The Cycle Novella (Pt.2)
As it turned out, the voyage to Tír Na nÓg, or “The Land of Youth”, the island the Fae called home, was not exactly the romantic, cotton-candy and sex-filled dream that I had pictured it would be. After filling a small leather satchel with everything I’d deemed “essential” at Dierdre’s, Bres and I had sailed northeast from the rocky coast of Kinvarra and straight out into the North Atlantic.
It was a two week journey to Tír Na nÓg, which may seem like no time at all for someone who likens sailing to being on a cruise, martini-in-hand; but the actual reality of being tossed across bitter winter waters in a nearly constant state of hypothermia was enough to make me want to swear off anything related to water for the rest of my life.
Logically, as Tír Na nÓg is practically considered to be one of the modern-day world’s best kept secrets, it would only make sense that actually getting there would be quite the challenge in and of itself. I, however, hadn’t really considered that little tidbit when I had let my stupid impulsive nature take the reins once again and agreed to come with Bres.
Those two weeks might as well have been a lifetime. The arctic winds of the open ocean had crunched down into my very marrow. No number of blankets or sweaters seemed to be enough to stave off that hungry, devouring maw of unyielding ice. The closer we got to Tír Na nÓg, the rougher the ocean became. In the last days of our voyage, I’d even had the thought that Bres’ sailboat, which had looked enormous and sturdy on the dock in Kinvarra, would be swallowed by the angry seas that tossed us around as easily as a bath toy.
The sky was dark above Tír Na nÓg when Bres had announced we were finally approaching land. It seemed odd to me, the darkness, as I had figured it couldn’t have been more than half-past two in the afternoon. The waters had finally stilled around us, as Bres’ boat slunk through the thick, milky fog that clung to my skin in an uncomfortably humid embrace. The current had calmed considerably, as if it changed its mind after fighting so hard against us. In fact, it felt as if the waters around Tír Na nÓg were actually pulling us in now, like an oblivious fish being reeled in to meet its certain death.
I stood on the bow, as still as a figurehead, with my hands braced tightly around the railings as if the still waters would decide to churn again at a moment’s notice.
I was desperately trying to see beyond the fog, for any sign of the “land” Bres claimed we were close to, when I felt a familiar wall of solid muscle press against my back. A shudder of pleasure rippled down my spine as I felt his strong jaw nuzzle into the side of my face. I pressed into the perfect curve of his taut body and breathed in the vanilla, cedarwood, and bonfire scent that somehow still clung to him despite the fact we hadn’t had a proper bath in over a fortnight.
“Where is it? Tír Na nÓg?”
Bres wrapped his thick arms around my waist like a life vest, and dipped his head, indicating that it was dead ahead.
I turned my chin towards him, confusion furrowing my brow, as I met his sea glass eyes.
“I’m serious. I can’t see anything through all this fog.”
“Ach, I’d almost forgotten, mo ghrá.”
Bres untangled himself from me and spun me around to face him.
Before I could even get the question out, he leaned in and blew out a long, deep breath across my eyes. I laughed, waving a palm in front of me playfully to escape the tickling sensation his breath had stirred across my lashes. Bres didn’t laugh though, he merely stared expectantly, with one dark eyebrow lifted in question.
“Well, tell me what ye see now, Aine.”
I whirled, facing the bow, as I felt my breath hitch in the back of my throat.
As if his breath had parted the fog, there, before us I could see a massive plateau of rocky land stretched out like the white Cliffs of Dover. Still shrouded beneath the darkened sky, massive, and intricate structures as tall as mountains jutted up proudly from the terrain. A city, I realized. Tír Na nÓg was lit up like Christmas time, lights of all colors twinkled cheerfully amongst the buildings, dancing in the city’s countless windows as if to greet us.
“It’s-,” I couldn’t find the words to describe the ethereal beauty that lay before me.
“Home,” Bres breathed against my ear. Surprisingly, his voice was filled with a wonder that matched my own, despite the countless times I knew he had probably seen it.
I’d been about to comment on the shining gold of the Byzantine-style onion domes I saw perched atop the tallest towers in the city, when Bres gripped me by the elbows and spun me to face him once again with seriousness creasing the lines around his full mouth.
“Aine, I’ve no’ told ye everything about me.”
I pressed a palm up to Bres’ now-scruffy cheek, “It’s okay, we have all the time in the world now-,”
He stopped me short, “When we get there, there is still something we need to do. It’s important for us to be together, ye understand?”
I nodded, still confused, but waited for him to go on.
“Do ye love me, Aine?”
I hesitated. Did I love Bres? I mean, if I was being completely honest with myself, no. It had only been a month and some change since we’d met. But, I suppose, since he was the father of my unborn child, and I really liked him, and he was my supposed soulmate... I could love him. Eventually, though. I wasn’t sure love worked that fast. At least, not for me.
The intensity of his gaze suddenly felt cold and reptilian upon my face. Almost as if he had stepped into my mind and pulled the answer from it before the words could form on my tongue to break the news.
“We must see the Queen of Tír Na nÓg when we arrive, Aine. I am-” he struggled to find the right words, “-well, as the Prince of my realm I can no’ be with a halfling if ye do no’ …” He struggled again, the words coming out as thick as molasses on his tongue, “She will no’ let will no’ let us be together... if ye do no’ say ye love me.”
There was an edge to his voice, an edge I’d only heard him use with Dierdre. Almost like… disgust. He must really hate her, the Queen.
Did Bres love me, though? I searched his eyes, looking for any traces of hurt, but only found two flat, emotionless shards of ice staring back at me. Well, I did kind of reject him… So, considering everything, I guess he’s handling it pretty well.
“I really like you Bres, it’s just… everything has happened so fast… and I mean, I could… like I could love you eventually… but-” I stopped, sensing the familiar hot flush of embarrassment creep across my freckled cheeks. Thanks a lot, word-vomit.
Bres blew out a wary, tired sigh, “I dinnae say ye had to love me, mo ghrá. I said ye have to tell her ye love me.”
I took him in. The tousled blue-black curls. The sure, confident set of his shoulders. The hard line of his jaw. The considerate, gentleness that had, thankfully, returned to his sea glass eyes.
I still wanted to ask about the prince part (would that make me a princess?) but I decided by the grim expression on his face, I could save that one for later.
“What will happen if she can tell I’m lying?” I said, a hint of fear for what might happen to Bres, to me, making my voice as wobbly as jello-salad.
His large rough palm smoothed down my tangle of blonde hair, before moving to cup my chin.
“She will no’ find out, Aine. As a halfling, ye still have the ability to lie. But, as soon as we touch the shore, ye will soon find out that ye will be one of the few on the island who can do so.”
My eyes widened in shock, “You can’t lie?”
Bres chuckled at my sudden burst of enthusiasm, “No, I can no’ lie on Tír Na nÓg. I’ll also look a wee bit different, so don’t be surprised when ye see me ears.”
I couldn’t help myself. I burst out into a fit of uncontrollable laughter. Bres frowned, which only made me laugh harder.
“I-I’m sorry,” I wheezed, finally able to speak. “It’s not funny, but... I just pictured those big elf ears that Santa’s helpers have... but on you.”
“They’re no’ big!” Bres said, a little too defensively.
I snorted, “Well, well. I didn’t know how big of an insecurity it was for you.”
Bres grimaced at the lame joke and ruffled my hair playfully.
“Alright, alright… I promise, when I see them, I won’t make a big deal.”
“That’s enough out of ye, lass!” Bres bellowed, with a wicked smile as his fingers quickly found that oh-so-sensitive spot beneath my arms and tickled mercilessly.
We were both breathing heavily (Bres from laughter, me from crying) when he finally conceded and said, “Okay, mo ghrá, help me dock this boat, and remember what I said.”
I nodded, still slightly afraid of this all-powerful Fae Queen. I could lie, though. I would lie. I would do it for Bres. I would do it for us, and our family.
After we’d docked the boat and gathered up our meager belongings, I quickly found that the journey up to Tír Na nÓg would be about as easy as the boat ride here.
The eerily silent, but obviously well-kept dock, was connected to a set of roughhewn steps at its end that were buried into the cliff face, seemingly stretching up forever.
“Is there another way up?” I asked hopefully.
Bres shot me a withering glance. I take that as a no, then.
The night air was cool, and a ghostly breeze whistled through the hollowed-out stone as we climbed for what felt like hours. I had to stop several times to catch my breath before we reached the top. Each time, I’d had to remind myself not to look out from where we stood on the precarious set of un-railed stairs. Even though I’d always enjoyed rollercoasters, heights of any kind other than those at theme parks had always terrified me. It was kind of like how I really liked ketchup, but hated tomatoes. It didn’t make sense, but it still didn’t keep me from feeling as if my stomach had dropped to my toes every time, I got a peek at how far up we’d climbed.
“So… if you’re a… prince of your realm… why do you have to… report to this Queen,” I called in panting breaths ahead to Bres who had maintained a steady pace of about twelve steps ahead the whole way up.
“Because she is the Queen of all of Tír Na nÓg, Aine. Our lands are broken into eight realms we call the Wandering Courts. Grian, Gealach, Mearcair, Véineas, Mars, Iúpatar, Satarn, and Plútón. She rules over them all.”
Planets, I realized. Their courts or realms, or whatever they called them were named after planets.
“Which one are you prince of? And why planets?”
I could almost hear Bres’ eyes roll, “The planets just mark the elemental power and traits we inherit from birth. I am the Prince of Mearcair.”
My legs were sandbags. I almost thought I’d have to start using my arms to lift them up the worn steps. Even though I could tell Bres was starting to get annoyed with the interrogation, I didn’t care. I needed a distraction from the white-hot knife of exertion that was currently slicing through my thighs.
“So, Prince of Mearcair means…?” I prodded.
Despite Bres’ body being in tip-top condition, I could hear him beginning to pant. Good. At least, I wouldn’t have to feel so bad about how out of shape I was now.
“It… means… I can wield earth. I can make it do what I want.”
I stumbled a bit in surprise, “What like magic?”
“Yes, like magic. I can cause earthquakes, and grow plants, speak to animals…”
“You can… speak to animals?”
Bres grumbled a bit at my disbelief, “Among other things, yes.”
“If you can do all of that, then what can the Queen do?”
Suddenly, I could hear the familiar sounds of a bustling city above. Tír Na nÓg. We were here, at last.
A jolt of adrenaline cracked through my spine like a whip. My weary legs suddenly felt like feathers and I shot into a jog, catching up to Bres just as he’d reached the very last step.
“Remember what I said, Aine. Fae are no’ keen on outsiders, don’t draw any unnecessary attention to yerself,” Bres whispered, tugging the thin hood of the too-big cloak I’d borrowed from him over my head.
I didn’t know why he’d have to whisper in a place as busy or as loud as Tír Na nÓg, but I nodded once and stepped onto the cobblestone path that led into the city.
Bres followed, and as I looked back a faint glimmer seemed to wrap around his body before rippling away into the cool night air. I blinked. Once. Twice. Holy shit. His ears were huge! Well, not massive like a Christmas elf per se, but way larger than any regular humans’ ears. And pointy. So pointy! They were almost like party hats. His face seemed different too. Not his features but… something else. His face was sharper, harder than it had been when he was in his “human” form. Still beautiful but...almost…cruel in a way.
Bres didn’t give me time to poke fun at his party hat ears, quickly grabbing my hand and leading me into the depths of the ancient Fae city.
In a way, it was almost European. The intricate gothic architecture and the carefully placed alcoves that no doubt led into shops and homes. But, like Bres, there was also something distinctly different about this place. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but as he led us through the crush of beautiful bodies that filled every inch of the streets, I could feel a black oiliness begin to grow in the pit of my stomach. Nerves, Aine. It’s just nerves.
Not drawing attention to myself was easier said than done. At first, I tried to keep my head down and focus on the immaculate cobblestone beneath my stained boots. So clean for a big city like this! But I kept getting this niggling feeling of temptation that made it hard to keep my eyes trained down for very long. Three seconds, I decided. I would count to a minute and then I could look up for three seconds. It seemed like a reasonable rule. Not too suspicious, just a normal Fae girl walking along the streets of Tír Na nÓg with her Fae boyfriend, just like everyone else.
Well, it would’ve been a good rule, if only I had the self-control. The first time I’d looked up, I found myself completely and utterly entranced by the place. Little lightening bugs or… No! Little tiny people that I could only describe as pixies flitted around playfully above the street like fluorescent hummingbirds.
Vendors, similar to those in Kinvarra, touted their wares in loud jovial tones, only, here I couldn’t recognize anything they seemed to be selling. Crystals and jewels and herbs I’d never heard of seemed to be commonplace market items here.
I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but an enchanting folk tune filled with the rhythmic melody of flutes and fiddles spilled across the city, urging my feet to step along to the beat. I felt Bres’ hand tighten around mine as he tugged my ever-slowing body a bit faster. I didn’t want to see the Queen. I wanted to stay here. I wanted to dance and shop and play.
“Keep moving, Aine,” Bres said gruffly, wrenching me through another crowd of tightly wedged bodies.
Bastard. I didn’t know what the rush was about. My heart began to pound in time with that lovely music. Stay, stay, stay, it seemed to say through every beat in my chest.
“Bres, can’t we just-” I said drowsily, yawning a bit as I forgot what I’d been about to ask.
“No, Aine,” Bres said sternly from ahead. “Ye must resist it, it is the magic of Tír Na nÓg, trying to lure ye in.”
I grumbled defiantly, still feeling as if I was in a daze. Everything here was so beautiful. Everyone here was so beautiful. They wouldn’t hurt me. No one that beautiful would hurt anybody.
“Damn ye, Aine,” Bres cursed beneath his breath.
We were stopped suddenly, amidst a crowd that had formed around a street performer perched atop a platform. She was dressed in robes the color of cherry pie, with white, starlight hair that fell to her waist in thick waves. She seemed to be calling for a volunteer, I went to raise my free hand but felt the cold iron of Bres’ unrelenting grip clamp down on me.
“Hey! I was gonna-” I protested.
Bres slapped his other palm across my mouth, dragging me into the nearest alleyway. It was dank and shadowy here, silent except for the incessant drip of an unseen pipe. It immediately made me long for that beautiful, warm, lavender-scented street once again.
“Eat this, now,” Bres commanded harshly.
I shook my head, sticking out my lower lip in a childish pout.
Bres, it seemed, was not having it. In less than a second I felt my head being forced back and my mouth thrust open by his thick, meaty fingers. I’d had half the mind to bite him, had it not been for the mouthful of salt that followed and choked me completely. I tried to spit it back out, but I’d definitely swallowed at least half a handful of the acrid stuff before it was all said and done.
“Bres! What the hell!” I shouted, still coughing and trying to scrape my tongue with my sleeve to get that awful taste out of my mouth.
“I’m sorry, Aine. It had to be done. I overestimated yer ability to be able to resist Tír Na nÓg, since yer half-Fae but…”
“Excuse me?” I hissed, pushing away his extended palm.
Bres reached his hand towards me again, “The Fae world is very different than yer world, Aine. I am no’ proud to say it but...long ago, humans were used by Fae for entertainment.”
He shook his head in something that seemed like shame, causing a cluster of perfect blue-black curls to fall loose across his brow.
“Our songs would make them dance until they died, and our food would make them pliable and willing to do anything we asked of them. That is why Dierdre says we are dangerous. We were. It is no’ like that anymore but… the temptation and danger for humans is still here, regardless. Salt is your only real protection here.”
I spat again, unable to get the last bitter traces of salt from my tongue.
“So, you’re saying… Fae used to kidnap humans and keep them around for entertainment?”
Bres sighed, almost ashamed, “Yes, Aine. Among other things, yes.”
Among other things. It seemed to be his favorite phrase today, and I was quickly growing tired of hearing it.
Begrudgingly, mostly because I had no other option, I took Bres’ hand. Yes, I decided, he would be explaining a lot to me later. After we get this damned Queen thing out of the way.
“Fine, let’s go do this and go home.” Wherever home was now.
The closer we got to the Queen’s palace the more crowded it seemed to become on the streets. I’d given up on apologizing to every person I’d accidentally slammed into trying to keep up with Bres’ long strides. The buildings even seemed to be getting more and more luxurious if that was even possible. Every doorway and arch of each building was covered in bright gold metal plating and set with massive gemstones that sparkled too brightly to be faux imitations.
My eyes watered at the startling array of opulent, rich colors that paraded through the streets. Apparently, the height of Fae fashion was to be as loud and ostentatious as possible. It almost reminded me of the Parisian fashion of the 1800’s we'd studied my sophomore year in world history.
Wildly intricate dresses and suits full of chiffon, lace, and heavy embroidery were draped across nearly everyone we passed. Gaudy hats of enormous height towered atop the heads of the already impossibly tall Fae, giving everyone here an air of incomparable wealth and status. I felt hideously under-dressed in Bres’ simple cloak, my favorite, albeit, ripped-to-hell jeans, and chunky-knit sweater. I didn’t have to force my eyes down now; my mortification did all the work for me.
I only knew that we had reached the Queen’s palace when I felt my boots sink into a plush material that was as thick as sponge instead of the familiar hardness of the cobblestones. The carpet before us was the deepest purple I’d ever seen, almost black like the coat of a panther. It was easily the softest thing I’d ever stepped foot on, and I’d immediately had the urge to curl up into a ball and fall asleep right there.
The palace itself was beyond words, after going up two flights of those memory foam stairs I found myself standing before the largest doors I’d ever seen. Gilded in a gold so marvelous it looked molten, the massive doors of the entryway seemed like they had been made to fit three elephants that were carrying giraffes on their backs. Carved into their faces were scenes of wars I did not recognize. Proud looking Fae males with fine armor were perched atop the backs of countless great beasts that had no doubt been slain by their victorious hand. Above them all, resting delicately atop a marvelous throne in the clouds was a sensual-looking woman of about thirty. It had been carved so beautifully; I’d almost believed it was a photograph at first. Her face was noble and although I’d not seen her yet, I’d know that she was undoubtedly the Queen.
Six guards dressed in exquisitely tailored livery in the same over-ripe plum hue of the carpet stepped forth from the doors to greet us. Why did everyone look so damned young here?
Like, I get that it’s called the “Land of Youth” or whatever, but I hadn’t thought it was going to be a literal description of all of the people that lived here. I’d yet to see one person over the age of thirty-five since we’d arrived. The guards seemed little older than eighteen at most.
The one who I’d assumed to be in charge, mostly due to the taller height of his ridiculous poufy hat approached us before realizing it was Bres and dropped into a low bow.
“Open the doors!” he commanded his counterparts in a brogue accent similar to Bres' before dipping into a low bow again and saying, “Excuse me, yer highness. I did no’ recognize ye in those clothes.”
I scoffed at the obvious snub but Bres remained stoic, nodding coolly at the boy before leading me into the palace.
The inside of the palace was even more pretentious than the doors, if that was even possible. The carpet from the stairs cut straight through the polished white marble floors and stopped at an enormous jewel-encrusted dais. Fat columns of white and gold flecked marble that matched the floors stood alongside the carpet, obviously directing any who entered straight towards the clear focal point of the room. The Queen's throne. Which I had to admit, did in fact, resemble the heavenly throne depicted on the palace entrance. Despite the heavy carpet that muffled our footsteps, I felt as if each thud of my plain, worn boots was echoed through the cavernous hall.
I looked up to find more victorious depictions of war painstakingly painted across every inch of the domed ceiling above. It felt almost as if I was entering the gates of heaven to meet God himself. Still, despite being surrounded by luxury, the slithering oily beast of fear that had found a home in my belly hadn’t quite left yet. I found my palms begin to break into a cold anxious sweat as I met the eyes of the Queen of Tír Na nÓg.
I supposed the angelic depiction of her throne hadn’t been too far of a stretch after all. She was unequivocally celestial. Her beauty quite literally knocked the breath out of me. I’d forgotten how to breathe momentarily as my eyes locked with those heavily lashed amethyst orbs. The carving on the doors of her palace really did her no justice at all. I had the fleeting thought that, if I had been in her place, I would have sentenced the artist who carved it to death for such an awful rendering. She was a living meteor. Her hair was so deep and rich, it seemed almost impossible to determine exactly was shade it was, like a tapestry of endless colors woven together to create one solid masterpiece that blazed and shifted hues as her delicate chin shifted to examine us. Her very skin seemed to soak up the light around her, glowing from within like a distant star.
I’d been so absorbed in gawking at her impossible beauty that I’d not even noticed the eight thrones that we set in the dais steps below her, all filled, save one, with men and women of equally otherworldly beauty. Hot tears pricked my eyes. I wiped at them furiously before they could fall. Shame once again made my face glow, but it truly was difficult not to be moved by the beauty before me.
Bres sank to a knee before the woman, and I quickly followed suit.
“My dear Bres, so lovely to see you and your... companion,” she sang, her voice as hauntingly exquisite as the trill of a thousand songbirds. She had no trace of an accent, as the others did. It somehow made her even more frightening than before.
“My Queen,” Bres said, finally rising to meet her eyes.
She let out a delightful little giggle, clearly amused by something funny I hadn’t caught.“Oh, Bres, I do believe we’re past formalities, don’t you?” Her gaze was feline and almost… seductive. Yes, definitely seductive. Her deep mulberry eyes roamed across Bres hungrily, lingering far too long to be mistaken for anything other than lust.
Bres dipped his head again, “My apologies, Morrígan.”
She chuckled once again before clapping her slim palms together sharply, “That’s the Bres I know. Now, just what have you brought for me today?”
Bres wrapped an arm around my waist pulling me close to his side protectively, “This, is Aine.”
Queen Morrígan lounged lazily on an elbow, looking bored as she examined her perfect almond-shaped nails, “Yes, yes, I know. Your halfling. But how am I even supposed to get a good look at the little thing with you covering her up like that?”
Um, hello? I am literally right here, I wanted to shout. Thankfully though, my impulses knew that this probably wasn’t the best time to let loose.
Bres retracted his arm and gave me an encouraging little push on the small of my back to get closer to the throne. Shit, shit, shit. I was NOT ready for this.
I bent down into an awkward little curtsy, freezing mid-way as I horrifyingly realized my hood was still on. I snatched it off, hoping they hadn’t seen it, even though I definitely knew they had, and fumbled my way through the last half of my pathetic bow before rising again. I kept my eyes trained to the floor, knowing that if I met her eyes again I might just vomit.
The Queen laughed again, clearly taking some horrific delight in my humiliation.
“A clumsy, plain little thing, isn’t she? Are you quite sure she’s a halfling? One would think she would’ve inherited at least some desirable qualities from her father.”
My eyes snapped up to meet hers then, my temper finally bubbling over at the mention of my father.
“You know nothing of my father, you Fae bitch!” I spat, balling up my fists at my side as I tried desperately to contain my rage. I felt about as dignified as a rabid dog then, and realized I was probably already meeting their very low expectations of a halfling like me. I briefly wondered if I would be sentenced to death for calling her a Fae bitch. Hopefully, it would be something quick and dramatic like the guillotine. If I was going to die here I wanted everyone to remember, like how everyone remembered Marie Antionette.
A rich laugh rang out from a man seated at the throne to her left. His blue eyes so deep they almost seemed black, twinkled with mischief. At least someone thinks I’m okay.
“More than okay,” a deep husky voice sounded in my head. “No one around here has had the nerve to speak like that to her in ages.”
My spine stiffened. Oh my god, Bres was right. I was going crazy here.
Morrígan smiled, a warm half-smile that did not reach the frigidity of her calculating amethyst eyes.
“I know enough to know you’ve inherited his temper, dear Aine.”
I cringed at the sound of my name on her perfectly carved lips and retreated back a step closer to Bres’ side.
The Queen regarded me for a moment longer before asking, “We’re not here today to reminisce and exchange pleasantries though, are we? Perhaps another day.”
I stood numbly, unsure if I was supposed to answer. All I wanted was to get the hell out of here.
“Aye,” Bres said from behind, thankfully, answering for me.
“Well, Aine, do you love Bres as he claims?”
I willed my voice into becoming even and steady as I met her gaze once again, “Yes, I do. I love Bres.”
It was hard not to flinch as her gaze roamed across my body, as if she was sniffing for a whiff of the lie on me.
“Liar,” that dark taunting voice sounded in my head again.
My eyes flicked to the man beside Morrígan again, questioning. He was smiling, languid and teasing.
My brow furrowed slightly. “Are you speaking to me or am I seriously losing it here?”
“You’re going to lose a whole lot more if you keep looking at me. At least tilt your chin up and give her some of that attitude from earlier, you’ll be more convincing.”
Shit he was talking to me. In my head. What the hell? Why hadn’t Bres warned me about Fae with this kind of power?
“Stop the internal monologue and do as I said Aine. Do you want to leave here alive or not?”
Shit. He was right. I turned my gaze back to Queen Morrígan and held my chin up high, narrowing my eyes with as much defiance as I could possibly muster. I even placed a hand on my hip for extra dramatic effect, hoping it would work as well as it had on my parents whenever I’d try to get them to let me do something that I really had no business doing.
The Queens icy gaze did not break but she finally relaxed a bit back into her outrageously luxe throne.
“Alright, Aine, I believe you,” her eyes flicked to Bres, “And you my dear Prince of Mearcair, your sanctions are hereby formally lifted. You may take your halfling to your lands and freely do as you please.”
Wait. What the hell? Sanctions? Lifted? Was I just some kind of stupid halfling scapegoat to get Bres out of trouble? What is going on here?
I swiveled back towards Bres, question lining my face as I silently begged him for an answer.
He wasn’t looking at me though, he was looking at her. His Queen, chest all inflated with victory as if he had somehow just won some insane bet that he thought he was definitely going to lose.
“Ah, I guess he didn’t tell you everything then did he, Aine?”
My attention snapped back to the mysterious man; his icy shock of chin-length hair bobbed a bit as he relaxed his dimpled chin against his long slender fingers.
Bres finally stepped forth and snaked a muscular arm out to catch my waist as we turned to depart.
“Ah, now I was not quite finished,” Queen Morrígan trilled playfully, “I will keep true to all of those promises if Aine can show me that she loves you.”
The Queen smiled an oily black smile, casting her gaze around the room as her expression was matched and met with nods of approval from the princes and princesses seated beside her.
She mirrored their nods, seeming quite satisfied with this new little twist she’d decided to add.
“Yes, I believe a series of three trials would truly prove your love for Bres to me, Aine. Not to worry, they will be easy enough for a halfling, of course. And we will make a big celebration out of it. We Fae just adore celebrations.”
More murmurs and nods of approval rang out from her courtiers.
I looked up at Bres, willing him to put a stop to all this. To say no, I would not be participating in any trials let alone three! I’m pregnant for god sakes!
To my continued horrification, Bres seemed to be in total agreement with this bullshit.
“It seems only fair, my Queen,” Bres said calmly, squeezing my waist in what was probably meant to be a comforting gesture.
“Perfect! We’ll get started on the planning today! You two will stay here in the palace of course, one trial a week should be fair. Oh, I do love having you back, dear Bres!”
Morrígan cooed in a saccharine sweet voice that made me feel sick all over again.
Jesus. What the hell had I gotten myself into now?
#fantasy #fiction #fantasyfiction #fae #faeries
The Cycle Novella (Pt. 1)
I’ve always despised my heritage. It has been the bane of my existence actually, which I know makes me sound entitled and dramatic and probably ungrateful, but I can’t help it. I hate being half-Irish.
Leave it to my mother though, to go off to Dublin on some wild college graduation trip and come back engaged and knocked-up with me a month later. Believe me, I’ve heard it all; That I live a privileged life because I get to be so “cultured” and “well-traveled”, all because I’ve gotten to visit Ireland every few years (forcibly, might I add) to “get in touch with my roots”, as my parents liked to say. Since my dad was orphaned at a young age, “getting in touch with my roots” really only consisted of visiting some wack-job old lady named Dierdre whose bed-and-breakfast my mother stayed at during her college days.
She was definitely the worst thing about Ireland. She had a face like a vulture and the personality to match. My mother had formed some weird bond with her during her visit though, and had since, practically made her into my surrogate grandmother. My mom had even tried to get me to call her as much, but I’d always refused.
I think my hatred of everything Irish really began when I was in kindergarten. Growing up and hearing two different accents teach me English had really done a number on my impressionable young mind, ultimately leaving me with a heinously mish-moshed way of speaking as the result.
When we’d been asked to introduce ourselves in front of the class by saying one thing we liked to do, I had been utterly terrified, as every kindergartener is on their first day. But, I hadn’t yet known that I was different until it was my turn and I said, “I like to garden with my mom” and it came out as “oi loike ta gerden weth me mom”. It received an overall shriek of laughter followed by shouts at our blustering red-faced teacher Mrs. Stonemen, asking why I talked funny.
I thought I had been utterly mortified at the time; it couldn’t get any worse right? Wrong. The others eventually found out my name was spelled Aine, actually pronounced awn-ya, and Brandon Sutherland, a beast of a boy who was shaped like a green pea with one front tooth and a perpetual collection of dried-up snot around his nose, had yelled out, “AINE THE ANUS”. That little one-liner had received vastly more praise than, “why does she talk funny”, and continued to stick with me as a timelessly funny nickname until I was eighteen and finally free of all of my tormentors.
After graduation, I decided to take a year off to “travel the world” in a naive grand scheme I had concocted with my best, and only, friend Jules. Of course, when Jules’ parents found out that she was planning on giving up her scholarship to Wake Forest to travel, she had been immediately grounded with no technology and no way to contact me for the entire summer until she was silently shipped off as school began.
I, on the other hand, had been left high and dry with no plans, no friends, and no money to actually travel with. Jules and I, unfortunately, hadn’t thought the whole money part through yet.
So, when my parents had handed me the big manilla envelope full of travel brochures, cultural magazines, and departure and return tickets to good ol’ Ireland that August (after a long few months spent of me moping behind my black-out window shades and fuzzy blankets) I had known their intentions were probably meant to be good. I had known that, yes, but it still hadn’t stopped me from screaming and crying and pitching a fit like the holy terror I’d felt like being.
“They’re nonrefundable, Aine, you’re going,” my father had said with an unyielding steel edging his usually placid tone.
“It’ll be fun, Aine, you need to get out of this house and you’ll get to travel like you wanted! I know Dierdre will be so excited to see you,” my mother had said in a coaxing tone so sweet it had almost made me want to cry even more.
That’s how I found myself stuck in Kinvarra, Ireland, staring blankly at the churning waters of the Galway Bay through the ancient distorted glass window of my new senile caretaker’s little stone cottage. It was my only entertainment here since she didn’t believe in television and I had absolutely no cell service. Apparently, Dierdre had decided to buy the place because Dublin was getting a bit fast-paced for her aging mind to handle and Kinvarra’s “country” air had been just the tonic she had needed.
I’d arrived a week ago and had barely moved an inch since plopping down on the creaky iron twin bed of the guest room. I absentmindedly fingered the dried up pile of light yellow primrose flowers the ancient little woman insisted on spreading over every window seal of the house. I hated the way they smelled. I’d sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, nauseous from the cloyingly sweet, still-rotting scent that rolled off of them in toxic waves.
“Protection from the Fae”, Dierdre had claimed. The old bat was insane. I wasn’t quite sure if my sanity would remain intact by the time I came home in November, if I had to follow along with one more of her stupid superstitious beliefs.
She had also made me wear an iron chain link necklace threaded through with St. John’s Wort which I hated even more than I hated the primroses. It was big and ugly and heavier than I’d ever thought a necklace could be. I’d tried to take it off, but the house was small and she had incredibly sharp vision for her age. The first time I’d done it, had been the last.
It was late at night and I was ravenous so I’d decided to try my luck and creep down to the kitchen to see what I could find. Dierdre had a strict rule about meal times but I was so sick of her mushy overly-salted food I’d refused dinner that night. The only obstacle in my way was the living room.
As I snuck down the stone spiral staircase along the back hall, I could just make out a dying fire that must’ve been lit hours ago in the massive prehistoric-looking hearth. She had to have been asleep by now. It was gently illuminating the dim rustic space and I could have sworn I’d heard the rhythmic sound of her snoring in the lumpy puke-green armchair she generally tended to fall asleep in. I slyly tip-toed across the uneven stone floor, past the chair, and into the darkened kitchen with no problems. I wasn’t in the clear yet though, and I couldn’t risk turning on the lights so I’d felt my way around the room guided only by the pale watery light of the moon that was just barely coming in through the squat window above the deep farmhouse sink. Just as I’d managed to pull out a hunk of ham from the fridge, the lights had flicked on followed by Dierdre in a deranged tizzy. She’d seen that I, not only had been trying to eat after dinner but, that my necklace was nowhere in sight. The earful I’d gotten during that little conversation had made me decide to just suck it up and wear the stupid thing.
A soft rap on the door snapped me out of my reverie.
“Aine, lass, get dressed. We’re headed to the market,” Dierdre’s wafer-thin voice called out from behind the still-closed door.
“No, thanks,” I muttered silently to myself.
Before she could twist the doorknob and come in though, I assured her that I’d be down in fifteen minutes.
The market was a thirty-minute walk from Dierdre’s cottage to the little bustling village. It might have been quicker, had it not been for Dierdre’s fat ankles which she claimed had swollen up this morning after an attack of gout. I highly doubted it, considering her limited mobility was probably due to the fact that she was about seventy years-old and about seventy pounds overweight, but I mumbled some half-hearted condolences anyway and continued to trek alongside her in slow silence as our rain boots squelched through the muddy trail.
The village was underwhelming, to say the least. Squat stacks of grubby looking homes and businesses sat atop a flat wide peak of the hilly grass-covered countryside overlooking the bay. Everything seemed to be lined up sloppily and hastily on both sides of the worn and nearly-smooth cobblestones of the main road that ran through Kinvarra. Every building was completely covered in mud-brown clapboard shingles that had been half-bleached by the cool salted air drifting in from the sea, making them practically indistinguishable from one another. Well, save for the odd number of chimney’s that belched out thick black smoke on one or the rusted wind vane that was perched crookedly atop the roof of the next.
Stalls with energetic vendors peddling all types of merchandise were touting their wares in both English and Gaelic to the slow stream of browsing villagers who meandered by. According to Dierdre, the market was terribly busy today because some weird boat festival was going on in town, so it would probably be a longer market trip than usual. Perfect, just perfect. I kept the comments to myself though, only sighing in response as I tried to mentally prepare myself for the long road ahead.
Dierdre made me stop at just about every stall, clucking disappointedly at the selection and telling the vendors as much, before eventually moving on to the next. My feet began to ache after what felt like hours trailing Dierdre through the square like a pathetic little lapdog. We’d been here forever and had barely gotten enough to eat for dinner yet, let alone a week’s supply, as she had intended to do.
“Few more stops, lass,” Dierdre called out distractedly.
I nodded despondently and watched as her brittle crop of thinning white hair bobbed and weaved between the pert looking rows of tomatoes she’d been examining for the past fifteen minutes. She finally settled on a pound of them, despite her complaints, along with two hefty burlap sacks of potatoes, some onions, and a bag of dried-out looking carrots.
“This way, lass!” Diedre ordered after loading my arms down with her haul. Who carried all this shit for her when I wasn’t here?
I sighed and reluctantly followed as she moved towards a damp shadowy alleyway between the butcher and the baker’s stalls. The warm scent of baking bread combined with the sharp bloody iron scent of fresh meat made my stomach turn. Dierdre’s plump body forged ahead though, so I was forced to follow suit despite having to choke down the bile that I felt steadily rising in my throat. The alley smelled even worse though, and I suddenly found myself missing the stench of raw bread and uncooked meat.
I struggled not to cough as the smell of rotten sewage and eggs burned through my nose. Ancient-looking drainage pipes hung above us, dripping foul-smelling water that was tinged orange with rust. I’d had to jump out of the way more than once to avoid being completely drenched in the rancid runoff. Ahead, I saw Dierdre, thankfully, slide her plump body through an iron-barred door along the left side of the wall.
The unmarked, tucked-away shop was cramped and smelled strongly of patchouli, no doubt strung up everywhere to keep out the stench of the alleyway. A fat line of coarse-grained salt was spread across the threshold and I nearly had to jump into the damned place to avoid disturbing it. It was packed full from floor-to-ceiling with a vast array of herbs and spices and various charms and pendants and jewelry all proudly standing on display and marked with exorbitant price tags. What was this place? Everything looked like a pile of junk and was most definitely a rip-off. A deep-toned woman around Dierdre’s age with far less wrinkles than she, appeared from some back corner of the shop and greeted Dierdre warmly.
“What will it be today, friend?” the woman asked familiarly as she looked past Dierdre and fixed me with an appraising gray stare that was magnified through the thick lens of her rounded glasses. I smiled weakly and looked away, pretending to peruse.
“The dried primrose, as usual, Saoirse,” Dierdre said pleasantly, before looking back to me, considering a moment, then added, “and maybe something a little stronger than the necklace she’s wearing, we can’t be too careful.”
I looked up, meeting both of the women’s eyes, “Stronger than the necklace? Thanks, Saoirse, but I think I’ll be just fine with this.”
I’d conceded about my issues with the necklace, but I would not back down on this. I wasn’t wearing any more stupid Fae protection charms, one piece of hideous jewelry was quite enough for me, thank you very much.
“Do no’ question me, lass. You’ll wear extra protection if I wish it,” Dierdre scolded, annoyance and frustration deepening the already sunken crevices that sat beside the thin red-painted line of her pursed lips.
Saoirse knelt down behind the counter, unlocking the glass pane and reached in to pull out two massive iron cuffs set with horrid gaudy-looking turquoise colored stones that were centered in the middle.
I gulped, staring at the atrocious things. No way in HELL was I going to walk around looking like some knock-off Irish version of Wonder Woman.
“Like I said, Saoirse. I’m perfectly fine with the necklace, but thanks for your help,” I let sarcasm drip across every word like honey.
Dierdre’s face looked as red as the tomatoes she’d been making me lug about.
“Aine, ye will do what I say. That is the end of it.”
I don’t know why, but hearing her say those words, as if she were my mother or somehow even related to me, made something inside me snap.
“You, Dierdre, can’t tell me what to do!” I shouted, dropping the groceries to the floor like a toddler throwing a tantrum.
I didn’t care how it made me look, though. I actually felt a smug sense of satisfaction as I watched the vegetables bounce across the dirty floor, knocking into precariously piled stacks of overpriced “Fae Protection”. Everything about this was so unfair. How could my parents have ever thought that this could be counted as a vacation when they knew Dierdre ran her house like a prison warden?
I could feel my skin start to itch as I got the sudden urge to run. I needed to get out of here. I needed to get away from Dierdre and Saoirse and the shop and this entire wretched village. Before I could even think, I felt my legs begin to move, pumping through the dank alleyway, past the butcher’s, and the baker’s, and the square, and straight towards Kinvarra’s edge where the ramshackle boat dock was perched.
I stalked down to the half-empty docks in a black fury. So much for Kinvarra’s grand boat festival. It suddenly felt too hot beneath the thin little parka I’d thrown on this morning to keep out the chilled air that always seemed to blow across the bay, despite it being mid-August. I tore it off violently, not bothering to control my recklessly swinging arms or caring to say sorry to the weathered cluster of fisherman I’d accidentally knocked into. Through the roar of boiling blood rushing in my ears, I faintly heard them shouting curses after me in angry-sounding Gaelic.
I didn’t care though. I hated them, and Gaelic, and Kinvarra, and Ireland, and Dierdre, and my parents for sending me here, and most of all I hated my life. I knew I should’ve stayed home! I knew it! I should’ve just pretended to go through security at the airport and turned right back around. I should’ve just gotten an Uber home and said to Hell with the consequences when I showed back up on my parent’s doorstep.
But no, I’d felt guilty that my parents spent so much money on a nonrefundable ticket and gotten on the flight like a good little daughter and now here I was… Half-sprinting down a putrid slimy dock that smelled of rotting fish intestines and disgustingly grimy wind-whipped fishermen who had apparently never heard of a shower, in a tiny backwater village where only half of the people spoke English.
Out of nowhere, I felt the toe of my slick rubber boots catch on a loose half-decaying board and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back, head throbbing and covered in foul squishy bits of fish and algae the exact puke-ish shade of green as Dierdre’s favorite armchair.
Behind me, I heard the men I’d trampled through earlier burst into a fit of deep, mocking, full-bellied laughter. Without thinking, I ripped off that stupid, monstrously heavy “Fae” necklace and threw it at them as hard as I could… And missed. Of course.
The damned thing had sailed right over the men and straight into the massive black hull of one of those traditional hooker boats I’d seen some stray villagers ogling up the dock, like the game-winning shot at a basketball game.
Apparently, I’d even managed to hit someone inside of it because two seconds later I heard a deep, outraged voice howl, “Go dtachtfadh an diabhal thú!”, may the devil take you. The only Gaelic I’d actually been interested in learning before I’d come here were the curses.
Great, this was just great. Not only had I fallen on my ass in front of half of the population of Kinvarra, but I’d also managed to assault someone in the process.
Not just anyone though. Oh God, what had I done? The lithe body of a young man abruptly appeared from beneath the boat’s deck, hoisting himself to his feet with a predatory feline strength that immediately glued my feet to the spot. I felt a cold sweat lick across my back. He was easily the most beautiful man I’d ever seen in my whole life.
“Cé a rinne é seo?” he yelled out, holding my necklace in a gargantuan white-knuckled fist as he stared pointedly at the group of still chuckling men. I was guessing that meant something along the lines of “who threw this damned necklace?”.
“An cailín,” choked out one of the rough ruddy-skinned men through bursts of laughter.
And, that must’ve meant something like “the little blonde girl over there”, because his strong dimpled chin immediately swiveled towards me. Everything became slow-motion.
I felt a little whimper of fear uncontrollably escaping my lips as tense unflinching eyes set beneath dark well-groomed brows locked with mine. They were the color of sea glass and twice as hard. My legs went as limp as the dead fish I was covered in. All I could do was stare as he hopped down to the dock and strode toward me with an easy languid confidence that seemed years beyond his youthful appearance.
My mouth went desert dry as he extended the necklace to me. The freshly dried blood of rope burn from heaving in slippery fishnets stained his knuckles, all of which had been ringed in thick bands of swirling gold. All I could do was stare at it stupidly, bouncing my eyes back and forth between the necklace and his heavy-lidded feline gaze.
“I-I’m sorry,” I finally managed to choke out. He looked so familiar. Something like the ghost of a memory tickled the back of my mind.
A mischievous smile played across his full lips revealing a large set of perfectly straight teeth, “Well then, you’ve got one hell of an arm on ye, lass.” He even seemed to smile like a cat, his incisors were a bit longer and sharper than the rest of his teeth.
“I slipped, and t-then those men and they were l-laughing and, I-I just was so mad and I-,” I stopped, feeling the familiar hot flush of embarrassment creep across my cheeks as the words tumbled out. As much as I hated it, I felt lost in the thick Irish brogue that danced across his tongue like lilting music.
I cleared my throat a bit awkwardly and tried to start again, “Like I said, I’m sorry.” I made to reach for the necklace just as he playfully pulled it back, dangling it above his head. Bastard. He was so tall it was nearly a foot from my reach.
He clucked, teasingly, examining the necklace, “Believe in the Fae, do ye?”
I let out a huff of annoyance, still trying to grab at the blasted thing, “No, I don’t.”
“Now that’s a shame. Don’t ye know it’s Cruinniú na mBád?,” he conspiratorially dropped his voice into a low silky whisper, “Pretty towheaded lass like ye is bound to get snatched up without yer charms.”
Forgetting the necklace, I tightly folded my arms across my chest and snorted, “I thought it was just some silly boat festival.”
“Aye, it is.”
“Well then, why would I get snatched up by the Fae at a boat festival?”
He looked down his strong Grecian nose at me, as if I was a complete airhead, “It’s the only day of the year that the Fae can be seen by people. Legends say that Fae aren’t able to have any babes amongst their kind so they must mate with a human on this night to do so.”
He grabbed my hand, dropping the necklace into it, and wrapped my fingers around it tightly, “Who knows, ye might have a Fae thinking about getting ye already.”
A jolt of pleasure from the touch jumped through my belly like a lightning rod. I looked away, tucking the necklace into the back pocket of my corduroy’s to hide the returning blush.
“So, if they did manage, uh… to conceive, what would happen then?” I asked wistfully, I didn’t really care about the answer but I wasn’t ready to end the conversation quite yet.
He laughed a bit, surprised at my sudden interest, “I dinnae know, some stories say the human is taken to live amongst them, but the Fae world isn’t really known to be welcoming of outsiders, so others say if the couple is truly in love they may sometimes choose to run away and live in secret amongst the humans.”
“And why would a Fae want to live with humans?” I challenged.
He ran his long fingers through his shaggy mop of thick black curls and huffed a laugh, “Again, I dinnae know. ’Spose they gotta protect their sweetheart… plus, they probably wanna see the world outside Fae walls.”
I smiled softly, “Sounds a bit like me, actually.”
“Say, what are ye, doing today, erm-...” he looked at me helplessly, trying to remember if I had told him my name.
“Aine, and … Actually, I should be getting back, Dierdre is probably wondering where I am.”
He chuckled. It was a deep sensuous sound that wrapped around me like my favorite blanket and made me forget why I needed to go back. I suppose Dierdre could wait a little while longer.
“Ach, stop acting the maggot, mo ghrá, I’m no’ trying to kidnap ye. Let me take ye out on the bay. By the way ye were legging it down the dock, it seemed like ye wanted to get out of here anyway.”
I drew in a deep shuddering breath and considered a moment. Ok, Aine, think… should I really go out on a boat with some impossibly tall Irish stranger that just so happens to have flawless, honied skin that glows like the fleeting light of a sunset and a beautiful face that’s carved as sharply as the peaks of some… Oh God! What was wrong with me?
“Tell me your name, and I’m in,” I felt the corners of my mouth tug up so high my cheeks began to throb.
I must have looked like a complete idiot, but… I really found it hard to care about much of anything when I looked at him. He was just so damned handsome, and I’d felt something between us… something real and familiar... like an invisible thread between us that he’d tugged and I’d decided I would tug back.
We spent the entire day on the enormous red-sailed boat, and I could see that the whole village had been notified I’d gone missing by the time we’d pulled back into the harbor at sunset. Torches had been lit along the dock and I could already make out the mass of tense-looking figures who had, no doubt, been waiting there for our return. It was probably the most dramatic thing that had happened in Kinvarra in years. I bet Dierdre was mortified. Still, I was floating on an Irish dream and at least half a bottle of whiskey. I would’ve been happy to let Dierdre yell at me for a thousand hours if it meant I got to spend another day like this with Bres.
He had taught me the basics of sailing across the glassy waters of the bay, how to catch the chilled briny wind beneath the sails, and how to jib and tack as the current changed from east to west. We’d been taking long swigs out of a warm bottle of Midleton, sharing half-soggy clove cigarettes, and laughing about how smelly I was as he picked out thin bits of brittle fish bones still stuck in my blonde hair.
“I dinnae know if I can kiss ye smelling this bad,” Bres laughed into my neck. I was leaning against the side of the boat, trapped between the corded muscles of his arms.
I was trying to think of something else besides how badly I wanted to step into his vanilla, cedarwood, and bonfire scented embrace, and perhaps even coming up with some snarky comeback when suddenly, he pushed me over the bow and straight into the murky brackish water below. By the time I’d resurfaced, I was absolutely steaming and planning on shouting more than a few choice words… until I found him lifting the hem of his gray chunky-knit sweater to jump in after me. After seeing his taut graceful body form a perfect arc as he dove into the water with expert ease, all of those thoughts had drifted away.
We’d dried out side-by-side clad in nothing but our underwear atop the deep-mahogany stained deck as we listened to the gentle billowing sound of the sails flapping above us, moving in perfect harmony with the rippling sea that lapped playfully around the boat.
Bres turned to me with a sudden seriousness edging his light eyes, “I’d really like to kiss ye, Aine.”
I lounged on an elbow, feigning what I only hoped would pass as a nonchalant smile as panic bloomed in my stomach. I’d only kissed one boy before and I didn’t even think it counted as that. It had been in eighth grade with some kid named Josh Anderson in the movie theater during some hilariously awful horror flick we’d managed to sneak into, after getting tickets to something far more age-appropriate. After thirty minutes of a terribly sloppy session with too much tongue, our braces had gotten stuck together and the manager had to call the janitor for pliers to separate us, along with our both of our mother’s who were more than a little embarrassed when they come to pick us up. It had been absolutely traumatizing. I’d been grounded for the rest of the year and terrified of kissing anyone again ever since, even though I’d gotten my braces off the summer before ninth grade.
Bres was a man, though, not a boy. And, he was a handsome one at that. I was sure he’d kissed more girls than he could count, and would think I was some horrible, inexperienced, lousy excuse for a girl. He caught my slightly-wobbling chin in his strong steady hand. I guess my feigned cool girl act had been worse than I thought.
His teal eyes bounced back and forth between my eyes and lips hungrily.
“We’ll take it slow,” he breathed huskily, moving in a bit closer.
We were so close now that our breath began to mingle with shared electric anticipation. I nodded slightly and let my eyelids sink closed as his full lips caught mine in their silky embrace. We didn’t take it slow though. The kiss quickly turned frenzied and demanding, as we both lost ourselves in one another. I couldn’t tell if I had improved since eighth grade or if he was just a very good teacher.
The wind had almost been knocked out of me when his hot tongue finally pushed past my lips greedily seeking mine. He tasted of an intoxicating blend of cinnamon and whiskey and cloves. I found myself arching into the chiseled hard line of his body as his fingers tangled deftly into my still-damp hair. A wildfire of burning desire licked it’s way across my every nerve ending as I fervently snaked my arms around his neck. I needed, more than anything, to feel him, all of him. I felt a primal moan of pleasure escaping my lips just as he pulled back to look at me.
“Ye didn’t tell me ye could kiss like that, mo ghrá,” he chuckled sensuously through rapid shallow breaths.
“Tell me what mo ghrá means,” I said just as breathlessly, placing my forehead on his.
I could tell he wanted to talk for a moment but… God, I didn’t know why we had to.
I just wanted to kiss him, every fiber of my being seemed to ache from the absence of his lips.
His thumb caressed my cheek in slow thoughtful circles, as he smiled distantly, “Mo ghrá, means my love,” His thumb stopped moving as his sea glass eyes turned stormy and serious once more, “Are ye sure ye want to do this, Aine?”
I crushed my lips against his again wildly, unable to control the primal urge any longer. I felt insatiable, the only thing that mattered right now was his touch.
He pulled away again, looking down at the worn boards beneath us.
“Are ye sure you want to do this here, mo ghrá? With me?” he asked shyly, tracing an invisible pattern into the deck with one long finger as he had done to my cheek only moments ago.
I plunged my hands into his blue-black curls and lifted his head up, “I wouldn’t want to be here with anyone else, Bres.”
“Aine…” he breathed into me, my name like a dying man’s prayer on his lips.
I pulled him into me again except this time, he didn’t let go. The kiss deepened and he grabbed my waist roughly, flipping my body on top of his in one swift movement. I clumsily reached to unclasp the hooks of my bra as I felt his hands devouring every inch of my sun-warmed skin. Our bodies became entangled in a writhing mass of slick flesh and I found myself wishing more than anything I could stop time and live in this moment with him forever.
When it was done we laid beneath the streaky lines of the partly-cloudy afternoon sky and I listened as Bres told me of all of the different seabirds that passed us overhead. I was fascinated that he knew all of their migration patterns, and diets, and even their wing structure, by heart. It seemed a funny thing to me, that a man like Bres, so solid and every inch the poised alpha-man and predator, would be interested in something as delicate and seemingly insignificant as birds. We stayed there like that, bodies pressed against each other tightly, until the deep blue of the sky was transformed into the first peachy-colored warning of sunset.
“You’ll not see the boy again,” Dierdre seethed venomously as we made our way across the slim dirt pathway that led home. I hadn’t said one word to her since I’d gotten back. I didn’t care what she had to say, nothing but Bres mattered now.
I held onto the memory of that day for a month, letting it comfort me as I spent each day hopelessly staring out of my window at the depthless churning bay in hopes that I would catch a glimpse of Bres’ boat. I’d even jumped at every opportunity to go into the village with Dierdre, although I truly despised her company. But, every time we would pass along the harbor there had been no sign of Bres or his boat’s beautifully red sails standing proudly alongside the dock. I’d almost began to believe I made up the whole thing until one afternoon a strong swift knock had rapped three times in musical succession on the cottage door.
I didn’t know how, but I felt that it was Bres standing there behind the ancient iron and wood boards before I’d even opened it. I rushed to the door before Dierdre could even react, flinging it open so hard and so fast, the door had slammed against the cottage’s stone wall and violently rattled all of the windows.
I’d forgotten how huge he really was. The cottage seemed dwarfed in comparison to his size, and he had to lean down a few inches to even see me below the threshold.
“Aine,” he breathed through a small yearning smile. The way he said it, in the same way he had before, savoring each syllable, made me momentarily forget about the anger and sadness I’d been carrying around from his month-long absence.
I rushed into his arms, breathing in his distinct scent of vanilla, cedarwood, and bonfire.
“AINE!” Dierdre howled, finally on her feet behind us and absolutely outraged at the sight of the embrace.
Bres gently untangled himself from me, pushing past to step through the door to address her.
“I’m staying, Maimeó. Aine is pregnant, I could feel it through the bond.”
I stepped away from them both, holding out my arms to put distance between us as confusion and shock flooded through my body. Pregnant? I was a few days late but… there was no way he could’ve known that. And what bond?
“Do no’ call me grandmother, swine. I’d known this would happen. I’ve been putting Queen Anne’s lace in everything she eats to prevent it,” she said bitterly, turning two disappointed black and hate-filled eyes on me. I wasn’t even shocked by Dierdre’s confession, poisoning me with some useless herb seemed to be right on point for the old hag.
Bres stepped towards me, cautiously removing the iron and St.John’s Wort necklace Dierdre had insisted I put back on, before he tossed it to her feet. It landed in a clatter across the dusty floor that seemed too-loud in the tense still silence that had settled between us.
Bres eyed the ugly pile of chain haughtily, “An old trick, Maimeó. It is too bad, dear Aine removed it just before we met, or I’d never be here now.”
“Mallacht Dé ort,” Dierdre spat, actually spat, at Bres’ feet. May God curse you. I felt my mouth open and close like a floundering fish that had been tossed ashore. Despite every awful thing that came out of her mouth, it was probably the most foul thing I’d ever heard her say.
Bres reached out a palm to affectionately smooth down my hair but I jumped away from the touch like I’d been afraid of being burned.
“What is going on?” I demanded.
Bres’ sea glass eyes shuddered, looking a bit hurt from the snub, before he huffed a laugh as if I’d just asked the world’s dumbest question, “I’ve already told ye everything, mo ghrá.”
It was my turn to laugh, “No, you haven’t, Bres. You can’t just come in here after disappearing for an entire month, saying that I’m pregnant, and then insult Dierdre in her own home.” I didn’t particularly care for Dierdre’s feelings but I thought it sounded like a good thing to include being angry about. I didn’t want him to know how hurt I’d actually felt this past month.
Bres’ face softened a bit perceptively as if he actually sympathized with how I’d been feeling, “I am so sorry, mo ghrá. It was never my intention to leave ye, but I was no’ able to see ye until I knew for certain ye were pregnant.”
I threw my hands up in frustration and let rage sink into every perfectly punctuated word, “Stop. Saying. That.”
Bres reached out to me as cautiously as if he were approaching some unpredictable wild animal with big nasty teeth that could shred him apart at a moment’s notice, “Aine, ye are pregnant. Ye can only see me now because it is so.”
I slapped his hand away again and stuck a furious finger in his face, “And how would you know that? Huh? I haven’t seen you for an entire month, Bres! You don’t know anything!”
“Aine,” he said, still, frustratingly, trying to coax me into being calm, “I never meant to hurt ye. I’ve missed ye so much, but I truly wasn’t able to see ye until now.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Dierdre had taken a seat on the armchair, slowly rocking her head back in forth between her wrinkled, liver-spotted, palms.
I ignored her, still overwhelmed with a flood of emotions. Anger, confusion, excitement, desire, sadness, everything seemed to be coursing through my veins right now and it was beginning to make my head spin.
“Why do you think I’m pregnant?”
Bres started to choke out a laugh again but was stopped by one look at the steely unrelenting fire that burned behind my eyes.
“I dinnae think you’re pregnant, mo ghrá, I know ye are because we’re bonded. I told ye about the Fae that day we met because... I am one.”
I let out a crazed howl of laughter. Fae? Really? That was his excuse? HA!
“How do you even expect me to believe that? Did you really think that saying you’re Fae and “couldn’t see me”, save for that one day, would make me forgive you for running off somewhere for a whole month without a word?”
Bres opened his mouth but Dierdre cut him off.
“Aine, he is Fae. I’d been afraid of this happening because it happened to yer Ma, too. Yer Da said that it was inevitable because it was fate and you’d be linked to the Fae by blood. I didn’t want to believe it, so I tried to protect ye, but…” she wearily trailed off in a gravely exhausted tone.
Bres nodded in solemn agreement.
“Yer half-Fae already, Aine, ye just didn’t know it yet. It’s that Fae blood in ye that links us together, we call it the bond. It only forms between soulmates, and I have been waiting for ye forever, mo ghrá. I know ye have felt it too.”
I stared at him, utterly dumbfounded as I thought back to that invisible tether I’d felt tugging back and forth between us. I felt it between us even now, but...
“So what now then, Bres? You’re just planning to take me away to live with the Fae forever?”
Bres sighed, running exasperated fingers through his loose midnight curls, “No Aine, it’s yer choice. The same choice yer parents made. They chose to run away together, and... we can do the same if you’d like.”
“What I’d like is a pregnancy test and some actual proof that you are what you say you are,” I snorted, still only half-believing this ridiculous story.
Bres, though, didn’t think I was funny. He pushed past me and strode into the kitchen, returning with a large pock-marked potato in hand.
“Really? And what are you-”
I stopped as he held the potato up to eye level and stared at it intensely. Suddenly, the potato was no longer there. In its place was a massive bouquet of purple-tinged hydrangeas, my favorite flowers, completely covering Bres’ entire upper body. I wasn’t impressed.
“Just because you can do a few magic tricks does not mean-”
“Aine, it’s no’ magic! It’s a glamour, I can make ye see things that are no’ there. I can even make ye hallucinate if ye like, but I thought it would scare ye,” he said sharply. It was the first time he’d shown his frustration with me, and I was a bit shocked at the cruelness that had freshly marred his beautiful features.
I crossed my arms defensively, “Fine, make me hallucinate then, Bres.”
His teal eyes locked with mine and I stared back until everything around me faded into a picturesque scene of my favorite park back home. I was alone in the park. It was Fall, and dried-up orange and brown leaves were rustling around on a cool gentle breeze over the cobblestone pathways.
I screamed, spinning around wildly, arms splayed out and distantly heard something fragile crashing against stone. It wasn’t really scary per se, but damn... He’d really made me hallucinate. Strong hands were wrapped around my shoulders, shaking me, as the threadbare cottage and Bres’ worried handsome face swam into view.
In my panic, I’d managed to knock over a stout vase of fresh yellow primroses on a side table that Dierdre always liked to keep for emergencies if the dried ones on the window seal needed immediate replacing. I gazed flatly at the shards of blue and white porcelain as they swam amongst the awful flowers in the green-tinged water on the uneven stone floor. Good. I was glad I’d knocked them over. They stunk and they’d obviously not done a great job of protecting against Fae if Bres was here, standing in her home, completely unfazed.
“Aine, it was a glamour. It was no’ real I promise ye. I meant to send ye to yer favorite place but-,” his voice broke on the words as his newly wet eyes began to glisten, “I’m so sorry, something must’ve gone wrong. I didn’t mean to scare ye, mo ghrá, only to show ye what I’ve been saying is real. Please forgive me.”
I leaned into his touch, suddenly feeling hot tears begin to well up in my own eyes. He had mistaken me, I wasn’t upset because I was scared, I was upset because I was so damned frustrated. Bres wrapped his arms around me tightly, comfortingly, as I cried into the soft green wool of his sweater. I felt exhausted. So exhausted. All I could think was, “why me?”. The question played on an endless loop in my mind. Why me? Why me? Why me?
“Shhh, mo ghrá, you’re okay. Don’t cry, I hate seein’ yer big brown eyes with tears in ’em. Ye are safe and here with me now.”
His massive hand smoothed over my hair, petting it as soothingly as my mother had done for me so many times when I was feeling sad. My mother. I stepped back, pressing the heels of my palms to my eyes. She was the reason any of this was happening in the first place. I felt like a hypocrite but I couldn’t stop thinking that if she hadn’t stupidly gotten pregnant by some Fae I would’ve never been in this situation in the first place. If I had done the same, well… I wanted to face it. At least my child would get to grow up knowing that they were Fae.
“I don’t want to run away, Bres. I want to come with you. To… wherever the Fae live. I won’t live in fear like my parents,” as I said it I could taste the rightness of the words on my tongue.
I wouldn’t run away from this. I would face it, with Bres and our child. I wasn’t sure how fate worked but if being half-Fae meant I was always supposed to be with a Fae, in the end, my child would probably share the same burden. It would be right to at least let them grow up with others who were similar, because finding out some earth-shattering news like this on a forced vacation to Ireland was definitely not the way to tell your kid, “Oh hey, by the way, your Dad is Fae, making you half-Fae, which also means your soulmate is probably going to be Fae and you’ll be destined to find each other one day!”.
“Ye will NO’ !” Deirdre’s papery voice exploded from the lumpy armchair, shooting to her feet so fast she became a blur of brown and paisley. She had been so quiet, I’d almost forgotten she was still here.
I whirled on her, “You, Dierdre, do not get to decide what I do!”
Her plump alabaster face was painted the fierce deep ruby red of pure rage.
“Ye have no idea what the Fae will do to ye, girl.”
Bres sidled up behind me, protectively wrapping a thick muscular arm around me.
“No harm will come to Aine, I swear it.”
Dierdre continued blustering incoherently as she stepped over the shattered pieces of porcelain to stand so close to us I could feel a cloud of humidity begin to form as it rolled off of her hot rancid breath.
“Aine, ye dinnae know the types of things Fae do to humans there. They’ll wait ’til the babe is born and then make ye a house slave. They’ll starve ye and work ye to death. All the while glamouring yer mind to think yer in some pretty little Fae palace, eating rich foods, drinking fine wines, until yer body collapses from hunger or exhaustion or both.”
I looked up at Bres, uncertainty creasing my brow. A slave? Was that what he was expecting to turn me into? I did feel a bond between us but… I’d only known him for half a day. Maybe I’d been letting his beauty and that stupid bond between us cloud my judgment. How did I know I could truly trust him?
“That will no’ happen to Aine, woman. No’ as long as she is with me.”
I could see a muscle feathering in her fleshy jaw, fists clenched and white-knuckled by her side as if she was trying to decide which of us to pounce on first. She stared at me a moment longer, boring into me with her hard unflinching obsidian eyes before she finally huffed in what sounded like defeat and returned to her chair.
“What happens when yer no’ around, then? Aine, I’m warning ye, the Fae are pure filth with no regard for human life. Ye will get what’s coming to ye, and yer babe, if ye go with him.”
Bres adjusted his arm, tightening it almost imperceptibly as if he could shield me from her hateful words.
“It’s yer choice, mo ghrá,” he breathed softly into the shell of my ear.
“I want to go with you,” I said firmly, and loudly enough for Dierdre to hear.
I just hoped I was making the right choice.
#fantasy #fae #fiction #supernatural #fantasyfiction #fictionfantasy #faerie #fairy #romance #youngadult #youngadultfantasy #love #novella #shortstory
Man, It Feels Good To Be King
“Good Morning, Majesty,” a thin, nasally voice sang out loudly above the swooshing sound of heavy velvet curtains being thrown open. There was a wetness behind his voice. Had I been breathing through my own nose, I would have no doubt been choked by the disease that rolled off his festering tongue and filled the chamber air like a poisonous fog. Oh, Gods. My own nose. I wasn’t breathing through my own nose. And what had he called me? Majesty. I told myself to remain calm even as I felt my pulse, his pulse, begin to gallop beneath the suddenly too-thick fabric of my sleeping garments.
Something must have gone hideously wrong. And now I was stuck in this body. A man’s body. I held in the urge to wretch as I listened to the clicking sound of heeled boots swiftly closing in on me.
The solid weight of a metal serving tray being set down at the bed’s end prompted me to open my eyes. The manservant who had spoken before was there as well, bustling around the tray making soft clinks as he opened and closed fanciful little porcelain jars of sugar and milk. His hands trembled slightly as he made my cup of tea, but not out of fear of being in the presence of a King.
At least, some of my senses had remained intact; my initial assessment of him had been correct. He was a squat man of at least forty with a pinched wrinkling face and stringy hair the color of dishwater that had been artfully combed across his prematurely balding head. But, it wasn’t his aging rat-like appearance that told me of his failing health. No, it was the waxy pallor of his yellowing skin and the dark violet smudges beneath his shrewd eyes that told me he would be dead in less than six months’ time. I absentmindedly wondered if I should tell him as he handed me the little cup, keeping his head bowed, still not daring to meet my gaze. The fragrant spiced tea was no doubt made to King Sephiron’s exact liking. My liking now, I supposed.
“Not this morning. I’ll take coffee,” I said as nonchalantly as possible, holding up a palm. Impressively, I’d managed not to wince at the deep booming quality of my new voice.
He looked up then, a confused expression further deepening the lines across his brow.
“Coffee, sire? You never take coffee.”
I pursed my lips, considering if I had already made a grave error that might’ve given me away.
“Do not question your king,” I commanded sternly, willing as much authority into my voice as possible. Though, it wasn’t hard considering the powerful timbre that sharpened this body’s voice like a blade.
The servant dipped his head low again, quickly gathering up the offending tray without another word of protest. He must have known better, then. I hadn’t taken King Sephiron to be a cruel master but… one never knew what happened behind closed doors.
“Milk and sugar, as well,” I called after him with feigned laziness.
I only let myself truly relax back into the luxurious pile of fluffed pillows once he had made his way out of the massive set of golden double doors that led into the hall.
I supposed I could handle being King for another day. Though, I desperately needed to figure out exactly what had gone wrong on my coven’s side of things. I had jumped into King Sephiron’s body yesterday, as a last-ditch effort to defeat the evasive, nomadic coven of witches who had been trying to steal our power. The Elemaeti. But, I was only supposed to stay in this body for a day...just long enough to sign an order for the King’s army to launch an Elemaeti witch hunt, then back into my own body by nightfall.
I’d been chosen because I was the Silverblood coven’s second-in-command. Our High Priestess had volunteered but... I’d known she needed to stay behind to lead our people. It was a sacrifice I’d willingly made, although, considering the position I currently found myself in, it was hard not to wonder if I would’ve chosen differently.
I stared up at the intricate floral weave of the heavily tasseled canopy that hung above my massive bed as I tried to think through my situation. King Sephiron was unwed, which was good. No nagging wife to deal with. I didn’t even want to think about how long I could actually keep up the charade with a woman riding my new white-leopard coattails. A woman would notice a thing like this, any sudden shift in behavior or mannerisms and it would be over for me.
Men, though, courtiers and the sniveling lesser royals only concerned with themselves and their place in the kingdom’s hierarchy? Well, they could be easily deceived. I highly doubted they’d thought about anything other than themselves for some time now, much less deigned to pay attention to the King’s little quirks.
I’d done my research on the King’s closest confidants well enough that I knew all the important names and faces before I’d gone on this godsforsaken mission. Never go in without a back-up plan, I’d learned that over my nine hundred years on this planet. That’s what distinguished the mortals from immortals, and it made sense well enough. Mortals didn’t have much time on this earth and sometimes going into a situation without a way out was the best option simply because it was the quickest.
Witches though, we had time. Time to plot, and plan, and run through scenarios backward and forwards without caring much about the passage of years or even decades if it took that long to ensure that our plan was successful. And this mission had taken that. Decades, I mean. Ever since the Elemaeti coven had discovered how to diminish our true source of power. Once we had discovered that, well the plotting and planning began. It didn’t really matter which King we jumped into, only that the King had to have enough power over the lands at the time that our plot could be enacted. King Sephiron had just happened to be perfect. A tall, fairly handsome man of twenty-seven, beloved by all, and the ruler of the Tri-Continental Arosian Empire with no surviving family to speak of? The Gods couldn’t have given us a better opportunity if we’d crafted it ourselves.
The root of the Elemaeti’s treachery against us could ultimately be boiled down to jealousy. A human emotion to be sure. Witches like myself, the Silverbloods, were born witches. Witches that had inherent power flowing through our veins from birth that increased with our years and only further strengthened by the lingering traces of our buried ancestor’s magick that still flowed through the lands of our holy grounds.
Witches of my kind rarely died though, usually only after many millennia. And, to kill one of our own is considered the highest of offenses. Not to mention the hideous curse that would surely ensue from such a killing. None of my kind had ever attempted such a thing, but we found out the consequences the first time an Elemaeti dared to tempt fate.
To kill my kind meant death, but not one’s own death. No, it meant the death of everyone and everything around you that was ever unlucky enough to receive your touch. Eventually, the witches who had tried died of starvation, but not before half of the Elemaeti coven had been wiped out. Funny, to think we had believed that might be the end of their persecution of us. Alas, their all too human nature took hold of them and jealousy once again prevailed.
The Elemaeti couldn’t stand that we natural-borns held so much power over them, so they eventually discovered another route of attack. Straight through our ancestors, actually. The Elemaeti are technically siphoners, not at all like real Silverblooded witches. Lecherous, parasitic little humans who have found out how to skim power from the lands through our ancestor’s magick mixed with a little bit of their basic elemental spellcasting.
Pathetic really, and no match for the depth and breadth of our powers. That is until they’d figured out how to diminish our magick without getting that nasty little curse laid upon them. As it turns out, even with our natural-born powers, we still owed a lot more to our ancestors than we had originally thought and digging up and destroying their bodies was just the trick to cutting our powers right to the quick. Which then made them hard to attack, and even harder to kill.
Being a relatively new coven, by comparison, they had no lands to call home, meaning no set place we could strike as they do us. Elemaeti are nomadic, always on the move, always slithering about in the shadows. We had tried to stop them, to ward the holy grounds of our ancestral burial sites, but... by the time we had figured out what they were doing, they had already stolen enough of our magick to break through every barrier we’d tried to put in place. Some rumors have claimed the Elemaeti even eat the ashes of our kind to grow their magick.
Sickening. But, as much as I didn’t want to believe it, even I, of nine hundred years, could feel the power fleeing from my blood as the days slipped past. Subtly, at first, yes, but over the years it became difficult to even perform the most basic of spells, such as human possession. A spell that I could once perform alone with a few candles and the right words had taken what was left our entire coven’s magick pooled together.
Despicable. Still, we did have the advantage of long lives. Though, I didn’t see how that mattered much now if we couldn’t even pull off a simple plan such as this. Another body must have been stolen from our lands. It was the only thing I could think of that would diminish our magick to the point that my soul couldn’t have even been retrieved by my coven. Damn them. And now, Gods save me, I was stuck in a man’s body. In my lifetime, I’d never had much interest in interacting with any human, let alone human men. Dealing with them was mainly considered to be a necessary evil. Usually only done to produce witchling’s but...I’d left that burden for the others in my coven to shoulder. Witchling’s were always female, so, to further the bloodline and keep our numbers strong, human men were sometimes needed. I’d always considered them weak, though. Stupid and self-serving, they were easy prey even for human women, who I consider only to be an infinitesimal step above.
A creak of the door alerted me to the servant’s presence again. The bitter nutty aroma of coffee wafted through the room and I sat up a bit straighter as I waited for the clattering tray to arrive. Once more, the man ascended the dais my bed stood on and began preparing the coffee. I desperately needed time alone to think though, so I stopped him short.
“Leave it,” I commanded with a wave of my burly fingers.
He stopped and straightened his shiny blue waistcoat before sketching a low bow. To my endless frustration though, he apparently hadn’t gotten the hint. He just continued to stand there at the foot of my bed, eyes downcast, twisting his fat meaty hands around in tight nervous circles before him.
I bent forward a bit to grasp one of the thick silver handles of the tray and slid it beside me.
“What is it?”
A bead of sweat rolled down his face, “Th- the war council would like to meet at once t-th-this morning, sire,” he said sheepishly.
I wondered again if King Sephiron was fond of corporal punishment. By the looks of his sweaty bumbling manservant, I would have to assume so.
“After I take my coffee, I will meet with them,” I said dismissively as I glanced around the tray, not bothering to watch as he quickly scurried from the room.
It was absolutely loaded with artfully arranged piles of glistening fruit tarts, sweet biscuits covered in powdered sugar, salted meats, cheeses, and thick hunks of bread already coated with butter and various jams. I put a palm on my belly. It was no wonder the King was carrying around a few extra pounds if he was eating like this every day. I pushed past the rich foods and found the steaming pot of coffee, pouring it into a delicately painted cup before adding two sugars and a splash of milk. I closed my eyes, allowing the rich smell to fill my nostrils before pressing my lips to the golden rim of the porcelain mug. Delicious.
Magick was not the only thing my coven had needed to pool together for our plan. It had also taken an exorbitant amount of money. Mainly to hire round-the-clock guards to protect our burial grounds but... I could see that clearly hadn’t worked out either. Never let a human do a witch’s job.
I hadn’t been treated to anything this luxurious in the countless years it had taken for this plan to finally commence. So, I decided to live a little and let myself enjoy the sweet coffee and warmth of the extravagant feather-topped mattress a little while longer before finally swinging my legs out of the heavy layers of blankets piled atop me.
I wriggled my toes on the plush Persian rug beneath me before stepping down from the bed’s platform to survey the room. I hadn’t taken particular notice of this body yesterday as it was meant to be temporary, but... Gods, my feet were enormous!
I’d jumped into the King during one of his frequent late-afternoon catnaps in the sprawling parlor room, so I hadn’t had the chance to see his bedchamber either. It had only been lit by a few beams of soft flickering candlelight when I’d finally gone to sleep last night.
Red and gold seemed to be the prevailing theme of his chambers. Blood red, I noted with nothing short of sheer delight. The color of Elemaeti blood, human blood. I supposed King Sephiron and I may have more in common than I’d thought.
The walls were set with elaborate gold-trimmed inlay panels that held swirling labyrinths of lacy flowers that wrapped around the central royal crest in a delicate embrace. Art was also dotted sporadically around the room, mostly arrangements of oil paintings depicting the many generations of King Sephiron’s royal predecessors either locked in battle on killing fields or perched atop grand bejeweled thrones. The artist who had painted them had made them look so realistic, so lifelike, I had to take a step closer and blink a bit to ensure they hadn’t blinked back.
Despite the painstaking attention to detail that had been paid on the walls, the bed seemed to be meant as the obvious focal point of the immaculate room. I had to do a double-take to confirm that it was actually, in fact, the only piece of furniture on this side of the chamber. How odd, there wasn’t even a nightstand. I supposed the bed, was enough though. It was a mahogany-stained monstrosity set atop a two-step platform, complete with intricate carvings of vicious-looking beasts, some real and some imagined, decorating its headboard and four rotund posts. The thing could’ve fit five bodies across it easily.
Though the chamber was clearly palatial, it also felt overwhelmingly... bare and impersonal somehow. There was a distinct lack of personality to the space; there were no trinkets or books, or stray boots cast aside anywhere. It almost seemed as if this were a guest room in the castle and not the King’s private quarters, despite the imperial bed.
I tried to step as softly as I could manage across the creaky parquet floor as I rounded the bed to get a glimpse of what lay on the other side of the chamber. Although I knew I was alone in this room, I also knew that a King was never truly alone either. The servants, or whomever else liked spying on the King, would no doubt be listening even now. King Sephiron must have known it as well as I. Which would explain the lack of, well...everything.
Lesser royals were always vying for the throne in the shadows, any bit of personal information could potentially be used as leverage or blackmail. Best not to have any at all, then. Still, I wasn’t quite finished with my snooping yet. He may have the cunning to outsmart his enemies, but his enemies weren’t witches. If there was something to find here, I would find it. Any extra facts I could gather about the King would help make this act believable. Though I still highly doubted anyone would ever suspect the King was currently being possessed, I didn’t like taking chances.
Outside, beyond the massive floor-to-ceiling windows that lined the far wall, the creeping orange fingers of sunrise were just breaking across the shedding hedges that lined the perimeter of the palace’s lush gardens. Several servants were already moving about, pushing wide long-handled brooms across the cobblestones of the many weaving pathways, diligently clearing away the dead foliage even as it continued to fall to the earth in steady waves. It seemed a futile act, but I mentally tucked the observation away. The King was a perfectionist, got it.
I turned my attention back to the right side of the chamber. Along the windows, in one corner of the room, sat an imposing desk with another menagerie of beasts carefully carved into the front and sides, a perfect match to the bed. In the opposite corner sat a grand piano of a pretty pearly-white hue, gleaming faintly in the morning light. No visible dust across the keys... a lover of the arts then, too. Another set of tall golden double doors stood proudly between the two… a dressing or bathing room perhaps. Feeling uncomfortable beneath the male gaze of my servants, I’d undressed myself last night. So, I hadn’t gotten the chance to see the King’s other private rooms. Still not wanting to alert any prying ears to my movements, I ignored the temptation of finding out what was behind them and crept towards the desk.
An unused quill sat beside a little clay pot of black ink and a fresh sheath of thick creamy parchment. I flicked through the stack quickly. Nothing, every page was blank. I rounded the desk and perched atop the squat leather stool that sat beneath it as I rifled around the drawers. Replacement quills, a hefty velvet-lined box of pricey cigars from the Southern continent, extra nibs, four sealed pots of ink, more blank paper, the royal stamp seal, an ancient-looking cigar cutter, a full box of matches, and a bundle of blood-red wax held together by a thin piece of twine.
When I tried the third drawer, however, it wouldn’t budge. I pulled on the curved edge of the cupped handle as hard as I could, to no avail. Locked, then. I doubted a desk as splendid as this would have warped drawers. What are you hiding Sephiron? I stooped down to face the drawer at eye-level, looking for any signs of a keyhole when… yes, there.
Barely visible beneath the handle was a small notch in the wood. I grasped it with the tip of my fingernail and pried. A small circle of wood popped off easily, clicking softly as it hit the floor.
The lock looked far too intricate to attempt to pick and… Damn this body! I wished more than anything I’d had my magick back. Now I would actually have to find the blasted key. I focused on channeling my frustration into a deadly calm. Think, think, think.
I thought of all the places I would hide a thing like that. Close. A witch would keep it close. Most likely on her at all times. Hidden, of course, but always on her. A human woman might put it in the floorboards or in some hidden compartment beneath the bed or piano. He may be cunning, but...he was still a man. Yes, he was still a man, and men don’t like to waste time looking for things. A man would keep it close as well, but... not in the same way a witch would. No, he would keep it here, close to the drawer. Hidden in plain sight.
I immediately thought of the cigar cutter, made of rusting iron and old chipped wood. Far too simple an object to belong to a King. Unless it had some sentimental value, which, by the cold minimalist style of the decor in his chamber, I doubted. No, he was not a sentimental man and it was the one thing that was out of place here. It had to contain the key. I fished it back out of the drawer and held it up to my ear as I gave it a little shake. A sly smile leeched across my mouth as I heard the dull rattle of metal hitting against hollow wood. I looked at the thing again, a bit closer this time, feeling for any tale-tell niche in the handle and pulled until I felt wood separate from metal and a delicate key dropped into my hungry palm.
The drawer was stuffed to the brim with folded-up letters and boring royal decrees. I sorted through them quickly looking for any pertinent information. A stained letter with a crumpled black seal near the bottom caught my eye… The Elemaeti seal, I would’ve known it anywhere. They’d sent our coven many, mostly threatening, letters over the years, taunting us about our inevitable defeat. I couldn’t wait to get my hands around that Elemaeti bitch of a High Priestess’s neck. A chill of pleasure from the thought ran down my spine, but I quickly brushed it away, remembering the task at hand and began to read.
“To His Honorable Majesty The Reigning King Sephiron of The Tri-Continental Arosian Empire,
The Elemaeti Coven of the Capital Continent, Lillistad, implore his Majesty to provide aid in fighting the Silverblood scourge that threatens to poach from us our magick that is widely used across this Great Continent for healing purposes and crop growth. If our magick were to be stolen from us, it is our great fear that many of your Empire would suffer immensely. The Silverblood coven is selfish and has never wished to bestow gifts on humankind as we have. In fact, as it is our coven’s primary mission to help others, our destruction would surely mean certain death for many helpless citizens across your Empire. As a hunted coven, we are forced to live in exile as a nomadic people. We do not stay in one place for long out of fear of persecution by the Silverbloods. We beg of your Majesty to respond posthaste to help us prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring. We can be reached at the Felbian Farm along the outskirts of the Madrian Capital City in Lillistad two weeks from this letter’s postdate.
Your ever-loyal servants,
The Elemaeti Coven”
Bitches. Lying bitches! Even as the never-ending stream of foul words and curses formed on my lips, I found myself clutching the letter with nervous shaking palms to flip it over. Gods be with me.
Eleven days. The letter had been sent eleven days ago. I let loose a primal, ear-splitting roar of victory. Prying ears be damned. I wanted everyone to hear my triumph, to feel my triumph, somewhere deep within their bones as I felt it now.
Surely enough both sets of golden doors in the room flung open, followed by panicked streams of red-faced servants all rushing towards me like a tidal wave of silky blue waistcoats. Sneaky bastards. They had been here all along. I brushed off the flurry of worried hands and questioning mouths, commanding I be dressed right away. I had a war council meeting to attend to.
Apparently though, being King still didn’t mean you got everything you wanted. At least, not right away. After two hours of arguing and deliberating and wasting precious time I could’ve spent removing the heads of Elemaeti witches, my councilmen finally agreed to side with me on the matter. It was a good thing too because I was never going to back down on the issue, no matter how long it took.
The attack would be launched immediately. I was assured that four hundred of my best commanders and soldiers would be conducting the mission, though, I still wanted to be there to participate in the bloodshed myself. However, I’d also learned King Sephiron, apparently, didn’t have much of a taste for carnage. He had never ridden out with his men to battle before. Not even once.
Many on the council had insisted it would be too dangerous for a King. “A King’s place is in his castle”, or some nonsense like that. Obviously, I then had to reference the many paintings of my ancestors depicted on killing fields hanging proudly in my chamber and produced a heartfelt speech about how I needed to be a King of my people, a strong fierce King that stood alongside his army. The hateful little men on my war council, lesser-royals that were in line for the throne, had been oh-so inspired by my theatrically impassioned appeal and overturned the decision that I was not permitted to go. Just as I’d predicted the self-serving bastards would.
I was dressed in the finest fighting leathers I’d ever seen within the hour, armed to the teeth, and astride the kingdom’s most prized stallion. He was an enormous beast of silky midnight with rippling muscles and cunning eyes called Maelstrom. I could only hope he lived up to his name. I was practically salivating for a taste of that red Elemaeti blood on my tongue by the time we neared the dead and barren-looking fields of the rundown Felbian Farm. So much for the Elemaeti’s “crop growth” magick.
The council and I had agreed that a meeting with the coven at night would seem suspicious. Though, since the coven had written to me and told me of their whereabouts, it wouldn’t seem too unlikely that the King himself might drop in for a little afternoon visit, especially when discussing a matter as delicate as this.
A messenger had been sent ahead, notifying them of the imminent rendezvous, along with the promise of four hundred of my best men to help aid them in their cause. And with the King by their side, who never went to war, they would never be suspecting of an attack. Genius, really. I’d even had the brief thought that perhaps mortal men weren’t as daft as I once believed.
Like clockwork, the royal trumpeters flanking me announced our arrival on the putrid little rat-hole they’d decided to call home this week, and the whole Elemaeti coven flooded out of their decrepit, rotting barn to greet us, shouting cheers of victory, arms all piled high with gifts for their King and his men.
A plump, elderly woman dressed in a tattered red cape with a cruel face and long black hair pulled into braid announced herself as the Elemaeti’s High Priestess and gave us her fervent thanks. I’d already made sure to tell my men to save her for me. I'd been waiting far too long not to have the pleasure of feeling her insignificant life slip away from her weak human body.
Her coven was vastly outnumbered, but I continued the charade, smiling the soft benevolent smile of a beloved gentle King as I watched them all weave between our ranks, approaching my soldiers with their pathetic little offerings. As I approached the High Priestess, heart thudding wildly, nearly about to burst from my chest with excitement, I finally let every single one of my nine-hundred years leech into my still-smiling face like ink through water.
Her sharp weathered face dropped about ten feet as she suddenly realized who I was, or I suppose, who I wasn’t. All too late, though. Before she could even form the words to warn her people, I swiftly thrust two fingers up into the air, signaling my men, then slashed my wickedly sharp blade down hard in a fierce arc, too fast for the old human to have ever seen coming. All of my men dutifully followed suit. The dull roar of bodies thudding to the earth simultaneously rippled across the field. Stragglers who, somehow, still lived, threw out terrified and uncontrolled bursts of green Elemaeti magick. Amateurs. It did more harm to them than it did us, in the end. The horses began bucking and thrashing wildly, trampling the last of their surviving coven into the mucky blood-soaked dirt.
The battle was surprisingly quick and deathly silent. I would’ve preferred a bit more resistance, maybe some screams of terror, and definitely a lot more carnage myself, but… I was relieved my people could finally be free of these lascivious, thieving humans who had ever dared to call themselves witches in the first place.
As I rode home, completely drenched from head-to-toe in that sweet dried-up Elemaeti blood, I couldn’t help reaching down to pat the still-silently screaming severed head of The High Priestess I’d tucked into my freshly red-stained satchel. A smile of pure, unabashed satisfaction seemed to be permanently plastered across my face even as the sprawling palace finally came into view over the rolling autumn-kissed hills of my Empire. I could already feel the comforting familiar burn of magick returning in my veins, coming back to me. I would be in my own body by the morning, but…
Man, it feels good to be King.