The light of dawn saw the majority of the warriors of Harfeld off.
The sky was red with the coming light, painting the sky the color of blood. I stood beside my mother to see them off, Thilda at my left. The cavalry in front, the two companies of archers ready to march behind. All looked grim and deadly, men trained since they were old enough to lift a wooden practice sword.
All too soon they were gone and the courtyard was silent save for the stifled tears of those who had said goodbye to a loved one. My mother did not cry, she was too strong for that.
A warring people they may once have been, but not in recent memory. My father had managed to keep war from becoming commonplace in Harfeld, despite the call of the people for it on more than one occasion. I wondered if many of them now regretted having asked for it.
That day Harfeld seemed to slip into a stillness that could not be broken by anything. The day turned gray, the evening was bleak and the night dark. Neither the sun nor moon showed their faces and the stars seemed to have forsaken the night sky. The world seemed to be holding its breath for what was about to happen next. Or perhaps I was.
“Thilda, what’s going to happen?” I whispered that night as we sat in her sitting room with a fire going. But on this night even the flames seemed cold.
“What is meant to happen,” was Thilda’s reply.
I rolled my eyes and stood, pulling my cloak about my shoulders. The weather had turned decidedly cold. I wouldn’t be surprised if the snow falls began soon. I shut the doors behind me without a word to the silent Thilda, leaving her to stare into the flames that seemed to whisper secrets meant only for her.
“Oh, good,” I heard my mother say, “Fey. I was just coming to look for you.”
I turned to look at her. She passed the closed doors and came to stand in front of me.
“What is it?”
She looked hesitant, her eyes passing over my face as if deciding on whether or not I would be able to take whatever it was she had to say.
“Let’s walk,” she said, taking my arm in hers and leading the way down the hallway.
We walked in silence for a few moments. I sensed a silent war going on inside of my mother in that moment. And so, I waited to see what the outcome of that would be, hoping that she would tell what she came to tell.
“I want you to know that I believe you,” she said quietly after a while.
I took a stunned step away from her, “What?”
Her lips turned up in a mirthless half-smile, “I know a thing or two about magic.”
It was her Fey-blood that caused the people of Harfeld to reject her as a bride for my father, her ethereal beauty that had captured the king’s attention in the first place. But why would she tell me this now? Why when it was too late to convince my father against the foolishness of riding out to meet a nameless enemy?
“Your father would not listen, though,” she said quietly as if she’d heard my unspoken questions, “things such as these must play out in their fated course. It seems that your father’s choice must be a part of that unfolding.”
I heard a note of sadness in her voice, and saw the strain on her face at the mention of my father. He was the man of her heart, and something inside of her must have cracked at his leaving. But things between the two of them had not been the same since I’d returned. A shadow had been cast over them. A shadow that had lengthened and grew until the inevitable separation caused by the intrusion threatening our borders.
My breath caught in my throat.
My mother glanced at me sharply, concern knitting her brow, “Are you alright?”
I nodded quickly.
She stopped walking and pressed a hand to my forehead, “Are you sure? You’re awfully pale.”
I managed a smile and nodded again, more slowly this time, “Yes, I’m fine. I-I just want to go outside for a bit. Get some fresh air.”
She looked at me skeptically, not at all convinced. But I did not dare speak aloud the direction of my thoughts, the dread that had threaded its way through my mind at the realization I’d just had.
“Be careful,” she gave me a quick hug, “Keep your cloak hood up and do not go near the village.”
“I won’t,” I promised.
I darted outside into the cool fresh air, but no matter how quickly I walked I couldn’t shake the sense that it was not about the army at all. It was not even about Harfeld itself. It struck me suddenly that perhaps the purpose of everything was to separate my parents from the start.
“But why?” I whispered into the still air of the apple orchard, my breath turning into vapor like a part of my spirit leaving me.
In my heart I knew I had all the pieces to the puzzle laid out right in front of me, but could not for the life of me figure out how they all fit together. The witch, the dark army, Cormack, the Great Prince and my mother and father. Somehow they were all intertwined in a messy interwoven tapestry that I could not untangle no matter how many times I made the attempt to unravel it.
I wandered the castle grounds for far too long, letting my feet lead me while my gaze was turned inward. The day darkened, telling of the night soon to come, but still I walked. And then I froze, suddenly aware of where my wanderings had taken me. Glancing up I saw the stone wall and the towering trees to the entryway into Blackwood Forest, looking menacing silhouetted against the darkening sky.
I climbed the wall carefully, and stared into the trees, imagining I could see darts of light, will-o-the-wisps come to lead me to the Fey who would tell me more secrets and what to do. I thought I saw a pair of eyes peering at me from within the deep shadows of the trees, watching, waiting.
I sighed and shook my head.
No help would come from the forest.
The loneliness I felt in that moment stole through the warmth of my cloak and caused the hairs on my arms to prickle, a shiver ran through my body. And despite the tightness with which I held my cloak, the cold would not leave once the truth that I was alone stole into my heart.
I slowly turned my body back toward the castle, my gaze lingering on the trees even as I began to move away from them. I did not know what I was looking for, but the disappointment of what I wasn’t certain of and what I did not see weighed on me. After three steps, I tore my gaze away and made myself look ahead, toward the castle.
And whatever it was fate would have meet me.
“We will keep the gates shut in the lower town,” my mother said tightly, “until the return of the warriors.”
There were just over one hundred warriors left behind to ensure the safety of the castle, and to provide fighting relief should the three hundred warriors that rode off need it. But one hundred men against someone intent on doing mischief did not bode well. My mother and I sat in the war room with the members of the war council who were too old to ride off with my father. They were warriors in their day, the remnants of their powerful physical strength still clinging to their aging bodies in the broadness of their shoulders, their strong hands. However, their eyes were all cold and hard as they regarded my mother where she sat occupying my father’s usual chair.
“We realize the potential danger. But to shut the gates completely,” said Lord Hurley, a silver-haired man with blue eyes so light they were almost translucent, “that would cause unnecessary stress to the people. No, we must go on as if all is normal as best as we can.”
“Realization is nothing more than an acknowledgement of truth,” she stated, “The risk of keeping up appearances is not worth it.”
Their eyebrows raised and they sent quick glances around the table at each other. My mother suppressed a smile and kept her silence.
“What do you suggest we do then?” the question was asked sharply, laced through with impatience, “Not let anyone in or out of the kingdom until the return of the king? To do so would arouse suspicion of vulnerability.”
I glanced around and let my gaze rest on each one of them for a moment, “Like it or not, my lords, Harfeld is in a position of vulnerability at the moment. To pretend anything less would be foolish.”
Each man in turn argued, each one raising their voices louder in turn.
Abruptly my mother stood, drawing herself up to her full height. Tall and strikingly beautiful, she could be a commanding presence when she so desired. Her gaze swept over each of the councilors with such a cold ferocity each one was immediately silenced.
“You overstep your bounds, my lords,” she spoke calmly, “The gates will remain shut. This discussion is over.”
They each bowed their head in acceptance, each member looked chastened, a few of their cheeks turned a faint red.
And then it was my turn to suppress a smile.
The advisors were dismissed, leaving my mother and me alone in the war room. I looked at my mother, alarm pricking me. She looked pale, her cheeks lacking any trace of color. It was a slow process but I saw how the absence of my father was taking a toll on her. It was evident in the shadows under her eyes, the faraway look in her expression and the listlessness I sometimes witness in her gait as she walked. Some may have thought that she was sick. But I knew better.
The kind of love my parents shared was a mystery to me. For two people so strong and independent, it was as if neither was completely whole without the other. I was seeing how irreparably painful giving away one’s heart so completely could be. But I’d also seen the beauty of it. In that moment, seeing the heart-breaking longing in my mother’s eyes as she gazed straight ahead, I was struck by the implications of such a relationship. Love was a dangerous thing, I thought. To allow a person that much power when life was so unpredictable . . .
I didn’t know if I could be brave enough.
“You’re the bravest woman I know,” I told my mother.
She looked at me and gave me a soft, surprised smile, “Am I?”
I nodded, pressing my lips together. I did not know how to voice the thoughts I’d just had aloud. For with them came a certain level of insecurity and fear. Could I love that much? Would I if I was given the chance?
I did not know.
If what I was supposed to feel for the man of my heart was what I saw glimpses of in my mother’s face, I knew I had never felt such a thing. As I thought that a face flashed in my mind, but I pushed the image away, shutting my heart against the pang of longing I felt.
“And why am I the bravest woman you know?” my mother asked.
“Because of the way you love,” I said quietly.
She smiled again, softly and with a tiny hint of sadness in her voice she said, “And how do I love?”
“Completely,” I replied, “True love seems risky. Dangerous. I don’t know if I could ever . . .”
My mother’s brows lowered into a slight frown and she shook her head, “What is life but chances to love, Freya? There is danger in giving your heart completely, yes. But there is more in the keeping of it.”
I frowned. That didn’t really make much sense to me. Surely if you kept it, there would be no chance for it to be hurt. I said as much.
My mother shook her head and her expression turned knowing, wisdom I could not hope to learn until I grew older seemed to illuminate her eyes.
“Because in the keeping there is fear,” she said quietly, “And living out of fear is to deny the chance of living any life at all.”
I was silenced by the words my mother spoke in that moment, the truth of it striking my heart like a well-aimed arrow of conviction. It stuck there and no matter how uncomfortable it made me, I could not remove it.
In the keeping there is fear. And living out of fear is to deny the chance of living any life at all.
I was afraid.
It had been two weeks since the departure of the warriors and I felt myself slipping into the kind of anticipatory fear of what would come with their absence. Keeping the gates shut was, in theory, a sound plan. But the Dunbracian warriors had already proved that the gates could only delay for a little while. What would happen if we were attacked?
“Your father does not take risks without weighing the costs,” my mother said quietly, breaking the silence we had been sitting in for a few long moments.
I looked at her, but her gaze was set straight ahead as if she was seeing something that was only visible to her. I felt that her words were as much for my benefit as they were for hers.
“To him, the cost of staying was greater than the cost of leaving,” she turned to me and gave me a small, reassuring smile, “we will have to entrust the rest to the Creator.”
She reached over and gave my hand a squeeze before she stood.
“Goodnight, Fey,” she bent and kissed my forehead.
The door to the war room shut and I was alone. It was a dark room even with all the torches lining the walls lit, the only furnishings the long wooden table at which I sat, lined with half a dozen chairs on each side. Maps of different kingdoms were hung on the walls, the most elaborate and decorative being the one drawn of Harfeld.
My eyes were drawn to the spot on the map, a dark, vast place as depicted in the map, symbolized by many black trees drawn closely together. I was tired. I had not slept well since the night I had gone to see Thilda, my dreams fragmented with flitting images of things that made me restless. I relaxed into the hold of the large chair in which I sat. Not designed for comfort, but it was secure.
I sighed and closed my eyes . . .
I was dancing. I laughed as I spun across the mossy forest floor barefoot, hair down, flying about me. I could see the stars, bright and impossibly beautiful, the only light to compete with them coming from the wisps darting from tree to tree. The Fey lined the edge of the clearing, watching me, smiling soft smiles at my rapture. I was free and it did not matter one bit that I was dancing alone. There was no one leading me or telling me which way to go.
I heard my name. And it did not matter that I could not see who said it. My heart knew. I reached out my hand, waiting for him to take it. When he did not, I stopped twirling, my hair settling around my shoulders in riotous waves. The Fey were no longer smiling, the wisps had disappeared.
“Where are you?” I called, trying to see past the remarkably tall Fey to the silhouetted figure beyond them, just out of sight.
There was no answer and so I walked. I walked towards the edge of the clearing where the moonlight disappeared into shadows. Still I could not see him.
“Where are you?” I called again, louder this time, fear sneaking into my chest as the sudden silence of the forest surrounded me. I glanced over my shoulder. The clearing had disappeared. I was surrounded on all sides by shadows.
“Help me,” I heard.
How could I help him if I could not see him? I stumbled forward, my fingers touching nothing but the cool air, thick and musky with secrets and untold things.
“Help me, Freya.”
“Where are you?” I was beginning to panic, he sounded so close but I could not feel him when I reached out. At last a hand grasped mine tightly. I smiled, relieved. But I still couldn’t see. The hand tightened around mine until it hurt, squeezing painfully, cracking my bones. And then there was a loud cackling, a triumphant laugh filled with malice.
But I could not get to him now. The darkness had me.
I startled awake.
I sat up straight, eyes wide as I registered my surroundings. I had fallen asleep in the war room. I slumped in my chair, putting my hands over my face and shaking my head.
“It was just a dream,” I muttered to myself.
I was groggy and jumpy, my hands were trembling as I tried to orient myself to the darkness of the room enough to find my way out of it. All the torches had burned out, the only light coming from the slit of a window high on the wall, letting in the smallest amount of silver moonlight to see by, leaving the rest of the room in shadow.
Taking a deep breath, I stood, cautiously beginning to make my way to the door.
Well done, Freya, I chided myself, now I would have to stumble through the room without any light to see by. I began to walk, counting my steps, feeling along the wall with my hand.
One, two, three, four.
I counted to myself, knowing it would not be too long before I reached the door, hopefully the hallway would be much easier to see in.
Five, six, seven.
My fingers traced the smooth stones of the wall, cold and soothing, my steps echoing. I’d forgotten how big the war room was.
My fingers came into contact with something solid and warm that felt nothing like the stone wall.
I froze, my surprise causing my pulse to quicken. A hand came up to grasp mine.
“Shhh,” came a voice, “don’t scream.”
My silence was answer enough for he moved away from the wall, moving around the room confidently from the sound of his steps. There was the strike of a flint and a torch blared to life, followed shortly by another. I blinked in the sudden light, watching as Cormack moved around the room without hesitation, lighting enough torches so that the room was no longer a den of shadows.
He turned and grinned at me, “Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“Oh,” I stammered, “I didn’t think…you surprised me—”
He held up his hand, looking far too amused for the amount of embarrassment I was feeling, “I was teasing you, Freya.”
His eyes shot to mine and he grinned that wicked grin.
I stood stiffly by the door, “How did you get in here?”
Cormack’s gaze flicked to the door that was only a few feet away before looking back at me, “I sneaked in.”
“What are you doing here?” I was aware of how cross I sounded. But I couldn’t help being so, I was still calming down from the fright he’d given me, appearing out of nowhere. He grinned slightly, his eyes sparking with merriment as if he knew just how much I’d been startled. And he enjoyed it.
“Don’t sound so happy to see me, Freya,” he said dryly, “I know you must have missed me.”
I sighed and shook my head.
“Come, not even a little bit?”
I just gave him a dry look.
He sighed and proceeded to sit in the chair at the head of the table. My father’s chair. He lounged back in the less-than comfortable chair and placed his booted feet up on the table. I frowned, struck by the notion that he reminded me of someone in that moment, but I couldn’t place whom.
“Do you have a purpose in being here?” I asked.
“Believe it or not, I do,” he replied, waving his hand expansively, “Please, sit down.”
“Why, thank you,” I said sarcastically, bobbing a short curtsey and sitting down on the edge of the nearest chair.
He was looking at his hands, but I caught his smile. After a moment he looked up.
There was a moment of silence in which he studied my face, his cinnamon colored eyes seeming to be searching for something in mine. And I watched as the merry man full of mischief disappeared and become someone entirely different. The teasing light left Cormack’s eyes and his expression turned serious.
“I came to warn you, Freya,” he said softly.
The severity of his expression sent pinpricks of cold through my body, my spine tingling with the sense of foreboding that had been pressing on my heart since the morning the warriors departed.
Cormack opened his mouth to answer and then he narrowed his eyes, swallowing whatever it was he had been about to say.
“I want to know something,” he said quietly.
“And what’s that?”
He dropped his eyes from mine, but not before I saw a flicker of an emotion I’d never thought to see on his face. He looked vulnerable. Uncertain. He shifted his feet off the table and settled them on the ground, leaning his elbows on his knees.
“Do you trust me?”
It was a simple question, whispered into the air and stayed there suspended for me to meet it with an answer. But it was a binding question. I felt the severity of it in the hesitancy with which Cormack asked it, I saw it in the way he was slow to bring his eyes back to find mine.
Do you trust me?
He’d saved my life. And so I said, “Yes.”
He glanced away from me, a small smirk pulling up the left side of his mouth, “But just how much time will tell.”
I frowned, catching the words as they escaped his lips. They were whispered, and I wasn’t certain they were meant for me to hear.
“Out with it,” I said, “waiting to tell me will not change whatever it is you’ve come to say.”
“You, girl,” he shook his head, “are far too bossy.”
“I’m practicing for when I become queen,” I shot back.
That made him laugh.
I gave him an expectant look.
For a moment he said nothing, simply leaned back in the high-backed wood chair and gazed at the ceiling. I kept my gaze fixed on him, waiting for him to speak. After a moment, he crossed his arms over his chest, tense, his jaw clenching and unclenching as he sat there in silent deliberation. I grew impatient. He said he’d come to warn me, but had left off telling me what exactly he’d come to warn me of. With every moment that passed, my imagination was becoming harder to control from spinning off in wild directions.
“Your father was foolish to leave,” he said finally.
I sat up straight in surprise, “What?”
He turned back to me, fury etching the lines of his face, “Playing right into her hands. Just like everyone else.”
I sat in terrified, stunned silence watching Cormack as he grew less and less controlled, anger making his voice deepen, the energy of his magic I’d felt emanating from him earlier, pressing forth more intensely.
“I wish I could have stopped it,” he said tightly, “but I’m…limited in my ability to aid you.”
“Cormack,” I said sharply, “what are you talking about?”
He turned towards me, his eyes full of angry remorse and I was stunned at the raw emotion in his expression. It struck me speechless.
“It was a trap, Freya,” he said, “the dark army is made up of hired mercenaries. It was a ploy to get your father do to exactly what he did.”
“How do you know this?” my voice came out barely more than a whisper.
Cormack shook his head, pressing his lips together, hands clenched tightly into fists as if he was suddenly in pain.
“Why did you not tell me sooner?” I demanded.
He waved that question aside as if it did not matter, his brow furrowing slightly. I watched as he fought with himself, thoughts forming words. He leaned forward.
“You’re all in danger, Freya,” he said, “the Dunbracian witch is coming.”
I blinked. And then I almost laughed in his face, “You’re joking.”
He sat back, stunned, “Why would I joke about that?”
I swallowed, battling with myself. It couldn’t be true. Because if it was true then everything I was terrified of was about to happen. Everything I had hoped and prayed against was about to unfold. And there was no one here to stop it. No one here to help me. No one here to fight. What was I supposed to do?
I struggled to keep my composure, feeling the cold of trepidation stealing through me.
With an unsteady voice I asked, “How do you know this?”
“Her movements are a matter of interest to me,” he said with a note of defensiveness in his tone, a warning that he would say no more on the matter. I wondered at it.
“How much time?”
He thought a moment, “At most we have three days.”
“What does she want?” I said more to myself than him.
But Cormack answered me, his voice quiet and controlled, “Revenge.”
“To have waited so long,” I shook my head, “a slight nearly twenty years ago, and now she comes.”
“It was not just a slight,” Cormack stated coldly, “Revenge is only true if more pain is inflicted,” his gaze turned to me, “she’ll steal more than was taken from her.”
He said it with the finality of knowing. As if he was certain. I narrowed my gaze at him, Cormack caught my look and glanced away from me another flash of uncertainty in his eyes.
“I must get word to my father,” I said quickly, “and inform the war council. They must be prepared.”
I stood, ready to run from the room and alert everyone, my mind moving rapidly. But before I took two steps, my progress was arrested. More quickly than I thought was possible Cormack was out of his chair and across the room, taking hold of my wrist.
I cast him a questioning glance over my shoulder.
“And when they ask how you know this,” he said almost sternly, “what are you going to say?”
“That…” I halted, blinking, scrambling in my mind for explanations.
“A strange man from the forest came to warn you?” Cormack finished, “Will they believe you? Enough to run off on the errand of going to warn your father to come home from fighting a force they know to be a threat?”
As much as I wanted to tell him that yes, they would believe me, I knew with a sinking certainty that they wouldn’t. I imagined the scene: me, standing in front of the cold eyes of war-hardened advisors and young aspiring warriors telling of the impending threat. A threat I only knew about because of Cormack. Cormack himself would be a problem. A man who had aided me in Blackwood Forest. I trusted him. I was not so sure that they would.
“No,” I said flatly, “they will not.”
Cormack was looking at me, waiting for me to speak, to be the one to set a plan in motion. I brought a hand up to cover my mouth, astonished by what I saw in his expression.
It was a look familiar and yet forgotten. It was the same look my father used to give me. A look that told of his unspoken pride and belief in me. A strong source of support that I had always relied on, that was constant until recently. What had been missing from my father’s eyes when he looked at me of late was present in Cormack’s.
He believes in me.
With that understanding came a determination that dulled the fear that had been a presence since I’d returned from Blackwood Forest. A determination settled inside of me, setting down roots and seeming to grow, strong and sure like the trunk of an ancient and weathered tree.
“I’ll go,” I said firmly, “I’ll ride to them.”
He nodded, his eyes still intent on my face, “I’m coming with you.”
I protested, “This isn’t your fight . . .”
But Cormack interrupted me with a short shake of his head, “No, Freya. This is my fight. More so than you may believe.”
The expression on his face was one full of secrets, secrets that lay just out of sight. Like glimpses of treasures underneath the water’s surface, visible but murky. Impossible to know, and difficult to guess at.
My look turned inquisitive, Cormack gave another small shake of his head.
“Later,” he said, “there will be time for explanations later.”
I almost argued with him and demanded answers right then. There was still too much mystery surrounding this man than was comforting. But as I was about to open my mouth, I remembered the answer I’d given to the only question he’d asked of me.
Do you trust me?
I said I did. And I would be good at my word, and so I swallowed the inquiries swirling around in my mind.
I nodded, “All right.”
“Go,” he said, “do what you must. I’ll ready the horses. Meet me at the stables.”
With another nod, I turned and left the room, urgency and haste making me as silent as a shadow.
After quickly changing into riding clothes and putting a small pack together, I slipped into my mother’s chambers on silent feet, pressing the letter I had written against my chest as if it were a shield.
She was asleep, peacefully, a sliver of moonlight cast across her face. I prayed that the peace I saw on her sleeping features would remain when she awakened in the morning to read what I’d written.
Placing the letter on her bedside table, I lingered just a moment, the foolishness and rashness of my plan pressing down on me.
Ride off in the middle of the night to the South to find my father on the word of a man who was little better than a stranger?
But my mother had believed me before.
I hoped she would believe me again.
Bending down, I brushed her cheek with a touch of a kiss, “I love you.”
And without another thought, I turned and slipped out a silently as I’d come. I shut my mother’s chamber door and pressed my forehead against the cool wood, willing my courage to stay with me.
“You’re going then.”
I whirled, my heart hammering in my chest to see Thilda standing calmly in the middle of the hallway, as if she had been waiting for me.
“Yes,” I answered breathlessly, so surprised at her appearance and her strange statement that it did not occur to me to question how she knew.
“Good,” she nodded, “I’ll make certain the gate is open and you pass through unseen.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, “Thank you, Thilda.”
She waved off my thanks and took a step to move off when she paused, as if remembering something. Turning back to face me she extended her hand to me and said, “Give this to him.”
I took the strange looking object from her hand. I brought it up level with my eyes, inspecting it closely trying to figure out what on earth it was. It was a little wooden charm, much like the one I wore on the twine around my neck.
“What is this?”
“He will know,” I could hear the amusement in her voice.
I glanced sharply at her, determined to know how she could have possibly known about Cormack but she’d gone. For a moment I was stunned, and then I shook my head.
Thilda would forever be a mystery.
I slipped the little wooden charm in my pocket and whispered a thank you to Thilda, knowing that she could still hear me. With a whispered prayer for courage, I went out to meet Cormack.
He already had two horses, saddled and waiting.
“Ready?” he asked with a grin.
I nodded, “Ready. We’ll go through the gate.”
I saw the hesitancy in Cormack’s expression but he did not voice his doubts. Slowly, he nodded, following my lead.
We heeled our mounts to motion. When we reached the gate, it was open. I smiled and leaned against my horse’s neck as we reached a gallop, hearing Cormack’s laughter caught on the wind.