Light fell into the cave and bird song began. Knowing that Harfeld had not fallen made me anxious to be on our way, making progress back through the wood towards the Forest Path.
“Is it safe?” the words were hopeful, tentative, “Can I go home?”
I knew Cormack was awake and listening. He’d been standing guard at the mouth of the cave since the earliest hours of the morning, eyes focused on something beyond. He was waiting. Looking and listening for what I didn’t know.
He nodded, “It will take some time to find our way back, but we’ll start.”
And so, we began.
As the day claimed the forest, we walked for a long time in silence. I felt the weight of what I had seen and heard last night on my shoulders. Fey-called, you’re fey-called. Without thinking my hand went to the charm on the necklace the fairy lady had given me, and I fiddled with it.
“What does it mean,” I said musingly, “to be fey-called?”
It was logical to think that this man would not dwell in the forest that was a Fey Haunt without magic. I had heard with my own ears what happened to intruders, the screams echoing through the wood that had caused us to flee. The beings of the wood did not take kindly to outsiders.
He held his silence for so long I wasn’t sure he’d heard me at all.
“It is human to try and put a definition to everything,” he kicked a fallen branch out of his way, “to fit it into a tidy box that makes sense.”
He turned then to look at me, mirth dancing in his eyes.
“Unfortunately, the fairies are not human, and neither is the magic they awaken in the called.”
“Tell me more,” I said.
A sigh. He continued walking for a little while before he bothered to answer me. It was barely dawn, the damp smell of dew soaked grass and earth filling the air.
“There are different kinds of magic, someone once told me,” he said casting a thoughtful glance to the sky, “There are wielders, like the witch of Dunbrac. Those that can channel it, though they cannot produce it on their own. And there are those that can feel it unerringly. They can sense light and they can sense darkness like the rest of us can sense heat.”
He shook his head, “No. Seers are cursed to see the maddening glimpses of the future. It is their burden to unscramble the puzzle and decide what to do with what they find. Those that can feel magic in the wind or air, can sense it in a person without touch, they are called guardians.”
He pinned me with his gaze, his lips curving into a secret sort of smile.
“But always, those who are fey-called have fairy blood in them. However small. The more there is,” here he paused, his cinnamon eyes boring into mine, his gaze so direct I wanted to look away, “the stronger the pull.”
At that I did turn away. I didn’t question him anymore, that answer had given me plenty to think about.
We were walking through the knee-high grass. I let my fingers trail over the top of the waving blades of grass, the tips being tickled.
“They say I am cursed,” I said then, rather matter-of-factly. With no more emotion than if I had told him my favorite color was green.
Cormack raised his eyebrows then at my severe tone, “Cursed?”
Yes, I thought. But this time the word didn’t sit in my chest like a heavy stone, weighing my heart down. It simply was. A fact, and a part in my story. When I’d come to think of it as that I do not know, perhaps it was the slow unfolding of knowledge in my heart that there was a purpose to everything. There had to be. Hate to love. War to peace. Curse to blessing. Just like Thilda said.
Things such as these have a way of coming full circle . . .
“You’re no more cursed than I am,” he said quietly.
After that Cormack kept his silence, and I kept the rest of my thoughts to myself. After a time I felt myself relax. We walked for the better part of the morning, the safety I now felt in the forest, mingled with the birth of a new day caused my mind to wander.
And as it so often had these past few days, my mind wandered to Gavin. I saw a handful of wildflowers and I remembered when he’d give me a small, tattered bundle of them. It was only because he had dropped my favorite book into a mud puddle. He had stolen it while I was reading and determinedly ignoring him. I’d chased him. He’d tripped and gone sprawling, sending my book flying. I was so angry with him . . .
“Who’s that smile for?”
Cormack’s comment startled me, and I turned to look at him sharply, surprised, “What?”
Cormack nodded his head at me, “That smile.”
I frowned, “What smile?”
“The secret sort of smile a woman has for her beloved,” he said dryly, “what’s his name, then?”
“Oh, hush,” I huffed.
Cormack chuckled at my obvious discomfort.
I sucked in a deep breath when we were once again shaded beneath the canopy of trees, the air sweeter and cooler. I looked around, wondering if I would be able to see anything of the fey, straining my senses to see what I had been stubbornly avoiding before. I saw nothing. No glimmer of magic that hinted at the other realm. No wisps, not even a trace of singing on the wind.
It was then I realized that Cormack was nowhere to be seen.
“Cormack?” I whispered.
I began running, heading in the direction I’d last seen him. He’d only been a few feet ahead of me. How long had I been day dreaming? What if he was hurt? Why didn’t I hear anything?
As I was running, suddenly my wrist was grabbed and I was yanked to sit down in the dew wet moss beneath a giant arching tree with bark as black as a starless night.
“Good heavens, Cormack!” I exclaimed, snatching my wrist away.
He laughed then and leaned back on his hands to look up at green-gold of the leaves overhead, “You were worried about me,” he turned to glance at me with a smirk on his face, “I’m touched princess.” He placed a hand dramatically on his chest.
“I wouldn’t be,” I frowned, cross.
He laughed, relaxing back into his position.
“Tell me a story, Freya,” Cormack said suddenly.
I looked at him, “What?”
“I said ‘tell me a story’.”
“We’ve a fair way to go to get to the forest path,” he cut me off, his voice sure, “a little rest would do good we’ve been walking since daybreak, I would like to hear a story if you’ll tell one.”
I let out a breath, surprised at his sudden request. He never said anything I expected, “All right.”
I paused a moment, glancing up as if somewhere up there I’d find some sort of inspiration, perhaps a tale written there. Cormack’s tale had been a sad one. One without a proper ending. I wanted to tell him a story filled with hope. As much for him as it was for myself.
“Once upon a time,” I began. That’s how all good stories start.
I told the story of the Great Prince, much in the same manner Thilda had first told me. Weaving together a picture of sadness and despair, telling of how humanity needed saving from the fight between light and dark. And just how high the price was.
“And what was seemingly impossible, the Great Prince accomplished. For with his sacrifice, we were given a choice. He is the greatest hero to ever walk the earth, keeping the balance between the two sides to the coin, giving those marked with longing a choice.”
As I spoke them, I knew the words were true.
“A story of great hope, that is,” Cormack nodded approvingly, “Though I’ve heard it before, your retelling is my favorite.”
I looked at him, a bit astonished. I’d nearly forgotten he was there at all, “You have?”
“They say no one tells a story they don’t believe in themselves,” he looked at me, ignoring my question.
I tilted my head to one side and shrugged, “I suppose within every story there is more than a glimmer of truth.”
“Within every story there is more than a glimmer of truth,” he repeated musingly, “I like that.”
Within every story there is more than a glimmer of truth . . .
“Your turn,” I said.
His raised one eyebrow, “For what?”
“To tell a story,” I said with a nod, “I told one. Now you.”
He shook his head, turning his eyes away from me to glance up at the sky much in the way I had done before telling my tale.
“I already told you the only one I know,” he gave me a long look then.
“I didn’t like that story.”
I was so surprised at his lack of comment I turned to look at him and what I saw shocked me. There was a blazing anger in his eyes, barely masked hurt. His lips were drawn into a thin line.
“I’m sorry you didn’t care for it,” his voice was flat.
He got to his feet and walked away through the tall grass, the blades bending and breaking as he passed. I couldn’t help but think the way his shoulders seemed to slump as if he’d been carrying a heavy burden on them for too long.
The man was impossible to figure out.
One moment he was all smirks and mischief, the next tense and silent.
But I’d hurt him with my words. That much was clear.
I didn’t like that story.
That’s all I had said.
Why on earth would that offend him so?
“Fine,” I growled, frowning at the trail he’d left, “leave me here.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and lay down in the grass, watching the sky.
Something was wrong.
I knew it from the way the air changed, the way the wind shifted.
I’d lain in the grass staring at the leaves and snatches of blue sky for what felt like hours, waiting for Cormack to come back. But in truth, it was relaxing to be alone and safe for the first time since entering the forest.
And then something changed, the way the world does when something is not quite right. The air smelt damp, the wind picking up ever so slightly, stirring the leaves and causing the grass to dance in riotous waves.
I sat up slowly, my brow lowering, eyes sharpening, ears tuned to hear things I might not have paid attention to before. My heart skipped painfully in my chest as I was aware of the sudden heaviness of the air, almost oppressive, I could practically feel its weight on my chest.
I knew the feel of it, I knew it better than ever before, remembering the feel of the shadow-dwellers attack the night before, remembering their burning eyes, the way the air seemed foul. They were here. And they were angry.
Find him, find Cormack.
I felt a nudging in my heart, a sudden urgency that gripped my chest.
“Where is he?” I whispered aloud, getting to my feet and glancing about with wide eyes.
There it was.
A shout carried on the wind.
And then I was running. Running for the first time towards something and not away.
Where was he?
The wind was howling now, the branches swaying, creaking and moaning.
Something supernatural was afoot, no doubt. Weather did not change so suddenly and so violently without some dark mischief. My feet pounded the earth, heedless of being quiet. It wouldn’t have mattered. I could barely hear anything but the wind whipping around my head, tearing my hair into even more tangled knots.
I heard him again.
It was louder than before. I was closer.
And so it was I burst through the trees without a thought as to what I might encounter.
What I saw caused me to come to an abrupt and stumbling halt. Cormack was on the ground, pinned by shadow creatures. The shroud that covered them like a thick fog was circling his throat, pressing against his back, keeping him facing the forest floor.
Their glowing, coal like eyes looked up to see me an expression of such hatred on their warped and shadowed faces that I nearly fell back a step. And then something else was entirely too clear to me.
They’re going to kill him.
And a sudden fierceness overcame me.
I ran at them, sliding at the last moment to the ground trying to get through to where they surrounded Cormack. There was oppressive resistance as I tried to reach for him. The shadows kept pushing me back. It was hard to breathe, the shadows like smoke, filling my lungs, stinging my nostrils and making my eyes water.
With a yell I pushed back against the shadows and fell through, my arm coming around Cormack’s middle.
He was shaking with the physical effort of fighting off things he could not touch. Or so I thought. But then a heat pushed from him that stung my skin, and I scrambled away from him, eyes going wide at what I saw. His face was red, teeth gritted, sweat beading on his forehead. But his eyes. His eyes looked like liquid gold, lit from within as he shouted, looking so utterly unhinged and wild I knew a moment of terror at the sight of him. I felt the magic pass over me, pushing against the shadow-dwellers until they had to shrink away. Smoke curled from his skin in tendrils, and with an exhale everything on his body from the shoulders down was covered in fire, fire that he expelled to push the shadow-dwellers further back. Fire that singed my hair and made my skin feel tight and dry like clay, fire that lit the ground around me. I was trapped in it, with no where to run. Cormack had become something other, something that wasn’t quite human. Something as dangerous and terrifying as the shadow-dwellers themselves.
“Cormack?” my voice cracked. I screamed as the sleeve of my shirt caught fire.
He didn’t hear me, or pay me any heed. All his focus was on the shadow-dwellers.
For a terrifying moment I thought this was how and where I would die, trapped by a magical fire, caught between two very powerful fey beings.
And then I was aware of something other than the oppressiveness created by the shadows, the heat from Cormack’s magic fire. The wind howled, but the creatures hissed at a sudden light that appeared at my side. A warm, powerful presence that dispelled the flames.
He was here.
“Be gone,” his voice was dangerous, the forest seemed to quake with the terrifying authority it held.
And the darkness dissipated, banished at his command, but the wind did not cease its howl.
“Be still,” he commanded.
Then the wood was silent all sound seemingly muted, the wind hushed at the command of its prince.
Cormack was still looking like a wild thing, smoke and sparks of fire spitting off his skin. And then something remarkable happened. He took one look at the Great Prince’s face and dropped to his knees, bowing his head. All signs of his magic vanished as quickly as they’d appeared.
“You bow your head rightly,” the Great Prince stated, “and cannot look upon me for shame.”
Cormack’s shoulders slumped and his face was weary, his voice tired as he said, “Lord, I do not deserve to fight for you.”
The Great Prince’s look was all at once wrathful and compassionate, “Proud man. So instead you fight for yourself?”
That brought Cormack’s eyes to the Great Prince’s, he was momentarily outraged. But whatever it was the Great Prince said next deflated Cormack instantly, I could not hear the words – they were not spoken for me.
“You need not carry the weight of your burden any longer, Cormack,” the Great Prince’s voice was firm but kind, “Be free of it.”
Cormack bowed his head again. I watched with some astonishment as two tears slipped down his cheeks. A few things more were said, but no matter how I strained to hear I could not. The words that fell from the Great Prince’s mouth in that moment were meant for Cormack alone.
And then the Great Prince was standing before me where I sat on the ground, watching wide-eyed the exchange going on.
“You’ve done well, Freya,” the Great Prince said with a soft smile.
And then he was gone from sight, but his presence lingered. Cormack was still kneeling a few feet from me, his head bowed, eyes closed. I could not speak. It was a hallowed silence that had fallen over the forest, the darkness banished. I would not break it. But I watched Cormack carefully, staring at him until at last his eyes opened and turned to look at me.
“Forgive me, Freya.”
I blinked, astonished.
“I was blinded by hurt and pride and nearly got you killed,” his eyes were red from the tears he had shed.
And yet, he looked more the warrior for it. Stronger somehow than before, a burden lifted.
“I forgive you,” my voice came out raspy and hushed. What else was there to say?
We had walked some ways after what had happened.
“So you’re fey-called,” I said.
“I was a fool to think I could hide such a thing,” he said softly, “here in this place.”
“Who are you?” I asked then, stopping in my tracks and staring at him. I felt unsettled. Too vividly confronted with this world of magic and impossibility. So long a world that had been forbidden and one that I had feared. Now I was not only in the midst of it, but I belonged to it. Just like Cormack.
Once upon a time . . .
However, his only answer was to heft his pack on his shoulders and keep walking. After a breath, I followed.
As twilight touched the trees and night slowly enfolded the world in her embrace Cormack finally decided it was time to stop. But not time to speak. In silence he set up camp, tossing two blankets to me.
I watched as he settled himself to rest his back against a thick tree trunk, eyes alert, mouth drawn into a tight line.
Eventually my gaze drew his, and he raised his brows in question.
“You should sleep,” he stated, looking away.
“And you?” I asked, frowning.
“I’ve rested long enough,” he said more to himself than me, his tone hushed. He frowned and raked a hand through his wild hair. Wild. Much like him. Unpredictable. But, as I was coming to understand, I trusted him. It was unwarranted surely, that feeling of trust in a man who was nothing more than a stranger. A stranger whom I knew nothing of save his name and that he had magic. Powerful magic. I remembered the way the air burned around him, how his eyes had seemed lit by fire. How my sleeve had caught in the flames, the skin on my wrist still throbbed from the slight burn I’d sustained. How could a mortal man with traces of fey-blood summon that much power?
I stood, unmoving, my eyes unblinking as I looked at him. Still as still could be. There was a humility about him that had not been there before, a softening around his eyes, his heart. I could feel the change in him like I could feel the breeze tickling my face. I breathed, watched him – noting the unblinking stare he’d set on the surrounding trees, watchful.
I knew in my heart that whatever had happened to Cormack was irrevocably tied to me. Some magic had occurred in those moments with the shadow-dwellers and after the Great Prince. Our paths had become entangled by chance and now they were intertwined by fate.
“What is it you hope to see, Freya,” he asked quietly, “by watching me so?”
I said nothing, did not move.
At last he turned to look at me, our eyes locked across the ten feet or so that separated us. Mine as green as the bright leaves of summer, his the color of copper and honey.
“What did he say to you?” I asked finally, “in those moments when I could not hear?”
Silence. Reluctance that was not hindered by fear but something else.
“If the words had been meant for your ears you would have heard,” he said gently, “though you will know them soon enough.”
I nodded, his answer somehow making sense to my heart. And then I laid down with my back to him, covering myself to the chin with the blankets.
In the morning we continued in silence.
Cormack had given me the dress I’d started the whole journey in, saying it would be hard to explain where I’d gotten an outfit change in the middle of the forest. I didn’t need to ask him why he wanted to remain a secret. I’d seen why with my own eyes.
We had come to a thicker part of the forest, free of clearings, the roots twining and twisting into a deadly maze. The part of the forest where it was impossible to take a horse, and foolishness to continue on foot, save for the thin winding trail of dirt that cut a way through the treacherous roots.
The part of the forest where I had started my journey in.
“Are we on the forest path?” I asked.
Cormack looked at me and nodded, “That we are, princess.”
Hope bubbled in my chest. This was where I would have gone had I been able to.
Best not to hope just yet.
And yet, I could not help but have lightness to my step. Hope was brought with sunshine, even in the darkest part of the forest.
“I should warn you, Freya,” he said to me then, “be wary with whom you share your true self. Harfeldans are unforgiving of those who are too different.”
He spoke like he knew, but that was something I already knew too well. And I froze. For the first time, I feared going back. For days that had been all I could think about. Now, I felt the impulse to run deep into the wood and never return.
Cormack noticed my hesitation, raising his eyebrows in question.
“How can I go back?” the question slipped past my lips in a whisper, but I knew he heard, for he sighed and dug the toe of his boot into the earth with a shake of his head.
“Some would say there is no choice for you in that,” he said, “but I am not one of them.”
He took in a deep breath then muttering something to himself, as he bent down to examine the path. What stories he read hidden in the dirt of the forest floor I knew not, I could not read the earth as some had the gift to.
“If you walk but a little ways, you will be found,” he pointed down the forest path, as he stood, wiping the mud from his hands onto his shirt leaving streaks of brown, “but the choice on whether you wish to return . . . ” here he tilted his head, listening and I heard it too, the song of the fairies carried on the breath of wind from deeper in the forest, tugging at me to come back, “that is one you must make, Freya.”
He turned to look at me, a small smile tugging up a corner of his mouth. And then he moved closer, and pressed a light kiss to the top of my head, I felt his breath as he whispered, “Farewell.”
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them, Cormack was gone. I turned about wildly, looking for him.
And that was how I remained for a moment, looking wildly about me, searching for the man who had so silently disappeared.
The choice is yours.
Except there wasn’t a choice for me. Not really. Not yet. I had to go home. I knew that in my bones, as certainly as the sun would rise. And I knew as much as I wanted to run from it, to do so would be futile. Besides, I ached for my family. For Thilda. And for Gavin.
As I stood making peace with that, I heard the sound of horses hooves, thudding the ground slowly as the riders moved carefully through the forest. The leaves rustled, crunching under booted feet, telling of the presence of others.
I whirled around to see a sight that made my heart burst with gladness, my eyes slid shut at the sight of my father surrounded by a few of his men on horseback, some on foot. He was all right. He was alive. He had found me. Relief flooded me so swiftly I couldn’t speak. But nothing needed to be said, as my father jumped from his saddle and pulled me into his arms. I choked back tears, as I allowed myself to be held, a slow warmth spreading through my heart. I was safe. He was safe. Everything was all right.
“I thought we’d lost you,” my father said in a choked voice, holding me tighter.
I looked up at him, “I thought you might be dead. I didn’t know what happened, and I got lost . . .”
He smiled at me, his eyes glistening with tears, “No matter. You’re safe now.”
“Mother and Thilda?” I asked quietly, “they’re all right?”
A warrior drew his horse up close. I looked up to see Gavin. I felt relief slide through me, so strong my knees buckled. He was alive. I held onto my father’s shoulder to steady myself. Feeling my heart fly back into place at the sight of him, the ache that had followed me since I left him, fighting to protect me, dissolved in an instant. My father helped me up onto Gavin’s horse, and I slipped my arms around his waist, leaning against him. He placed his hand over mine and gave them a quick squeeze.
“You gave us a right scare, Fey,” he said over his shoulder, “when your horse came trotting back without you.”
“I was just as scared for you,” I replied.
He nodded, his hand gripping mine a little tighter, “We’re safe now.”
We started on the path home to Harfeld and I couldn’t help but feel a different sort of ache in the center of my chest, a tightness that settled itself there after the wave of relief receded. I wasn’t certain why. I didn’t know if it was because of what I was about to face or what I was leaving behind. And no matter how hard I tried, I kept glancing over my shoulder looking for someone who wasn’t there, feeling that, somehow, he belonged with us all too.
“What’re you looking for?” my father asked, catching me.
There was a note of sharpness in his voice that alarmed me, as if he already knew the answer. But how he could he have known the answer when I didn’t know myself? I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I kept looking back.
And so I said, “Nothing. Nothing at all.”