Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a young fae princess. The child was raised in opulence. From birth, she was a fearsome member of her parents’ court; a power to be reckoned with, wearing glittering gowns, shoes encrusted with diamonds and rubies, and a smile that sparked intrigue and fear in the bellies of her people.
When the King and Queen bothered with her at all, it was only on the rarest of occasions that they dared utter to her the word no.
She grew more beautiful with every passing year. While most knew her for her striking appearance, even more came to know her for her cruelty. For she was envious of what others had that she did not possess.
The princess had every material thing her heart had ever desired, but there were things, she learned, that could not be bought with emeralds and gold. Things much more precious. Things like love.
When she asked her mother about the emotion, which seemed to stir the depths of human and fae alike, she was scolded for placing too much value on such a fleeting and frivolous emotion. Love, her mother explained, made one weak, and weakness in their world was death.
Her friends, if one could call them such, boasted and lamented of their adventures and amorous escapades. They fell in and out of love like it was as simple as inhaling and exhaling, but their hearts were what she was curious about. They broke, mended, and broke again into slivers so small, she thought nothing would be able to cure the ache left behind… only for the girl to fall in love again.
Love wasn’t permanent like humans pretended. It was fluid. An ebb and flow. She’d seen the pain it caused, and despite the pleasures and the highs that came with the feeling, the lows were what caused fae to crumble. She wanted no part of anything that could exert so much control over her life, over her heart.
She chose instead to focus on other interests and put the confounding concept of love behind her, completely unaware that one truly has little control over love. It cannot be tucked away, shut off, or blocked so easily.
While away from the castle, concocting a trick on an unsuspecting human girl, the girl’s brother came to defend his sister against the plans of the fae princess. As he stood and bravely faced her, chest heaving, finger pointed boldly at her chest and a storm raging in his eyes, in an instant, everything within her shifted.
He was curious about her as well, for he’d never spoken to a faery before. The two became friends and he slowly began to trust her. He showed her how to be kind instead of cruel, and how a man should behave with a female. For the first time in her life, she was loved and respected, comfortable and secure.
But as with most things in life, the happiness was short-lived.
Her parents had her followed one night and learned of her affections. They refused to accept the human boy and threatened to cast her out of their home, to leave her penniless, and to kill the young man.
She ran to find him, to protect the boy she loved from the wrath of her father and the harshness of her mother. After all, she would gladly accept such a fate, a life of struggle and hardship, a life without fine things and palaces, a life of hunger and strife... for him.
But the hearts of humans were more fickle than she realized. And all hearts lie—to themselves and to others.
She found him behind his barn, kissing another girl. A human girl.
It felt as though he had plunged his fist into her chest and removed her heart, shattering bone and tearing sinew and arteries and all the things that kept her alive.
He never loved her at all. He didn’t even know what love was. But she did, and she never wanted to feel it again.
As she walked home to beg her parents’ forgiveness, she healed her broken, bloodied heart and turned it to stone. No male – human or fae – would ever break her again. And she would waste no more of her infinite existence on such a silly thing as love.
Her brutality from that day forward would become the stuff of nightmares…
They say it’s quietest in the moments before the most destructive storms hit, but what they don’t tell you is that the worst storms happen within homes.
Father’s mood went from irritated to furious when he discovered his last bottle of liquor was as empty as his pockets. He cursed, searching through and rattling the glass bottles that littered his room in every shape and color of the rainbow.
Oryn had barely slept after our fight last night, his eyes still red and bleary. His face was mottling, turning an angry red hue that he and Father shared. My brother gently pushed his cup of boiled water across the table.
If he hadn’t knocked our basket of food into the water last night, we’d be eating eggs right now and his mood might not be so sour…
The legs of his chair scraping loudly across the floor were the only warning Father got before my brother exploded. The muscles in my back tightened uncomfortably as the two shouted.
Oryn ducked as he entered Father’s room, taking the fight directly to him, but Father was stronger than he expected. The wily man shoved Oryn out of the bedroom, slamming the door closed behind him and quickly locking the door.
The impact of the door caused our only mirror, the one thing we had left of our mother, to shatter from the impact when it fell off the wall and hit the floor. One reflective shard slid beneath the door, as if it were a sharp fingernail pointing at the ones who broke her.
It pointed at Oryn.
It pointed at me.
It reflected the pathetic life we were living, and in the same moment challenged me to find another. To take the shard and carve a new one out of the earth and air. I couldn’t stay there another moment.
I scooted my chair out, ready to stand. Ready to run. Through the slats between the uneven, knotted planks that separated us, Father’s shape emerged. His boots crunched over the glass he wouldn’t bother picking up.
He charged Oryn, so angry his jowls were trembling, and his hands went straight for Oryn’s pockets. He patted along Oryn’s side and stuck his fingers into the pocket at his waist. “You have coin. I knew it. Stealing from your own family!” he raged.
It didn’t matter that he was larger than Father. Father wasn’t afraid of Oryn. Father was foolish.
I watched from my seat as the reflections changed in the shard.
Oryn shoved Father away from him. “I earned this coin,” Oryn fumed. “If you want to have things, you should get out and sweat for them.”
Father closed his fist and raised his arm, but he never saw Oryn’s fist coming. With one punch, the once-strong giant fell like a tree. His head cracked the floor beneath him, or it sounded that way. I stood and finally looked at our father. Oryn looked, too.
Father’s pants were stained with a variety of substances; grease, sweat, mud, and food from our meal three days ago among them, and his shirt was torn at the seam on his shoulder. He’d shrunken in the last few years. Physically and mentally.
“I don’t know why I bothered coming home,” Oryn muttered, throwing a glare in my direction, too.
Father’s skin was nearly as gray as the frazzled, frizzy strands of hair jutting out in every direction from the half-crown along the back of his head.
“Is he always like this?” my brother asked.
“He’s usually worse.” Oryn was gone more than he was home, and when he did show up, he never stayed long. He didn’t see the all-consuming obsession Father battled. He never saw his demons, the ones that took him to dark places and turned what was once a good man into a monster.
Oryn stepped over Father’s leg, made his way to the corner where our cots were, and started packing. How long would he be gone this time? Would he even come back?
If he was leaving, so was I.
My brother fumed, grumbling under his breath about how Father would never change. He was right. Father wasn’t going to change. Not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t want to.
Oryn was carving his own path now. He was a hunter. And that’s exactly what I needed to do. I needed to make my own way somehow. I was drowning here.
Hell, I’d rather live in the dark forest with the devilish fae than stay here like this.
His eyes flicked to mine. “Don’t start,” he barked.
“I’m not,” I bit back at him.
His cot was adjacent to mine, so while he slammed his only belongings into a leather satchel, I grabbed the few undergarments and spare dress I had and began tying my boots.
“What do you think you’re doing, Bells?” He sat back on his haunches.
“I’m going with you.”
“The hell you are.”
“Fine. But I’m not staying here.”
He raked a frustrated hand over his face. “You have to. You’re all he’s got left.”
Not willing to let him brush me off so easily, I countered, “Don’t act like you care about him. Not when every time you step through the door, this happens.” I gestured toward Father’s bedroom door. “And besides, you’re half of all he’s got left, too.”
“You can’t just leave him.”
“You are,” I argued, continuing to pack my things. “Why is it so easy for a man to escape his responsibilities, but when a woman does, it’s considered blasphemous for her to chase something better?” I didn’t have a satchel, so I spread out a small quilt and started throwing my things into the middle.
“I’ll be back,” he promised. “I need to clear my head and get out of here for a while. I’m just going hunting. I’ll bring back what I kill. If you don’t get some meat soon, you’ll blow away in the next storm,” he lied, trying to tease me into forgetting about leaving. He turned away from me and laid on his back, reaching up under the cot where he’d hidden a cache of knives. Those went into the bag, and then I watched as he raised the lower legs of his cot and retrieved parchment he’d stashed inside.
If he was coming back, why was he taking everything he’d hidden away? He’d have nothing to come back for now.
I smiled sweetly at his back. “If you really are just going hunting this time, I’ll help you heft the meat back. Besides, you’re right. The sooner I get food, the better.”
He froze in place with his head hung low. “Bells—I don’t need you following me around.”
“I’m not staying,” I growled. “I want out of here.”
He glanced back at our father, whose chest rose and fell peacefully. A trickle of blood had run out of his nose and down his cheek and was drying into his patchy beard. Oryn’s jaw ticked; his lips thinned into tiny lines. He shook his head in disgust, threw his tattered and soiled bag over his shoulder, crossed the room in a few steps, and shoved his way out the front door. I grabbed the shard of glass and threw it in among my things before quickly tying the quilt ends together to form a makeshift sack. I eased it over my head and tucked one arm through, the sack clinging to my back. It was so light, it’d be easy to carry for long distances.
I hurried to the door. Despite his size, Oryn was fast when he wanted to be, and great at disappearing. I searched in every direction until I found his broad back heading north. I caught up easily. He groaned as I caught up to him and then fell in step.
“You have it good here, Bells.”
I snorted. He had no idea how bad it was.
He stopped abruptly, his pale eyes boring into mine. “You do. You just don’t know it yet.”
“Look, you can either let me travel with you or cut me loose. I can find Ringsted or Grithim easily enough. But I’ll be damned if I go back in there.” I stabbed a finger toward our shack.
He squinted his eyes in the sun, took a deep breath, and exhaled slowly. “You’ll hate me for this.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“You’ll be begging me to bring you back here within a week. You have no idea what monsters lurk in the forests I’m going into.”
“None worse than him.”
“There are plenty worse than Father,” he grumped. “Ever heard of Queen Coeur?”
“Only my whole life,” I answered shortly. “Have you ever seen her?”
He pinched his lips together. That was a no. Neither had anyone else I’d ever met. Was she real? Probably. Was she dangerous? Apparently not.
We made our way toward town, weaving around others walking the path, carts full of goods and horses. I stuck close to my brother. It was market day and Brookhaven teemed with people… people who hadn’t bathed in several days, by the stench of them. Summer was my favorite season most of the time, but the myriad smells of unwashed people in this place made me wish for the bitter cold of winter.
“Why are we here? Why aren’t we headed to the woods to hunt?”
“I’m not happy about it either, Bells, but I need supplies,” he growled, dragging me by the wrist into an alley. “You stay here. Don’t move. Don’t talk to anyone, especially men.” He removed his bag and shoved it at me. “And don’t let anyone take this from you.”
“Where are you going?”
“Inside,” he answered, ticking his head toward the tavern beside us where the smell of ale seeped through the walls.
“Because they have supplies in the tavern,” I deadpanned. “Right.”
He ignored the jab and crouched low to the ground. With his finger, he drew a shape in the moldy earth that looked strangely like a rabbit. I craned my neck to get a better look, but Oryn stood and scuffed his boot across the surface before I could get a good look at what he’d done. Before I could ask him why he drew rabbits in the earth and then stomped their faces away, he finally answered my smart remark with an order. “Best place to get what I need. You stay out here.”
There was no way he was ditching me here. Brookhaven was barely larger and no nicer than our shack.
I deserve someplace bigger. I want an adventure.
I thought coming to the Southern Isle would be an adventure, a new start. I’d left my kingdom, family, home, and past behind. The weather was markedly hotter than I was used to back home, but the people of Grithim were cold and life here was more expensive than it had been in the Seven Kingdoms. The coin I had was going fast, too fast, and I hadn’t found steady work, let alone a place to lay my head at night.
Grithim was in a constant state of upheaval, from what I managed to glean from the conversations I’d eavesdropped on so far. Though their king and queen were steadfast and doing everything in their power to reassure the people of a safe and steady future, their prince and the only heir to the throne had taken up with a witch.
Understandably, the people didn’t have confidence in the situation. They didn’t trust the fae at all, and since the witch was half-fae, they believed she’d used her powers and potions to lure him away. They were convinced she wanted to swoop in and take their kingdom, merging it with her own and making them all citizens of Virosa. But the people refused to be governed by a creature they hated.
It seemed the people of Grithim didn’t like outsiders, as a general rule, and it quickly became clear that I wasn’t welcome there. I couldn’t tell you how many places, farms and businesses alike, I’d stopped in to inquire about employment. None needed help, and all were swift to show me the door.
Weaving my way through the kingdom, bleeding coin with each stop along the road, I finally offered an old man enough to give me a ride in his wagon. Harper was heading to Brookhaven, a small, backward village, as he described it.
He wasn’t sure I’d have any better luck there than I had here, but was willing to take me with him since I wasn’t looking for a hand-out. I’d planned to make my way to Ringsted, but in the end, it seemed fate wanted me to go someplace smaller. Besides, I was in a land I didn’t know. Best to pay for a ride from someone than go it alone in the woods. And having company wasn’t so bad.
The old man liked to talk, and as we bumped along the rutted road, he told stories. He made his living hauling goods to and from Grithim and Brookhaven, pointing out homes along the way and telling me who the folks were and what scandals befell their families. But as we left the homes peppered through the countryside and entered the forest, he made the sign of the cross on his chest and muttered a quick prayer of protection against the dark queen of the forest.
“Queen?” I asked when he explained the reason behind his trepidation.
He looked all around the wood. “I always take the safe path, skirting around Virosa before the trail bends southwest, but it doesn’t matter much what path you take. She can hear you even now. She’s watching. I feel her cold eyes upon us.”
“The Queen of Virosa?”
“Nah, that one isn’t bad through and through. I mean, she’d gut ya if you messed with her people, but not for just breathing. The queen I worry about is…”
A crow began to caw from a branch overhead and Harper, who’d barely taken a breath between words, didn’t say another word for hours.
I couldn’t explain it, but a cold chill ran up my spine at the thought of someone watching us. He refused to speak again until sundown, when we had to stop, see to the horses, and set up for the night.
In silence, I helped him arrange a makeshift camp, plucking stones from the land and making a small circle to contain our fire, then filling it with dead branches.
He tied his horses to a tree located near a small stream. They drank their fill and ate the oats and apples he’d brought for them before laying down to rest.
That night, we chewed on dried meat. He was stingy about sharing his ale until he’d had a couple of pints and loosened his muscles and lips. That night he told me all sorts of stories, the alcohol making the gruff old coot’s eyes widen and his hands gesture wildly as he told me all about the fae.
How some were wee men who stole from any human they came across. If they didn’t take your wares, they’d take your pants and shoes, he claimed. He’d seen more than one trader emerge from the woods wearing nothing but his undergarments.
He said that some looked like and were no bigger than flowers. Those kept to themselves, but they had ears. “Ya have to watch yer mouth around ‘em, lest they tell the Queen what you say.” Harper glanced around, looking across the forest floor. “We’re safe. No flowers ‘round here.”
“You keep mentioning this queen. How do you know about her?” I asked curiously.
“A friend of mine, another trader… he left Grithim for Ringsted. His body parts were found strung up along the branches of an Elder tree, and everyone knows it’s the fae who keep the Elders. And it was in her forest.”
“How do you know it’s hers?”
“She lets us know, boy,” Harper answered with a glinty stare. “She’s gutted men, left them pinned to a tree without a nail or rope holdin’ ‘em there; their bowels spilling to the ground and animals tearing into their innards. She’s cut their heads clean off and took ‘em as trophies. They say she hangs them all in her castle. And just last month, she tore the heart out of some poor sap. They say the buzzards wouldn’t even land to eat him up. Even they’re afraid of her. And you should be, too.”
He crossed his chest, yawned, and stretched out by the fire. “That’s enough talk about her tonight. I need to get a good night’s rest.”
Harper fell fast asleep and was snoring faster than should have been humanly possible, while I was left sitting by the fire, staring into the darkness. He wasn’t trying to scare me with his warnings. He really believed the stories and felt he was helping me by sharing them. I didn’t know what to think of them, though. I’d never seen a faery and didn’t really believe in them. But Harper did.
The horses were uneasy. They would lay down only to jump up a few minutes later, ears flicking back and forth, their eyes searching all around for predators. I knew better than to get too close. They might kick out in fear, and an injury was more than I could afford. So, I sat in the back of the wagon and watched Harper’s chest rise and fall, keeping his bow and full quiver close just in case.
The next morning, Harper was slow to stand. With his hand on his lower back, he stiffly walked to the wagon. “Stamp out that fire and let’s get going.”
I’d stayed up until almost dawn and finally fell asleep sitting up. Harper wasn’t happy. He’d wanted to be moving by dawn, yet I’d slept through it and so had he. “This’ll put us behind,” he grumped. “I thought young fellows got up with the roosters.”
Still struggling to stay awake, I mumbled, “I stayed up last night. The horses were restless.”
His mouth gaped open. “Ah, so she was about the woods.”
“The Queen?” I scoffed.
“The very one.”
“Why would a queen walk the forest at night?” I asked skeptically.
“Because she’s fae and nature’s what feeds them.”
He rambled on and on about the faeries. How he lost his wife to one who landed on her chest and caused her lungs to stop working. How his brother’s child was stolen by them when the river swelled.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that those things were natural. They just happened. People got sick. Children wandered too close to water sometimes, and while they were tragic, the fae had nothing to do with it. But maybe it was easier to blame something you couldn’t see rather than admit that life was that unpredictable and heartbreaking sometimes.
“You don’t believe me,” he accused, flicking the reins. The wagon rumbled over the land as we went along.
I had to think hard about what to say. “It’s not that I don’t believe you, Harper, but you’ve told me story after story about the fae since we left Grithim. How do you know they’re real? Have you ever seen one?” I asked.
The network of wrinkles across his forehead and beneath his eyes deepened. “I have.”
Surprised by his admission, I pressed, “Have you seen the Queen?”
He shook his head. “No, if I’d seen her, I wouldn’t be sitting here. What I saw was more of a creature—had legs that bent like a spider, but its body looked like a man’s from the waist up. He had six eyes, and every one of them was black as night.” Harper took a long draw from his water skin. “Scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Are you sure you weren’t drunk?” I teased, raising my brows.
“I’m damn sure!” he answered curtly. “Just like I know not to say the Queen’s true name. It calls her to ya, ya know. Just like that,” he added, snapping his finger. “Doesn’t matter if we were in her forest or not; if I were to say her name and she’d appear, that’d be the end of us.”
“Nah,” I responded lazily, relaxing my back against the wagon’s side. “I’m a fast runner. I’ll trip you and let her eat you while I make my getaway.”
He chuckled. “I forgot what it was like to be young and arrogant.”
“What is her name, anyway?”
His cocked his brow and snapped the reins again. “You’ll never hear it cross these lips. I’m old and wise now, ya see.”
“Will we reach Brookhaven tomorrow?” I asked, changing the subject.
“Tomorrow, around mid-morning. I’ll give you the short tour as we drive through town.”
I chuckled. “I thought we knew each other well enough that you’d at least give me the long tour.”
“Brookhaven’s tiny. There is no long tour.”