Author: Ceallai PM
A fairy story with a plucky heroine and a bunch of badass fairies. Dark historical fantasy. Rated T.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Supernatural - Chapters: 10 - Words: 19,871 - Reviews: 10 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 10-17-11 - Published: 03-10-11 - id: 2897902
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Darcy the miller's daughter stared into her untouched soup and let out a dejected sigh, much to the annoyance of her brother.
"You do exaggerate, Darcy," he told her. "It's nothing you didn't earn."
"Who asked you?" muttered the dark-haired girl, fiddling with the ends of the plaits she hated.
"You're spoiling my lunch," he complained.
"You should have gone with them, then."
"And who would watch the mill while we were all gone? You?" he scoffed. "You'd forget and let it grind the wheat to dust. Besides," he added, "the baby'll be here any day now. I can't leave Martha."
Darcy glared at the end of her plait and said nothing. Before he'd fallen in love and got married, her brother Conall had been her best friend, her guide, the one she'd shared everything with. Now he had someone else in his life, and as sweet and kind as Martha was, Darcy couldn't help feeling just a little bit jealous.
"If you're not going to eat that, I will" he said with his mouth full. She pushed the bowl towards him. It was probably cold now anyway.
"Come on, Darcy," he said once he'd finished the bowl, "maybe Dad'll bring you something back. He never stays angry for long."
"He will this time," she said, refusing to be cheered up. Indeed, he'd have reason to. Challenged to a dare by a boy from the village, Darcy had snuck out the night before with their mule, Carrots, for a nighttime gallop on the rocky shore, and he'd come back with a sprained ankle. For this, she'd been left at home while her parents went to sell flour and her mother's cakes at the fair.
"No he won't," Conall insisted. "Ma might, but she's not the one with the purse."
The door opened and Martha came in, her huge belly straining the fabric of her dress. She wrinkled her nose.
"I was hungry," she said, "but I don't think I am any more." She sat on the chair furthest from the stove with a rueful chuckle.
"What would you have liked?" asked Conall, always ready to get her whatever she wanted.
"Strawberries" Martha replied. "That's all I've been wanting since the beginning, strawberries. Alas, I don't think we have any."
"I'll get some!" Darcy cried, jumping up, her grief forgotten. Conall looked at her doubtfully.
"I don't know," he said, "You'd have to go into the forest, and you know Ma doesn't want you in there."
"But you can't go," she said, "you have to mind the mill. And Martha certainly can't go. Just let me get them, Conall, please, just this once? I only want to get out of the house! Ma's always been silly about protecting me. Even Dad says so."
He glanced at Martha, who shrugged. "She could do with getting out a bit," she said."My ma always said you were far too pale, you and your mother both, and could do with more time out of doors."
"All right then," he conceded at last. "Ma doesn't have to know. Just don't stray from the path. And be back before sunset, or Ma'll have my hide!"
Thus is was that Darcy found herself skipping down the path to the forest, a basket swinging on her arm, unable to believe her luck.
Darcy had always loved the forest. At least, she loved it as much as one could, not being allowed into it. She yearned for it as one born into slavery yearns for freedom, seeing others taking it for granted, though it remained just out of her reach.
She did have one memory of the forest, though, from that fateful day when she'd gotten lost. It was a hazy memory. She recalled wandering alone for a long time, before her mother finally found her.
If she strained, another image came back to her: that of a dark-haired boy of about five or six, older than she had been at the time, who had led her by the hand. She seemed to remember that the boy was helping her – she had trusted him utterly - but somewhere along the path she had lost him, and she couldn't fathom who he might have been.
Since that day, the forest was strictly forbidden to her, on her mother's insistance, and since then, she had longed to go back.
The first thing she did, as soon as she was out of sight of the village, was to unbraid her hair. Like all the other girls in the village, Darcy wore her hair in two long plaits that hung down her back. She hated them: hated having to plait her hair every day, hated how they tugged at her scalp and how she couldn't run her hands through her hair with them, or twiddle it round her fingers. She liked the feel of her hair - loved it, in fact, to the point of being accused of vanity by her mother - and hated having it tied back.
So she folded her two blue ribbons neatly away in her pocket, put her straw hat back on, and set off to find some wild strawberries. Martha wasn't so bad, she mused as she picked some off a bush near the path. She could have worse for a sister-in-law. Her friend Mary's brother had married the biggest gossip in the village, and now everyone knew that Mary had once rather fancied Tom Tailor, including Tom himself who, being something of a jester and wholly uninterested in girls, had taken the opportunity to make Mary's life miserable.
Another rumour, spread by Tom himself, had it that Mary had once claimed to have seen fairies by mill. Mary herself adamantly denied it, but once she had confided to Darcy that she had seen something, a flitting light hovering close to one of the window above the mill, that could have been a fairy, but probably wasn't. A trick of the light due to the sunset, she'd said, that she'd taken to be a fairy because she was just a child back then.
Darcy's room was just over the mill, and her window looked out over it, so for a while this news had secretly excited her, and she'd waited each night at the window for the fairy to come back until Conall had figured out what she was doing and teased her about it. She'd never seen anything like the fluttering light Mary had described, though.
Perhaps here, she thought, perhaps in the forest she'd see fairies. With the sunlight playing hide and seek in the clouds, its fickle rays filtered by the leaves, spattering the path with inks of green and gold before fading back to watercoloured brown and grey – in that soft light, and the quiet, she could almost believe it. The forest seemed hushed, like inside a church, she thought. Even the birdsong seemed muffled from all the way up in the canopy, and it would be easy to take the odd flutter of wings, the flick of a squirrel's tail seen at the corner of the eye, for a fairy.
She shivered. Fairies could be good or bad, Conall had told her as a child. They could help you or lead you astray, or even try to kill you. And you never knew which kind you were dealing with until it was too late.
Her hand went to her throat. From under her dress she pulled a large, faded silver locket at the end of a long, fine chain. She hid it under her dress most of the time because her mother had said it was real silver, not really fit for a miller's daughter, and she didn't want it stolen. The miller was somewhat wealthier than the other people in the village, and her mother had always warned her not to put on airs. No need to invite envy, she said.
She'd had this locket for as long as she remembered. Her mother claimed it was a family heirloom, handed from mother to daughter for generations. In it was a watch on one side, and a chipped mirror on the other. The watch had long since stopped, and no amount of winding it up would start it again, but Darcy loved it anyway. Her brother had often invented stories in which the heroine was herself, and the watch a protective charm. Childish though it was, she still felt safer with it on, and was loathe to part with it.
She stopped to pick the fruit from a particularly generous bush, putting down the basket, which was getting heavy, and filling her apron instead. Once it was full, she turned to empty it into the basket, and found it gone. Puzzled, she stood, holding up her apronful of strawberries, and spotted it a few feet away, at the other end of the bush. She must have wandered further than she'd realized. She went to empty her load of fruit, and decided to head back. The basket was overflowing, and her apron was stained red. She'd have to wash it in the stream before it dried, or her mother would know she'd been out.
Picking up the basket, she looked around and realized she'd strayed from the path. For a second she felt a flurry of panic, then told herself not to be silly. She was no longer a child, she could find her way back. Right next to her was the bush she'd been picking strawberries from, the path was next to that. Sure enough, she found it after following the bush for a few paces. It seemed somehow narrower and more twisted than before; surely a trick of the light, she thought, the sun was just beginning to set. Nothing to worry about. Her mother's dire warnings were clearly getting to her.
As she walked, however, her pace quickening in the receding light, she wondered if she wasn't going deeper into the forest, instead of coming out of it. Perhaps she'd taken the wrong direction; though she could have sworn the village was to the east of her. Just when she decided to turn back before she got properly lost, the path arrived at a glade. The grass there grew sparse and gave way to bare earth surrounding an large stone, half as big as herself and oddly flat on top, like a table. Mushrooms grew around it, but nothing else.
Darcy had heard of places like this one, with odd, squarish stones that had been placed there by God knew who. Conall had once told her tales of druids in the olden days, who had made circles of these stones and carved magical runes on them. The runes, it was said, had been weathered away since, but the stones still held power. In a hushed voice he had told her stories of the people who stumbled upon these ruins on midsummer's night and disappeared, only to reappear hundreds of years later to find their friends and family all dead and gone, or only a day later, but aged as though they'd been gone years. They'd been taken to Tyr Na Nog, he said, the land of the fairies. Usually when they got back, they died quickly, of old age or madness, or longing to go back.
Darcy realized she was clutching her locket, her whole body tense, her skin alive with goosebumps. Stop being silly, she told herself, they're only stories. Everyone knows fairies don't exist. And even if they did, it wasn't midsummer for another month.
Still, nobody ever said the stones didn't exist, and for proof, here was one in front of her. She wondered if this one had any runes on it. Curious, she approached cautiously, reached out a hand, and touched the stone.
Nothing happened. She placed her palm on its cool surface, wondering at its unusual smoothness, and ran her fingers over the edges. It must have been cut that way, she thought, and the weathering made it look natural. She examined it from top to bottom, her basket forgotten at the edge of the clearing. She found no runes, however, and after a while she stood, a little disappointed, and decided that she really ought to get home. The sun was sending golden rays sideways through the trees, lengthening the shadows. She'd better get back before her parents arrived and Conall got a scolding. Married or not, Ma said, he would never think him too old to scold.
Had she been less absorbed in her examination of the stone, Darcy would have noticed that the birdsong had faded away, and the animals grown silent and scarce. She might have noticed the the sudden rise of a faint mist around her feet, despite the cloudless sky and the warmth of the evening. Had she been particularly observant, she could have observed how the sun's golden rays played on the stone in odd patterns, as though seen through water, and that certain shadows had an odd green glow that had nothing to do with the shade of the leaves.
Darcy saw none of these things; what she did notice, however - it nearly made her jump out of her skin - was the man leaning on a tree, just next to her basket at the edge of the clearing.
He was more or less her age, dressed in a white shirt and breeches like most of the village boys, but he was like noone she'd ever seen before. His hair was so black that in the glow of the setting sun, it looked blue; his skin, stretched over pointed features, was so pale as to seem translucent; and his eyes... eyes a million shades of green, as though he held the whole forest in his stare. And he was staring at her, unblinkingly. A stare so intense that it took all the breath out of her and glued her to the spot.
"Why so fearful, Darcy?" he asked after an eternity. "Do you not remember me?" His voice was the lilting tenor of a youth not fully grown, but unlike the those of the village boys, his was pleasantly melodious.
"Remember you?" she stammered. "Who are you? How do you know my name?"
A shadow passed over his face, fleetingly. "We met once, long ago. You were very small, so mayhap you've forgotten."
His accent was strange, she thought, then corrected herself: his manner of speaking was strange. Old-fashioned.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I must have. Though I can't think how I could..." she stopped, flustered, realizing what she had said. He smiled, a melancholy half-smile, but it warmed her heart rather more than was reasonable.
"My name is Orren," he said.
"Orren" she repeated. "What are you doing in the forest?"
"I live close by," he told her. She wondered how he could live close by without her remembering him. She'd was sure she'd seen everyone in her village and the surrounding villages. If she had met him, as he said, surely she would have remembered.
"I was hoping you might be able to help me," he continued. "I've been sent to find someone, a girl about your age, but I can't find her anywhere." She felt an inexplicable pang of anguish at the mention of the girl. "She looks quite a lot like you, however, and for the purpose, I'm quite sure you'd be able to... stand in for her."
"I..." Darcy began, swallowed, and tried again. "I can't help you, I have to get home."
"It will only take a moment" he said, and she realized he'd come to stand right in front of her without her noticing. "I promise to have you home by sundown."
"It's already sundown..." she began again, but he took her hand and her throat constricted. He lifted it, his eyes never leaving hers, and kissed it, the lightest brush of his lips against her skin.
Darcy nodded without thinking, and suddenly the youth's half-smile gave way to a delighted grin. Before she knew what what happening, he lifted her hand high above their heads and twirled her around and around, once, twice, three times clockwise, and each time the green shadowy glow in the clearing intensified until you could barely make them out, their images blurred like a light reflection in moving water.
When a search party was sent out the next morning, Conall and his father at its head, they found nothing in the clearing: no stone, no Darcy, and no fae youth; only a basket full of wild strawberries spilling over onto the circle of bare earth.