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Lush green fields raced by as the dappled gray mare pounded down the path.
Thick purple clouds, pregnant with rain, blanketed the sky, stretching beyond the verdant farmland all the way to the sea and its endless horizon.
In the distance, thunder growled low.
The horse veered around a bend in the muddy country road, flinging clods of wet earth behind her.
Her sides heaved with exertion, and her flanks were flecked with white lather. Seated on the mare’s bare back, Princess Gwendolyn Setterwind of Dunnhawke clung to the horse’s mane.
Come on girl. You can do it.
Ahead of her, the lane ended in a stone wall nearly five feet high.
Gwen pressed soft leather boots into the mare’s sides, urging the animal on to greater speeds. The horse responded eagerly, surging into a full gallop as they barreled towards the border wall at the edge of Dunnhawke Castle.
A flock of sparrows took flight in agitation as the mare pounded towards the fence.
It was made of sturdy stone, stacked almost five feet high.
Gwen’s stomach surged with adrenaline.
Gwen leaned forward, digging her fingers into the animal’s silvery-dark mane.
Her gasp was lost to the rising wind and all her muscles clenched in unison as the horse gathered her powerful muscles and launched over the wall.
For a sudden, breathless moment, they hung in midair. Gwen’s blue cloak fell back, revealing a mass of untamed, curly red hair.
Then the horse’s front hooves touched the muddy ground on the other side, followed by her hindquarters. Gwen felt the impact radiate through her hips as the mare continued her wild gallop, hardly breaking stride.
She sat up slowly, giving the horse a signal to come to a stop.
For a moment, all was still except for the pair’s heavy breathing. Then a fierce cry of victory pierced the stillness of the countryside.
The hood of the blue cloak was thrown back to reveal a young woman with a wild mop of curly auburn hair. Her blue-gray eyes were alight with excitement and triumph.
Gwen patted the mare’s sweaty neck. “We did it, Aoife! You were incredible!”
Beads of perspiration gathered on her brow, and she wiped them away with a careless hand and took a deep, exhilarating breath.
The freshly turned earth from the surrounding fields smelled of rich, peaty earth.
Thunder rumbled again, closer this time, and the rsing wind swirled her hair about her waist and shoulders.
Triumph still glittered in her eyes as she looked back at the crumbling stone wall they had cleared.
Let’s see Ronan take that jump, she thought with a smile.
A brilliant streak of lightning flashed across the sky, illuminating the swollen thunderheads that were rapidly gathering in the distance. The crash of thunder was immediate, booming overhead with a force that reverberated through her skull.
The horse shied, whinnying with fright. Tremors of fear rippled under the dark gray skin, and Gwen leaned laid a calming hand on her flank.
“Shhh, Aoife. You’re right. Let’s get home. This storm is coming in fast.”
With another gentle nudge of her knees, the horse started off at an uneasy trot that soon melted into a smooth canter.
Rain began to fall, darkening Gwen’s auburn hair until it lay soaked and almost black against her head.
Within minutes, they rode through the open gates of Dunnhawke Castle and into the stables.
A tall, broad-shouldered youth of about sixteen was standing near the entrance, his arms crossed and one leg propped against a thick wooden pillar. He looked up and gave the woman a devilish grin when she trotted in.
“Ha! Gwen, there you are! Mother thinks you are at your music lessons but I saw you sneak away,” the boy said, his brown eyes twinkling with mischief.
The woman dismounted, handing her reins to a nearby stableboy. “I jumped the fence at the border of the Varne’s farm.” she replied, her grin a mirror of his.
“You did not! Not in this mud,” he challenged, looking past her to the pouring rain.
“Aoife is as light-footed as a deer, no matter the weather.” Gwen patted the mare’s sleek neck approvingly, and the horse shook her head as if in affirmation.
The boy looked skeptical, but he cast an approving glance at the horse’s well-muscled flanks.
Only a year Gwen’s junior, her brother was quickly growing into a fierce warrior and there was a never-ending competition between them to see who could best the other.
“I still don’t see why Father gave her to you. I am the eldest son,” Ronan said with a mock sigh.
Gwen shook her head, casting droplets of water over both Aoife and Ronan. “But I am the eldest child. So for now, I get the first choice of the yearly foals.”
Her smile turned wry. “Who knows, perhaps the king will give Aoife to you once I am gone. I doubt that horses are welcome in the lands of the Fae.”
Her brother’s face twisted. He ran a hand through his cropped brown hair. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
A jolt of guilt hit her in the stomach, and Gwen sighed.
“I know, Ronan. I’m sorry. It’s just all this waiting has me unnerved.” She saw a groom hurrying with a hot bran mash for Aoife and nodded in satisfaction.
Certain that her horse was well attended, she turned and began heading towards the castle itself. As she walked, she reminded herself to take small, feminine steps, lest her skirts fly up and show that she was wearing men’s riding leathers under her skirts. The deerskin was worn shiny by years of use.
“How are preparations coming for the party?” Ronan said, his long limbs easily catching up with her.
Gwen rolled her eyes, but a smile tugged at her lips. “Oh don’t worry. I’m sure they’ve invited enough pretty girls to satisfy you.”
“There are never enough pretty girls to satisfy me,” Ronan laughed.
They passed through the heavy oaken doors that stood nearly twenty feet tall at the main entrance to the central keep. As always, Gwen’s eyes went to the many chips and splinters that had been gouged into the wood.
Her smile, already weak, faded entirely.
My father’s war to reclaim the throne of Dunnhawke left many scars upon the land, even so many years later.
I would know better than most.
King Cormac watched from the northern tower as Gwen rode her horse into the central courtyard of the castle.
As always the sight of his eldest daughter unsettled him. He tried, whenever he could, not to lay eyes on her. For every time he did, he was reminded of the bargain he had struck with the Fae.
And the price he had paid.
In the early days, he had ordered Gwen’s nurses to keep a constant vigil, fearful that at an unguarded moment, the Fae might whisk away his tiny daughter.
But he soon found trouble keeping a reliable nurse for the princess. The nursemaids would come, stay a few months, then leave after rumors came to their ears that the babe in their charge was promised to the Fae. This went on for months before his wife wrote a letter to her noble family back in Peralorne. A suitable woman, with a reasonable head on her shoulders and no time for “superstitious nonsense” arrived two weeks later.
Cormac never found out exactly who leaked the terrible truth about his bargain to the outside world. Nor how they had known in the first place. It had certainly not been his queen.
When he had returned to Bronnagh after his dealings with the Fae, he had found her sleeping peacefully, with a tiny child asleep at her breast.
He had cast one look at his child, his firstborn–and shut his eyes against her. It would do no good for him to love this girl. But at least his bride had been spared. Bronnagh lived, and together they could have more children.
The midwives had been petrified, white-faced and shaking. They had seen the queen draw her last breath–had known the utter hopelessness of saving the baby entangled the child in her womb.
And then without warning–Bronnagh had cried aloud, sitting almost upright on the birthing bed. Another shout, and she had pushed her daughter, pink-faced and screaming, with no cord wrapped about it’s neck, into the world.
Later, when the girl had been taken away to be fed by the wetnurse, he had told Bronnagh of the bargain he had made with the Fae. The queen howled like demon and struck him over and over with fists made weak by her recent brush with death. Cormac restrained her, holding her arms at her sides and begging for understanding and forgiveness.
Eventually the two of them had both dissolved into tears, the first Cormac had shed since the death of his father. Then, with the practical mindset which she had always possessed, Bronnagh ceased lamenting the past and turned her eyes towards the future.
Cormac had tried to do the same, though he stayed away from the nursery in the western wings as much as possible.
By the time Gwen was six months old, her eyes had changed to a clear blue-gray. “Spirit eyes”, the peasants whispered under their breath. Many people in Dunnhawke had blue eyes, but they took any opportunity to whisper of any unnaturalness in the baby princess.
As King, Cormac had every right to strike off the head of anyone spreading slander against the royal house, but he never took action. It did no good to punish simple folks for knowing the truth.
The whole kingdom held its breath on Gwen’s first birthday. Many were already certain that the baby had been long ago replaced by a changeling–a vile twin from the faerie realm.
But Cormac had known that the Fae had not come for her yet. Their messenger–or whatever foul thing he had treated with inside of the circle that night–had made it clear.
Gwen would not be replaced. She would be taken.
The air in the tower was warm, but Cormac shivered under his richly embroidered doublet. He watched his daughter dismount her mare with an easy grace. She was strong and beautiful and Cormac wished he could just be rid of her already. Anything to be rid of the constant, wrenching guilt that came every time he saw her.
As Gwen had grown, the nurses and maids had carried tales of the accursed child beyond the wall of the castle and into the village of Dunnhawke. Whispers began circulating of the cursed princess and the king who bargained his firstborn daughter for the sake of his realm.
The villagers were initially outraged at the idea of their king sacrificing his own flesh and blood, but as the rains fell and the crops grew rich and prosperous in their fields, any cries for justice died to a low murmur.
It was hard to be indignant when your children’s bellies were full after months of starvation.
When Bronnagh gave birth to a healthy son only eleven months later, the people had rejoiced to hear of an heir in the cradle. The boy was named Ronan, after Cormac’s father.
And barely a year later, Queen Bronnagh had given birth again, this time to twin sons who were named Sean and Seamus.
Thus, a healthy legacy was secured.
Season after season, the rains arrived on time and lasted well into summer. The autumns were mild and dry, perfect for the farmers who reaped bountiful harvests of grain and wheat, more than enough to sustain the kingdom through the winter months. Under King Cormac’s rule, the village grew and thrived.
The royal nursery grew as well. Queen Bronnagh proved as fertile as the Fae had predicted, and Cormac’s sons and daughters tumbled from every corner of the castle, forever followed by their despairing nursemaids.
By the time Gwen was ten, any whispers against the King’s bargain had died down, and instead the villagers eyes merely followed her whenever she rode her horse down the dusty road. The people of this land were a pragmatic folk, and they were willing to turn a blind eye to one doomed girl in return for the safety and security of their families.
But that is not to say that they felt grateful, or even comfortable around Gwen. Quite the opposite, her presence reminded them of the price they were willing to pay for prosperity. Over time, this evolved into a kind of superstition against the young princess.
As a girl, whenever she had tried to play with the farmer’s children they had run from her, hissing or clutching their thumbs between their first two fingers in the age-old ward against bad luck.
They all feared to get too close, lest her doomed fate infect them all.
Cormac watched from high above as Gwen led her horse into the stables. She did not smile at those around her, and they did not smile at her.
He shut his eyes. Eighteen years had passed since the long ago day when he had offered up his own flesh and blood in exchange for his crown.
I wish they would just take her already.
Cormac wasn’t sure when his guilt towards his daughter had blossomed into resentment. All he knew was that anything had to be better than this constant, neverending reminder that the sins of his past were still waiting to revisit him.
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