On the back of a faery horse, the journey that had taken me two days with few rests barely lasted an hour. That, and the king likes to ride at a wicked pace. His long cloak, which I’m sure would have looked very dramatic if I hadn’t been there behind it, kept whipping my ears if I didn’t clutch it right. I doubt that faeries have magicked garments, but there was a certain amount of enmity between his cloak and I by the time we reached my village.
It was already dark, but the square was bright with torches and loud with many voices. People had gathered there to stare at the possibly enchanted food. We heard adults arguing, women telling children to stay away from the boxes, the crying of those children, and the barking of dogs. The herd of faery horses had already returned home. My heart sank as the king’s charger clattered up the cobblestones of the square. They hadn’t touched it. They’d had the food an entire day, and still hadn’t touched it. The villagers made way for us, scattering and shouting.
“She’s back! Meg’s returned!”
I waved to everyone I could see, and tried to explain the matter of the food to them. They told me my family had already taken some food in, but the rest of them were waiting to see if they’d die or not.
“No one will die!” I said loudly. “Our benefactor swore that these supplies would not be cursed or poisoned, you bumpkins. Eat and be thankful!”
They seemed a little more reassured, but no one wanted to make the first move toward the boxes in the center of the square.
The king gave a huff of laughter, as was his habit. “Benefactor, hmm?”
“Bah. My house is that way--” I pointed. “At the far end of the square, by the woods.” The king steered his horse in that direction, and soon I could see the familiar lines of my home, with yellow light leaking out of the windows and the open door, and familiar figures coming out and running towards me.
“Meg!” they called.
I dropped off the side of the king’s charger and rushed to meet them. “Mother! Ian! I’m back!”
My little brother attached himself to my leg, and my mother embraced me. “I was so worried!” she said warmly, happy now. Then she got a good look at the king and froze.
“Meg, did you see the food?” Ian asked, looking up with a grin. “They say it’s cursed!”
“It most certainly is not!” I told him. “Where’s Grandad?”
“In bed. He says his head hurts from all this idiocy.”
“Well, let’s get him out of bed! We’ve got food to eat now!” I took his hand and we ran into the cottage together. At the time, Ian was only six, and adorable as they come.
The faery king and my mother looked at one another in silence as our loud cries sounded in the cottage. While helping my grandad up, I heard my mother say, “I am very grateful to you, sir, for bringing my daughter back.”
“Not at all, madam,” the king replied, bowing smoothly before dismounting from his horse. “I am a man of my word.”
She seemed like she wanted to say something else, but instead was tapping her fingers together and smiling sheepishly. “You’ll have to forgive me,” she said finally. “I didn’t think you were real. But I am happy to be wrong.”
The king paused in the middle of patting his horse’s neck. “Thank you?”
“Certainly. Um, have you eaten? Do you eat?” My mother continued uncertainly.
“Yes, and nearly an hour ago.”
“Ah. Well, you are welcome to share a meal with us anytime, now that we have food to make it out of.” Her eyes twinkled.
“You’re very kind, madam.”
“Not at all.” She curtseyed, rather gracefully for a peasant. It was then that Thomas Bartlemead came out of his cottage. One hand was gripping a stout staff, and the other resting on my shoulder. His red hair had become white, and his back was bent. He had to squint in order to see very well. He and the king stared at each other for one long minute.
Thomas turned around abruptly and went back inside the cottage, leaving everyone in uncomfortable silence until he returned. There was now a potato sack over his head. It must have been dusty, for Thomas coughed and said “It’s been a long time, Faery King.” and he coughed again.
“Yes, it has been a long time. I’ve fulfilled the contract and repaid my debt.” the king said coldly. “More importantly, what the devil are you wearing on your head?!”
“A sack, sire.”
“Obviously, but why?”
“You said you didn’t want me to show my face again.”
“That was metaphorical! It meant you were banished from the faery world, you dolt! And what’s the point of wearing it when you’ve already shown your face to me?!”
“I didn’t know it was you yet.” Thomas said, taking the sack off his head. “And quite frankly, I forgot about it until I saw you clearly. My eyes have faded somewhat.”
“You didn’t expect me to come?”
“No. But I did hope you would.” My grandad smiled, hesitantly. “You don’t look a day older. Does he act like a young man, Meg?”
“Not really.” I replied, the long end of my scarf blowing almost horizontally in the evening breeze. Another few inches and the tassels on the end would have tickled the Faery King’s waistcoat. “He’s a grouchy old man like you.”
“At your age, everyone seems old.” My mother cut in. “Don’t pay them any heed, your majesty. Won’t you come in?”
Glancing in the door of the warm cottage, from whence delicious smells wafted, the Faery King opened his mouth to answer, shut it again, and said finally, “No, madam, I had better go home.”
My grandad bowed his head to the king. “I thank you for returning my grandchild and saving our lives, your majesty.”
“Oh, no need to thank me.” the king said cheerfully. “I’m sure you’ll still come to curse my name as I’ve cursed yours.”
Thomas stared, confused. “Why would I do that?”
“Because today I take my revenge on you, Thomas Bartlemead,” the king grinned maliciously. “--In the shape of your granddaughter.”
When he said this, all of us stared at him, dumbfounded at this declaration. In that stupefied moment, the Faery King snatched the end of my scarf that had been blowing in the wind, and pulled me to him in one swift movement.
Before anyone could move, he mounted his horse again, threw me across his saddle, and galloped away quite dramatically, letting his dark cloak billow and his laughter echo behind him.
Though I was not within earshot, I was later told that my grandfather stood staring after us, and then cocked his head to one side. “Is he really carrying her off, or is that just a joke?”
“I think he’s really carrying her off.” My mother answered, still calm in her shock.
“COME BACK HERE, YOU VILLAIN!” My grandad shouted into the night, hobbling after us. But he was too late. Far, far too late.
Once the Faery King was out of sight, he slowed his pace and pulled me up in front of him so I could sit on the saddle more comfortably. This was at least thoughtful, because I was worried that I would either get kicked in the head or fall off.
“So,” I ventured to ask. “Is this a joke, or are you actually carrying me off?”
“Oh, I’m actually carrying you off. Consider yourself my slave forever more.” The Faery King grinned. He was so cheerful about it that it took some time to sink in before I ended up struggling in vain against his arm of steel and shouting:
“TAKE ME BACK RIGHT NOW, YOU VILLAIN!”
We were all so naive. He’d fulfilled his contract, but he never said what he meant to do with us after it was complete. Never, ever trust a faery.
This story continues on Monday! We hope you have enjoyed it so far!