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FAE HORSE: A Faerie Tale
Copyright 2014 Anthea Sharp. All rights reserved. Cover: Night Queen by Neighko, used with permission. Background by Chorazin, licensed via Fotolia
If the men caught her, they would tie her to the stake and set the fire.
Eileen O’Reilly crouched beneath a hawthorn tree, her heartbeat dinning in her ears so loudly it nearly drowned out the sound of her pursuers. Torchlight smeared the night, casting fiendish shadows over the hedgerows. She clenched her hands in her woolen skirt and gasped for air, trying to haul breath into her shaking lungs.
She had heard there was no worse agony than burning alive.
The flames would scorch and blister her skin before devouring her, screaming, as her bones charred. Eileen swallowed back bile.
Shredded clouds passed over the face of the half moon. One moment, sheltering darkness beckoned; the next, the newly-planted fields were washed with silver, her safety snatched away.
“I see her—there, across the field!”
Cursing the fickle moon, and her fair hair, which had surely given her away, Eileen leaped to her feet and ran. She crashed through a thicket, heedless of the thorns etching her skin with blood. In the distance she heard the pounding waves below the cliffs of Kilkeel.
Better a death by water than by flame. There was no other escape.
Five months ago, when the new vicar came to town with his fierce sermons and piercing gaze, she had not seen the danger. She’d lived in the village most of her life, first as apprentice to her aunt, then later taking on the duties of herb-woman and midwife.
But Reverend Dyer sowed fear and superstition—an easier harvest to reap than charity and love, to be sure.
Eileen stumbled, falling to her hands and knees in the soft soil. Get up, keep running. She must not give in, though her side ached as if a hot poker had been driven through it, and the air scraped her laboring lungs.
“There’s no escape, witch!” The vicar’s voice, deep and booming, resonated over the fields.
The stars above her blurred, and she tasted the salt of her own desperate tears. She risked a glance over her shoulder.
If she did not find a hiding place, they would catch her before she reached the cliffs. She veered toward the remains of the ancient stone circle that stood beyond the fields. Only two of the stones remained upright, the rest tumbled and broken. Still, she might find some shelter there.
She reached the ruin, and a figure loomed before her, large and dark. Lacking the breath to scream, Eileen staggered to a halt. What new enemy was this?
Four-legged and blacker than the shadows, it let out a soft whicker. A horse, untethered, with a rope halter dangling from its neck.
Blessing her luck, Eileen caught the rope. It stung her hands, as though woven of nettles, but she did not care. Hope flared up, painfully bright. She might yet live to see the dawn.
“Easy now,” she whispered, forcing back the panic pounding through her.
The horse was tall, and lacked any saddle or bridle. She gazed up at it and choked on misery. Her escape was in her hands, but she could not mount it unaided.
“Quick, lads!” the vicar bellowed.
Now, she must go now. For a strangled second she considered kicking the horse and holding fast to the rope, letting it drag her to her death.
A faint glimmer of gray caught her eye—a fallen stone tangled in the tall grasses. She tugged, and the horse followed her to the stone. Fingers trembling, trying to ignore the pounding footsteps of the men of Kilkeel, she scrambled onto the stone and pulled the horse close.
“Grab the witch!” That was Donal Miller, whose advances she had spurned. “She’s summoned her familiar. Stop her!”
Torchlight flared orange and red against the horse’s glossy hide. It rolled its eye, the white showing, and whinnied, high and strange.
The men were almost upon her. With a cry, Eileen tangled her hands in the horse’s mane and heaved herself up.
“A devil steed! Catch it!”
As if only waiting for her to mount, the horse leaped forward. Hemmed in by the men, it let out a shrill whinny and rose up, hooves flashing. The coarse mane cut into her palms as she clung there, half falling. She must not slide off.
The horse stamped and feinted. She heard the thunk of hooves on flesh, and two of the men cried out in pain. Then they were through, bowling past the grasping hands and shouted curses. Eileen held on as the jolting pace smoothed into a gallop and the cries of the men grew distant.
Slowly, her breath returned, the stark edge of her fear blunted. She had escaped—for now.
But what of Aidan? His name was a knife through her chest.
Did her true love still live?
When Young Sean, the village simpleton, had come to tell her that Aidan had fallen into a fever, she’d gathered her herbs and charms and raced to the cottage he shared with his mother. The widow had grudgingly opened the door, her eyes narrowed in animosity. Eileen had handed the woman the herbs for a soothing tisane. Then, as planned, Young Sean caused a racket, freeing the widow’s chickens and chasing them about the yard.
The moment Aidan’s mother went to tend her fowl, Eileen darted into the cottage and rushed to Aidan’s side. His dark hair was plastered with sweat to his forehead, and he shivered uncontrollably beneath the blankets. She dropped a kiss on his brow, flinching at the heat rising off him. As she slipped the charm over his neck, his skin scorching her hands, he mumbled. A coughing spasm shook him. When it finished he lay in a stupor, breath wheezing in and out of his lungs.
“Peace, mo chroi,” she said, then softly wove the words to send him into a healing sleep.
’Twas perilous, to take a person to that between place, but Aidan was gravely ill. Even a few minutes of that enchanted rest would do much to ease the sickness. Her charm would protect him while his body fought for life.
However, if he slept too long the connection would fray, then break. Aidan’s soul would slip free, and death would bear him away into the West.
She began singing the song to draw him back.
“Eileen,” Young Sean whispered at the window. “Reverend Dyer is coming, fetched by the widow. Go!”
Fear stabbed through her, but she must remain. She must finish the song and draw Aidan back to the waking world.
“Witch!” The vicar slammed into the cottage and grabbed her by the hair.
Her scalp burned and tears pricked her eyes from the pain, but she continued to sing. Nearly done. One more phrase…
Reverend Dyer clapped a hand over her mouth, his skin stinking of onions. To ensure her silence, he pinched her nostrils shut. Eileen clawed at his arm, her cries muffled by his meaty palm.
“Do not think to ensnare me with your spells,” he said.
“Cast her out,” the widow cried, her face twisted with hatred. “Keep her away from my son.”
“We will do better than that.” The vicar grasped Eileen’s arm, his fingers digging into her flesh. “We will burn her.”
Panic gave her the strength to whip her head free. “No! You must let me wake Aidan. The danger—”
“Aiee!” The widow had gone to Aidan’s side and spied Eileen’s charm. Now it dangled from her wizened fingers, broken.
“Proof,” she spat. “This evil creature has had dark designs on my boy since the day she set eyes upon him. Look, she has cursed him.”
Eileen writhed in the vicar’s grasp.
“He will die,” she gasped. “I must—”
“Out!” the widow shrieked. “Take her!”
“I’ll lock her in my cellar until the pyre is built,” Reverend Dyer said, shoving Eileen before him.
She stumbled over the threshold, then caught her balance. Though she knew it was hopeless, she broke free of his grasp, gathered up her skirt, and ran.
The vicar would have retaken her, but for Young Sean. He threw a chicken at the vicar’s face, granting her precious time to pelt from the yard. He would likely be whipped for it, poor man.
Now Aidan’s spirit was in terrible danger, spinning out into the mist. She must turn her mount back toward the village and wake her beloved, before it was too late.
The black horse galloped madly through the night, avoiding every obstacle with uncanny precision. The ground blurred beneath them with sickening speed.
“Turn,” she cried, yanking at the coarse mane.
Once. Twice. Thrice, until her hands stung, her muscles burning with effort.
The horse did not respond. Eileen might as well be a gnat on its hide for all the notice it paid. For one mad moment, she considered throwing herself off. But the risk was too great. She could not return to save Aidan if she broke her leg, or worse.
Over the thud of her mount’s hooves come the boom and crash of the surf.
They were racing straight for the cliffs. Ahead, the stars were a veil reaching down past the horizon, disappearing into the dark Irish Sea.
“Stop! Please, stop.” She pulled back with all her strength.
Her mount did not slow. Below them, the sea glimmered and heaved.
Eileen tried to release the horse’s mane, but the strands were wrapped tightly around her fingers.
“Let me go!”
Heart pounding, she yanked. Her hands would not come free. She attempted to leap off, but her legs were bound fast to the horse’s sides. She screamed and thrashed in panic, banging her elbows against the horse’s shoulders.
They reached the cliff’s edge.
Eileen’s stomach churned as grass turned to empty air. Then they were falling, plummeting to their doom.
She found that, after all, she rather desperately wanted to live.
The water swirled restlessly beneath them. Eileen squeezed her eyes shut. She could not bear to watch the surface coming closer, closer. Or worse, the teeth of the hungry rocks, waiting to crush her body and spit it into the sea.
They hit the water with a crash. She gulped in a breath as the sea grabbed her legs, her arms, then closed relentlessly over her head.
She tightened her legs around the horse, the only warm thing in a world of shivering salt. Its withers bunched as it swam. They must be close to the surface. They must.
Lungs clenching with the need to breathe, she tipped her head back and opened her eyes, blinking past the sting and blur.
The wavering moon lapped the water, high overhead. The horse was not struggling toward the surface. Betraying its fey nature, it swam strongly downward, untroubled by the need for air. The surface glimmered, receding, and she could not free herself.
So, it was to be death by drowning after all.
Eileen released her breath in a silver stream of bubbles. They raced away from her lips, uncatchable. Crying, though she could not feel the tears, she laid her cheek against the water horse’s neck. In another moment, she must gulp in the harsh tang of salt water. It would fill her, smother her—but at least it would be a quick end.
“You are brave, for a human.” The words sounded in her head, the voice low and amused.
It was the uncanny creature she rode, speaking to her; or it was her own mind, conjuring up visions as she descended into her doom.
“Release me!” She aimed the thought at the black head bobbing through the water in front of her. “Or do you want a sodden corpse bound to your back for a blanket?”
She must breathe—her body demanded air. Against her will, Eileen’s mouth opened and she gasped in the cold seawater. Choking, she doubled over on the horse’s back as the water invaded the warmth of her throat and stopped her lungs.
Cold, and bitter, the weight of the sea lay heavy on her chest. She was dimly aware of silver spattering the surface above her head.
Then, with a thrust, the horse burst into the air, spray flying in a mighty gout. Eileen leaned over her mount’s neck and heaved up water. She coughed and vomited, the agony in her lungs like a thousand stabbing pins.
Finally, teeth chattering and fingers numb, she pulled in a breath of sweet, sweet air. The horse bore her strongly through the heavy wash of the sea, no longer seeming intent on drowning her.
“Thank you,” she whispered into its thick, black mane.
Her mount veered, swimming toward the rocky beach. Low, shadowed hills rose behind, and further down the coast the cliffs shone. Eileen coughed again and huddled against the horse’s burning heat as the waves shoved against her.
“Do not thank me yet, human girl,” came the reply. “The night is not ended.”
The voice she’d heard beneath the water had not been her imagination. It held the echo of terror, a darkness she did not want to heed too closely.
“What are you?” she asked. “A kelpie?”
Even as she spoke the word, she knew it to be untrue. A kelpie would have taken her directly to the bottom of the sea, delighting in the drowning.
“Then you are a púca.”
Her aunt had raised her on tales of the fair folk. Indeed, she should have realized her peril far sooner, but fear had blinded her in one eye, and hope in the other.
“Not just any púca. I am Tromluí, shredder of sanity, waker in the night. The longer you remain astride me, the more of your mortal soul you will lose. You should have chosen drowning, girl.”
Eileen shuddered, cold to her marrow.
Better to be trapped on a kelpie’s back. But no, she was astride the NightMare. She might live to see the dawn, but only as a madwoman, chased by stones and suspicion from village to village, cackling in the grip of her lunatic visions.
The mare strode up from the sea, hooves clattering against the stones of the beach. Overhead, the half moon shone, a bowl of whitest milk. At first the air seemed warm, but in moments Eileen’s skin prickled with gooseflesh. Her hair hung in a soggy plait down her back and saltwater dripped into her face, stinging her eyes.
“Will you let me go?” she asked, despairing at the answer.
“Shall I?” The mare’s voice was ice and midnight. “I might climb into the stars and release you there, high above the earth. For a short time you would know what it is to fly.”
The copper taste of desperation flavored Eileen’s mouth. Indeed, she rode a dreadful creature. But she was not dead. Not yet.
Possibilities, sharp and painful, brought her upright, her mind racing. It was perilous to bargain with the fey folk—beyond perilous—but this night was full of wild chance. Already she had escaped death by fire, then by water.
“I will remain upon your back,” she said. “But I demand a boon.”
The NightMare turned her neck, regarding Eileen with an eye the color of moonbeams.
“It amuses me to hear your request. What is it you desire?”
Eileen swallowed and forced her voice to steadiness. “Help me save my beloved, Aidan.”
She had sent his soul spinning from his body, and she must return it. No matter how dire the consequences.
“This is no small thing you ask,” the mare said. “There will be a price, mortal.”
“I will pay,” Eileen said recklessly.
The horse gave a high whinny. Through the clear, still air Eileen heard the ring of chimes.
“Our bargain is sealed,” the mare said. “Now hold fast, for we have far to journey ‘ere the sun rises.”
The NightMare leaped forward, muscles bunching beneath Eileen’s legs. The rocky clatter of the beach fell behind as the mare galloped up the long rise of hills, leaping low stone walls and skirting tangles of briars. Eileen ceased shivering as the night wind dried her dress and the NightMare’s heat seeped into her body.
With every stride, something burned away in Eileen’s blood. She could feel her earliest memories shred and tatter, but she clung tightly to every thought of Aidan.
Near the top of the highest hill, the mare slowed, her hoof beats no longer the frantic race of a pulse but the slow stutter of a dying heart. A dark maw gaped in the side of the hill; the doorway to a barrow grave. Starlight picked out the gray stones outlining the opening, but within was sheer blackness.
As if aware of their presence, a dank wind moved from the depths of that hole. Eileen, her hands freed from the NightMare’s mane, covered her nose at the stench of old, dead things.
A large, flat stone scribed with spirals marked the threshold. The mare raised one hoof and brought it sharply down upon the stone. Bright sparks skittered, followed by a distant, booming echo. Twice more the mare knocked, and each time the sound grew closer, until it vibrated Eileen’s very bones.
The air of the doorway wavered, like a pond stirred by the wind.
“We pass now into the Realm,” the NightMare said. “You must remain on my back, no matter the sights you see or the danger you face. Are you ready?”
“Yes.” The syllable floated up from Eileen’s mouth, a fragile moth lost in the night.
The mare stepped forward. As they passed over the threshold, Eileen felt a terrible pain, as though angry wasps swarmed over her. She bit her lip and drove her fingernails into her palms, determined not to cry out.
Inside the barrow a pallid light spread, illuminating a stone-lined corridor with a corbelled roof. Rank fungus, pale and misshapen, grew along the edge of the flagstone floor and clumped in crevices on the walls. The stinging pain passed, but the clammy air lay heavy against her skin.
She cast a look over her shoulder, straining for one last glimpse of the night sky before the mare bore her deeper in. The stars were tiny pricks of light, washed dim by the moon. Then the opening was blocked by a shambling figure. The barrow light illuminated its skeletal form, ancient skin shriveled tight against the bone. Tattered rags hung from its limbs and a golden torc encircled its neck, marking it as a chieftain of yore.
From the skull-like face, empty sockets regarded her. Deep within lurked a spark of eldritch fire. The corpse opened its mouth in a soundless laugh.
Eileen pivoted away and leaned over the mare’s neck, hoping her mount might hurry, but the NightMare continued her measured pace down the corridor. Another memory untangled itself from Eileen’s mind, flared and burned down to ash.
The echo of hoof beats was soon muted by the slither and scrape of dozens of footsteps.
Throat dry, Eileen glanced behind her again, and smothered a scream. The dead followed, patient in their stalking. Your beloved will soon join us, their tongueless mouths seemed to say.
“No,” she whispered.
The barrow amplified the sound, turning it into a long “ohhh” of despair.
“Quiet,” the mare said. “Or do you wish to bring the bean sidhe for a visit as well?”
Eileen had been afraid before, but this slow, creeping terror held her nearly paralyzed. What if the NightMare chose to stop and allow the restless corpses to touch her with their rotting fingers? Would they merely stroke the resilience of her living flesh, or would they gouge great handfuls, feasting on her in a vain bid to regain their own vitality?
From the avid lights in their eye sockets, she very much feared the latter.
The mare bore her past an opening to her left, filled with the tang of blood and the sighing of the sea. Then an opening to her right, where noxious vapors swirled. Eyes stinging, Eileen buried her face in the crook of her elbow and tried not to inhale. Her heart beat hard and fast, knocking against the fragile prison of her ribs.
She did not need to look back to hear the following dead.
At length, her mount brought her to the central chamber. The pale light revealed crumbling treasures in the corners: rotted linens, tarnished silver set with dully gleaming gems, a golden goblet with one side crushed in as though it had been used as a weapon in some vicious fight.
In the center of the room lay a stone slab, and upon that slab…
She swung her leg over the mare’s broad back, and only a shrill whinny of warning made her halt. Mere inches from dismounting, Eileen scrabbled back onto the horse. The dead hissed in disappointment behind her.
Hands trembling with impatience, she forced herself to be still as the NightMare stepped up to the slab.
Aidan lay as if asleep—or lifeless. His eyes were closed, and he was dressed in the raiment of an ancient king, with gold armbands encircling his biceps and thin circlet set upon his brow.
Digging her fingernails into her palms, Eileen watched his chest, straining for a sign of breath. At last, it rose in a long, slow inhalation. She slumped back, tears pricking her eyes.
“He lives,” she whispered.
“Not for long,” the mare replied. “You may step down now, but stay upon the marble verge. Should your foot touch the flagstones, you will be lost, and your love as well.”
Eileen slipped down, placing her feet with care. She cupped Aidan’s cheek.
“Wake, beloved,” she said.
He made no response.
“Aidan, please wake.”
She took his shoulders and shook him, gently at first, then harder as he continued his enchanted slumber. A kiss did not wake him, nor a shout. The echoes of her cry woke strange shadows that skittered across the ceiling, but Aidan slept on.
Throat choked with tears, she turned to the mare. “What shall I do?”
“He has dreamed too long, too far from the mortal world. Tír na nÓg calls to him strongly.”
As if confirming the words, the dead lined up in the chamber stirred and rustled. The fallen chieftain took a step forward. Soon, Aidan would be among their number.
No. She refused to let him slip away.
Eileen gazed at his strong, beloved face. Her heart had long belonged to Aidan, since the first time she met him while picking herbs. He was brave and kind, and deserved a long, full life. And he was lost to her, now, whether she lived or died.
“Lie beside him on the slab,” the mare said, “and take his hand.”
The stone chilled her side, but Aidan’s fingers were warm in hers. She watched the excruciatingly slow rise and fall of his chest. With one finger she traced the slope of his nose, the line of his jaw.
She must sing him back.
Pulling in a breath of grave-cold air, she began. His spirit had traveled far down the road to the West, and the simple waking chant would not be enough. It must be a call home, back to the human world.
Her voice filled the chamber as she sang the heat of summer, the call of the thrush, the taste of ripe berries on the tongue. Every warm, vital memory she once owned, she gave to him, spilling it forth. Each word carried more of her humanity out of the shell of her body and into his. The golden plait over her shoulder leached of color, the strands turning an eerie white.
Slowly, the dead began to dissipate, fading under that mortal onslaught.
Eileen sang of fresh-baked bread, a child’s laughter. The humming feel of her hand clasped in his as they laughed together above the ripening fields.
Aidan’s breathing sped, his cheeks flushed with warmth and color.
Three of the dead remained. Then two. Then only the chieftain. It stared at her, bony fingers wrapped around the golden torc at its neck. The cold malevolence of its will dampened the song, chilled the air to ice.
Shivers gripped her, but she raised her voice, defiant. This time, nothing would stop her.
The last syllables faded. The dead chieftain took another step forward, and Eileen caught her breath. Had she failed?
Then Aidan opened his eyes. Turning his head, he smiled at her so freely she felt her heart break in two. From that crack, the last of her mortal essence seeped. The dark form of the NightMare struck her hoof against the slab.
“Eileen?” Aidan asked, blue eyes clouded with confusion.
“Live well,” she said. “Live long, and happily. I will never forget you.”
“Why would you need to? I’m here, beside you.”
She shook her head, her chest aching with sorrow. “There is no future between us, my love. We must part.”
“No! Marry me, I don’t care about—”
She stopped his words with her lips, a last kiss to carry her into the night. He tasted of apples and sunlight; everything now lost to her.
The dead chieftain howled. The mare’s hoof boomed against the stone. And between one heartbeat and the next, Aidan was gone.
Weeping, Eileen bent her forehead to her knees. The breath of the NightMare was hot upon her nape and the stone beneath her wet with salt, with blood.
Yet she remained.
Wondering, she sat and lifted her hand, curling her long, wraithlike fingers. Had she a mirror, the reflection would bear little resemblance to the human features she had once called her own.
“The price has been paid,” the NightMare said. “And I have a new rider. Come.”
The far wall of the barrow clattered down to reveal a night rich with shadows and starlight, and a wild, fey wind that called them to ride.
Eileen-that-was rose from the stone, her body hollowed nearly weightless, freed of memory, freed of hope. She mounted the black horse.
Together, they flew forward into that sweet dark.