Beseiged, by Heather Roulo
Moonlight struggled to bring grace within the misty woods. Isabelle’s horse leapt over another gnarled root but a green hand, formed of five solid trunks encased in moss, blocked her path. She circled her mount, finding no exit. Tremors passed through her as she thought of her pursuers, but she heard nothing and could not spy the path back. Perhaps they were as lost as she was.
Isabelle dismounted, lifting heavy skirts above the dewy ground, certain her body could fit where her mount had not. But branches, as tightly woven as a cage, repelled her advance and she sank onto a fallen log.
A hole opened in a hillock and golden light streamed out. Wiping her eyes, Isabelle squinted as figures danced into the glen. Their eyes gleamed with wicked glee and their gowns floated off pale limbs. No larger than the dagger in her belt, some flew on transparent dragonfly wings while others drifted on breeze-lifted cobwebs.
“Come inside where it is warm. Be our guest.” They tittered like birds, flitting through the grasses. “It is cold out here. You’ll be safe inside. Who chases you?”
“My betrothed.” Her breath made stars that danced for a fleeting instant, signaling her human warmth. The magical folk promised respite from needs such as heat and shelter. Her toes were numb.
A fairy bearing a crown of barberry branches, so lovely she stood out among the crowd of perfect forms, approached Isabelle. She knelt, placing a tiny basket of exotic fruits glazed with honey at the hungry girl’s feet and backed away. Though knights backed in just such a manner from Isabelle’s lord father, the knowing eyes measured Isabelle’s hunger against her willpower.
Isabelle waited for the crowned one to return to her companions and stretched one stained slipper forward. The basket’s sides bulged with chains of miniature grapes and lush persimmons. Her toe brushed the ivy-twined basket, then she crushed it. Red juices burst. The little people cried out. Their frenzied dance shook leaves off branches to rain onto the clearing. The one in the crown, surely their queen, nodded at Isabelle’s challenge and smiled. Her sharp teeth gleamed.
Isabelle rose. “I drank tales of the little people with my mother’s milk. I will not eat that which is yours, nor accept shelter or any gesture of guest’s rights. I declare you neither host nor friend, and my soul mine own.”
The queen surprised her by speaking in a high yet musical voice. “So I have heard before, in the eons that reach backward through time and sideways through worlds, yet you have not yet met the full strength of my allies; hunger, cold and fear. I mislike the suffering their allegiance brings and would dote on you with kindness. Do not dread our gifts, for the steep price makes for a rich reward.”
Isabelle remembered her father’s grim face, her snarling fiancé, and the broken body of her personal guard. The price of freedom could be steep as well, and when bought so precious could not be cast aside. “It is not within me to bend.”
“Then I will see you break,” the queen answered simply.
Isabelle pulled the cape around her shoulders and hunched down. Honey and pulp scented the moist air. A ripple of wind across the grasses marked the little ones’ departures into the once more dark and hidden hole. A ring of white mushrooms bloomed like the tops of fleshless skulls to mark their mad dance. She stretched out a finger, but refused to touch the swollen heads. Even as she watched the mushroom turned purple, burst, and shriveled back into the earth.
Isabelle closed her eyes and wondered whether daylight ever came to this hidden glen.
* * *
Many entered the glen, dissimilar except that they wandered beyond the known world. This stranger could be no different, yet a pulse moved through Isabelle at the sight of him, betraying her presence.
“As you value your life, step where I may see your colors,” the unknown knight demanded.
The menace in his words meant nothing — a bit of admirable bravado from a wounded and trapped man — but she shivered at his voice. She drifted into the light. His eyes, brown as furrows of dirt raised by moles, widened. Was she fearsome, she wondered, for once her form had been pleasing. Now she saw that the tips of her golden hair had taken on a greenish tinge and her tattered skirts were decorated with beads lost by the little people in their mad dance. She’d taken to scavenging their bits and entertaining herself with their decoration the way she’d once embroidered a tapestry in the tower of her father’s castle.
She raised her pointed chin and lifted an eyebrow.
Though she must have seemed strange, he dropped all pretense of threat and leaned against the mossy rocks, pointing with his good arm. Red darkened the fabric over his other shoulder.
“Whence came you? And which way to my lord’s castle?” he asked.
“The way does not matter, for you shall never find it.” She wondered why she spoke at all; her words never mattered. Though she’d warned, cried, and gnashed her teeth, still they all traveled the short path between the edge of the clearing and the round hole in the hillside. His path would be just as inevitable.
Best get to practical matters, she thought. “Do you carry food?”
He paced opposite her, seeking exit. “Nay.”
Her scorn must have shown.
“I have naught but what you see before you.” He raised a brawny arm, lifting his cape away from slim hips.
She meant to leave, but her eyes found him pleasing to trace. His harsh masculine chin, studded with hair, gave relief from soft-spoken enticements. Though wounded, he moved with power and wore clothes shaped by the hands of men, their unnatural scarlet and blue outside the pale palette of nature.
His jaw clenched, as if wary of her yearning look. “Was it you who lured me here?”
“I? You mistake me for one of the fairy folk.”
“Mistake?” He scowled, and she liked him even more. “I have heard tales of their beauty.”
If she were fae, he was wise not to cause offense. Or perhaps he found her comely, as men once had before her betrothal.
She frowned, thinking of people nearly forgotten. “I come from warm blood and cold iron, though whether I still hold a place there… I am not certain, myself.”
Beneath his shining gear his shoulders slumped. His wound, in the shoulder of the arm he had not raised, trickled blood.
His mortality reminded her that their interaction would be brief. “Rest. Soon they come for you.”
His eyes flickered to her bower of bent limbs and draped mosses and, alongside it, the slimy green mold coating a burial mound from which long white bones poked.
She glanced sidelong at him. “They are mine. You need not fear joining them. None shall harm you until they come.”
Despite his injury, he executed a graceful bow. Whatever he might be, he was well-mannered.
He would be safe until the fairies came to present their gifts, bringing new temptations. What would draw him to them? The enticement of their bare limbs as promises dripped from velvety lips? Seeing them caress each other and draw lewd pictures with the beating of their sparkling wings? She had seen many men fall into the mound’s hole for that.
“I am Sir Thomas.”
She had long ago abandoned all titles. “Isabelle.”
Hunger gnawed. She wondered how bad it would get this time.
When she moved, he delayed her by capturing a handful of her hair within his grip. “Your hair is green, Isabelle. And you’d have me believe you a simple maid?”
“No simple maid.” She tossed her head, sending the heavy golden strands slipping through his fingers with a ripple that echoed deep inside her body. “But tis merely the essence of the waters where I bathe and no magic of my own.”
He did not appear convinced.
“Do you sing? The fairies perform their fiercest for a man’s song, and a new one is best of all. They’ve heard all of mine.”
“You’d have me sing to them?” His nostrils flared like a panicked horse.
“I owe them nothing I cannot pay for, and a song is the greatest of what I now possess. ‘Tis barter. One must survive.”
He glared. “I will give them nothing!”
He rejected her suggestion and her way of life. Anger flared within Isabelle. She stomped her foot, shook green tinted hair, and moved from him. His honor will carry him to hell, she thought, when he succumbs to the queen’s offerings.
Her bare feet traced the path to the hidden clearing where moonlight glinted across stones. She sang, low and soft. At her call, shadows thickened and tiny people stole forth. Wings fluttered and feet with bells on ankles joined the moving circle. The air ripened with honeysuckle scents so thick she could have drunk the sweetness. Her head swam, heart pounded, and a fearful certainty swept over her that the queen had answered as well, and captivated Thomas.
Loneliness engulfed her. Thomas’s living heat, his suspicion, the wary look of admiration reminded her of the broader world. Tears touched her eyes. Her song offered no protection from the truth, that the endless night would drag on until the fairy hill swallowed her. The grove contained so little of life that it became harder and harder to resist the pull of the inevitable.
Her song faded into sadness.
With a dry clatter of wings the fairies stole away. Between the swollen bellies of the rocks a ring of mushrooms lifted nodding heads, their capped ridges swelling. She snatched them before they could mature, gathering them into her skirts between angled knees. The harvest was small, but tonight it was the pointed yellow ones with a sweet earthy flavor.
Thomas stood dark above her.
She rose cradling her skirts, uncaring that the ragged fabric battered against her thigh, too short for such behavior.
“Mushrooms?” he asked.
He’d somehow resisted the queen, or perhaps she had not visited after all.
Isabelle’s frightening joy made her harsh. “They control the animals so there’s never any prey, and I’ve harvested all else there is to eat in this glen, but they cannot resist music. So it is mushrooms.”
“And bones,” he added grimly. “If they’re not the forest animals, then what else?”
She had held out, like iron and rock. She was a castle, and the siege would never end. Let the fairies come, such familiar enemies could not harm her. But the knight, this man of stories and honor, terrified her. Earthquakes could take down walls of rock, and between them she sensed such a force building.
She pointed to her bower and the bone pile beside it. “You would know my dark secrets? How I survive in the long twilight? Yes, I ate flesh. That of my mount, and the mounts of all others who came. They allowed no fire, so I ate my horse raw.”
He rocked back a step, as she’d intended. Let him judge her, and his righteous scorn would be the barrier that kept him away.
She lifted her chin.
His booming laugh filled a clearing that was used to whispers. Small birds cried out and flew away in a cloud. He grabbed her arms and swung her. She clutched her mushrooms, amazed.
He stopped, his breath catching in his throat. “Join me, m’lady. If you would share your meal, I will share mine.”
Her head still spun from their wild dance. “You would feed me on tales and laughter? I am no fairy.”
She followed him into the clearing where he’d first appeared, and he presented a heel of bread with a swift tear. Tangy cheese filled her mouth with welcome flavor. “You claimed to possess no food.”
He took her hand, his calluses rough. “Forgive me, m’lady, but I did not know you and feared a trick. I knew tales of the little people, and would keep secret my small cache of food.”
“You truly feared I was of the fae?”
“I have always heard the fae were beautiful.” They were the same words he’d said before, but infinitely more tender.
A flush swept to the tops of her cheeks.
“Do not hate me for lying to you. I mistrusted this place and all within, to my shame.”
“No shame, brave knight! The opposite!” How could she describe the respect flickering in the darkness that encroached further into her soul with each passing day among the inhuman servants of the queen? “It gives me hope that you may resist them. You have been wiser than any others I have seen.”
She could see that this troubled him. He asked, “Have there been many?”
“A score, all lost. At first I tried to talk to them. I pleaded! But my words were never enough, and I had nothing else to barter with.”
He took her hand. “How do you resist? Who are you?”
She spoke of it for the first time. “My father bade me wed to strengthen our ties with nearby kingdoms. I begged to wait.
“Invaders came. Tales of my elder brother’s demise in battle reached us only in time for my father to prepare for siege. Hobart’s army, as wild as the animals whose pelts they wore, stretched to the horizon as they surrounded us.
“I visited our people, who were packed into shanties within the castle walls. Food they had, but I’d read that sickness and starvation would haunt the streets. I begged my father to make concessions, but he said he’d not meet with Hobart. He protected me from tales of the man, I’m certain now.”
“You see, in my pridefulness I offered myself as a prize and proposed we wed. Knights loyal to me carried my letter to Hobart. He need but wait for my father’s passing, for with my brother dead, my husband and our children would legitimately inherit. He need not sack the castle nor harm its people.
“My father was wroth when he learned of my betrayal, but my mother and his council beseeched him to our side. The gates opened with great ceremony and my bridegroom rode between the walls.”
Her hand clutched her skirts.
“Hobart possessed no accustomed graces. His manservant’s tongue had been torn out for waking his master with a loud song. His squire bore a brand for forgetting his master’s gloves. At banquet he groped me and the other maids, mocked my mother’s frailty, and,” her voice choked, “presented my father with my brother’s head.
“Samuel had survived the battlefield and been kept prisoner on their long march. The head’s clear eyes attested to its freshness, though it lacked ears. You understand? My brother had been alive outside our gates, hidden until needed. Hobart thought his hostage might be the key to the siege, but my offering sealed my brother’s death.”
Thomas stepped near to her, but she flinched, needing to finish her story.
“That night my mother brought my maid, dressed in my clothes, and four knights. She pressed upon me jewels and a kiss. We left by the postern gate.
“I fled the bargain I had made.
“Smoke darkened the horizon behind us. With no one to marry, betrayed by my parents, Hobart set fire to the close packed township and incited his men to murder. My parents he slew himself before following our path into the forest — he made sure I knew. Outnumbered, my guards were butchered along with my maid. I prayed for somewhere they might never find me. But a wish granted does not set right the mistakes of the past.”
Sobs racked her body.
He drew her close. “Your tale is called ‘The Inconstant Maiden.’ And that is not how it is told.”
No matter how gentle his tone, to be remembered as such sent a bolt to her core.
Around them, sparkles flitted through the air.
His hands pressed hard on her back. He groaned words that sounded like, “I cannot resist again.”
She held his ears, knowing that she could not bar the queen’s voice or keep him from the passion the queen incited. She had tried everything — except what she had never tried.
The queen appeared, her slim limbs draped in gossamer shadows.
Isabelle slid her skirt up her legs, moonlight shining off pale skin. Thomas shook his head, slipping his hands over hers to stop them. She pushed her body toward him. “Please,” she begged.
The fairy queen’s shadows became as translucent as veils, and her hips undulated as she called to Thomas.
Fairies buzzed by them like hornets. Thomas’s eyes sometimes slid away even as Isabelle removed another piece of clothing. But Isabelle could touch him, using caresses to harness his attention. His passion surprised her. As he moved against her, winged sprites spun, pulling her senses toward the stars. Over Thomas’s curved shoulder, the queen’s eyes blazed.
The fairies disappeared, and no mushrooms appeared. It had been her dance, not theirs.
Yet, there had been triumph in the fairy queen’s flaming stare.
Isabelle’s fingers entwined with Thomas’s. A tremor moved through her, that she had compounded her sins and once again taken action on her own. By using her body to tempt Thomas, she had defied her upbringing.
Sweat cooled on their bodies. She blinked back tears, struck by calm clarity. “The queen sees me as a prize, since I alone resist the demands of her pride. She would have all mortals bow before her, yet here I am just outside her door. I hope she offered a fair trade. Was it your freedom?”
Thomas’s breath stilled. “I’m sorry.”
“Make sure she honors her bargain.” Her hand slid over his cheek, enjoying the sandpaper scrape. Her kiss was soft.
There were no possessions to gather. As she stepped from the bower, fairies twinkled in celebration. Tiny hands twined flowers into her silky green hair.
The queen stepped from the shadows.
“He performed as you wished!”
The queen said, “What regret was it that drove you from your own world? That you defied your father? Or the hubris of sacrificing your people, not yourself? Yet once here, you held out against the temptations of the flesh, and the joy of returning to nature. Can you deny, any longer, where you belong?”
Isabelle brushed past her, toward the mound. Light and music streamed from the gaping hole. Food smells rose on a cold breeze–promises of the underworld she could join. But her feet led on, and as she passed the mound, hundreds of tiny throats released a gasp.
Isabelle stopped at the mossy hands lining the grove. “You thought you’d found my chink. If my strength were the innocence I protected, then its loss would bring me shame. And shame is a favorite of yours. I would not give what was mine to a monster and murderer, and you think that means I valued it more than my people?” Now she looked up with fury. “But it was not my innocence I ran away to protect. It was my freedom I treasured. I see now, I still have that.”
Isabelle stroked the greenery.
“Isabelle, your father will not be there to protect you. No man will.” Thomas stood, light from the mound glinting across him. “I will accompany you.”
“But why?” she replied. “I have no need of you.”
Fairies gathered around Thomas, a cloud of snatching hands that tugged at his clothes. “My Queen! You swore I’d be free if I seduced the maid!”
“My word is my oath. Yet, you did not seduce her. She seduced you.”
With a scream he disappeared into the mound’s blazing hole.
The queen turned to Isabelle, eyes wild. Her form was no longer the tiny sprite she’d been. With only a few changes she mirrored Isabelle, showing bared curves, tattered skirt, green hair and swollen lips. She moved like a thing of nature, flowing and seductive, and this too reflected Isabelle. “Living as you have, seeing my powers and eating the mushrooms of the fairy circle, has made you different. You share some small part of my powers. But the world out there doesn’t like change. Can you face a world that does not approve?”
Isabelle considered the queen. And she pitied her, for she was trapped within the glen as surely as Isabelle had been.
Her hand rose to meet the mossy one in a gesture of greeting. The palm turned and she slipped out, the real world harsh and welcome on her bare feet.
Heather Roulo writes about zombies and time travel—though not yet about time traveling zombies. Her children believe fairies exist. She is best known for her podcast novel Fractured Horizon. She was once peed on by an alligator.
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Tags: fairy tales, fantasy, Heather Roulo, romance, war