Gavin and I ran to the courtyard, seeing the flurry of activity, warriors astride their horses riding out through the gate to the village below, the screams of the villagers renting the air like the shrill cries of a banshee. The sound of it made my blood turn to ice. The air smelled like smoke, thick and acrid, making me cough when I breathed in too deeply.
“Find who these scoundrels are!”
My father’s gruff voice resounded through the chaotic noise of the hastening of warriors in the courtyard. My eyes caught on him, sitting astride his powerful war horse, looking dangerous and ready for battle. It was a version of him I’d never seen, this warlike man. His face taut, shield strapped to his back, a sword at his side. I was taken aback at the sight of him.
“Father,” I called to him, tentatively.
His eyes found me, and there was a brief moment of surprise, a quick softening of his expression before his face hardened and he was the warrior king again, “Gavin get her inside.”
A swift nod from my companion before I was being tugged away from the courtyard and into the castle.
When things that are nightmarish occur, it’s impossible to remember all the details. Things are remembered in blurred snatches. Somehow I ended up in my room, and Gavin left me to go fight. I remember thinking that we were at peace. There was supposed to be no war. Not tonight. Not ever. And yet, I’d seen the smoke. Seen the warriors riding out with my own eyes to protect our villagers from an unknown enemy.
“Who would do this?”
My question remained unanswered, but my mother had that knowing look in her eyes again, traces of panic making her lips pinch tight.
The screaming seemed to grow louder. I could smell the smoke drifting from the village. For hours, I waited in my room with my mother and Thilda for news of what was occurring, for the morning to come and for the smoke to clear, for the screaming and clashing to stop.
But that never happened.
Before the break of day there was pounding on my door. My mother and I lifted weary heads from each other’s shoulders, where we had been sitting on the window seat, Thilda opened the door.
It was Gavin.
His face was filthy, smudged with dirt and sweat, his tunic with dark stains running down the front, on his sleeves . . . blood. I got to my feet.
Without waiting for him to say anything, I pushed past him and ran to the stairs that led up to the battlements, the cool air of the night hitting my lungs as I rounded the corner to see the courtyard down below. I needed to see what was happening, what was going on. What I saw made my heart thunder.
There was a cluster of men astride horses waiting entrance at our outer gate, their metal armor glinting in the moonlight. They were shouting, clanging their swords on their shields, hollering threats to our warriors on the other side.
A sudden chill stole through the air, even still, sweat slicked my back.
“Who are they?” I asked in a whisper.
Gavin. He’d followed me of course.
“Who are they?” I turned to him.
The light of the moon was bright enough for me to see the emblem painted in bold black across the shields the invading men held. A raven with its wings spread over a willow tree.
Gavin shook his head, “Dunbrac.”
My heart pounded, “Dunbrac?”
Men began to attack the walls with long wooden batters, shouting, arrows flying. The gate shook under the onslaught. Bang, bang, bang. I felt it in my bones, the tension from our warriors waiting in the courtyard for when the gate failed them and the battle began anew.
“They’re trying to get inside,” I gasped, “Why are they here?”
It was impossible.
Gavin swore under his breath.
“Freya, listen to me,” Gavin whispered, the use of my full name made me look at him, there was a severity in his eyes that frightened me, “You’ll need to run. You can’t stay here. Your father wants you out of here, safe.”
I swallowed, shaking my head.
“You are the heir of Harfeld,” he said firmly, “If all fails, if our defenses do not hold they will kill you.”
They will kill you.
“If we fail and you live, there will be a chance for Harfeld’s redemption.”
“You will not fail,” I stated.
That almost made him smile, despite everything.
“Quickly now, your mother will meet us,” he took my hand in his, “Ready? Let’s go.”
We stood and ran, keeping to the shadows as much as we could. My heart felt wooden, the things around me a blur turning into a senseless cacophony of shouting, metal clashing and fear that pulsed through my body.
Thilda was there to meet us at the edge of the field, a sack in her arms.
“Why, Thilda?” I was breathless and frightened.
“No time for that,” she said, handing the sack off to Gavin, who held it easily with one arm while keeping a firm hold of my hand.
And all at once, there was a crashing sound as if the very earth itself had broken, a sound that made the world go quiet for a moment before it righted itself and we all understood what that sound meant.
The gate was broken. Our defenses had failed, so quickly.
“Impossible,” Gavin breathed, “they have foul aid this night. No mortal could break through walls of steel and stone so quickly.”
We could hear the sounds of the battle carried from the courtyard. There were screams and shouting. Terrible sounds coming from the inside of my home, I shut my eyes against the sound.
“Thilda, my parents,” I said suddenly aware that they were still in the castle, understanding that my mother had lied and she was not there. I turned and made to run inside. I needed to know they were safe.
“Gavin!” Thilda yelled.
And Gavin was there, catching me about the waist and hauling me back to the horse.
I gasped, caught off guard by his strong hold, “They’re in danger too!”
“Enough, Fey,” he said, setting me on my feet and turning me to face him, hands firm on my shoulders, “You need to get out of this place. You are in the most danger.”
A single tear, produced from the tight knot forming in my stomach, slipped down my cheek. He launched himself onto the horse, holding his hand out to me.
“Now, you can either get on this horse yourself, or I’ll pull you on it,” he said firmly, “it’s your choice.”
“Fey,” Thilda said.
And my feet propelled me to action. I understood why I needed to flee. I was the only child of the King of Harfeld. I could not stay here and hope to live if, when all was said and done, we were overrun.
Gavin pulled me up on the saddle before him, placing his arms firmly around me and taking the reins.
“Gavin!” Thilda yelled, fear making her voice raw. I heard the pounding feet, the shouting of men close by, too close. They were coming. Gavin swore. I turned, his eyes finding mine.
He was supposed to come with me. He wanted to come with me. Then he did the unthinkable. He leapt off the horse, his hand reaching for his sword. My heart went cold with terror as I understood he had to stay behind. To protect Thilda. And to protect me.
“Take the forest path,” Gavin was instructing me, “hide. Stay off the road. I’ll find you.”
“I can’t go in the forest,” I exclaimed to Gavin, remembering the burning eyes, the moving shadows, “I can’t.”
“Go!” he yelled, “Go, Fey!”
The last thing I saw was Gavin’s sword coming down to defend against another’s blade, the terrible squeal of metal peeling as they locked together. I turned my face into the horse’s neck, tightening my thighs, spurring her forward. The stone wall with no gate was a deterrent to people, but the horse leapt it easily. The impact of the landing jarred me, I looked up for a moment to see the looming trees as my mount moved into the overwhelming darkness of the deep wood.
Fear is a strange thing.
It has alarming power when it takes grip. Power to make the trees sway, and the branches moan with inhuman voices. The dark rocks shrouded in shadow to come alive with menacing faces. The wind given life to come alive with whispering voices.
Surely, my heart was pounding as loudly as my horse’s hooves were pounding the earth. Something spurred me onward, whether it was fear or a simple understanding that there was nowhere for me to go but forward, I rode hard and fast long past the first light of day broke through the thick trees surrounding me on every side. The place of my nightmares, the place into which I was now fleeing deeper and deeper. It took everything in me to keep from turning my horse around.
Blackwood. It was well named. The trees all had bark unnaturally black, roots that were twisted and gnarled, intertwining in a chaotic mess that was dangerous for an ankle or a leg if one stepped off the winding forest path. I’d only ever slipped into the very edge of the forest, walking in only until I’d seen the shadow-dwellers. The memory of them haunted me with every moment. A trick of the light or the product of an over active imagination, I saw an unearthly figure was darting from tree to tree, shadow lingering around it like a dark mist, watching me, following, waiting.
“Go,” I spoke into my horse’s ear, “Go. Please don’t stop.”
My legs were trembling, from exhaustion and terror.
The understanding that one could not ride for so long without a price came with the growing light of day. I thought I might fall from the saddle, though I knew I would die before I made the choice to dismount.
As it was, I never got the chance.
For there was a loud crack of a branch falling across the small dirt path I had been following, the frightening sound of the horse releasing a terror-filled scream. I lost hold of the reins, the horse rearing in fright and then bucking violently.
For a moment I was flying, losing grip of the saddle. And the next my body knew the hard ground, and then nothing.
“. . . 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. And so, 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. But Liadellians, we know he is as real as the sun . . .”
To be woken from a dream where one is safe and home and instead find yourself in a forest, alone, hurt and without a horse or supplies is not a pleasant thing. No matter how brave I liked to think of myself, this was something I never imagined I’d be facing.
I stared up at the ceiling of trees, catching snatches of sky, dried tears making the sides of my face feel tight. I knew I should stand. I knew I should keep moving, try and find a safe place to wait until Gavin came to find me. But there was something oddly tethering about lying on the ground, staring at the sky, and I felt if I could just lay there for long enough everything I was afraid of would go away and the world would go back to normal.
Stand up, Freya. I told myself. But nothing moved. I had no will to do so.
I lost time laying there, listening to the sounds of the forest. And then the entire wood stilled. Though not in a way that spoke danger, like with the shadow dwellers and the silence that preceded them. No, this was something entirely different. Still powerful, still magic, for I felt the change in the air, the way the wind seemed to hum, the branches of the trees stirred to move as if in a dance.
And I knew I was not alone.
The words were spoken, not aloud I don’t think, but into my heart. I heard them clearly, just the same.
“I do not wish to,” I replied, my voice gravelly from not speaking.
A rumbling laugh, so deep and rich it seemed as if the entire earth laughed along with it.
“Wishing does not change what must be done.”
Whoever this being was, Otherworldly or no, I refused to be goaded thus. I frowned and pulled myself into a sitting position.
And there he was.
Clothed in a simple robe that was no color and every color at the same time, light radiating from him as if he himself was the light, a face I thought I could see but to this day if I try to recall it I cannot remember, but it was a good face, an open face. And even though I’d never seen him before, I knew exactly who he was.
“The Great Prince,” I whispered.
Thilda was right. He was real.
“I am,” he said, walking towards me one moment and sitting beside me the next. I did nothing but stare at him.
“Are you frightened, Freya?”
It would be foolish to say anything but the truth, for in his eyes I saw that he already knew my heart. He knew my fear and my anxiety for my parents, my anger and the war I fought within myself. I missed Gavin and Thilda, though I’d seen them just the day before. I knew he understood my restlessness and my deep set desire for a safe place, a place to be at rest. In one look, I knew he knew. And he felt. For in his eyes I saw no judgment, though he by every right could, but compassion. Understanding. A look I’d never received from anyone. Not even Gavin. For even he did not quite understand my heart fully.
“Yes,” I said breathlessly.
“You needn’t be,” he said softly, surely.
And before I could draw another breath, he was gone.
I stood, a bit slowly. I looked at the forest ahead of me, glanced back at the small dirt trail behind me. The trail that led home. My heart ached more than my body in that moment, I think. What had the rest of the night brought? Everyone I loved was back that way.
Courage, Freya. Courage.
I had no choice but to keep moving forward, wandering the wood until Gavin came to find me. If he came to find me. My throat constricted, and I fought the overwhelming urge to weep. No tears, just yet.
I took a deep breath and began walking.
As the day lengthened, my mind seemed to forget where I was and what brought me here, and my heart only half remembered, exhaustion making fear dull.
For with the light came a lightening sense of freedom, the trees spanned out to allow for a less dangerous time traversing on foot, the greenery came alive it seemed. I knew I was in a Fey Haunt. A place that was claimed by the fairies. But I didn’t catch a glimpse of them or their realm. It seemed to be an ordinary enough of a forest in the daylight. A small part of me knew I was being watched, but I didn’t feel threatened.
Still I felt the need to acknowledge that I was trespassing and so I said to no one in particular, “Thank you for allowing me here. I won’t stay long.”
As if in response to my words, a breeze danced through the leaves that were bright green in the golden sunlight. I looked up at trees with arms reached up, higher and higher, so high I had to tip my head back all the way to see where the branches ended and seemed to scrape the sky. Will-o-the-wisps darted in the deeper, cool shadows of the sheltering boughs. I found a small stream to drink my fill. Splashing the cool water on my face invigorated me, though my stomach tightened into a knot, coiled with hunger. Following the stream, I walked until my feet seemed too tired to move any further when I spotted a thick tree with scooping branches that were perfect for sitting on.
And so, I climbed.
The bark was spotted with moss, a bit damp, but slowly being warmed by the heat of the sun.
Higher, and higher I climbed until finally I reached the largest branch up high that would hold me safely. And I leaned back against the thick trunk and just watched the sky.
Gavin will come for me, my heart whispered, desperate to remain calm, to hold tight to the hope that everything would be all right.
After all, I was exhausted. I thought this was where I would wait to be found.
And I would be found.
But not by who I was expecting.