“Why don’t I look like you?”
It was my favorite question to ask my mother when I was a little girl.
She would be brushing out her sleek dark hair. After I asked the question she would pause a moment and turn to regard me carefully with dark eyes that were a startling deep violet color, set against skin smooth as glass the rich color of cinnamon.
She would put a finger to her lips and frown ever so slightly, “You’re beautiful, my darling,” she’d say.
“Beautiful,” I would huff, “I wish I looked like you.”
“You do look like me,” my mother said then, putting down her hairbrush and reaching for my hands, drawing me to her side so that we might peer in the mirror together.
And there we would be, our reflections side by side. Mother and daughter, but as opposite as the sun and moon.
“You have my eyes,” she said finally.
I snorted my disbelief.
“No, look,” she turned my face back towards the mirror, “they’re the same shape. And you have your father’s long eye lashes.”
It was true. I had traces of them, but with eyes the startling yellow-green of a cat, and wild mud-brown hair I was a strange mix that neither my father or mother could completely claim. I didn’t need anyone to tell me who I looked like. It was evident in the side-ways glances I got from those old enough to remember the queen who was stolen back by the fairies.
Despite my mother’s assurances, the deep-seated notion that I just didn’t belong settled into my soul and as I grew, making me reserved and awkward with other people. I heard the whispers people uttered when they thought I couldn’t hear. Fairy child, her mother is too fey just like the old queen. Even though I knew that wasn’t true, knew my mother loved my father too fiercely to betray him, to disappear without a word, the whispers stuck to me, invading my confidence with doubt.
The memory of the things I’d seen in the forest haunted me. And I heard what they said about me when they thought I couldn’t hear. Cursed. Fey. Sprite.
I was the girl-child of a once warrior king, and I rarely went unnoticed. It was suffocating, the feeling of always having eyes watching, judging, weighing and disapproving. So, it became a game to slip away into the shadows.
“Where have you been?” Thilda would always ask, never exasperated but thoughtful.
I think she understood why I disappeared for as long as I could. The desire to hide and to escape had led me to the forest on that fateful night and continued to lead me to seek adventures elsewhere, away from who I was supposed to be within the stone walls of the castle. The answer to my whereabouts would always be different. Skipping stones on the glassy surface of the lake, reading beneath the old bridge, climbing trees in the old orchard, wandering the paths of the vast gardens or picking berries by the stream. Running wild somewhere outside, within the expansive castle grounds, though I never tread near the forest again. And I never went near the village. Too many staring eyes and disapproving looks.
I didn’t have many friends, but I didn’t mind so much. Until I had a true friend. And then I wondered how I’d gotten along so well without one.
“What’s the matter?”
The question didn’t startle me so much as the person asking it. I saw his boots first, dirty, caked in mud, hay and who knows what else, my eyes steadily making their way up until I met his direct, rather angry gaze. It was Gavin. The son of one of the many lords that lived in the castle. I knew him in the way you know everyone in the place you’ve grown up. Though he was only twelve, he was broad for his age. I knew other children thought him intimidating for several reasons. He excelled in the training yard, learning the ways of the warriors. And he had the sort of careless confidence that comes from knowing your own strength.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice having a slight growl to it, almost protective.
I swiped the tears from my face, embarrassed, “Nothing.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, not at all convinced, looking rather determined. He was older than me, not by much, barely a year, but somehow seemed very much older in that moment with his unimpressed-I-know-you’re-lying look.
“What did they say to you?”
There was something about the way he asked, the way he came to sit down beside me, looking at me with narrowed eyes that were kind, that made me tell him.
“They called me Fey,” I said quietly, not liking the taste of that name in my mouth. I never had, though when no one thought I could hear them, that was what they called me.
“You don’t mind when the nurse calls you that,” he said now, the frown his face wore now one of more confusion than anger.
It was no secret that Thilda, the nurse my mother had brought with her from Liadell, called me Fey. She was an old woman, her sparkling blue eyes were sharp and her tongue sometimes sharper. Most of the castle children gave her a wide berth, saying she had magic, knowing your secrets with a look. But I think they just said that because she was merciless when she caught them trying to sneak sweets from the kitchens. Still, the fact that Gavin knew that surprised me. Like he knew me much better than I knew him.
“But she loves me,” I replied, my voice wobbly despite itself, “they speak it like a curse.”
“Do you honestly think just because they say so that you’re cursed?” he scoffed.
I paused, staring off into nothing. Sometimes it felt that way. Like I was cursed, certainly.
“You’ve heard the stories,” I replied, blinking, “You know why they call me by that – that other name.”
“Fey,” he said.
I glared at him, “Don’t call me that.”
“Why not?” he demanded, “the queen even calls you by it sometimes.”
“My name is Freya,” I nearly shouted, “Fey means I’m something other, something strange.”
Gavin frowned then and stared at me like a puzzle.
“What?” I snapped impatiently. He was looking at me as if I were a challenge to be overcome, some riddle to be solved.
“So what if you are strange?” he stated firmly after a while, “Fey suits you. Because you are different, whether you like it or not. Special.”
“That’s what Fey means, doesn’t it?” he shrugged, “I think that’s a good thing. Everyone else is boring. You aren’t.”
His voice was definitive. That’s the way Gavin was, I came to find out. When he decided something was so, it was so. He was loyal, strong and steady. From the time he found me behind the stables that day we fell into friendship. The easy kind, that doesn’t require much thinking. He was the only person, besides Thilda and my mother, with whom I felt completely at ease. Maybe it was because he didn’t expect me to be anything but myself, maybe because he was kind, or maybe it was the way he said ‘Fey’ making it feel like a name of belonging instead of a curse.
The best parts of my childhood were spent with Gavin. But it was inevitable that we had to grow up. It was easy for him. The son of a lord, a well-trained warrior, strong and sure. It was much harder for me. I was my father’s heir. And with that came a slew of responsibilities, all with an audience of people who were already expecting me to fail.
Sometimes I would even catch my mother looking at me, traces of panic in the depths of her violet eyes, tightness in her lips that spoke of a deep-seated unease.
When I questioned her, she would simply smile and squeeze my hand saying something about being too tired or other such nonsense.
“Hush now, child,” Thilda said to me one more than one night when I was having trouble sleeping.
She was an old woman, the nurse of my mother as a girl before me, with stark white hair always pulled back into a fat bun, large earrings always dangling from her ears.
“I am hushed,” I replied slowly, my mind still off somewhere far away. The day before had been my fifteenth birthday, and I felt more restless than ever. I was unable to sleep, hearing whispered melodies that seemed to be carried on the wind through my open window. It was at this window I now sat, eyes fixed outside where Blackwood Forest could be seen at a distance, that place of mystery and magic. Being a Fey Haunt, it was a place where the veil between realms was barely there. No one dared venture through it, though it was the quickest way to the Eastern Kingdoms. But to me, it continued to be a place of fear and fascination. Especially, late at night, when I heard the fairies singing.
Thilda came over to me and took my hands in hers, making me look at her.
“You are not at rest,” she spoke quietly, “Not yet.”
For some reason her words hurt my heart, the hurt showing itself in sudden tears that slipped down my cheeks.
“Oh, dear one,” she took my face in her hands and kissed my forehead, hugging me to her, “You will be.”
“How?” I whispered, unable to make my voice any louder.
“These things have a way of coming full circle,” she said, drawing away from me and smiling with her lips closed, as if showing her teeth would reveal too much of a secret best kept, “A war ending in peace. A love bringing forth life. A curse turned to a blessing.”
“So I am cursed,” I spoke sullenly, the words weighing on my soul like rocks.
Thilda didn’t answer. She crossed the room and sat in her rocking chair in the corner of my room, picking up her sewing. I watched her, waiting.
“Let me tell you a story,” she said.
I waited, listening.
“It is a strange tale of the Fey and those marked by them. The fey-called. Or fey-cursed. There are two sides to every coin, two sides of magic. Dark and light. Those who hear the call of the fey should heed it lest they be filled with such longing they die of it. But heeding the call of those magical beings comes with consequences – sometimes a wish will be granted, sometimes a wrong would be set right, but sometimes one would be changed for the worse.”
This wasn’t such a new story to me. My mother had told it to me many times before.
“But always,” she would say with a whisper and a smile, “all magic must be realized for the longing to be undone.”
I nodded at Thilda, my mind picking up the thread of the tale and ignoring the pangs of anxiety that hit my chest when I thought about what it may mean for me. Probably nothing, I told myself, I have no magic in me.
“Have you heard the tale of the Great Prince?”
The question surprised me.
“Who is the Great Prince?” I frowned. I’d never heard the name before.
“Your mother needs a brush up on telling tales,” she scoffed, shaking her head with a cluck of disapproval, “the Great Prince in our land plays a role in all things light. The Liadellians say he is the beginning.”
I glanced over my shoulder to make certain that the door to my room was shut. Even though it was late at night, it was habit. Anyone hearing Thilda speaking of her home land, and my mother’s, Liadell, would not take kindly to that. Despite being at peace, the Harfeldans were still deeply distrusting of those other than themselves.
“All things have a beginning. All magic was once good. All beings once in harmony. Until greed and power split the fey into fighting amongst themselves, and humans caught right in the middle, forced to choose a side and dying by the hundreds. To protect us, the son of the very first fairy king used his magic to put up barriers between the fey and us, stepping between the two sides at war and sacrificing himself in the process. With that he separated the realms. But such a noble act made death work in reverse. He came back to life. There are many versions of his tale. An innocent prince dying. Conquering death. And in doing so becomes the most powerful being to ever walk under the trees. Many kingdoms dismiss him as legend, this most powerful of fey beings. But Liadellians, we know he is as real as the sun.”
She looked at me with her piercingly bright blue eyes, and I understood the unspoken message, You are of Liadell too. I shrugged and glanced away from her gaze and the piece of belonging she was offering me. It didn’t matter what I was or wasn’t with regards to Liadell. I did not live there. They were not my people. The Harfeldans were, and they did not want me.
Thilda shook her head at me, eyes sparkling with amusement, “Dear Fey, you do not reject the lies these people throw at you. And yet, this you do?”
I stared back at her stubbornly. I would not release this deep feeling of not belonging or the pain that came along with it. It was a part of me. My identity. I was used to it. A shield of sorts, a talisman of protection in a way. Releasing it would be to consider the prospect of something new, something different. And as painful as it was to live with the idea that I did not belong, it was familiar. What is familiar is always safe.
“Who you are will confront you one day, child. And your choice will determine the fate of many. Remember this.” Her words were ominous, and sent a shiver of cold down my spine, the words of her story playing through my mind. My mother and Thilda were a people of tales. They were a part of who I was and who I would become. The story of the fey was one I’d heard countless times, but never in the way Thilda had just told it.
Who you are will confront you one day, child.
Your choice will determine the fate of many.
The next morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw what I always saw. A girl who looked ordinary enough, but was branded by the would-be curse of a discarded witch. Thilda was never wrong, but I couldn’t help but think that maybe, just maybe, she was wrong about me.
I grew into a young woman, my childhood passing in a flurry of sought for adventures, getting into scrapes with Gavin and attempts by those who loved me best to turn me into a proper princess. It was customary for all royal children to be betrothed by his or her twenty-first birthday. I knew it was what many of his councilors were pushing for. Marry off the strange heir to a good Harfeldan Lord. Give us a King the people will trust.
But my father scoffed.
“Perhaps tradition holds us back from becoming what we are intended to be,” I heard my mother say calmly, while I was eavesdropping, sitting behind a tapestry in a secret alcove that my father showed me. He sat here himself, listening to meetings before he was king. I wasn’t allowed to sit in until I turned nineteen. Just two days away.
I knew my father was yet again being pushed to a place where he would have to decide between his people and his queen. A place of contention he had lived in for half of his life. I saw it wear on him. And I wondered if he ever regretted his choice to wed my mother, a wonder that was dispelled every time I saw him look at her.
He looked at her now, considering, and scratched his bearded chin. His eyes flickered briefly the tapestry where I hid, and I saw him swallow a smile.
“You’ll recall, my lords I myself did not marry until I was nearly seven and twenty,” the councilors shifted uncomfortably in their seats, for that at the very least they remembered quite well, “My daughter has full capability to rule on her own,” he said, “Princess Freya was raised to this. How could she not be? Our borders are safe, lands protected. Harvest has yielded well, trade agreements have been honored. No marriage plans need be made now.”
The use of my full name always surprised me slightly. My father was the only one who refused to call me Fey. I knew he, more than most, had reason to distrust the fairies and their magic. Though he kept the peace even with the fairies of Blackwood, not allowing anyone to fell the trees of their domain for wood and forbidding trespassers under penalty of a day spent in the stocks.
The councilors grumbled and muttered amongst themselves until my father banged his fist on the table, ordering their silence. It was unorthodox. However, nothing about my father’s rule had ever been the status quo. But people like the status quo, the only reason they listened to my father was because the kingdom flourished under his rule without war.
Later, mother smiled reassuringly and ran a soothing hand over my hair, knowing I had heard everything being discussed.
“People are against different, Freya,” she said, “but this kingdom more than others needs it. If your father hadn’t been different he’d have wed a witch, bringing all her darkness with it. And look how his kingdom prospers because of his bravery.”
“Because of your bravery,” I added.
That made her smile.
Despite her words being meant to reassure me, my chest felt heavy. I couldn’t help but wonder how things may have been different if my father had simply followed the course laid out for him instead of carving his own path. Would the people be happier?
My birthday was two days away, and as such I would have to have the customary birthday feast. I would have to be paraded in front of the court, under the eye of every disapproving councilor, every hungry nobleman looking to advance his family by his son wedding the princess. It was not going to be overly enjoyable for me. Just thinking about it made me frown, so I sought my solace in the form of Gavin. He was in the kitchen, eating a cold bowl of porridge. He’d trained too long in the yard and missed the evening meal. I knew by looking at him he’d likely be exhausted and want to retire early, but I was hoping that maybe, just maybe, he would find the energy to stay up with me.
“I want to see the stars!” I exclaimed when I found him, “I’ve been stuck inside all day. You know what that does to me.”
He wasn’t too enthusiastic about the whole adventure but he nodded reluctantly, “Fine. But only because I know if I don’t go along you’ll head off by yourself and probably never come back.”
I watched him carefully as he set aside the spoon he had been using, stood and stretched.
“Let’s go,” he all but growled, leading the way out of the castle through a small side door used for deliveries to the kitchen.
It was a beautiful clear night, a slight mist rising from the dewy grass. The perfect night for walks, telling stories and admiring the world. I smiled for the first time all day, feeling a burst of energy, the desire to run and feel alive.
“I’ll race you!” I yelled and took off running. Quite unladylike. But it was only Gavin. He groaned only a moment before he took off, shooting past me. I frowned. At one point, I used to be faster.
My father was blamed for my competitiveness that sometimes showed itself in bursts of feistiness that would leave servants tongue-tied and nobles sputtering in disbelief, or Gavin face down in the dirt. Until he grew. We hadn’t wrestled since we were children, but at the sight of him beating me in a race, and then waiting for me to catch up while grinning wickedly made me want to tackle him.
“I think I won,” he said with a quirk of his eyebrow, eyes glinting in triumph.
“I wasn’t aware you were capable.” I replied, brushing past him.
“Capable of winning?” he sounded puzzled.
“No,” I did not turn around as I answered, “Capable of thinking.”
He said nothing, but his footsteps quickened until they were directly behind me.
I whirled, “What are you doing?”
He didn’t answer but stepped, grabbed me and threw me over his shoulder, spinning.
I squealed and pounded his back, laughing. He plopped me on the ground and fell down beside me, his laughter deeper and richer than I remembered.
We were under the trees, a slight opening in the canopy of branches above allowed for a beautiful clear view of the stars. I sighed at the sight of them, even though Gavin was still laughing at me. I ignored him.
For even though he laughed at me, I knew Gavin cared for me.
That knowledge blossomed like a flower in my heart. And feelings I hadn’t anticipated took root in that moment when I looked over at him, lying about a foot to the right of me, hands behind his head, gazing up at the star-studded sky.
He was all grown up now, at the age of twenty, a man. And a rather handsome one, at that.
“So, Fey,” he stated looking over his shoulder at me, “what are you escaping from this time?”
I looked at him, puzzled, blushing slightly for almost being caught studying him so intently.
“Councilors,” I said, turning my gaze back up to the sky, trying to calm the way my heart was beating, knowing he was looking at me, studying my profile. I felt him shift a little closer, his arm brushing against mine ever so slightly.
How did you know father was the man of your heart? It was a question I asked my mother more than once.
When he put his arms around me I felt . . . safe. As if that was where I had belonged all along.
I’d frowned, disappointed. That was it? I had demanded more of an explanation.
She had looked at me, thoughtful.
I just knew it in my heart.
How will I know? I’d asked.
Your heart will tell you. And you’ll be as certain as you are about the sky being blue and the grass being green.
I marveled at that. I wondered if I’d ever feel such a thing. I cast a glance over at Gavin, wondering what it would be like for him to hold me. But he was sitting up, rubbing his eyes tiredly.
“You’re exhausted,” I stated, feeling guilty for dragging him outside with me.
“We can go back inside.”
At the suggestion he shook his head and stood, “No. If we walk around I’ll wake up a bit.”
He extended his hand to me to help me stand, pulling me up so swiftly for a moment my feet left the ground. I laughed as he caught me. And I remained in his arms for a moment too long, looking up at him.
“What’s this?” his gaze shifted from me, arms dropping from about me to look back through the trees toward the castle.
“What?” I said, my voice surprised and slightly breathless, a bit embarrassed about the turn of my thoughts though Gavin couldn’t possibly have known what I was wondering.
He went a few strides before he answered, “There’s smoke.”
My heart rate quickened, “Smoke, where?” I glanced nervously about.
Gavin still didn’t turn to look at me, even when I went to stand beside him where he was at the edge of the orchard, looking across the field we had crossed, his gaze fixed on the glittering lights of the village laying at the foot of the castle hill outlined by the bright light from the clearness of the night sky. Surely enough, there was smoke rising ever steadily from it, increasing. I saw the flames lit. And then I heard the people screaming.
“We’re under attack.”
Without another word we reached for each other, clasped hands, and raced back to the castle.