The sun had not yet peaked over the grey monoliths up on the hill. The dark bathed the stones in muted tones of black and grey which camouflaged into the exact shade of the stones. There was a hint of smudged pink and orange across the sky like the dye was dipped into dirty shaving cream, a beautiful but very messy creation an enthusiastic toddler would spread onto paper. The grass was filled with splotches of purple and yellow, gorse, and heather. Claire desperately wanted to lay her hands on the Earth and feel it growing, the pulse of it thumping against her palms below and breathing in sync with the flutter of birds’ wings above. The ground beneath inclined from the flat steady ground to a more rigorous slope. Rocks now scattered the landscape and the toe of her shoe stumbled upon them more than once.
Claws sunk into the flesh of Claire’s upper arm, guiding her none too gently towards the summit of the hill. She was tired, hungry, and not least of all completely peeved at her aunt and the man she intended her to meet today. She was dressed in a plain white dress that flowed just below her knees. It was modest enough, without being too prudish, she thought.
“I know you want to hand me off to some random man, like some cattle, but why must the exchange be here?”
Claire had been sequestered into a little room at Mrs. Baird’s bread-and-breakfast for almost two weeks now. Her aunt spoke no words to enlighten her niece about the reason for their stay. Aunt Elisa, for all intents and purposes, was Claire’s aunt. She had earned the title through her close friendship with Julia Beauchamp and had taken her place as Claire’s guardian after Uncle Lamb’s death. Her niece was at the end of her tether with Elisa, and even more so now that she had experienced a taste of freedom and independence nursing grotesque injuries in France during the war. Elisa had sunk her teeth into every move Claire made after she returned home when the war ended. She had almost thrown the cup of china that held her morning tea when Aunt Elisa admitted her true intentions. Though she did not enact any violence on her aunt that day, there had been a row that probably woke even the people in the next town over.
“Quiet down Claire, you’ll know soon enough. Just know that what we’re doing is for your own good and the good of our people.”
She would have stopped for a moment for her perplexing emotions to take place but Elisa tightened her grip on her arm. Claire bit her cheek to stave off the tears that threatened to blur her eyes. She knew she would have five half-crescent wounds the next morning from where her skin broke. They reached the summit as her breaths quickened to bring in more oxygen. The buzzing of the earth below her feet was even more powerful at the top and the vibrations raced through her body and her heart hummed in harmony with them.
She froze at the sight of the man who was her intended. The iron sword he held carefully with gloved hands made her blood run cold. She stretched her back reflexively as if to check that it was still unmolested.
“You cannot be serious.” She recognised him.
Frank Randall. The distinct lines that surrounded his mouth and the small brown eyes that looked as if they were cursed in a constant squint stared unwaveringly into her soul. He was one of Uncle Lamb’s acquaintances. Their spheres of academia often coincided and they formed an amicable understanding to share advice and help in research over the years. The man who stood before Claire was smartly dressed. He was handsome in an academic sort of way, lean and not too terribly short. Her Uncle Lamb had kept her far away from the man during his visits. It was a relief too, not to hear them drone on and on about his famous ancestor. Besides, he had made his intentions clear, and though eighteen in years she had quite a few years until she was full grown at twenty-five.
“I’ll not marry this man. He’s so.. so old . I don’t even want to be married yet.”
“Claire bear, he is only fourteen years your senior. And those years are hardly anything given how many hundreds you will live together. When I was your age I was already married and with child.”
“I don’t care what you were doing this is my life.”
“And I’ve let you stray too far in it! I should’ve never allowed you to continue as a nurse in the war efforts. Do you know what could’ve happened if you’d been caught?”
“I used what skills any normal human possessed. And so what if I used my skills to heal people! Is that such a crime?”
“Claire, you reached the age of majority two years ago and besides, he’s a professor. You’ll live quite comfortably with him. Don’t you want to be happy? Have children of your own?”
“Of course I want that, but not with him.” She sneered. “Mum always said I would know who I would marry. That the love we would have would be far stronger than any power I could ever possess.” She looked to the side to the man dressed sensibly in a brown suit. “And I certainly don’t feel that right now.”
“At least talk to him, Claire. You don’t necessarily love someone the moment you meet them. It takes time.”
“Fine.” Her foot hesitantly tested the soft grass before her. “But I’ll never give up my wings for any man.”
His eyes trailed down to her toes and up, stopping at uncomfortable intervals until he finally reached her eyes. She crossed her arms over her chest protectively and cleared her throat.
“You can put that sword away sir.” She tried to imbue a sense of authority into her wavering voice.
“Of course, darling. I shall hope that you call me Frank.” He sheathed the sword into its scabbard and gently let it fall to the grass with a quiet thud.
His hand grasped hers and the leather covering it was smooth and supple. It allowed no direct contact with Frank’s own skin which was a small blessing. They weaved through the outer ring of the stones, almost mimicking the twirls and turns of the druids who were likely here just hours ago, without the flare of long flowing garments and torches to carry. She had spied upon a ritual of theirs ten years ago with her uncle. The chants and lithe movements of the women almost drew her to join them, as if her place was amongst them. Now, she had gotten closer to the stones than she ever had before, and the humming called out to the blood in her body. Her head was heavy with bees buzzing about inside of it and she was transfixed to the cleft of the centre stone. Randall squeezed her wrist, bringing her out of her reverie.
“What?” She could still hear life course through the earth where she stood and it was hard to focus on anything else.
“Darling, your aunt and I discussed this very thoroughly. I think I can make you quite happy and you need not worry about any expense. Our children will be successful. I know you would make me a very happy man, Claire. I knew that since I laid eyes on you as a girl when you visited with your uncle. You know our kind is dying off..”
“Mhmm.” Her gaze was still transfixed on the centre stone. “Do you not hear that?”
“Hear what Claire?”
“The buzzing.” It filled her entire chest, her entire soul.
“Claire sweetheart, this better not be a distraction from this handfast. It will happen today.” Aunt Elisa chimed in and now held the iron sword intended to cut off the wings from her niece’s back.
“Get that bloody thing away from me!” She wrenched her hand from his tight grip at which the action twisted her skin and she bit her lip to lessen the pain.
“Claire, darling you know it’s tradition.” He moved closer to her and she took a step back. “Our faerie women have given up their wings since the beginning of time.”
She kept her front in view of both her aunt and the man before her, her back the furthest possible distance from them. The centre stone was a mere five feet away now. She slowly backed up to it, as if she were a fish on a line, baited by the thrum of seemingly live stones. She stretched her neck back towards the destination behind her. The stone stood at about twice her height, and through all the noise and disturbance it caused, stayed completely still as rocks were wont to do. It proudly shot out of the ground beneath it as if it had grown as the plants surrounding it.
She recalled the stories her uncle told her, the only words she remembered her father saying. About those who heard the earth call to them, carrying them away to the faerie kingdom where time stood still. Humans swept away with just a touch to the stone. But she was hardly human and the faerie kingdom was long gone as its inhabitants slowly died off. It might not have ever even existed, except for in rhyme and song.
“Give me your name Mr. Randall. We’ll need to know each other's in full for the handfasting after all.”
“Franklin Wolverton Randall.” His chest puffed with pride, faerie’s from the moment of their birth were always taught there was power in a name. “Wolverton to honour my ancestor Captain Jonathan Wolverton Randall of His Majesty’s Eighth Dragoons.”
Her Uncle Lamb had spoken quite frequently about the ties said captain had with a duke during his visit, though she couldn’t recall the duke’s name just then. They scrounged the archive's contents together with the reverend in his manse in Inverness. It was a month before the world turned to death, destruction, and depression caused by a war that engulfed the entire globe. It had halted their research and soon her Uncle’s Lambs death had ended it with a finality that Claire was surprised Frank was in Inverness.
Claire tentatively stretched her palms behind her in search of the rough surface of the stone. It was only an inch away from them and she could feel the pulsing of the stones as if they had a heartbeat themselves. The wind rose, whipping her curly hair into an even more unmanageable mess and made the fabric of her white dress beat furiously against her legs. The rumble of thunder passed loudly through her chest and she felt invigorated by the power of the storm that gathered around and within her.
“Well then. Franklin. Wolverton. Randall. I pray you will forever remain barren.” She hissed.
His brows rose in curiosity and then anger. He raised his flat palm, angling it above her cheek. The impact never made its mark as she fell back through the cleft of the stone. His eyes widened at the sight of her body fading and the deathlike pallor etched upon her face. Her eyes glazed over until it was only white. And then, she was gone.
Claire became nothing, floating in darkness. She had no body, no name. The only tangible thing to guide her was the screams of the damned clawing to grab purchase of her. Their anguish filled her mind until there was no room for anything else. Then light tingled within her chest, where she supposed her soul resided. The light was accompanied by a voice she felt to the very marrow of her bones. The sound wasn’t audible but it filled her very being. The was no cadence, no pitch, no indication it belonged to anyone but she felt as though she possessed the soul that it called only to her. Hers. She followed the pull and traversed the planes of nothingness within the stones. The words echoed through her fuzzled brain. Mo nighean donn.