hauling herself over the mare’s bare back, “I know where to go.”

She turned the horse’s head east, further into Hawkthorne Forest, and kicked Aoife into a trot. When she was young, Gwen had spent hours searching for the ring of fairy stones hidden somewhere in the forest. She’d even tried to map its secrets, spending most of a summer in the effort, but it was like the trees themselves had changed their trunks when she wasn’t looking. Eventually she’d stopped looking. 

But Gwen had the feeling that she would find her way to the fairy rings tonight. 

Above the trees, the storm was rising, but here within the closeness of the forest the sounds were muffled. Rain continued to fall steadily, soaking her blue riding habit until it was as black as the woods around her.

Aoife picked her way through the trees, feeling her way by some deep unknowable instinct.

The fairy circle was calling to her–to both of them. Gwen could feel it, like a nearly silent hum in the base of her skull. 

Thunder continued to boom and roar, and streaks of brilliiant lighting occasionally lit up the forest as clear as day. But the canopy grew thicker, the forest even blacker.

There was a bitter, metallic taste on her tongue, and Gwen realized she’d bitten her tongue hard enough to draw blood. She spat into the forest and thought she heard it gratefully accept her offering. 

An icy chill flooded her veins. Up ahead, maybe twenty yards into the trees, she felt rather than saw a flicker of movement.

Aoife hesitated, snorting. Gwen kicked her lightly, and the mare took another two steps, but then balked, skittering back on her hind legs and throwing her head back in fright. Gwen clutched at the mare’s pale gray mane as the horse continued to rear and shake her head.

“Shhh, it’s okay.” Gwen stroked Aoife’s lathered neck, then dismounted. Without waiting, the horse spun and tore off through the forest, the sound of her hooves quickly lost to the pouring rain.

Gwen would have to continue alone.

She cast a longing glance in the direction of her horse, longing suddenly for a warm fire and a hot brick under her coverlet. 

But her fate lay deeper into the trees. The wind was now a howling gale high above her head, the rain a torrential downpour that sought to drive her into the earth. She stumbled on through the forest, trusting only her instincts to know the way.

This had to be it. She was coming for them. 

Before they could come for her.

There. A faint light flickered. Her clothes heavy and sodden, Gwen advanced toward it. Her outstretched arms eventually met a smooth stone surface. She ran her hands upon the weathered runes blindly, trying to discern anything familiar in the whirls and curls of the language of the winds. 

The light grew brighter. She felt a warmth on her face. She took another step, and now she could see two small circles within the towering outermost layer. 

A man stood in the center of those two circles. His dark hair gleamed in the light, which was emanating from his softly glowing skin. 

She entered the light’s circumference, and he smiled. His canines were sharp and pointed. His eyes burned like winter amethysts. 

“Welcome, Gwendolyn Setterwind,” he said. His voice was the texture of honey and cream. “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming. I’ve been waiting for you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Parry. Step.

Parry. Lunge.

Pivot. Thrust.

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

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

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

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

But Gwen had the advantages of speed and determination. 

As did her refusal to wear any sort of armor. 

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

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

“Yield,” Gwen hissed.

“Never,” Ronan panted.

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

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

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

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

What’s to say that they wouldn’t?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger, and dragged their pelts back into his village.

Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.

Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness having long ago won out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stupid jackass,” she grinned back at him. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone was saying the Fae would come for her tonight.

But they’d said that before.

Click here to read Chapter Six: The Birthday!

The Faerie’s Bargain: Chapter 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.