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.

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 Two

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

 

SYRA: THE HUNT

Thirty miles to the east and more than two miles down, a group of hunters approached their unsuspecting prey.

Five armed warriors crept through the blackness, moving silently in a world where silence was absolute. They swam in a loose formation; the leader flanked by her most trusted fighters who were in turn flanked by junior hunters. Their powerful fishtails were tense and coiled, barely flickering in the water as the group proceeded inch by cautious inch towards the hulking monster that lurked in the darkness. 

Enormous solid-black eyes dominated their faces; they stared unblinkingly ahead, attuned to the smallest particle of light. Around each hunter’s head floated a halo of thick black hairs. 

These sensory tendrils perceived even the tiniest vibration, the smallest change in the water pressure. Right now each one was sending a wealth of information to the figures as they communicated silently with one another, devising a plan of attack.

Each of their long, thin hands were clutched around their krakana, sturdy bone spears. Each was tipped with a variety of sharpened bone and teeth. The leader’s weapon was wickedly curved, hewn from the lower jaw of a great white shark.

At her signal, all five of the creatures stopped and surveyed their prey.

The giant squid stretched forty feet from its upper fins to the tips of the powerful, dangling tentacles that it used to push through the water with tremendous force. There were ten arms in total, eight short ones and two long. Each covered with rubbery, biting suction cups running along their length. These arms ended at the squid’s bone-crushing beak, and hungry mouth. 

Its eyes were gigantic, almost a foot in diameter, and they pierced through the darkness in search of small fish and other prey. 

As the hunters gathered around the beast, it located an angler fish. Faster than seemed possible, a tentacle shot out and wrapped around the struggling animal. In another heartbeat the fish had been swallowed by the hungry squid, leaving behind only a faint dusting of scales that drifted idly to the ocean floor.

The dark eyes of the hunters were now fixed solely on their leader. She made a series of quick, abbreviated hand gestures, trying to disturb the water as little as possible. Her warriors dispersed, spreading out in a slow fan. They moved into position, each fighter at a distance that would keep her just out of reach of the squid’s gripping tentacles.

The leader swam up a few feet until she was almost directly above her prey. It’s constantly shifting eyes roamed over her and she froze, not a single sensory tendril wafting in the water. The squid didn’t see her in the blackness, and she slowly raised one arm to the side of her head, then jerked it down suddenly.

Now!

Flashes of bioluminescent light erupted from all angles. Its massive eyes unprepared for the sudden onslaught, the animal was struck momentarily blind.

The leader lit up a red stripe of light along her spine, signalling the second stage of the attack.  Her hunters took their places at the base of the largest tentacles, krakanas poised and ready. 

Raising her shark-jaw spear, she slashed down violently into the soft skin of the squid’s mantle.

The wounded beast twisted violently in the water, stretching it’s murderous tentacles blindly in search of its attacker. One of her hunters was knocked sideways by the power of the squid’s movements. She sank heavily into the soft floor of the seabed, kicking up a billowing cloud of sand.

Now the world was a blur of sand and blood and black, inky water as the squid turned and thrashed in the water. Another warrior flashed a bright white glow next to the animal’s sensitive eyes and it shrank back from the sudden light, allowing her sister to get close enough to begin slashing at the squid’s powerful arms. 

 The animal drew its arms protectively into its body, leaving only the two longest tentacles to continue sweeping for the source of its pain. 

Red light began flashing wildly as one of the tentacles wrapped itself blindly around the leg of a hunter and began drawing her towards its snapping jaws. Her powerful tail beat the already cloudy water until all that could be seen was the rapidly flickering red light moving closer to the squid’s mouth.

The leader raced to her trapped hunter, slashing again and again with the serrated blade of her spear. But the squid’s arms were thick and muscular. Her blade scratched the surface but couldn’t penetrate deeply enough to break the squid’s grip. 

The other three hunters began flashing in rapid succession, confusing the large predator. It twisted and doubled back. 

Suddenly the leader of the warriors was face to face with the animal’s enormous rolling eye.

 It was larger than her head, and rimmed in white. It looked directly at her with a terrible intelligence.

It saw her.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she withdrew a sharpened bone dagger from a sheath on her hip and buried it into the squid’s eye, piercing it’s brain.

Dead, the animal sank slowly to the ocean floor below.

 

***

 

The hunters now fell to the task of gutting and butchering the massive squid. They worked mostly in complete darkness, only occasionally flashing a bioluminescent signal to one another. They moved as a well-trained unit; each one falling to their usual tasks with little need for communication.

First, they sawed off each of the long arms, twisting and knotting them together to form a bulky but manageable bundle. The heavy mantle contained the majority of the meat, and they sliced it into long, thing strips. They keep all the edible organs intact, discarding only the black line of intestine that ran along its body.

The squid’s enormous eyes were wrapped in carefully in a square of seasilk and set aside. A gift for the Gods.

Some of them took trophies from the kill. As the one who had delivered the killing blow, the leader claimed the animal’s strong beak as her prize. Another hunter cut away a piece of toothed sucker and affixed it to a bone necklace, where it joined the suckers of eleven previous hunts.

When they were finished, the lingering traces of blood in the water were the only evidence of the recent violence. Already though, scavengers were arriving upon the scene, drawn by the lingering scent of the squid’s entrails. A finless hagfish swam lazily a few inches above the ocean floor, seeking out any scraps of meat that may have fallen to the silty ground.

Dead, the giant squid weighed more than four hundred pounds, and there was enough to spare that the hunters did not begrudge the hungry fish a few mouthfuls. From behind a nearby rock they retrieved several wide, flat pieces of bone, scavenged from the skull of a fallen whale. 

Using thin, flexible lengths of seasilk, four of the hunters bound the enormous sections of squid to the bone, then wound the shimmering white fabric around their shoulders. Harnessed to these makeshift sleds, the warriors kicked strongly, their powerful scarlet-red tails stirring up the silty sediment of the seabed.

Underwater, the hunters were able to carry loads many times their own body weight. They had also been trained in strength and stamina since birth, and their muscular bodies strained at the sturdy seasilk until the heavy loads began shifting slowly, and then with greater speed. The captain of the warriors took her place at the center of the pack, unencumbered except by her sharkbone spear. 

The band of hunters began the slow, four-hour journey back to their city, the heads of the four bent as they dragged the heavy whalebone sleds. The leaders eyes were huge in her face, on a constant swivel as they cut through the infinite darkness of the abyssal plain. 

An auspicious hunt. No one injured except Mara, and even that was only a sucker-bite. 

The leader took a moment to peer back at her Beta, her right-hand fighter. Mara and their fellow pack-sister Tyre were the veterans of nearly a dozen hunts, and the violent bouts against the squid had left all three of them pocked with circular scars left by the animal’s toothed tentacles. Even her two junior warriors, Jada and Aeleon, bore signs of their encounters with the giant squid.

The meat from this kill will feed the people of Lai’lore for at least three months. A sure sign after so many failed hunts. Relief washed over her, though she was careful to keep her face expressionless. Perhaps the Gods have finally been appeased.

The sensory hairs on her head picked up a vibration coming from ahead of the group and she swam aggressively ahead, flashing her B. spinal ridges in warning. A flash of blue lights flickered back, signalling to the group of heavily armed warriors.

No Threat.

Spear still poised at the ready, the leader closed her eyes and focused, summoning her energy. A soft glow began under her ribcage and spread slowly until her entire body was illuminated in a glowing yellow light from the top of her head to the very tips of her tail flukes.

Where a moment ago there had been eternal blackness there was now a shining halo around the leader of the hunters. Her hair flowed wildly, the sensory tendrils swaying in the otherwise still water. Behind her, her fellow warriors bowed low, still dragging the heavy sleds.

It was a display of great and dreadful magic, known and feared by all the denizens of the deep waters. Immediately, the approaching creature froze and began showing red flickers.

A sign of subservience. One of their own. Clearly visible now in the yellow light emanating from her body, the leader beckoned the newcomer forward.

She was thin, with a long silver torso ending in a bright cerulean-blue tail. Across her chest was a gleaming sash of white seasilk bearing a distinctive stylized spiral.

A messenger. From the Temple of the High Priestess. She hovered at the edge of the light shining from the leader of the hunters and, wide black eyes downcast, that she had a message for the leader. She was still visibly trembling in the presence of the leader’s shining yellow aura. 

Poor thing. Why in the Abyss was she sent out here without protection? She loosened the tension in her abdomen, and the glowing light quickly faded, leaving them surrounded once more in safe, comfortable darkness.

“What could possibly be so important that my grandmother would send you all the way out here alone, young one?” the leader asked. She communicated in a combination of high-pitched whistles and clicks, bioluminescent flickers, and broad hand motions which created traveling vibrations in the water. 

“Pardon me, Lady Syra,” the young woman answered with a deep bow, her voice still quaking with fear from the leader’s earlier show of aggression. “The High Priestess commands that you come to the Temple at once.”

The lead warrior, Syra, scoffed and gestured to the heavily laden females behind her,  “My warriors are already returning after a successful hunt. We are tired and thirsty. Tonight we will give our offerings to the Gods. Can my grandmother not wait until then?”

The young messenger bowed again, but was already shaking her head, “She says you are to leave the others behind and come at once. An offering has been found.”

“We have an offering wrapped up in the sleds behind me!” Syra gestured impatiently.

“No, my Lady–”

“Don’t call me my Lady. Syra will do,” she interrupted.

Yes my L– Syra,” the messenger stumbled on her words, misery painted clearly on her features. “But your grandmother said that an offering had been found, and that you were to come back immediately. She said something about it being a “sacrificial” off–”

“That’s enough.” Syra cut the girl off again, and she fell silent. “You will stay here with my warriors. They will see that you return safely to Tessai.”

Now she spoke directly to her first hunter, “Mara, divide your load between the others and take lead. See them back safely, sister”

Mara gave her a fierce, proud look and said nothing. There was no need. The two had been raised together since infancy, they knew each other’s minds as well as their own. 

Still clutching her long spear, Syra left her fellow hunters behind and began swimming in the direction of the City as fast as she could. Almost instantly the dark closed around her and she was swimming alone through the silent blackness. She swam mindlessly, lost in her thoughts.

A sacrifice had been found.

How many years it had been? Before Syra’s time, so at least twenty years ago. In that time, the Gods had grown angry and restless. So many eggs failed to hatch, and too many of the surviving hatchlings were sickly and weak. Most did not survive to see their second year.

The people of the Abyss were growing restless as well, and fearful of what further devastation the Gods might unleash if they were denied their rightful gifts. Already there were rumors from neighboring communities of violent shakings within the Abyss, and plumes of black smoke that spewed up from the chasm.

A sacrifice was desperately needed, and Syra sent a silent prayer down to the Gods that they were able to send along an appropriate offering in time.

Still, her heart hammered as she thought of what surely awaited at the Temple of the Abyss.

A pure offering to the Gods Below could only come from the Realm Above.

One of them would have to undergo the perilous journey to the surface, lure the sacrifice into the water, and drag it down to the Abyss as a gift to the Gods.

Let it be me. Syra clutched her krakana tight, and swam faster through the darkness.The silty sea floor was midnight black beneath her tailfins as she raced to obey her grandmother’s summons.

The High Priestess did not like to be kept waiting.

Click here for Chapter Three!

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.

My Story is Now Available as a Free Novella!

If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out

The Midnight Road!

available for free now on Inkitt!!

Help Me Choose a Title!

Anyone who is awake at 2:30 am: what’s a good title for a romance story about twins that doesn’t immediately suggest incest?
Everything that I can think of (Twin Desire, etc) hints at either creepy threesomes or worse.
I need something sexy yet innocuous. Winner gets their title on my latest story 😉

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

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