The campfire dimmed, the snores of men could be heard from above where they slept in hammocks, but the rest of the world was silent. My body ached, the pain in my shin had dimmed to a dull throb and by all rights I should have fallen fast asleep.
I lay there, under the blankets I’d been given and gave into the storm of worry and wondering and trying to answer questions only time could. And at the edge of my consciousness, I heard the voices on the wind, voices calling me to dance. The longing in my heart was enough to make me weep, but I bit my lip and covered my ears, willing the sounds of the forest and the fey to go away.
You must heed the call for the longing to be undone, or die from it.
I knew the truth of the story well enough, but I thought that there was much more of a chance of me dying from something else at this point in my life that I dismissed that truth as a fairytale, even though I’d seen enough evidence. But there’s something about being confronted with something, despite it being true, that will change everything in a way that you can’t come back from. I saw the paths I could choose in my mind, but not where they would take me. I didn’t want the magic that was calling to me. It was the realization of a fear that had chased me my whole life. Peculiar. Strange. Different. It was a destiny I did not want for myself.
My mind was restless, making my body tense. A combination that made sleep impossible. I opened my eyes and sat up, hoping I might be able to glimpse the stars. I slipped my arms around my knees, hugging them to my chest and began to tell myself a story.
Once upon a time . . .
“What are you doing?”
I was so surprised by the question that I answered with the truth, “I’m telling myself a story.”
It was Cormack, of course.
He seemed amused by my answer, “What kind of story?”
He got up from his place in the shadows and came to sit beside me.
“One that I can’t seem to get out of my head,” I replied with a shrug, “although I thought I might change the ending a bit to be more to my liking.”
Cormack smiled then. A smile that did not have an ounce of mischief in it, and it was a rather nice look on him, I found myself thinking. His cinnamon eyes glinted in the dying light of the fire. He picked up a stick and tossed it into the embers. Sparks flew.
“If only all stories could be changed as neatly as that,” he said quietly. There was sadness in his eyes at that moment, such sadness that he suddenly looked far older, the fine lines around his eyes deepened in the shadows.
“If only,” I found myself saying, “I’ve wished I could change my story so many times I think I have to have wished on all the stars.”
He gave a small sideways smile, with a slow shake of his head, “What of your story would you change?”
“Too much,” I spoke quickly and averted my eyes, biting my lip thoughtfully, “I’ve never been at peace with who I am or who I’m supposed to be. Do you ever feel that way?”
He seemed taken aback by the question before he answered simply, “Yes.”
I nodded slowly, thinking. Perhaps we had more in common than I thought.
“You could not sleep?”
“And you were telling yourself a story to . . .?”
“Hopefully quiet my mind enough to fall asleep,” I answered carefully. I could not endure any of his teasing. I would have embarrassed us both by bursting into tears. My heart was taut like a bow string, feeling ill at ease within the forest that called to me, and a magic aching inside me that I did not want, would not acknowledge, all the while wanting more than anything to be safe at home. Gavin, I wish you were here. I looked up at the sky, hoping to find another star to wish on.
“Allow me the honor, Princess,” he said then.
I turned to look at him, questioning.
“Let me tell you a story,” he said.
“Oh,” I blinked, surprised.
“Once upon a time, is that how you’d begin?” he looked at me, eyebrows raised and waited for my nod before he continued, “Once upon a time, there was boy. Second born into a family of noble blood, with a legacy to rival that of the ancient kings,” here he paused to sit back on his hands before continuing, “Though he’d wanted another child, his father never accepted the second son that came to him. The boy was too different, too wild. Too much like his mother. Reminding the king of what he lost, when his queen disappeared. Folk said the fairies sang and she listened, following their melody into their realm, never to be seen again. It was this, ultimately, that was unforgivable.”
Cormack surprised me again. An outlaw with a gift for storytelling. His voice was soothing, steady and even, lulling me into a state of relaxation, but his skill with words was something I had not anticipated. I stifled a yawn and listened, even as his words tickled something in my memory, it was hard not to see parallels to this story and my own, and another, one I gathered together in pieces a long time ago because it was so like mine. A child who didn’t fit in because of being different.
“Did she?” I asked then, frowning.
Cormack raised dark brows at my question.
“Did the queen go with the fairies?”
He flashed a wicked grin then, teeth glinting in the flickering light of the fire, “What do you think?”
I looked at him then, studying his face that shifted in the shadows and didn’t answer. The truth he was offering me was too much to consider, too impossible to contemplate. So I simply shrugged, nodding for him to continue the story.
“The boy’s brother was older by nearly ten years. As it often is between brothers, it was difficult for them to see eye to eye, the gap of age and experience aiding with that. Before the boy grew to be a man, before he was ever accepted, his father died. It left a hole in the young boy’s heart, a hole he sought to fill by becoming a great warrior, following his older brother off into battle. For a time, war and spoils were enough. The glory of victory covering his aching sense of not quite belonging, living in the shadow of a brother so big he was impossible to compete with, and a lost mother who had left him with a wildness he did not understand. And for a time, it did not matter. But then he fell in love,” he gave a wry smile at this part in the story, eyes turning to look at me, “with the very woman his brother was meant to have but did not want.”
“What happened?” I asked, knowing well when the audience was expected to participate. There were times for questions, listening to Thilda growing up had taught me when to ask and when to wait.
Cormack smiled a small, sad smile and continued, “They fought, as men do when words fail to reconcile. For his actions, the second son was cast out. Such is the way of things. Love denied has terrible consequences, but blood betrayed is far worse. The second son made a choice. And for it, he was doomed to wander, nameless until the end of his days.”
He stopped speaking and looked at me.
“That can’t be the ending,” I whispered then, a hint of a challenge in my voice, “He didn’t go back? Surely his brother would forgive him?”
He looked at me strangely, as if taken aback by my response, “Forgive him?”
“I’ve always wanted a brother. I’d forgive him anything, I think, if I had one,” I said thoughtfully, surprising myself with my honesty, but there it was. Cormack blinked, unable to hide the astonishment in his expression.
There was a moment in which neither of us spoke. Cormack seemed surprised into silence.
“I’m afraid not all stories end happily ever after, Princess,” he said solemnly after a while, his eyes were sad.
“Maybe not,” I said quietly, thinking of my own story and how I came to be here.
He said nothing, but I noticed his hand going to the chain he wore around his neck, fiddling with the dainty little ring it bore. I wondered at it.
“Who gave that to you?” I asked quietly, thinking it an odd thing for such a wild-looking man to have.
His lips quirked up in a smirk as he glanced down at the ring he twiddled between two fingers, “A lovely lass with sparkling blue eyes and a knack for far more than mischief,” he looked at me, one eyebrow raised, “much like you, I reckon.”
I ignored that.
“Your beloved?” I asked.
He shook his head, a slow smile spreading, “Not so much as a dream. A man like me can’t have the luxury of such a one,” he waved his hand expansively, indicating the forest and the life he led within it.
“What led you to this?” I asked watching him carefully, “this life?”
He turned amused eyes on me, “Is that your polite way of asking if I’m an outlaw?”
I hadn’t even thought that, in reality. But it seemed an easier reason than the one I did have for asking so I nodded.
“You have no need to fear, Princess. I’m no criminal and neither are my men. We’ll do what’s right by you,” he said.
“I know,” I replied. And I did. I knew that the merry man sitting beside me with a wicked smile and glinting cinnamon eyes did not mean me any harm. He was familiar, somehow. Like I’d known him long before this. Perhaps, in a way, I had.
“Good,” Cormack stated, shooting me a quick smile before getting to his feet, “get some rest, Princess.”
“The forest path,” I said then, to which Cormack raised questioning eyebrows, “that’s where I’m supposed to be. You’ll take me there?”
He nodded then, slowly, “Aye, I know it.”
And then he turned and walked away, out of camp. I wondered where in the world he could be going, my eyes following him until he disappeared into the shadows.
I woke up, breathless, heart pounding. It was still dark. I shook my head to think I’d only been asleep for a few hours, feeling gritty and muted. But the stillness of the forest belied the reasoning for my sudden waking. There had been voices. Angry voices. It hadn’t been the tone or the level that had woken me.
I frowned, listening.
One of the men had sounded like . . . Gavin.
Tears slipped down my cheeks.
Dead, he’s dead.
And then I caught it. The sound of a distant struggle and someone was yelling, the voice carried on the wind that was stirring in the leaves. I wasn’t the only one who heard it.
The men were awake, some of them anyway who slept lightly enough to hear it. They jumped out of trees, rolled to their feet, gripped their swords tentatively, listening. They seemed as surprised as I was at the sudden sounds.
Cormack appeared, his brow drawn downward.
“Someone’s in the forest, Mack,” one of the men said, I think his name was Beld, “And it’s not one of us.”
“Doesn’t sound good,” another said, grimacing, “seems like the locals are giving them some trouble.”
The locals. He was talking about the fairies. Or the shadow-dwellers. I didn’t envy the intruders drawing the wrath of those dwelling within the forest. It made me wonder how Cormack and his men could live within the forest so freely—without fear from the beings whose dominion it was.
Cormack’s gaze cut across the clearing and pinned me, his eyes asking questions I did not have the answers to. Did they follow you here?
I gave him a wide-eyed look and shook my head, alarm shooting through me at the idea of the Dunbrac men hunting me. Foolish girl, I thought to myself, of course. It wouldn’t have escaped their notice that the princess was missing. I swallowed panic at the idea of how close I’d come to refusing Cormack’s help.
Dead, that’s what I’d have been.
Like everyone else.
“Let’s move,” Cormack said firmly, never taking his eyes off me.
His men quickly and quietly broke down camp, packing their belongings into packs and erasing every trace of ever being there.
Cormack’s mouth was lacking any trace of mirth that had been present since meeting him. He strode across the clearing to me where I stood frozen.
He gripped my arm in his hand, “Did anyone see you flee?”
There was a twang and a thump as an arrow flew into the camp, aimed right at where Cormack had just been standing.
Cormack’s men scrambled, disappearing behind trees and into them, stringing bows and drawing swords, men wearing dark clothing came roaring into the clearing. I swallowed a scream. Cormack’s grip on my arm slipped down onto my wrist and then we were running.
I could not run any farther. Just as the sun rose in the sky, turning the leaves golden green in its light my legs decided to stop working. My ribs felt like they would crack before I could swallow enough air to make me feel like I wasn’t about to pass out.
Cormack was practically dragging me along behind him, even his breath was coming out short and uneven, but he managed to stay standing as he released my arm and I lay in an exhausted heap, attempting to find my bearings.
My vision was swimming in and out, my heartbeat racing akin the beat of a hummingbird’s wings.
Cormack let out a loud breath and came to kneel in front of me, pulling me into a semi-sitting position.
“Breathe, princess,” he said quietly, “you’ll make yourself sick.”
“I’m sorry, so sorry.”
His face turned serious, “What are you sorry for?”
“Your men,” I gasped, “I’m so sorry. I put you all in danger.”
Cormack shook his head then, dropping his hand from my face and sitting beside me, “My men can handle themselves, princess. Don’t you worry,” he gave me a reassuring smile. But I saw how his shoulders were tense, the way his jaw clenched after he looked away from me. He was worried himself.
I frowned, “Call me Freya for heaven’s sake.”
It was ridiculous to me that he would continue calling me princess. I was lost in the deep wood that was full of magic, I was hiding from a witch and I may not have a kingdom to return to. I owned nothing. And I owed him my life. Twice now.
He laughed, “Don’t want to be a princess?”
The words were spoken like a challenge.
“You wouldn’t be the first to try and outrun who you are within these woods,” he said then, looking around at the trees, at the invisible eyes that were always watching, “only to find that the further and faster they run, the more quickly who they are catches up to them.”
I took a deep breath and nodded, hauling myself to my feet, “I’m not running.”
And then he said, “Aren’t you?”
At his words, I swear, suddenly the veil between worlds shimmered around me, and I saw the wood as it was for everyone else, and I saw the wood as it was for the fairies. The strange golden green light, the way that the air shimmered like caught stardust. Trees were no longer trees but beings with hair made of petals and leaves, with arms and legs made of twining roots and branches. The moss had eyes and the mushrooms and fungi on the bark moved at will. I refused to look directly at anything, sweat dripping down my back. If I pretend I can’t see it, it will just go away.
Cormack narrowed his eyes at me. I couldn’t know what he saw. Or what he felt. I had the impossible thought that he knew what I was.
But how could he know that when I didn’t even understand?
So I said, firmly, almost angrily, “No.”
And just like that, the fairy realm slipped away.
“Well, then,” Cormack turned his back on me and began walking, “we’ll just go a little further in. I have a safe place to wait until I know more about who else is in the wood.”
It felt as if we were already in the heart of the forest. The farther we walked the stronger the magic became until I could barely think straight. The witch’s words circled around in my mind, the words that had followed me since before I was born.
The child born of this union will be consumed by magic within or without, to be claimed by the fey or die with longing for them.
Further in . . . if I was honest I was far less frightened of what we were running from than what we were moving towards.
And the reckoning that was surely coming for me.