by Finley Harper
It was midnight, on the sixteenth anniversary of the night the Fae stole me. Garlands of leaves, white elderflowers and silver bells adorned my neck, wrists and ankles: gifts from the Seelie Court in return for my hostage years.
Mother’s smile blurred through my tears.
“I don’t want to go,” I said for the hundredth time.
“Yet our son must return.” She gently set a matching wreath upon my head. “I love you, Alana, and I want you to be happy. Look after this well—I made it especially.”
Her laughter echoed among the oaks with the lightness of a tinkling stream. Such a gift from the Queen was a great honour, yet I didn’t care.
Father gifted me a glamour to ensnare a fine husband. Once he was done, Fae courtiers swirled around me. They tugged me away through the forest toward a clearing. I wanted to refuse their magic, but could not, and my skin thrilled with goosebumps—unbearably, for this was the last time.
Moonlight outlined the standing stones, five giant sentinels towering over the clearing. My body vibrated with the crackling air, the rising sap, the sheer vitality surging through the earth. If I could only wield magic like the Fae, I thought, I would make the roots rise and the twigs thicken to bar my way. I dug my nails into my palms and willed the space between the stones to remain empty. But the moonlight there gained substance around a squat troll-boy, and my heart was riven.
As he lumbered toward me, his hunched back unfolded and his stumpy limbs lengthened until a young man with flowing black hair and pale skin ran forward—the image of Father. Barely a glance at me, then he was gone.
Behind me, song rose and horns sounded. A shove forced me between the stones, and for a gut-wrenching moment, I became deaf and blind, then I tumbled into a duller world. The sounds of celebration were gone. Sharp flints buried in the moss tore at my hands and knees. Voices surrounded me, grating on my ears. A woman’s face hovered over mine—and within the coarse grinning flesh of her mouth and eyes, I recognised my own features, grooved with age: my human mother. Her rough-skinned hands cupped my elbows and lifted me; her embrace smothered me. Though she wept, all I felt was emptiness.
They brought me to a peasant village and into a stone hut, to a straw pallet in the corner. When my human father tried to steal my wreath and garlands, I bundled them to my chest. My throat constricted—with my passage through the stones, the leaves had dried and the bells had tarnished. The shrivelled flowers were yellow-brown.
A fire provided warmth near the hearth, but though I shook with cold, I wedged myself in the corner, keeping my garlands far from the flames. They offered me a bowl of stew. I sipped the fatty surface and spat it straight out again.
In silence, I made my vow: I would find my way back.
Not once did they leave me on my own.
That cold morning, my human parents waited outside our hut while I perched on a stool inside by the fire, clenching my toes. A man knelt before me, one of a stream of men who had visited as word spread and bards sang of my beauty. His chestnut hair fell in waves past his shoulders. Tiny flames flickered on rubies set into an enormous gold clasp on his fur-lined cloak. They had said he was a prince, but what did I care?
“I have never met a woman more beautiful.” His rings gleamed as he raised my hand to his lips. “Alana.” He seemed to taste my name like a rich nectar.
“It is the Fae glamour,” I said. “Truth be told, Your Highness, I have a crooked, thin-lipped mouth and an overlong nose. My eyes are indeed blue, but they are short-lashed, and one is smaller than the other. My only blessing, the reason the Fae stole me, is my golden hair, though it looks to me like straw.”
“Your modesty surpasses your beauty.” He drank my features in with besotted brown eyes.
“And—” I scratched my nose, “I’m uncooperative and very ill-tempered.”
He looked delighted. “I have already spoken with your father. We shall be married in nine days.”
It was so sudden. My eyes stung with shock.
“Don’t worry about your family. I will provide for them.”
The ride to his castle carried me six days further yet from the standing stones.
“How can you delight in such ugly, dead things?” My husband slid his arms around me from behind as I arranged my withered garlands atop the elaborately carved chest of drawers in my chamber.
My hands tensed. “They are not ugly or dead to me. They are all I have left from my childhood.”
Prince Niall’s lips brushed my neck below my ear. “Very well, you may keep them. All I want is your happiness.”
I caressed a leaf’s delicate skeleton. Fae magic lingered there, preserving the crumbling pieces. “Please—” I tilted my head that he might nuzzle me more easily—“let me explore outside the castle on my own.”
“I’m sorry, little bird. You might fly away.”
And so, the castle became my gaol. However, gates to the Fae might be found in all kinds of places. Crossroads, barrows, through limpid pools. When I wasn’t grappling with new noble duties, I strove to learn every inch of the grounds. A duck pond, only visible from the stables, existed within our walls.
One dawn, I woke to Prince Niall’s deafening snores echoing all the way down the hall between our bed chambers. He had drunk much wine the night before, to celebrate killing a wild boar, and had ordered the servants not to disturb us.
I crept outside into the herb garden. A rooster’s cries echoed from the next courtyard—soon the castle would wake. The heady aromas of rosemary and thyme gave way to ripe apple as I ran on through the orchard, the place that reminded me most of the Seelie Court.
At the pond’s edge, I stopped and collected my breath. A faint breeze teased strands of my hair, and I tugged my hood off and shook my tresses free. Mist hovered over the water. I imagined a boat sliding through it, slipping without effort into the next world. When I had asked my husband to make me a boat, warned by some instinct, he had refused.
I ran my hands over my swollen belly. “My babe. You should have a childhood as magical as mine.” The water was so clear that I bent and touched the surface to be sure it was there. Golden dawn glinted off the ripples that spread from my finger.
Exactly the kind of place a gate might be.
I dropped my cloak, kicked off my slippers and strode in, gasping as the icy water reached my thighs. My under-tunic ballooned and I pressed it beneath the surface. My babe kicked my ribs. “Ow! You will be far happier growing up as I did.”
I took a deep breath and sank under.
The sky undulated pink and white through the water. My lungs shuddered; my feet found only weeds. I pulled hard down through the escaping silver globes of my breath to where the gate would surely be. My heart pounded and my limbs tingled. Where is it?
A buzzing in my ears—but I swam further, among tangled roots and clouds of mud, to where the gate had to be.
Something hooked the back of my tunic. No! I twisted, struggling to break free.
I couldn’t last. My lungs heaved in water.
In the birthing chamber, I lay collapsed in the birthing chair. Every muscle I possessed ached from labour and near drowning.
The midwife showed me a little girl, not much larger than my hand. I reached for her. “My babe…”
Her head was too big for her body. Her skin was blue, her chest unmoving. I stroked her tiny, perfect fingers.
And a heavy sob choked me. I had been beyond foolish—and I would give up my search, I would remain here forever, if only that would bring her back.
The midwife took her, wrapped her in a square of cloth and placed her in the waiting crib.
Prince Niall forced his way in past the midwife’s disapproval. “We will bury her tomorrow,” he said quietly, and took my hand. “You know I love you.” He signalled, and a maid, his young cousin, appeared bearing a cushion. “Understand, I must keep you safe.”
Two iron manacles nestled on the velvet padding.
I tried to twist free, but the midwife held me down. My husband caught my ankle, snapped a manacle around it and twisted a key in the lock. He grabbed my other foot.
“Surely one is enough!”
“You might chop one foot off to escape. Not two.”
He turned the key again.
No Fae gate would admit me with my ankles cuffed in iron. Prince Niall strung the key onto an iron chain and hung it around his neck. He collected our daughter’s body from the crib and cradled her in one hand. “Had she been a son, I would not forgive you.”
I would never forgive myself her death.
My maids, all highborn women, washed me and exchanged knowing looks when they saw the manacles. They helped me to bed in my chamber and I sent them away.
Slipping through a crack in the curtains, the setting sun revealed deep reds in the dry leaves heaped upon my chest of drawers. After this, my husband might refuse to look upon them, yet I needed their comfort more than ever. I dragged myself from bed, and from the bottom drawer, chose a linen tunic, in which I bundled the wreath Mother gave me. I hid the parcel below the garments in the farthest corner.
“A servant—” Prince Niall swept the remaining garlands into a basket “—might be persuaded by your beauty to let them be.” He took the garlands away to burn them, sparing me the torment of watching them disappear up my own chimney.
In that moment, I hated him. He had married me despite my protests, had insisted on bedding me as his right. He had put me in irons, and now he would burn my most treasured possessions. Yet I understood too well. His desire was not his choice: he could not resist the glamour. Father had meant no harm, but he’d hurt me nonetheless.
Waking the next morning, I found a fresh wreathe of hawthorn leaves and red berries upon my chest of drawers. A sad and flimsy thing, but my maid told me that despite the thorns, Prince Niall made it by his own hand. I thought he must not know that hawthorn, too, is a reminder of the Fae.
In truth, by his own measure, he was never needlessly cruel. He could not see past the glamour any more than I could free myself from my yearning. He feared my obsession would hurt or kill me, and did all he could to prevent that happening. He couldn’t bear to lose me any more than I could bear being parted from the Seelie Court. He was a good man—as good as any prince could be. I wished that he could only see me truly; that in doing so, he would love me anyway, and that this longing to return to the Fae would leave me. For perhaps I could have loved him, were I not shrivelled inside like my garlands.
The nights grew colder as I confined myself to my chamber in mourning for my babe. When the last breath of warmth had left the air, I decided I had caused enough harm. None of this was my husband’s fault, and why should both of us suffer? I did not wish to grieve him any longer.
I tried to accept my situation, and even to please my husband. I let my maids teach me to glide in my skirts like a proper noblewoman. At banquets, I chewed venison, despite that meat turned my stomach, and I applauded fiddlers whose notes could never equal the chimes and wind harps of the Seelie Court. I exclaimed at jugglers whirling knives and acrobats tumbling through fiery hoops, none of whom had the grace of the clumsiest Fae.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Prince Niall smiling as he watched me embroider garments for our future children. Not only did he want an heir, but he believed another babe would make me happy. I pressed my needle through the fine linen, deep into my thumb, hoping to overcome the ache in my heart.
Even the servants were affected by the glamour. When, at my husband’s side, I passed the castle guards and nodded, their faces would flush. A maid applied lotions to the sores on my ankles, and I praised her gentleness, and the next time, she offered me herbs from a wise-woman to improve my sleep.
But the winter was long and the castle felt like a coffin. My will to eat faded, and by the time the snow melted, I had become skin and bone. Prince Niall worried: he said my beauty had grown so delicate, he hurt to look upon me.
“Perhaps,” I said, “it would strengthen me to stroll in the forest, accompanied by your guards.”
He looked torn.
“After all—” I refused to allow any bitterness into my tone, “even if I were to stumble upon a Fae path, I couldn’t use it.”
“That is true.” He still had misgivings. Nonetheless, he allowed me beyond the castle walls under strict supervision. Some days, we walked among the oaks together. There were moments, with my arm twined through his and my skirts brushing through the bluebells that covered the forest floor, that I forgot where I was—moments when the wind broke the canopy and the sun caressed my face; when I could feel his warmth as he pressed me to his side, and I glimpsed the possibility of love as if a veil had parted; moments I was happy.
A year after my daughter’s death, a hag bearing a finely woven willow basket presented herself at the castle. When she reached the head of the queue of petitioners, she curtsied low before Prince Niall and I, then addressed me directly.
“M’lady, I have here rare Fae treasure, for your eyes alone.”
A rustle passed among the courtiers milling in the hall. At first I couldn’t breathe and my smile felt stiff. I longed to see her wares, yet unease filled me. How would they affect my inner truce?
“If it please M’lady, I seek a private audience.”
I felt like the trapped finch I could see above, fluttering in the rafters.
“No.” My prince leaned his chin on his hand. “Anything you wish to show My Lady, you will show me.”
The old woman bowed her head. “If I must, M’lord.” She set down her load, lifted the cloth away and drew out an oak and ivy wreath. “M’lady, you are heavy with child, and fears must haunt you. But place this over your babe’s crib and the Fae will not steal him.”
I sank back on my throne, both relieved and disappointed. “Such wreaths are common lore these days, and easy to obtain.”
“This wreath is more skilfully made than most, M’lady. However, if you prefer…” She placed the wreath down, then unrolled a soft leather pouch and shook out an intricate silver bracelet. “This Fae charm grants the wearer the ability to distinguish truth from lies.”
An improvement, if it was real. Prince Niall reached for it—but it would hurt him. I caught his wrist. “Whoever wears this can never take it off. Eventually, always knowing the truth will drive him mad.”
His hand dropped back to his lap. “Old mother, ’ware you not be imprisoned.”
“Truly, Your Highness, I mean no harm.” She curtsied deeply to me. “M’lady, I have one more item, if you permit.” At my nod, she lifted a small crystal flask. “Here, I have Fae ointment. Dab this on your eye and you will see that which is of the Fae in all its guises.”
My prince’s mouth twisted derisively. “That is the very last thing My Lady needs. If you have nothing useful, be gone.” He motioned to the line behind her. “Next.”
“Your Highnesses.” The hag remained on her knees, presenting the flask in both hands. “Should your child be replaced by a changeling, even if it be identical to your own babe, this will let you see true.”
“Indeed?” Prince Niall hesitated. “How much?”
The hag’s wrinkles birthed a smile. “One of your pretty rings.”
“Pah! A trifle excessive.”
“A true heir is priceless, M’lord.”
The hall was silent, but for the finch trilling overhead.
My prince began to twist a silver ring engraved with a ruby-eyed falcon off his little finger.
“Wait.” Leaning forward, I opened my palm to receive the flask and the hag obliged. The oily looking substance inside was a dark brown-green. I remembered. “If the Fae discover someone has used the ointment, they will apply it a second time, causing blindness.”
Prince Niall motioned. “Guards!” He glared at the hag. “You will locked up for two months, old mother—the brevity is a mercy due your age—and I am impounding your wares that they may not harm others.”
“Go on then!” The hag cackled merrily. She swatted the guards’ hands off her arms as they led her away. I watched the finch swoop and follow her out.
On waking the next morning, I rubbed lotion into my ankles as always, wincing at the sting.
My prince leaned on his elbow in my bed. “Let me see.”
I swung my feet around to him, and he lifted the iron bands. Beneath them, my skin bore old scars and new, weeping red sores.
“Yesterday,” he said, lifting the chain from round his neck, “you saved me twice.” Taking the key, he unlocked the cuffs.
Later that morning, we discovered the hag had disappeared. A week later, I still couldn’t rid her from my mind.
Tonight would be a full moon.
Fifteen days since Prince Niall removed my irons, and I had remained exquisitely obedient. We took the noon meal, then I returned to my chamber, claiming weariness thanks to our unborn babe.
I fetched my jewellery casket, unlocked it and retrieved the little flask. Every night, I dreamed of using it, and I knew I should destroy it before it tore apart what little peace I had gained. With all my strength, I hurled the flask at the stone flagging.
But my fist did not release it.
I would, at least, smell it first. Gently, I removed the stopper and lifted the flask to my nose. The mingled scents of oak and elderflowers surrounded me: Mother’s perfume. It was as though I was back in the Seelie court again: the walls of my chamber an unendurable lie.
As was Prince Niall’s love for me.
It would not be a betrayal. I would free us both.
I dipped my little finger through the neck of the flask into the smoothness and stickiness of honey. I rubbed the Fae ointment upon my left eye. My eye watered, and I blinked until it cleared. Everything looked the same.
The guards thought nothing of it when I announced that we would visit the forest this afternoon. I carried a basket for gathering the wildflowers with which I often decorated my chamber.
We took the track following the creek. At the glade halfway to the waterfall, I offered sweetmeats from my basket and a flask of wine for the guards while I walked the rest of the way alone, as was my habit. Today, the herbs in the wine would make them sleep.
I searched the dappled undergrowth. There! On the mossy far side of the creek, tiny, white star-like flowers visible only to my left eye. They formed a trail that disappeared amongst the oak and rowan trees. I wrapped a dark woollen shawl over my head and shoulders, abandoned the basket and picked my way over slippery rocks to the opposite bank of the stream. The air smelled damp and grew colder as I passed deeper into the forest. The sound of the creek faded until there was only the wind singing through the trees. Fallen branches hidden in the ferns tripped me and skinned my knees, tangled bushes whipped my face and hands until I was covered in scratches, but I followed the delicate white blooms until what little I could glimpse of the sky had grown dim.
A hound barked in the distance.
The moon rose, and the forest became a web of shadows. The flowers sparkled with dew finer than any diamonds and, past the gnarled trunks ahead, a white glow appeared. I clambered over roots, tearing my skirts in haste, and at the edge of the clearing, my breath caught.
Arching branches formed a canopy with a break in the centre through which moonlight poured. Delicate clusters of creamy flowers formed a circle surrounding a low, swirling mist.
The forest came alive with whispers and rustles. I could already hear faint laughter from the other side.
I had not been this close to home in years. The thud of my heart against my ribs was almost hard enough to break them. Quick!
I leapt into the mist.
At least, I did in my mind.
As I lunged forward, arms seized my waist, and I screamed. Descending upon me, men in hunting boots trampled dainty flowers they could not see.
“I told you I was uncooperative,” I said.
Prince Niall did not reply. He sat me on a horse and bound my wrists to its neck, then roped my mount to his stallion. Our return was a slow torture.
In the torchlight at the castle entrance, my prince’s face was grief-etched stone. He fetched me down and carried me through to my chamber, heaved me onto the bed and left, locking the door behind him.
What a fool I had been, calling fresh agony down upon us both. Of course he was spying on my new freedom. Clanks and scrapes outside the door spoke of his armoured guards taking their places. How long before he would return with new irons? Would he chain me this time? Confine me to the dungeon? Would his desire to punish me, warring with the glamour, send him so mad that he’d hit me or force himself on me, needing to prove his possession? I could not resist his power.
I dug the linen bundle from my chest, that I might pluck a leaf for comfort and carry it hidden wherever my prince threw me. Kneeling, I opened the cloth.
Lit by a shaft of moonlight, the wreath shimmered with dainty white flowers.
My heart stuttered. I closed my left eye and the wreath looked dead again. Mother’s tinkling laugh was so vivid in my mind, it was as if the day I left was mere moments ago. Father—if only you’d bestowed me with wit!
Footsteps approached along the corridor outside. There was a heavy, metallic rattle.
I rose and cast the wreath onto the stone floor. It transformed as it landed: clumps of flowers grew from cracks in the flagstones, forming a perfect circle. Tendrils of mist rose and crept across its diameter.
A key rattled in the lock. Then my prince stood in the doorway. Behind him, the hulking frame of the castle blacksmith was draped with chains.
The mist thickened, obscuring the stones. To lose one eye is nothing! I threw myself in. Swirling whiteness enveloped me and cut Prince Niall’s cry short.
And in the instant I lost him, I felt the memory of his hand, calloused from swordplay, warm in mine, amidst the bluebells, beneath the oak canopy.
“Follow me!” I called, but I could not know if he heard.
Since Mother made the ointment for me, I did not pay.
My face tingled as a summer breeze carried whispered Fae spells throughout the oaks. I sat cushioned by sweet-scented wildflowers and grasses beside the lake, feasting with the Seelie Court on plump berries, fruits and nuts. When we were sated, there was laughter and dancing, but I burrowed my fingertips into the earth to sense its quickening in the twilight.
This was my favourite time. Though, time was different here. Days or centuries might pass outside.
Solas, my little boy, somersaulted from a branch overhanging the lake and crashed into the water. Sprites giggled and scrambled in all directions. I returned Solas’s grin when he surfaced. He flicked back his chestnut hair, spraying droplets in an arc. Fish scales flashed at his side, and I imagined a little girl there, curving through the water.
And then one morning, Mother brought a grey-maned old man to me. His face was deeply lined, but I knew him, and I recognised the garlands he bore: clouds of elderflowers amidst green leaves and bright silver bells.
Oh, my prince. My love. You did not burn them.
Both his eyes were blank, white orbs.
I took his hands and kissed his knuckles and palms, then placed them on my face. He ran his fingers over my cheeks and eyes, my nose and across my lips. When he smiled, my heart filled. For the first time, he saw me truly.
Writing from Sydney, Australia, Finley Harper’s short stories have been published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and under another pen name in Kasma SF, Stupefying Stories, and other venues. When not writing, Finley enjoys attempting to run outdoors, SFF inspired movies and dramas, open-world games, and whenever possible, experiencing new places. Currently, Finley is writing a series of fantasy-romance novels, with occasional short stories for fun.
Editor’s Note: The illustration is a bridal floral hair wreath available on Etsy. Photo used by permission.
Truly captivating. Stately prose, and ringing.