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Dunvegan Castle, Isle of Skye, Scotland
Friday, January 1st, 1734
“Desperate situations call for desperate actions,” the fairy Pearl whispered to her daughter, Aria, as they emerged from the cave Pearl had used twice before to breach the veil between the human and fairy realms. Cautiously, she surveyed the area, and startled at the changes that had occurred during her absence. She and Aria had been here four years ago but had been refused help. Today, Pearl hoped for a different outcome, or she would have risked Oberon’s wrath for nothing. Aria deserved a chance at a better life.
As though sensing her distress, Aria curled her hand around her mother’s. “I’d forgotten what a glorious place the human realm is.” Aria pulled Pearl forward into a fern grove near the cave’s entrance that had not been there four years ago. The trees were taller, the landscape more refined. But the golden castle in the distance and the loch behind it looked the same: timeless and strong. Pearl’s fear was replaced with hope as she moved with her daughter down the path, over a wooden bridge, and up to the castle’s gates.
Dunvegan Castle and the clan inside were no strangers to Pearl, even though four centuries had passed since she’d last lived among the MacLeods. Her human husband and son had long since died, but their kin remained. She and Aria had risked too much to turn back now. One way or another, Pearl would find a way to leave her half-human, half-fairy daughter with the MacLeods so that she might thrive instead of suffering daily abuse from the other fairies in Fairyland.
Pearl drew a steadying breath as she stood before the massive gates, waiting for the guard to approach. She forced her lips to smile when he stood before them. “We have come to see Lady Janet MacLeod.” Lady Janet had heard Pearl and Aria’s story four years ago and had allowed them access to the laird, requesting that Aria be able to stay at Dunvegan and be raised amongst the laird’s own children.
“What nature of business do ye have with Lady Janet?” the guard asked with a furrowed brow.
“We are relatives and seek her assistance.” It was something close to the truth. “I am Pearl MacLeod, and this is Aria MacLeod.” Pearl tipped her head in her daughter’s direction.
The guard’s gaze shifted to Aria’s long white hair and ethereal features that were only slightly marred by the purple bruise on her left cheek. A physical remnant of the abuse Aria often suffered from the other fairies. The mental toll was much harder for Pearl to determine, but that last attack was what had brought them here. Aria needed to be with her father’s kind. Though the girl was only half human, Pearl’s experiences among humankind told her Aria would be better off amongst them.
The guard’s furrow deepened. “She doesn’t look like a MacLeod.”
Aria’s features were more suited to fairy kind, but she had her father’s eyes: blue as the skies on a midsummer’s day. Pearl straightened, ready to draw on her fairy magic if necessary to convince the guard to open the gate. “Nevertheless, she is. Will you allow us passage, or should we alert Lady Janet we are here ourselves?”
In the distance, a familiar dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway of the castle. She crossed the courtyard and stopped before the guard. “Is there trouble here, Edmond?”
“These women say they are relatives. They wish tae speak tae ye.”
Lady Janet’s features brightened as she recognised them from their previous visit. Pearl’s looks were unchanged, but Aria had grown into an adult over the last four years. “Let them in.” The woman signalled to the gatekeeper to open the portcullis.
“But milady . . . The laird said—”
The dark-haired woman’s features hardened. “You let me worry about the laird. Raise the gates.”
When the portcullis rose, Pearl and Aria stepped through. The woman pulled them both forward into an embrace. “’Tis happy I am to see you again, but things are no better with the laird this time than the last. His thinking is not quite right . . .”
“We had to come.” Pearl stepped out of the embrace and gestured towards Aria. “After our last attempt to leave Aria in the human realm, Oberon and the other fairies have intensified their abuse of my daughter. They are jealous of the fact that I was allowed to marry Iain Cair MacLeod, bear him a son, and then became pregnant with his daughter before being called back to Fairyland.”
Lady Janet’s features filled with sympathy as she turned to Aria. “I’m so sorry for all you have suffered, but I fear you would be no better off with the MacLeods. My husband has changed from the man I once married after he suffered a head wound in battle. It takes everything inside me to keep him from harming our own children, especially our newest infant, Keiran.”
Pearl was not about to give up. “Could you place Aria with a family in Dunvegan village, please? Anywhere is safer than Fairyland.” Pearl’s voice broke with emotion.
Lady Janet’s gaze turned to Aria and lingered on her bruised face. “If you stay in the human world, you will have to work. Are you prepared for that, Aria?”
Aria straightened. “I am not afraid of hard work.”
Lady Janet nodded. “Will you be staying with her, Pearl?”
“Nay. I must return before Oberon notices that I am gone. It is the only way to keep Aria’s absence a secret from Oberon for now.”
“Very well,” Lady Janet said. “Come with me. I must find a place for you to hide from the laird until I can either pass you off as a newly hired servant or find a place for you in the village. It will give you both a chance to say your goodbyes.”
The three of them hurried back to the open doorway and into the castle. They made it up the wide staircase and were headed towards the bedchambers on the first floor when Norman MacLeod emerged from the great hall with his men, swords drawn.
Lady Janet grabbed both women by the sleeves and turned around, only to have other men race up the staircase and block their retreat.
“Where do you think you are going, my dearest wife?”
Lady Janet’s face paled but she straightened and met the laird’s angry gaze. “These women have come to us for help. It is our Christian duty to help those in need.”
The laird’s eyes narrowed. “These women have been here before and I refused them. How could I ever forget hair as white as snow and as red as the fires of hell?” The laird’s voice grew more intense. “They are fairies, and I told you to send them away four years ago. I’ve not changed my mind in that time, and I do not like having my word undermined by my own wife.”
Pearl’s heart hammered as she sensed both she and Aria as well as Lady Janet were in serious trouble from this man. In four years, his eyes had taken on the same wild glaze that rabid animals possessed.
“Seize these women,” the laird ordered.
Pearl’s mind was racing as she reached for Aria and wrapped her arms around her daughter. She had to think of a way she could use her magic to aid the situation. She controlled sea water in the human realm. A rogue wave from the loch below would never make its way into the castle and disarm these men, but maybe she could create enough of a distraction that they could escape with Lady Janet. Drawing on her powers with a flick of her hand, she summoned a wave. A thunderous sound echoed all around them until a giant wave crashed against the stones of Dunvegan, sending a rumbling sound through the castle. The portraits in the hallway reverberated against the stone wall, momentarily surprising the men.
Pearl used their distraction to push through the men and head down the stairs, her daughter in tow. A heartbeat later the men recovered and started after them, capturing their arms, and yanking them back up the few stairs they had gained.
“Take these women to the dungeon,” the laird ordered, his eyes wild in his ruddy face.
Pearl stared at the man in horror. The walls seemed to be closing in on her as she struggled to make sense of what was happening. The hope she had held in her heart for Aria’s happiness had been replaced by a cold, clawing fear. “Nay, release us and we will return to where we came.”
“It’s too late for that. The first time you came here I asked you never to return. Now I will see that you never do.”
“The MacLeods have always been friends of the fairies.” Pearl’s voice trembled.
“Not this MacLeod, or any other in the future if I have any say in the matter. The gravity of this situation demands that justice be served.” The laird turned away from Pearl and Aria to address his wife. “You disobeyed me, and for that you will be punished.” He paused, scrutinising her face and then the faces of his men for any signs of distaste or disbelief. Satisfied with what he saw, he nodded. “Lock Lady Janet in her chamber. I will deal with her shortly. Then see these women are thrown in the dungeon. Let the pit consume them and all their fairy magic.”
Pearl no longer knew if she were awake or asleep or how many days had passed since she and Aria had been thrown in the pit. The darkness was only broken by slivers of light seeping through the cracks in the wood. The putrid stench of decay filled their lungs. The only sounds that could be heard were the soft echo of their breathing and the skitter of the rodents who somehow managed to survive.
Her mind was a haze as she reached towards Aria at her side. Pearl had been tossed in first and Aria landed on her, softening her fall. Pearl had a gash on her arm with a bone that pierced through. The fall had not killed her, but now she wished that it had. In this world, fairies could die just like humans. Death would have been kinder than the pain and thirst she now experienced.
Neither she nor Aria had spoken during the past two days, if judging the smells coming from the kitchen nearby were an indication of the passing of time. When last they had tried talking, it had required such effort that the words were only slurs of sound as if they had overindulged in the wine that flowed freely in the fairy court.
Soft sounds came from her daughter’s lips. Had Aria found some relief in sleep that Pearl could not? At the thought, Pearl tried to smile, but her parched lips remained downturned, her facial muscles too weak to muster any expression.
As she stared into the darkness, she heard voices in the distance. Then, suddenly a blaze of light came from above, temporarily blinding her. As her eyes began to adjust to the light, she could make out a human silhouette. Both fear and hope ignited every nerve in her exhausted body.
“Take the rope,” a feminine voice called from above.
Lady Janet? The sound of the familiar tones jolted Pearl upright. It was then she saw the rope dangling before her.
“Aria,” Pearl croaked.
Beside her Aria stirred, shielding her eyes against the light.
“Take the rope,” Lady Janet called once more. “Hurry, I beg you.”
Pearl reached up and took the rope to hand it to Aria. “You . . . first.”
Aria shook her head. “Let me help you. My arm is not broken and I’m not as weak as you are.” She took the end of the rope and tied it around Pearl’s waist, tugging on it to make sure it was tight. “She’s ready,” Aria called up.
Pearl felt her body being lifted towards the light, towards freedom. When she reached the top, she rolled over the edge then slumped to the floor, waiting for the two men helping Lady Janet to untie her and drop the rope for Aria’s release. While they worked on bringing Aria out of the pit, Lady Janet brought her water. Pearl sat up and took a sip, which tasted sweet as it slid down her throat, reviving her.
“You need to see a healer, but we have no time for that. My efforts will have to suffice.” Lady Janet yanked Pearl’s arm, setting the bones, then wrapped a thick bandage around the wound before tying it off.
A noise sounded nearby. Pearl turned towards it, her senses so heightened she seemed to hear every movement of the men who aided Aria now, the whisper of the wind outside the castle, the mice still scurrying below in the pit. The next sound was a soft footfall as Lady Janet returned from offering Aria the reviving mixture. “Can you stand?”
Pearl nodded as she tried to straighten. The very act of standing seemed to take all her energy as she nearly collapsed to the floor once more. But the two men who had hauled them out of the pit rushed forward and, with one on either side, they placed her arms around their shoulders, taking all her weight.
“We must go.” Lady Janet signalled for the men to follow her. The four of them hurried past the wine cellar, the kitchen, and into what Pearl’s disorientated mind could only imagine was a space between the castle walls. It seemed like they went on forever until they finally came out of the walls and quickly darted down a set of stairs and out of the castle. Two horses waited there. The men hoisted Pearl upon the back of a brown mare while Aria seated herself on the second horse.
“What about you, Lady Janet?” Pearl forced the words out of her still-raw throat.
“I cannot leave my children. I will suffer whatever consequences that I must for freeing the two of you. But I had to set you free. Now go. The gates are open.” She waved them forward. “May good fortune help you forget what you have suffered amongst the MacLeods.”
Aria urged her horse towards the gates and Pearl’s mare followed. At the gate, Aria looked back at Dunvegan, her eyes blazing. That look said Aria wouldn’t forget what happened here anytime soon.
Beyond the gates, the sun was low in the sky, and tinged with pink and gold. Pearl frowned as they left the castle behind. Her hopes for a life for Aria at Dunvegan were a distant memory, as was Fairyland. “Head north. We will find shelter and rest.”
“Nay, Mother.” Aria’s voice was firm. “You are injured and weak and might not survive if we stay here. We are returning to Fairyland where your magic will heal you.”
“Nay!” Pearl protested weakly.
Aria reached over and snagged the reins from Pearl’s hands, leading them back towards the cave from which they had entered the human realm.
Their return to Fairyland might take months. “The passageway between our two worlds only opens during special times of the year or with extraordinary means. We will not be able to return to Fairyland soon or easily.”
Determination settled in Aria’s features. “I intend to make such a racket that Oberon will hear us and draw us back.”
“Nay. We will be punished.”
“At least we will be alive.”
Pearl’s eyes would have filled with tears had she had the resources to produce them. Instead, the ache in her throat increased, forcing her to swallow hard. She and Aria would return to Fairyland only to become prisoners there. They had barely escaped the fairy king’s wrath four years ago. This time, Oberon would take more drastic measures to trap them in the fairy world forever.
End of Excerpt