The worlds of human and fae are separated for a reason. One faery’s act of kindness is another faery’s act of betrayal. Tadgh faces the consequences for what happened in Thorn Kept. A Tale Before the Trial.
Oct. 31, 1975
Tadgh adjusted his green, cotton tunic and glanced up and down the street. Children ran past in a blur of cheap wigs, face paint, and tulle skirts while he waited on the corner like an overgrown Peter Pan. He fidgeted. Even though it was Halloween he felt silly standing in front of the Sweet Shop in green tights with a cardboard tube covered in brown felt over his back. He knew he wouldn’t feel better until Edna finally turned up dressed as Maid Marian—at least they would look ridiculous together.
His palms were sweaty. What was taking her so long?
A black pickup turned into the gas station cross the street with a gang of teenagers in the bed. Tadgh’s face turned red as the driver pulled a donut so they could point and laugh before they sped off again. Tadgh gritted his teeth and glanced down at his watch. It was a quarter past eight. Edna never ran this late. Sighing, he headed inside the Sweet Shop to use the payphone.
Looking up at the tinkle of the bell over the door, the store owner, Sadie, huffed and pushed back her drooping tinsel halo when he headed for the faded red phone booth in the corner.
While his costume didn’t come with pockets, it did have a small felt pouch that hooked to the belt. Grateful he’d tossed in a handful of loose change to hide what it was really carrying, Tadgh fished out a dime trying not to spill the rest out across the floor. He slid the coin into the pay slot and took a deep breath before he dialed.
“Farrows,” grunted Bill Farrows after the fourth ring. Tadgh cringed.
“Hey, Bill. Is Edna home?”
“You tellin’ me my daughter’s not with you? She left a half hour ago sayin’ she had a date. If I’d known it was with you I’d’ve talked her out of it.” Bill sounded as though he was already four beers into his evening—not that he needed alcohol to share his opinion of Tadgh. “And what self-respectin’ man makes the woman drive herself to a date anyway? Huh? You want to date my daughter you come pick her up.”
“I blew a tire on the way back from delivering a dining room set to Governor Allingham’s house this morning.” It was petty, but Tadgh couldn’t resist the chance to brag. He’d made nearly ten thousand dollars off the ornate table with seating for sixteen, buffet, and china cabinet custom-built for the governor’s wife. On his way out, Mrs. Allingham had asked if he made bedroom furniture too.
“The governor, eh?” Bill tried not to sound impressed. “Don’t know how you find the time for all these projects without help. I hope you’re not cutting any corners just to save a few bucks.” Tadgh couldn’t decide whether to sigh or smirk. If Bill knew the secret to his overnight success it would shock him sober. But even with a few drinks in him the old farmer wasn’t going to believe a story about sleeping beauties and the fae.
“Well thanks Mr. Farrows. I guess Edna got held up by trick or treaters. Have a good evening, Sir.”
“Or she came to her senses and stood you up,” Bill managed to slur out before Tadgh hung up the phone. He glared at the receiver. Once, he’d thought he needed a good paying job to earn Bill Farrows approval, but after nearly six months dating Edna, Tadgh was coming to realize he was just a cantankerous old man. But where was she? Her family’s farm was only fifteen minutes from town. The streets were practically clear of trick or treaters, so what was taking her so long?
Tadgh shivered as a cool breeze tickled the back of his neck. He turned to see what looked like an old woman shuffle through the door. She walked stooped over due to a large hump on her back, and the end of her hooked nose nearly brushed the floor. Menace clouded the air around her with a smell like rotting fish. Tadgh glanced over at Sadie, but she was reading a magazine behind the counter and didn’t so much as look up. Belatedly it occurred to him the door bell hadn’t rung.
Tadgh stayed very still as the newcomer made her way toward him. When she was only ten feet away she stopped and lifted her head. Black shell eyes bulged from her glistening, green face. Her skin flaked in places, and smeared dirt collected in each crease and groove. He leapt back, knocking down a rubber spider Sadie had taped to the wall.
“You alright over there?” Sadie peered over the counter at him. Her eyes didn’t so much as flicker in the hunchback’s direction. Dread pooled in his belly like a tar pit of foreboding. His breathing unsteady, he nodded once to Sadie and turned back to the hag.
“What do you want?”
She bared her blackened teeth in an evil smile.
“My Lord Winterthorn would seek an audience with you.” Her voice was high-pitched and grating, made worse by the sing-song tone she used. He blanched. The last time Tadgh heard the name Winterthorn was the night he freed the Lady, the night she’d given him his powers and vanished into thin air. Winterthorn was the one who trapped her in the old hawthorn. Before she left she swore she was going back to Faerie to make him pay. If he was here now, did that mean that she’d failed?
“Sorry, I’ve kinda got big plans tonight. Maybe some other time.” His voice shook, ruining the confidence he was trying to project. Her laugh was more like a wheeze, and black spittle oozed between her teeth. Even ten feet away her breath reeked like a bog.
“He has something you’re searching for. He bade me bring you this message: An eye for an eye.”
Tadgh’s blood ran cold. Edna. It had to be Edna. Tadgh had helped Winterthorn’s prisoner escape so Winterthorn had captured a new one. But what was he supposed to do? As heroic as it sounded to charge to her rescue, Tadgh knew he was being summoned by a being bordering on a god. If he went, he’d only get them both killed. But the faery lord had Edna. He couldn’t just leave her to die.
“Where is he?”
“Who are you talking to?” Sadie frowned over at him as if she thought he was losing his mind. The hag laughed shrilly, and he shuddered at the sound.
It was only a couple of blocks from the Sweet Shop to the park. With every step Tadgh had to tell himself not to turn back and run. Having lost every encounter with bullies through four years of high school, he didn’t have much faith he would come out on top in a face off with a supernatural being.
The hag led the way, moving briskly in spite of her awkward gait. They didn’t speak. There was nothing more that needed to be said.
Trick or treaters skipped and ran past them. Ghosts, witches, and princesses dressed in old rags pulled over jeans. Though a few of them sent sideways glances at Tadgh, not one of them looked at the real monster hobbling at his side.
They stepped off the sidewalk and headed down the hill toward the playground.
“This is where he holds his court tonight.” The hag bowed until the point of her nose pressed into the gravel. She waved him toward the stand of trees behind the merry go round, wafting the smell of swamp water up his nose. Tadgh put a hand to his head as a wave of vertigo sent his vision swirling.
For the second time in his life an area he knew well altered itself to become alien and strange. Where the street behind the trees should have been now stood a grove of holly trees. A pale silver light outlined the wicked spikes on each leaf.
Tadgh glanced over his shoulder, but the rusty playground he knew had been replaced with trees. When he turned back the hag was gone, but the holly grove loomed. His knees felt like rubber. He wasn’t sure he could just walk in there knowing what awaited him once he stepped inside.
He entered the holly grove. Hoarfrost exploded over the spiked holly leaves, a silent promise his death would be a cold, painful thing of beauty. Flecks of snow stung his cheeks as an icy blast of air revealed the faery he’d been dreading to meet.
Unlike the Lady, who had been so beautiful it scared him, Winterthorn was a disturbing mixture of animal and man. His nose was flat, black, and velvet like a stag’s, but he had the upright build of a man. From his head sprung a crown of antlers so large they got lost in the overhanging limbs. A circlet of holly branches wound around their base.
Winterthorn stirred. A ripple of silver fur emerged from his face before receding back into his gleaming chestnut skin. Uncanny eyes bore into Tadgh. His anger hung heavy in the air like a storm.
“I…I came for Edna.” Tadgh’s voice was barely a thread of sound. Winterthorn’s lip curled, but he still didn’t speak. It gave Tadgh the burst of frustration he needed to find his voice. “Where is she?”
“The answer to that comes at a price,” the dark faery said in a voice cold as a winter night.
Tadgh shivered. He was only human and therefore disposable. The faery lord could easily take what he wanted and go, but he wanted to prove a point first.
“What do you want?”
Winterthorn’s nostrils flared and icicles sharp as knives gouged up out of the ground at Tadgh’s feet.
“My lady was safe until you interfered!” He lunged forward, but drew up sharply, holding himself in check. Tossing his head in agitation, he glared at Tadgh. “Now that you share my predicament perhaps you will be more inclined to undo what you’ve done.” At his words the holly trees behind him rustled. Tadgh backpedaled quickly until he saw the dark parody of the scene he had stumbled upon before.
The largest holly tree twisted and writhed before the trunk split itself open to reveal Edna wrestling in the clutches of a woman made entirely of brambles.
“Tadgh! Oh, thank goodness. Can you help me? I’m stuck.” Her face held nothing more than bemused frustration, and with a sick swirl in his belly Tadgh realized she didn’t see what he saw. She thought she was tangled in a dense briar patch instead of trapped in the tree-woman’s hair. The grove rustled with low eldritch laughter, and Tadgh balled his fists trying to forge courage out of his fear.
“Stop moving,” he said, feeling helpless. “You’ll only make it worse.” She did as he said, but blew an escaped tendril of hair out of her face with a huff.
“Can you believe they’ve let the weeds get this high? It’s a wonder some kid hasn’t poked an eye out on these thorns.” She was babbling. Though she couldn’t see the scene for what it was, on some level Edna knew something was wrong.
“Well, are you just going to stand there or are you going to help me out?”
The green hag reappeared behind Edna’s shoulder. Her hands were smeared with what looked like pitch.
“Leave her alone!” Tadgh dove forward but jagged spears of ice stabbed up from the ground, blocking his path before he could stop her from smearing the ointment over Edna’s eyes.
“Ew! What was that, I think I….” Edna blinked and shook her head hard. Slowly she looked around and the color drained from her face. When she saw the creature that held her she started to scream until she caught sight of Winterthorn, and the cry died in her throat. His tall furred ear flicked with impatience as he slid his gaze back to Tadgh.
“Now that we understand one another I suggest an even exchange. Your lady for mine.” Tadgh grabbed for the pillars, prepared to shatter them to get through. Their surface seared his hands like liquid nitrogen. In the half-second of contact it froze the skin off his palms. A line appeared between Edna’s brows, her expression a mixture of affront and disbelief.
“What is he talking about?”
“I thought she was in trouble.” Tadgh groaned. He wasn’t sure who he was trying to explain himself too. He hunched over staring at the torn skin of his hands.
“She was,” Winterthorn assured him. “And the danger to her increases the longer she stays away. She is being hunted.”
Tadgh dropped to his knees.
“Edna has nothing to do with this. Let her go.”
“You were the last one to see the May Queen awake. The scent of her power forms a cloud around you. In waking her you voided a truce between the Summer Kingdom and mine. You don’t know our laws, so I come to you with a code of justice your kind understands. An eye for an eye.”
“I don’t know!” Tadgh said without thinking.
An ice-cold hand seized the back of his neck and lifted him off the ground. A chill drove through him so deep his belly filled up with ice. Winterthorn spun him around, his appearance shifting to become more animal than man. Human teeth flashed beneath the conjoined nose and cleft lip
“Do you not know who I am? What task I have been charged to perform?”
Tadgh gulped. He had no idea who Winterthorn was.
In answer, a wild wind whipped up. Gray ghostly bodies ran circles around the trees until they bent and swayed. Terrified, Tadgh watched dozens of large canine shapes disappear into the greenery, and glowing red eyes peered back out.
“I am the Bringer of Souls. I lead the dead and dying over the pathways to the next world. It is All Hallows’ Eve and the Hunt is eager to ride.”
Tadgh didn’t know what to say. He had no idea where the Lady was. She’d woken up and disappeared as soon as she blessed him with a woodcarver’s gift.
“Every second you delay the danger to them both increases.” To emphasize his point, Winterthorn extended his hand toward Edna, and with the soft creak of splintering glass a sword of ice grew out of thin air. It had the frosted surface of an antique mirror, and mist furled up from the blade.
“Okay!” Tadgh panicked and held up both hands. “Okay I’ll tell you, but you’ve got to promise that you’ll let her go first.”
Winterthorn’s eyes narrowed.
“The fate of my world hangs in the balance. I am in no mood for trifling promises.”
“Let her go and I’ll tell you everything. Your lady left because she didn’t want you to cause trouble for me.” Winterthorn let the sword melt until it dripped from his hands. He nodded slowly.
“In her eyes she believes you did her a good turn. If she offered you her protection then as a show of good faith I will do the same. Once you tell me where she’s gone you have my word that my kind will not come within ten feet of you again. You and your family will be safe from further repercussions provided you do not interfere in my world again.” At his words the dryad unwound her hair and arms from around Edna. Edna backed away slowly, as if a sudden movement would see her snared once again.
She stumbled to Tadgh’s side, and he caught her, feeling more trapped than ever now that she was free.
“Well?” Winterthorn grunted. His nostrils flared.
“She…” Tadgh’s mouth went dry. He knew there would be consequences no matter what he said. “She said she was going to the Isle of Apples to hide from you and some guy named Lord Darragh.” The moment the words were out of his mouth he squeezed his eyes shut and held his breath.
“Avalon,” Winterthorn murmured under his breath. He stepped back and bowed his head until the curved ends of his antlers nearly brushed Tadgh’s hair. Then, in a blast of frigid air, a rush of gray, smoky bodies surged around him until they formed a cyclone that flew up into the air and blasted over the trees. Their snarls and howls shook the stars long after their silver trail faded into the night.
“Tadgh, what was that?” Edna hissed. Her fingernails bit into his arm. Tadgh lifted his head and saw that the holly grove was gone. They were standing on the edge of the playground once more. The swings swayed from the force of Winterthorn’s departure.
“Come on!” He caught her hand and pulled her through the park.
“Where are we going?”
“We’re not safe.”
“But he promised if you told him what he wanted to know he’d leave us alone.”
“I lied!” Tadgh whirled around, needing her to understand how stupid the thing he’d just done really was. “I just lied to a force of nature and when he finds out he’s going to come back.”
Her mouth fell open, and she whipped around to look up at the sky too.
“What are we going to do?”
His breath rushed out of him. He grimaced.
“Look, I know you don’t understand what’s happening—I’m not sure I understand what’s going on either. But last spring the lady he’s looking for made me a promise that the grove where I found her would keep me safe from the fae. That’s why I built my house so far out in the woods. If you come with me we’ll be able to hide there.”
“What, forever?” She tossed her head and scoffed.
With a grimace, Tadgh got down on one knee and removed the small box he’d stored in his costume’s pouch.
“This wasn’t how I wanted to ask you, but you heard what he said. My family will be safe. Right now, I don’t think that applies to you, but if you say yes….”
“Tadgh, what just happened is the exact reason I should not marry you.” She leaned away from him, but she couldn’t stop staring at the ring. Rather than a gold band with a diamond he’d carved her a ring with a cluster of wooden roses.
“I know.” His laugh shook. “If I’d known he’d come after me I never would’ve…” He trailed off, not wanting to spin another lie.
“If you lied to him what if he goes back on his word too?”
Tadgh’s eyes went hollow. From what little he’d gleaned covertly perusing the limited selection of mythology and folk tales in their town library these past months, the fae were compelled to keep their word. But even the stories aimed at children warned how clever they were at bending their own rules without breaking them. Winterthorn would come back, maybe in an hour maybe not for ten years. Either way, Tadgh knew his days were numbered, and he wanted the remaining tally spent with Edna Farrows as his wife.
“I have this ring because I was planning to ask you this question tonight. Not because of him, but because I love you and want you to be my wife.”
She ran her hand over her forehead, torn.
“Tadgh, this is crazy.”
“I know. But’s it’s happening.”
“You really want to do this? You want to get married?”
“I’ll find a priest tonight if your answer is yes.”
She wavered. Her nose wrinkled as she stared longingly at the ring. Finally, she bit her lip.
“I guess not many brides can say their wedding was a real fairy tale. Okay.”
Joy and relief burst over his face and he surged up from the ground to catch her and spin her around in a circle. Laughing, he set her down on her feet and kissed her hard on the mouth. When they broke apart he looked into her eyes and said with all seriousness, “I wasn’t kidding. The only way you’ll be safe is if we get married tonight.”
She rolled her eyes, breathless with excitement, and just a little exasperation.
“Life with you will be an adventure, won’t it? I suppose a Halloween anniversary is better than on April Fool’s.”