The Great Prince came to me in what felt like a dream. But it wasn’t. My mind just couldn’t comprehend the impossibilities happening around me. As I fell to the ground I felt myself slip through something like a thick web covered in mist. The wood looked the same but different. More vibrant, a strange golden-green light coming through the forest at an impossible angle. Creatures I’d never seen before peeked out at me from behind leaves and moss and twigs, watching. I had fallen into the fairies realm. Their world existed alongside the mortals, separated by the thinnest veil. Not many could find their way through it. But it seemed I had.
The only reason terror didn’t swallow me whole was because of the Great Prince.
He was sitting beside me, my head resting on his knee, much the way my father once held me when I was little and I had cried for things that seemed silly now. His arm around me was strong, but the hold gentle.
“Courage, Freya,” he said gently, “You are strong. No one will make you follow the path laid out for you. Many do not, choosing to carve their own— into light or into darkness,” there was great sadness in his voice as he said that.
And then he stood and began walking away.
My mind whirred, where I sat, rooted in place. I felt the magic in the air. The hum of usually unseen things staring directly at me with bright inhuman eyes, I saw the flitting lights of blue like I had so long ago when I had stepped into the forest as a girl. I saw too on the edges of my vision the darkness lurking, just out of sight, just at the edge of the light.
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.
I heard the call of both, in that moment. I heard the scraping voices of the shadow dwellers, promising power. I heard the sweet singing of the Fey. And in between them both I saw the Great Prince standing, just as he had in Thilda’s story.
He’s giving me the right to choose.
Light or dark, whichever side of the coin I went to.
I closed my eyes, feeling the press of magic so powerfully it made me dizzy. Even as I heard my mind whisper that none of this was real, my heart knew without a doubt it was. I was able to slip into the realm of the fey, somehow, though I had told myself my entire life I was without any magic. But now, the pull from the darkness was beckoning me, promising me a remedy to all of my pain. I opened my eyes to see shadow dwellers coming closer and closer, reaching their smoke-like hands out towards me.
It struck me as odd that the sight of them did not frighten me. They posed no threat to me, in that moment, I knew.
Come with us, daughter of Harfeld. Let darkness set you free.
Free. What a powerful and tempting word.
“Go away,” I whispered, “go away all of you.”
The Great Prince nodded his head once, and the wood went still. I placed my hands over my ears, ignoring the voices of the Fey on the wind, beckoning me deeper into the woods to dance. The realm of the fairies slipped away, and the magic went still.
I do not want any of it.
I want to go home.
I curled into myself beneath the giant tree, humming to drown out the ache of longing I felt spilling out, so painful it was staggering, the desire I had to run to the sound of the fairies singing, and eventually I slipped into a nightmare filled sleep.
I woke a short time later, alert to the sounds of the forest.
There was a rustling in the leaves of the tree above me, there was someone up there, I knew that before he began whistling a jaunty tune announcing his presence.
I said nothing, but I knew he knew I was awake.
He jumped down from the tree then and walked over to me and sat down about three feet to my right. He sat back on his hands, eyes looking up at the sky above, snatches of which could be seen through the tree branches. It was nearly dark. I need not fear him, the Great Prince had said. He’d already helped me, but still, I couldn’t quite trust him. Why go through so much trouble for a girl he did not know?
And then I reminded myself that he did know. I’d seen it in his expression when he’d looked at me. Even so, he did not need to trouble himself with me.
I had run. And he’d followed me. I blushed to think he’d heard my weeping, pitifully curled into a ball on the ground, covered in dirt, mud caked in my hair and now my eyes were swollen from crying. But I wondered too if he’d seen the fairies, heard the shadow-dwellers. If he had felt the magic, both sides of which sought to claim me.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
At last he looked at me, his bright eyes regarded me carefully, I returned his gaze steadily.
“You need help,” he stated, and then, “Princess.”
So he did indeed know who I was, then.
“Yes,” I said in reply, though he’d not needed an answer, “I need to find my way home.”
“I can help you with that,” he said with a nod, “but we’ll need to make certain it’s safe before we send you back.”
I nodded, thinking much the same, “Someone is supposed to find me. On the forest path.”
Cormack nodded, “I know it. One step at a time.”
My stomach growled.
“I’ll help you, if you’ll accept it,” he said then and he held out an apple to me.
I hesitated, glancing from him to the apple and back again.
He waited. When I still said nothing, he got to his feet with a shake of his head and began walking away.
Again, it was my choice. Only this time it was one I needed to make.
It was surely madness to trust such a man? A man who was living like an outlaw in the heart of an old forest. But then, it would be madness to think I’d be able to survive without his help. If it weren’t for him, I’d probably still be stuck with my feet in the mud, water up to my chin. If it weren’t for him, my belly would still be empty and lacking water. Madness, yes. But that’s what everything had turned to since the night I’d fled.
I will help you if you’ll accept it.
I scrambled to my feet. My heart pounded and I warred with myself.
“Wait,” I called.
Cormack stopped and turned around. His face was serious, a light of slight impatience in his eyes. It was not altogether an understanding look.
But he’d stopped when he could have kept walking. He had followed me when he didn’t need to.
I limped slightly to catch up with him, and his frown deepened at my progress.
“What happened?” his eyes were on my leg.
“I ran, and I tripped,” I said dryly with a shrug.
He handed me the apple and said, “Let me have a look at it.”
“It’s nothing,” I said quickly, “just a banged up shin.”
He grimaced, “There isn’t much worse than that.”
Seeing the bump the size of a small apple protruding from my shin bone, feeling every heart beat as it throbbed painfully I had to agree.
I followed Cormack through the forest for what felt like hours.
After a time I began to feel keenly uncomfortable with the silence he seemed intent on keeping.
“Um, Cormack,” I hated how my voice seemed to squeak as I said his name.
“What are you doing in the forest?” I ducked under a low branch he’d just jumped over like it wasn’t nearly four feet off the ground, “I mean, this is fey territory . . .”
He chuckled then, not breaking stride.
I bit my lip. I really wished he would answer. I had a suspicion as to why I was being left alone. I had blood here, my grandmother was a rumored fairy herself. But him? It didn’t make sense. His answer, when it came, was no answer at all.
“I pay a toll princesses don’t have to,” was all he said in reply and then laughed to himself for a little while after.
What was Cormack’s story?
Despite myself, I found him intriguing with his uncommon kindness, his desire to aid me. What compelled him to do so? Surely not just out of the goodness of his heart. There had to be some piece of the reasoning missing, hidden away out of sight. Even so, I was grateful for him, just then.
My shin throbbed terribly, my cheek was sore and swollen to the touch from the nasty cut I’d gotten from the thorns I tried to run through to get away from Cormack and his men. I pay a toll princesses don’t have to. The comment was as odd as the man making it, and it felt strange for him to call me princess here in this place. I was the princess of nothing in Blackwood Forest. The walk had allowed for me to catch my own not-so-sweet smell. A princess indeed. A princess with mud and dirt covering her and clad in too-big clothing with no shoes.
And what I wanted more than anything at that moment was a bath. A nice hot bath and a clean dress to slip in. A bed. I was not looking forward to sleeping on the forest floor again that night. I nearly laughed at that. Some adventurer I was. Only two days in and I was ready for it to be over.
I was ready to go back home.
“Oh,” I whispered, my heart gave a pang at the understanding I had no home to return to. Not yet.
“What is it?” Cormack tensed, his footsteps halting.
“Nothing,” I said quickly, “I was just thinking.”
“Ah,” he said and began to walk again, “Dangerous that is. Best not to think too much just now. We’re almost where we need to be.”
At last, I spotted the sight of a fire between the trees, the sound of men’s voices and a bit of merriment. Cormack increased his pace.
And then I was suddenly nervous. What would his men make of me?
What would I make of his men?
Cormack strode into camp, right up to where a circle of his men sat around the campfire. At the sight of him, and me no doubt, all conversation halted and every eye stared. But the expression on their faces was not one of surprise or even questioning. They seemed . . . relieved. Almost as if they had been expecting he would return with me. This was a change indeed, from the hostile suspicion I’d been met with before. I wondered at the shift in attitude. Perhaps it should have unnerved me, but it didn’t, I relaxed.
“Evenin’ gents,” Cormack greeted them all with a nod.
The eyes of the men were still on me. And what a sight I must have been, looking like a wild forest thing with mud and leaves in my hair, a dirt streaked, cut face and bare feet.
“Lads, we have a new member to our company. I bid you make her welcome,” Cormack stated.
They said nothing.
I cleared my throat and said, “Hello.”
And then they were all grinning at me, some chuckling at my greeting, some with nicer smiles than others. A few had a number of teeth missing. Still, there was an unmistakable goodness about each of their smiles that set me at ease, and I found myself smiling back.
“What shall we call you then, lass?” one asked.
Cormack opened his mouth to answer, no doubt telling them to call me Princess. But I’d never enjoyed that title. I had a name, and I liked to be called by it.
“Freya,” I said, “my name is Freya.”