We’re still here! Apologies, a technical glitch halted our scheduled post from going out yesterday due to circumstances beyond our control. We’ll keep our eyes out for it more carefully from now on and hope it doesn’t happen again.
To make up for it we’re back with another wonderful gift story! This time for the lovely Heather218. Hope you all enjoy it, this story is in 5 parts but covers multiple chapters, so prepare accordingly!
DAY 12: A gift for Heather218 from ladytarara
The Christmas Fairy
Part 1: The Viking and the Fairy
Smoothing her hands over her watered pink silk dress, Pamela Swynford de Beaumont spun round as much as her heavy skirts would allow her, the voluminous petticoats stiffened with horsehair itching horribly against her sensitive skin. Still, she liked the effect so she would put up with it, just as she put up with her tightly laced corset. She leered closer at the looking glass, allowing her new fangs to erupt.
Perfect. Now she was pretty as a picture.
Reflected in the background of the mirror were the Christmas decorations, a living tree in the German tradition brought in by Victoria’s Prince Albert. The soft evergreen leaves were bedecked with red and white candles, gaily wrapped sweets tied with string, fruit still on the vine, and little homemade decorations she had stitched herself of jolly elves and sweet sugar plum fairies all made from scraps of fabric and lace.
Her maker had raised an eyebrow at the sight.
“I didn’t think you would succumb to the new Christmas craze,” he’d said.
“Are you joking?” Pam demanded, holding out a print from the Ladies’ Home Journal for him to inspect of Queen Victoria and her husband Albert and their children gathered around a similar tree. “We have to appear human, don’t we? So what if our Christmas feast isn’t some fat turkey from the colonies but instead a fat merchant and his wife?”
Eric reached out to touch the soft green foliage. “Do you even know what this means?” he demanded.
Pam shrugged elegantly in her scoop-necked evening gown, her skin always white and smooth as silk had a new pallor to it that she quite admired, that she knew would be the envy of all the girls she had gone to finishing school with – if only they could see it. Still, a lace parasol would hardly suffice to protect her from the sun these days, and her spontaneous combustion would raise more than a few delicately-plucked eyebrows.
But of course, she’d had to leave all that behind, thank fuck. Her petticoats had been a prison and she more than embraced her new life, even if she kept some of the trappings of the old.
Eric pointed at the mistletoe she’d hung above the doorway. “Or this? Do you know what this is for?”
“Oh, easy. That one’s for kissing.” She waltzed over to him and planted a big kiss on his lips, but he seemed unimpressed.
“I forget how young you are,” he said. “Perhaps I should tell you the true meaning.”
But Pam had sauntered off, her skirts billowing like the sail on a ship as her maker shook his head sadly, trying not to compare her to the one he really wanted by his side. The one he longed for but who was lost to him forever.
Pam was a diversion. He did care for her, but it would never be the same as the love he had lost.
The love that was still lost to him.
But that had been weeks ago, and today, on Christmas Eve, her maker’s behaviour was stranger than ever and Pam kept mulling over in her mind every word and action, trying to think what she may have said or done to put him so out of sorts.
Along the carved wooden mantle piece Pam had carefully arranged a collection of Christmas cards, another new craze started by the Queen and aided by the penny post. Oh, they weren’t actually sent to her by people. She’d simply chosen the paintings she’d liked best and hung them herself, along with several stockings that she had once worn and Christmas crackers, delightful twists of patterned wrapping paper that you pulled apart with another and then a handful of sweets would tumble into your hands.
Well, she could admire the inventiveness even if she couldn’t enjoy the candy itself.
She pinned a brooch to her décolletage, a beautiful swan picked out in tiny seed pearls and pink sapphires, the clasp a heavy and thick gold. She’d chosen it herself and charged it to Eric’s account, as a dutiful young wife would be expected to, not sullying her hands with the crass feel of money and the grime of the unwashed who may have touched it.
That was their cover story of course – a honeymooning couple on holiday – and she had yet to tire of the ruse. Could a perpetual holiday ever grow dull? She and Eric had already shifted from one town to another, careful to assume different names and papers, using the underground network of others of their kind to keep their faces veiled in the night. Too much scrutiny led to mobs wielding flaming torches, even in this enlightened day and age.
Her maker was old, she knew that – and he carried a great sadness that he had yet to tell her of, but surely someday soon she would know.
Sweeping up her hair and artfully arranging the curls, a pile of hairpins in her mouth, something flickered at the edges of her vision.
“What the -” Her pins dropped out of her mouth, clattering to the floor as she spun around, trying to see what the threat was. Had it been the curtains blowing in the breeze? A trick of the firelight, or something from those liars, the candles and the moon?
But there was nothing. Everything was still, everything was dark. Eric was off somewhere glamouring them some dinner. She could hear him in the sitting room, no doubt tempting some charming young miss to stray a little too far from her chaperone – and who could blame her? She smiled, thinking her maker had quite the way with the ladies and she was discovering her own enjoyment of them, too, so much more to her preference than the fat cousin she had been fated to wed and pop out a continuous stream of babies for.
No wonder so many women drank laudanum by the bottleful.
Perhaps it was nothing after all. She bent down to scoop up her scattered hair pins, struggling to bend in her tight corset and in the end, falling to her knees instead.
She glanced upward, hair pins all back in her hands now, and then she thought she saw something again. A face – a flicker of a face. She spun around. There was no one behind her, just the large tree, its branches bowed with its heavy load of festive finery.
Was it something in the mirror?
Maybe someone in the mirror?
As soon as she thought it, the face became clearer, pixie-ish and pointed with tanned skin that would have made her Nanny howl in shame and scrub her skin harshly with lemon juice to try and bleach it out. Her eyes were brown, her hair blonde though not the same shade as hers. She looked – sad. Pam reached out a finger towards the glass, almost touching the sprite inside, but then snatching it back when she thought better of it.
Was it an imp? A demon? A pixie?
Nanny had read her enough bedtime stories for her to know the tricksy ways of fairies, how they would tempt humans and then lure them to their death. She’d heard stories of the selkies who lived in the lochs of Scotland where she had holidayed often with her parents, tempting unwary travellers into the freezing water and drowning them.
The girl in the mirror opened her mouth, her hair floating around her face as though she was under water, and Pam leaned nearer the looking glass, careful not to touch it, craning her neck to try and hear the words she was speaking but the glass swallowed all sound.
A long-fingered, delicate hand reached out toward her.
Her maker, sensing her panic, flew up the curved staircase to her dressing room, ready to snap the neck and rip limb from limb whatever intruder it was who had threatened his child.
“What is it?”
“The mirror! There’s something in the mirror!”
Taking a deep, gasping breath, Eric got down on his knees in front of the mirror, the same position she had been in just a few moments before as he placed the palms of both hands on the cold glass, the reflection in the hand-made glass watery and just a little wobbly.
“Please,” he said. “Please come back to me.”
The face re-appeared again, though a little further away than it had been before, and two small hands reached out for her maker, but of course, the glass stayed between them. The creature smiled beseechingly at him and Pam felt a crushing sadness, as though her heart would break. Pam placed a hand on her maker’s shoulder, seeking to comfort him.
“What is she? Who is she?”
Eric didn’t answer as he tried to reach through the glass to grab her wrists, the glass shattering beneath his hands as he exerted too much force. Her face shattered and Eric howled as his fingers grasped the shards, cutting into his flesh as he thrashed the mirror, bending its metal frame and splintering the wood.
“Come back!” he cried, “Please, come back!”
But the mirror was smashed, her hulking maker trembling on his knees and Pam knelt beside him in the broken glass, her arms wrapped firmly around him as he began to sob.
“What was that?” she asked when his emotions subsided.
“That,” he said gently, “was the Christmas Fairy. Her name is Sookie Stackhouse.”
What the fuck was a Sookie?
Pam was determined to find out.
In his hands, he held a sprig of mistletoe, turning it over and over, wondering how it could ever have ended a god. Baldur, the Beloved was killed, but then resurrected by the tears of his mother Frigga, when the red berries of the mistletoe were turned white. Eric hung the greenery above the door of the longhouse, a ward against evil spirits entering and a prayer that one day he too might be raised to eternal life, to feast forever in the halls of Valhalla.
His mother Astrid smiled at him, her arms filled with ivy and holly as was the tradition of the winter solstice, the yuletide. Large as he was, she passed the pieces to him to hang and he was glad to be of service to her, for all they had slaves enough who could have done the task for them.
Eric and his father had been raiding in the far south that summer, returning with longships riding low in the water, filled with booty from faraway lands, rich with plunder that they must give thanks to the gods for. The return journey had been beset by storms and they had been washed ashore on a barren outcropping of rock, marooned for weeks as they waited for the weather to turn, living on herring and whatever was foolish enough to get too close to them. They were lucky to have returned, and Eric vowed that he would give the gods their due.
Outside was bitterly cold with drifts of snow lying deep, but at least it helped block out the drafts of the freezing wind. The grey sky stretched for miles over the rocky, tussocky alpine tundra, and Eric wondered if the stories were true, if the sun were really close to death at winter’s end and it was only the rituals of the solstice that resurrected it and returned it to life, melting the snow and revitalising the land, allowing the soil to thaw and their crops to be planted and grow. He looked once more at the mistletoe in his hands, the berries red as drops of blood rather than white, but still a symbol of resurrection, the promise of new life.
“See to the trees,” his mother said to him, motioning for the remaining greenery in his hands to be passed back to her, signalling that it was enough. “The gods will be well-pleased, I think. Now we must tempt the tree sprites to return.”
A slave girl ran in with his baby sister in her arms. Thora. He smiled as his mother cooed at the babe, and he was glad at least that this one had lived, and he prayed to the gods that she would survive the many illnesses of childhood, that she would live to see her first birthday. Her face was small and crumpled, a child born in the summer when he and his father had been raiding with the men, his mother birthing her with the women folk and placing the child in his father’s arms on his return as he stood on the docks. His father had smiled, blessed the child with the sign of the Mjolnir and whispered a prayer before returning her to her mother’s arms.
Eric swore a vow to himself then, when his mother placed the bundle that was his sister into his arms, that he would do whatever he could to protect her from misadventure, from warring clans and possible enslavement. He would sacrifice his life for hers if it came to it.
He had to push hard against the door with his shoulder to force it open against the snow that had collected there, even in the small time since it had last been cleared away.
A small distance from the roof of the longhouse was a stand of fir trees, planted long ago and now they stood much higher than the turf of the roof, their branches bent low by the wind, snow settling onto the leaves and making them bow and scrape like foreign dignitaries in front of his father’s throne.
A team of slaves were already clearing away the snow from the trees, creating little hollows underneath their spreading skirts to house the carved statues of the gods. Here was Odin, the All-Father, a patch over his left eye, his face fierce, his beard carved in whorls and dips. Thor was like his father, square of jaw and strong of nose, and Eric settled him on the ground next to Odin. Then came Freyr and his twin, Freya, gods of the Vanir rather than Aesir warriors, carved in a way to reflect their beauty as king and queen of Alfheim, come to mix their powers with that of mortals, to resurrect the sun and save it from being devoured by Fenrir, the wolf. Carved wooden runes were placed around them, runes of power and magic as an offering to the gods.
Next the tree was hung with food and clothing, this time not for the gods, but to lure the tree spirits back into its warm heart-wood, to bring life to the forest in the spring, to feed the game they would hunt for the village feasting table.
Eric placed his hand on the rough trunk of the largest tree, offering up a prayer to Odin that this midwinter festival he might at last find himself a wife, that he might at last pick up his burden of duty and family and add to the new life of the spring with his own seed.
There were matches aplenty, but his mother had been dissatisfied with them all, despite his father’s impatience to use his grown son to secure alliances with other petty kingdoms scattered across the frozen north. His mother’s will had prevailed because the truth was his father loved her and knew she wanted the same for her son, rather than an arranged marriage of convenience.
In the outbuildings behind his father’s longhouse with its central fire-pit and throne room, he could hear the squealing of the wild boar the hunters had corralled to keep it from goring their other precious beasts or even a slave. Tonight, it would be sacrificed to Freyr, it’s blood enriching the soil and the meat gracing his father’s feasting tables.
The trees done, he walked over to inspect the wood carving, men sitting in the flickering light of fires, a giant oak log decorated with sprigs of fir, holly, and yew, carved with runes asking the gods to protect the village from misfortune. The yule log would be burned, but a small piece would be saved to protect his father’s hearth and that of the village during the coming year, and then it would be used to light the fire for the following year’s festivities.
He wondered who would dress as Old Man Winter this year in his hooded fur coat, travelling either on foot or a white horse. He would be welcomed into homes and graced to join in the festivities.
But there were still some hours to go yet and he found his attention wandering from the preparations, the ritual, and he felt his body fill with a strange restlessness he had felt often of late. The sky was dark as midnight for all it was day, and he suppressed a shiver that he did not know whether it was from the cold or fear. The dark months were filled with danger, with dark magic, and many a trap for mortals such as himself.
Not wanting to affect the festive mood, he resolved to take a walk out into the wilds, to see where his feet would take him, to quell some of the restlessness he had felt since his return to the village. The snow was crisp and smooth, untouched and he welcomed the feel of the chill air, pulling his fur cloak tighter around his shoulders, his leather boots stuffed with fur to keep out the cold, his hardened warrior’s body covered in tanned leather, his muscles straining against the seams. His sword he wore across his back, a large and heavy blade that few could wield given its size, designed for a man of his height and passed down through his family from battle-hardened hand to battle-hardened hand. The blade was nicked in places where it had cleaved through the bones of his ancestor’s enemies, and he had already added his own, the latest from splitting the skull of a French knight who had dared to resist his father’s forces, who had foolishly attempted to protect the sacristy of a Christian church.
Well, his blood had splattered the altar, an offering to his own gods in that place dedicated to the Christ.
He headed out of the village, past the outlying buildings, past the fields now frozen and barren under the winter snow. In the distance were mountains, a gateway to the gods that rumbled and roared like a dragon slept curled in its belly. The peaks were covered in snow all year round, even on the warmest days of summer, but this was not where he was heading, the ice making such a climb too treacherous. Instead, he walked towards the belly of one of the mountains, to a place he had played in as a child before his time had been devoted to conquest and survival, a time that was too brief, but a time that lived on in his memory regardless.
One day he’d found a cave, dark and deep, narrow at first, but then folding outward into a subterranean cathedral, the rocks strewing the path heading down into the depths of the earth. All around him he could hear water rushing through the stone, even though he could not see it. The walls were smooth, worn that way by the passage of water and for whatever reason, the path of the river that flowed here had been diverted elsewhere and all that was left were the stalactites that clung to the ceiling, the slow relentless drip of water from their tips creating stalagmites below.
As a child, he had followed the sound, heading deeper into the caves, the other boys he had played with running back home in fear, saying this was a place of the Dark Elves, an entrance to their underworld and a place best avoided. But Eric had kept on walking, his hand trailing along the smooth wall as it did now, tracing the sound of the water back to its faraway source.
Then the ground fell away and the sun had filtered through the broken top of the cave, destroyed by a long-forgotten waterfall, and there before his feet was a blue pool, a startling, bright blue that was warm to the touch.
Stripping off, he had jumped into the water, his clothes forgotten on the rocky shore, his childish wooden sword abandoned.
That had been the first time he’d seen her. A small, giggling elfin child with blonde locks the colour of gold, watching him as he bathed. She was small, maybe his age. Maybe younger.
“Which village are you from?” he’d asked. “What is your name?”
“Village? I do not know. But my name – it is Sookie. Yours?”
“Ah. Aren’t you frightened I will hex you? Your friends were.”
“Do you want to hex me?” he asked.
“Are you an elf?”
“Not really.” Her face creased up as she tried to think of how to explain. “I am fae,” she said at last. “I’m not supposed to be here and I would be punished if I was caught, but I like to watch you play. You will be a great warrior.”
Eric the boy shivered in the warm pool, feeling the doom of prophecy gather around him.
“Please, don’t say it. If you say it, you make it true. Let me be a child,” he pleaded. “Play with me.”
The impish girl splashed the water into his face, diving into the pool fully clothed as she popped in and out, using her powers to disappear from his clutches the moment she felt his hands closing on her. Roaring in mock frustration, they had played for hours and he had forgotten the time, only returning to the village long past dark and earning a beating from his father for his troubles along with a stern warning from the priest to stay away from the cursed mountains.
But of course, he hadn’t. He had lost count of how many times he had seen the same elfin girl there, how many games they had played, and the fast friendship that had grown between them.
Unbuckling his belt, the warm blue pool at his feet once more, Eric gently undid the leather strap that held his sword slung across his back, taking care of the well-worn leather of his scabbard, placing it carefully on a rock at the edge of the water, close enough that he could reach it in an instant if he needed it to defend his life, the way of the warrior etched deep into his grown mind. His cloak of fur fell to the ground, his leather tunic and linen shirt following suit, his broad, white chest gleaming in the light of the moon reflected from the blue of the water, gently caressing the muscles that hard work and swinging a sword and axe had earned him, even smoothing out the scars that he had earned in battle.
Boots gone, his pants followed suit, the moonlight now moving to his perfectly sculpted buttocks that would make a Greek Adonis cry out in envy, a form more marvellous than any ever sculpted by the ancient artists whose works he had glimpsed in passing as he and his fellow band of warriors ransacked town after town in the south.
Eric dived into the pool, elegant and graceful as a sea eagle diving for fish, the water barely rippling as it broke over his body and caressed him like a lover’s hands. He stayed beneath the surface for a few moments, holding his breath, kicking his powerful legs before breaking the surface of the water to take a deep, ragged breath.
And there she was.
Standing before him, grown now, clad in a gossamer gown that clung to her curves, her golden hair spilling in rich waves down her back, a cascade that even the moon would be jealous of, or the sun if it were awake and not lingering near death at this, the height of winter. Her eyes were brown and dark, her skin kissed by the sun itself in its worship of her form.
He swam to her, as fast as he was able, standing there on the far shore of the subterranean lake, hoping she would stay, praying to every god he knew that she would wait. He hauled himself out of the water, his body streaming rivulets to the stone floor as he stood naked before her smiling form.
“Sookie. You came back.”
Her hand reached out to touch his face. Just the lightest, gentlest of touches, but it almost made him come undone as his whole body shivered with his desire for her.
“Of course, I came back.”
“Will you stay? Talk to me?” His words were rushed, almost garbled. How could he get this beautiful creature to linger a while longer?
She looked around nervously like she was half-expecting someone to be following her, but when she saw no one, she relaxed ever so slightly.
“Alright. What would you talk of?”
“You,” he blurted.
“Me? Tonight, I must take my place in the Winter Solstice celebrations.”
“As must I.”
Sookie shook her head sadly. “It is not the same. You will get to roll a burning sundial down a hill. I am to be wed and made to bear children.”
His world collapsed and he sat heavily on the edge of the pool, his bare feet trailing in the water. How could he have been so foolish? She was not human – why would she want him? Yet the selkies had married mortals, and Freyr himself had married a woman who wielded a light. If she were a selkie he could take her animal skin and she would stay in human form, stay and be with him.
He did not trust himself to speak.
“I don’t love him. He is a large brute of a man, one who desires my body and little else. I don’t wish for the marriage. I -” Her voice faltered, and without thinking Eric reached out for her hand, hoping to give her comfort and strength to say what she must.
“We were only children, but I have never forgotten your kindness to me, that you did not shun me for being other or expect me to rain down hexes upon your head. This place is a portal between worlds, a bridge between times – you must be careful and you should not come here. You really should not,” She looked around anxiously again and he gave her hand a gentle squeeze.
“What are you afraid of, little one? I have my sword. I will defend you.”
Sookie smiled at him, conjuring a ball of light to her hand that crackled and fizzed and lit the whole cave up from within. ‘I thank you, but as you can see I am hardly defenceless.”
The light in her hands was as golden as the sun and that was what it looked like to him, that on these darkest of winter days she held the last of all that was good in the world in those hands of hers, keeping the darkness and the demons away.
And she was not his. Would never be his. He forced himself to look away. Soon she would belong to another.
“I belong to another world,” she continued softly. “One that is all around you but one you have not the eyes to see. I am a cloistered princess, forbidden to roam in the world of men, in case I might meet one such as you.” She lowered her eyelids shyly, her soft, thick lashes touching her cheek, and he still held her hand as though it were something soft and delicate that might break, as though it was a bird that might fly away at any moment.
“But you are powerful – you wield the sun. Who would control you?”
“My grandfather. He is prince of the realm at Freyr’s bequest. My power pales in comparison to his. The females of our line are few. I am valuable to him for my bride price and the alliances he may forge with me between the warring clans. That is why I journeyed here today, even though it is forbidden, for I will be wed to an Earth fae and forced to live underground, in the dark.”
“But you are a creature of light! Such a fate is cruel! Tell me, how can I reach your grandfather? How can I make him see reason and let you go, or if he will not I will put his head upon a pike!”
“You are brave,” she said softly. “And you are kind.” She placed her free hand flat upon his chest, over his beating heart, and he stilled himself, hardly daring to breathe in case he might startle her and she would fly away.
“Let me help you.”
“How can you? I know you mean well, but you are no match for him.”
“Then stay with me. Don’t go back. Run away with me. We can go north, into the permanent snow and ice.”
Sookie stared at him for a moment. “You really think we could run?”
“Yes. I can hunt for you, provide for you, protect you for all you say you have no need of it. It will not be easy, but we can do it. My father has villages further north, those who hunt the seals for fur and meat. We can live there, travel between them.” He gazed into her dark eyes with his light blue ones. “I would have you by my hearth, give you shelter, and warm you by my fire.”
“It’s a pretty dream. What else would you have of me?” She averted her gaze from him again, this time staring down into the blue water, trailing her fingers lightly in it, as though she was weaving the picture of the life they might have had out of moonbeams and starlight.
His voice was the softest whisper as he replied, afraid he would break the spell, the pretty castle in the air he was building for them both.
“I would have you. I would have your body beneath mine, my children in your belly. Please,” he entreated her. “If it pleases you, I would have you as my wife.”
He bent his head to hers and kissed her softly, delicately, their lips as two fluttering butterfly wings, papery soft to the touch, neither daring to take it further.
“I can’t,” she said softly. “It’s just a story, one I would love to make true, but I am not the author of my own fate. We would have to run forever. He would come after us and drag me back.”
“What if we fled to Jorvik, across the narrow sea? My father has a colony there.”
“It’s no good.” Tears welled in her eyes. “This has to be goodbye, my warrior.”
“What if I entreat the gods?” he asked her. “Seek their protection and their aid.”
She smiled at him. “You have faith in them?”
“You may try, but they seldom involve themselves in the affairs of mortals any longer. There are some who think they are just pretty stories, too. You are sweet to have such faith.”
She distanced herself from him, letting go of his hand.
“Please, don’t go.”
Sookie got to her feet with a sigh, smoothing her transparent gown around the swell of her hips, brushing off sand and small rocks. Eric stood up also, still unselfconsciously naked, and she knew he believed what he said, that he had laid himself bare both literally and symbolically for her choosing.
“Tell me -please,” he continued. “If you were free, if you could choose, would you be mine?”
She paused, thinking best how to answer, forcing herself to be still, to think carefully of the consequences. If he knew, would it give him solace, or would it drive him to despair? Sookie examined the broad plane of his chest, the swelling muscles of his biceps, the narrowness of his waist, his powerful legs, searching for some kind of truth there. He was a man of honour, a man of the sword, a man of the north. Life was harsh here unlike the eternal summer of Alfheim. Eric had been raised to know that life was seldom fair, that duty and honour and strength were necessary to survive.
“I would,” she told him, hoping it would not make things worse, that he would understand. “I would choose you. I would be yours.”
He pulled her to him, holding her body close to his and she could feel him trembling as he fought to retain his self-control even as she felt his desire rising, pressing into her through the thinness of her gossamer skirts. His skin was warm, her cheek pressed to his broad chest as he held her, Sookie looked up at him with her sad eyes and he ran his hand through the soft golden waves of her hair, his broad thumb returning to her cheek as he wiped away the tear that threatened to spill further down her face.
“Goodbye,” he said at last, his lips brushing against the top of her golden tresses that smelled like ripe berries in the height of summer. Wildflowers and honey, he thought as he inhaled her scent deeply, trying to keep something of her in his memory forever, along with how good she felt in his arms.
They stood together, entwined, for who knew how long, as she listened to the beating of his heart and he sought to commit every part of her that he could to his memory. At last, she stirred in his arm and he had to force himself to let her go, to let her walk away, knowing he would never see her again.
But instead of walking away, she threw her arms around his neck, her hand sliding along his cheek as she guided his lips to hers and this time her lips were parted as she pressed her body hard against his.
Eric stiffened, pulling himself away, trying to get space between them.
“I cannot -” he breathed raggedly. “You are testing my control too much. Please,” he said to her. “Don’t – unless you mean to be mine, don’t.”
Sookie didn’t back away, pressing herself more firmly against him.
“I mean to be yours,” she whispered to him. “At least this night – I will be yours.”
“Not enough,” he told her. “I can’t walk away.”
Eric stopped holding himself back at her words, kissing her for all he was worth, her small, delicate body pressed into his. She knew she shouldn’t be doing this, knew it would lead them both into trouble, but the pretty story was burned into her mind and she wanted it, the fairy tale not the nightmare, and she wanted him. Niall would punish her – to lose her honour so close to her wedding would lower her value, maybe even lead to a damage claim against him, but she found she didn’t care. Her body clung to this man’s, this man that she had watched and played with as a child, this man who was good and kind, and even now she knew she was the one forcing his hand, that he would have walked away no matter how much it hurt him, he would have let her go for the sake of her honour.
His hand touched her breast and she shivered against him. He pulled away, breathing raggedly. “Would you have me stop?” he asked her.
“No.” She slipped the straps of her dress down over her shoulders, exposing the tanned skin. Then she let the bodice of her dress fall to her waist, her breasts bare for him to see as she grasped his hand and held it over her heart.
Her dress fell to the floor in a pool of silken spider web, her feet stepping over it delicately as her flesh pressed against his. He lifted her on to a ledge of rock worn smooth by the passage of water from the long-lost river, parting her thighs gently as he drove his hard length deep into her, the blood of her maidenhead spilling unnoticed down the inside of her thighs as she wrapped them more firmly around him, her body quivering as they became one.
Afterward, he held her, their bodies nestled together on the rocky ledge that still bore her virginal blood – blood that would never stain her wedding sheets now.
“What are we to do?” she whispered to him, his large body folded around hers.
“Be with me,” Eric pleaded. “Come to my village – let me explain to my parents. Then, we run.”
She was quiet, thinking what to do, knowing her wedding hour grew closer and closer, but unwilling to move from her lover’s embrace. Should she leave him, marry the man she was betrothed to, try to fake the bleeding… Sookie had heard it could be done, if a man was encouraged to be rough, or if she carried a hidden blade to nick her thigh. But the thought of doing with another what she had just done with this man made her shudder. Could there be another way? How long would they last on the run? What if she used her own powers to try and beguile Niall, to confuse his warriors?
He would catch them eventually, likely kill them both. But perhaps it would be worth it, whatever time they had together would be worth it.
“He will kill us.”
“Then I will die fighting him.”
Sookie nodded, knowing her fate was already sealed. “Let me sneak home – I will take what magic I can to augment my own. There are talismans, objects that are powerful in the hands of our people. It may help us survive a little longer.”
“I must return home,” said Eric. “The midwinter festivities will have begun. Old Man Winter may already be knocking on our door, and we all know what happens to those who do not offer him hospitality. I can return here -”
“No, let me come to you. I know where your village is. I have been there before, on midwinter’s eve when my kind are permitted to walk amongst mortal men and I have watched you perform your ceremonies to revive the sun.”
“Why didn’t you speak to me? Show yourself?”
“I was afraid.”
“Are you afraid now?”
“Only of Niall. Only of losing you.” She straightened her body, pulling herself upright and away from his chest, only her round bottom still on his lap. “I must wash in the lake. My scent – he would know.”
Nodding, Eric followed her into the still blue water as she allowed it to wash away all evidence of their joining. She turned to toward him, her face drawn into an expression of concern.
“There could be a child,” she whispered.
He wrapped his arms protectively around her.
“I pray to the gods it is so.”
“If we are running, it could be difficult to have a child. If the child is like me, Niall will take him or her, imprison them in a lonely tower or even kill them. They do not tolerate half-breeds.”
“A child of ours would be a gift from the gods, one I would welcome with both arms. I would not allow Niall to take them, prince or not. You will see – the gods will aid us.”
Sookie nodded, not really believing his words but willing it to be so, thinking of all she would steal, objects of power and might and how she might force them into weapons.
His hands stroked her body, lingering over her flat stomach, imagining a child growing inside it, his seed, his child – theirs. She placed a hand on his forehead.
“I can see it,” she whispered. “The beautiful vision in your mind. How much you want it. I want it, too.”
Her lips kissed his in the stillness of the lake, their bodies attached to the other as he slid his way inside her again, so much easier this time. Their breathing grew more frantic as she gasped his name and the water churned around their waists, evidence of the movement below as they each strove to be part of the other.
This time the water washed away all traces, and at last the time of their parting had come. Redressed in her gossamer gown, the delicate fabric hardly the worse for wear, its soft folds hanging smoothly, she kissed him goodbye one last time, then disappeared.
The summer sickened her as it never had before. How she longed for the snow and the ice, for the world that Eric belonged to. It was always summer here, the sun always high in a cornflower blue sky, the air heavy with the scent of flowers in full bloom, their bright heads nodding drowsily in the sun. It never rained, yet the land never dried out, the soil always moist, the grass always thick and luxurious. Seeds burst from their always-ripe fruit, and sometimes if you looked hard enough, you might see the flesh within was bruised. Sometimes if you popped a piece in your mouth, you could taste the slight tang of fermentation, the fruit on the brink of turning bad, yet it was so slight you barely noticed it. Sookie could see it now, all around her, and she longed for the land of snow and ice that had borne her lover.
The castle loomed in the distance, its high walls made of pink stone looking more than ever like a prison. This was the place she had been kept, cooped up and shut away from any who might sully and stain her. She smiled secretively, thinking of Eric and how she was soiled goods now.
Sentries stood at the gate clad in their silver armour, all of them bearing the golden insignia of the Sky Fae, a blazing sun. They paid her no mind, knowing she had been given leave by the Prince to farewell childhood haunts and friends as she prepared to take up the burden of being a woman, of bearing and raising the children of a man she did not love, far from kith and kin.
When Niall had told her he would allow her to follow the ancient traditions of their people, she had been more than surprised.
“I will give you leave,” he had said. “I know how fond you are of the gardens, the little babbling brook, and the woodland creatures. You should farewell them as they did in the old days.”
Sookie, her breath caught in her throat, thought instantly of Eric and the cave that led to his world. She buried the thought beneath others, thinking instead of the golden pear tree and the nightingale, worried that Niall would read her thoughts, so she carefully schooled her mind and face into that of the compliant and dutiful maid.
“I do not marry you out of the clan lightly,” he told her, his hand reaching out to touch her shoulder. “But the Earth Clan have long been our enemies and it has been my hope that a wedding might end that. They have accrued too much land and have encroached upon our borders. Your wedding will save many lives.”
Sookie nodded, knowing it was true, wondering how long she would live away from the sun, how long it would take for her spark to wither and fade without the healing light it so needed.
She had waited for Niall to leave before she headed out, knowing she would try to see him, try to say goodbye. Once in the cave, she had even performed a summoning spell to draw Eric to her, the cause of the strange restlessness that had led him to her.
Inside, the castle was strangely silent, its rooms emptied of the normally bustling and gossiping courtiers. Seeing no one was about, Sookie picked up her skirts and ran, heading for her father’s long forgotten sea chest filled with treasures collected when he had sailed off the edge of the world, his fairy boat filled with a magic that had stopped him tipping off the precipice.
Shiny trinkets filled her skirts, held out to make a kind of basket, a magical sword plucked from a dead dragon’s breast, a necklace of intricate silver studded with blue stones that gave the power of flight, a long cloak of dark night that swirled and shone with tiny stars that hid the wearer from sight. A shining cluviel d’or – a fairy wish – a love token from days long gone, and a mermaid’s magic mirror. The mirror could send you backward and forward in time, take you from one world to another. It was Niall’s most prized possession even though he had not earned it, that as her father’s only surviving child it should belong to her. Some people said the mermaid had loved him and wept tears at his loss, giving him the golden mirror embossed with sea creatures and as her tears fell they turned into the tiny pearls that adorned it.
But like all magic, it came with a hidden price, and in the end, it had cost her father his life as the mermaid’s people, the Water Fae, set a hex upon him and he could drink no water without choking on it, no water without it filling his lungs and stopping his heart. And so, he had been found dead, drowned, his body slumped over his writing desk, water spread across the fine wood, soaking into the letters, spreading the black ink all round like an evil shadow.
Footsteps. Running. Crying and shouting. Had she been discovered already? Were those running feet coming for her? She could hear the sound of metal clashing on metal and wondered if they already knew, if Niall and his troops were fighting the Earth fae who came to ask for her life.
She had to run, had to get out, so she turned and fled the treasure room, running for the furthest turret, the lonely tower that had been hers for so long, knowing that the magic staircase was still open, that Niall had loosed the spell that kept her prisoner so she might prepare for her marriage day. She would use it to escape, to run down into the garden and flee back to the cave, back to Eric’s village and together they would run to the frozen north, whether Old Man Winter had paid them a call or not.
In the round room decorated in palest blue, she shook her precious objects onto the bed, covering them with a blanket, hunting furiously for her mother’s knapsack, a bag of gold and brilliant blue that always appeared empty, no matter how full. Where was it? She hunted high and low, hearing footsteps in the hall, the door to her room flung open as Niall, Prince of the Fae stood before her, his sword in his hand and splattered from head to foot with blood.
Sookie turned to him, her heart quailing, willing herself to be strong, to face her death nobly, to take comfort in the fact it had come to her so swiftly that Eric would be spared.
“Thank the gods – you are unharmed. I had hoped you were still abroad, but the guards informed me you were back.”
Confused, waiting for his sword to descend upon her bare neck, she stalled.
“Are you alright, Grandfather? This blood – is it yours?”
“Nay, dear heart, it is not, though your concern is touching. You are so sweet and pure – how could I send you away to live under the ground and wither into nothing? Your wedding was a ruse to lure them here. A trap. We have slaughtered them all – the ruling family, their servants – all dead. So, you need not fear, my pet. There is to be no wedding – not tonight.”
Sookie could hardly believe what she was hearing. No wedding? A ruse? A trap? She thought fast, choosing her words as carefully as she could, scarcely believing that even her grandfather, the ruthless prince, would break the ancient rules of hospitality in such a way.
Ill luck was sure to befall them.
“You did this for me? Grandfather, I am overcome.” She sat on the edge of her bed carefully, making sure the objects hidden there did not tinkle. Niall stood over her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“I did this for us all. I will arrange another wedding for you, this time with one of our own. I will choose one of my best men, from a noble and wise family, to be the husband and protector you need, and you will bear his children, children of the sky, pure and filled with light as you are, as it should always have been. Never fear, I will provide a suitable husband for you.”
Nodding her head, Sookie gazed up at Niall’s grizzled face, his beard besmirched with blood. “I thank you, my Lord Prince. You have always done for me what my dead parents could not.”
“Rest, child. Do not come out of the tower till tomorrow. I would spare your eyes the image of the bloodshed below. It is not fitting for a princess so gently reared as yourself to have the knowledge of such things. Rest now, and I will come for you in the morning.”
Sookie sat meekly on the bed as Niall had bidden her, waiting for the heavy door to close. Distracted as he was, he had not uttered the spell to seal her in, to make the staircase disappear, to leave her with only the tiny window to stare mournfully out of.
She jumped to her feet, spotting the bag at last and filling it with the magical objects hidden in her bed, tinkling and rolling against one another as she raised the blanket high, causing them to tumble out. Not wanting to wait a moment longer in case Niall realised his oversight, she hoisted the bag over her shoulder and took the spiral staircase two steps at a time, running and half- falling in her haste to put as much distance between herself and this place as she could before dawn broke tomorrow.
Panting, she ran through the gardens and into the cave, following the path out into that other world, that frozen place of snow and ice. It was empty except for the blue lake, so she followed the path higher and higher, shivering in the cold till she came to the mouth of the world, and there laid out before her was the smooth snow, untouched by any footstep, as though Eric had never passed this way at all.
Snowflakes were tumbling out of the sky, falling and melting against the warmth of her skin and she shivered, clicking her fingers to clad herself in warm fur and leather, dressing herself as a woman of the North.
The journey to the village was difficult and she lost her way several times, the whole landscape alien under its thick covering of snow. But at last she saw the outbuildings, heard the lowing of the cattle and could see the smoke from the central fire pit at the longhouse, the heart of the village.
She hurried there, her breath burning now in her throat as she sought to gulp down more and more mouthfuls of freezing air.
The door stood open.
Stepping carefully across the threshold festooned with winter greenery, she saw what Niall had sought to protect her from. A family slaughtered, warriors and slaves and the king himself lying dead on the floor, his crown missing, his wife next to him, even the tiny baby lay lifeless.
Eric? Where was Eric?
Sookie ran frantically through the slaughter, seeking his body, cold and lifeless, which had once held her so warm and so close. Where was it? Where was he? Surely he would have fought – but she could see many of the men were unarmed. They had not expected the attack. Then who – who would do such a thing on midwinter eve?
She straightened, certain at least that Eric was not here. She picked her way back over the dead bodies, muttering a Fae blessing and a prayer to the gods as she headed back out into the night to find out what had become of her lover.
His cloak of fur swirled about his legs, the pack of wolves who followed him keeping themselves at a respectable distance.
Old Man Winter had travelled from village to village across the north, feasting and carousing in the longhouses of many, welcomed and honoured by kings and commoners alike, so he might travel away from their village, head further north and take the swirling snow and icy winds away in his fur cloak, leaving the warming spring behind him.
The priests from the temple at Uppsala had chosen him, an old man, withered and thin as the winter withered the lands. It was an ancient ritual, from a time before Odin had walked the earth, from a time forgotten and lost, when Grendel still terrorised the land, and before Beowulf had been born. The Age of Great Migrations, when the folk of the north had travelled here from the south, when the ravens had flown amongst them and magic filled the land.
To refuse Old Man Winter the comfort of your fire was a grave insult, indeed, and who knew what ancient forces might be roused against such an offence?
This village was King Ulfrik’s seat of power, the longhouse one of the largest he had seen, and he could hear the lapping of waves in the harbour nearby, filled with the king’s mighty fleet. Ulfrik, it was said, was descended from the Frost Giants, that he came from a long line of legendary heroes, that he wore the crown of Beowulf himself, and wielded his monster-slaying sword.
Well, we will see about that, the old man chuckled to himself. He was a fine judge of antiquities and he would know if the tales were true or not.
His wolves howled, one brushing up against his leg to remind him they were hungry.
“Patience,” he said softly. “You will feed well – far better than you did on that old bag of bones we found on the road here.”
The old man’s body was dumped under some snow – no doubt someone would find him when the spring finally came, when the snow melted to reveal his pitiful, half-naked corpse. Old Man Winter, indeed. He smirked, running his fingers through the rich fur of the cloak that would mark him as friend, mark him as emissary from the gods. They would seat him by their fire, offer him mead and meat, his wolves waiting outside in the shadows for him to signal his attack.
His fangs dropped as he thought of ripping into the soft, naive flesh of these northern fools, with their customs and quaintness and their rituals. They thought he would take the winter with him, but of course, he would take Beowulf’s crown and his sword and leave only death in his wake.
He was no Old Man Winter, but the name suited him as well as any other he’d had in his long life as vampire. One day they would know his true name and quake in fear when it crossed their lips or echoed in their ears.
The journey back from the cave through the driving snow took longer than he thought. Eric tried to gauge the hour of the night by the position of the moon, and guessed it somewhere near to a quarter gone. He hurried his steps, pulling his furs closer around him, covering his bright hair with the darkness of a hood. Eric knew he had tarried too long with his Sookie, but he hoped once his parents knew of the story, they would pardon his lateness.
Sookie was one of the Fair Folk – his parents would worry at that, he knew. But he would do his best to reassure them, to get them to see her goodness and her spirit. He hoped he could find a way to kill Niall quickly, to avoid bringing war and ill-luck to his family home. Until the prince was dead, they would have to live on the run, and he knew in his heart this may bring misfortune to his people. As his father’s heir, his place was by his side, but perhaps they would understand his quest.
Would Niall be harder to kill than Grendel had been? Perhaps his father would lend him the family sword, embellished with runes of great power, forged some said from a fallen star, harder than iron forged by man, and drenched as it was in the blood of monsters, it was the stuff of legends and carried more than a little of its own magic. Perhaps this would be enough to end the fae prince.
Eric hoped he had not missed the arrival of Old Man Winter. It was a time of great rejoicing and drinking, and as his father’s son it was his role to welcome him in, to offer him mead and seat him by the fire.
He could see the outbuildings now, hear the animals moving and lowing inside. The moon rose higher, glancing off the snow and he looked down at the reflected light, gasping and then falling to his knees at what he saw.
Wolves. A whole pack. And winter-hungry, no doubt.
He stood up straight, drawing his sword and holding it at the ready as he examined the tracks.
All his life he had been taught to read such signs, to follow the game, to know the map of the land and how to read it better than any book. These wolves travelled as a divided pack, arced around something in their centre. Was it their pack leader? Eric examined the bare area of snow, at first wondering if perhaps the freshly fallen snow had obscured the tracks, that perhaps he, who had been born and raised on this land and who knew it as well as any other, had misread it.
There, in the centre, surrounded by the tracks of wolves were a single set of footprints belonging to a man.
Who could it be? What sort of creature could command a pack of wolves in such a way?
Eric followed the tracks, noting they were headed towards the longhouse, to the central fire pit where the mid-winter feast would be held, where Old Man Winter himself would enter as an honoured guest.
The door was ajar.
Standing in the shadows behind it, sword raised to strike, he peered inside.
Bodies, lying where they had been slain, necks ripped open and bleeding, some of them torn to shreds by the sharp mouths of wolves. Unarmed, he thought, they would have been unarmed. Such cowardice.
There in the centre of the room right by the fire stood a man in a long fur cloak that he recognised from previous winters, even if he did not know the wearer. What kind of murdering thief had the priests chosen for their symbolic winter? Was it all a ruse, a trick from a neighbouring kingdom, to attack and murder them all, or to seize the crown and –
The creature had his father’s crown, a crown old beyond reckoning, forged from gold and sculpted into antler’s horns. The killer turned around, placing it on his head, fangs out, his face covered in blood from where he had ripped open the necks of men and drunk of their life-blood.
In his hand, he held his father’s sword, testing it for weight and balance, thrusting at an imaginary foe. At his feet lay his slaughtered family.
With a terrible cry, Eric burst into the room, his sword clashing with his father’s now wielded by one of the monsters it was supposed to slay. The creature turned around, a ghastly smile gracing its bloodied lips.
“What have we here?” he purred. “A descendant of the mighty Beowulf, no doubt! You know, I had not thought to find the real sword and crown here, but this is it. I remember it well.”
Crying with fury, Eric slashed his sword at his enemy, Russell holding him at bay easily.
“You are foolish to try and fight me, but as I find myself surrounded by only the dead and a pack of ravenous werewolves, I will allow you to breathe a while longer, given I am curious. What were you told of your glorious ancestor?”
“He slayed the monster Grendel as I will slay you!”
Russell laughed, easily holding Eric at bay with his sword, barely paying attention to the fight at all.
“Grendel was no monster but vampire. My child, no less. Your family owes me a blood-debt, and I came here to slake it, even though centuries have sped past. I found myself occupied with the war between my kind and the fae, or as you would know us, the dark elves and the light. A stupid name as neither of us are elves, but humans always were misguided. We came from a realm of night to seek out the world of men, to feast on your blood, to take your land as ours, only to find the fae intent on doing the same. Except for the drinking blood part. Well, you never know – some of their kind have acquired a taste for human flesh. But here I am now, and you are the last one left. I will take my time killing you.”
Distracted by his own grandiose speech, Eric managed to disarm Russell, the sword of his father springing free of his grasp as Eric caught it neatly.
“Impressive. A shame it will not save you.”
Fangs out, he grabbed Eric by the scruff of his neck, dragging him out of the longhouse and into the snow and ice. In one hand, he held the struggling Viking warrior, in the other he held the sword and crown he had journeyed so far to get, easily wrenching it from Eric’s grip. The other sword – Eric’s own – he threw into a drift of snow. Eric writhed and pulled and tried to free himself from the man’s grasp, but Russell’s grip was firm and stronger than iron.
“I will enjoy killing you,” he mused. “Though it seems a shame. Perhaps I should turn you instead. There’s a kind of symmetry in that, yes? Taking you to replace the child I lost. But are you worthy of such honour? I doubt it!” He spat in the snow, forcing Eric upright as he bit savagely and deeply into his neck.
The world spun around him as he tried to fight back, tried to push the creature away, tried to wrap his hands around his neck, but he felt as though he had been pushed under water, as though he was starving of breath and could not fight. The edges of his vision grew black.
He knew that voice. Dimly on the edges of his memory, he knew it was Sookie and his efforts to fight redoubled even as the darkness of his vision flashed with burning brightness and he heard something whizzing through the air, narrowly missing him.
“What have we here?” chuckled Russell, turning to face the angry fairy. “A Midwinter Fairy? How quaint. Careful, there is no sun to recharge your fireballs.”
“I don’t care! Let him go!”
“What is he to you?”
More fireballs gathered in Sookie’s hands and she hurled them through the air, scaring away Edgington’s wolves who had gathered at the sound of a fight. The next pair hit Russell in the face and the smell of burned hair and flesh lingered in the night as he swore and cursed at her.
“Brigant!” he spat. “How is your dear Prince? Send him my regards!”
Sookie hit him again in the face and this time he let go of Eric, who slumped to the ground.
Hissing, Russell turned to face Sookie. “Looks like my work here is already done. Your friend – or lover by the smell of you both – is dead. Niall may even thank me.”
Russell took to the air, flying far out of the range of Sookie’s fireballs, his wolves racing away through the snow to follow their master.
Sobbing, Sookie knelt beside Eric, placing her head over his heart.
She kissed his face, washing away some of his blood with her bitter tears.
What could she do? There had to be something she could do!
Remembering the old tales, she ran to the longhouse, taking hold of a sprig of mistletoe, the same one Eric had helped to hang for the night’s festivities. In the legends of the Norse gods, the tears of a loved one could turn the berries white, as it had when Baldur was brought back to life. She placed the mistletoe over Eric’s chest, murmuring incantation after incantation, but still nothing. The berries stayed defiantly red.
The cluviel d’or? She pulled it from her knapsack, holding it poised in her hand, above his heart as it swirled a mossy green.
Who was whispering? The voice sounded like her father’s. Were the objects charmed by him? Was that why Niall had never tried to wield them? Had her father locked him out? She smiled a little at the thought.
The cluviel d’or is only for selfless wishes. This one is the opposite. The price will be too high. The mirror. The mirror will take you where you need to go.
She took out the mermaid’s mirror, hoping the voice was right, that it would know where she needed to go.
She held the mirror in her hands and uttered her wish.
Mirrors were portals to other worlds, other times – all fae children knew that. Any reflective surface might do it, but mirrors held a special kind of magic, and the one in Sookie’s hand held more power than most. The doors were flung open by her softly murmured words, the magic leaping out like a living creature, seizing her in its jaws like a dog might carry a pup. She could feel the teeth pressing against her skin, yet it was not broken.
Wind rushed around her, lights and shapes and sounds buzzing by, none of it making sense, all gone in the blinking of an eye, washing over her as though she had been struck dumb. Gone was the slain village, the snow, the body of her beloved, the crisp air filled with the smell of the ocean, of the North Sea in winter, all vanished.
There was no snow here, the unpaved street replaced by cobblestones, drenched in an endlessly grey and pouring rain, the buildings crowding in, reaching across the road to each other like lovers holding hands across a dinner table. The streets were narrow, the buildings made from stone or marble, with columns and friezes etched into them, of cavorting gods and men riding chariots. Fountains adorned with ancient gods filled the piazzas, glittering with gold and silver coins beneath the water as the passers-by wished for luck. Here winter did not cloak itself in night. The sun still shone and the perpetual night of the north sounded like no more than a folktale written to scare children into being good.
The streets were crowded and Sookie could see an impromptu market had been set up on the steps, with baskets filled with fruits and vegetables, even a few chickens tied together at the feet, a fishmonger’s wife pushing a cart filled with the day’s catch, dead-eyed fish gleaming wetly, cockles green as the bottom of the sea and crabs still blue before they were boiled to orange.
She picked her way carefully through the stalls, noting the strange dress and speech of the owners and their customers. Walking past a public bath house she paused, noting how long the line was and how rancid the crowd, grateful that the Romans had at least invented this little mercy for her nose.
Passing by a larger building, Sookie stopped to stare at the fluted columns of the temple, noting the queues outside it and how they came carrying livestock as gifts for the god who dwelled within.
“Which god’s feast day is it?” she asked an older woman with a pair of tressed pigeons in her hands.
The woman stared at her and for a moment Sookie wondered if she had chosen the wrong language to converse in. The woman wore well-worn, thinning brown cloth, her peasant origins obvious as she tried to seek favour with whatever god would listen to her.
“Saturn,” the woman hissed, eyeing her disdainfully.
Even though Sookie could speak Latin, she had almost forgotten her clothing.
“Are you a barbarian from the North?”
Sookie looked down at her leather and fur clad body, supposing she did look the part.
“And what if I am?” she countered.
“Midwinter is upon us – would you disrupt Saturnalia? Don’t you know all courts of law and the emperor himself are forbidden to work now? War cannot be declared on a day such as this. Are you one of the mob from beyond the gate, one the Germanic tribes? Watch out, lest ye be caught!”
Was Rome near to falling? How far had she travelled back? Several hundred years at least, and many thousands of miles.
“I am an escaped slave,” Sookie replied, trying to think on her feet. “I hail from Rome, despite my garb. I have come to pay my respects at the feast and pray my captors might be hacked to pieces before spring returns.”
The woman nodded, approving of Sookie’s bloodthirsty words. “You don’t have the look of the north about you, for all your golden hair. Your skin and eyes speak of a different land. Welcome home – and I hope you stabbed your masters for their trouble. Have you any family left you might return to?”
“They were taken as slaves also by the Visigoths. I fear they may all be dead. We were scattered and sent to different masters.”
The old woman nodded. “I have heard that is their way. No doubt they forced themselves upon you, brutes that they are. Here,” said the woman, stuffing one of the trussed pigeons into Sookie’s hands. “Pay your respects. You have more need than I.”
“Thank you, good mother,” Sookie replied, bowing her head in respect.
“And if I were you, I would rectify that clothing, though I don’t suppose they gave you any other.”
“They did not, more’s the pity.”
“Perhaps the priests might take pity on you. If you keep wandering the streets like that, you will be arrested.”
“You are right.” Sookie hung her head meekly as though she was taking the woman’s advice. She would have to stay in the queue for the temple – there could be no avoiding that now. But after she would alter her garb to the dress of a Roman noblewoman. At least she had hidden the mirror beneath her cloak. It would put the lie to her story for certain.
The mirror must have brought her here for a reason, though she could not tell what it was. Her mind kept drifting back to the dead body in the snow, so far to the north, and far into the future. This was Rome’s declining days, the barbarian army already at the gate, on the cusp of Saturnalia. The mirror had taken her back in time but kept her within the same season, the end of December and the dying of the sun, only to be brought back to life by prayer and ritual.
Could she bring him back with her words and her actions? Could she resurrect the sun? Was it even possible?
The queue moved slowly and the pigeon wriggled in her hands, testing its bonds and hoping for an escape from the bloodletting to come. Animals had a way of picking up on such things, and she stroked the pigeon’s feathers gently, soothing it with wordless humming as she had with so many woodland creatures in Faerie. The pigeon stopped struggling, relaxing back into her hands as at last the queue moved forward enough for her to cross the threshold.
Her eyes took a while to adjust to the darker room, but when they did, she could see the high ceilings and the altar for the sacrifice, with priests dressed in togas officiating, their heads uncovered in the Greek fashion, one restraining the beast and the other slitting its throat with a sharp, quick knife. The place stank of blood and it was all Sookie could do not to be ill as one miserable creature after another was dragged to its death.
Next to the altar was an ivory statue of Saturn, tall and imposing, the god of seed and sowing. His feet, normally bound in wool, had been freed, and his sack of grain filled to the brim. Sookie tried not to shiver as she handed over the pigeon, the priests raising an eye at her garb. She knelt before the statue, pretending to pray as the throat of the poor bird was cut, its body placed to the side where it would be plucked and butchered, then most likely baked into a pie for the priests to eat.
Getting quickly to her feet, she fled back out the other entrance, trying to clear her head of the smell of blood and fear and suffering.
The crowds were building again the closer she got to the forum and in her haste, she jostled against them. The rain was easing now, but the grey of the sky grew darker and she wondered if perhaps night had fallen. At the least, it was not far away.
The crowds grew thicker and Sookie was forced to wait. Standing on her tiptoes she could see a couch, and placed on it was a statue of Saturn, much smaller than the one from the temple. Tables of food were arranged all round it, the best that Rome had to offer, and she thought she could even make out the emerald green plumage of a peacock, its neck arched and its tail fanned out in a mockery of life, even though its body had been roasted and stuffed.
Slaves were seated at the table, dressed in the short tunics of cheap fabric that denoted their social class, yet they were served by men who were clearly masters, the rich, brightly dyed cloth and gold jewellery giving them away. Seated at the head of the table was a slave, who raised his glass of honeyed wine and shouted, “Io, Saturnalia!”, downing it in one go before banging the glass on the table. A master stepped out and refilled his glass from an amphora, the other slaves following suit.
There were wine merchants everywhere plying their wares and many in the crowd were drunk and getting drunker. Some of the men, Sookie noted, were dressed as women, and members of both sexes walked the streets in masks. There was music and laughter and dancing, drunken singing and she felt the crowd pressing in upon her as she tried to wend her way through it, felt men brush their groins up against her, felt hands grasp at her breasts and her clothing. If she had dared, she would have filled her hands with light or kept them at bay with the length of the drawn dragon-slaying sword.
A hand grasped her upper arm and wrenched her around, her back pushed flat up against a wall, knocking over a basket of sigillaria, the gifts traditionally given during Saturnalia, little figurines of people made from clay or wax, tumbling out over the street as the vendor cursed them both.
“Don’t you smell sweet,” smirked the man who had grabbed her, his foul breath and rotted teeth inches from her face, making her want to gag. Holding her breath, Sookie kneed him hard in the balls and he doubled up in pain before she hit him in the chest, winding him as she did her best to flee through the thick crowds.
“Northern bitch!” he spat, drawing out a long, thin dagger. “There’s no watch on patrol tonight, no one to whom you can call for help. I will fuck you, northern whore, and I think I will cut your face and we’ll see how sweetly you smile then.”
He grabbed her shoulder this time and Sookie felt her anger rise as light began to gather in her hands. She kept it at bay, reaching instead for her mother’s bag and the sword stashed in its depths. She could take him in a fight, she was sure, more than half-drunk as he was. The problem was her clothing; the crowd never having thinned enough for her to change it without drawing attention to herself with magic.
If she fought him on the streets and she won, the crowd might rip her apart for her troubles.
Light flashed through the square and she gasped, thinking at first it was her own, that she had lost control and lashed out, hurling fireballs at him. But no – they were coming from somewhere behind her. Pushing the man to the ground, she turned to see a skirmish had broken out, the light not fae in origin but instead lit torches hurled into the crowd, people screaming to get away as the fire spilled out onto clothing and flesh, the little wax sigillaria melting into puddles on the cobblestones. Steel clashed against steel as parts of the army, meant to be observing the religious festival, began to fight against each other.
Sookie was pushed into the fray, a sword threatening to slice through her if she had not held her sword aloft and met the blade with her own. Steel rang against steel as they neared the senate, more soldiers joining the fray, clad in the gold and red of Rome, some of them carrying the eagle banner.
On the steps of the senate stood more soldiers, but these were taller, blonder, the foreign mercenaries who were the only ones trusted enough to guard the boy-emperor as he struggled to hold the western empire together in its dying days.
Thrust up the steps and into the thick of the fighting, trying to turn and run back down the steps, but pushed further forward by the crowd intent on deposing its emperor, Sookie felt another hand grab hold of her. She turned, sword in hand, expecting it to be the black-toothed lecher again, but this time a very different sight met her eyes.
He wore Roman armour and Sookie tried to recoil from him, fearful that she would be offered to the crowd as a scapegoat to try and slake their bloodlust. He saw the fear in her eyes, this young man with brown hair cut in the Roman fashion, but his bright blue eyes betrayed his barbarian blood.
“Do not fear,” he whispered, pushing down the top of his tunic to show the tribal tattoos there, dyed blue with woad in the manner of the north, arranged in a circlet around his neck. “I am from the north, too. I fight for her, for all I wear Rome’s colours. Sister, you should not be here.”
Sookie opened her mouth to speak. “I do not question your courage or your ability to fight – Wotan would be proud of you, so different to these mewling Roman women – but you must come with me.”
Sookie looked into his eyes again as they pleaded with hers and she nodded, holding out her hand to him. He turned to another soldier, one of a higher rank and said, “A northern prisoner, no doubt one of the Goths. I will take her to the guard tower.”
He took her elbow as gently as he could, fending off the crowds and heading toward the walled outskirts of the city. He stood close to her, arms wrapped around her, and it was only when the rain stopped, with the sound of the river Tiber swirling in near-flood, that she heard him inhale deeply, his nose running along her neck as they came to standstill, watching the foaming waters rise against the muddy banks.
He stood in front of her, fangs erupting as too late she realised what he was.
“Fae,” he said softly. “You are fae.”
Sookie summoned her light, golden balls of fire gathered in her hands as she allowed the sword to clatter to her feet. But instead of attacking her, he wrenched open the city gates, allowing the streaming hordes of barbarians from the north inside Rome’s precious walls.
“At last,” he said to her. “At last. Do not fear me.” He stepped toward her, reaching out to touch the pendant she wore on a leather thong around her neck. “You wear the arwen – the symbol of light. This belonged to my mother. I know who you are, Sookie Brigant. I swore to protect you always, and I will do so now.”
Taking Sookie into his arms, he flew over the walls of Rome, away from the bloated corpse of the city, to safety.
MANY THANKS TO THE LOVELY AND ALWAYS ENTERTAINING LADYTARARA FOR THIS IMAGINATIVE AND CAPTIVATING TALE, OF WHICH MORE IS TO COME OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS. DO LEAVE YOUR COMMENTS AND LIKES AS ALWAYS THEY DO END UP WITH HER!
MISSED A POST? YOU CAN FIND ALL THE POSTS OF THE ADVENT CALENDAR SO FAR, HERE.
FOLLOW OUR TWITTER FEED AND/OR FACEBOOK PAGE TO KEEP TRACK OF ALL THE UPDATES FROM THE WRITERS IN THE FA DIRECTORY. BOTH PAGES ARE VISIBLE TO ANYONE WITHOUT LOGGING IN/SIGNING UP, EVEN WITHOUT AN ACCOUNT TO EITHER SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM.