If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out
available for free now on Inkitt!!
If you like creepy country roads, abandoned farmhouses, and things that go bump in the night, check out
available for free now on Inkitt!!
This afternoon, out of sheer curiosity, I typed “mexican restaurants near me” into Google.
It told me to drive to Winnipeg. 😐
“Hannah! Move your ass we’re going to be late!” I called down the hallway, then turned back to the bathroom mirror.
My heart pounded in my chest as I leaned in close to my reflection, trying to keep my hand steady as I swept light brown eyeshadow over one closed lid.
Perfect. Everything has to be perfect today. I started on the other lid.
“Holly, have you seen my black leather jacket?” came a jarring voice directly behind my ear. Startled, the makeup brush jolted upwards, painting a swatch of eyeshadow over my brow and up to my forehead.
“Dammit, Hannah,” I said with a sigh, reaching for a tissue. “Your leather jacket is in the front closet. Where I hung it last night after you threw it on the ground.”
My hands shook as I wiped off the errant makeup.
“Thanks, sis. You’re a dream,” Hannah said, coming up next to me and giving me a swift kiss on the cheek. I rolled my eyes and picked the makeup brush off the counter.
For a moment, I looked back at my own reflection, and its mirror image standing beside me. Hannah’s waist-length blonde hair was the same honey-gold shade of my own. She had the same blue-green eyes, the same slender physique.
We were carbon copies of one another, down to the identical spray of freckles across our noses, though Hannah’s were harder to spot under her deep brown tan. She’d recently returned from a semester studying abroad in Australia and, in addition to the tan, now sported a steel bar through the upper cartilage of her left ear.
Hannah’s numerous piercings, as well as the red-and-gold tattoo of a phoenix that spread across her shoulder blades, were the only way that people could really tell us apart.
My twin’s reflection in the mirror met my own. Hannah’s eyes traveled down my outfit, her brow raised in disapproval.
“You cannot wear that,” she said.
“What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?” I cried in dismay. I looked down at my watch. We needed to be out the door in seven minutes if I was going to drop my sister off at her audition.
“You look like you’re going to an interview at a Catholic school, not one of the top advertising firms in Chicago.” Hannah said, her pink-stained lips pulled sideways into a smirk.
“It’s not…that bad,” I said, but my heart plummeted as I looked down at the brown tweed skirt and the loose jacket I was wearing over a collared white shirt.
Okay so it was a little conservative, but I needed to be taken seriously today. I needed to look like someone who was ready to be a junior copywriter at Fleischmann and Carter.
Hannah laughed. I took in her outfit, torn mesh leggings over a neon yellow skirt and a black t-shirt with a rainbow zebra on the front. Her eyes were rimmed with thick black eyeliner, and several hoops dangled from each of her ears.
“So you think I should dress like you, Ms. David Bowie?” I said.
Hannah was already crossing to her bedroom, so I was spared her sarcastic mumblings. I used the brief moment of peace to finish adding the final touches to my makeup.
I met my eyes in the mirror. You can do this, Holly.
You’ve already been there for four months. You’ve earned this.
I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself.
I’d spent the summer after graduating from the University of Illinois doing an unpaid internship at Fleischmann and Carter. For four months—sometimes for more than twelve hours a day—I’d run in heels through the corridors, fetching coffee, organizing files, and generally being the office gopher along with nine other recent college grads.
Now that the summer was over, the board of directors was prepared to offer full-time positions to only two of us. And I was determined that one of them would be me.
Hannah came stomping back into the bedroom, holding a creamy blush-rose dress over one arm and a black Neiman Marcus blazer in the other.
“Put these on,” she said, thrusting the clothes into my arms and crossing her own impatiently.
“Where did you even get these?” I said, taking a look at the designer labels on the clothes. “Dad said no more credit cards after that debacle in Sydney.”
“Yes—well—I bought these before that,” Hannah said, her eyes sparkling with mischief.
Hannah had what our father wearily referred to as “champagne taste on a beer budget”.
Thankfully, she also had excellent taste in fashion, and I yanked off my jacket and skirt right there in the bathroom and pulled the dress over my head.
The slippery satin hugged my curves like a second skin. It had a deep, cowled neckline that hinted at cleavage without actually revealing any. I tugged on the blazer and fastened the middle button, noticing as I did how well it fit.
It helped to have a roommate with my exact dimensions.
Hannah ran off to locate her leather jacket, and I took one last appraising glance in the mirror. She was right, this dress looked classy and sophisticated. Like a woman ready to take on the world, not a nervous twenty-one year old woman with all her hopes on the line.
I fought the urge to fidget with my hair, which was smoothed back into a glossy high ponytail.
Okay Holly. Now or never.
“Are you sure it’s okay if you skip class today?” I said to Hannah as I turned down headed east towards Lake Michigan. The September sun felt more like mid-July; the city was practically baking with heat even early in the morning.
“I told you, I already cleared it with my professors. I only have two classes on Friday anyway. Stop worrying,” Hannah said, her nose buried in her phone.
“Someone has to worry about your future, it’s not like you’re going to,” I replied, prickling with irritation. The only reason my sister had two classes on Friday was because she had dropped all of the others when they threatened to interfere with her “auditions”
“I’m singing at Lymelyght!” she cried, finally looking up from her phone. “It’s one of the hottest nightclubs in the city and they want me to audition! Don’t tell me I’m not thinking about my future.”
I bit my tongue and said nothing. I was in no mood to provoke Hurricane Hannah this morning. “If it’s a nightclub, why is the audition so early in the morning?” I asked instead, searching for neutral ground.
“Because I’m auditioning for the opening act, at seven o’clock at night. I’m not important enough to get to sleep in,” she said dryly, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear.
I smiled at the familiar gesture. I fidgeted the same way when I was nervous, it was one of the reasons I’d pulled my hair back into a ponytail for my interview.
Benedict Carter couldn’t stand useless fidgeting–he’d told me once when I’d delivered his mail.
I turned off LaSalle and headed north. The streets were so jam-packed with other cars, bicycles, and hapless tourists that my Jeep Wrangler could only move forward a few inches at a time.
I checked my watch again. 9:15. I still had forty-five minutes until my interview.
“Are you okay to get back on the train?” I asked Hannah. “I probably won’t be back at the apartment until later tonight.” Normally we used the complex network of trains and buses to get downtown, but today I had made an exception, fearful of any public transit delay outside of my control.
“Yes, Mom,” Hannah replied, once again focused on her phone.
I pulled up in front of Lymelyght, fighting the urge not to roll my eyes at the deliberate misspelling.
“Text me the second it’s over. Break a leg, Banana,” I said, using my childhood nickname for her.
“You too, Jolly. Knock ’em dead,” Hannah said, leaning over the center console to give me a fierce hug.
A truck honked its horn loudly behind us. “Gotta go, sis!” she said, giving me one more hard squeeze before swinging open the door of the Jeep.
Words of caution rose to my lips, but I bit them back. Hannah wouldn’t appreciate my mother-henning. She never had.
I watched her walk towards the darkened nightclub, tall and confident in knee-high combat boots. She looked utterly fearless, which of course she was.
I was the twin with the pile of anxiety.
I met my own gaze in the rearview mirror.
I can’t worry about Hannah now. I’ve got my own date with destiny.
Two of my fellow interns were already waiting outside the boardroom of Fleischmann and Carter when I arrived. James had his dark brown hands clasped fervently together as if in prayer. Vivian eyed me with cool disdain, already mentally dismissing me as a rival.
I fought the urge to chew on my bottom lip and took a seat in one of the plush leather chairs next to James. “Who’s in there now?” I asked quietly.
“Tommy,” he grunted, not looking up.
I breathed a sigh of relief. Tommy Hawthorne was a lazy little bastard who thought his Daddy’s name could get him whatever he wanted in life. He’d spent the summer lounging in the break room, cracking jokes while the rest of us worked our asses off. If there was any justice in the world, he’d be in for an unpleasant surprise when he faced the board.
I leaned back in the comfortable leather chair and closed my eyes, mentally checking off the four people I would need to impress today.
David Fleischmann was the only remaining member of the original advertising team that had opened back in the 1960′s. Now nearing eighty-five, he was still as sharp-eyed and razor-tongued as ever. I’d managed to earn praise from him only once during my short time with the firm—for a piece of copywriting that had been chosen by one of their top clients—and desperately hoped he’d remember me.
Janet Choo would be tough, but she probably knew me best. The head marketing director, she had a no-nonsense personality and I knew she loathed privileged little toads like Tommy Hawthorne. I had worked directly under her for months, and I knew she saw how hard I worked by the way she didn’t dog my heels the way she did some of the other interns.
Evelyn Fleischmann, David’s daughter and sole heir, didn’t scare me too much. She had little interest in the day-to-day running of the business, preferring to spend her father’s millions jet-setting around the globe. When I’d learned she would be among the interviewers, I was secretly surprised she deigned to notice us lowly interns at all, let alone that she would care which of us was chosen to work there permanently.
It was more likely that she was in town because she had her eyes on Benedict Carter, the fourth member of the board and the one I was most worried about impressing. Mostly because every time I was in the same room as him, I had a strange tendency to drop whatever I was holding at the time.
The first time I met him was my second day at Fleischmann and Carter. I’d been shown a bulky metal pushcart bursting over with undelivered mail and told to discreetly place it in the inboxes of the various cubicles and executive offices. The cart had a broken caster, and kept veering to the left no matter how hard I tried to correct it. I bumped my way down the carpeted hall, too new and frightened to make eye contact with anyone.
When I got to the frosted glass door marked “Carter”, I paused nervously. My hair was in a long braid over my shoulder, and I found myself nervously fidgeting with the blonde tail of it, running the smooth strands between my fingers again and again as I tried to summon the courage to enter the Vice-President’s office.
I stayed there so long my eyes must have taken on a glazed, unfocused look when the door opened outward, banging into the corner of my pushcart. A scowling head popped over the door, glaring in my direction.
“Do you mind?” a cool voice asked. It belonged to the most gorgeous face I’d ever laid eyes on.
Benedict Carter had thick, wavy brown hair and a chiseled square jaw covered by a day-old’s growth of beard. His nose was straight and fine, framed by hazel eyes flecked with green. Right now, they were narrowed at me in annoyance.
“I seem to be trapped in my office,” he said with a raised brow. His voice contained a hint of a laugh.
My cheeks flamed scarlet. I tried to move the pushcart but the broken caster caught on the edge of a rug and wouldn’t budge. “I—sorry sir, I—”
With one powerful motion he slammed the door open, sending the pushcart flying backwards. I gaped at him, taking in the tailored charcoal suit that didn’t quite hide his powerful muscles.
Mr. Carter looked at me, his eyes trailing over my nondescript black pants and blue blouse.
I was mortified. “Sorry, sir. I was just about to—” I stammered, still nervously running my fingers through the loose end of my braid.
“Stop fidgeting,” he snapped. I froze, my hands falling from my hair. The vice-president of Fleischmann and Carter had the power to fire me at whim. My career in advertising could be over the moment it began if he decided I wasn’t worth keeping around.
Terrified, I flicked my eyes up to meet his. His face softened as he took in my rigid posture, my inflamed cheeks. He leaned forward, bending his tall form to whisper in my ear. “It betrays you, Never let them see your fear.”
Mr. Carter had straightened and walked off without another word. That was my only day delivering mail before I was assigned to Janet Choo’s copywriting team, and I barely saw him in the following weeks. When I did, he didn’t acknowledge me or show any sign that he recognized me at all. Not that I blamed him. I was just another grunt, entirely beneath his notice.
But that didn’t stop my eyes from drinking him in every time I saw him in the halls. Over the months I learned that he favored dark gray suits and had a tie in every color of the rainbow, though he seemed to favor red.
I also heard some scandalizing rumors about him from some of the other interns.
Apparently our vice-president was a total playboy, only interested in chasing the next piece of tail across Chicago. And once he’d claimed his prize, he was off in search of different prey.
Not that I cared. I only needed to get through this one interview without getting tripped up and tongue-tied every time I looked at his hazel-green eyes and full mouth.
Without imagining that mouth kissing the skin of my neck, his large hands trailing down my arms to caress my breasts before traveling south to my—
“Miss Mason? Are we disturbing your beauty sleep?”
My eyes snapped open. I’d been resting my hand against the back of the chair for so long it probably did look as though I’d fallen asleep.
Benedict Carter was standing in the doorway of the boardroom, looking down at me with a half-amused, half-annoyed expression on his face.
My jaw dropped open, and I shut it with an audible click. “No, not at all—I was just preparing—”
He knew my name.
My heart kicked up twelve notches in one second, leaving me slightly dizzy.
“I’m sure you were,” Mr. Carter said, one side of his mouth pulling upward into a smirk. “And while I’d hate to deprive you of your rest, it’s time for your interview.”
Blood rushed to my face. I glanced at James, whose jaw was clenched tightly. Then to Vivian, who looked like she wanted to dig my eyes out of my skull.
“They—they were waiting here first,” I stammered, desperately hoping for twenty minutes with which to compose my thoughts.
He quirked a dark brow. “I won’t ask again, Miss Mason,” he said, then turned and went back inside the boardroom.
I bolted out of my seat, cast a guilty—yet somewhat triumphant—look at James and Vivian, and followed Benedict Carter into the interview.
Fifteen minutes later, I exited the boardroom from the back door, casting a silent thank-you to the heavens that I was spared facing my fellow interns as tears welled in my eyes.
I brushed them away with one hand, straightening my shoulders as I made my way down the main hallway of Fleischmann and Carter towards the bathroom.
Never let them see your fear.
I held it together until I had locked the stall door behind me.
Only then did I allow the tears to fall.
The interview had been a disaster. I’d been flustered from the start, unable to organize my thoughts into a coherent thought pattern. When David Fleischmann asked me about where I saw myself in five years, I’d blinked dumbly at him before mumbling something about “higher positions” and blushing furiously.
Hannah never blushed. From our earliest years she was the twin who could lie with a straight face, who could put on that smooth stage mask and hide her true feelings from the world.
Right now, I hated her for it. Wished that my every emotion wasn’t broadcast across my forehead like a Las Vegas billboard.
Benedict Carter had asked only one question during the interview. It was in between Janet Choo’s praising of my dedicated work–for which I definitely owed her a box of her favorite macarons—and Evelyn Fleischmann’s off-hand compliment about my dress—for which I definitely owed my twin a box of her favorite truffled chocolates.
Mr. Carter had leaned forward from his place on the other side of the wide conference table. There was a predatory gleam in his eye. “Miss—Mason,” he’d said, pausing to look at my resume as if he needed help remembering my last name, “Most of the products you’ve worked on during your time here focus on products that cater towards women ages nineteen to twenty-five, correct?”
“Yes, I particularly enjoyed working with Ms. Choo on the Perkins soap campaign–” I stopped when he held up a hand.
“I see that. My question is in regards to your–adaptability. How would you change your marketing strategy to cater to say–men ages thirty to forty-five?”
My mind went completely, utterly blank. All I could think about was that he was about that age, maybe around thirty-five or so. My restless hands traveled towards my neck, but I clasped them firmly in my lap.
No fidgeting. It betrays you.
“I—I would try to—” I stammered uselessly. “I guess I would try to give them whatever they desired.”
The moment the words left my mouth I felt my cheeks grow hot. I hadn’t mentioned SEO, hadn’t given my rehearsed blurb about not being daunted by new challenges..
And Benedict Carter’s gaze was still piercing into me. I felt his eyes on the neckline of my dress and thanked Hannah that she had chosen something relatively modest.
I opened my mouth to continue, but a harsh cough from Evelyn Fleischmann cut me off. I couldn’t make out her exact expression through the Botox in her face, but her eyes were flinty. “Thank you, Miss Mason. We will make our decision by the end of next week and let you know.”
I saw the accusation in her eyes. I’d stared too long at the vice-president, when she’d already marked him for herself. Even though she had to be at least fifteen years older than him.
But there was nothing I could do except shake hands with the board and exit through the back door. Now I sat on the cool porcelain lid of the toilet, trying to rein in my tears.
My phone buzzed in my purse, and I fished it out.
HANNAH: How’d it go?
HANNAH: Are you a big time exec yet?
I chucked the phone back into my bag, resisting the urge to fling it across the bathroom floor. How could I face my sister after ruining my first real chance at getting my dream job?
My phone buzzed again but I ignored it, too deep in my misery to want to see Hannah’s encouraging texts. But when it buzzed again a split second later, I couldn’t resist digging my phone back out. Then I gawped, open-mouthed, at the screen.
I had two new texts, but they weren’t from Hannah.
They were from Janet Choo.
My fingers trembled as I unlocked the screen.
JANET: Unconfirmed, so don’t shout about it online just yet…but you’re in.
JANET: The board was very impressed by your work.
My heart stopped. I couldn’t breathe as I typed back a reply.
HOLLY: ARE YOU SERIOUS??
HOLLY: Janet, I can’t even begin to thank you.
HOLLY: You stuck up for me in there.
JANET: Perhaps too much, it seems.
HOLLY: What do you mean?
JANET: Carter is pulling you off my projects.
HOLLY: He wants you on his personal team.
Click here for Chapter One
Cormac took none of his usual guards with him.
No one must know of this night.
He entered a copse of birch trees and continued, certain of his route due to his mother’s constant folk tales and his own youthful wanderings.
After half a mile, the stately trunks gave way to a thick tangle of scrub pine and briar bushes.
Cormac was forced to walk his horse, and eventually, when the thorny bushes coated the ground like a carpet, to leave the animal tied to a low branch and make his way on foot.
Unlike the thick heat of Dunnhawke Castle, a thick, cold mist was ettled on the forest, giving a damp chill to the air.
Out of the fog, Cormac began to make out looming shapes. Weathered gray stones, more than twice the height of a man, formed a rough circle in the small forest meadow.
An icy trickle shivered down Cormac’s spine. The faith of the priests had no power in this place.
These stones had stood for aeons before the gods of the outsiders came to this land.
Before the Fae, his crown meant nothing. He was just nothing but a pile of flesh and bone that decayed in a blink of their ageless eyes.
He had no authority between those rings of stone. The immortals had inhabited this land long before the rise of man.
The power of the ancient stones held them within their shadow realm. If a man wanted to converse with the Fae, he must enter their circle.
And he must do it unarmed. To do otherwise was to court death.
With a shudder, Cormac loosened the scabbard across his back that held his axe in place.
The two-sided blade fell with a dull thud onto the dry grass.
I am a king. I cower before no one.
Cormac kept his shoulders straight, his chin held high, as he passed within the outermost ring.
A tingle, electric as lightning, ran all the way down his spine. It passed as quickly as it had come, but it still left him shaking.
From the pocket of his cloak, he withdrew a hammered-silver bracelet of such superb craftsmanship that its worth could have fed a peasant family for a year.
Cormac’s heart thundered within the chest.
He crossed the threshold of the innermost stones.
Make no bargain you cannot bear to keep.
His mother’s parting words, said as he mounted his horse and charged off into Hawkthorne Forest.
The atmosphere around him quivered with magic.
Before his courage could fail him, Cormac said the words, the ancient words tripping on an unfamiliar tongue.
“Hear my name and answer my plea.”
He laid the silver bracelet upon it, then turned to face the silently watching eyes of the forest.
“I am Cormac Setterwind, King of Dunnhawke. I offer precious goods in exchange for the peaceful continuation of my reign.”
His words came slowly, haltingly. He’d learned the old language at his mother’s knee, but hadn’t spoken it aloud since long before his father’s death.
Cormac swallowed hard, then continued. “I beg of thee, O’ Mighty Ones, end the drought that has plagued my kingdom. Spare my–” here he stopped, swallowing back his desperation.
“Spare them. Spare my wife and unborn child from certain death.” A tear drifted down his cheek.
He slipped back into the modern tongue, but he was far too consumed in his panic to notice.
A king does not beg.
Nevertheless, Cormac dropped to his knees before the stone tablet, burying his head in his hands.
“Please. Accept my offering.”
“And do you think it a worthy offering, King Cormac, for the mighty gift that you ask?”
A silky voice sounded, and Cormac’s pulse jumped as he spun around.
Cormac’s pulse jumped as he beheld a member of the Fae for the first time in his life.
It was a youthful male with jet-black hair that glinted softly under the rising moon.
He looks so human.
“We were wondering when you would come, King Cormac,” the young man said.
He was dressed in simple hunting garb, a green leather tunic and brown pants.
Like the king, he appeared to be unarmed.
To the casual observer, the Fae could have passed as a rather beautiful young man.
But there was nothing human whatsoever in the Fae male’s eyes.
They gleamed in the moonlight, an unnatural, emotionless violet that froze the blood in Cormac’s veins.
The Fae knelt down and picked up the silver bracelet, examining it carefully from all sides.
“Its value is great, I assure you. It was part of my wife’s dowry.”
“Ah yes. The little queen from Peralorne. Tell me, Cormac Settermind, do you think if we listen hard enough, we will hear her dying scream?”
The Fae put a hand to his ear mockingly, as if trying to make out a distant sound.
Even though the creature’s words were meant to be taunting, they gave Cormac a fierce burst of hope.
His queen yet lived. At least for now.
“Will you accept the offering?” Cormac asked. The words were nearly squeezed out by the fear in his throat.
“You ask much, King of Dunnhawke. Life and life and life again.”
The Fae’s face barely moved as he spoke. It was as if his immortal features had been carved from marble.
“And yet you offer only metal. Pretty, to be sure. And yet dull. Lifeless.”
He clucked under his tongue, as if in disappointment. “I think that this is not enough. Not for all that you ask.”
“But you can do it!” Cormac insisted.
The Fae scoffed. “Of course I can. I can save them both, and bring prosperity to this land.”
Run. While you can.
“What do you ask?” Cormac’s voice shook when he asked.
“The rains will be restored to your kingdom, and your wife restored to health,” the fairy said.
“What of the child?”
The Fae lips curled ever so slightly. “She would be given to us.”
Hot, violent rage washed away Cormac’s fear and despair. “Get back to hell you demon. You will not harm my child!”
“We have no intention of harming the girl, the Fae said, his smile growing.
“A girl,” Cormac shuddered. “You know this for certain?”
Not a son, but a daughter.
Useless when it comes to inheriting the throne.
Perhaps if Bronnagh could live–we could try again.
As if reading his churning thoughts, the Fae quirked a dark brow. “Your wife is of fertile stock, Setterwind. If she lives, the child will be the first of twelve born to you.”
“Twelve?” Cormac felt weak in the knees at this prediction from the future.
The Fae nodded. “Seven of them boys.”
A dynasty to carry on my name.
Cormac felt sick. His stomach clenched and roiled.
“What would happen to the girl?” he asked, hating himself for asking.
The male picked idly at a fingernail, seemingly bored with the proceedings.
“She would no longer be of your concern.”
“She is my blood!”
“Setterwind blood.” the Fae’s eyes gleamed with sudden hunger. “Yes, King Cormac I know. It is an ancient and noble bloodline. I assure you, your daughter would be treated with all the respect due her rank.”
Cormac’s heart wrenched with guilt. How could he ever know that were true?
“If you agree,” the Fae continued, “once the girl was ready she would be escorted to Erilea, to live out the rest of her days in the realm of the Fae.”
~Erilea.~ Cormac’s skin crawled at the word. The land beyond the winds. A place of desolation and death from which no mortal had ever returned.
It was spoken of only in children’s stories, meant to frighten young ones into bed on a cold winter’s night.
The Fae stepped forward. “The time has come to make your choice, Cormac Setterwind. Your young wife will not last much longer.”
“When will you come for the child?” Cormac said, knowing his decision had already been made.
The Fae knew it as well. A wide grin came to his lips.
“Who can say? The people of the winds have long lives, and long memories. Perhaps it will be a year. Maybe twenty? Perhaps she live out her entire life without anyone in Erilea even remembering she exists. Immortals have such a poor concept of human lives, after all.”
“Why my daughter? Why are the Fae be interested in my child?” Cormac, asked, still unable to resign himself to what he was about to do.
“That is not your concern,” the Fae said. His eyes narrowed. “And your time is up. What is your answer, Cormac Setterwind?”
Cormac closed his eyes, begged his unborn daughter for forgiveness, then opened them again. “Yes,” he said, feeling his soul shrink with the small, cowardly word.
The Fae’s mocking smile slid away. From within his tunic he drew out a shining silver dagger and used it to cut a line down his palm.
Ancient blood dripped onto ancient stones.
His face inscrutable, the Fae held the blade towards King Cormac. He held a shaking hand out, and the Fae ran the blade along his palm, cutting a thin ribbon.
Blood welled from the cut and fell to the ground.
It gleamed crimson on the weathered stones of the fairy circle.
“I sweat it,” Cormac said again.
“So be it, Cormac Setterwind,” the Fae said, his eyes gleaming triumphantly.
END OF CHAPTER TWO
I’m wrapping up this medieval romance story for work, and I can’t get one thought out of my head.
In Europe during the Middle Ages, actually up until the late 19th century, freshwater was unsafe to drink because the technology to purify it had yet to be developed.
Because of this, most people drank tea, coffee (after the 17th century), and what was known as “small beer”, a lightly fermented ale. And that was just for basic hydration, not to mention the wine, beer, and liquor they would have consumed recreationally.
So basically, everyone was mildly buzzed just..all the time.
At the same time, knowledge of medicine and anatomy were… let’s just say sketchy as best. So the understanding of the link between alcohol consumption and birth defects would have been completely unknown, as this connection wasn’t fully documented until friggin’ 1973.
Which begs the question, did any of the people that we picture from history suffer from some form of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?
Note: I’m not trying to be insensitive on the subject, I’m just curious from a historical standpoint.
The land was dying.
From the narrow windows of Dunnhawke Castle, King Cormac could see the fields of wheat that seemed to wither before his eyes in their dry and dusty fields.
The crashing waves of the nearby sea mocked him with their constant pounding. So much water at his fingertips and yet it would not save him.
You’d never think we’d be so desperate for rain, not here.
The usual misty showers of spring had never come, nor had the heavy summer storms, so necessary to ripen the crops before harvest.
Now, weeks into August, the late afternoon sun still shone a merciless blue, with not a cloud in the sky.
A distant scream echoed down the stone corridor, and Cormac turned suddenly, his stomach wrenched with fear.
His wife, Queen Bronnagh, was in labor with their first child.
It had been a hard pregnancy, and the delivery was taking longer than expected.
The royal midwives were in attendance. He had seen them exiting Bronnagh’s bedchamber with bowl filled with bloody cloth.
The screams persisted all day, until Cormac thought he would tear his own heart from his chest to make it cease.
He had fought many battles in the war to reclaim his kingdom. The cries of dying men still echoed through his dreams. But none would haunt him like the cries of his beautiful new wife. Never before had he felt so utterly helpless.
Cormac took a deep, wavering breath and deliberately turned back towards the unpaned window. His kingdom, so newly won, was crumbling to pieces around him. How could he expect the people to support his rule when their livelihood stood dying in the fields? In the one hundred days since his official coronation, it had not rained a drop. All over the peasants were whispering.
They were displeased.
The hidden ones.
The people of the hills.
Whatever name people chose to call them, they did so in hushed undertones and subtle gestures.
Cormac shook his head. He had ridden himself of such foolish fancies the moment he had been exiled at twelve-years of age to a crumbling manor home on the isle of Soorninoor.
The brutal coup that had usurped his father, Ronan, had resulted in the death of the King had ended with the rule of Ronan’s younger brother, Odhran.
Then followed year after long, lonely year. Soorninoor was a desolate rock in the middle of the sea, constantly on the verge of being swept into oblivion by a severe winter storm. During this time young Cormac had shed no tears for his murdered father, nor did his mother who had escaped into exile with him.
Instead he had begun training with sword and shield and bow. Over time, he had grown broad and tall, a bear of a man with a barrel chest and a gingery-red beard. Support for his cause grew, as did his armies waiting on the mainland.
When he’d come of age at sixteen, Cormac had begun his war. Carrying an enormous two-sided axe, he led his forces against those of his Uncle Odhran. The violence had raged on both sides for more than four years. His armies depleted, his support waning, Cormac had thought his cause lost.
Deliverance had come to him in the strangest of places. A gleaming wooden carriage had arrived at his war camp on one afternoon more than a year ago. Out of this magnificent vessel had climbed a young woman with laughing blue eyes.
Princess Bronnagh captured his heart the moment Cormac had laid eyes on her. Tiny, bird-like in proportion, her chestnut-brown head barely reached his shoulder and yet he found himself utterly within her power.
She had been sent as an emissary, her father the King of Peralorne being unusual in giving important royal positions to his daughters as well as his son. At seventeen years old, Bronnagh was the youngest of eleven children. Her elder siblings had ensured that she was fluent in four languages as well as science and mathematics.
But above all of that, Bronnagh’s royal lineage stretched back more than five generations, offering a second layer of legitimacy to his claim to the throne of Dunnhawke.
His armies joined together with the legions of Peralorne to crush Odhran’s forces in a great battle near the River Nuile. It’s generally muddy brown waters had flown crimson with blood as men died along the banks. More on battle, wading through shit and mud, he found him on the field, the pike boys stopped to watch their kings fight.
Finally, with one sure stroke of his axe, Cormac had severed the head from his Uncle Odhran’s shoulders and reclaimed the throne of Dunnhawke after eight years in exile.
In the year they had been married, Cormac had come to love his wife deeply, though his stoic reserve made it difficult for him to demonstrate his affection.
Another wrenching scream came from the open door of Queen Bronnagh’s bedchamber, making Cormac feel half-mad with worry and grief.
A few short months ago, everything he ever wanted had been in the palm of his hand.
Now, his kingdom was plagued by drought, there were rumors of plague in the nearby villages, and it seemed likely that his hard-won alliance with the kingdom of Peralorne would die alongside his wife and newborn child.
Maybe he was cursed.
Perhaps one of the Fae had put an evil curse upon his reign.
He had never paid much mind to the old-wives tales before, but desperation was high and tight in his chest.
A voice from behind caused King Cormac to start, and he turned to see the midwife, her face bone white in the failing light of the sun.
She looks like an omen of death. Cormac thought as a shudder ran up his back.
The plump older woman shook her hand, “I’m afraid there’s nothing to be done, sire. The babe is turned in the womb, and the cord is wrapped about its wee little neck.”
Cormac Setterwind had not cried since the death of his father eight years ago, but now he felt a sob rising to his throat.
“And…and the Queen?” he choked, dreading the answer.
Again the midwife shook her head, and now Cormac’s knees threatened to buckle. He raised one hand to steady himself against the stone wall of the castle.
“I understand,” was all he was able to reply.
His beautiful, young wife.
The babe in her womb.
His long fight to reclaim his rightful throne.
All of it lost.
The peasants were already on the brink of revolt given the lack of food in the region. The whispers of curses reached his ears even here in the castle.
I have to do something!
Cormac slammed a futile fist against the wall, resting his head for a moment against the cool stones.
“My son, something must be done,” his mother said from his shoulder, having crept up in that silent way that she had. She echoed his own thoughts, as she so often did.
Grainne Setterwind was a tiny, wizened woman with a face full of sagging wrinkles, but her posture was kept rigidly erect by the sturdy oaken cane she carried.
She had been old since Cormac could remember, having borne him late in life after the deaths of her two elder sons, both of whom had died in battle before he was ever born.
“Mother, what else can we do? The Queen is near death, and the child with her,” Cormac said grimly, fighting to maintain control over his emotions.
I am frightened. He wanted to say, but a king must never betray any faintness of heart.
Even when he stood on the brink of ruin.
“There is always something to be done, if one knows who to ask,” his mother replied. Her blue woolen gown was closed high at the throat, but it did not hide the tremor that shook her frail bones.
Cormac’s own blood chilled at the thought. “We cannot go to them. They are not trustworthy. Mother you know this.”
“I know that if you do not ask for help from the Fae, you will lose your kingdom within the fortnight, and all your long years of struggle will have been for naught,” Grainne said in her measured voice.
Bronnagh cried out in pain, and Cormac could tell from the increased weakness in her voice that they were both running out of time.
“Be wary, my son. Make no bargain that you are unable to keep.”
Cormac didn’t respond. He knew the risk of what he meant to do this night.
But he had no choice.
He must go to the Fae.
The barrier separating the mortal realm from the world of the Fae was simultaneously as vast as an ocean and as close as a lover’s breath.
On one side of this distance, King Cormac saddled his mighty black stallion and galloped into the woods.
On the other, Prince Cillian of the Fae observed all of this with bated breath. His military bearing was straight and erect, his slim shoulders belied not a shred of emotion.
Likewise, his youthful face was utterly impassive, every muscle schooled carefully into place.
But nothing could disguise the hungry gleam in the Fae Prince’s eyes.
Their plan was finally coming to fruition.
The prophecy would be fulfilled.
The wartorn king was on his way.
His is the blood we need.
The blood of the Setterwind.
For years, Prince Cillian had watched.
For the opportune moment, when the Setterwind king was at his most desperate.
Cillian gazed into the waters of the Looking Pool.
The king had entered the thickest part of the forest. He’d been forced to bring his horse to a walk, and was now slowly picking his way through the tangled trees.
The trees that had been planted as a warning to the mortal realm.
Go back. Stay away.
Beyond lies the realm of the Fae.
Cillian waved his hand over the floating image in the water, and the image vanished.
His reflection stared back, his skin silvery white.
The pointed, predatory teeth.
Summoning his magic to the surface, Cillian enveloped himself in his usual glamour.
The only thing left unchanged were his eyes.
His new, full mouth parted in a triumphant smile.
Tonight, he would strike a bargain with the Setterwind king.
For the future of the Fae.