They’re always like this after the hunt. Almost psychotic. This was the first time they’d ever brought anything back alive though.
I couldn’t see their prisoner, but I could feel the pain and fear emanating from within the huddled group of my brothers.
My eldest brother Ransley broke away from the group and came racing up the stairs towards me. I could see the bloodlust in his eyes. I shrank back in fear, but he saw me before I could conceal myself.
“Spying again?” he barked angrily.
Wordlessly I shook my head as I sprang to my feet. My feet took flight before he could grab me. I had learnt to be fast to avoid the punishments my brother’s could deal out.
I was the youngest of thirteen. Twelve strong healthy brothers before me. It seemed my mother could not handle having a girl however. She disappeared after giving birth to me. My brothers blamed me; I could see it in their eyes. They were unforgiving and sometimes quite cruel. But nothing they did hurt as much as my father’s manner towards me.
My father acted like he had no daughter at all. If he had not arranged a betroval for me to Nathenel Forsyth last summer, I would think he had forgotten he even had a daughter.
I had been a complete surprise to my parents. I was born five years after my youngest brother Kaemin, totally unplanned.
When I was born, my six eldest brothers were already married. Some even had children of their own. Celtyn was the most recently married, at seventeen years of age. There was no hunt then. Not til I was born and my mother died. But I would not find that out til years later.
My brothers did love me at first. When I was a young child, my fondest memories are of playing in the forest with the ones who still lived at home. They treated me like gold, a precious gift that must not be harmed. I wanted nothing more than to be like them however, I ignored their protests and scaled trees, jumped in puddles and ran like them. But slowly, they turned against me, one by one. As they grew into men and became part of the hunt, I was slowly shut out of my brother’s lives.
The hunt signified the ultimate cross over from boy to man. It was almost sacred. I did not realise until I was in my eighth year what it was they were hunting.
It was to be Kaemin’s first year. At thirteen, he was ready to become a man. I was terrified of losing my last friend to the hunt; I knew the change was imminent.
Searle, who was three years older than Kaemin, and recently betroved to Arissa Le Kephnia, was ready to prove his manhood. As Kaemin was on the borderline, Searle decided to take Kaemin under his wing, acting like he was an expert on the hunt. I was still innocent; I had no idea what it was they hunted. I figured it was food, as they always came back with plenty of meat to last us over the winter months.
So I did what any eight year old child would do if they were losing a playmate. I sulked. When that didn’t work, I threw a tantrum.
I cried and begged Kaemin not to go. Searle was not impressed.
“Baby!” he spat at me. “You don’t even know how important the hunt is! You don’t know anything! This is our revenge! The hunt is all father has left!”
“He has us… why can’t the servants go hunting?” I wimpered; stung and confused by Searle’s harsh words.
“Baby!” he said again. “We only have the hunt!” Searle’s voice rang with authority. “You have no idea! It isn’t just about finding food for winter. We are not after the animals in the forest, you silly child. We’re after a much grander prize! We’re after the Nethfey!”
“You’re lying!” I cried, but my voice wavered unconvincingly.
“We will have our revenge on those creatures!” Searle vowed. “Run along baby, play with your stupid dolly. You’re too young to understand.” With those words, Searle strode away, Kaemin in tow.
The Nethfey were just stories, told to scare children. Beings of the other world, parallel to ours, they were beautiful and cruel, clever and malicious. They were magical beings, with incredible powers. There were plenty of stories about them. Some were nice stories, but most were not. For the Nethfey were tricksters, and loved nothing more than to prey on unsuspecting humans.
Kaemin went away on the hunt and returned as changed as the rest of my brothers. I lost my own innocence that day also. I saw them return, father leading the troupe, followed by my brothers.
As always, they rode in order of their ages. Ransley the oldest, came first behind father. Thaman followed, two years behind Ransley. Next the first set of twins, Malik and Ostin, side by side. Next, Irwin, Celtyn, Delquan then the other twins: Cadell and Ammon. Bayron was followed by Searle and then lastly came Kaemin, looking a little green but determined and grim. And I saw the blood. So much blood.
I watched from my bedroom window, clutching the doll Searle had scorned earlier, as they celebrated their victorious hunt.
The hunt always took place on the last day of autumn, the same day my mother had died. My birthday.
It marked seventeen years today. I was seventeen. I should already have been married by now; my mother had already had her first child when she was my age. But father had been somewhat slow to arrange my betroval. Not that I cared. I felt no love for the man father had chosen. Nate was a fine man, nice looking; quiet. A little boring in fact. I was in no rush to marry. After all… who wants to marry a man named Nate? I must sound terribly picky but I wasn’t. In truth I simply yearned for adventure. As do most maids my age I guess. I wanted more. Much more. I dreamed of the adventure that bordered on dangerous. Terrifying yet thrilling.
I never expected anything to happen.
After Ransley caught me spying on the stairs, I retreated to my room for awhile. I sat down in front of my mirror and scowled at my reflection.
I wasn’t unattractive, I knew that. In fact I was the opposite. I was stunning. I sound incredibly vain, but I’m not.
People were forever stopping me on the street to tell me how beautiful I was.
‘Look just like your Mam, you do!’ they’d exclaim. ‘So beautiful!’
I should be grateful, I suppose. At least I wasn’t hideous or disfigured. But it was my face, my beautiful face which made my father and brothers hate me so much. For I was a constant reminder of what they’d lost. I was a poor second to her too, I knew. I had her beauty but I was my own person.
My hair was a mass of pale sunshine ringlets. My eyes were wide and bright cornflower blue. My lips were the colour of a perfect red rose. My skin was porcelain white, which never freckled even though I was so pale.
I was too perfect looking. I hated it.
That night I stayed in my room, missing the evening meal. I had my maidservant Tilda bring my meal to my room. It was not unusual for me to eat alone in my quarters; my family barely noticed my absence.
I hid part of my meal in a small container, I knew Tilda wouldn’t realise.
I allowed Tilda to help me dress for bed and retired early, though I knew I would not sleep.
I lay awake for hours, until the rest of the household fell asleep. My father had been carried to bed a few hours ago, drunk as anything. It was always the way the night of the hunt. But this year something was different. I couldn’t quite place it, but I knew I wanted to find out what it was.
I waited till I was certain all was still before I got out of bed. I slipped on my silk robe and slippers. I shivered a little, looking out the window at the blood red silhouette of Xilyka. Blood moon was a regular occurrence on my birthday – most regarded it as an evil omen. I knew better however.
When Xilyka is crimson, the veil between the worlds of fey and humankind is at its most vulnerable. Xilyka turned red on the eve of my birthday and stayed blood coloured for three nights afterwards.
The first night it is at its strongest, which is why my father and brother’s went on the hunt the first day.
I collected the container with the food I’d kept aside and also took a goblet of wine with me. I slipped silently out of my room and headed down the stairs towards the deepest, darkest part of our home. The dungeons.
My eyes could see easily in the dark and I avoided the creaks and squeaks I knew could give me away on the stairs.
I waited in the shadowy doorway of the dungeons for an instant, relieved to see there was no one on guard. Once I felt my breathing subside, I moved forward, ever silently, to view the captive.
I don’t know what I expected. Claws? Fangs? Blood red eyes? Certainly nothing like this.
For the woman who was curled up in the corner did not look at all threatening.
Her hair was like a black curtain of silk, which hung down her slim back, almost to her knees. Her eyes were wide and the most incredible forest green, unlike any colour eyes I had seen before. She had flawless golden skin and was not much taller than myself. She pushed back her gorgeous hair to reveal tiny delicate pointed ears. She was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen in my life.
Her amazing eyes were watching me warily. She was pretending that she wasn’t scared but I could smell her fear mixed with a dash of curiosity. I could also feel the anger seeping out of her every pore.
I swallowed hard. I knew that if my brothers caught me here my life would not be worth living. I put my finger to my lips, hoping she would understand to stay silent. She gave a short nod, her eyes regarding me suspiciously.
I pushed the small bundle of food through the bars. She sniffed it hungrily. I felt a sudden pulse of magic as she tested the food for poison, before scoffing it down hungrily.
I squatted down beside the iron bars that separated us and slid the wine goblet through to her. She tested the drink too before taking a gulp.
The food disappeared quickly.
As she ate, I wondered how such an exquisite creature had been caught. She did not appear to be hurt. I eventually caught sight of the arrow. It had caught her in the ankle. She’d obviously snapped it and pulled it out herself. Her ankle had been tightly bound with rough material from her tattered gown. She caught me watching her, making me blush. She was still wary, but not as scared as she had been.
I didn’t try to talk to her. I simply left her and returned to my bed chamber.
I did not sleep well however. Her face haunted my dreams. I tossed and turned, finally waking late the next morning, bleary eyed and low spirited.
I went through my usual rituals of washing, dressing and eating with a heavy heart. Tilda chatted merrily to me, in an effort to cheer me up. I smiled dutifully but silently willed her to leave me alone.
I walked around the gardens alone after my morning lessons were over. My governess had been most displeased with me but I was too deep in my own thoughts to care. All I could think of was the Nethfey creature, locked away, in the dark, dank dungeons, where my brothers were most likely torturing her.
The hours ticked away slowly. I made an appearance at dinner, sitting silently as my brothers and father discussed matters of business I did not understand. They did not speak of the Nethfey. It was as if they’d forgotten she existed. But I knew better. I picked at my food, concealing what I could in the heavy pockets of my gown.
Once the meal was finally over, I excused myself, leaving the men to their drinking.
I waited, fidgeting in my room, for the house to fall asleep. Tilda dressed me for bed, but as soon as she left, I re-dressed myself in my warmest clothes.
I knew that I could not allow my brothers to hurt this creature again. She did not deserve any fate my brothers had in mind for her, regardless of what she was or what she represented.
I would have to act fast. When the house finally fell silent, I slipped down to the kitchens and stole as much food as I could from the larder, unsure how much I would need.
We would have to flee on foot, for it would be too hard to steal two horses. Besides, I didn’t know if she rode.
I crammed everything in a hunting pack I stole from the weapon room. I took everything I could think of: food, water, candles, blankets and anything else I saw that I thought might come in handy. I did not know how far I would have to travel to help the Nethfey return home.
I hefted the pack on my back and quickly made my way to the Nethfey.
When I reached her cell, I recoiled with shock at the sight of her.
Her silky hair was matted with blood. Her face was covered in bruises and cuts. The pointed tips of her ears had been cut off. She was almost completely naked, a thin blanket her only covering. Her thin body was also covered in bruises, welts, cuts and blood. I was horrified.
It was strange though. Her ankle had completely healed from where the arrow had struck her. It was the only skin left perfect.
Hot tears filled my eyes. Tears of anger and shame that my own brothers had inflicted such unnecessary torture. Tears of pity. She had not deserved this. Her fear and pain was emanating off her in waves. I staggered under the strength of it. I took a deep breath. I needed to be strong.
I could see by looking at her that she wasn’t fit to walk anywhere.
I picked the lock of her cell with a hairpin, a skill I’d picked up after being locked in plenty of times by my brothers. I pulled off my coat and gently dressed her, as she moaned softly.
I would have to re-think my plan. I swung my pack around, positioning it on my front. I then draped her thin arms around my neck, hefting her onto my back. She was only a little thing, but then so was I. I grunted under her weight, but fear gave me strength. Carrying the prisoner, I escaped the house, heading to the stables.
I lay the Nethfey on the straw as I saddled my horse, nickering softly under my breath to keep him quiet. I have no idea how I managed to get her on the horse, but somehow I coped. I stole a heavy riding coat to ward off the chill and then, quiet as I could, led my horse out of the stables, praying hard that we could get away undetected.
Someone was watching over us that night, whether they were protecting me or her, I’m still not sure. We managed to get a good head start. I had no idea where we were heading but I led my little horse Belfa through the forest, hoping another Nethfey would find us to take her off my hands. I had no idea what I would do if they did though. I couldn’t go home now. That was certain. I was terrified but elated. I was free for the first time in my life.
The sky was beginning to lighten when the Nethfey finally stirred. I had sensed her healing herself, using her magic at a startlingly accelerated rate. I knew that it was hurting her, the healing; but she must’ve realised the danger and decided that it was worth the risk. When I next looked at her, I was relived to see that her ears had grown back. She was still covered in blood, but it was no longer fresh. She was in some kind of coma, something to do with the healing I guessed. I left her alone.
As the first rays of sunshine pierced through the trees and lit up the forest floor, I felt a pair of eyes watching me and realised she’d woken up.
I turned to look at her.
“Water?” she croaked. I stopped the horse immediately, hurrying around to her. I held the water skin up to her and waited whilst she gulped down the liquid of life. When she’d had enough, she passed it back to me. I took a swig of my own before putting it away. I was about to say something to her when she stiffened.
“What is it?” I asked quickly.
“Horses. Men are coming, fast. We are being pursued at last.” She whispered.
I heard them then: hoof beats pounding the forest floor.
I did not hesitate. I threw myself up behind her and kicked Belfa’s flank hard, sending him cantering for our lives through the woods. I started out leading, but the Nethfey took the reins from me, urging Belfa to a path I had never seen before.
I could feel my brothers, since it could be no others, getting closer. I heard their angry shouts and squeezed my eyes shut for a few moments, muttering prayers under my breath.
I could feel my dress getting wet. The Nethfey was leading Belfa through a shallow river. I opened my eyes and screamed as Belfa galloped straight towards the edge of a monstrous waterfall. I tried to wrestle the reins away from the Nethfey but she ignored me, leading Belfa determinedly towards the waterfall and certain death.
I turned back, giving my brothers one final look. They shouted helplessly at me from the edge of the river. I saw the fear in their eyes and knew it was reflected in my own. I could not jump from Belfa's back, an unknown force held me there. I do not know if it was because I was afraid of where either path would lead. Death seemed safer than my brother’s wrath. I suddenly realised my father was there also, a terrible look in his eyes.
His face was the last thing I saw before we plunged over the edge of the massive waterfall.
We did not die. I still did not realise that it was not death’s embrace the Nethfey was rushing towards but a portal into another world. Her world.
The roar of the falls echoed in my ears but it was behind us now, not under us. We were on solid ground once again. Belfa slowed down at the Nethfey’s unspoken command. I had still not relaxed. I held onto the Nethfey tightly, so tight that she sucked in a painful breath, shocking me enough to loosen my grip.
“I’m sorry.” I mumbled. “I thought…” my words trailed away.
She laughed; a silvery coated sound. “Did you think we were going to die? I wasn’t about to kill myself after you so kindly saved my life!”
I looked around us. We were still in a forest, but it was more beautiful than anything I had ever seen before. The air was thick with amazing smells: flowers and honey, spicy but sweet. Every flower was perfectly formed, every petal, every leaf shone a dazzling colour.
I knew I was truly in another world.
We had not gone far into the forest before it thinned out, revealing a silver cobbled path stretching down into a stunning valley where an incredible city rose. Silver spires reached for the heavens. Delicate huts of all shapes and sizes lined the silver cobbled streets. People came out of their homes as we trotted into the city, staring at us.
They were not all people exactly. I found myself staring back, remembering stories, realising that most of them had more than likely been true.
A woman with fine golden fur, a long thin tail and a very feline looking face bared her sharp pointed teeth and hissed at me as we passed. I drew back in fear but the woman sitting on the horse in front of me simply laughed.
“Do not mind Selcha.” She said. “She is just jealous.”
I said nothing. I was very confused.
By the time we reached the Palace gates, we had quite a large crowd behind us. Two stern looking guards allowed us through but held back the mob.
Inside the gates, we finally slid off Belfa’s back. A small monkey looking man raced out and took his lead, taking him away. The Nethfey grabbed my arm and led me into the Palace.
We made our way through splendid hallways of incredible riches, making me feel smaller and smaller, dirtier and uglier as we went.
When we finally stopped, the Nethfey turned to me.
“Say nothing unless you are spoken to.” she warned before pushing open an enormous set of doors to reveal a massive court room.
The room was full of all kinds of strange but beautiful people. Some were half animal like the cat woman Selcha and the monkey man from outside. But they all had one thing in common: astonishing beauty.
At the head of the room sat a magnificent set of thrones. Delicately carved from platinum gold, they were an incredible work of art. Their magnificence paled in comparison to the woman who was seated upon one however. The throne on her left was empty.
As I entered with my companion, the room went silent and everyone fell to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the floor. The lady on the throne stood up, disbelief and joy etched in her features. She was old, but her age was not apparent by any wrinkles like normal people. In fact, she looked quite young; it was only that her long curly hair was snow white and that her cornflower blue eyes looked ancient.
“Elysta! You have returned to us!” she cried.
The Nethfey who had led me to the Nethfey kingdom, stopped and bowed low.
“Majesty. I have accomplished the task which you have set me. I have returned.” She stated.
The Queen of the Nethfey’s nodded. “You endured much hardship, I see. You may have healed yourself but you are but a delicate shell still. I warned you of the trials you would endure but you went anyway. You have shown true courage and proven your loyalty. You have gained favour in my eyes once again, Elysta. I thank you.”
I looked at Elysta and knew the Queen spoke truly. Although her wounds were healed, she had not healed her heart or her mind. My brothers had hurt her far worse than I had realised.
The Queen finally turned her eyes to me. “Come here child.” She instructed.
I obediently moved forward, closer to her and bowed low.
“Your Majesty, allow me to present Morgannah Sildyn.” Elysta announced, stepping backwards.
“Your brothers hurt you far worse than you realise too,” the Queen said knowingly.
I blinked, startled. “I’m not sure I know what you mean, your Majesty.”
“Do you know why you’re here child?” the Queen asked, acting as if I’d never spoken.
I shook my head, dipping a small curtsey at the same time. “I imagine it was because Elysta had no time to let me off before she escaped home, your Majesty.” I offered.
A few people tittered, making me feel even more foolish.
Again, the Queen ignored my answer. “Why did you rescue her?” she asked instead. “One of the horrible Nethfey’s, whom the rest of your family delight in taking vengeance on, year after year. You know why they hunt us, I take it?” she asked, peering down at me with her huge knowing eyes.
I gathered my courage. “Because you killed my mother.”
The Queen laughed. She actually laughed! I felt my anger simmering… then die at her next words.
“We did not kill your mother. She died giving birth to you. No child; that is
not why they hunt. Not for revenge as you have always thought, but to protect. Can you think what it is they are protecting?”
I was very confused. “I cannot say, your Majesty.” I replied.
The Queen leaned forward and looked me hard in the eye.
“Why, you.” She said simply.
“Me? From what?”
“From us! Us evil Nethfey who are coming to take you away!” the Queen laughed again.
“I do not understand. What interest do the Nethfey have in one such as I?” I asked.
The Queen sobered. “Let me tell you a story.” She said, sitting back down in her throne. “Once, long ago, there was a beautiful Princess. She was loved by many but she loved only one. The problem with this was that the Princess and her love were worlds apart, literally. So she beseeched her mother, the Queen to let her go and marry her love. She threatened to kill herself if she could not go. The Queen loved her daughter so of course did not want to let her go but she did not want her to kill herself either. Also, her world needed a Queen to take over when she died. So she allowed her daughter to go, but only if she promised that her first daughter would be sent back to the Queen to take her place as heir. The daughter promised and went far away to her love, where they married and had many children, all sons. Alas, twenty long years passed and the couple believed they were blessed with the arrival of their twelfth and last child – another son. They rejoiced, forgetting the promise. Five more years passed and the Princess had an unexpected pregnancy – a daughter. But this was not like the last times, the birth was difficult and the Princess sadly died. Her husband was beside himself. He blamed the Queen, even though she had nothing to do with it. He swore they would never have his daughter and ensured that there was no way they could take her. For the veil between the worlds is only open for a short window of time. He knew if he protected his daughter during that time, she would be safe. He forgot the good twenty five years he had with his beloved. He forgot everything, including caring for the daughter he so fiercely protected. His heart changed over the years. But the fate of the daughter was already set in stone, held in place by a promise that could not be broken. Another seventeen years passed, but time was running out for the Queen. For it was nearing the time for her to pass her crown. Her King had long since gone through the gates of death. So we resorted to trickery. The only way we knew to get our true Queen home. Elysta offered herself and so she was sent, to bring you home. We all thought she’d fail. But she proved us wrong. For here you are.”
She smiled down at me. “Have you never wondered why you can feel things other people could not? Fear, pain, love, hate on others? It is because of who you are. It is because you are the heart of the Nethfey. Just as I was. But I now must pass the crown on, to you.”
I felt faint. I looked around the room, drinking it all in. I thought of my father’s face, before we’d leapt over the waterfall’s edge. He’d known where we were going, I realised. It was not sadness in his eyes, but anger. Fury at his failure. I was no longer afraid of the future. I was content. For the first time in my life, I knew where I belonged.
I was home.