They yanked me away from Gavin, pulling my arms sharply behind my back. He was unconscious, his eyes shut, blood dripping down his chin. I felt my stomach clench at the sight of it, then transferred my gaze to glare murderously at the witch.
She smiled, her eyes cold.
We were dragged back into the castle, away from each other. I fought to stay with Gavin, biting and clawing my captors in a futile attempt to reach him. I had no idea where they would take him, and at the thought of being separated from him I felt my throat close in panic. If I wasn’t with him I couldn’t keep him safe. I couldn’t help him.
“Gavin!” I shouted, my voice following him down the hallway where I couldn’t.
“Shut it, harpy,” the man holding my arms growled, “he can’t hear you.”
A thick wooden door to a small closet just outside the kitchens was opened and I was thrown inside. The door slammed shut. I was in utter darkness again.
I pounded my fists on the door, hurled myself against it with as much force as I could muster trying to break it down. The only results were a bruised shoulder and threatening curses spat at me by the man assigned to guard me.
“Try that again wench and I’m coming in there,” he yelled, “and my visit will not be pleasant.”
“I’ll claw your eyes out if you come near me!” I spat back, but I stopped because there wasn’t much use in battering myself to death on a door that wouldn’t budge. I even pressed my hand against the wood, attempting to use my magic. Nothing happened.
Pressing myself against the wall and drawing my knees up to my chest, I stared wide-eyed into the stuffy darkness surrounding me.
Don’t be afraid.
I wasn’t. Not for myself at least.
Every ounce of fear I felt centered around someone else, for once. It was a different sort of feeling than being afraid for myself. For when I was afraid there was always some level of control, something to be done about it, some action I could take to overcome it. But now there was nothing. And the fear I once felt for myself was nothing compared to the fear I felt for Gavin. It was all encompassing, paralyzing because there was absolutely nothing I could do.
Please, keep him safe. Please. Don’t let him die.
“Not because of me,” I whispered, feeling tears drip down my face, tasting the saltiness on my lips.
For a moment, I only felt a reassuring warmth pressing in around me, just long enough to dry my tears.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
It was a long time of maddening quiet and shadows before the silence was broken.
A loud thud, sounding like a body slamming against the door made me jump to my feet. Scuffling and a muffled curse reached my ears through the wood of the door, a clank as metal made contact with the marble floor.
And then silence.
Though muffled I recognized the voice immediately.
I stumbled in my haste to get to the door, pressing my ear against it, “Cormack! Let me out!”
“Listen to me carefully,” he said.
He wasn’t going to let me out. A breath, in which disappointment settled into my chest.
“Are you listening?”
“I’m listening,” I said, leaning against the door, wishing I could see him.
“The spell on your guard will hold only a moment longer. She’ll be coming for you soon, the Harfeldan warriors will be here by sunrise,” he whispered, “By whatever means necessary, keep yourself and Gavin alive. Do you understand?”
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me, “I understand.”
“Good girl,” he sounded farther away. He was leaving.
A pause. I waited, terrified he’d already left. I wasn’t ready to be alone quite yet.
“What is it?
I thought, not entirely sure what I was going to ask him, “What will you do?”
“I will end this,” through the door I heard the grim determination in his voice, “I promise.”
And I gave him the best thing I could in that moment, “I believe you.”
He didn’t answer, but I heard something slide under the door. I bent to retrieve it, hearing Cormack’s footsteps fade as he left, using my hand to feel around in the darkness.
My hand came into contact with something hard, I grasped it with both hands, carefully, to better feel what it was.
It was a knife.
They came for me a short time later. The door burst open and without a word they came and dragged me to my feet, tying my hands firmly together, thankfully, in front of me.
We passed through the corridor lined with empty suits of armor and shields, headed toward the entryway of the castle. I always thought these decorations were disconcerting, as if a small army of silent men were watching my every move through the eye slits of helmets. The legacy of my people was one of war, until my father. But war had found us anyway. I wondered if it was always to be so. Stuck in a pattern formed by generations before, unable to escape even if we tried. If the witch had her way, Harfeld would be no more. I turned, finding myself looking directly into the eye slits of a particularly imposing war helmet. I felt a chill, as if there was actually a warrior watching me from within the suit of armor, waiting for me to do what he could no longer accomplish.
Keep Harfeld safe, by the blood of your body and the bravery of your heart.
I will, I vowed silently.
But I wasn’t prepared when I was led through the entryway, out into the coolness of the night air – it would not be long before the sun rose. They dragged me through the rest of the courtyard because I stumbled trying to get a good look at what was going on up in the battlements on the outer wall. Apparently that was where I was to go too, for the men led me towards the tower on the east side of the gate, and up the narrow spiral staircase that led into the battlements that allowed archers to overlook the gate, to defend against those who approached.
“Ah! Excellent! You’ve brought the guest of honor,” the witch exclaimed seeing me as I was shoved out of the staircase and onto the ground at her feet. I glowered and used my bound hands to push myself onto my knees, getting slowly to my feet. I would not kneel before her.
I took in my surroundings, looking for Gavin. There were archers lining the wall, bows strapped across their backs, their skills not needed just yet. Several torches were lit, the light they cast sent the faces of those looking at me into shadows, making them look frightening and inhuman – especially the face of the witch.
Her eyes were almost gleeful as she regarded me, a look that spoke of her long awaited revenge about to be complete.
“You won’t win,” I said.
She smiled, her eyes turning hard, “I already have.”
I stared back at her, unflinching, “We shall see.”
She snapped her fingers and I was pushed hard, farther from the staircase and closer to the center of the wall, Dunbracian men standing on either side of me. I wished for them to go. With them standing so close it would be impossible to retrieve the knife to cut myself loose, which was all I could think about with the metal of the sharp blade biting into the skin of my calf where I’d hidden it in my boot.
Movement to my left snagged my attention and I watched as Gavin was hauled up the staircase onto the battlements. He looked furious, fighting against his captors every step of the way. My eyes slid shut in momentary relief. The vacant look was gone from his eyes.
He’s all right, I took in a deep breath, for now.
“Well, young warrior,” the witch said, stepping so his view of me was blocked, “are you prepared to die?”
Gavin’s response was immediate, and silent. He drove his shoulder into the man to his left, pushing the Dunbracian man over the side of the wall, where he fell with a horrible scream. In the sounds of the scuffle it took a moment to place the sound that was so out of place, it was as if it came from my imagination. The witch was laughing and clapping her hands delightedly at Gavin’s ferocity. Most of this I heard, for as soon as Gavin had moved the men at my sides ran to aid in restraining him. I saw my opportunity.
Thank you, Gavin, I thought, bending swiftly, slipping my fingers into my boot. I grasped the hilt of the knife with the tips of my fingers, slowly sliding it out. I knew a moment of perplexity. How on earth was I supposed to cut myself loose? My heart pounded, sweat slicking my back as I better adjusted my grip on the knife, glancing around to make sure no one saw me. No one did. Gavin was providing an excellent diversion, but he could not distract them forever.
I bent, putting the knife between my knees, sawing at the binds clumsily. Blood stained my skirt as one of my fingers was cut in my haste, I felt the ropes begin to loosen, but not nearly fast enough.
The rope fell away and the knife clattered to the ground as a handful of my hair was seized, yanked so hard I was forced to stand straight. I froze, feeling the coolness of metal pressed against the skin of my neck. The witch was holding a knife to my throat, turning me sharply to face Gavin.
His eyes went wide when he saw me. Somehow he’d managed to free himself, for he was wielding a sword and three men lay at his feet, two more held at bay by the threat of his blade.
“Fey,” he looked dumbfounded.
“Stop resisting or I’ll slit her throat,” the witch ordered and then snickered.
Gavin was still staring at me, “I thought you escaped.”
The witch clapped her hand over my mouth to stop my words.
“She came back,” she said, “for you.”
I drew my foot up to bring my heel down, hard, onto the witch’s. With a screech she stumbled away from me, but I turned swiftly to retrieve the fallen knife, held it both of my hands and lunged, driving the blade into her stomach. Our eyes locked, faces mere inches away from each other. A breath in and a breath out, the shock slowly lessening in her expression.
And then she began to laugh.
With a sharp movement, her hand made contact with my cheek with enough force to knock me sideways into the low wall. She straightened, pulling out the knife as if it were nothing more than a splinter.
“Brave,” she said coldly, her eyes finding me, “and foolish.”
You cannot kill me, she seemed to say, standing tall, eyes flashing with fury.
“You could have everything,” she said, bending close to my face, so close I felt the sting of her breath on my skin, “I offered you life, a choice at freedom.”
“I want nothing you can give me,” I said, slowly getting to my feet, refusing to touch my cheek and soothe the sting of her slap.
Hurt. Anger. Bewilderment. All these flashed in her eyes at my words, breaking her armor of cold composure.
“Your father said the same to me once,” she blinked, unsettled and angered by my response, standing straight once more and looking down at me, “He lives to regret it. And you shall do the same.”
I followed her gaze and saw that her men had at last overpowered Gavin, wrestling him to the ground, kicking the sword away from his hand. With effort, they hauled Gavin to his feet. His eyes locking on mine as they dragged him towards me.
The witch walked slowly towards him, tracing his jawline with the tip of her finger. Gavin clenched his jaw, turning his face away from her touch, his face disgusted.
“Daughter of Harfeld,” the witch said, turning to look at me, “you say you want nothing I can give you.”
My breath caught as I saw the flash of metal in her hand.
“Including the life of this man?”
I warred within myself. The pull to surrender battling with the impulse to fight.
By whatever means necessary keep yourself and Gavin alive.
Gavin’s eyes had never left my face, but now he glanced away from me, turning his head to the side, looking down at the ground. I saw the muscle in his jaw clench as he waited for my answer.
He doesn’t expect me to save him.
The realization of that stunned me, tears springing into my eyes. I took a step towards him. And another.
“Come no closer, princess,” the witch warned, “or more of this will happen.”
With a flick of her wrist the blade bit into the skin on Gavin’s chest. A line of red appeared and slowly coated the fabric of his shirt. Gavin did not flinch, still determinedly not looking at me, not making me choose, not expecting anything of me.
I put my hand out, as if to stop her, “Don’t.”
She bent towards me, her hand cupping her ear, “What was that?”
I glared at her, “You have me. I’m the one you want. Killing him will do nothing.”
Her lips curved slowly into a malicious smirk, “Ah, but it will.”
She brought the knife to her lips and licked the blood off the blade, coating her lips so that they glistened. My stomach turned.
“Love denied has terrible consequences,” she said, her eyes hard even as she smirked at me, “it can turn the heart towards paths not usually taken.”
“That’s what happened to you,” I stated, “love denied not once but twice. And a dream of family broken.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“I am not like you,” I shook my head.
I paused, taking a breath and a few steps forward, my stance and voice calm, not showing my relief at how she slowly lowered the knife away from Gavin.
“I will not make the same choices as you,” I said, “Deirdre.”
The effect the speaking of her name had was something that I had not foreseen. She drew back, like a wounded animal, eyes going wide with fear, clutching at the knife in her hand as if it would save her from drowning.
“That is your name isn’t it?”
It took her the span of a moment to recover from her astonishment. With a quickness that surprised me, she lunged forward, her hand coming into contact with my forehead, her touch hot and burning, so painful I fell to my knees. I grasped her wrist, attempting to pull her off of me, but it was too late. I was unprepared. And there was nothing I could do to fight off her magic as it spun through me, separating my thoughts, slipping in to view moments that were not hers to see.
I saw Cormack telling me her story.
Deirdre, yes, that is her name though many forget that it belongs to her. . .
You loved her once, I’d said.
I saw the look on his face as he looked at the sky for a moment before answering.
Heaven help me, Cormack had answered, I did.
I was back in the closet, listening to Cormack promise me that he would end this.
I believe you, I’d said.
The sound of an enraged scream pierced the air and the fire stopped. I collapsed in an exhausted heap on the ground, unable to do anything but stare straight ahead with eyes that wouldn’t focus.
The world went black for a moment.
Come now, Freya, the Great Prince whispered, they still need you.
But I’m so tired of fighting, I thought, of being brave.
Then let me give you strength.
A sudden wind swept through the battlements, filling my nose with a sweet scent like fresh rain, invigorating me.
I opened my eyes.
“He was dead!” she was screeching, “I had him killed!”
The disconcerted muttering of the men still on the battlements watching their queen go mad reached my ears. I sat up, slowly.
“Cormack!” she screamed, “Where are you!?”
Her demanding question was met with silence. I slid out of her pacing path, inching along the wall towards the men that still held Gavin, but loosely. Their hold slackened by their unease at watching their queen, pacing and pulling at her hair, screeching into the air for a man they all thought was dead.
I watched as a man approached from the staircase, slowly, as if uncertain.
“Yes?” the witch spun on him, “what is it?”
He bowed, “The Harfeldan warriors have been spotted. They will be here within the hour.”
With a scream lightening flashed from her fingertips and the man fell down, motionless. I stared in horror, feeling nausea sweep through me at the same time as relief.
They were coming.
It ends before then, Cormack had said, I’ll not have more Harfeldan blood on my hands.
So where was he?
“Cormack!” she screamed, eyes wide, going back and forth madly, “Show yourself!”
I heard the twang of a bowstring being released and the thud of an arrow making contact. The man holding Gavin’s left arm fell face down, an arrow sticking straight out of his back. The other man holding Gavin dropped his arm as if it was on fire and backed away into the shadows, a look of terror on his face.
He too fell down dead.
Gavin stayed where he was, uncertain, his eyes searching for the archer. The arrows had come from two different directions.
“Leave the boy alone,” a voice came from somewhere above us, “or the rest of you die.”
I found him first. He was standing on top of the east stone tower, bow in hand and arrow knocked.
The Dunbracian archers seemed dumbstruck.
“What are you waiting for, you idiots!” the witch shrieked, “shoot him!”
Before one of them could load an arrow they all fell down dead. I gasped, covering my mouth with my hand as one fell down directly at my feet where I sat in the shadows, blood seeping on the stones, thick and dark. The men down in the courtyard below drew their swords and advanced. I heard shouts as they encountered barriers leading up to the battlements, the thud of them banging and trying to break down the door to reach their queen.
“Cut him loose, Freya,” I heard Cormack say to me.
I looked up at him where he stood on the tower, leaping lightly down to stand on top of the wall, bow now drawn, poised to fire.
The witch was eyeing him warily, her fingers twitching as if she wished to cast a spell but wasn’t quite sure what results it would bring. I picked up the knife she had dropped and ran to where Gavin still knelt, hands bound behind his back.
He sucked in his breath, I nicked him with the blade as I’d clumsily began to cut his binds.
“Sorry,” I whispered, “My hands won’t stop shaking.”
The ropes fell and he turned, taking my hand in his, “It’s all right.”
The sky was beginning to lighten.
We moved to crouch in the shadows that the wall still cast, watching the stand-off between Cormack and the witch. They hadn’t said a word to each other, but seemed to slowly be circling each other, both the prey and both the hunter.
“It’s been a long time, Cormack,” she said. Beneath the derision in her voice there was a tinge of fear, I heard it in the way her voice quavered slightly when she said his name.
“Yes, what’s it been?” he seemed to consider for a moment, brow furrowing before his expression hardened, “Almost ten years since you tried to have me murdered?”
Her smirk froze, “You understand why I had to do it.”
He shook his head ever so slightly, bow still drawn, ready to shoot, “No, Deirdre, I never did.”
A flash of blue shot from her fingertips, which Cormack side-stepped, loosing his arrow which the witch disintegrated with a handful of fire.
“I know why you’ve come,” Deirdre snarled, “you know human weapons will not work.”
Cormack looked grimly at her, jaw clenched.
“You know what you must do, don’t you?” she stepped towards him, slowly, her eyes dipping in a mesmerizing look, “I will not stop. Not until the sun ceases to set.”
I watched in horror as Cormack made no move to stop her. She moved so that she was close to him, brushing his body with hers as she circled around him, pressing her lips close to his ear. I could not hear what she was saying. But I saw the look on Cormack’s face, the slow loss of resolve, the seeping away of will and strength as she ran her hand across his shoulders.
He fell to his knees under the weight of the spell the witch was speaking.
“Cormack!” I shouted.
The first of the sun’s rays broke through the horizon, turning the sky from slate gray to the first blush of pink. I heard shouting from below, the roar of a multitude of men approaching answered with the shouts of the queen’s army waiting below.
I felt urgency spiral through me.
If this was to end it needed to end now.
I made to run to him, but Gavin’s hand tightened around mine, stopping me.
“Gavin,” I said, “He needs me. Let me go.”
Slowly, he nodded, releasing my hand. I began to run and I knew he’d be right behind me. Whatever the witch was doing was taking all of her concentration, her eyes were fixed on the back of Cormack’s head where she stood behind him, muttering in a language I did not understand, though I knew what language it was, for I felt the cold stealing through the air, heavy and unnatural, pressing against my chest.
“Cormack!” I fought to get to him, feeling the invisible hands pulling at me, making it hard to walk, even harder to breath.
My heart pounded in my chest, my breath stolen by the sharp coldness in the air. I fought to move, gritting my teeth against the pressure making it almost impossible to move my legs. I was nearly to Cormack. I knew all I needed to do was touch him to break whatever spell was holding him, whatever sway she had over him could be broken if he just remembered who he belonged to now. I heard Gavin struggling behind me, cursing in alarm as he tried to fight something he could not see.
The witch looked up at me for a moment, her face transformed as her eyes glowed red in the wake of her magic, skin shining like moonlight.
“You must make a choice,” she said, “you cannot save them both.”
I felt fear closing its tight fist around my throat as I understood. I looked over my shoulder to see Gavin on the ground, held by shadow-dwellers that he could not see and could not hope to fight, they pressed him down, cutting off his breath, stealing away his life. I saw Cormack fighting to release himself, his eyes dipping into the despair I’d first seen when I’d met him in the woods those long months ago.
And then my eyes found the witches, her eyes bright with malice and triumph.
And then I closed my eyes and stretched out my hands, my fingertips just barely touching both of them, focusing all of my energy on remembering the feel of the light when it spread through me.
Great Prince, Fey Lady, Thilda, I need you. Please.
I squeezed my eyes tighter, hearing Gavin gasping. And then I felt the warmth of light at my back. I saw what was impossible to see in my mind’s eye— the Great Prince was behind me, allowing me to do what was otherwise impossible, his arms stretched out with mine, reaching. I knew he touched the tip of Gavin’s boot and I felt Cormack’s fingers close around mine.
“No more,” my voice came out as a whisper, opening my eyes and staring at straight at Cormack, not pulling away when his hand gripped mine so tight my knuckles cracked, “her time of mischief has ended. End it, Cormack. End it.”
He nodded, slowly.
I released him, and fell backwards, crawling to Gavin, placing my hands on his chest, watching as his breath returned.
Cormack stood, slowly, turning and pressing his hand against the witch’s heart, driving her backwards against the low stonewall.
“Deirdre,” he said in a voice like thunder, and again. With each pronunciation of her name, his skin began to glow, until he was so bright I could not look at him. I pressed my face into the fabric of Gavin’s shirt, his arms coming around me.
And then there was the piercing sound of an inhuman scream, ringing in my ears like shattered glass, as if a thousand mirrors had been broken. I cracked my eyes open and saw Cormack cradling the witch in his arms, tears running down his face. She stared up at him with eyes the color of a blue sky in May. Gone was the inhumanly beautiful witch with eyes that glowed. She looked like a woman, pretty, but not frightening in her perfection. My heart cracked, seeing her. This was the girl he’d loved then. The woman she had been before darkness consumed her.
“Cormack,” she whispered, blinking as if seeing something she had long forgotten but now remembered.
“Deirdre,” he said, removing his hand from her heart.
She reached up and brushed the hair off of his forehead, tears slipping from her eyes, “I hope you can forgive me.”
He shouted, his voice coming out ragged and broken. The pain in his voice tore at me, even as his hand closed around the hilt of a knife he’d drawn, I saw him raise the blade as he said, “Your darkness is undone.”
Gavin pulled me to him, his hand pressing my face into his shoulder. But he couldn’t shield me from the sound of the knife ending her life, the gasp, the grasping and tearing as she reached for Cormack, or the anguished cry that was torn from Cormack’s lips.
Tears spilled from my eyes and wet Gavin’s shirt already stained with blood.
The sun rose, staining the sky orange and pink.
Yet, there was little warmth in the air as I stood, feeling numb. I took a few stumbling steps toward Cormack who still cradled the witch’s body. Deirdre’s body. I saw her blood pooling on the stones beneath her.
I went to him, placing my hand on his shoulder that was shaking from the silent tears he shed. I opened my mouth, wanting to help him, to make it better, but closed it again. There was nothing, absolutely nothing I could say. So I sat with him. I didn’t realize I was crying until I saw the teardrops making the fabric on Cormack’s shoulder damp. There was an eerie stillness that held the world in that moment, no birds sang, almost as if even they were in mourning for what had occurred in this place.
Slowly, I became aware of the warmth that fell over us, making the numb and cold slowly recede. I looked up to see the Great Prince on his knees in front of us.
“Help him,” I whispered, my voice trembling. Cormack’s pain was palpable.
“Let me see her,” the Great Prince said.
Almost reluctantly, Cormack released Deirdre, laying her gently on the stones.
“Are you ready, daughter?” the Great Prince whispered, “you’ve been given redemption, in your last moments. You asked for forgiveness. Come with me, now.”
And then something happened. A mist, almost, rose from her body, tiny fragments rising that sparkled like starlight on the surface of a lake, until I saw her standing there, a ghost-like form of the girl she had been in the moments before she died. It was strange seeing such a thing, when her body lay just there, silent and unmoving. If every inch of me didn’t hurt I would have thought I’d fallen into a dream.
Cormack was watching with wide eyes, seeing as she took the Great Prince’s hand, she smiled and slowly disappeared like fog in sunlight. I heard Cormack’s breath release in wonder, in relief.
“Be at peace,” I heard him whisper.
The Great Prince nodded at the two of us, sitting there on the stones, weary, heart-sick and silent.
“Well done,” he said, “rest now.”
And then he was gone. Cormack and I sat still, our shoulders leaning together, saying nothing, watching as the sun rose and banished the lingering shadows of night.
I didn’t move or look up when I heard Gavin approach. I saw him lay, gently, a short cloak of a fallen Dunbracian warrior over Deidre’s body covering her from sight.
“Fey,” he said then, “the warriors are here.”
The stillness that held the world was shattered in the roar of the warriors approaching, war cries that rent the air. They were still expecting a fight, yet no fight would come for them this day.
It was over. Strange then, that I felt so little relief.
I only felt cold.
With the daylight came our warriors, led by my father. The Dunbracian army had scattered at the death of their queen, not leaving much for the weary warriors to do but ensure the Dunbracian men left without harming anyone on their way back to their kingdom.
What a sight the three of us were, I am sure, when my father came riding through the gate. We stood up on the battlements over the gate as they came through, they turned to look up at us.
“Where is she?” my father shouted.
Cormack was silent, his face pale. Gavin did what Cormack could not. He retrieved the knife that had pierced the witch’s heart and held it aloft for all to see, gleaming red with her blood.
“She lies here vanquished,” Gavin shouted, his voice steady, “by the hand of Cormack with this knife, and the bravery of Princess Freya.”
They cheered, banging their swords on their shields, a bone rattling sound that seemed to shake the earth.
Victory, victory. The witch is conquered.
The sound of it grated, making me want to cover my ears.
Needing something to anchor me, I looked at Gavin for the first time then and saw the marks of what had happened. He was coated in blood and dirt, the wound on his chest still dripping. I looked at Cormack—seeing his hands and shirt were stained dark red, hands he didn’t move to wipe as he stood silent, looking up at the sky. I knew I looked much the same, feeling the weariness of the past few days in my very bones.
“Come,” Gavin said to us then, he put a steadying hand on Cormack’s shoulder, and reached for my hand.
Slowly, the three of us climbed down the winding stairs of the battlements in silence.
The Fey Lady and Thilda declared the time of darkness to be over, lauding Cormack for what he had done. The warriors cheered, my father clapped his brother on the back and smiled.
My father shouted victory, and the warriors with him.
But I did not join in, and neither did Gavin beside me.
Our eyes followed the man now slipping silently through the courtyard, not turning when his brother called out to him, inviting him to join in the celebration.
I looked at Gavin, and he nodded, and then I slipped away, following after Cormack. Although I knew Gavin would be watching and waiting for me to return he understood he could not come with me, not for this. As Cormack walked, his men appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, falling into step beside and behind him, strapping bows along their backs, their quivers not quite as full of arrows as they once were.
They walked to the back of the castle, through the courtyard and past the stables, over the stone wall right to the edge of Blackwood Forest and did not hesitate to slip into the trees. I ran after them a moment too late, for they all but disappeared.
“Where are you going?” I called.
I knew he heard me, and so I waited.
“You were brave, Freya,” I jumped when his voice came from behind me, “I owe you my life. Again.”
I turned to find him sitting up in a tree, glancing down at me as he lounged back on the wide branch he’d chosen, as if he’d been up there for hours.
“We all owe you our lives,” I stated, “You did it.”
He sighed, moving slowly to sit up as if it was difficult for him. He jumped out of the tree, landing with a thump.
“She almost took me, and I couldn’t stop her. You saved me from that,” he said quietly, his look intense.
“You grieve for her,” I stated, “even now.”
He did not need to say it; I saw the sorrow written plainly in his face. I placed my hand on his shoulder, meaning to comfort him. He’d likely be haunted by the shadow of the witch and the woman she had been for the rest of his life. Yet, we’d both seen how her story had actually ended. She was at peace, at last. Released from the demons that chased her. Cormack bent his head and I knew he was remembering it as I was. After a moment he nodded, giving my hand a quick squeeze where it lay on his shoulder before he looked up and said something that surprised me.
“You, Freya, are the true hero.”
I shook my head. I’d always wanted to be the hero. And to have someone finally call me that was oddly uncomfortable. It was as if I didn’t quite deserve it. I simply had done what needed to be done.
I said as much to him.
“And that,” Cormack said with a small smile, “is what makes you a hero.”
I frowned, “Then you are one too.”
He shook his head, glancing away from me, but not before I saw the flash of sadness in his eyes, “I don’t feel much like one.”
I punched his shoulder, annoyed at his brooding self-pity, I saw his mouth lift at the corners ever so slightly. We were silent for a moment.
“Where are you going?” I said, my voice catching, “Won’t you stay? You have a place in Harfeld now.”
Cormack pressed his lips together and shook his head, “I’ve claimed the magic in me too strongly to be confined to the world of mortals for long. Like my mother before me. Besides, there are other things I have to face a reckoning for, other wrongs to be righted,” he paused and flashed a smile, “I tend to do that better without my brother to keep an eye on me.”
I nodded, understanding. Somehow, I’d known he wouldn’t stay. He seemed too wild to be confined within the walls of a castle, stifled by the rules and regulations that came along with being the brother of a king.
I understood that.
He put his hand on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze and winked, “Lead them well, Freya.”
And then he began walking and whistling as he went.
I turned, watching him go.
“Will I ever see you again?”
He didn’t stop walking, but looked thoughtful, “Someday. When you hear a song whistled on the wind amidst the fairies call, I’ll return, but not before then. But you don’t need me, Freya.”
He leveled me with a serious look, his eyes gleaming with admiration, before he smiled.
“You never did.”
And then he vanished.
Fey-called indeed, I thought, wondering if I’d ever learn to do something like that.
I shook my head and smiled.
I climbed into the tree Cormack had been in and leaned back against the bark, breathing in the fresh forest air full of magic and secrets. I didn’t want to return, not just yet. What I had witnessed lay heavy against my heart, the weariness seemed to stretch into my very soul. It ended well, after all, I told myself, still I didn’t want to celebrate. Not yet. Besides, Blackwood Forest was a place I felt peace and belonging. Strange, how it had changed for me too. Once a place of terror and nightmares, it was now one where I felt at home, safe. Will-o-the-wisps darted through the dark leaves, whispering chattering tales, from deep within the trees I heard the fey song, calling to me. I had listened before, and I would listen again. I would return to dance beneath the boughs of Blackwood Forest with the fey, to claim the magic in me.
But not yet.
There was still a place for me in Harfeld, the pull to remain was stronger than the pull to yield to the fey song, tempting me to dance. And my heart was still there.
Thinking of him, I descended from the tree and walked wearily back through the forest.
Night had fallen, but the revels of the castle were such that I heard the laughter and shouting even from this distance. Lovely sounds. Completely different than the ones that had chased me in the forest the first time, nearly half a year ago. So much had changed. I had changed. These were my thoughts as I walked back to the castle to find Thilda waiting for me.
“Just where do you think you’re going?” she chided, “nowhere looking like a wild thing. Smelling like one too. We need to get you washed up—covered in sweat and blood and heaven knows what else.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but suddenly feeling unutterably weary, and wanting nothing more than a nice hot bath, I nodded.
Everyone in the great hall fell silent.
If Thilda hadn’t made me wash and step into a clean dress I would have thought it was the way I smelled that caught everyone’s attention. Yet, I looked every part the princess in that moment, crowned with a circlet of gold, my still damp hair cascading down my back, beginning to curl from the heat of the fire blazing, and the amount of bodies in the room. It seemed everyone was there. The council members, the warriors, I even saw some of the villagers feasting beside nobles. It appeared all of Harfeld was there to celebrate the banishing of darkness. For just a moment I felt a pang, thinking of the one face that was absent, but deserved, perhaps more than anyone else, to be there, taking in the glory.
Every eye was on me as I walked through the great wooden doors into the great hall. And for the first time in my life I didn’t look away, no longer ashamed of myself or who I was I stood tall, shoulders back and looked directly back at each pair of eyes I could see.
I heard the whispers then.
Only they were very different from the whispers I was used to hearing.
She saved us.
Our future queen.
How brave she is.
I looked to my right to see my father approaching, my mother on his arm.
“It is because of your bravery that we celebrate tonight,” he said loudly enough for all to hear, “if we had listened to you and your wisdom, much of what we lost could have been saved. As it is, much of what we did save is due to you and your tenacity.”
I blinked, astonished and overwhelmed. Whatever I had been expecting it was certainly not this.
“You will be a great queen,” he proclaimed then. What surprised me most was the roaring answer of those around him. The warriors. The council. The villagers. They all shouted in agreement, cheering, pounding on the long wooden tables raucously with their fists. I knew he’d always believed that. But now, it seemed, everyone else believed it too. I swallowed against the wave of emotion that hit me at that realization.
“Let us continue the celebrations!” he roared.
The agreement was deafening. The laughter resumed and the music began again. Looking to follow my parents, and get something to eat, I stopped when someone took hold of my hand.
I turned to see Gavin.
He stepped close to me then, for just a moment, long enough to whisper in my ear, before he moved away.
Meet me in the orchard at midnight.
I smiled to myself.
A while later, after I’d eaten and reveled in the newness that seemed to be unfolding all around me, I finally slipped, unnoticed, from the great hall. It was nearly midnight. Gavin wasn’t waiting there for me like I’d expected.
Thilda was. Again.
She was standing still, her blue eyes trained out the window, where she could see the trees of the forest, her stance expectant as if watching for something. I did not question it. She was the sister of the Fey Lady. I decided I would give up ever trying to learn all of her secrets.
I stood beside her in silence until she turned to me.
Thilda pulled me in for a tight embrace, “I told you these things have a way of coming full circle.”
I smiled, remembering.
“These things have a way of coming full circle. A war ending in peace. A love bringing forth life. A curse turned to a blessing,” she’d said one day so long ago when I was fretting about a curse that was never a curse to begin with.
“Fey-called,” Thilda said, pulling away to smile at me, “shall we begin learning how to wield that talent?”
It was never enough to simply have finished whatever challenge just faced, whether it was finally learning how to knit or dance or defeat a witch. There always was a next with Thilda.
“Yes,” I said, turning to look towards the door, for movement had caught my eye, “but…”
Thilda released me and waggled one bony finger at me, “But what young lady?”
I bit my lip and smiled, “First I have to go.”
Thilda turned back to me, her blue eyes bright with happiness, “Go. But don’t get into too much mischief with that young man!”
“Never too much mischief,” I tossed over my shoulder as I began to run, “just enough!”
I paused long enough to remove the circlet of gold on my hair and shake it free before I sneaked through the kitchens, out the side door just like I had a hundred times before. Picking up my skirts, I ran the rest of the way to the orchards.
The night was cool, but not the biting cold it had been. The snows would come soon, but not just yet. The bright winter night sky illuminated the way for me, the stars sharp like cold glass, the moon as bright as a polished silver coin glinting from the heavens.
It was a magical night, and I heard the fairies singing, but the longing I felt was not for them or their magic dance. It was for the man I saw outlined in the moonlight, waiting for me. Gavin was leaning up against a tree the same way he had that fateful night. I had been uncertain of so many things then.
We said nothing as we walked toward each other, finally coming to rest in each other’s embrace.
“Do you hear that?” he said after a moment, pulling away from me and tilting his head ever so slightly to listen, “the Fey song?”
“They’re calling for you,” he said then, I caught the note of sadness in his voice.
“My place is here,” I said firmly, “in Harfeld. And with you.”
“You’re certain?” he asked then, eyes locking on mine. I nodded. I had never been more certain of anything.
Suddenly Gavin turned quite serious, I saw his gaze flicker to my lips, and hesitate. I saw him warring with himself for the barest of moments. And then, quite determinedly, he bent his head, my breath caught as he pressed his lips to mine once, and then again. A feeling of warmth spread through me, leaving me almost giddy.
If I didn’t know any better, I would have said it was magic. And perhaps, in a way it was.
How did you know father was the man of your heart? I asked my mother all those years ago.
When he put his arms around me, I felt safe. As if that was where I belonged.
I did not need to wait for the certainty in my heart.
I already knew.