Do not fall in love with faeries.
This was a universal wisdom. It barely had to be said; even a child knew the dangers of the fae, would shake their tiny heads at the foolishness of allowing yourself to fall in love with one. Faeries were fickle. They ensnared your heart and your mind until there was nothing left but a shell, entranced and faded. When a young man disappeared in the night, when a farmer’s wife walked in the woods on a new moon and never returned, or returned pale and changed, there was no question as to why. Even if the body was lucky enough to return to the mortal world, the spirit never would.
It could only end in misery, to give one’s heart to a being without a soul.
Well that was all very good advice, Aisling thought, but it was a bit late for it now.
The beautiful creature leading her by the hand turned back with a reassuring smile.
“We’re nearly there,” she said. Despite her heart bucking in her chest like an angry mule, Aisling couldn’t help but smile back.
Aisling was a bard. A musician and a storyteller. She knew all the songs and all the stories; some true, some she suspected only fables. Travelers chance-met on the road who made or accepted challenges, and lost; wanderers and fools who heard music on the wind and followed it.
Young mortal girls who tripped over exposed roots, toppled off mountainside trails, and managed to tumble head-over-heels into faerie rings.
Móirín paused to carefully help her over a young tree that had fallen across the path; the violent kicking of Aisling’s heart settled to a steadier beat at the brush of cool, gentle fingers over her elbow. The faerie touched her like she was made of rice paper that could tear at any moment.
Compared to immortal spirits made flesh possessing human strength several times over and enough magical power to split mountains, she might as well be.
The thought probably should have made her lose her nerve. Especially as the faerie court began to take shape around her and curious, cold eyes turned to watch their approach; but her lover’s lips brushed like a falling leaf against her wrist, and it held her steady.
“You won’t be harmed,” the faerie said softly.
Móirín was always soft. It was the first thing Aisling had noticed about her. She spoke quietly, her smile was small and restrained, and her touch always felt...velveted. Like her skin was coated with flour—or ash. She was a child of autumn, she’d said once. Of wood fires and wild winds and the first sharp hints of winter.
She was born of change. Perhaps that was the reason she had found herself so drawn to a mortal.
“You won’t be harmed,” she repeated, taking Aisling by the hand again, guiding her gently through the trees. The fae parted around them, making way for their approach.
Aisling should have been intimidated by the silent power of this ancient, fae-touched forest. She knew that. It was just that she was rather used to people looking down on her; she wasn’t exactly anything special in the mortal realm either. It had never stopped her before. Oh, the fae could kill her. They could do worse than kill her, you only needed a single story to know that. But any bandit on the road could kill or do worse to a young woman alone; a mortal lordling’s spite could ruin her life as surely as any faerie curse. She was no stranger to powerlessness.
And there was Móirín, as well. It was hard to be afraid of anything with those dark, gentle fingers twining with hers.
Under her lover’s protection or not, Aisling was still mortal and her mind’s eye had limits. She could never quite make sense of how it happened; one moment they were delicately picking their way through dense forest, silently dismissive faeries shifting in and among the trees around them; and then, without ever seeming to make the transition, they were alone in the center of the faerie court.
“Mother,” Móirín murmured with a smile, and swept gracefully into an elaborate bow.
The faerie queen sat on a throne of twisted, living branches, surrounded by her attendants. At her right hand sat another faerie, with a more arrogant posture and finer garments than the rest; that would be the elder princess, Móirín’s sister, but she faded into insignificance next to her mother.
Any faerie was one with the forest; or with the earth, the sky, the sea, whatever the element that gave them birth. Móirín herself seemed to disappear in evening shadows and tossing leaves if Aisling stopped looking directly at her for too long; even now Aisling couldn’t tell how many faeries were in the watching crowd and she was looking directly at them. But this one…
The Queen of the Faeries was different. She was the forest.
The queen acknowledged Móirín with a faint twitch of the lips, inclined her head just barely enough to be visible. Or was it the aspens around the clearing, stirring in a sudden breeze, waving tops dipping just for a moment? Was it a woman on a throne there at all, or just sunlight through a thicket, dancing in Aisling's eyes? That hint of a smile could have been nothing but a cool breeze and the scent of grass...
She turned her full attention to Aisling.
Aisling was used to being outmatched, but looking the faerie queen in the eye for a moment was almost too much to bear. Her lungs filled with the scent of blood and pine, of damp earth; her feet felt rooted to the ground, and she couldn't breathe through the taste of wild berries. Her vision swam and blurred as she struggled to blink dew from her eyes. And she knew, the knowledge burned into her soul: what the fae were to humans, that broad gulf of ancient power, this creature was to the fae.
And then the brief interest passed, and the moment ended with dizzying abruptness. Aisling ran anxious fingers over her arm, half certain she would find bark instead of skin.
“Well then, my daughter,” the queen said, quietly amused. “This is your mortal girl.”
Móirín finally straightened from her bow, sweeping her auburn cape behind her. Several of the attending faeries rolled their eyes; she ignored them, moving to place light fingertips at the small of Aisling’s back.
“She is,” Móirín announced. “As I hoped. I asked her to return with me. I am honored that she accepted.”
It might have been Aisling’s imagination, but she thought the faerie queen’s expression softened a bit.
“She has the boldness of mortals,” the queen observed.
Belatedly, Aisling remembered her manners and ducked her head. That brought laughter from the court, some of it crueller than the rest; but when she glanced up again the queen was smiling properly.
“And yet,” she added, “less a fool than many. Lift your head, child. You will need that boldness still, if my daughter’s intentions are unchanged.”
Móirín’s only sign of tension was to bring her free hand up to take Aisling’s. Her voice was, on the surface, calm as she gave her response.
“My intent is to make her my immortal wife,” she said clearly. “Or return with her to the mortal realm, if the court refuses to have her.”
There was silence in the clearing. The forest had stopped to listen.
“Mother.” Móirín’s tone was less formal now; earnest, if not quite pleading. “Our kind do not love easily.”
Aisling cleared her throat before she could think about it and come to her senses. “Mortals don’t exactly give up our entire lives lightly, either.” She glanced at Móirín, who looked pained at the interruption but gestured encouragingly for her to continue, and squeezed her fingers. “She’s worth it, but I took some convincing.”
The faerie queen raised an eyebrow, watching them both for a long while.
“With your intent so clear my blessing would hardly seem necessary,” she said finally. “Nonetheless, you have it. My daughter, you may of course wed whom you wish; and the gift of immortality to your spouse would bring me nothing but pleasure—”
Móirín’s sister had almost been forgotten as Aisling focused on the queen. Now the faerie’s exclamation drew her attention, and she wished it hadn’t. The elder princess was beautiful, she supposed, in the way of all fae. She could almost have Móirín's eyes—flat black, with a curious unblinking focus. But Móirín's were soft, gentle; the elder princess' eyes had no such warmth, none of the harmless curiosity, like a sparrow or a field mouse. Like a rat, Aisling thought, and hastily tried to banish the comparison. They glinted with malice as the princess glared at her, and Aisling revised her assessment.
Not a rat. A snake.
The queen, however, barely seemed to notice the interruption.
“Once the girl has proven herself worthy,” she finished.
Aisling did not miss the sudden flash of cruel satisfaction in the elder princess’ eyes.
The terms were both simple enough, and terrifyingly vague.
There would be tests, the faerie queen had told her. Móirín had asked how many; the answer of ‘as many as it takes, to one end or the other’ had comforted neither her nor Aisling, but neither of them had exactly been surprised, either.
In the meantime, they were assured that Aisling was more than welcome to remain as her lover’s guest, and to entertain herself as she saw fit. She had found herself in Móirín’s quarters almost before she had time to notice they'd moved—and yet, somehow, without ever feeling rushed. Time moved...different, in the faerie realm.
Her lover's chambers were sparser than she had expected, which was immensely comforting to a baker’s daughter. The only real decorations were warm, subtly wild touches. Antlers and bone carvings served as handles and candlesticks; curtains made entirely of feathers from pheasants and ducks and falcons shifted in the summer breeze; spiders and stranger things preserved in glowing amber weighted parchment older than Aisling’s ancestors. Sunlight filtered through walls formed again of living, interlocking branches, woven together in a pattern so complex she lost track every time she tried to follow it.
And the younger princess of the realm had made her tea that she desperately needed and knew better than to touch.
Móirín had been a perfectly gracious host for approximately five minutes, or whatever the equivalent was in this realm. Aisling gave her credit for good intentions at least; she had seemed in earnest when she offered Aisling a change of faerie-made clothes. They had just gotten a bit sidetracked somewhere. At the moment Aisling was simply wrapped in a wolf’s pelt the size of a horse, resting against her lover’s shoulder and enjoying the warmth of the tea she held.
Tender fingertips brushed strands of red hair off her shoulder.
“You can drink it, you know.”
Aisling laughed softly, leaning back and relaxing into Móirín’s arms as she shifted. “What happened to returning to the mortal realm, if…?”
Móirín paused for a moment. “It doesn’t work that way, darling.”
“I was always told, if you eat in the faerie realm, you can never leave.”
“Well, of course.” Móirín’s dismissively matter-of-fact tone should probably have concerned her more than it did. “But that’s different. You were invited.”
Aisling looked over her shoulder and frowned. Móirín’s brow furrowed, and she reached up to draw her thumb, ash-soft, along Aisling’s jaw.
“Our kind do not give charity,” she said quietly. “Accept our hospitality and you owe us something in return. Agreements must be honored. Oaths must be fulfilled. Generosity must be repaid. But consent can be revoked. You never demanded to be brought here. I asked.” She smiled. “I begged. Your presence here is generosity to me. If I ensure your comfort, that is my attempt to thank you. You owe me nothing. Do you understand?”
Aisling waited until she could breathe again. After hesitating for a long moment, she took a sip of tea.
It was terrible, of course. Móirín was ancient, and powerful, and beautiful as a forest in autumn, and hopeless in a kitchen. Aisling had learned long ago to never eat anything her lover gave her, for entirely mundane reasons. The tea still filled her with warmth. And, perhaps, a little taste of wild daring.
“I do,” she said. “I think—I think I do."
This she understood completely.
The elder princess’ eyes glittered as she smirked, standing at her mother’s side. “Something simple,” she said. “For your first task. Lest we frighten you away, little mortal.”
Aisling turned to face the mound of grain solely so that she didn’t have to look the princess’ glee in the face. It wasn’t, she supposed, as enormous as she had first thought; only twice her height and wide enough to support its own weight. Dried oats, barley, and lentils, mixed in among each other in equal measure, consistent throughout the pile, impossible to separate again.
Naturally, separating them again was exactly what she was being told to do.
“You may use anything in this room to help you,” the queen said evenly, gesturing to the completely empty room and its bare, featureless stone walls and floor.
“Thanks,” said Aisling.
The elder princess gave a venomous smile. “So long as no one assists you, of course. But I’m sure your no doubt considerable skills are up to the task."
Aisling forced herself to smile politely.
“Of course,” she said through bared teeth. “If you’ll excuse me, Your Majesty, I should probably get started.”
The queen gave a noncommittal nod of acknowledgement, hazel eyes resting on her for a moment, and left the room. Aisling found she was able to breathe better once she was gone. The princess followed in her mother’s wake, to much less profound effect.
Aisling took a moment to center herself and review the exact terms of the task in her head, searching for a riddle, a trick. A way out.
Well. First things first. She reached out and sank her fingers into the pile, pulling back a handful of assorted grains. A few moments of hand-sorting was enough to confirm that this was not a sustainable strategy.
Had Móirín said anything to her? Anything that might have contained a clue, an offer of help? Aisling could name any number of ways to leave messages for faeries in the mortal realm; ways to ask for help, rituals of protection, invitations and signals of friendship. Móirín had always taken such care to give her ways to keep herself safe—from enemies who might use her to hurt her lover, or from Móirín herself if her advances ever became unwanted.
But none of those things seemed particularly helpful at the moment. Even if they had been, Aisling hadn’t exactly been inclined to bring iron nails to the faerie realm. She figured that would probably have sent the wrong message.
Aisling took a deep, steadying breath. A riddle. A trick. A way out. A riddle. The solution was always simpler than it seemed.
You may use anything in this room. No one had actually said she could only use things currently in this room…
In stories and songs, this would be where talking ants or bluebirds would break the rules in secret by helping the heroine, once they heard her sobs of despair.
“Right,” she said out loud. “To hell with that.”
She turned on her heel and went to find a kitchen.
“You cheated,” the princess said immediately.
Aisling waved from her seat on top of the ladder she’d borrowed.
“I’m only a mortal tavern entertainer, my lady,” she said, batting her eyelashes slightly. “I would never dream of trying to cheat the fae. You told me yourself that I could use all the skills at my disposal, and I’ve always had a talent for stealing things without being spotted by kitchen staff. Ask my father!”
The princess fumed. Aisling did not laugh, or smirk, or otherwise do anything that might resemble gloating. That was how you got killed.
She did, however, casually twirl her stolen sieve between her hands.
It had been easy, really, once she’d used the sieve to sift the barley out. The oats were much lighter than lentils; she’d shrugged out of the beautiful autumn-leaf overshirt Móirín had gifted her and fanned them across the room. At that point her task had technically been done, but she’d gone all the way and collected the two piles into barrels anyway. She’d had plenty of time.
The queen of the faeries was, not unsurprisingly, difficult to impress. Still, for a moment, Aisling thought that she might have seen a hint of a smile on her aspen-pale face.
The next task saw Aisling standing at the bend in a river, with the queen nowhere in sight.
She had hoped, when she was told that Móirín’s sister had set this task alone, that it might not be legitimate; unfortunately that hope had been vain.
“Everything is a test, my love,” Móirín had told her, kissing her temple. “We issued the challenge; to refuse it now is a forfeit.” Then she had brought Aisling’s fingers to her lips, softly reminded her that she was not a prisoner, that she could refuse still. That she could leave, at any time, and Móirín would willingly accompany her.
“I believe you,” Aisling had told her. It was the truth. If it hadn’t been, Móirín would not have been worth the winning at all.
Still. Losing fairly was one thing, forfeit was another. If Aisling had the freedom to choose, she’d be damned if she chose to give this bitch the satisfaction.
The elder princess gave a mocking imitation of her sister’s signature court bow as they approached.
“So protective, sister,” she said. “For such a simple task.”
She held up a crystal chalice and bent down to dip it in the stream. She straightened, holding the brimming cup, and handed it carefully to Aisling.
“I’d like a branch from the top of that tree,” she said pleasantly, gesturing to the large, beautiful alder tree a stone’s throw away. “Fetch me one. Without spilling a drop.”
Móirín gave her sister an innocent look as Aisling gazed up at the tree, mulling over the pettily impossible task. “No helpful instructions this time?”
The princess hissed. “And give her a chance to twist my words? You were told not to help. The rules are absolute.” She turned her cold eyes on Aisling. “I’m waiting.”
Moving carefully so as not to spill the cup, Aisling turned and set it down on a nearby stump.
“Wait,” the princess said. “You can’t…”
Aisling rubbed her hands together and pulled herself into the tree. Behind her, Móirín was laughing so hard she almost fell into the stream.
The first tasks had been given immediately. Or perhaps years had passed; Aisling wouldn’t know. The queen had told her, however, not to expect another right away.
Formal tasks would come as they would, she was told. However, young one...as you are here, and my attendant is busy elsewhere…
Which was how Aisling had ended up wandering the forest, barefoot on a bed of knobbly roots and pine needles and hard acorns, with one finger resting on her nose and feeling profoundly stupid.
She didn’t believe for a minute that this wasn’t a test. That being said, she was much more concerned with failing an errand for the faerie queen than with failing a safe, neutral task.
Oh, of course the queen had assured her that this “little errand” was perfectly safe. She only needed a firebird feather, for the purposes of a spell; and the firebird wouldn’t even be in his nest while the sun was up. It was only an hour’s walk in the woods, directly following the sun. She couldn’t possibly lose her way.
And, oh, yes, the firebird was the king of birds. So, of course, he had his guards; a thousand steel-winged ravens with talons sharp as razor blades. But Aisling would be safe from them, as long as she kept her finger on her nose. Apparently.
“Do you really believe that’s going to help?”
For a moment, Aisling was prepared to give her subconscious a stern talking-to about speaking out loud. Then the elder princess stepped out of the trees just in front of her.
Aisling took a step back, stepped directly on a pinecone, yelped, and flapped her left arm frantically to avoid falling over without taking her right index finger off her nose.
The princess, for once, didn’t say anything. Aisling was still acutely aware of the fact that she had not just helped her cause.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Perhaps I came to help you.”
The princess took a step forward, and there was a cold, coiled warning in her voice as she said, “And if so, it would be unwise for a mortal in my realm to refuse my advice.”
Aisling didn’t step back again, which was the most courage she was capable of.
After a moment, the princess smiled again. Aisling swore, for just a moment, that she saw fangs.
“You’re a fool,” she said. “Do you believe my mother truly wants to see her most powerful huntress, her daughter, one of her only two heirs, wedded to some human minstrel? My sister’s weakness would shame the court.”
Aisling grinned. “So you believe there’s a chance I might earn a place after all.”
“No,” the faerie replied. “But it would break my sister’s heart if you were shredded by carrion birds in the forest.”
“And you came to...help?”
The princess slipped a bundle of snakeskin leather from her sleeve. “I came to give you a gift.” A single tug of the spider-silk ribbon and the scarlet snakeskin fell open to reveal a plain silver dagger. “Trust in my mother’s advice if you choose; but take this all the same, for when you begin to question that unthinking trust. I enchanted it myself, long ago, and it has served me well.”
“It’s enchanted?” Aisling found herself listening in spite of her dislike for the woman.
“Of course, girl. Any weapon of our kind has magic in its bones. This blade will never miss its mark.” The princess fixed her with an intense look. “Take it for when you meet the ravens. In the hand it will do no more good than any other knife; but thrown, it will always kill its target.”
Aisling regarded the unassuming dagger for some time, weighing every word of the offer.
“Who's its target?” she asked.
The princess was silent for just a moment too long.
Aisling walked away.
She kept her finger on her nose. The ravens opened sleepy eyes to look at her, but didn’t so much as ruffle their razor-tipped feathers. Aisling returned with a firebird feather burning warm against her heart, and only tripped over a rock once.
Móirín was bursting with eagerness to show her everything she could; while a mortal was simply not capable of experiencing most of the wonders of the faerie realm and returning alive, she was the daughter of the faerie queen. Her protection meant something very real, and one afternoon she took Aisling riding.
A faeborn mount would tolerate no commanding hand but a faerie’s, Móirín warned; Aisling carefully kept her hands free of the reins as she was pulled up up in front of her lover, settling astride a little dark bay stallion that seemed more charred wood than horse. But his hide felt warm and real when she stroked it, and his burning cinder eyes closed lazily as Aisling scratched his tattered leaflike mane. Móirín's arms circled her waist to take the reins, and at his mistress' touch the stallion's head came up. He stood still and obedient; but his ears were pricked with eagerness and he snorted fire.
"Go," Móirín told him, and his dying-ember eyes burned.
He galloped like a wildfire, flashing between the trees, between forest floor and tossing treetops, without his hooves ever quite seeming to touch the ground. At times he seemed to have wings, broad swathes of flame rippling at their flanks; but when Aisling tried to turn Móirín caught her, the back of one hand gentle but firm against her jaw.
"Don't look back."
It was the kind of command a mortal without a death wish did not disobey.
The ominous order might have sapped the joy from the ride. But Móirín's clever little horse was too playful, ducking under fallen logs and vaulting boulders, tossing his head with the joy of a colt, laughing with delight; and the speed and freedom, the twisting colors, were too filled with life and wild abandon to fear. By the time Móirín had slowed him to a reluctant trot to circle back toward the faerie court Aisling was still out of breath, grinning from ear to ear and smelling faintly of wood smoke.
Some of Móirín’s half-mad enthusiasm dimmed as they spotted the messenger waiting for them.
“Speak then,” Móirín called to him, reining the stallion to a halt. The horse snorted, scattering sparks from his twisting nostrils, and tugged at the braided oak-root reins that were not quite tack, growing in creaking strands directly from his face; but he settled as his mistress patted his neck.
The messenger cast a wary eye on the horse, and informed them that Aisling’s presence as required for her next task.
It would have been simpler to lift Aisling down and let her go on across the stream alone. Instead Móirín simply nodded to the messenger, pulling her mount around. He burned, and the forest warped around them.
This time, their destination was the most ordinary little mortal cottage Aisling had seen since arriving. It was so ordinary as to feel profoundly wrong; this simple, familiar thing should not exist here. It was too perfect an ideal of mortal normality. The thatched roof was too even, the corners too crisp, the windows too level.
The acid silence between the two princesses of the faerie realm could have tarnished solid gold.
Móirín didn’t so much as look at her elder sister, though she lowered her eyes and bowed her head respectfully in her mother’s direction as she handed Aisling to the forest floor. Not one of them had said a word about the cursed dagger, but this morning a gleaming silver skinning knife hung at Móirín’s belt that Aisling had never seen before.
Subtle, the stories said about the fae. Subtle and wise, insufferably clever. You could never know what they were thinking.
Aisling was almost beginning to wish she had plans to return to the mortal realm. She had no life there, not since her father’s death, but there were some bits of common knowledge that desperately needed updating.
“I need to see to my horse,” Móirín told Aisling quietly. She didn’t offer any gesture of reassurance, but Aisling was glad of it. If they pretended long enough that she wasn’t afraid…
The princess stepped back as Móirín guided her horse in a tight circle and vanished into the shadows. She gestured toward the door of the cottage, and Aisling stepped through before she could second-guess herself.
Her sense of alien wrongness increased instantly. The door swung open too smoothly, the floorboards were too sharply identical and unnaturally unwilling to actually separate themselves into separate planks. The quilt and pillow laid out on a straw-stuffed mattress could have been plucked from Aisling’s memories. In fact, she recognized the pattern and was positive they had been. Except the stitching was subtly different—eerily flawless, far too regular to have ever been constructed by human hands.
And the entire inside of the house was bare, except for a single candle on a stool on one side of the empty space and the simple wooden bedframe on the other, both growing roots into the floorboards.
“You must be tired,” the princess said before Aisling had finished looking around. “After all that exertion.”
“Your sister took me riding,” Aisling commented vaguely, looking around for any interesting features of the room. In a real cottage, there would have been at least one. Here there was nothing.
“I have no doubt.”
The faerie queen was present this time, which Aisling found deeply reassuring, especially with Móirín gone. She didn’t smile, but she nodded in greeting.
“The third task is prepared,” she said. “I look forward to your continued success, young one.”
The elder princess’ eye twitched.
“Success is going too far, mother,” she complained. “This mortal mocks us. She escaped the first tests on technicalities at best.”
The queen raised an eyebrow. “I am certain the girl will meet this challenge honestly.”
“She’ll have no choice,” the princess muttered, before turning her glare on Aisling. “You will learn there are rules.”
Aisling remembered the chilling hatred she’d seen in the forest, the cold killing rage of an immortal denied her victory. This woman—this creature, as far from a human princess as a snake from an earthworm—wanted nothing so much as her blood.
And yet...Aisling had turned and walked away. And a fae princess, with a knife in her hand, coiled to strike, stood there stewing in fury and unable to do anything but watch. Aisling had held an alder branch out to her while her sister laughed and laughed, and she had done nothing but grind her teeth and take it.
There were rules. And Aisling knew them.
It wasn’t that it made her less careful, less suspicious. If anything, the more familiar she became with the nuances of faerie law the more she became aware of how deathly easy it was for careless wording to leave fatal loopholes. She just couldn’t bring herself to be afraid anymore.
The princess stepped forward. This time she didn’t bother with a false smile.
“You must be tired,” she repeated. “You can lie down and sleep. All you have to do is blow out that candle and reach the bed before the room goes dark. Without moving either the bed or the candle,” she added venomously. “And you must blow the candle out, not fan it or extinguish it some other way. No clever wordplay this time.”
“I would never use clever wordplay against you,” Aisling said solemnly. It wasn’t a lie, but she didn’t allow herself the time to enjoy wondering if the princess realized she had been insulted.
For the first time, she wasn’t entirely certain her plan would work; not with the way time passed in the faerie realm. Still, she could only try.
She crossed the room to the candle, pretending to inspect it, and then crossed back to the bed, where she sat on the edge and folded her hands under her chin, peering across the room.
“Well?” asked the princess.
“I’m thinking,” Aisling responded. And waited.
Eventually, one of her fears was assuaged. However much time went on, the candle never melted down. Good. Now, if only…
She couldn’t be certain. She would succeed only with luck this time, and she hated it. She was—well, she was a bard, and a traveler, and she was too used to relying on her own skill to be satisfied trusting to luck in a world where every word hung on a razor’s edge.
She didn’t speak, didn’t move or allow herself to fidget. She just rested her elbows on her knees, watched the candle dance, and breathed, and waited.
Finally, after hours of staring stiffly across the room, a sliver of bright white in the corner of her eye nearly made her laugh with relief. She didn’t dare so much as glance to the side at the slowly sailing moon, however.
It would be in bad faith for the princess to add conditions to the task now...but it would not break the rules.
Finally, so slowly the snake didn’t seem to notice the shift, the sun began to rise. Aisling rubbed her face and used it as cover to glance out the east-facing window. It was just about time.
She stood up and walked over to the candle, and, without rushing, bent down and blew it out.
And left the room still bright, bathed in the light of dawn.
Unconcerned, Aisling stood up again, turned around, walked across to the bed, and sat down.
The queen, ignoring her eldest daughter’s choked, indignant protests, met Aisling’s eyes and smiled.
As devoted as Móirín was, as much as Aisling adored her, she was still one of two heirs to the faerie throne. More than that, she was a huntress, the court’s first and last line of defense, and as the wind began to gain bite and the days grew shorter, her duties began to call her away.
“Someday,” she promised against Aisling’s mouth, holding her close. “Someday I will bring you with me.”
Móirín had been honest from the beginning. She had spared nothing for Aisling’s sensibilities, not wanting to deceive her as to the nature of what she truly was; but the hunt, aside from its dangers, was something no mortal could witness.
Aisling made it a point not to let herself dwell on what “someday” might mean to a being already thousands of years old and still considered a bold youth by the court.
On this occasion, Móirín had been called away in the middle of the night, and Aisling had fretted until finally another messenger arrived to escort her to the queen. She had expected another task and dreaded it; Móirín had looked uncharacteristically worried and grim when she galloped off that morning and Aisling was not remotely confident in her own creativity at the moment.
In fact the queen had only invited her to breakfast. Aisling had paid exceedingly careful attention to her phrasing; she was therefore touched by the care the queen had put into wording the invitation as a request for companionship, to distract her from her worry over her youngest daughter’s absence. A generosity requested, not a favor to be repaid.
And then, to Aisling’s complete surprise, the queen had asked her lightly if she might be willing to run a small errand. Something she would gladly do herself, but with the need to hold court all day…
A single golden acorn, she’d said.
And not to worry about the dangers of the forest; Aisling would be safe and her search short, if she followed the stream and told no one what she sought.
Well, she was following the path of the stream, but had yet to find any golden acorns. There were plenty of normal ones underfoot, as usual—although, now that she thought about it, she couldn’t remember the last time she had injured herself walking barefoot through these trees. Even now she felt nothing but soft, springy moss underfoot, despite the fact that as she scanned the forest floor she could see it littered with sharp twigs and hard acorns. That was odd...
She winced and rubbed her foot where the sensitive arch had landed directly on the knobbliest part of an exposed root.
“Oh!” The voice was light and feminine, but without the faint reverberation of power that marked the fae. Aisling had gotten so used to that otherworldly quality that its sudden absence was jarring. “I thought I heard someone yell. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, it was just...a root…” Aisling blinked at the dark-haired mortal waving to her from just down the stream. She was about to ask what the woman could possibly be doing here, then realized she recognized her. She had maybe five to ten years on Aisling herself, and she was almost always hovering politely just out of the way whenever her lady held court.
“You’re one of the queen’s attendants, aren’t you?” she asked.
The woman laughed. “You’re very polite. You can call me her servant if you like, the truth doesn’t hurt me. I’m really no one, to you.”
Aisling had read enough stories to suspect that their meeting was not a coincidence, but the other mortal seemed happy enough to just fall into step next to her.
“Are you lost?” the woman asked. “The woods change. They take some getting used to.”
Aisling smiled, more out of a desire to be polite than out of genuine trust. “I’ll be fine, I think,” she said. “I’m just following the stream.”
The other mortal grinned. “You caught me. I still use the left-hand-on-the-wall trick myself sometimes. Don’t tell Her Majesty, she already worries when I’m out alone.”
In spite of herself, Aisling was fascinated by the casual statement. It was certainly an unusual servant who felt confident enough to openly declare that the queen of the faeries cared enough about her to worry over her safety.
The woman didn’t miss her reaction, and her smile softened.
“I owe her everything,” she said. “I’d have lost myself inside a year without her.”
“You do seem awfully…” Aisling hesitated, not wanting to be rude.
“Present?” the woman suggested. “I know. Mortal minds aren’t built for this place. I’ve seen a lot of them come through. Most of them wander off, or they just...fade. Good riddance, most of the time; the kind of people faeries trick that badly are usually right bastards.” She winced. “It’s rough, though, seeing young fools who should have known better pine away.”
Aisling glanced at her, and she gave a sad smile.
“The fae can be kind,” the woman said quietly. “You know that. Profoundly kind. Loyal and generous, as well. Sometimes they even feel pity. But they’re not capable of mercy and only a fool waits for it. I’d have ended the same way, except I didn’t wait for a reprieve that wasn’t coming, when they took me.”
Aisling didn’t have an answer to that, and for some time they walked along the stream in silence.
“I’m sorry that...happened to you,” she managed after some time.
The woman shrugged. “I didn’t leave behind a lot I’d be likely to miss. If my husband had been worth a damn I wouldn’t have been finding excuses to wander around the fields in the middle of the night, would I?”
Aisling winced, and the woman smiled.
“The queen’s a decent sort, for her kind.” She shook her wrist to show a thin woven band of living silver branches. “She thought I had an interesting approach to the whole thing, wanting to actually start a new life instead of obsessing over the old one. Gave me this, to grant me enough true sight that I can navigate most of the safe paths. She took me under her wing, talked to me, kept finding little jobs and positions, and...Well, here we are.”
“Here we are,” Aisling echoed quietly. She regretted nothing of her own decisions; she would hardly be the first woman to start a new life after marriage. And Móirín...woke a kind of peace and steadiness in her that she hadn’t known she could feel. But to be bound to another world by accident…
The woman cleared her throat. “No, I mean—here we are.” She pointed off to the right. “That’s your path, if you’re following the stream.”
“Right.” Aisling shook herself. “Thank you. I’ll see you around—what was your name?”
The woman shook her head. “I told you. I’m really no one.” She waved and walked away before Aisling could think of a response to that.
She turned her own way, and took a few steps before she stopped.
“Wait,” she called, running after the woman. The other mortal turned around, innocently curious.
Aisling hesitated for a moment. If she was wrong…
She wasn’t wrong.
“I think I’m supposed to tell you,” she said. “I’m looking for a golden acorn?”
The queen’s attendant gave a wide smile, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a little, living piece of bright gold.
“I thought you were never going to figure it out,” Siobhan teased.
Aisling rolled her eyes, climbing over a log in the path. “Yes, you’re very clever and you almost fooled me.”
The other mortal shook her head. “Oh, no,” she said. “That was the queen. I can’t take credit.”
Aisling adjusted her sleeve awkwardly. “How…? You don’t have to tell me that, I’m sorry.” Just because she was here willingly…
Siobhan shook her head with a self-deprecating smile. “Wandered into a circle like a newborn fawn, didn’t I? Heard music on a new moon and couldn’t resist it.”
Aisling brushed the hair out of her face self-consciously. “That’s...how it happened for me, more or less,” she admitted. “Except I tripped.”
At that, Siobhan laughed out loud.
“See, I shouldn’t make fun,” she said. “With you being the future consort of the heir to the kingdom.”
Mystified, Aisling cocked her head. “She's the younger sibling. Her sister is first in line, she told me as much.”
Siobhan's lips twitched. “Right,” she said. “Sure she is.”
There was a pause.
“Do you know something I don’t?”
Siobhan winked and didn’t answer. “If I may,” she continued as if there had been no digression, “that must have been one hell of a first impression. She liked you so much she kept you when you ended up bound?”
Aisling flushed. “Not really. I didn’t actually realize what she was until I left the circle and she vanished.”
Siobhan either missed a step or tripped over a root, which struck Aisling as unlikely; she didn’t even have to look to know that the ground here was smooth and flat, covered in nothing but moss and loose soil.
“You left the circle.”
She sighed. She’d had this conversation before. “That’s what I said.”
Aisling covered her face. “I didn’t know they were fae! I’d just hit one of them in the face with a knapsack! They were being so friendly and offering me their food, inviting me to dance, and I was so embarrassed I just kept refusing until they agreed to let me pay for the food by playing with their musicians.”
Siobhan was laughing again, utterly delighted. That was a new reaction; most mortals were just horrified at the danger Aisling had been in without realizing it. “You made a bargain!”
Aisling blushed. “I suppose I did. I probably would have been too terrified to try if I’d realized.”
“Oh, no wonder she was so taken with you. You played their game better than they did and you weren’t even trying yet. Have you got changeling blood?”
“That’s what she said.” Aisling brushed her hair back, sheepish but unable to keep the fondness out of her voice. “She was curious. It took her three months to be sure I didn’t, and by that time we’d gotten to like each other, so she just…kept coming by.”
Siobhan shook her head slowly.
“Well good luck to you. You’ve got half the court charmed now and most of the other half want to see you succeed just for the look on the snake’s face when you do it.” Móirín had said as much; but somehow it meant more, coming from another mortal, from someone who wasn’t biased by being in love with her. Siobhan grinned. “I’d love to see you do it just to prove we can. But if you’re planning to bring my lady that acorn, this is where we part for now.”
Aisling looked around; sure enough, there was a narrow but well-marked path stretching off in front of her. “Thanks,” she said. “I was just following you.”
“I’m not quite going in yet,” Siobhan said. “But you’ll be safe that way, as long as you stay on the path.”
Aisling nodded her thanks and went to move off, only to have her arm grabbed with sudden intensity.
“I mean it,” Siobhan emphasized. “This part of the forest is...not for us. Don’t leave the path. You’ll never find it again.”
Aisling gave a wry smile.
“I wasn’t going to test it.”
“Right.” Siobhan made a face. “But it’s the kind of thing I’d have done. I probably said too much already.”
“I’ll be fine.” She started down the path, and turned to wave. “We’ll talk…”
The forest was empty. The path she had just now stepped onto stretched out behind her into the distance, with no crossroads visible.
“Soon,” she finished. “Right.”
When she turned to face forward again, there was a snake in her way.
It was lurid, poison-green thing, as thick as Aisling’s forearm with an arrow-shaped head, coiled in a languid pile across the path. It bared its dripping fangs as she took a step forward.
“Good afternoon, your highness,” she greeted it. She was only faintly surprised when it spoke back.
“You should not sssspeak so,” it hissed, feigning a strike. She just raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry,” she said. “Family resemblance.”
“Ssstep carefully,” the serpent snapped. “I am no mortal beast. A drop of my venom will dry a well. My blood turns rivers to poison. I strike more quickly than a star can fall to earth and my teeth have pierced the granite heels of mountains. Think what will happen if a mortal drives me to bite.”
“I’m thinking,” Aisling assured it. “But if you were here to kill me, nothing’s stopping you.”
The snake tilted its head to the side.
“Caution,” it said. “But step around me and I shall let you live.”
“I’m not stepping off the path,” she told the snake. “You’re going to have to try harder than that.”
“And yet if you do, you will not be—”
A promise not to bite her if she left the path was not the same as saying that she would be bitten if she didn’t.
Aisling stepped over the snake.
The path was littered with dead twigs, acorns, pinecones and needles. Aisling didn’t notice; she felt nothing but clover beneath her feet until the forest deposited her on Móirín’s threshold.
The Hunt still raged; but even an ancient battle on the scale of the immortals eddied sometimes, and Aisling gave a snarl that was nearly fae at the arrival of a messenger.
Móirín, warm and ash-soft against her back, chuckled and kissed her throat. The messenger was on foot and unhurried, which meant he was not there bearing news of some emergency, which meant Aisling felt no hesitation in rolling over and resting her face against Móirín’s bare chest, pulling that shimmering hearthfire cloak over their heads.
She hummed happily as Móirín trailed fingers up her side, then sighed as the cloak was pulled back away from her face.
“My sister calls, my darling,” Móirín said, fighting back a smile. If she fought back enemies and dark creatures that well, Aisling thought irritably, the faerie kingdom was doomed.
“Is that a reason I shouldn’t ignore him?” she growled.
Móirín, black eyes dancing with laughter, nevertheless managed to look disapproving.
“Fine,” she said. “Yes, all right, I’m going…”
“And how,” Aisling said brightly, “may I help you this morning, Your Highness?”
“My deepest apologies are in order,” the princess replied. “If you were attacked by a wildcat en route, I will have failed in my duties as a host.”
Móirín’s shirt, which Aisling had stolen out of retribution, actually had a higher collar than anything Aisling normally wore specifically to hide the marks of teeth on Aisling's throat. As such, she felt perfectly justified in sweetly telling the elder princess of the realm and heir to the most powerful being on the planet to do something deeply objectionable with a sack of pine martens.
“You are going to die and I am going to treasure the memory,” the princess informed her. “In the meantime, I have a task for you.”
This was starting to get obnoxious.
Aisling sighed as she planted her foot and climbed into the designated birch tree.
It wasn’t that this was a difficult assignment. That was the galling part, actually. There was no trick. No special instructions to follow like having to hop the whole way on one foot, no impossible twist. She just had to go to a certain spot in the forest and hang a set of golden windchimes on the third branch from the bottom.
She’d spent several hours on the walk over going through contingency plans; it was a short distance, actually, but she’d detoured to go around the loop of a stream that cut through the forest instead of crossing it. She was mortal, she knew she could cross running water, but...well. She’d started getting uneasy about it. Started feeling like maybe there was a reason the fae didn’t risk it.
And it had given her time to think. Before leaving she’d asked her tormenter point-blank what the danger was, and the princess had been unexpectedly forthcoming in telling her that there was no danger. There was no trick, no trap, nothing else Aisling should know. She’d expected the tree to be on an unscaleable mountain of some kind, or to only have two branches, making the instructions impossible to follow.
But it was insultingly straightforward. It wasn’t a task at all; Móirín’s sister had Aisling doing chores for her now.
That, Aisling thought grimly, was almost certainly the point. All the elder princess ever had to do was say she wasn’t satisfied, and she could keep using Aisling as her personal servant for as long as she chose. She never had to let her and Móirín have a moment’s peace; she would hound them at all hours, ruin their quiet moments, and eventually they would refuse to continue playing her game out of frustration and wounded pride, and she would win.
Not likely, Aisling decided as she reached up and tied the chimes to the third branch from the bottom. Still, deep down she had doubts. She was mortal. She couldn’t fully conceptualize a decade, let alone several centuries. She certainly didn’t know if she had the endurance to put up with this kind of petty malice for thousands of years.
“One day at a time,” she told the tree as she jumped back to the ground. “Or whatever passes for a day here.”
Woof, said something behind her.
Aisling glanced over. A trio of massive dogs, wolfhounds bigger than any farm horse and several of the farm houses Aisling had ever seen, stood just in the treeline. Something dark and viscous dripped from their gaping jaws—saliva or blood she couldn’t tell. Skin clung to their skeletons like tattered black sails. Obsidian claws left gouges in the earth. And their eyes burned, not like the fire she’d seen glimpses of in Móirín but scarlet and dark, swirling madly as they bared their teeth and stepped toward her.
“And what do you want?” she asked them. Then, belatedly, she realized something. “Oh! I’m sorry. Is this your tree? I can take it down.” She rolled her eyes. “The sn—ah, the Queen’s daughter asked me to do her a favor, but she just said I had to hang it up. Never said it had to stay there.”
The dogs didn’t answer, but they paused. One of them cocked its head and sniffed hesitantly in her direction. Another growled so deep the earth trembled, but only briefly.
“No?” Aisling took a step forward. “I don’t mind.”
One of the massive wolfhounds blinked. For all their intense focus before, they no longer seemed to know what to do with her. The one on the left lifted one paw, motioned as if it was going to bat her with it, then whined and stomped it on the ground instead. A hazel bush with the misfortune to be in the way disintegrated.
“Well.” Aisling said. “All right. I’m going to go, but if you want the chimes down, let me know.”
She turned and took the long, looping route back. For a little while the confused pack of dogs crept along in her wake; but before long they fell back and disappeared into the trees.
The clearing where the faerie queen held court started to open up in the trees; Aisling’s worthless assignment had taken longer than she thought. She edged through the crowd with ill grace, skirting around the edges to take her place at Móirín’s side without much caring if it was a distraction.
She’d barely made it a few steps before the low hum of discussion was broken by a loud, reptilian hiss.
Aisling looked around, and blinked when she found the elder princess glaring ice daggers at her.
“Afternoon,” she told her. “I hung your chimes up.”
There was a pause, and then the princess gave a slow, toxic smile.
“Liar,” she purred.
Aisling frowned as a ripple went through the court. “No,” she said, carefully choosing her words, keeping eye contact. “I did exactly as I was told. You didn’t attach conditions, you only told me where to go.” She repeated the directions she had been given, but only got as far as the description of the path she had taken at a fork in the road marked by holly flanked with whitebeam when Móirín’s head snapped around.
“I was fine,” Aisling said tiredly. She’d thought about it on the walk back. “If I can perform a hard task to earn you I’m not too proud to perform a—”
Móirín wasn’t listening. Her voice cracked like lightning.
“You sent her into hellhound territory! There are rules!”
Aisling waved off the concern.
“I knew they weren’t dangerous,” she assured Móirín. “I asked, and she told me outright there was nothing there that would hurt me. I’ve seen fae creatures before. They were just big dogs.”
For the second time, Aisling witnessed the entire forest come to a halt. If an acorn had fallen across the world, she knew the entire court would have heard it.
Móirín spoke first.
“Fetch a pair of horses,” she breathed, and a steward ducked away into the trees.
With the spell broken, whispers and muttered conversation broke out around the court, quickly building into a buzz of tension and anger as Aisling stepped carefully away from the sudden shift in the crowd’s emotions. She preferred to be out of arm’s reach when she learned what was going on.
It seemed a bit of an overreaction to subjecting her to nothing but a mildly frightening visual.
“You can’t be believing this,” the elder princess protested. “She has to be lying! Hellhounds don’t make mistakes!”
Once again Móirín wasn’t listening. But this time, her attention was focused entirely on Aisling. She stood, raising a hand for silence.
A few of the nearby courtiers halted their conversations, but the court as a whole didn’t notice. The queen glanced at her youngest daughter and moved as if to copy the order…
Móirín didn’t need her help.
It wasn’t the complete and utter silence of before. But just for a moment the air was crisper, the tang of smoke thick on Aisling’s tongue as a chill raced through her core. There was an echo of power held in check; the hawk still circling, the wildcat poised but not quite crouched to spring.
The Autumn Huntress had spoken, and the faerie court obeyed.
Even her sister.
Móirín held the silence for a long moment, the flash of wolf gold in her eyes fading, before lowering her hand and turning to her mother. The faerie queen inclined her head, and Móirín bowed—a shallow bow, a respectful acknowledgement, that was unlike her usual pageantry.
Aisling didn’t realize she was trembling until Móirín stood in front of her, tender hands framing her face. The faerie’s eyes were a deep, gentle squirrel-black again.
“You never had to do any of this,” Móirín whispered softly. “I would have loved you as a mortal. You have to know that.”
“Of course I do,” Aisling replied. “What…?”
Móirín’s expression was deadly serious.
“Aisling,” she said. “Hellhounds are not fae creatures.”
Aisling, respecting the gravity of her lover’s voice, did not comment that they were awfully big lapdogs, then.
Móirín continued, “They exist to destroy life—to gorge themselves on mortal blood. They have no interest in the fae because we are not mortal, but they have only one purpose and they cannot be countermanded.” She looked between Aisling’s eyes. “Do you understand? They smell fear with perfect accuracy. There is no such thing as a mortal who does not on some level recognize them as a threat, and that is how they hunt. Even half a heartbeat of nervousness is a death sentence. They cannot be fled, they cannot be fought. My mother does not have the power to call a hellhound off its prey. Mortals do not survive encounters with hellhounds. Only the fae can walk away from them unmolested.”
Aisling took a deep breath. “Well, I did.”
Móirín looked at her for a long time.
“Yes,” she said, clearly waiting for Aisling to catch up. “Yes, you did.”