Chapter Eight

Months passed. 

And they were as uneventful as the passing of seasons sometimes are, almost as if the world was entirely unaffected by the excitement my kingdom and I had faced. The attack had been warded off, the witch driven back with a promise of war should she ever think to breech our borders again. My father did not want to wage war. I wondered if the witch had seen that. I also often wondered if she would one day call his bluff. Only I seemed to be dissatisfied with the fact that she had attacked us based on a slight that had occurred nearly twenty years before hand. 

“If she’d wanted war then, why not do something about it?” I asked Gavin one night while we sat in a field gazing at the stars, much like we had on that fateful night a few months ago, “Why wait nearly twenty years to take revenge?”

Gavin shrugged, “I don’t know, Fey. Who knows the mind of the witch?”

I frowned and shook my head, I had thought about it quite a bit since my return, “But she didn’t come to take the castle, Gavin. She didn’t have enough men to lay siege,” I stated, “it’s like she was looking for something.”

Gavin sat up and looked at me, leaning back on one arm, “And what would she be looking for?”

That was the part I always got stuck at. I didn’t know. No matter how often I tried to figure that one piece out, I couldn’t. What would she be looking for? What could she possibly have wanted?

It was a part of the riddle I teased out often but could never quite come up with an answer that satisfied me. 

“You know you haven’t stopped frowning,” Gavin said, bringing me out of my riddling reverie. 

I glanced at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. His gaze was directed at the stars, legs stretched out, hands under his head. He looked so relaxed and at ease in comparison to the frenzied energy building up inside of my chest with my maddening determination to answer the question that seemed so vital to me but inconsequential to everyone else. 

“What do you mean?” I asked. 

“Since the forest,” he said, “you haven’t smiled as much.”

I said nothing in reply, but he didn’t seem to need one. It was simply a fact he was stating, for me to take or leave. I fiddled nervously with the necklace the fairies had given me. I saw him eyeing it, the question of who had given it to me in his expression. Quickly, I slipped it back in my dress.

He took in a deep breath, his chest rising with it and falling as he exhaled. He had turned into a man, I thought, and the realization of it surprised me. I thought him grown up the night of my birthday, but even the months that had passed since then had changed him. His shoulders were broader, thicker, his voice was deeper. Altogether he seemed stronger, steadier. I rarely glimpsed the mischief that had always been present in his eyes as a boy when he went along with whatever scheme I had concocted. I smiled at the memories of the chaos we used to bring together. 

I remembered a time when I was thirteen and Gavin fourteen. I wanted so badly to take one of the barrels from the cellar and use it as a boat to ride in the rapids of the stream that ran through the woods that lay on the far side of the apple orchard. 

“I don’t know, Fey,” he’d said, looking skeptical, “it rained a lot last night.”

He had been right. It had rained a lot, so much so that some of the fields had flooded and many of the villagers had come to the castle for my father’s generosity for new seed. But that was precisely why I had wanted to do it. Because it would be dangerous and therefore twice as much fun. But Gavin had not been persuaded. 

“Fine!” I remembered throwing my hands up in exasperation, “I’ll do it myself.”

“No, you won’t,” he smirked, “you’re not brave enough to do it without me.”

It had been a challenge. And a challenge, as Gavin soon learned, was something I rarely turned down. 

I’d skipped the evening meal and sneaked down to the cellar, took an empty barrel and with quite the struggle managed to roll it to the river all by myself. The river was rushing, bloated by the recent rainfall, the rapids dangerously racing over the rocks. 

I almost didn’t do it. And then I’d remembered what Gavin had said. 

You’re not brave enough without me. 

And so, I did it. 

The barrel crashed into the rocks barely visible over the surface of the water and shattered, leaving me stranded in the rapidly rushing water. 

I knew I was going to drown, no matter how hard I kicked my legs I couldn’t seem to orient myself. I remembered the cold, the feeling of panic and rushing water thrumming in my ears. I remembered hearing the frantic shouts, and then the feel of arms around my waist, pulling up toward the surface, toward air, toward life. I’d recognized the strength in the hold, but it had surprised me when I was dumped on the riverbank to find Gavin sprawled out next to me, his arm still encircling my waist, panting from exertion. I was gasping for breath and tears mixed with water on my face as I realized what I had done. 

“What were you thinking?” even out of breath as he was he’d managed to sound furious.

“You said I wasn’t brave enough,” I’d shot back. 

And then he pulled me against him, his arms around me felt like steel and iron and other unbreakable things, chest warm and then he had said something that surprised me. 

“I’m sorry, Fey, I’m sorry,” he held me tight, his voice in my ear, “you don’t have to prove anything to me.”

He knew better than most how hard it was for me to live up to what was expected of me. I was never enough. And he’d known that day, he saw. Since that day, I had never again felt like I needed to prove anything to him. Perhaps, I thought, that’s why I preferred his company to most others. From that day on, I’d known I was safe with him.  

I glanced at Gavin. 

He was still lying perfectly relaxed, perfectly still, gazing at the star studded sky. 

“Do you remember the day by the river?” I whispered. 

His eyes slid to me and he nodded. 

“You should have scolded me and told me how foolish I was,” I said quietly, “but you didn’t.”

He looked at me, waiting. 

“Thank you,” I said quietly.

He smiled. 

***

It was almost as if Cormack knew exactly what I would face when I returned home, when I stepped out of the shelter of the trees and into the daily life again. Be wary with whom you show your true self to, Harfeldans are unforgiving of those who are different. I thought I knew.

I thought I was marked before, that I had been cursed before the attack, but it was nothing compared to what I now endured.

Before there were simply whispers and side long glances. Now, after the attack of the witch and my miraculous survival alone for days without provisions in Blackwood Forest, people spat, made signs to ward off evil and glared at me. They were openly hostile now.

My father was furious when he heard about it, but what could he do? To bring force on them would do nothing. It would only incur their hatred and disloyalty. I could bear it. As long as they loved my father, their king. It was no time to do anything that could invoke civil unrest of any kind. So I stopped telling him. I rarely visited the village any more, for any reason. Though I made an attempt to win goodwill by distributing blankets and food to prepare for the coming winter. I’d earned smiles from some, and nods from others. But there were too many who stared blackly at me from a distance.

My last time through the village someone threw a piece of rotting fruit at me, hitting me in the cheek. I tasted the decaying sweetness on my lips, felt the initial shock and embarrassment. Gavin was there. His sword was drawn in an instant, shouting at those watching, calling them ungrateful wretches, demanding that the culprit come forward. No one moved. I looked out on a sea of eyes filled with fear. That was what the witch had done. From the day of my birth her influence had overshadowed me. A curse indeed. Would I ever be able to escape it? Would I ever be able to shake off the words that she had spoken at my birth? Would I ever be free of them? Something in my soul told me no. For I was what they said, remembering the call I’d heeded in the trees of Blackwood Forest. I had magic, just like they had always feared. Not that I knew how to use it. It simmered inside of me like water brought to the point just before boiling, and day and night I ached to return to the cool shade of the trees to dance with the fairies, the darkness of the shadow-dwellers holding no fear for me anymore. 

Yet, I also knew that choice had a cost. I remembered what the Fey Lady said to me, how the more I claimed the fey in me the harder it would be to remain in the world of mortals. I thought of Cormack, how wild he looked. I remembered the whispers of the old queen, that she had heard the fairies song and listened. She disappeared, never to be seen again. My grandmother. I thought of her more often than ever, wishing I could talk to my father about her. What she was like, if what they whispered about her was true. But he never spoke of anyone in his family other than his father. It was as if his mother and brother never had existed. Perhaps it was easier for him that way, for in their different ways he’d been betrayed by each of them. I saw him too, sometimes, looking at me with worry, a sadness that I couldn’t understand. Almost as if he feared I would do the same thing.

If that was the result of claiming my magic, I could never hope to be queen. However, in that moment, never being queen of these people who hated me seemed like a fate I could easily embrace.

Swiping the remains of the smashed fruit off of my cheek, I blinked quickly against the tears that threatened to run, hot with shame, down my face.

I placed a gentle hand on Gavin’s wrist, guiding him to lower his sword and raised my face one more time to the crowd, “I do not deserve your hatred. But I will not force your love.”

And without another word, I turned and walked back to the castle. I knew Gavin followed me. I knew he knew how much that had hurt me. But I breathed in deeply, the cool air of the fading fall filling my lungs. 

Gavin fell into step beside me. I felt his anger like I felt the ground beneath my feet. I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to run. And so I picked up my pace until I was running, hair flying out behind me. I knew where I was headed. I knew too that this was the last place I should run, but it was where I needed to be. Where I felt I belonged. 

Soon enough, I was at the edge of the great forest behind the stone wall that guarded our land. It was almost too easy for me to climb the wall. With a small smile I slipped silently into the trees. Immediately, the tightness in my chest eased, hearing the hum of magic. I heard the fairy music in the distance, the darting lights of the will-o-the-wisps. 

Welcome back, Freya.

Come dance with us.

I ran farther. This place held no fear for me anymore. The winding forest path was familiar, safe. Soon, I was in the clearing of the fairies, swept up in the wild music, dancing with them. 

I don’t know how much time passed. But I felt wild, free. My hair sweeping around me as I twirled and spun, taking hands with a fairy man, his dark skin glistening like a lake in the moonlight. It was like a dream. And it was one I didn’t want to wake up from. 

But suddenly the forest stilled. The music ceased and the fairies vanished in an instant, leaving me alone in the clearing, heart beating from exertion, hair a wild tangle about my face. 

I turned and saw Gavin. His eyes were wide, and his gaze swept the clearing as if trying to determine if what he’d just glimpsed was entirely his imagination. 

I was trying to catch my breath, and I felt the fear of anticipated rejection, my heart still stinging from the incident in the village, but I was also intoxicated by the freedom I had just tasted. So instead of waiting in trepidation for his judgment I said, “So, do you hate me now too?”

It came out dry, almost as if the answer was inconsequential to me. I gazed at him boldly, daring him to say something. Ever so slightly he frowned, but not before I caught the flash of hurt in his expression. And without a word, he turned and walked away from me. 

“Go,” I called after him, “fine. Go.”

Despite my words, a single tear slipped from the corner of my eye, before I took a deep breath. I looked at the trees longingly. 

I did not want to return. 

I did not want to be the girl in the castle anymore, the one who tip-toed around, silent and waiting. Hoping to be accepted. I wanted to be this girl, the one who danced with fairies beneath the trees, who wasn’t afraid of the woods or the dark creatures in them. 

***

There were rumors carried from the south of a nameless army moving through the land, headed toward Harfeld. I saw how this worried my father, how he was slowly slipping from the strict preventative life-style he’d chosen. The warriors were training harder, I had hardly seen Gavin since he witnessed me dancing in the wood. I hadn’t been actively trying to avoid him but due to the increased time he spent practicing and pouring over battle strategies we became distant. The tension that still existed from the attack by Dunbrac was palpable with the whispers of war. Despite the nonchalance with which my father treated it, I knew that it bothered him. I knew that he wanted answers as much as I did. 

But every time I tried to speak with him about it, he was wouldn’t say a word. 

“Father I can tell it bothers you too,” I said exasperated, “why now? After all this time? What does she want?”

His eyes slid shut and he shook his head, “I don’t know, Freya. The best we can do is be on our guard and learn to live with the unknown.”

To me that didn’t seem good enough. 

There was this feeling, the deep-seated wariness that something worse was coming that I could not dispel. It was tangible in the strained look on my father’s face, the tightness of his shoulders, the dark smudges under my mother’s eyes, the strange way I would sometimes catch Thilda watching me, as if I was the key to all of it and I needed to do something. 

But what? 

I felt the familiar frustration of feeling as though I was responsible for taking action but could think of nothing to do. 

The things I had seen in the forest were beginning to fade like a dream from my mind, threads of truth mingled in with the wondering of whether or not it had all been real. I hadn’t gone back into the woods since the day Gavin saw me. I knew without asking him that he had told no one, but even now thinking of my carelessness made me shake my head. What would I have done if someone else had seen?

Those were my thoughts as I sat alone one night in the library staring into the flames of the hearth fire. I wondered if things would have been different if I had grown up in Liadell. My mother and Thilda were people of magic and stories. They accepted it as a part of who they were. Here, I had always been made to feel ashamed of it. 

You are of Liadell too, child. Thilda had told me more than once. What good would that do me when I was the princess of Harfeld? 

Soon you will feel it. The magic within you is awake now. It’s strong in you, coming from both sides.

The memory of my encounter with the fey lady came to me unbidden. Both sides. Implying that my fey blood didn’t just come from my mother like I’d always been told. The only way that was possible was if what they said of my father’s mother was true. That she was, in fact, a fairy. I frowned, my mind trying to tease out all the pieces, knowing it was a question I could never ask.

I started as the door to the library was thrown open, feeling traitorous for the train of my thoughts. Hardly anyone came in here, save me and Gavin. I’d rarely encountered another soul wandering through the stacks of books. It was a place we often came to be alone. I missed him. And when I heard the stomping of boots, tired steps that brought the intruder around the corner of the shelves of books that blocked the view of the door, my heart lifted at the sight of who it was.

Gavin. 

He stopped short, his surprised look enough to tell me he hadn’t known I’d be in here, and that he hadn’t been looking for me. 

“What?” I asked him quietly.

He looked away from me, “I’ll go if you want me to.”

I sighed. No, I didn’t want him to leave. I missed him, even though his rejection still stung. So I moved over on the rug I’d been sitting on and made room for him next to me. He sat.

“You’ve been busy,” I said softly, glancing at him.

Gavin said nothing.

“What’s happening, Gavin?” I asked, “Is there going to be a war?”

He was silent for a moment. I noticed how tired he looked, the exhausted way he leaned back against the book shelves. I knew that he had been on the training field since dawn that morning, and in the war room long hours after that. 

“I don’t know, Fey,” he said finally.

And then he fell silent again. 

I studied him in the light of the fire, the way that his hair fell forward onto his forehead, how his nostrils flared ever so slightly whenever he was deep in thought, just as he was now. I used to be able to tell perfectly what he was thinking, but in that moment I had no idea what it was.  And I was struck by the inevitability of change, and how things never stayed the same no matter how much we ached for them to. 

“Are you all right?” I asked him quietly.

“I’ve been given orders,” he replied after a moment.

“And you don’t like them,” I concluded.

For a moment he turned to look at me, relieved at my understanding, that I knew what was wrong without him having to explain. In that one instant, the ease with which we’d always existed returned. 

“No, I do not,” he said then with a sigh. 

“Want me to talk to my father?” I teased, “he listens to me so well.”

At that Gavin smiled. 

“Somehow, I think that’d make it worse for me,” he answered, “thanks though.”

“Happy to muck up anything on your behalf anytime.”

At that he chuckled and knocked his shoulder into mine playfully, making me laugh. I’d missed him. I said as much. 

“I’ve not been the one avoiding you,” he said pointedly.

I swallowed. For with that came the memory of why exactly I had been avoiding him. He had turned around and left me when he saw me in the forest.

“You never answered my question,” I whispered, “when you saw me in the forest.”

I felt more than saw him turn his gaze on me, and I knew he was listening. 

There was a long moment in which neither one of us spoke. Finally, Gavin asked softly, “Why would you even ask me that question?”

I recalled the flash of hurt in his eyes when I’d asked him that: so, do you hate me now too?

I bit my lip. That was unfair of me. Gavin had never been like the others. Though there was a small part of me that was afraid that he’d turn out to be. However, I also knew that speaking the truth of my heart aloud would do no good. So instead, I swallowed my words and shrugged, before getting to my feet and walking over to the window. It was a clear night, the full moon shining down on the tops of the trees turning the leaves to silver.    

I felt Gavin get up to stand behind me, close.  

“Will you tell me what is the matter, Fey?” he asked.

“I want to,” I said simply, “but I’m afraid.” 

Gently, he turned me around to face him, he stared down, and I looked up. His face was made darker with the shadow of stubble, as if he hadn’t been bothered to shave in a few days time. The palms of his hands were rough, calloused, the hands of a warrior, strong.

“What’s got you so afraid?” he spoke softly.

I had not spoken to anyone of what had happened in the forest, who I had met or what I had seen or heard. I refused to share something that I didn’t quite understand myself. 

Peculiar, strange. 

The words used to describe me hit my heart in that moment and I realized what I was afraid of. I was terrified of telling my tale and having no one believe me. Of being scoffed at and scorned and told I was crazy. Or worse. Having them believe me but then being further cast into the shadows as cursed. 

For who saw such things? 

I shook my head, surprised to feel the pressure of tears at the back of my throat, my eyes wide. I would not tell him, I would not. For the thought of Gavin rejecting me and thinking that I was cursed like everyone else would hurt too much. That was why I’d asked him the question when he’d seen me dancing, why I had been the one to avoid him for weeks. It would be too painful. The fantastic elements of what had happened in the forest had settled themselves in my mind as things to keep a secret. For who would believe me if I were to tell them that I’d been warned? Warned of a coming darkness that I would have to somehow face and overcome? 

The words of the Fairy Lady swarmed in my mind. 

There is a darkness on your path that is not of your choosing, a darkness that must be defeated for more than just your sake, she’d said repeating what the Great Prince had told me. 

The words of Our Prince will always come to pass, the question is – are you brave enough to be the one to carry them out?

I knew the answer to that and I most certainly was not. I wasn’t even able to tell my best friend what had happened to me, too afraid of what he may say. I covered my face with my hands as if to blot out the words from my mind, to hide from the fear they created in me. 

Gavin stepped back just far enough to pry my fingers from my face with his hand. He was looking at me with that mix of determination and affection that I knew so well. Like I was a puzzle he was set on solving. 

“You are the most stubborn . . .” he shook his head, “I know something happened in the forest. I know you’re different. I saw you dancing. You haven’t been the same since. You barely smile. You’ve got dark circles under your eyes. I was trying to be patient—”

I snorted, “You? Patient?”

He ignored me, “I was trying to be patient and let you tell me in your own time.”

“Which you’re clearly not doing,” I snapped.

He narrowed his eyes at me, “Don’t try and pick a fight right now, I am trying to—”

“What?” I cut him off, “trying to be nice? Trying to be a good friend?”

He raised his eyebrows, “You’re trying to pick a fight, Fey.”

“So what if I am?” I said sharply. 

He didn’t respond right away but looked at me like I was the most infuriating creature he had ever laid eyes on before releasing an exasperated breath and stepping away from me. It wasn’t until he moved that I realized how closely we’d been standing together, and how safe I’d felt. 

“Wait,” I said softly. 

He stopped but didn’t turn back to me. 

“I’m sorry.”

Again, he didn’t say anything, but I knew he was listening to me. The words I wanted to say were stuck in my throat and wouldn’t move past my lips. 

And other words, words I hadn’t planned on saying spilled out. 

“I’m afraid, Gavin,” I said, “that if I tell you . . . you won’t believe me. That you’ll think me peculiar and cursed and foolish. Just like everyone else. And,” I swallowed as the truth bubbled up from inside me, “I couldn’t bear that. I couldn’t.”

Gavin turned around to face me and I took a step back. 

I had never seen him look so angry, his eyes, seemed to smolder with an inner fire. His gaze seared me, startled me, locking me in place. 

“How can you think I wouldn’t believe you? I’ve seen the fairies with my own eyes. But even before then I would have. How can you accuse me of being like everyone else?” his voice was colored with hurt and disbelief, “I’m not them, Fey.”

“I know,” I said in a small voice.

“I abhor it when you say that you’re cursed,” he stated with a vehemence that startled me, “you are not cursed. When will you stop putting so much weight on words that were spoken by people who don’t love you? Why do you listen to them?”

By people who don’t love you.

His words echoed Thilda’s. The ones she’d spoken to me so long ago the first time she had told me about the Great Prince. I was perfectly still, letting his words wash over me, my eyes wide with astonishment. I had never seen Gavin impassioned as he was in that moment. 

“Why not listen to what is the truth?” he shot me a dark look. 

I almost laughed but managed to hold my nervous laughter in, all the while thinking that if he knew he wouldn’t be saying these things to me now, not ever, “And what’s the truth?”

He pinned me with a look, rooting me into place, “The truth?”

I swallowed suddenly wondering how I’d found that look funny at all, “Yes.”

“The truth, Fey?”

I nodded. 

“The truth is that you’re brilliant and . . . beautiful,” he raked a hand through his hair, “You’re strong and infuriatingly independent – and completely capable of leading this kingdom. And you’re foolish, yes. You’re foolish to think you’re capable of anything less.”

He raised his eyes to mine, the fire in his gaze dimmed to something softer that made my heart melt.

“Blast,” Gavin rubbed the back of his neck, “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

“I’m not crying,” I spouted, swiping at the tears, “I have something in my eye.”

Gavin lifted one eyebrow, “Something in your eye?”

“Yes,” I said stiffly, refusing to make eye contact with him.

I heard him sigh and move across the room.

“Are you going to tell me?” he asked after a moment. 

I nodded.

He stood there, waiting. 

The beautiful things Gavin had spoken to me settled like a balm to my heart for wounds I had forgotten existed; they had become so a part of me. I recalled the Lady’s words in the woods, the words that had caused such anger within me. 

Cursed. That is what you believe you are. Incapable of ruling . . . allowing darkness to reign in your heart by believing these lies, she’d said. 

It was true. That was what I believed about myself. And here Gavin was, holding out a new shiny truth about me. Like Thilda had all those years ago. The words were beautiful, and I wanted to embrace them, to believe that that was the only version of what I was.

“Do you believe what I said?” Gavin asked softly after a few moments. 

“I’m afraid you’ll change your mind once you know . . .” I swallowed and crossed my arms over my chest, protecting myself, “what I am.”

I felt the tears standing in my eyes. 

His expression softened, his hand coming up to cup my cheek, using his thumb to wipe away a stray tear that had escaped, ever so softly.

“Have more faith in me, Fey,” was all he said.

And so I did. I told him everything. From the way I’d gotten lost, and my encounters with the Great Prince. I told him what the Fey Lady had said to me, about the shadow dwellers. I showed him the necklace and what it was supposed to do. I admitted to my fears that it all had been a dream, the anxiety about what it all meant and how I was supposed to understand any of it. The only thing I did not speak of was Cormack or his part in the story, for a reason I didn’t understand my heart forbade me to speak of it. Even to Gavin. 

Gavin had not interrupted me once, simply listened, eyes fixed on my face as I spoke. We still stood close together, not more than a foot apart.

And then that fear, that worry weeded its way back into my heart and I asked him in a faltering voice, “You do believe me. Don’t you?”

I sneaked a glance up at him and found that he was glowering at me. 

“Fey,” he said in a clipped voice, “if you ask me that question again I swear . . .”

And despite his anger I found myself grinning, with a quick relieved laugh I stepped towards him and hugged him tight, his arms slipping around me to return the embrace. He rested his cheek on the top of my head. A few breaths passed as we stood there, holding each other. I closed my eyes and sucked up the feeling of warmth, the wrongness I’d felt since he’d seen me in the woods dissipating. I knew he felt it too. I felt some of the tension leave his body, his muscles relaxed.

“Thank you,” I said quietly after a little while. 

I titled my head back to smile up at him, our eyes catching, and we paused, our gazes locked. 

“Fey,” Gavin’s voice was low, his arms tightened around me.  

The smile on my face faded and my heart stuttered in my chest, suddenly the warmth I felt in the embrace turning to fire that caused my cheeks to heat, I felt his heartbeat quicken as his gaze flickered briefly to my mouth . . . 

Just then the door to the library opened and we jumped apart like guilty children who were caught in the midst of doing something naughty. Neither of us entirely sure what would have progressed had we not been interrupted. 

Mortifyingly enough, it was my father. 

He noticed the two of us and said, “I didn’t know you two were in here. I came to find a book for your mother.”

Gavin and I stood awkwardly still, he was stiff and I still had my hand on my cheek that was impossibly hot. 

“I was heading to bed,” I muttered quickly, “good night, Gavin.”

I barely glanced at him as I walked by him, I paused only to kiss my father on the cheek before practically running out the door and shutting it quickly. I put both hands on my cheeks, feeling the heat there. My eyes were wide and my heart was stuttering in my chest. I took a deep breath and took a few steps down the hallway until I leaned against a wall, deep in the shadows and slid down to sit on the floor, hoping to simply vanish. Something had shifted between us in the embrace. I knew it. And Gavin seemed to know it too.

I seemed incapable of thinking clearly, but something strange was going on inside of me, a feeling I’d never felt before settling itself firmly there, spreading through me. It was completely bewildering and I wondered at it. 

The library door opened. 

“Yes,” I heard Gavin say, “Good night, your Majesty.”

“Oh, and Gavin,” my father’s voice sounded from within the library.

I saw Gavin’s shadow cast in the hallway as he paused at the door, “Yes, sire?”

“You and my daughter are very close,” my father stated. 

Gavin looked to the side and saw me sitting in the shadows and his entire body went rigid. I held my breath, his eyes locked on mine for a moment before he turned back to answer, “My lord?”

My father did not know I was present. I saw the strain in Gavin’s expression, as he waited tensely for my father’s next words. 

“It is a friendship that I did not discourage despite the counsel to do so by many.”

Gavin flinched, jaw clenching.

“Do not make me regret it,” my father said, his voice dropping lower. 

There was another moment of silence, taut and painful as the implications of my father’s words were clear. 

“Have a goodnight, Gavin,” my father said, dismissing him. 

“Goodnight, sire,” Gavin’s voice was hoarse, he slowly shut the door. He looked taut, like a bowstring – ready all at once either for action or to snap. I heard him take in a deep breath before he turned and threw a glance my way, not meeting my eyes.

“Good night, Fey,” he said softly.

My goodnight caught in my throat as I watched him walk away from me, for in his voice I had heard the sadness of parting, the note of longing that was threaded through the voices of warriors when they bid their beloved farewell. I got to my feet unsteadily, wiping my palms on the skirt of my dress, fighting against the sudden tightness in my chest, the overwhelming and inexplicable sense of loss I felt. There was nothing to mourn, I told myself, Gavin was simply going to sleep and I would see him in the morning. 

I watched him walk away from me with increasing quickness until I could no longer see him, fighting against the urge to call him back to me. 

“Goodnight, Gavin,” I whispered.

***

That night I dreamed of shadows, a dark army and a dark haired boy that kept running away from me no matter how much I called for him. I ran through the darkened corridors of my home, whether it was from or to something I didn’t know. I saw a pair of cinnamon colored eyes before the shadows swallowed everything. 

Some say dreams have a way of warning us about what the future holds, others claim within the dreams are the deepest wishes and desires of our hearts. Many dismiss dreams as a fanciful nighttime passing of flitting images strewn together with no meaning at all. 

When I woke to a shadow filled room still in the deepest part of the night with a pounding heart I couldn’t still the images whirling in my mind. There were too many questions I needed answers to. And I only knew one person who might be able to answer them. 

Slipping into a light robe, I lit a candle and padded down the silent corridors to Thilda’s chamber. 

I knocked lightly once, glancing from side to side. I did not want to be seen and have to answer any questions as to why I was up and wandering the castle at that time of night. 

I pressed my ear against the cool wood of the door and heard shuffling.

And then the suspicious, “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” I whispered back. 

The door opened quickly, Thilda looked remarkably wide awake for the time of night and pinned me with her piercing blue-eyed gaze, “Come in.”

I did so, and she shut the door firmly behind me. I set the candle down on the small table to the left of the door. 

“I was wondering how long it would take you,” Thilda said cryptically, brushing past me. She sat in the rocking chair beside the wide window on the far side of the small sitting room we were in, just outside her bedroom. 

Not knowing what to do with that comment just yet, I sat on the window seat to Thilda’s right. It was the darkest kind of night. The moon shrouded by thick gray clouds that blew across the sky only allowing the moonlight to shine like the ebb and flow of the oceans waves, not a star to be seen. I stared pensively out the window for long moments, working up the courage to say what I had come to say. 

“It is a dark night,” Thilda said after a few moments, “a dark night for dark doings and shadowy dealings.”

I glanced at her. Thilda’s eyes were fixed on the scene outside, the starless sky and the shifting clouds over the moon. 

“You know of darkness,” Thilda said softly, “I’ve seen it in your eyes.”

I nodded, not that surprised at Thilda saying so. She knew things many others couldn’t, it was something I’d learned to accept. 

“Tell me,” she said her eyes shifting to pin me with their otherworldly blue, “what did you see in the forest?”

“Many things,” I replied, cold pricks creeping up my spine at the ominous tone of Thilda’s voice, “Shadow dwellers, the Great Prince and the Fey.”

Thilda nodded slowly as if this did not surprise her, but her piercing eyes were narrowed in a look that told me she was not satisfied with what I had said. As if she were waiting for me to say something else. I looked away and said nothing. I did not know what the reason was for my determination to keep Cormack a secret, but I felt a fierce desire to protect him. 

“I know of what was said to you.”

I glanced sharply at her. There was a look of knowing in her eyes, a bone-chilling feeling that came along with the magic that Thilda possessed. I’d never understood it, I’d just accepted it. But I had also never felt it in full force as I did in that moment, sitting there under her knowing gaze, the far-away mystic expression, the somber tone in which she spoke. 

“I also know of what you do not speak,” she said. 

I froze, “And what is that?”

Thilda gave me a half smile, her withered skin creasing in a hundred wrinkles that told of her age and her wisdom. 

“Tell me what I’m supposed to do,” I whispered. 

Thilda looked at me a long moment without speaking. I thought I caught a spark of longing in her eyes, a yearning to give me what I wanted. But slowly she shook her head. 

“The journey is yours. You came here seeking answers, Fey,” she sighed, “but you’ve already been given all the answers you need.”

“I have no answers!” I exclaimed, “The things I saw fade like a dream from my mind, the words said have not come true. I long to run into the woods with the fairies but I remain here. I ache. I’m restless. I do not belong in this place.”

Thilda was shaking her head at me in such a way that stilled my words. It was not a sharp rebuke, but a soft one, a knowing one in which she told me that my impatience was out of place. 

“Still your spirit, Fey. Remember when you are tempted to forget and wait,” Thilda said. 

“Wait,” I grumbled, pulling at a loose thread in the sleeve of my robe, “such a useless thing to do.”

Thilda smiled softly, “The darkness will come soon enough.”

I paused but did not turn around, “How can it be stopped?” 

“It cannot be stopped. It can only be undone.”

And that was all she would say to me on the subject despite my pleading for her to illuminate more. There was nothing to be done then but wait. Waiting had never been my strong suit. I left Thilda’s chambers feeling so restless I felt as if I were suffocating. The walls of the castle seemed to close in on me, the reality of Thilda’s words pressing down on me with unrelenting force. 

The darkness will come soon enough. It cannot be stopped. It can only be undone.

Undone – that was how I felt in that moment waiting for a fate to unfold that I could not predict or prepare for. 

I was frustrated with the words of wisdom that felt like nothing but more riddles and half-truths that I was left to wonder at. I knew something was coming that could not be stopped. Somehow the dark queen was mixed up in all of it, a sense of dread settled in my stomach as I thought about the whispers of war that were growing louder by the day. I knew in my heart that all the preparation would do nothing to stop what was coming. Even though I wasn’t sure exactly what was coming.

***

In the days to follow I told my story to my father. I spoke of the words of the Great Prince and the Fey Lady, tried to convince my father that the dark army everyone spoke of had to have something to do with the Dunbracian queen, that it would be foolishness to ride out and meet it.

But he didn’t listen.  

Every word I spoke fell on deaf ears. My father looked at me seriously for a moment before shaking his head. He said even if that were true to let the army enter our borders would be madness. Somehow, I knew that leaving was worse. That going out to meet a dark army rumored to be conjured by magic was madness of a different kind. People were afraid. My mother forbade me to go outside the castle walls, frightened of what the villagers would do if they saw me. 

“They’re saying you’re a witch too,” she shook her head, “somehow in league with the Dunbracain queen. They say you’ve been seen dancing in the woods with the Fey.”

I couldn’t meet her eyes. 

“Tell me you weren’t foolish enough to be seen,” she breathed out in disbelief. My silence was answer enough to tell her that I had been. Although I don’t know who told. In my heart I knew Gavin would have never breathed a word. Someone else must have seen me. My cheeks burned at my own foolishness. 

“Stay inside,” my mother ordered, “people do terrible things when they’re desperate and afraid.”

In desperation I sought out Gavin, knowing that he believed me and hoping that with his support my father would listen. That he would stand with me and tell them all to stay. That I wasn’t crazy. 

I searched everywhere – the stables, the training yard, the library and even went to his chambers. 

He was nowhere to be found. 

I wandered the castle corridors, running an agitated hand through my hair at a loss as to where Gavin could be. I hadn’t seen in him in two days. Not since that night in the library. Until that moment I had thought nothing of it, so absorbed was I in trying to get my parents to listen to me. 

I entered the war room, looking for my father, hoping maybe that Gavin would be sequestered away with him, discussing endless battle tactics and debating on the wisdom of riding out to meet the force that threatened our borders. 

My father was there, as was Gavin’s father and a few others of the king’s most trusted advisors. But the one I was looking for was not among them. 

“Ah, princess,” one of the advisors addressed me, “come from dancing with the fairies again? And what truths did they tell you this time?”

The comment was biting and felt like a smart slap, turning my cheeks red. I glowered at him from where I stood, opening my mouth to spout back a stinging retort when my father cleared his throat loudly. My eyes shifted to him. 

“What is it you need, daughter?”

My father looked tired and far older than I’d ever seen him look. I noticed the fine lines on the outside of his eyes, the threads of gray shooting through his dark hair. The events of the past few months had aged him. It made my heart ache to fix it, I wanted to have him believe me. To look at me with the pride and support I’d always seen in his eyes.

“Please, father,” I said quietly, “do not leave.”

“I have heard you,” he said with a shake of his head, “and I’ve told you I will take your words into consideration—”

I shook my head, “Father. The words of the Great Prince and the Fey Lady will always come to pass. Always. They warned us. We have to listen.”

My father stared at me with barely masked impatience, “Freya, we are going. That’s the end of it.”

“We will be defenseless and evil will come.”

The statement made the entire room fall quiet. I spoke that like I knew. Like I was a future-seer. An enchantress. A witch. I was becoming the thing they’d always called me, saying fanciful things, dancing in the woods and speaking of the future. I knew I had crossed a line. I saw it in the hardening in my father’s face.

“How do you know this?” he asked quietly, his voice like steel.

I had no answer, but I knew it. Though how can one prove such things until it is too late?

“Leave us, Freya.”

My father turned away from me then. The harshness of his dismissal left me speechless. I felt the stares of the rest of the men in the room as forcibly as if they were stones pressing up against me. I curtsied before turning and leaving the room with my back straight and head held high. 

I ran into a castle page on my way out, he seemed to be in quite the hurry, headed in the direction I had just come from. 

“Pardon me, Princess,” he bowed.

“Where are you off to?” I asked.

“To deliver a message to the king,” he replied proudly. 

“What of?”

He hesitated, unsure of whether or not he was supposed to share. I stared at him and raised one eyebrow, waiting. 

“It’s from Sir Gavin,” he said. 

“Gavin?” I felt as if I’d been plunged into ice cold water.

“Yes, your highness,” the young boy replied. 

“What does it say?”

He looked offended that I would ask such a question, “I’m not supposed to read it!”

I shook my head, “Well, then. Please continue to do your duty. Sir Gavin is my dearest friend. I should like to hear what he says.”

The boy looked at me for a moment before nodding, “I shall report what I hear, Princess.”

“Thank you.”

I waited as he delivered the message to my father. What sort of message could Gavin be sending my father? And what was preventing him from delivering the news himself? Where was he?

I waited for what seemed a painfully long time before the page came back, practically at a run. His eyes were bright and wild.

“What is it?” I asked.

“He brings words from the South.”

“What is he doing in the South?” my mouth suddenly felt dry.

The page seemed taken off guard by my question, as if I should have known the answer to that already, “Well, he was sent ahead as a scout.”

“A scout,” I replied numbly, recalling what he had said that night in the library. How he had received orders and did not like them.

The young man nodded vigorously, his crooked teeth revealed in an admiring smile, “He’s located the exact whereabouts of the dark army. They’re to ride out at dawn.”

“Dawn,” I whispered. 

The page nodded and said something else, but I was not listening. I felt nothing but a suffocating sense of foreboding, pressing down on me with unrelenting force until it drowned out all sound and thought. 

They were leaving. The darkness was coming. And Gavin hadn’t said goodbye. 

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