When the truth I’d been avoiding half my life finally caught up to me it was so forceful for a moment I could not breathe. I remembered how I felt standing in the clearing with the fairies, the understanding of what I was. Though, it was a fact I neglected and ignored still in the walls of the castle.
I fell asleep sometime just before dawn, despite my attempts to stay awake. I dreamed that my arm was no longer broken. And that’s what woke me—a warmth against the skin of my forearm, that grew so hot I thought I was being burned. I opened my eyes wide and moved the fingers of my right hand. I knew without having to check that my arm was no longer broken.
Despite me now having a name for the strangeness that had always set me a part, I wondered if it was something I would ever get used to.
And then I became fully aware that I was using Gavin’s chest as a pillow as I sat and that I did not wish to move.
Gavin slowed the horse to a walk.
“We’re nearly to Harfeld castle,” he said, knowing I was awake without having to check.
I nodded, shifting so I was no longer pressed so closely against him.
“Then why’d you slow down?” I asked.
“I thought you might want to stretch your legs a bit,” was his reply.
He jumped down from the saddle and reached up to lift me down. I took a moment to unwrap the sling and as I turned to dismount, I placed both hands on his shoulders.
“Your arm,” Gavin said staring.
I shrugged self-consciously, “You always knew I was different.”
“It’s true then,” Gavin stated. Though I had told him what happened in the forest, this was the first time he had been confronted with my magic. There is something different about hearing something and seeing it with your own eyes. He stared at me a moment longer before he nodded slightly, almost as if to himself, his face thoughtful, and reached up and took hold of my waist.
And as he set me on my feet, released me and stepped away I experienced something of a physical ache at the loss of his nearness, disoriented at the quickness with which he moved away from me. He kept his back to me as he held the reins and took the lead, heading towards a little stream to let the horse drink his fill. I heard Gavin speaking softly to the horse in soothing tones, rubbing the animal’s neck as he bowed his head to drink.
My mind wandered as I bent to the stream myself, letting the cool water run over my hands and wrists before I scooped some in my palms to drink. I remembered my dream.
“You chose to be alone,” the Fey Lady replied coldly, “He does not call because he knows you will not answer.”
I took in a deep breath, reminding myself it was just a dream and nothing more. Yet, I could not ignore the echoes of truth in the words that had been spoken. I knew what Gavin felt for me. I knew that it reached far beyond that of simply friendship. I knew that, somehow, it was I who held the key to unlocking the door that seemed to be between us. I recalled the night of my seventeenth birthday. There had been a ball and I’d worn a beautiful dress. Gavin was off talking to other young men, but I’d been dancing for what felt like hours with stuffy nobleman and I simply sought the solace of his easy company.
I’d tapped him on the shoulder, ready to beg him to go on a walk with me outside.
I was not prepared for what happened when he turned around.
His eyes widened before he’d blinked and shook his head as if to clear it, but the way he stared at me in that moment imprinted itself on my heart forever. I knew that he thought I was beautiful. And he’d never looked at me the same way again. Not like he had when we were children.
Though he never crossed the boundary line, never pressed our friendship beyond the comfortable border that had been established.
And neither had I.
It was safe, familiar. To cross over was dangerous and unknown territory. I knew that I wouldn’t lose him if I were to admit that I loved him. Because I did. Fiercely. That wasn’t what frightened me. It was what would change. Everything would change. With everything around me so uncertain, with everything I was still coming to understand about myself, as selfish as it may have been, I wasn’t ready for the most safe, solid relationship I had to change. Not yet.
I sighed, standing and stretching.
Now was certainly not the time to delve into the dealings of the heart anyway, there were things to be done. I swallowed and straightened my shoulders, quickening my pace to a march in order to catch up to Gavin where he’d stopped further down the stream, letting the horse rest and drink. He was exhausted, I saw it in the slight slump of his shoulders, the way his head hung low. He had not slept at all, riding hard allowing me to catch a snatch of sleep. He scrubbed a hand over his eyes, shaking himself a little to wake up.
I put my left hand on his arm, my touch meant to be comforting.
He turned slowly to look me, his gaze first resting on my hand where it touched him, and then to my face. His expression astonished me. He looked agonized, as if he were in pain.
“Why is this so hard?” he muttered, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand.
I said nothing, but I felt my face flame at his words, ashamed. I could not pretend I had not heard what he’d said so quietly under his breath. I had said the very same thing last night. I stepped away from him and shrugged. I remembered the way he had looked that last night outside the library. Taut, like a bowstring, all at once ready for action or to snap.
From the look on his face, Gavin was closer to snapping.
He had never been prone to anger, never one to lose his temper. I was the one who did that. He was the cool one. The one who remained calm in the face of anything. But Gavin, in that moment, was anything but calm.
For a moment his eyes searched my face.
There was a tension that existed between us that was tangible, pushing us away from each other. I couldn’t bridge it, I didn’t have the courage.
I think he understood, because Gavin released a breath, turning away from me to pull the horse into a better position to mount.
We set off at a gallop for Harfeld.
There was work to be done.
The sun was beginning to kiss the horizon goodnight, sinking beneath the tree line as we neared Harfeld castle.
We were both exhausted, but I felt the first prick of fear, my heart pounding in time with the horse’s hooves striking the earth as it brought us up to the gate. The village had been silent as we’d ridden through. Not a soul to be seen. Gavin dismounted, unsheathing his sword and approaching the open gate warily.
“Something’s not right,” I said quickly, my eyes fixed on the closed doors of the castle entrance.
It was too quiet. I hadn’t seen a single person since we’d arrived back in the kingdom.
Gavin tensed, “What is it?”
My heart rate had picked up, feeling a coldness in the still air that was not from the changing of seasons, a thickness to it that pressed against my chest and made it hard to breathe.
“Darkness,” I whispered.
I felt it as forcefully as when the shadow dwellers had snaked their hold around me in the forest. I did not know why I felt it just then, but everything within my spirit warned against getting off the horse and going inside.
“We need to get out of here. Get back on the horse,” I said sharply, taking hold of the reins, “Now.”
Without hesitation Gavin did as I said.
“Go,” I urged the horse, “Go.”
I spurred the weary horse to motion too soon after we’d stopped.
It was a flash of a plan, but I rounded the outskirts of the silent village, my one thought to get into Blackwood Forest and away from the castle.
What I did not account for was the crowd of men waiting armed and ready at the tree line, as if I’d done the very thing they’d expected. Fear squeezed painfully around my heart, as I saw the emblem emblazoned on their chests, my pulse thundering in my ears as I racked my mind for a solution to the impossibility of what was in front of me. But I did not slow the horse. I would trample them before I stopped. I pressed the horse to charge the line at a full gallop.
The wind whirred in my ears, but I caught the whistle in the air. I knew what it meant when the horse reared up as an arrow struck its flank. We were both thrown from the saddle. Landing on my back, I hit the earth and all the air in my lungs fled, making me gasp like a landed fish.
But he was already on his feet, sword drawn, eyeing the men warily.
The men were all drawing close, slowly, their looks taunting as they regarded the lone warrior facing them down.
Two men came forward.
One soon fell gripping the side of his rib cage, the other holding the right side of his face. Their blood dripped off the tip of Gavin’s sword, and suddenly the faces regarding him lost all traces of amusement.
I moved to stand but was grabbed from behind by two men I had not heard approaching, feeling the coolness of metal pressed against the skin of my neck.
“Drop your sword or she dies!”
Gavin glared murderously, sweat coating his forehead, and without a moment’s hesitation he threw down his sword. He was seized from behind by three men and wrestled to the ground, his face pressed into the dirt as they bound his hands tightly together behind his back.
“Enough,” I whispered, shutting my eyes. I felt the warmth, pressing from within me, I heard the shouts of the men as the fell away at the magic that burst from me like a wave of heat that struck them with a spark like fire. I was free. Standing alone and unheeded at the tree line. I could run, disappear into the trees. I hesitated, seeing Gavin on the ground, free but disoriented at the wave of magic. Every inch of my body trembled at the release of energy, though my legs screamed at me to run.
But to run would be to leave Gavin.
The Dunbracian men gained their feet and were eyeing me warily, swords drawn. They had no idea I had little control over my magic, that I could not do such things on command. However, my hesitation made one thing clear. I wasn’t leaving Gavin. And they knew it. He fought, but there were too many men and I couldn’t conjure a thing to help him. I felt frustrated at my lack of control and understanding of my magic, it simmered within, a power just out of reach. I watched without looking away as they wrestled him to the ground again, and he was bound and gagged.
“We’ll kill him if you run.”
It was unnecessary to say. I wouldn’t have run anyway. Stepping forward, I let them take me, my body still trembling from the release of magic. It had taken a toll on my already depleted energy, and I fought against the weariness that sought to swallow me whole. Blood dripped down Gavin’s face from a cut above his left eyebrow.
I felt numb. Feeling the rough touch of the men as they twisted my arms behind me as though from a distance, like it was almost happening to someone else. Roughly they dragged us back through to the courtyard and up the castle steps. The sun disappeared from the sky, night claimed the world in her embrace, without even the stars and the moon to compete with. Even before we were brought into the throne room I knew what awaited us. And my heart quailed at the thought of what was to come. Despite everything, I could not utter a word, nor think a prayer.
The doors to the throne room opened.
My blood seemed to turn to ice within me for I knew who sat on the throne before I saw her.
I glared at her, trying to hide the astonishment from my face. For as much as the sight of her seemed to steal all the warmth from my body, she was the most strikingly beautiful woman I had ever seen. Dark red hair, falling to her waist in riotous waves, skin so pale it was almost translucent, eyes the deep indigo color of blueberries. Everything about her was unnatural, her beauty so enchanting it was all I could do not to turn away from her. I determined I would not show her that sign of weakness.
“Well, this is unexpected,” the Dunbracian queen had a low, husky voice, “Princess Freya.”
“Witch,” I spat.
I held her gaze, feigning boldness, as she moved towards me, her steps lithe and graceful. Every step closer she took to me, I felt the power emanating from her in waves, pressing against me, the air thickening.
She is darkness.
A prick of fear spiraled through me at that thought and the truth that it carried, despite what I had already faced in the forest. Seeing such a thing in my home was different, somehow more dangerous.
“What are you doing here, Princess?” the witch regarded me with her unsettling eyes, inhumanly bright, “Or better yet, where did you come from?”
I stared stonily at her, keeping my silence.
“Ah, silence,” her voice was tight with anger, “Silence. Silence. I will break you of your silence. I have questions that need answering.”
Her gaze darted to the right, but I could not see what she saw, for I was held firmly by two men. Still, I saw the way her lips curved in a malicious smirk. The sight of it sent a shiver of cold through me.
“Revenge is what I seek, but it seems, someone has set out to thwart me,” she reached out and gripped a fist full of my hair, “I came to conquer. But there was no one here for me to conquer. Tell me, how did this happen?”
I felt a thrill of relief. My mother had read my letter. She’d believed me. Which also meant she was safe.
The witch’s eyes narrowed, “This pleases you.”
The hand on my hair tightened, pulling painfully.
“I’ve waited far too long for revenge, dear one, to be thwarted so easily,” her voice was a hiss, “I will find those who fled. I will kill them. And then I will wait until your father returns, weary with much fighting and murder you in front of him,” the witch leaned over me and touched her finger to my forehead, her touch so hot I thought it would sear my skin.
I felt the magic seeping through her skin into mine, the coldness pressing into my bones, making it hard to breathe, squeezing my lungs painfully. It was paralyzing, snaking its way into my heart.
But I am no longer afraid of the dark.
And I began to fight back.
I concentrated on the warmth that had centered in my heart since dancing with the fairies, that lay beneath the wooden charm against my skin and pressed it outward, against the coldness that held me. The warmth was becoming stronger, the coldness receding from my body. I opened my eyes to see the wide eyes of the witch, her eyes dancing with fear and shock as she withdrew her hand from me quickly, as if she’d been burned.
Then her eyes narrowed and her lips curled in distaste at the understanding of what had happened. She knew what I was.
“Take them to the dungeons,” she ordered.
We were thrown into the dungeon of our own home, prisoners of the witch that had come too early to be stopped.
And so it was.
The darkness had finally come to Harfeld.
For a moment, I lay on the ground where I’d fallen after being shoved into the dungeon, breathing in and out trying to orient myself to the dank darkness of the cell.
“I’m here,” he answered.
He sounded far away, his voice quiet. I blinked, unable to see him.
“Where are you?” my voice cracked.
I needed him, just then. I needed to feel him, to hold him, to make certain that he was all right. The thought that he’d been locked in another cell sent me searching frantically in the darkness, my arms outstretched.
“Here,” a hand gripped my shoulder.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness well enough to see that we were separated, his face pressed up against the bars that both joined and separated us. For a moment, we held each other the best we could through the bars, pressing as closely as the unyielding metal would allow.
The witch had come.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to shut out the darkness of the cell and the fear that the thought brought, cursing myself for my foolishness. There had been a warning in my heart long before I’d gotten on the horse to leave and come back to Harfeld.
And because of my failure to listen I had given the witch exactly what she needed.
When I’d ridden off with Cormack, the letter I left with my mother instructed her to hide in Blackwood Forest should the need to flee arise. Cormack’s men were under strict instructions to watch for the approach of the witch and to protect as many as they could within the safety of the forest under the guard of the Fey.
My mother was safe, as was Thilda and many others.
The witch had planned to surprise us, therefore taking us as well as the castle. All of the things my father cared about, trapped in her grasp. If I hadn’t come back there would be nothing for her to manipulate him with.
But I had come back.
The dark army had been used to get him away, and weaken our warriors, to tire them out so they would not be as potent upon returning. I saw all this clearly, the slow unfolding of a plan of revenge.
And it would have worked had Cormack not warned me. However, in the darkness of the cell I couldn’t help but wonder what good Cormack’s warning had done in the end. We hadn’t been able to stop it from happening. It was then that Thilda’s words came to me. Words that had so frustrated me when I’d first heard them spoken, but came back from being forgotten when I was slipping into the slow circles of hopelessness.
It cannot be stopped. It can only be undone, she’d said.
I sighed, relaxing.
Gavin breathed out with me, as if his tension was tied to mine, “Win that battle?”
Of course he’d known I was wrestling inside of myself for the past few moments. I smiled, “For now.”
“I knew you would,” he said, hesitating for a moment and then, “You should have run, Fey. When you had the chance.”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said with a shake of my head.
He squeezed my hand a little tighter, I squeezed back.
We settled into the shadows, hands still clasped.
There in the darkness of the dungeon, imprisoned by the witch, we found a safe place with each other.
When I woke to the ever-present dimness of the dungeon I was lying along the bars that separated mine from Gavin’s on the cold stone floor, pressed so close I felt his warmth, his fingers still threaded through mine.
I had no way of telling what time of day it was, or how much time had passed since we’d fallen asleep. It was utterly disorienting, being so far removed from the rest of the world, swathed in darkness.
The door leading to the dungeons clanged open, a torch casting the darkness into shadows that danced on the stone walls like demons. I sat up, squeezing Gavin’s hand to wake him.
He stood as three men came to the door of my cell.
“What have you come for?” I asked.
The men did not answer right away, but I heard the jangle of a ring of keys as the man detached them from his belt.
“The Queen would like to have a word with you,” was the reply.
“Very well,” I said coldly.
“Fey,” Gavin’s voice was low, urgent, “no.”
I turned to look at him, smiling bravely, “I’ll be all right.”
I stepped through the cell door before the men dragged me out and flinched at the finality of the sound as it clanged shut behind me.
I told myself not to look back, not to see Gavin where he was, caged behind the bars of the dungeon. But I couldn’t help myself. It was like an invisible string connected my heart to his and with every step I took that brought me farther away from him the pull got stronger, until I had to turn back and look.
The last glimpse I had of him, his face was pressed against the bars his hands gripping them as if he wished he had the strength to break them. Our eyes locked in the dimness of the dungeon.
I love you, Fey, I heard the words he couldn’t speak, saw the truth there in his expression. The transparency of it there in his eyes in that moment took me by surprise.
And I thought of all the things we’d never said to each other, the secrets that were never secrets. As the men led me up the stairs leading to the dungeon and into the brightness of the hall, I felt the painful squeeze of regret around my heart.
Regret for the words I never had the courage to speak.
Even as I knew what I would see when I entered the throne room, the instant and murderous rage that coursed through my body at the sight of the witch sitting on my father’s throne startled me. I clenched my hands into fists, my knuckles going white, trying to calm myself.
I sucked in air through my nose and held my breath for a moment, before releasing it and dispelling some of my anger. I locked eyes with the witch across the expanse of stone floor separating us. Hers were inhumanly bright, wide set and mocking. Mine, green as the leaves in the sunlight on a summer’s day, darkened with suspicion and dislike.
“Leave us,” she said in her husky voice, flicking her wrist lazily, dismissing the men who had escorted me from the dungeon.
They bowed low and did as they were told, the heavy wooden doors to the throne room booming shut.
We were alone.
“You must be wondering what I want with you, daughter of Harfeld,” the witch spoke quietly, placing a hand on her chin as she lounged on the throne, looking thoughtful, eyes sharp as they regarded me.
I shrugged and said nothing. Though I was curious more than I was afraid, I would not concede any information that she might eventually use to her advantage.
“Silence again,” she hissed, extending the s in silence, “but silence will not protect you forever. You have secrets I want to know. I see them there,” she paused and pointed, “in your eyes. Secrets that dispel the fear you ought to regard me with. Why do you not fear me?”
I frowned, unnerved at her uncanny ability to read my face, fighting the urge to glance away from her. Though she wasn’t entirely correct. She was powerful, the thick magic she possessed infiltrated every word she uttered, present in the heaviness of the room. More than anything I resented her. Her mark was on my story before I was born, uttering a curse that followed me to this day. The vengeance she sought against my father for breaking his promise. Cormack had loved her, once. Enough to break with his brother, turn his back on his people and deal in darkness. Then I wished I had asked more questions once I knew the truth of Cormack’s identity. I wanted to know why he’d fallen in love with her, why he chose the path he did. And why he abandoned it.
“There again,” the witch stood slowly, lithely, like a beast stalking in the shadows towards its unsuspecting mark, “what are you hiding?”
I stood my ground as she came towards me, not backing up like my instincts screamed at me to do, “Nothing.”
She laughed, a high-pitched sound that made me grimace, “Do not lie to me, Harfeldan Princess. I see much. Tell me, how was it you knew I was coming?”
I looked away, I couldn’t help it. If she didn’t know about Cormack I would not be the one to tell her. I would not betray him.
“Did you feel it,” she whispered, coming up close behind me, her breath cold on my ear, “the darkness? Did you feel the threat of a shadow?”
She circled to face me, taking my chin in her hand and forcing my gaze up to hers, “I know what you are. I know what you’ve chosen,” she scoffed, “but that is the weak way. The way of those not courageous enough to carve their own path.”
Her touch seared me, and I jerked out of her grasp, stepping away from her. I eyed her warily. I did not want her to touch me again. Though I knew how to fight it, I did not have enough energy to keep it up for very long. My head was spinning from too little food and too little sleep.
“You’ve spoken lies for so long you believe them,” I said.
She laughed, a mocking sound that curved her lips up.
“I was like you, once,” the witch said, her eyes narrowing, her lips curling in a way that distorted her face, marring her beauty.
“This surprises you,” she stated, looking satisfied.
I could not hide my astonishment at her words. She sauntered back over to the dais, up the steps before lowering herself onto the throne.
I had a feeling that something was about to occur that would be irrevocable. Something that, once experienced, one could not entirely recover from. I stared at her, where she sat, regarding me with those intelligent, cunning berry colored eyes. Eyes that held hardness that spoke of immeasurable hurt and betrayal. Despite myself, I was drawn in by curiosity, the desire to understand, the pressing of questions. It made no logical sense, I should hate her, with her vanity and vengeance wreaking havoc on my family and my kingdom. I think she saw all this in my expression, for there entered a softness to her eyes that had not been present since I’d met her. I narrowed my eyes, not entirely certain I could trust what I was seeing.
And then she said, “Let me tell you a story.”
I knew I should not listen. Yet, there I stood riveted by every word that she uttered, the way she deftly wove her tale, spinning in truth and lies as if there was no boundary between them.
“I followed the same path as you once, listen as I tell you why I chose differently.”
I knew I should block my ears, not listen, I felt the magic in her words, the spell in the syllables, but by then it was too late. And I stood, transfixed, my feet rooted into place as if I’d suddenly become a statue unable to do anything but watch and listen.
“There is a telling, as you well know. Of those who hear the call of the Fey. To listen is dangerous, but to ignore the call has far worse consequences.”
I knew that story. My mother had told me that story for years, and so, almost without my permission, my head nodded.
“There are three reasons one hears the call of the Fey. I heard it, when I was few months’ shy of seventeen. I felt the pull, the yearning and the restlessness to run. Much like you.”
I flinched at the comparison she drew between the two of us.
She laughed, an airy sound, not unpleasant her mouth lovely in it unnatural redness, “You dislike that I say we are the same. Best embrace it daughter of Harfeld. How devious of the Creator. Your father always objected to me because of what he thought was unnatural magic, and yet he gets a daughter of the same ilk. I could not have designed it better myself.”
“I am nothing like you,” I said, outrage allowing me to momentarily find my voice. It had been foolish of me to listen, “I refuse to hear anymore.”
“You will hear,” she said quietly, firmly. And the coldness in the air sharpened, and I felt invisible forces circle my legs, twining up my arms until I could not move. I gasped against the pressure on my chest, the pushing of magic I could not see. There was no warmth in me, I felt like I had been turned to marble, cold and unfeeling. The wooden charm beneath my shirt was cold and dead.
“I followed the call of the Fey. And I learned what I was. I learned why I was different, considered strange, the reason for the restlessness that plagued me. The magic imprinted on my soul, a birthright from Fey blood passed through my ancestors. I, unlike you, learned how to use it. To wield the power at my fingertips. I once acknowledged the path of the Fey, followed the trail of light led by the Great Prince. Until I saw how it inhibited my abilities. Darkness was far more potent, more freeing. Who should dictate what I can and cannot do? I broke with light, and learned the ways of the shadows. The fallen Fey. You know them, I think.”
I remembered the creatures I’d encountered in Blackwood Forest well, felt their touch in the magic now entwining my body—the shadow dwellers.
“You must know this part of the story. No? Well, let me tell it to you. I was betrothed to your father. It seemed only right, we were both the first born of the most powerful kingdoms. Join together, and the alliance of Dunbracian wealth with Harfeldan warriors would be unstoppable. A deal struck by our fathers, long before we were even walking, and against our desires when we grew. Your father was like his people. Suspicious of magic wielders, since his foolish mother abandoned him. The old king was greedy and ignored the grumblings of his advisors against the union.”
I’d never learned the details behind the motivation of joining the two kingdoms together. There was much I did not know. Details to the story that had been left out, glossed over with the passing of time. I only knew what threads I heard here and there, until I pieced the story together for myself. My father did not like to speak of it, and my mother did not think it mattered—it reminded her too much of what the choice to love had cost my father and at that, the people.
The witch was enjoying herself up until this point in her telling, it was frightening how quickly her countenance changed. Her mouth thinned, her eyes darkened with long held bitterness and anger. I lost feeling in my fingers, and then my toes, the pressure of the binding magic keeping me stiffly in place.
“But then your father, weak and fickle man that he is, fell under the spell of your half-blooded Fey mother. Of course she was acceptable. She who cannot wield magic of her own, beauty being her gift. He broke his word. He went back on the oaths sworn by his father and mine.”
“You loved him,” I said, seeing the truth of it in her stark anger.
Her eyes shot to mine and her lips curled into a wicked smile, ignoring what I’d just said, “And then I did something rather naughty.”
I knew what it was before she said it, but even though I had a sense of this shadowed part of this dark story the pain it caused me to hear was no less dulled.
“Your father had a brother. Younger, more handsome and far more powerful. I saw the wildness in his eyes and I knew he had heard the same call I had. It was not hard to convince him that your dear father was in the wrong. Easier still to lure him away from the light, easiest to lure him into my bed. If I could not have the one promised to me, I would take the other. Severing the bond, breaking the chain of family.”
My ears were burning, my face hot. I struggled against the hold her magic had on me, shaking with the effort. It seemed to amuse her.
“Though, when he learned of what I planned to do, he was harder to keep persuaded. I wasted years trying to convince him that what I planned to do to Harfeld was just, to sway him to stay by my side.”
She paused and looked away from me. But I’d seen it. The flicker of emotion when she spoke of Cormack.
“For how glorious would it be to have the lost brother riding up to the gates of Harfeld with me to take it?” she laughed, malice lighting up her features.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He was no longer of use to me,” she waved her hand dismissively, “So I had him disposed of.”
I was careful to keep my face impassive. She thought Cormack was dead.
“And here I am, at last, Princess Freya. Ready to claim everything that should have been mine from the start. Your father will come, weary with much toil and witness me sitting on the throne I should have had. I will watch as he and his exhausted warriors futilely try and take back what I’ve rightfully stolen. And then, at the last moment of despair, when the last of his stubborn hope slips from his face…I will kill you ensuring he is watching. Ensuring he knows that his heir is now dead, and the endurance of his line has ceased.”
“Enough,” I said.
She stood, swiftly making her way to my side. Gently, she pushed the hair back from my face, gazing into my eyes, “Shh, princess. It doesn’t have to be this way.”
I looked stonily at her, even as I trembled from the fatigue I felt, fighting against the invisible bonds she’d snaked around me.
“You are powerful,” she caressed my cheek, “I can teach you to wield the power within you.”
Her voice was soft, lilting, every word a caress. I felt the magic in them dulling my senses.
“You do not have to be a slave to those who seek to change you, no longer bend to fit an image of people who fear those who are different,” she whispered and I thought of the whispers of being cursed that had followed me all of my life, the strange looks, the stares of distrust in those I would one day have to lead, “You can rule them. And I can teach you.”
I imagined myself free from staring eyes, the skepticism of the men of the war council replaced with admiration.
“Choose darkness and live,” the witch said quietly, “or remain on the ignorant path you have chosen and die. What do you want, princess?”
“To live,” the words sounded as if they’d been whispered by someone else, but it was my lips they slipped past.
And then, I felt a warning deep in my heart, the quiet place that often rested in stillness, but where the deepest truths live. For an instant, the face of the Great Prince flashed in my mind and the spell was broken.
I shot forward, pressing against the hold with all of my strength, lunging at the witch, my hands encircling her throat. Too soon I was being hauled savagely away from her, out of the throne room to the sound of her laughter.
“Think about it, Princess,” she called after me, “You’re awfully young to die.”
I was thrown into the dungeon, unable to catch myself I fell and lay there, curled into myself, pressing my hands against my face, trying to blot out the images, the words that were swirling around in my mind.
I called out for Gavin but there was no answer, his side was silent. They had taken him, then, when I was gone. At this I released a scream of fury that echoed off the stone walls at my own helplessness. Without his company, there was nothing to do but sit in the stillness, the words from the story the witch had told me running obsessively through my mind.
Let me tell you a story, she’d said. I should have fought harder, I should have plugged my ears, I should not have been so curious to know her story. But that was it. I had wanted to know. I wanted to understand, because despite my protests I did see myself in her tale. The girl rejected. How many times would it take for me until I gave up? Until I wanted to light the world on fire for what it had done? It was there, tucked away deep down, the same instincts to hurt as I’d been hurt. And even more frightening to me, the small feeling of justification for it all, the intoxicating feeling of power. Knowing, perhaps, one day I could bend the world to my will. I was powerful she’d said. What would I be able to accomplish with that power, once I understood it? Burying my face in my hands, I fought for and against myself. The words the witch uttered weaving themselves through my consciousness; thickening until her voice was the only thing I could hear.
How devious of the Creator. Your father objected to me because of what he thought was unnatural magic, and yet he gets a daughter of the same ilk.
I shook my head against the snaring words that pressed heavily against my heart.
We are the same.
“No,” I whispered under my breath, only half-believing it.
I needed to clear the snaking lies worming their way through my thoughts, the terror I felt at the intense pull to yield to the darkness, the pull of the power it presented, the freedom that it seemed to promise and at how well the witch was able to play upon my insecurities.
You do not have to be a slave to those who seek to change you, no longer bend to fit an image of people who fear those who are different. . .
How often had that been the wish of my heart? To be looked at with faith and no trace of uncertainty? The truth of it squeezed at my heart so painfully I thought I would be sick, an anguished sound tearing from my lips that echoed the agonizing confusion I felt, tipping foolishly close to despair. I could not fight this on my own. The witch was too powerful, the truth was twisting in my mind the longer her voice echoed in my ears.
We are the same.
I covered my ears, trying to drown out the sound of her voice in my head, rolling to my feet, thinking that movement was the answer. That somehow movement would quiet the powerful half-truths and appealing lies waiting for me to embrace them.
In the darkness I felt the shadows stir, the cold air snaking around my legs and pressing against my body, the pressure increasing until I thought I would suffocate. There was a snatch of a moment where I searched for the will to fight in my heart and couldn’t find it. My heartbeat thrummed in my ears as the shadows danced around me, dizzying, disorienting until my vision turned dark and I collapsed.
I was drowning.
Water was being poured into my mouth, filling it until I couldn’t breathe. I woke up, spewing and sputtering, fighting to keep the world in its place. The shadows slipped in and out of focus, the pale face above me illuminated in the soft glow of a lanterns light but the features were a blur.
“Have you decided?”
The voice was sharp, grating, pressing against my ears like a hundred needles.
I coughed, swallowing down against the roiling of my stomach and the pounding headache that made the world spin.
“I can make everything go away, I can make the cold stop holding you, the shadows cease coiling around you,” she whispered, “I can show you how to master the darkness. Just say the word and this will end.”
As she spoke I felt the dungeon atmosphere thicken, pressing against my ears, my chest, my legs. In response, my body froze, hands shaking, breath coming in short and shallow.
Even so, I gritted my teeth and uttered one word, “Never.”
She stood, pulling away the light with her retreat, “Very well.”
I swallowed my scream as the darkness pressed in on me.
I do not know how long I lived in shadows and utter darkness, waking for moments when the witch would deem it time to see if she’d broken me yet. Occasionally they’d throw me snatches of bread that I barely tasted, knowing I needed every scrap of sustenance to keep my tattered strength together. I felt like a wild thing, caged and restless, battling against the shadows that fought to control me. What the witch didn’t account for, I don’t think, was my tenacity. Though my body was tired and worn my mind was sharp as a flint and I refused to give in. Every day she came and every day I said never. Though I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that what she said was true. We were the same. I would die before I gave her the satisfaction of hearing me say that.
Those called have two choices, Cormack had said.
His choice was one that had played a part in the unfolding of my tale. The choice he made to follow her, the choice he made to leave.
It was the decisions of those before me that had brought me to this place, that had caused the inevitable fall of darkness on Harfeld.
My father had chosen my mother.
Cormack chose the witch.
The witch had chosen darkness.
But I was none of them.
And I had no say in the unfolding of things. It had all been set in motion long before I was born. I was not at fault for the choices of those who were responsible for the unfolding. Often, I was angry, waking up in the disorienting darkness that was not of my doing or of my choosing. Though, once, for a moment my spirit quieted enough to hear the words spoken by one I could not see, by a voice I did not recognize until the speaking of the words was over.
“You can not dwell on things you cannot hope to change, Freya. What matters now is what you choose.”
What I choose.
My life seemed to be defined by the choices of others.
They are not here now. What you choose now will be for yourself.
I was not my father or my mother.
I was not Cormack the shamed son come to light.
Nor was I the witch.
“Then who are you, Freya?”
Who am I?
There in the darkness, I thought of the answer to the question that had plagued my restless spirit for the entirety of my life.
Who am I?
“Who are you, Freya?” the question was asked again, this time with more insistence, a nudge towards the answer that would set me free.
“I am Freya,” I spoke aloud, my voice shaking, but declarative as I took ownership of the name I never felt really belonged to me.
“I am a daughter of light,” the shadows hissed and coiled tighter around me. But the truth filling the words I spoke was potent, freeing, full of magic, pressing against the binds the shadow-dwellers had snaked around me, “fey called, child of Harfeld and Liadell.”
“I am Fey,” I declared to the shadows that were fleeing from me.
And I knew that I had won.