Short Story: A Woman’s Courage

Author’s Note: This is an old story I wrote way back in the summer of 2014 for a fantasy-writing contest. I never heard back from the company running the contest, so I assume I lost! Still, it’s a story I was proud of at the time and thought I would share it here. It’s a bit of a cheesy, campy, fantasy adventure about a mother’s quest to rescue her daughter.

This is an original work. I reserve all rights to this story.

Enjoy!

One step, two, two and a half – and little Aveline fell flat on her bum before Fianna could catch her. The babe sat dazed on the dirt floor for an instant, and then burst into giggles. Fianna, who was crouched with her arms outstretched and ready to catch her daughter, smiled and scooped the child into her arms.

“Almost there,” she said, kissing Aveline’s forehead and hugging her tight.

“Soon enough she’ll be able to wait on our patrons for us.”

Fianna turned to see her husband standing in the doorway, leaning against the frame. In his left hand he held an empty tankard. His right arm, however, ended in an abrupt stump – the result of battle while serving as one of King Conor’s soldiers a few years before. Nevertheless, he’d draped a dishrag over it, with which he carefully dried the tankard.

“If only,” said Fianna. “It’s been a madhouse in here lately.”

“Aye, so it has. But they’re bringing in the gold, so I can’t complain.” Carrick smirked and stood up straight. “Bring Aveline out to the main room. Donal’s here.”

She was not yet a year old, but at the mention of the storyteller’s name, Aveline smiled wide and clapped her chubby hands together. Donal was a regular at the Silver Stag tavern. No matter Aveline’s mood before he arrived, the second she saw him her tears ceased flowing. She wasn’t yet old enough to understand the stories, but his wild expressions and silly voices always set her off laughing. He had a gift; even Fianna wasn’t as good at cheering up her daughter as Donal was.

The storyteller sat with his hands folded across his belly and his head against the back of the tall chair he’d pulled over to the hearth. Many of the patrons were already gathered round him in their own chairs, and even those who did not know him craned their necks from their tables, curious to see what was happening. Patrick and Niall O’Leary, two regulars, had saved seats for Carrick and Fianna, right up front beside the fire.

Before Fianna could take her seat, Aveline reached out to Donal. The old man – who appeared to be sleeping – opened one eye, smiled, took Aveline, and sat her on his knee. The babe squealed in delight.

“Right-o, sorry to disappoint, but I’ve only a short story for you tonight,” said Donal. His audience groaned. “Now, don’t you be angry with me! It’s Midsummer’s Eve, friends, and the sun is almost set. You should all be home and safe in your beds with your doors locked by midnight.”

Fianna shivered. Donal was full of all sorts of stories: heartbreaking tales of his first and only love who perished at sea, foggy recollections of drunken antics with his friends in their younger days, war stories from his service as a soldier in the late King Eamon’s army… But occasionally he told scary stories. And judging by his tone, that was what he had in store tonight. They were not Fianna’s favorites; she preferred the romances, even if she knew they ended sadly. But those stories only made her grateful for her own marriage. Scary stories, on the other hand, left her lying awake all night for fear of nightmares.

It seemed that she was the only one disappointed in Donal’s choice. All the other patrons, Carrick included, settled into their seats and listened with rapt attention. Even Aveline stared up at him with her big, watery eyes, in silent anticipation.

“Have I ever told any of you about my sister Jenny?” asked Donal. Everyone shook their heads. “No? No wonder. I don’t like to speak of her, in truth.” He paused for dramatic effect, the excellent storyteller he was. “She was taken, you see – by the Fae.”

There were quiet murmurs around the room. Fianna found herself gravitating towards Carrick, as if sitting nearer to him would give her protection. She yearned to reach out and take Aveline back into her arms.

“You all know the stories of the Fae, I take it?” said Donal. There were nods all around.

“Ain’t they all just stories though?” said Tom O’Leary.

“Best not let them hear you say that, Thomas,” Donal said. The firelight cast his eyes in shadow. Fianna, watching her daughter the whole time, saw Aveline’s soft smile fade for a moment, as if she sensed the nature of Donal’s warning. “The Fae like to play games with non-believers. Not the kinds of games you’d like though. And when you lose their games, you lose your mind.” He tapped a crooked, gnarly finger against his temple.

Tom swallowed, hard, and sat back in his seat. As an adult, Fianna convinced herself the Fae were make-believe, but something in Donal’s tone stirred up her old childhood fears.

“Well, anyway,” said Donal, “the Fae are a jealous people. They have an eye and an ear for beautiful things. And my sister, Jenny… Well, not only was she as beautiful as our darling little Aveline here –” he touched a finger to the babe’s nose, “— but she could also sing better than any lark.”

Set-up aside, Donal dove into the story; no one dared interrupt him now.

“On Midsummer’s Eve some forty years ago, the Queen of the Fae – the most envious of them all – heard Jenny singing as she fetched water from the well up near that old castle. You’ve all seen the ruins? About two, three miles north of here, on the cliff above the sea?” Everyone nodded again.

“Well,” Donal continued, “the Queen – Maeve was her name – couldn’t resist Jenny’s voice. She invited my sister to come to the Midsummer’s Eve celebration in the field in front of the castle.” Another pause. “Jenny, being curious, followed. She wanted to celebrate Midsummer’s Eve with them. Besides, she figured she was safe. She knew the rules about visiting with the Fae: don’t eat their food, don’t sleep in their beds, and leave before the sun rises the next day… or else they enslave you forever!” For Aveline’s sake, Donal held up his hands like claws, bared his yellowing teeth, and suddenly pounced, tickling the babe’s sides. She squeaked and giggled, gasping for air, until he let her breathe and resumed his story.

“Now,” said Donal, “I saw Jenny dancing in the field with the Fae. See, I was s’posed to be helping her at the well, but my good mate Finnegan and I were more interested in playing at war. We were young, only boys. When I saw her going towards the castle with the Queen, I sent Finnegan home – the dense boy had no sixth sense, no third eye. He couldn’t see the Fae, because he chose not to believe in them. He got what was coming to him eventually, but that’s another story.” Donal glared at Tom, who looked chagrined. “So, when he was gone I followed Jenny, in case she needed protecting from them.”

The old man paused, sighed. “She didn’t need my help though. Or, at least, didn’t want it.” Here, Donal’s eyes began to tear up. Aveline seemed to sense the abrupt shift in Donal’s mood; the child frowned, and her chin trembled slightly. “Jenny loved the Fae. And I don’t blame her. That place… Words cannot describe the wonders we saw in that field. For once, I cannot do my job – I cannot put something into words. The music, the food, the clothing, the smells – none of it was of this world. And when it came time to leave – when the sun was rising – I almost didn’t want to go home. Neither did Jenny. It was as if there was a spell cast over us.” The old man’s voice cracked. Fianna felt her own eyes watering. She reached for Carrick’s left hand and squeezed it. “I sensed their magic’s effect. I knew they were trying to trick Jenny into staying. When I realized that, the atmosphere changed. The Fae no longer looked like beautiful people. There was something off about them. Their teeth looked sharper, their eyes blacker.”

Donal took a deep breath. “When I tried to lead Jenny away, she looked me in the eyes and, then and there, took a bite of an apple one of them had offered her. The magic had already taken its effect over her.” His eyes overflowed, but he kept his voice steady and continued. “I was able to resist, because they weren’t interested in keeping me around. I wasn’t the beautiful musician that my sister was. I was just a boy. But I threatened to eat and stay with her anyway. I didn’t want to leave her behind. We had a row. Then one of them – the Fool, the strongest of them all – took on his true form. He sprouted horns and claws, and chased me off.” He visibly shuddered.

“Coward that I am, I ran all the way home. When I told my mother what happened, she picked up and moved us to the next village over, away from that cursed castle and the Fae who live there. She knew Jenny was lost to us forever, and I was so scared, I made no protest. I never saw Jenny again. And it’s my own fault.”

There were shouts of protest: He’d done all he could, the Fae were too strong for a mere mortal to resist, it was Jenny’s own choice to stay, and so on. But Donal only shook his head as he got to his feet and handed Aveline back to Fianna. The child was crying softly. She sucked her thumb and stared at Donal over Fianna’s shoulder, as if upset to see her friend in tears.

“I appreciate your kind words, friends,” said Donal. “But I could have tried harder.” He sighed, his eyes shining, and smiled sadly. “Anyhow, it’s getting late. The sun is set and we should all get home, before the Fae come out to play.”

The two dozen or so audience members muttered to each other and gradually drifted back to their original tables. Then, suddenly and much to Fianna’s surprise, they all heeded Donal’s advice. They paid for their meals, tossed Donal some coins for his story, and prepared to leave. Carrick rearranged the furniture, while Fianna headed back into their bedroom through the kitchen.

“I’ll fetch your horse,” she called to Donal over her shoulder. “Just let me put Aveline down to bed.”

She hugged her child, kissed the babe on the forehead, and tucked her into the cradle that stood beside the cot she shared with Carrick. Then, quickly, she rushed out to the stables, saddled up Lucky, and tied him to the post in front of the tavern. It was foggy and humid out, with no sign of a cool breeze off the nearby sea. Fianna rushed through her work, terrified that at any moment, she would see a horned Fae running at her through the fog. She hurried back into the tavern, nearly knocking over the last few customers as they exited.

Donal was the only patron left inside, helping Carrick gather the plates and tankards.

“That story was bad for business, Donal,” Carrick said. “You scared all my customers away.”

“On the contrary, my friend, I just landed you and the wife a night of peace,” said Donal. “I’ll help finish cleaning up in here. Then you two can lock up and enjoy each other’s company for once.”

Wishing Donal goodnight, Fianna passed by them and strode into the bedroom.

The faint moonlight shone through the window into Aveline’s cradle, making her skin ghostly grey. Her eyes were already closed. She looked peaceful. Humming a lullaby, Fianna lit a candle on her bedside table, stepped quietly over to the cradle, and reached down to stroke the child’s hair.

She gasped as her fingers brushed against ice-cold skin.

Fianna pressed her palm to the babe’s cheek. There was no warmth, and Aveline did not awaken. She could not possibly be so deeply asleep already; saddling up Lucky had only taken ten minutes at most, and besides, Aveline was an energetic child. She slept little and lightly.

“Aveline,” Fianna said softly, giving the child’s shoulder a gentle shake. “Darling.”

Aveline’s eyes remained shut. Panicking, Fianna checked for a pulse in her fat wrist, and then against her usually-warm neck. She held her fingers under the child’s nose, feeling for breath.

Nothing.

Falling to her knees, Fianna let out a wail that rivaled that of the Banshee.

The door swung open and Carrick barged into the room, followed by Donal. Both carried kitchen knives with them, held ready to defend, but when they saw Fianna collapsed beside the cradle, they dropped their weapons. Carrick took two long steps across the room and examined Aveline for signs of life. You’ll find nothing, Fianna wanted to say. She’s dead.

But instead, “She was fine,” Fianna babbled, over and over. “I just put her down. You – you both saw her, she was perfectly fine. She was fine.”

Donal helped her to her feet, one arm around her waist for support.

“Let’s take a seat, dear,” he said. But Fianna resisted. She kept her feet firmly planted as Carrick lifted Aveline’s body from the cradle. The child was swaddled in her white sheets, and all but her face was hidden from view. Carrick, as if in denial, rocked Aveline in his right arm and gently tapped her cheek with the fingers of his left hand, before checking again for a pulse or a breath. He shook his head and released a single, choking sob.

Donal let go of Fianna and gently took the child from her husband. The storyteller’s face crumpled for a moment, and then he placed Aveline back in her cradle and pulled the sheets over her face. “It’s no use. Let her be at peace.”

“She was fine,” Fianna repeated. She pictured her daughter trying to walk just an hour earlier, laughing on Donal’s lap, experiencing sympathy for the first time when she saw him upset…

And then, still haunted by Donal’s story, she imagined – and it seemed so real, so vivid – a horrible, horned creature stealing Aveline away and disappearing into the fog.

They’ve taken her, she tried to scream. But the words did not come. Instead, as before, a cry of despair rose in her throat. Carrick swung to face her and folded her into his arms, trying to calm her.

Unable to cope, Fianna fainted.

***

When she came to, her vision was blurry, and the world seemed to rock back and forth; it took some time to realize she was on the cot in the corner of her bedroom. She turned her head to see a table and two chairs pulled into the room’s center. Carrick and Donal sat opposite each other, a candle between them. The edges of the room were left in shadow, although the moonlight still shone in the window and down into Aveline’s cradle. Fianna kept her eyes away from that side of the room.

Her hearing was muffled as well. She caught words here and there, whispered between the men – “coffin,” “buried,” “just a child” – and then, for a minute or so, there was silence.

When they resumed talking, Fianna could hear clearly and the room steadied.

“I guess we’re not supposed to have children after all,” Carrick said, his voice full of pain. Fianna wanted to tell him he was wrong, to yell at him for suggesting such a thing, but she did not have the strength.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Carrick,” said Donal. “You’re wonderful parents.”

“No, but – it might just be that the gods don’t want it.”

In the candlelight, through her barely-opened eyes, Fianna saw Donal frown. “What do you mean?” he said.

Carrick hesitated, and as he spoke, Fianna wished she was still unconscious.

“We tried… twice before,” said Carrick. “Before we opened the Silver Stag, before my injury – when I was still a soldier.”

“Oh?”

“Both were stillborn,” said Carrick. Fianna tensed. “A boy and a girl. The midwife told Fianna not to try again. She said she could die. But Fianna insisted we try one more time anyway, and then… well, we had Aveline.”

“And they both survived,” said Donal. “And Aveline was healthy.” He leaned back in his chair, rubbed his bearded chin, and gave a long sigh. “I can make no sense of any of this.”

Both men fell silent again. Donal glanced at the cradle.

“Unless…” His voice was quiet. Fianna strained to hear.

“Unless what?” said Carrick.

“I would say she was taken,” said Donal, “since it is Midsummer’s Eve. She is certainly beautiful enough to inspire envy. However… I can usually sense Fae magic. I would know if that was a changeling in that cradle. Unless their magic’s gotten stronger, subtler. Or perhaps my sixth sense is growing thin in my old age.” He gave a very short, unenthusiastic laugh. “No… I don’t think the Fae are involved this time.”

Carrick sighed. “I don’t believe in the Fae anyway.”

There was the sound of a chair scraping back against the dirt floor. “Take that back, Carrick MacDermott. They’ll hear you.”

“And do what to me? If they do exist, and they’ve taken Aveline, there’s nothing else –”

“Then they will terrorize you and Fianna. They will destroy your home and everything you have. Don’t be a fool.”

The two men stared at each other across the table. Donal leaned forward in his chair, while Carrick slouched back, looking doubtful. Finally, he broke under the old man’s glare.

“Fine,” said Carrick. “I take it back.”

“Good,” said Donal. He stood. “Now, can you show me to your guest room? I’ll put Lucky back in the stables, and then spend the night here, in case you need anything. Tomorrow morning, we can go together to Riley’s to have him arrange the burial.” There was a pause. Then, quietly, he said, “Or would you rather I sleep in this room? You and Fianna can —”

“No,” said Carrick. He cast a glance in Fianna’s direction. She shut her eyes quickly, wanting to appear unconscious still; plans were rapidly forming in her mind. “I don’t want to wake her. This is probably the only rest she will get for a long while. The first two were hard enough on her, but after having Aveline for almost a year…” His voice wavered and trailed off. He rubbed a hand over his face. “She – I – we’ll be fine in here. I’ll just… drape a blanket over the cradle.”

Donal nodded, and together they left the room.

The instant they were gone, Fianna swung her legs over the edge of the bed and strode across the room to the cradle. Donal’s voice rang in her head – unless, unless, unless

Perhaps she was unstable. Perhaps she was just in shock, and refused to accept that Aveline, her only and most precious child, was dead. Stories of parents losing their minds when they outlived their children were not uncommon, after all. And she was still spooked by Donal’s earlier tale.

But she was drawn to the cradle, and when she uncovered Aveline’s face, for a split second, she noticed a change. It was not simply that death was sinking into Aveline’s features. It was more than the greying skin and the darkness under Aveline’s eyes that made Fianna look twice, though it was certainly shocking how quickly her life had left her.

No – in one glance, Fianna thought she saw little horns sprouting from her daughter’s head. And then she blinked, and they were gone.

It was a trick of the light, the logical side of her brain tried to tell her. You’re still frightened.

Fianna shook her head.

“You are not my daughter,” she announced, looking down at the corpse. The horns did not sprout again, but the longer she stared, the surer of herself she was. A mother knew her child, and Fianna knew whatever was lying before her was not Aveline. The initial shock of finding a corpse in her child’s cradle had worn off; now, touching a hand to the cold cheek once again, Fianna thought it felt different – unfamiliar.

Which meant Aveline was out there somewhere, with the Fae. And there was one place where they gathered in these parts, just a few miles north of the Silver Stag.

Fianna turned and took a step towards the kitchen door, prepared to tell Carrick what she’d figured out. But then she hesitated. If anyone was going to rescue Aveline, it certainly wouldn’t be Carrick. His right hand was his sword hand; without it, he could not fight – and she suspected there would be fighting. Donal was out of the question as well; he was old and out-of-shape, with a belly full of ale and gnarled, arthritic hands. Besides, they both doubted the Fae had taken Aveline.

That left only herself. She had no armor, and she could not fight with a sword – certainly not Carrick’s old sword, which was far too heavy for her. She could not shoot an arrow from a bow.

But there was an axe in the stables, where they kept the firewood. It was lightweight, easy to swing, and sharp.

It had been nearly half an hour since they’d found the corpse. Fianna had until sunrise to get Aveline away from the Fae, according to Donal’s story. And she could only pray that the Fae had no soft foods to feed the babe before she could reach them, or else she was lost forever.

There was no time to lose, not even to change. Still in her skirts, she snatched a belt and a grey traveling cloak from the wardrobe, and hurried on her way.

***

Fianna beat Donal to Lucky. The stallion, as old and tired-looking as his owner, was still tethered to the post out front, while Carrick set up the guest room with Donal. Fianna had quietly climbed through the bedroom window, grabbed the axe from the stables, and untied the horse. Before Carrick and Donal could suspect a thing, she and Lucky were galloping – as fast as the wheezy creature could – due north.

The roads were empty. The fog was still thick as ever, and Fianna cursed herself for not thinking to bring a torch. She was convinced she would get lost and end up wandering in circles until the fog lifted.

But Lucky seemed to know where she wanted to go. It was as if the horse sensed the urgency in Fianna’s kick, heard her heart racing as she leaned close over his neck.

At that thought, the more logical side of Fianna’s conscience nagged her again, telling her she’d completely lost her mind. This was all based on a whim, on stories told to frighten children into behaving. She had no right to disappear on Carrick like this, to be wandering off into the night in search of a child already confirmed dead. And even if the Fae did exist, she was no fighter; she was going to get herself killed. Besides, a horse couldn’t possibly just know where its rider wanted to go without his or her guidance.

And yet, Fianna barely had to touch the reins for Lucky to know where she would direct him next. She patted the horse’s neck, and he seemed to pick up speed.

It did not take long before they came to the sea. The scent reached Fianna before the sound or the sight. She breathed deeply, allowing the fresh, salty smell to clear her mind. Eventually, she could hear the tide rolling in and out.

Then the road turned and wound uphill, parallel to the sea, and out of the fog loomed the castle ruins.

The lower levels were still largely intact; but on the upper floors, the roof had crumbled away, and the tower of one corner was toppled entirely. The stone walls were eroded by the sea wind; vines climbed what was left. Legends said it was a Fae castle, destroyed when the human King Fergus regained this land from the evil Queen Maeve and her Fool’s army.

In front of the ruins, in the large field, figures danced under the moon. Lucky hesitated and tossed his head. A shiver crept down Fianna’s back, and she suddenly had the urge to turn away.

But then the music, muffled slightly by the fog, reached her ears. Harps, fiddles, flutes – entrancing, lilting voices – immediately soothed both rider and steed. Fianna didn’t try to stop Lucky as he slowly made for the field. Rather, she closed her eyes and let the music calm her. She was tempted to kick Lucky into a faster trot.

But a child’s cry sounded somewhere far off to the left, interrupting the tune. Fianna opened her eyes and remembered her quest.

Aveline.

In drawing closer to the field, Fianna was able to see the silhouettes of the Fae more clearly. They looked much like humans, but bonier, lankier, and taller. Some appeared to have faintly glowing, transparent wings, and a few had horns and hooves. With another shudder, Fianna snapped out of the spell of the music and tugged at Lucky’s reins.

“We have to find a side-entrance,” Fianna whispered to Lucky.

The horse did not let her down. Sensing the fear in her tone, he turned away from the field and back towards the castle. Clutching the axe handle at her belt, Fianna took a deep breath, set her jaw tight, and scanned the castle walls for a door.

***

The side-entrance Fianna found had a low ceiling, narrow walls, and a stone-tiled floor. She had no choice but to let Lucky go.

“Find your way back to the Silver Stag,” she said, pressing her face to his long nose and patting his neck. The second she released his reins, he turned and left her alone. All she could do was pray he would not fall under the Fae’s spell again on his journey home.

Inside, she could hear no hint of the festivities in the field, although some parts of the ceiling were reduced to rubble on the floor. The moonlight shone dimly through the holes, lighting her way. With no doors to either side, there was only one way to go: straight ahead.

As she crept down the passageway, axe in hand, Fianna chided herself again. She was wandering around in unfamiliar territory – territory controlled by the nightmarish Fae – and she was vulnerable and terrified and inexperienced in combat. Every time something flew overhead – a gull, a leaf blown in the wind, blocking out the moonlight – she jumped. Her knuckles glowed pale and white as she gripped the axe.

At the end of the corridor, she found an archway. Stepping through it, she found another long hallway.

A crimson carpet lined the floor, and torches glowed bright orange-white along the walls. There were several doors to either side.

Fianna cursed. It had to be well past midnight by now; she had only a few hours to search the entire castle and find Aveline. The child could be in any one of the numerous rooms… as could any monster. And this was only the ground floor; there were at least two above her, even if most of them were collapsed ruins.

Turning back was the logical, safe choice. She could simply turn around, stroll out, sneak past the field once more, and return home. She could tell Carrick that she needed a walk to clear her head after the trauma of the evening. She was sorry if she caused him any worry, it would never happen again… and then, perhaps, they could try for another child.

But the sound of Aveline’s cries suddenly drifted down the corridor, the same cries that broke the spell of the music in the field. Fianna could not tell if they were cries of fear or cries of laughter. They echoed off the walls, distorted. But one thing was for certain: Aveline was alive.

It was very possible, Fianna realized, that the Fae had already made her one of their own. It was possible they were only using Aveline to lure Fianna to her own demise. It was possible – and Fianna’s heart constricted at the thought – that Aveline, like Jenny, would not want to leave this place.

There was no way to be sure. Except, of course, to find the child and see for herself whether Aveline was lost.

As she pressed onward through the corridor, the child’s cries picked up frequency. They bounced from wall to wall, making it nearly impossible to pin-point from whence they came; but it sounded as if their source was somewhere on the left-hand side. Fianna crossed her fingers, approached one of the doors on the left wall, and slowly opened it.

There was not a chamber on the other side, but another corridor – much shorter, with a large oak door at the end. Two torches on either side of the door drew her gaze straight down the passageway.

She froze as she spotted a figure, standing between the torches with his back to her. A hood was pulled over his face and he wore a sword on his left hip.

She did not hesitate. It could, after all, be Aveline’s kidnapper. Fianna called out for the stranger to stop.

He turned. In the process, his hood fell, revealing familiar dark hair and a crooked smile.

“Carrick?” said Fianna, her voice barely a breath. She tucked her axe into her belt. “What – ?”

“Same as you,” he said. “Looking for Aveline. There was no way I could leave her to the Fae. Donal’s here too, but we split up to find her faster.”

Fianna went to him and threw her arms around his neck, allowing herself for the first time that night to feel a swell of hope. He returned the hug, wrapping his arms around her waist.

“You haven’t given up on Aveline,” she said into his shoulder. “Thank you.”

She pulled back, clasping her wrists behind his neck, and smiled up at him. He let his hands fall to her hips and smiled back.

After giving him a quick peck on the lips, Fianna moved her hands to his shoulders and began to say, “We don’t have much… time…”

Her voice faded. Something felt wrong, but she was having trouble figuring out what it was. Her mind suddenly felt slow, her eyes tired and heavy.

It wasn’t until Carrick raised one hand – his right – to brush a strand of hair from her face that she finally pieced it together.

How could she have been so stupid? She knew the Fae were full of tricks, and she knew Carrick would never change his mind so easily; for all his positive traits, he was more stubborn than any old mule she knew, and he wasn’t about to go chasing after a legend he did not believe.

As Fianna stared, Carrick began to change, just like the Fae in Donal’s story – except it was much worse than she imagined. His eyes did not turn black, but bulbous and smoky, reflecting the light like a fish’s eyes. He grinned, and his teeth grew sharp and obscenely long, while his jaw stretched. And his skin – his skin turned black, scaly.

Fianna tried to pull away and reach for her axe, but the false Carrick moved quickly; his hands – now webbed, with thorns lining his palms and fingers – shot out and grabbed her wrists. The thorns dug through the fabric of her sleeves and pierced her skin. She cried out, but the more she pulled – the more she screamed and spit and dug her heels into the floor – the more the creature hooked into her flesh. It felt worse than any cat scratch she’d ever received.

Then, releasing her right wrist, the thing swiftly reached behind itself and pushed the oak door wide.

It was a door that led to nowhere. Outside, Fianna could hear the crashing of the sea against the cliffs, and she saw nothing but black sky. The creature tried to drag her towards it, struggling to pull her over the edge and drown her under the waves below.

Fianna moved fast. The creature tried to regain hold of her wrist, but she managed to elude the attempt and get her fingers around the handle of her axe. Then, in one smooth motion, she removed the weapon from her belt and hacked at the scaled hand that still gripped her left wrist.

The creature shrieked and released her, cradling its injured hand close to its body. Fianna didn’t stop to pity it; she lifted the axe again and swung at its head. With a crack, she felt the blade dig into the skull. The blood was thin and pink, mixed with trickling saltwater.

Fianna lost her grip on the axe and the monster fell to the floor, dead.

Heart still pounding, she rolled her sleeves up and held her wrists before her eyes. The puncture wounds were not as deep as they felt, much to her relief. She tore two strips from the hem of her skirt and tied them around each wrist, then bent to extract the axe from the monster’s skull.

She felt a sense of satisfaction – of justice – seeing the thing dead. It was either the monster or herself. And if she had died, Aveline would be lost as well.

The breeze blew in through the open door, bringing the calming scent of the ocean with it. Fianna laid one foot on the corpse before her and kicked it over the edge.

“That was a Kelpie of some sort.”

At the voice, Fianna jumped and immediately swung around, axe brandished. There stood a woman, perhaps sixty years old, with long grey hair in a loose braid hanging over her shoulder.

“They lure their prey into the sea by manipulation.”

“Who are you?” said Fianna.

“A friend.”

“And I’m supposed to believe you? After that?” Fianna jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

“That Kelpie was no Fae. That was an evil thing.”

Fianna refused to fall for anymore tricks. “The Fae stole my daughter,” she said. “You cannot tell me they are good.”

“And your King Fergus set out on a mission to kill every single Fae he laid eyes on, then destroyed this castle,” the woman countered. “Not all Fae are evil. Neither are all humans. Some of them just have a muddled sense of right and wrong.” She paused. “I can take you to Aveline.”

Fianna frowned. “And why would you do that?”

“Because I know the difference between right and wrong.”

Fianna frowned. She’d learned her lesson with the Kelpie; better to remain a skeptic and be on her guard, than to let hope get the better of her.

But she needed to find Aveline. She had not heard any of her cries since she found the false Carrick.

After a long pause, Fianna said, “Alright. But you stay ahead of me. One move to attack and I will not hesitate to put this axe through your skull as well.”

The woman laughed. “Alright. Follow me.”

She turned and led Fianna back out into the main corridor. They walked in silence, Fianna with her axe gripped tight, the stranger with her hands folded in her sleeves and a smirk on her lips.

Fianna had lost track of time in her wandering. The moon was still in the sky, peeking in through the ruins. But for all she knew, it was almost dawn. Fortunately, the old woman walked fast, practically gliding across the stone tiles.

Directions were never Fianna’s strong point, but it seemed to her they were heading in the opposite direction of the sea, inland, towards the field. She feared perhaps the woman was leading her to the celebrations outside. But eventually, the stranger broke the silence and temporarily eased Fianna’s nerves.

“Aveline is being taken to the throne room,” she said.

“By whom?” Fianna asked. “And why?”

“The ‘why’ is not my story to tell. But the Fool has her.”

Fianna’s lungs deflated. A shiver ran from her toes, up to her shoulders, and out through the top of her head as if all hope, all drive, was exiting through her pores. “The Fool,” she said flatly. “The strongest of the Fae.” I might as well just go back home.

“Yes.” The stranger sounded as if she was stating a simple fact.

They reached an entrance hall. It looked to be once elaborately decorated. Faded tapestries, their edges frayed and burned, hung to the left and right. Two tall candelabras, covered in cobwebs, stood on either side of a small staircase. The stairs led up to double doors made of strong, dark wood. One of the doors was ajar.

“In there,” said the woman, keeping her voice low. “Stay calm. Show respect. And the Fae will pay you in kind.”

“You’re not coming with me?” asked Fianna.

“This is not my quest.”

“Then why did you help?”

The woman showed no hesitation in answering. “Because Aveline is not yet old enough to make her own choices. And it would not be fair for the Fae to decide her fate, when she has such a happy life with you.”

The woman smiled, and she suddenly looked familiar to Fianna.

“Jenny.”

The woman nodded. “I also wanted to ask a favor of you, I admit.”

“Of course.”

“Tell Donal he need not worry. My will was stronger than he believed. I was not under any spell. I wanted to stay with the Fae.” She paused, frowned. “Our mother was quite… cold. Cruel, even. She hated my singing. She would get angry – violent – whenever I sang. I think she was envious. And father was a sweet man, but he never got involved.” Slowly, Jenny’s lips widened into a smile again. “The Fae were warm, kind – the exact opposite of my mother. And they loved my music. So I stayed, because I felt appreciated, not because I was forced to. I was sixteen – plenty old enough to make my own decisions. And I’m happy.”

Fianna nodded. “But… Aveline is a babe,” she said. “If the Fae do cast a spell over her, she won’t be able to resist.”

“The Fae are more understanding than you think,” said Jenny. “Besides, Aveline loves you. That counts for something.”

Perhaps she was acting foolish again, but Fianna let her guard down. She tucked her axe away, and, for the second time that night, threw her arms around a stranger. This one did not transform and attack her.

“Thank you, Jenny,” she said.

Jenny nodded. “Anything to help. Keep that axe tucked away unless you absolutely need it. And don’t forget to tell Donal.” She grasped Fianna’s hand and squeezed it. “Go.”

Fianna came to the foot of the staircase and, hand on the axe handle, gazed up at the double doors. There were people carved into it – some with wings, horns, or hooves, all dancing, holding hands. At the top was a woman with a crown. And at her feet was a man with bigger horns than any other.

The Fool, just as Donal described him.

From inside the room came soft voices, and above those, the cooing and giggling of Aveline. She sounded happy, unafraid, just as she did at home. If Fianna turned around now, she had no doubt Aveline would grow up just fine and eventually forget who her real parents were.

Fianna glanced back, but Jenny was gone. She was alone again, and despite Jenny’s reassurances, she felt even more terrified than before.

But she had to try.

She took one step, then another, and another… and with a half-hearted deep breath, she slipped through the crack between the doors and entered the throne room.

Despite the state of the entrance hall, the throne room remained largely untouched. The tapestries, depicting hunts and games, were old but not shredded. There were six columns wound in vines that sprouted from the cracks between the stone tiles. A faded green carpet with gold trim stretched down the center. Everything seemed to glow with its own natural light, giving the illusion of daylight. For a second, Fianna feared that she was too late, that the sun had risen; but then, glancing out a nearby window, she saw the moonlight and breathed a sigh of relief.

At the far end of the room was a throne of stone, upon which sat a beautiful woman, her crown tall and gold, her dress emerald, and her hair red. A horned figure knelt on one knee before her and held something up, as if presenting it to her.

It was Aveline he held. The Fool gripped her under the armpits. She squirmed, but otherwise merely stared up at the Queen before her.

Fianna, ignoring all rationality that told her to turn around and leave, strode with purpose down the long carpet.

“We have a visitor,” said the Queen. “A mortal. What is your purpose here?”

The Fool lowered Aveline and turned his head to glance over his shoulder.

“I’ve come to take my child back,” said Fianna.

The Fool released a hiss – though he had no mouth. His skin was smoothed over where his lips should have been. His horns curled like a ram’s, black like his eyes. He turned and faced her, cradling Aveline in the crook of one arm and unsheathing a set of claws in his free hand.

“This babe is for Queen Maeve,” said the Fool. His voice was deeper than any man’s, and layered. When he spoke, the skin where his mouth should have been ripped apart like leather stretched thin.

“She is mine,” said Fianna, trying to look undaunted. “You took her from me against my will and her own.”

“She looks quite happy to me.” The Fool ran a finger along Aveline’s cheek. She giggled, and Fianna’s heart broke.

“Is this true, Fool?” Queen Maeve asked. “You stole this babe from her mother’s home?”

The Fool looked uncertain. “You wanted a child of your own, my love.” Maeve raised an eyebrow. “My – lady. Majesty.” He bowed.

Maeve ignored him and turned to Fianna. “Your name?”

“Fianna.”

“And the babe’s?”

“Aveline.”

“Pretty. Well, Fianna, I have a problem.” Maeve sighed and got to her feet. “I cannot bear my own children. It is the curse of the Fae. We are undying, immune to all except the iron kiss. So it would become quite overcrowded if we… reproduced. Thus, we are all barren.”

Instinctively, Fianna pressed a hand against her own belly, remembering her first two, nameless children. “You say that so matter-of-factly,” she said.

“It is a fact. A sad one, but a fact.” Maeve shrugged and stepped down from her dais. “My loyal Fool here recently overheard me saying that I envied your kind for having children. So he took it into his head that he would steal one for me.”

“I did it out of love, my Queen —”

“Hush.” She took Aveline from the Fool’s arms and rocked her in her own. “I thank you for your good intentions, Fool. But this child is not m…”

Maeve frowned. In the Queen’s eyes, Fianna saw a change she dreaded. There was possessiveness in them. A yearning. A feeling all too familiar.

“Please, give Aveline back to me,” said Fianna. “I cannot – I do not want to resort to violence…”

The Fool bared his claws again. But the Queen raised her eyes, peering through her lashes, and smirked.

“We shall let the babe decide,” she said. “If she chooses you, you have my word that you can leave unharmed.”

She placed Aveline on the floor.

The air shifted, bearing down on them all. It was the heavy weight of magic, radiating from the Queen. The Fool stood close beside her, as if lending her his own power.

For the first time, Aveline stopped smiling. But she did not cry either. She glanced at her mother, stuck her thumb in her mouth, and then looked blankly up at Maeve and the Fool. The magic was taking its effect.

Fianna moved as if to take Aveline and run, but the Queen yelled for her to halt. She froze, a lump of fear in her throat.

“Let – Aveline – choose,” Maeve commanded, emphasizing every word.

Fianna’s eyes pulsed with the strain of tears. She would lose this battle; there was no way Aveline would resist the spell.

“Aveline. Darling.” The babe turned, and Fianna crouched low and spread her arms, silently begging, hoping, praying that Aveline would crawl to her.

She did even better than that.

Smiling at Fianna, Aveline carefully pushed herself up onto her feet. She wavered for a moment, but managed to steady herself. Then, smiling wider, she took one stumbling step forward. Then two. Two and a half –

Three.

And on the third step, she fell straight into her mother’s arms.

Fianna’s vision blurred. She stood up straight, clinging tight to Aveline, and, both laughing and crying at once, spun in a circle.

“You did it,” said Fianna, kissing her giggly daughter, “you walked! Oh, Aveline –”

A yell of rage cut her short. She stopped spinning and faced the Fool. He took long strides towards mother and child, claws bared at either side. Fianna turned side-face, shielding Aveline, and drew her axe from her belt, ready to fight.

“Fool!”

He froze at the sound of Maeve’s voice. All three – the Fool, Fianna, and Aveline – turned their eyes to the Queen.

She wore a thin-lipped smile.

“I gave my word,” she said, a false sweetness in her tone, arms crossed. “Go, mortal.”

Fianna took a step backward. “Thank you,” she said. She kept her gaze on Maeve, and again, her heart broke – not for herself, but for the Queen of the Fae. “I am sorry.”

Maeve dropped her arms at her sides. Fianna thought she detected a softening in the Queen’s eyes. Still gripping her axe, she backed down the center aisle.

The Fool yelled again.

“I swear, my love,” he roared, “I will hunt that mortal and tear the child from her dead –”

“Silence,” said the Queen. “Let her be.”

Fianna felt her spine brush against the door. She nodded once to the Queen; Maeve nodded back. Aveline, sucking the thumb of one hand, waved with the other.

And with that, mother and child returned home.

***

The fog had lifted, and the sun was slowly rising as Fianna trudged towards the Silver Stag. Lucky was tethered to the post outside, along with several other horses. A group of villagers crowded the front doorway.

Her husband and Donal pushed their way through. They looked ready for a fight. Carrick had his sword and wore his old leather armor; Donal was armed with a knife. Some of the villagers had pitchforks, and the O’Leary brothers had their pack of dogs with them.

“You’ve done all you can for us,” Donal said over his shoulder. “We’ll search alone now. Go home and get some sleep, for the love of –”

Not watching where he was going, he walked straight into Carrick, who stood frozen at the sight of Fianna, alive and well – if a little scraped.

“Lucky came back alone,” said her husband, “and – and Aveline’s cradle was empty, and you – we thought you were…” Words failed Carrick as his eyes fell upon Aveline. Dazed, he spread his arms and took a hesitant step towards his family.

“It’s a miracle,” Donal breathed.

Fianna, smiling, made a mental note to help the old man correct his Midsummer’s Eve story.

Then, grinning wider, she walked into Carrick’s arms and pressed her head against his chest. She felt him shake, but whether with laughter or tears, she could not tell over the sound of the villagers’ cheering.

Protected in the embrace of her parents, Aveline giggled.

THE END

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