August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
Fallen - Maggie L. Wood
Ardis Larkingstar liked order. Everything in its place. Everything neat and tidy. She wasn't sure exactly why this was so. She straightened the scattered damask pillows. No other fey seemed to care about such things. That's what servants were for. But Ardis wasn't like other fey. Arranging a room in perfect order made her feel comfortable. Happy even. For only she herself knew the exact spot the nectar decanter should sit or just the right angle to show off the satyr bust. And no one else seemed to know The Grimalkin Grimoire should be shelved next to Herbs and Hexes, not Knilorn's History of Siren Songs. There. The lovely pavilion tent was almost in proper flow again. Just the peaches and figs to clear from her paint table and the easel with its unfinished portrait to move back into the light. And then . . .
"Sorry, Ardi." An embarrassed face popped from behind gauze curtains. "Guess I should have cleaned up first, uh? Want some help?"
"Becc! I didn't see you there." Ardis clutched the easel to stop its tipping. "But, no, don't get up. It's all sorted out now." Not to mention Becc's so-called "help" would only mean more rearranging for Ardis later. "What are you doing here, anyway? Thought you were spying on the guard drills today." The other girl winced, her tumorous warts flaring like lewd tongues. "They caught me," she murmured. "Made me show my face."
"Oh, Beccan. Are you all right?"
"No. I am not all right." Beccan's warty lips quivered. "They laughed, Ardis. They said I was uglier than a toad. And they . . . they laughed." She made a breathy choking sound, her defeated eyes as wet as green raindrops. Fascinated, Ardis watched the eye-water spill down and between Becc's cheek warts. No, tears, she corrected. The humans called the eye-water tears, and Beccan was the only fey Ardis had ever seen produce them. They meant great joy or great sorrow. But in Beccan's case, they were always for sorrow.
Ardis sighed. She reached out and arranged strawberry curls around Beccan's shoulders. "What did you think would happen, Becc? I keep telling you to stay away from court, but you never listen. Come now. Dry your eyes. Why don't we finish the sketch today? No one will laugh at it. I promise."
The other girl leapt up from her pillows, lyre still in hand. Beccan's greatest wish was to see her face without warts, and Ardis meant to grant it for her. "Where shall I sit?" Beccan asked. "Would you like me to play while you draw?"
"Of course." Ardis pointed to the divan by the tent's entrance. "Sit there. Light's best."
Beccan arranged herself to show off shapely legs and slender arms. She held the lyre to her breast, caressing silvery music into its strings, humming accompaniment with her melodic voice. The red-gold hair fell forward to veil the warts.
Poor Becc. So talented. So lovely in every way -- except her face. Even with the hair-veil, Ardis could still see the hideous warts poking through like fungus. They were a curse, those warts, a passed down one from Beccan's mother who had tangled with a former faerie queen and, despite penitent pleas and a new queen's reign, had never been able to have it lifted. Beccan's entire life had been spent banished from court for ugliness.
"Becc, keep your head up," Ardis admonished her. "I must see the planes of your face to imagine them differently." Beccan obliged, her singing without bended neck becoming sweet as a nightingale's. The sublime song filled Ardis. She let its beauty guide her to find Beccan's.
There. A small chin emerged. A nose to match the dainty nostrils. And there. Ardis squinted, certain the width of Becc's cheek warts warranted a heart-formed face. She completed the tip-tilted eyes with long lashes and added winging eyebrows. The lips, though, were a mystery, their moustache of warts making it impossible to see colour or shape. Ardis guessed them rose-petal pink and moulded in a full bow.
When she finished the charcoal sketch, Beccan Fairwood stared back at her as beautiful and captivating as any Seelie Court fey of the Knilorn realm. Ardis turned the easel around. Becc stopped singing, her lyre drifting to the divan. Slowly, she stood up; mouth trembling, face a sunrise of wonder.
"Is that . . . me?" A timid hand touched the sketch. "What I look like? Underneath?"
Ardis laughed. "I am sure your features are far finer than what my clumsy hand can draw."
"No. No. This is -- " Beccan devoured the likeness with hungry eyes. "This is perfect. I shall -- "
"Pardon me. Pardon me." A brownie servant poked his fuzzy head into the pavilion doorway, interrupting Beccan. "Lady Ardis, your mother sends word of the queen. May I have leave to speak?"
Ardis nodded. The little brown man entered the tent, his stubby finger nubs clutching an ornate scroll, which he unfurled and began to read. "Queen of Spring and Summer, Queen of Light, Queen of Sun, Queen of Love, Queen of Beauty, Her Majesty Mallaneve, Seelie Queen of Knilorn," he stopped to catch his breath, "commands the attendance of Ardis Larkingstar at Court for a Viewing of the Heirs."
The happy spark in Beccan reverted back to her usual wistful longing. To be part of court life was her second greatest wish. A wish, no matter how hard she tried, Ardis could not dissuade her of.
"Thank you, Archimedes. You may -- "
"Wait! Don't send him away." Beccan pulled Ardis from the brownie's hearing. "Do something for me, Ardi. Thrall him. Like when we were children. Make him see me like the picture."
Thrall him? Ardis glanced at the stern little brownie man, at his rapt glare. She hadn't practiced that trick in a while. Could she even still do it?
"Oh, please, Ardi. Please. I want someone to see me like that picture. Just once. And -- and to desire me."
Guess it couldn't hurt. Ardis called the brownie to her. As a child, she had discovered something she could do that no one else could. She could make her pupils grow large and change her voice to a sing-songy hum. Whoever was before her became enchanted.
"Archimedes," she sang out. "Be calm. Be still. I would speak with you." The brownie's sharpness softened like wax, his eyes shining a dreamy glaze. "Yes, Lady," he whispered.
Ardis showed him the sketch. "See this? It is Beccan Fairwood. When you look at the real Beccan, you will only see her as she is in this picture. To you, she will be the most beautiful fey that you have ever seen, and you will desire her above all others. Do you understand?"
"Good." Ardis spun him round to Beccan, whose vengeful grin and naked hate startled her. "Becc? Becc, what is it?"
Beccan didn't answer. Instead her fingertips sizzled magic, sent it netting over Archimedes to hold him tight. In seconds, the small wizened brownie shot up like an arrow, suddenly tall, broad and impossibly handsome. And, Ardis blinked, somehow familiar.
Oh no. Vale Anthleon stood before them. One of the queen's own guards.
"What are you doing?" squeaked Ardis. "You can't use your power for this mockery. If the queen finds out, she'll -- "
"No one's going to find out." Beccan circled the Vale/Archimedes creation, admiring her handiwork. She'd turned sixteen last week and her power had come in; an illusionary glamour magic that let Beccan transform anything she wanted into something else. Anything that is, except herself. "He was the one who made me show my face," she said, stroking the image's muscled arm. "Who made the others laugh. I want him to fall at my feet and worship me."
Too late, though. The Vale figure dropped to his knees, his hands clutching Beccan's legs adoringly. "My lady," he rasped in Archimedes' thin voice. "Your beauty o'erwhelms me. Please, do not send me away. Let me stay at your side. Kiss your soft skin." His face nuzzled her skirts. The venomous smile that pulsated Beccan's warts chilled Ardis. This game was far too dangerous. Ardis backed from the tent, closed the door flaps and scanned the forest for spies.
Rot! If anyone had seen ... But, no, the small clearing sat as remote and still as always. Ardis reined in her galloping heart. No one comes here, she reassured herself. Too out of the way. Too boring. And when Archimedes woke, he wouldn't remember. Wouldn't tell. Yes. Yes, they were safe.
Oh, Beccan. Ardis stared at the purple sun and moon motif on the tent's doorway flap. She had a dear wish too. More than anything, she wished her best friend could be as happy as she was with the private court they had made between them. "You just don't know," Ardis whispered, "how awful they truly are. You just don't know."
An elbow nudged Ardis. Mother frowned, hissing in Ardis's ear. "It's your turn. Go! Get up there."
The court was suddenly quiet. All eyes watched Ardis in her garish pumpkin dress climb the steps to Queen Mallaneve's dais. Ardis cringed in embarrassment. This was not the worst part of the Viewing of the Heirs, however. After she bowed to Queen Mallaneve, she had to stand for inspection beside her four sisters like horses at an auction.
Ardis's ears burned. She could hear the snickers and whispers of the court. It happened every time she and her sisters were paraded in public.
Five offspring. Five! Is Raissa Larkingstar a brood mare or a fey?
In a world where even one pregnancy was a rarity, five bordered on the miraculous. But with typical fey perverseness, Ardis's mother, Raissa, was reviled for her birthing talents, not revered. Ardis raised her chin. Waited for Queen Mallaneve's customary rejection.
The queen sat silent atop her gilded ivy vine throne, summer blue eyes cool as ice chips. Ardis wanted to slap her. The spiteful witch was going to draw it out today. Make Ardis and her sisters suffer. Ardis focused on a pillar, careful to keep her face blank. Last thing she needed was Queen Mallaneve to notice her.
A ripple went through the court as heads bowed and knees bent. Queen Mallaneve had stood and was descending her throne steps. Ardis and her sisters dropped to their knees, bowing their heads as well. Uneasiness fluttered in Ardis's stomach. This was new. The queen did not usually deign to approach them. Usually she just gave a mocking refusal -- I see no one here fitting to sit my throne -- and that was it, Ardis and her sisters paraded back to obscurity and the party continued.
Dainty, silk-slippered feet passed by Ardis then came back again stopping right before her. "You," said Queen Mallaneve. "Stand up."
The silk slippers sat right under Ardis's nose. Treerot! She means me. Ardis scrambled to her feet, heart thudding with fear. Being singled out by the queen was not a good thing. Could she know about Beccan?
Mallaneve regarded her thoughtfully. She trilled a command for the court to rise and padded back to her throne, signalling for Ardis to follow. When she had seated herself again, she looked Ardis up and down like a trinket she was about to purchase.
"So, niece, you are my sister's last born child. The one whose father is of the Dark Court of the Unseelies."
"Yes, Your Majesty." Ardis bowed her head afraid her fear would shine like a beacon. Rarely did the queen acknowledge their familial tie, but to make mention of Ardis's unseemly father in the same breath É well, that had never happened. Ardis began to tremble. This was it. The moment she had dreaded all her life. The moment when Aunt Mallaneve would deem her unworthy of the Light Court of Seelie and banish her into Dark.
"Are you happy here in my court?"
Happy was not exactly the right word. Ardis could think of others that fit better -- accustomed to, familiar with, used to -- but not happy. She nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty." The known was still safer than the unknown.
"You have the look of the Dark Court." Mallaneve narrowed a critical gaze at Ardis's tall, spare frame, black hair, fish-scale grey eyes and too-pale skin -- all the beauty flaws that made her niece unacceptable to the Light Court. "Your father is a great Unseelie lord. Would you not like to taste the power of Dark before deciding on the joy of Light?"
Ardis swallowed hard. Mallaneve knows my father? That was unsettling. Ardis herself had no idea who he was. He'd never shown her any interest. Had never even bothered to meet her. She raised earnest eyes to the queen. "Please, Your Majesty, I have no wish to leave your Court of Light. I would stay and serve you for as long as you will have me."
Mallaneve seemed pleased by her answer. Ardis took full breaths, trying to calm her racing heart. Queen Mallaneve might be vain, selfish and cruel, but her exploits were nothing compared with the whispered brutality of the Dark King's. Ardis would say and do just about anything to avoid being sent to his court.
"Your answers please me, niece." Queen Mallaneve's smile lit the room. "You please me. I deem you worthy to be my heir. Do you accept?"
Pure terror seared through Ardis. This was a trick. A trap. Faerie queens ruled for a thousand years. Mallaneve's reign had only been for three hundred. She had no need of an heir this early in her career. What was she doing? Setting her niece up for a fall? Ardis shoved the panic aside and dropped to her knees. There was no choice. "Your Majesty," she cried, "thank you. I am humbled by your gracious offer and accept it with great joy." Two things you never did with the queen -- argue or refuse a gift.
The court exploded with applause. Queen Mallaneve helped Ardis to her feet. She had a smaller, silver version of her ivy vine throne brought in. From now on, Ardis would sit with the queen at feasts, balls and all royal functions, her belongings would be brought to a suite of rooms bordering Mallaneve's, and power over the Light Court would be given to her. Ardis sat her new throne dazed and shaken as faerie courtiers lined before her, bending a knee to their fledgling princess.
When her sisters came forward, tight smiles and cold-gimleted stares told Ardis she had won their bitter enmity. Younger sisters did not usurp elder ones. Not a law, but tradition. A tradition that Queen Mallaneve had broken and Ardis would suffer for.
Mother came next. Ardis quailed at Raissa's naked anger. Smile, she wanted to snap at her. Blink. Laugh. Something! Just don't let Mallaneve see. But hotheaded, stubborn Raissa Larkingstar had never known how to hide from predators. She went right into their jaws.
"You swore, Mallaneve." Mother stuck her face an inch from the queen's, kept her voice low, but Ardis could still hear the words. "You swore before witnesses not to harm my daughter. If anything happens to her, and I mean anything at all, you can rest assured that he will know of it."
"Do you threaten me, Raissa?" Deadly silence. "I wouldn't if I were you. Sisterly affection only stretches so far. You'd best remember that."
Mother glared at Mallaneve but pulled back, bowing and smiling as though they'd just exchanged some pleasantries. "As you wish, Your Majesty." Then Raissa was gone, swallowed into the crowd.
Ardis sucked in air she'd forgotten to breathe. What in all the seven hells had that been about? A pact between her mother and aunt? Over her? But why would Mallaneve want to harm her? Or, for that matter, even notice her at all? And who was this "he" Mother had threatened with? The whole conversation had made no sense.
It didn't take Queen Mallaneve long, though, to try and put a credible spin on the pact. After the heir ceremony, she took Ardis to her new suite of rooms and plied her with cakes and spiced clover nectar, while making light of sisterly disagreements.
"You must understand, Ardis dear, your mother has always been jealous of me for being queen, and I, alas, am jealous of her for being a mother." Sadness shadowed Mallaneve's sky-coloured eyes. She touched a lock of Ardis's hair. "I know you question my motives in choosing an heir so early in my reign. Raissa questions them as well. But, the truth of the matter is this." She clasped Ardis's arm and looked at her mournfully. "I am 825 years old and have never conceived. I fear I never shall. Picking an heir now lets me at least pretend I have a daughter."
Clover nectar was making Ardis's head spin. And Mallaneve had called her Ardis dear. The world seemed suddenly upside-down. Ardis set her nectar cup on a windowsill. No more alcohol for her. She had to keep a clear mind. It had sounded like Queen Mallaneve had picked her as heir so she, the queen, could be a mother. The thought almost made Ardis laugh. But, blessed be the trees, she wasn't quite that drunk.
What's in it for Mallaneve? The real gain. That's what Ardis needed to answer. She chose her words carefully. "I am honoured, Your Majesty, that you would view me as a daughter, but . . ."
"Please," interrupted Mallaneve. "When we are in private, you may call me Aunt."
It was no use. Ardis could think of no way to frame her question -- if you do have a natural daughter, what happens to me? -- without insulting the queen. She decided to say nothing.
Mallaneve seemed not to notice a question had been left hanging. She lifted the edge of Ardis's gown sleeve. "Really, my dear, this colour does nothing for your complexion. You should be in sapphire blues or emerald greens. The jewel tones." She said it as though she herself had not ordered Ardis's court colour to be orange. As though it were Ardis with a poor sense of colour style.
"I shall call my seamstresses this very day to fashion you a new wardrobe," said Mallaneve smiling. "After all, we cannot have my heir looking like a pasty scarecrow."
Ardis smiled back. For a moment she let go of the fear. Whatever scheme Mallaneve was trying to draw her into would almost be worth it if she never had to wear wretched orange again. "What about crimson?" she asked. "Crimson red."
"Perfect!" Mallaneve's eyes gleamed blue fire. "Crimson shall be your colour and any other boon you ask of me shall be yours."
For the first time in their short lives the two girls could see their own beauty. Ardis, the blue-black sheen of her glossy hair, the silver-cast eyes and moon glow skin; and Beccan, the flawless sweet face that now matched the rest of her. Others saw their beauty too. They sought them out to praise and admire them; and the queen, much to Ardis's dismay and Beccan's delight, approved their popularity. She threw party after party, until Ardis begged her to stop. Finally, after a week of constant revelling, the queen acquiesced and with room to breathe again Ardis went alone to visit her mother. None of her family had been at court since she'd been named heir, and Ardis wanted to know why.
Raissa seemed shocked to see her. "Ardis? What are you doing here?" She gestured her brownie servants out of the sitting room and closed and locked the doors, her nimble fingers drawing quick runes of protection to seal them from the outside world. "Does Mallaneve know?"
"That you are here, visiting me."
Ardis blinked at her mother's anger. Not exactly the welcome she'd been expecting. She felt a stab of hurt. "No. I'm not her prisoner. I don't need to check with her every time I go somewhere."
A sigh escaped Mother. She collapsed on a couch. "You may not be her prisoner, my dear. But I am."
"You heard me. Since the day she named you heir, Mallaneve has forbidden me to see you. I cannot go to court or attend any festivities, nor can your four sisters. But," Raissa perked up, "apparently she has not forbidden you to see me. So perhaps we are safe from her wrath." Mother patted the seat beside her. "Sit with me, darling. I have been sick with worry. Has Mallaneve harmed you? Has she treated you ill?"
"No. She's treated me well enough. I am fine." Ardis submitted to her mother's hugs and sharp scrutiny, the surprise of Raissa's house arrest filling her with foreboding. She remembered the argument. Her mother's threatening words. He will know of it. What did Mallaneve's banishment of Mother mean? Did she merely punish her sister? Or fear her? Ardis resolved to find out.
"Mother, I don't understand. Why would the queen wish to keep you from me? Is it so you will not reveal the terms of your pact?"
"Our . . . pact?"
"Yes, Mother, I heard you threaten Mallaneve the day she named me heir. You said she swore before witnesses not to harm me. You also threatened to tell someone -- a he -- if she did harm me. Why is that, Mother? Why would Mallaneve want to harm me? And who is the 'he' that could possibly frighten her?"
A vast silence stretched between Ardis and her mother. Ardis could tell Raissa struggled with what to say. Finally, she asked, "What did Mallaneve tell you?"
"She told me a plausible tale. Something about you being jealous of her for being queen, and her being jealous of you for being a mother. She said she named me heir so she would have a daughter."
Mother's mouth twitched into a smile. "It is good that Mallaneve underestimates you. Of course, what she says is false. But, Ardis, I cannot tell you the terms of our pact. I swore an oath not to, and as you know an oath cannot be broken without the suffering of dire consequences. All I can say is you must be wary. Oath or no oath, she means to harm you. I have no doubt of it."
"Well, if she means to break her side of the oath, why can't you?"
"Oh, I do not think she will break it outright. She will find a way around it. I just don't know how yet."
Ardis knew a way around her mother's oath. But did she dare to use it?
Thralling was not magic -- it was a skill, a talent, like Beccan's ear for music -- so not readily detectable like other magics. Still though, Ardis had never used the skill on Raissa or anyone else of great consequence. Only tried it with brownies and pixies. She had no idea if it would even work on someone as powerful as her mother.
A need to know the truth made Ardis brave. She stared at Mother and sang, "Be calm. Be still." Mother froze, her eyes caught in Ardis's lulling gaze. "Your words are taken from you, not freely given. You are safe from the Oath Breaker's Curse. Tell me the terms of your pact with Queen Mallaneve."
For a long quiet moment, Ardis thought her ploy had failed. But then Raissa began to speak. "From the day you were born, you have been promised to the Dark King on your sixteenth birthday. Mallaneve does not wish this. The terms of our pact are that she will not harm you, and I will not tell her secrets to you."
Ardis almost blinked her control away. Promised to the Dark King! She stifled a shudder. That was not at all her guess. She'd imagined the disagreement to be solely between Raissa and Mallaneve, and that somehow she'd been thrown into the bargain as an afterthought. She never dreamed the pact was actually about her -- a fifth born insignificant daughter. But what did it mean? Promised to the Dark King. And what were Mallaneve's secrets?
Ardis drew calming air through her nostrils and let it out with her mouth. She needed to keep this quick-stepping fear at bay and ask the right questions. "Why am I promised to the É to the Dark King?"
"The Dark King wants a child of Dark and Light."
That sounded ominous. Ardis knew Dark and Light couplings were rare and offspring even rarer. But the fact the Dark King specifically wanted such a child sent shivers up her spine. For what purpose? Experimentation? Torture?
"Why me, though, Mother? Why would you give your own daughter to the Unseelie king?"
Questions were tricky things when thralling someone. The wrong one could trigger an awakening, the right one an avalanche of response, especially if someone had festered a secret that wanted to come out. Ardis had accidentally triggered the latter in her mother, and Raissa's bitter words came spewing forth like poison.
"You are his child as much as mine," claimed Mother. "And I am the true queen of faerie." Ardis did blink this time, but Raissa continued on, too deeply tranced to break free now. "I am the elder sister. I was the old queen's heir. Mallaneve stole my crown. She found a long forgotten curse and marked me with it. For a time, I had no powers and no way to prove Mallaneve's treachery. The crown was passed to her, as the old queen could not crown a powerless faerie, and after Mallaneve became queen, my powers returned. But it was too late. Once a queen is crowned nothing can change that." Mother's lips curled into a nasty sneer. "There was a part of the curse, though, that Mallaneve didn't know about. When my powers mended, my womb quickened like a natural being's and Mallaneve's went barren. The king has promised me revenge if I bear him children and turn them over to his court on their sixteenth birthdays. You are our first," she crowed, "and soon there will be others, and then he will make Mallaneve pay for what she has done!"
Mother's ferocity startled Ardis. She jerked back almost losing focus, her mind swarming with horror. No, she must have misunderstood.
"Mother," she rasped, "who É who is my father?"
"Lorcan Nightshade, the Dark King of the Unseelies."
When Ardis thralled a subject, her pupils expanded like black pools, but when she lost focus they contracted to pinpoints, blurring her vision. Lorcan Nightshade. The room spun and dimmed. She squinted till Raissa became clear again.
"Ardis? Are you all right?"
Mother's face hovered in front of Ardis, her normal, sane face, not her fanatical, mad one. "Yes, uh, no . . . Just something in my eye." More squinting to dislodge the pretend dirt speck.
"Well, then," Raissa leaned back in her seat, completely unaware of what had just occurred, "what I was about to say is that you can trust no one. Not Mallaneve. Not the courtiers. Yours servants. Your friends. No one."
Not even you, right, Mother? The construct walls of Raissa's privacy spell pressed heavily on Ardis. She felt cornered, deceit and intrigue coming at her from all sides. Her own mother had lied to her. Was preparing to bargain her away like a rare bauble. "I -- I have to go now." Ardis stood up, the spell walls adjusting to fit her tall contours.
"So soon, darling?" Raissa squeezed Ardis's hand. "I have missed you. Don't despair, though. Before long you will have your sisters and me to watch over you again. Mallaneve is just being spiteful. She must shortly call us back to court or people will begin to wonder what she is afraid of. In fact," she looked at her daughter shrewdly, "perhaps you can make mention of it, darling. Persuade her to free us, your loving family."
It took all of Ardis's self control not to fling her mother's hand away. Loving family? What a jest. Ardis's sisters had never watched over her, had only teased and tormented, and now Ardis knew not even Mother watched over her. They could all rot in banishment. Ardis nodded, gently escaped her mother's grasp. "I will ask her of it," she lied. "But, Mother, I really must go."
Raissa stood up, dissolved her privacy spell, the sudden release of pressure making Ardis's ears pop. Careful with her behaviour now, Mother gave a little bow. "It has been good to see you, Ardis. Please, give my regards to the queen."
Ardis couldn't get away from her mother quick enough. She went back to the queen's palace, shut herself in her rooms and tried to reason a way out of her predicament. From her point of view, her number one problem was that in three months time she turned sixteen. Three months. Whatever Mallaneve planned to do to her, she would have to accomplish it soon before Ardis became the prize of the Dark King.
A crimson dress hung ready for her to wear tonight. Ardis fingered its velvet folds, suddenly struck by a new thought. By making Ardis her heir, Mallaneve had already thwarted both Raissa and the king. As heir, Ardis was bound to the Light Court for the remaining seven hundred years of Mallaneve's reign and then for a thousand years of her own reign. The Dark Court could not touch Ardis. Well, at least not for seventeen hundred years.
She lifted the gown's jewelled belt, its beaded edges trickling blood-like over her white skin. Ardis's spark of optimism faded. Who was she fooling? Mallaneve would never let her be queen. Mother was right about that much. Mallaneve meant to harm her. But how? The queen was bound by her sister's oath. She had made Ardis her heir. If she harmed Ardis now, she would be harming herself as well. Not to mention that she would also have to contend with the vengeance of the Dark King.
Ardis curled into a chair, unnerved. Lorcan Nightshade. My mother slept with Lorcan Nightshade. Was still sleeping with him. It boggled her mind. The King of Dark, the one fey most renowned for cruelty, mercurial mood swings and sick perversions, was Ardis's father. She looked at her hands. Wondered what they were capable of. Unseelie blood as potent as Lorcan Nightshade's would not leave her unmarked. Dark power would lurk somewhere inside her. That is what Mallaneve feared and Raissa hoped. And Lorcan Nightshade É what would he want when he found out? What would he have to gain?
She didn't know, nor did she want to.
So, there it was. Her mother and aunt unmasked. Their stakes apparent. All Ardis had to do was figure out how to extricate herself from their game instead of being a playing piece. She wasn't sure, though, how much time she had. Definitely somewhere between three months and seven hundred years. She suspected the former. When a Seelie fey reached the age of sixteen, his or her full powers came in. Mallaneve would not want that to happen, especially since she knew of Ardis's intimidating bloodlines.
Ardis hugged her knees tight. She wasn't even sure that she wanted it to happen. What if she had some terrible magic that hurt people? What if it changed who she was? She'd seen it happen before, power mania infecting faeries like a virus. She wondered if it had tainted her mother and aunt. Maybe that's why they hated each other so much.
Raissa's words filled Ardis's head. I am the elder sister. I was the old queen's heir. Mallaneve must have cast a spell over the whole of Knilorn to hide the controversy, as no queen wanted her legitimacy questioned. Still, though, it explained a lot about Ardis's lonely childhood. Why Mallaneve had made it a point to humiliate Ardis and her sisters. And why Mother had let her do it.
A slow anger began to boil in Ardis. Right now, the faerie queen had all the advantage. Raissa and the Dark King could not touch the heir to the Light Throne. Only Mallaneve could. But it would not be an outright attack. Mallaneve's oath prohibited that. It would be more subtle. A way of making it look like Ardis herself had done something wrong. Something that would trump Mallaneve's oath and force her to take action.
Ardis sprang to her feet. She swept the red gown from its hook, determined that she would not fall prey to Mallaneve's plotting. She would be the perfect heir. The perfect niece. She would dress right. Speak right. Jump through hoops right. Mallaneve would not be able to find fault or a way around her sworn oath.
Someone knocked outside Ardis's door, interrupting her resolute thoughts. "Ardi? You in there? May I enter?"
Beccan. Thank goodness. Ardis needed someone to cheer her. She set the dress aside, said a curt yes. Beccan charged in, face flushed, eyes like green stars. "He kissed me, Ardi. He told me I was beautiful. And he kissed me." She gripped Ardis by the arms and gave her a little shake. "Can you believe it? Can you believe the real Vale Anthleon likes me?"
Ardis couldn't help smiling at Beccan's exuberance. "Of course he likes you, Becc. Every boy in the palace likes you."
And how could they not? Beccan looked like a spring day with her soft clouds of red-gold hair, her merry green-apple eyes and rosy bee stung lips. Much better than Ardis's sketch had ever been. The warts had masked more than her friend's face. They'd masked her. But now Becc was as lively as a child at a pixie dust display. Ardis felt the grim ties around her heart loosen. At least some good had come of being named heir. Beccan had finally gotten her wishes.
Vale Anthleon, though? He wasn't just a boy.
"Becc, you do know who Vale Anthleon is, right? You've just had one curse lifted. Do you wish to gain another?"
Beccan paled, fingers reaching for warts that were no longer there. "I . . . no. Would the queen care about a guard? He's not one of her suitors, is he?"
Poor Becc. She truly had no idea how things at court worked. Those horrid warts had kept her whole family out of any faerie queen's presence for far too long. Artless as babes, the lot of them.
"At court, Becc, the queen cares for everything and everyone pertaining to her. Haven't you noticed that even the clothes you wear are meant to compliment Queen Mallaneve?" Ardis picked up the crimson gown. "She lets me wear colours, now, that flatter my own complexion, not because she is being kind, but because I am her heir. How I look reflects on her. Vale Anthleon is no fool, Beccan. If he is openly flirting with you, then there is a reason for it. And, Becc, it won't be one with your best interests at heart."
The hurt in Beccan's eyes made Ardis wish she hadn't said anything. "You think . . . you think he wishes to harm me?"
Ardis hesitated. She knew more about Mallaneve's motives now then when she'd first become heir. But sharing them with Beccan did not seem a wise course. "No," she murmured. "But all the same, just be careful."
That evening, as always, the faerie queen's feasting went late into the night. Ardis sat at Mallaneve's side, pretending interest in the fawning group of courtiers vying for her aunt's attention, but Ardis's coronet pinched and the rubies that dangled from it in looped strings tickled her cheeks and kept bumping into her nose at each respectful nod. Truth was, though, everything bothered Ardis tonight. The food had been too rich, the nectar too sweet, her gown too hot and her nerves stretched too tight. She itched to be free of it all, to be her old self again alone with her painting, poetry and books. But more than anything she wanted her peace back. Wanted not to feel like the prey ringed by a pack of hunting dogs.
Raissa and Ardis's four sisters were back at court. Ardis had said nothing to Mallaneve about visiting Raissa and Raissa's request to return to court. She had said nothing to no one, not even Beccan. Yet Raissa had thanked her for intervening with Mallaneve, even Ardis's four sisters had shown gratitude by toasting Ardis as though they rejoiced in their sister's good fortune. It all made Ardis nervous. Did Mallaneve know of Raissa's confession? Of Ardis's thralling trick? Could she use it against them?
The queen, though, gave nothing away. Ardis stared at her. Tonight, Mallaneve bloomed in meadow colours of marigold, aster and lavender, her tall goldenrod crown sparking with yellow and white jewels. She looked the picture of Seelie fey glamour, gorgeous, young, laughing and drinking copious amounts of clover nectar.
Unexpected longing filled Ardis. For once, she wished she could be like Mallaneve, like all the full-blooded Seelie fey. Everything sport or a party. They hid behind their beauty and their revelries, never showing their true selves to anyone. Ardis had never liked doing this. Had always been more comfortable with Beccan, just being who and what she was. Yet part of her wanted the court too, the seductive ease with which they let Mallaneve control them. Maybe that's what she needed. Just to stop fighting and let Mallaneve win.
Ardis blinked. Did the queen know how to thrall? She felt the enticing pull of an attraction spell. Mallaneve pulsed with it, a subtle glow that emanated from her skin like a pearly nimbus. No, not thrall. The queen's eyes crinkled from merriment, not focus. This was magic. Magic that Mallaneve dispersed as easily as breath.
The full goblet in Ardis's hand became suddenly warm, clear nectar drops dribbling over its edge on to her fingertips. Ardis gasped. She glowed as well, a crackling bright splay of energy. The goblet crashed to the stone tiles.
"More nectar for my niece!" sang out Mallaneve. "For you this time," she joked, "not the floor." Laughter tittered around the room.
Ardis gaped in horror. It was as if someone had lifted a veil shrouding her vision. She saw clearly the parasitic magic of the Seelie Court, Mallaneve in its centre like a spiderous queen bee, her massive web of magic entangling each and every fey, connecting them all together as tightly as puzzle pieces. Every fey that is . . . except Ardis.
Ardis's bright glow parried sword flares against Mallaneve's grasping power, keeping its smothering tentacles away from her. Realization struck Ardis at the same time as it struck Mallaneve.
Ardis's magic had come in early.
Panicked, Ardis bolted from the room, Mallaneve's laughter ringing in her ears. She had to get out of there. Hide. Maybe beg for her father's Unseelie help. She had seen the true magnitude of a Seelie queen's power and knew her own could not match it for long. Mallaneve's magic gave only two options -- conquer or destroy -- and all her weaponry was now trained on Ardis.
Outside, the moonless night gave no sanctuary. Trails of faerie queen magic lit up Knilorn like stars in the sky. Mallaneve's power was everywhere. Ardis raced into the Queen's Wood, seeking the hidden glade where she and Beccan had made their own court. She didn't feel the breeze of magic on her skin herding her in its chosen direction. Didn't see the pathway's shimmering guidance. Not until the glade opened before her, Beccan and Vale Anthleon two beacons in its circling mist.
Only . . . only Beccan had a knife. A wickedly gleaming curved knife that she thrust into Vale Anthleon.
"No-ooo!" Ardis shrieked. She plowed into Beccan, knocking her over. Vale Anthleon gave a surprised grunt, crumpled to the ground, the knife hilt protruding like a cross in the hillock of his chest.
"Oh, Becc, what have you done?" Fey did not spill fey blood. All knew that. It was law.
"He . . . he mocked me," whispered Beccan brokenly. "You -- you were right. He only wanted me to get to you."
"So you stabbed him!" Ardis's fear and anger made a throat-choking retch. Beccan would be cursed for this. And not with some simple wart affliction either. It'd be something terrible. Something truly malignant.
Vale gurgled, his mouth bubbling blood. Ardis reached for the knife hilt. Maybe she could heal him. Save Becc from the queen's punishment. She didn't notice Beccan slip away or the glade suddenly hush into silence. Her fingers curled around the hilt and pulled.
"Oh my dear niece, what have you done?"
Ardis spun around. Queen Mallaneve and the entire Seelie Court stood behind her, the queen's magic coating them like a luminescent paint. Mother was there, face slack with defeat. The four sisters wore smug cat-smiles. But it was Beccan standing close to the queen; pretend shock widening her eyes that shrivelled Ardis's heart. This new power let Ardis see truth. And the truth of Beccan was betrayal. She had sold their friendship for clear skin and a pretty face.
Vale Anthleon gave a final gasp, shuddered and lay still. In Ardis's hand the knife dripped his blood on to the ground. Mallaneve had won.
"Ardis Larkingstar, fifth daughter of Raissa Larkingstar, heir to the Seelie throne of Knilorn, you have this night spilt faerie blood." The words came flat and rehearsed from Mallaneve's mouth. She knew how to rid herself of a troublesome niece. "The penalty for such a grave crime is banishment." No one objected. No one, not even Mother, tried to defend Ardis. The queen's magic held them all on tight leashes. "Have you anything to say for yourself, Ardis Larkingstar?"
Ardis stared. What could she do? Accuse Beccan? The Court had seen her, not Beccan Fairwood, kneeling over Vale Anthleon, the bloody knife in her hand. No, Mallaneve had orchestrated everything perfectly. Not even a queen could spill faerie blood with impunity. It was the greatest crime a fey could commit. And with no objectors, Mallaneve would be duty bound to punish her. A duty that would trump her oath to Raissa and spare her from war with the Dark king. Still Ardis cried out anyway. "It wasn't me! It wasn't me!" But no one reacted to her words. It was as if the queen's magic stuffed their ears, too.
"Very well." Mallaneve stepped forward. "Your silence speaks your guilt. You are henceforth banished from Knilorn, Ardis Larkingstar, and I curse you with the Curse of the Fallen."
For one desperate second, Ardis attempted to thrall the queen. "Be still," she started. "Be -- " But then the curse struck.
Ardis had never known physical pain. But it scorched through her now, a burning agony that tore scream after scream from her raw throat. She seemed on fire. One half of her body suddenly a gaping wound. The hand that held the knife blistered and bubbled, skin splitting open, showing blood, her blood, pumping through twisted pink veins. White bone gleamed in the pink. Horror took her breath. Slammed her to the ground. She smelled burnt flesh, tasted bitter ash, then sank into blackness.
"Here now, girlie. You can't be blocking me doorway. Move on with you!"
"What . . . who?" Ardis opened terrified eyes. Some horribly bulging creature loomed over her, its beefy hands wielding a stick. Another creature -- a dog? -- barked furiously, slaver spitting from powerful jaws, eye-whites showing frenzy. She whimpered and tried to shrink away from them. The stick hit her in the ribs this time.
"You heard me! Move on!"
A rough hand grabbed Ardis's cloak and yanked her to her feet, choking her and dragging her cloak hood down.
"Mother of God!" The man -- Ardis had figured out what he was -- made a strange hand-crossing motion, fingers sliding from forehead to belly, from side to side, his hairy face a rictus of fear. "You're -- you're one of them!" he sputtered. "One of them cursed demon folk!" He shoved her away so hard, she fell. He kicked her this time. "Get up!" he cried. "Get up and away from here! And don't ever let me see you back on me doorstep again!"
A crowd had started to gather. More dogs circled with flattened ears and frenzied barking. "Saints preserve us!" someone gasped. "Look at her! She's cursed, that one."
"Should fetch a priest. He'll know what to do."
"Aye, likely burn her!"
The ominous words cursed, fetch and burn looped in Ardis's mind. She scrambled to her feet, frightened of the ugliness that surrounded her. Wizened crones, fat toady matrons, dirty children and thin men with coarse, poxed skin and missing teeth. Where had Mallaneve sent her? To some hellish nether world?
Sharp pain struck her shoulder. A filthy boy with weasel eyes and a leaky nose had thrown a rock at Ardis. He stooped for more. Others copied him. Began to pelt rocks and dirt clods at her. "Witch!" they hissed. "Witch! Witch! Witch! Stone the witch!"
Panicked, Ardis turned to run. She pushed a man out of her way. He flew through the air as though she'd sprung him from a catapult. The shocked crowd froze mouths agape. Ardis tore off before they could stop her, the dogs still yowling dementedly. A rock hit her middle back, nearly toppled her. She found her balance, though, and kept going. No one gave chase. She rounded a corner. Found a maze of muddy streets and alleys and kept running till she could run no more.
Lungs panting for air, Ardis collapsed in a dank passageway that squeezed between two rickety buildings. Wisely, she had yanked her cloak hood up, drawing only curious glances at her stumbling flight. Now she dared to study herself. While she ran, she had seen alarming glimpses of scarred and twisted fingers. Knew her clothes were tattered rags and her shoes only pieces of ripped cloth.
Dread cramped her stomach. Slow and steady, she coasted her hands out through the folds of thin cloak. Oh Lightness. One hand normal, but the other . . . the other . . .
She exhaled to keep from gagging. Gnarled claw-fingers protruded, skin shiny and chitinous like beetle carapace, nails hooked like talons.
Ardis moaned. Her good hand rose to her face. Right cheek smooth and perfect. Left cheek É She moaned again. Left cheek hard, knotted flesh. She felt down her body. The whole left side, from head to toe, was covered in ropey red scars, while the entire right side remained pure and clear.
Curse of the Fallen.
The harshest punishment a faerie queen could mete.
Numbness chilled Ardis to the heart. She grasped a rock with the claw-hand. Effortlessly crushed it into powder. An image flashed of the man she'd catapulted through the air. Unnatural strength was the second part of the curse. Unnatural strength but with the ability to feel pain. The man with the stick, his poking, his kick, and the crowd's hurtled rocks had all hurt her.
Ardis sighed. Leaned against the stone wall, stared at hands that lacked a magic glow. Another aspect of the curse. The fallen had no true power. No way to glamour scars. No way to magically hide from humans. They could only throw curses. Become the dark witch the crowd had already accused her of being.
Rain began to drum in the passageway. Ardis smelled dung and urine, mixed with damp clay and rotting food, saw shadowed piles that scurried with rats. Disgust curled her lips. She knew then where she'd been banished. Only Earth humans polluted their own living environments. She'd been confused earlier by their ugliness, as Mallaneve's human changelings had always been beautiful and fey-like. But now she recalled the stories of faerie travellers. The fantastic tales of humans with lame feet and deformed limbs, of old ones with sightless eyes and wrinkled skin, of fat ones, thin ones, short ones and tall ones. Earth humans came in all shapes and sizes and all levels of attractiveness.
The claw-hand sat grotesquely in Ardis's lap. They didn't come as horrible as her, though. The humans in the street had called her cursed. Had known she was different. Even the dogs and little children had known. How would she survive here? How --
Ardis bowed her head. Remembered the last part of the curse. Not even Mallaneve could consign a fallen fey to endless suffering. There was one beneficial provision in the curse and only one. Ardis settled herself closer to the passageway opening. It would probably take till nightfall before the right sort of boy passed by, but when he did she wanted him to notice her.
A strange thing happened then. Water, not from the rain, seeped from Ardis's eyes and trickled down her cheeks. In surprise, she tapped the warm wetness, touched its saltiness to her tongue. More water came from her eyes. From her nose too. Then she knew what it was. Tears. She half sobbed, half laughed at her newfound skill. "See," she cried to the rats, "My eyes leak like a human's. I shall fit in here just fine." If they answered, Ardis didn't hear. Her broken sobs filled the passageway.
It was late at night when the boy with the shuttered lantern crept into the alley. He searched for toeholds in crumbling walls, no doubt believing his thief wits had brought him to such a choice spot. Ardis knew better. The curse's pull range of a hundred feet trolled incessantly for male orphans skilled at stealing. Once caught, the clever boys washed in like pretty seashells on a tide. This was the third one in an hour.
Ardis watched the thief position the lantern light and skitter his way up to a barred window. She'd let the other two boys go, both too young for her scruples. But this one . . . This one with his long agile legs and shaggy hair would suit.
After testing the bars' strength and finding them sound, the thief dropped lightly back to the ground, began checking the other wall's nooks and crannies. That's when Ardis made her presence known.
"Greetings," she said, stepping from the shadows. "I am in need."
The boy's hand slid to a dagger, his eyes narrowing. "Wrong street for lechers, love. Need to go down by the docks if you want any business."
In the lantern's dim glow, Ardis could see the thief's handsome face and how well made he was. For a moment, she considered letting him go too, but it had been a long day. Ardis wanted it over with. "I am in need," she repeated. She dropped her hood and let the light reveal her. The boy gaped, not in horror but in awe. The curse did not let him see her as she truly was, only the way she once had been.
"Are you an angel?" he whispered, moving nearer till his ripe scent pervaded her. She almost relented again, hated the trust in their eyes. The desire. But this time, she followed through with binding touch and kiss that made the comely thief hers.
One Year Later
The castle's library window afforded a splendid view of Briarcrest, its fall foliage like a magnificent gown, the morning sun-sparkle on the fishpond its dainty shoes. Perfect scene for a new painting, really. Ardis drew her fur-lined robe closer, making puffs of air with her breath. Perhaps she'd bring her paints out when the sun was higher. And warmer. She sipped deeply from her goblet, sweet red wine tickling her throat.
Tom was right. This new southern wine tasted of summer. She filled her mouth with it, savouring it in her cheeks before swallowing. No alcoholic jolt like clover nectar but a pleasant taste nonetheless. She downed the goblet's contents.
A masculine chuckle sounded at her side. "That's a whole bottle's worth and it's only dawn, milady. Your fey liver is truly cast of iron."
Her liver cast of iron? The boy had said this same absurd thing a number of times. But fey could not abide iron, so, therefore, could not possibly have livers composed of it. Ardis gave him a tolerant smile. She knew now he only jested. They were just different, is all. Wine intoxicated him, but sobered her. She set aside her empty goblet.
"The cold bites this morning. I think I'd welcome a mortal's liver if only to feel the wine's heat and to have my skin flush a pretty pink the way yours does."
He grinned, wrapped protective arms around her and whispered in her ear. "I'd lose all my bets then. You're the only wench able to drink a whole regiment of soldiers under the table. It's near enough coin you've won us to buy another castle."
Ardis laughed out loud at this. It'd been months since she and Tom had relieved a pub crowd of their purses. Months since he'd discovered she could drink wine like water. Leave it to him to point out her liver's practical uses.
A kiss brushed the good side of her cheek. "Mayhap, we should find a new village," he teased. "Have a little nip with its locals."
Guilt prickled through Ardis. Didn't he see the changes? She unclasped Tom's grip from her waist, held up one of his hands to view. The nails had recently blackened and grown into long thick points.
"I'll wear gloves," he said. "None will be the wiser."
She managed a weak smile. Tom Brawley had been the first young man to heed the curse's call, his changes the most pronounced. He'd need more than a pair of gloves to hide those sprite-tipped ears and jutting devil horns. His eyes were worst, though. In daylight, the pupils stretched like a cat's, yellow muddying the blue irises. Soon, he would not look human at all.
Ardis tousled his shaggy blond hair. "You've won me enough gold, Tom, that you need never darken a pub's doorway again."
He frowned, not fooled by her fake light heartedness. "You don't think I can pass anymore, do you?"
Her fingers slid down to his still smooth cheek. "Every change, I fear, makes it less so. I would not have you put yourself . . . put us all in danger, when it's not necessary." Tom's last pilfer had netted them a chest of gold, enough to purchase a small hidden-away castle and retire Tom from thievery. He need only steal safe things for her now, like garden flowers or pastries from the kitchen.
He clasped her hand, kept it to his face. "How long," he asked, "till I'm É till I'm like one of them?"
Them. Ardis sighed. She knew he meant the ogres. In their search for an isolated home, they had discovered another fallen. The curse had not been kind. The faerie had gone quite mad, she and her ogres living like beasts in a squalid cave.
"We will never be like them." She grasped his other cheek with her claw hand. "And when the full change comes, you will be safe and cared for and loved. I promise you this, Tom Brawley. Now, go. Break your fast with the others. I wish to read soon."
A grin came back to Tom's face. "Harlan's baking pastries. I'll see if I can nick you one."
She watched him stride from the room, her eyes dropping to the bulge at the back of his tunic. Oh drat. His tail had started to come in.
Ardis sank into a chair by the fire Tom had lit. She could abide her own changes -- loss of power, freakish strength, even the terrible scars -- but Tom's changes still rankled. Why did he and the others have to change too? She squeezed the armrests. The last part of the curse still upset her. It should have been enough that its magic drew the homeless street urchins to her, made them steal and lie and bound them to her for life. But why did it have to make them ogres? It wasn't fair.
Fair? Ardis snorted. Wouldn't Mallaneve have a laugh over that change? Ardis Larkingstar thinking like a human.
She reached for the wine decanter and poured herself another goblet. Fair was not a faerie concept. She would just have to accept that. The fire snapped and crackled, its soothing warmth a balm to her troubles. Truth was, despite her urchins turning into ogres, she loved it here in the mortal realms.
The beginning, of course, had been difficult. But once she learned how the human world worked, it had not taken her long to manipulate it. She sipped at her wine.
All a fey creature needed in this world was money and all her wishes could come true. Satisfaction curved Ardis's lips. She patted the velvet of her gown, the fur of her robe. With money, you could buy fine clothes -- gloves to hide a claw, boots a shrivelled foot, silken veils a wrecked face -- and, with fine clothes, respect.
Ardis surveyed the homey contents of her library. And what money couldn't help humans to overlook, thralling them could. But rarely did she have to use such measures. For just about everything here was for sale. Safety, security, privacy. A secluded castle in the forest.
The mad cave faerie came back to haunt her. Why hadn't she put her urchins' gifts to good use? And now that they were all full ogres, why not seek new urchins? Ardis shuddered. The mad faerie had, herself, clawed the good side of her face. Perhaps beauty loss had driven her insane before the curse had even brought the urchins.
No matter. Ardis steeled her resolve. She was determined madness would not be her fate.
A knock sounded and five boisterous boys shouldered their way inside the room. Ardis smiled. Gift time.
Tom handed her a still-warm apple pastry. Harlan had boiled eggs; Cobb a dish of honey; Gilby pears; and sly Fisk a handful of black swan feathers. It had been fun finding ways around the curse's compulsion for the boys to steal for her. No rule the theft had to be from a human. Today's victims were a swan, a tree, a hive, a chicken and Harlan's oft-robbed pantry.
The boys piled their loot on the table beside her, then found cozy spots on pillows close to the fireplace. Mornings, she read to them and taught them their letters. Afternoons, they painted or hiked or played music in the feast hall. Ardis's previous doubts faded away. At least she had given the boys better lives than they would've had as hungry orphans on the streets. And being an ogre wasn't so bad. They would have great strength and endurance, be able to see, scent and hunt like predators. The forest would be their freedom, then. Their home. And she would be their guardian, watching over and caring for them.
For now, though É Ardis straightened her cushion, moved the wine glass to a slightly better angle and sighed her contentment. She found the page where she had left off reading. For now, they would be her court and she their queen.
- END -