“Are you the Queen of Faerie?”
The human child, wearing nothing but his nightshirt, can’t have seen more than six summers. Wide brown eyes beneath a mop of straw-blond hair ignore the wonders of my court, staring only at me.
“You’ve found me out.” I slip a nightshade berry between my lips. The sharp poison bursts over my tongue.
The boy steps closer.
My bodyguard moves to intercept him, but I motion him back with a flick of my hand.
I beckon the boy forward. I see freckles now, standing out beneath purple-shadowed eyes. A tremor shakes his thin frame.
I trace a finger over his cheek. “What do you want of me?” I say.
“Eyes of wood.”
I lower my hand.
“I don’t—” His voice hitches. “I don’t want to see anymore. Mama’s told me the tales about you. I know you can do it.”
Mama. My chest constricts around an unwelcome ache.
An icy wind blows, ringing through the silver leaves. The weather in my court reflects my moods. It’s been long since anything beyond a mild zephyr touched the glen.
I lean back. My throne’s woven vines embrace me, and the wind recedes.
“Eyes of wood don’t stop the memory of what’s already been seen.”
The boy’s shoulders slump, and he bunches the tails of his nightshirt in a fist, then takes a fortifying breath, and straightens. “Then please, Majesty, will you give me a heart of stone?”
The gale returns, laced now with stinging flecks of frost. My subjects huddle together in the lee of the silver-leafed trees.
I rise and conjure a sable cloak around my shoulders. The boy takes an involuntary step back.
I press my hand to his chest. His heart of flesh thumps wildly under my palm. “Why would you wish this away? Fear. Love. These are the things that make you human.”
“When he hurts her,” he whispers, “it hurts me too.”
Wind whips around us, whitening his already pale skin.
“A heart of stone cannot love. Not even your mama.” It is cruel to use his mother in such a way, but I’m not known for kindness. Not even to myself. “Do you think she won’t know the difference? That it won’t cause her pain?”
Snow settles in his hair and melts into the cambric nightshirt. “But what else can I do?” he asks.
We are interrupted by the sound of cracking twigs. “Eamon?” a voice calls, “where are you?”
The boy spins around. “Mama?”
I grab his arm and pull him close, wrapping him inside the sable cloak. His eyes widen and he struggles in my grasp. “Mama! I’m here!”
She staggers past the sentinel trees, bare feet red in the new-drifted snow. When her sunken eyes rest on the boy, she stops dead and lifts her gaze to meet mine. “Let him go,” she says.
I intensify my shell of glamour, making myself appear taller. Stronger. More radiant. But the air betrays me, turning chill and still as a frozen stream.
“The boy came to me of his own accord.” I rest one hand atop his head. “I’ve taken a liking to him.”
The woman comes closer, reaching toward her child. “He’s young,” she says. “He doesn’t understand who you are. What you are.”
“He understands exactly who I am,” I reply.
“Please. Give him back to me. He’s my life.”
I try neither to see the bruises on her outstretched arms nor the phantom bruises that stretch across my own memory, trapped in amber. “You would challenge the Faerie Queen for him?”
She looks down at the boy, and determination slides over her face like a knight’s visor. “Name your challenge.”
“Mama, no. A faerie challenge is never fair.”
He’s learned his tales well, this boy.
“Come closer,” I say.
She approaches me with her chin held high.
I pluck a nightshade berry and hold it in my cupped palm. “Do you know what this is?”
“Poison.” Her gaze never flinches from my own. “You’d have me trade my life for his? It’s yours.”
The boy whimpers.
I smile. “That would be too easy.” I touch the long bruise along her forearm, and for the first time, she flinches. “Give it to the man who hurt you.”
“I—” She hesitates. “He’s Eamon’s father.”
“You’d sacrifice your own life for the boy. Is it not a father’s calling to do the same?”
The boy twists free and scurries to his mother’s side. “I don’t want anyone to die. I just want Mama to be safe.”
A seismic shift shocks my core. The wind rises to a shriek, and icy shards sting my skin. The heart of stone buried deep within me threatens to shatter. I turn away from the pair. The gleaming bond of their love, and the boy’s innocence, are too powerful to endure.
His soft voice calls out over the raging blizzard. “Couldn’t we stay here with you?”
Here where time runs in its own river? I couldn’t bear it. Not when the boy is so much stronger than the desperate child I had once been.
I snap a twig bearing silver leaves from a tree and turn back to them. “This will fetch enough gold to see you free.” I kneel and offer it to the boy. “Take it.”
He eyes it warily. “What’s the price?”
I wrap his fingers around the twig. “Tell your children tales of me.”
He nods wordlessly, and his mother shepherds him swiftly away. From me, and the glen where my father’s corpse rests beneath the loam, dead from the nightshade I’d fed him after turning my own heart to stone. Too late to save my own mother.
Snow becomes rain, trailing rivulets from my eyes of wood, in place of the sticky sap now long congealed.
It’s too late for regret. My subjects are watching me.
Once more my heart hardens and I sit upon my throne.
Once more a placid zephyr blows.
© 2018 Rebecca Birch