As time wore on, the more I recognized that I was becoming restless. Summer was long passed and autumn was quickly on its way out. Frost could be seen on the grounds in the early morning and I realized that I needed something to do. A sedentary life was relaxing, but I wanted to see new places and do different things. I voiced my restlessness to my friends.
“May hap a journey is what you need.” Rhys, able to find some time away from his own kingdom to spend time with his wife, glanced up from whatever document he was skimming over. “You are a Valkyrja, a shieldmaiden. Adventuring is what you do, is it not?”
“And go gallivanting off on my own?” The thought excited and terrified me at the same time. I would be traveling on my own without any powers to help me, to fall back on if things became dire. I could potentially die, and I had no idea what death would mean for me. Would I return to being a Valkyrie or would I simply pass on to Niflheimr? It wasn’t something I wanted to find out on my own.
“What of going to the Fae Forest?” Kieran suggested.
I frowned, glancing between the two. “You cannot enter without an invitation, last I heard. Only you two are able to go into the forest without one.”
“And we-” Kieran gestured between herself and her husband “-have been invited. Duke Nikola has been as well. The fae wish to celebrate the alliance between our nations and will be opening a pathway to Rhys’ kingdom. We can bring you along as our bodyguard. The fae cannot deny us that.”
“We’ll need to tell Caolán that we’re bringing you along,” Rhys said, returning to his document, “but it would get you out of the castle environs. It could be enough to satisfy your wanderlust.”
“And we’ll see one of the many lands I the Fae Realm,” Kieran added. Her eyes were aglow with excitement and a smile was tugging at her lips. “It’s a three day journey there. We stay for a few days, then leave. Almost a fortnight. Will you join us?”
I couldn’t recall if I had ever been to the Faerie Realm, but I knew the stories from my youth. Wayward travelers trapped in a faerie ring, forever dancing; changelings left in the place of mortal babies; travelers disappearing and returning years later and not age a day. I was aware that not all faerie and fae were malicious, but their idea of fun was different from mortals. But there were always the tales of untold wonder and beauty, of fae princes rescuing maidens and turning them into fae princesses.
“I will act as your bodyguard,” I finally said. “I’ve never been one to pass up an opportunity to see a new land.”
“Excellent!” Kieran grinned at me, and I found myself returning her excited smile. “I’ll inform Caolán and see if Duke Nikola will be bringing anyone with him as well.”
“You’re excited about leaving the castle. A last taste of freedom while you can?”
She shrugged, not denying it. “I want to be more than a royal who does nothing.” The seren ignored Rhys’ comment that she didn’t do nothing all day. “I would like to have my own adventures before I’m forced to spend all of my time in a room that the tapestries can’t keep a draft out of.”
“There’s plenty of time for adventuring,” Rhys said from behind his paper. “Our kingdoms are young. There will be wars to fight and lands to conquer in due time.”
He sounded like a warlord in that moment, and I wondered if I or my battle sisters would be visiting L’Aquitaine in the future. “When are we to leave?” I asked, choosing not to address the king’s statement.
“Four days from now,” Kieran replied. She leaned back in her chair and fiddled with a quill, the energy she could hardly repress needing an outlet. “I would imagine it’s for Caolán to make arrangements for us to enter Faerie. Where do you suppose we’ll go?”
“Anywhere they want to take us,” I told her with a shrug, recalling what stories I heard. “They could strand us there if they wanted.” I stopped as I saw Kieran’s surprised face and Rhys’ dark look, belatedly realizing that I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I quickly added, “But the fae are true to their Word. They wouldn’t dishonor an alliance. I know that much.”
“You seem to know the fae rather well.” It was Rhys who spoke, curiosity inflecting his voice. His papers were laying on the table, his quill in the inkwell. He was watching me, studying my face.
“I’ve had limited dealings with them,” I admitted. “Mostly the álfar. They’re different on every world, in each Realm, but how they deal with mortals and gods is always the same.” I hoped. I schooled my face to not reveal too much, wondering what exactly Rhys was looking for. I didn’t want them to second guess their alliance. The fae were powerful allies.
“And what of the álfar are you familiar with?” The king reached for a blank sheet of parchment, readying his quill to take notes. “Are they like the fae?”
Always the scholar, that one. Knowledge drove him, his inquiring mind constantly wanting to learn more of the world and Realms around him. “No, they are more like the seren. They are highly skilled in magic and can blend in with the races of Man. There are three types of álfar: liosálfar, dökkálfar, and svartálfar.”
I closed my eyes, thinking back to all I knew about the álfar. “The liosálfar are the ones that most are familiar with. They hold themselves above and beyond mortal concerns. They look at the whole and length of things and are in control of their feelings. The dökkálfar are not nearly as distant. They willingly associate with the races of Man and give in to their vices. Their emotions rules them and they seek out new experiences. The svartálfar are those that have willingly given up their hearts so that they can focus on their work. They are far more efficient in their work and removed from the Realms as a whole.”
I watched as Rhys scribbled down the information. He was about to ask me another question when I quickly added, “I don’t know any more than that. I’ve had few dealings with them.” Rhys looked disappointed, but nodded. I gave him an apologetic smile. “I should prepare for our trip. I’ll be sure to have provisions prepared for all of us.” I inclined my head first to Rhys and then to Kieran, wishing them both a good afternoon.
The days leading up to the trip were a flurry of activity, and it seemed to me that I barely stopped. It was a welcome change to sitting about the fortress listlessly. I did appreciate my friends’ company, but a part of me yearned to be away from the stone walls and to see distant lands. While the Fae Forest wasn’t distant, it would be some place new.
It was quiet the morning we were set to depart. Rhys made arrangements that the royal party leaving for a fortnight wasn’t a big affair. He found no sense in it, and as he said often the kingdom would simply panic, despite the capable people that ran things day to day. I had no idea how serious he was about that or if he was joking. He was a hard man to read at times, being far too serious for his own good. As we waited for our horses, I checked my armor and weapons for the umpteenth time. I felt comfortable back in armor again: the smell and creak of leather, the familiar weight of a dirk at my waist and pouches hanging from my belt, and how much more movement I had in my traveling clothes.
My mind flashed back to when I had fought at my eldest brother’s side on Miðgarðr. I shook my head to clear my thoughts and focus on the preparations. Rhys was right. I did need an adventure. When the horses were brought out, saddles and bags were already in place. Affixing my personal base, spear, and shield, I pulled myself into the saddle and waited.
Caolán was already waiting, rather impatiently it seemed. Duke Nikola had just finished adding his own supplies and waited on his own bodyguard, who turned out to be Constantine. We greeted one another with a quick nod of our heads. Almost as one we turned to look in Rhys and Kieran’s direction. A cursory look told me that we were ready, and with a word from Caolán, we left the stone walls of the fortress behind us.
The trek to the Fae Forest was uneventful. It was quiet and peaceful, which enabled me to enjoy the landscape. The ocean could be seen in the distance and still looked impossibly blue against the new blooming autumn landscape. Winter wasn’t long off from the chill in the air that I could feel. It was no wonder that everyone wanted this treaty ratified quickly: they wanted to beat winter.
Constantine and I spoke often during the day, exchanging more stories. The duke joined in on occasion, as did Rhys. I was surprised to learn that the king had many adventures of his own. While I knew that his kingship had been inherited, I didn’t know that he wasn’t originally the heir. Rhys had been third in line and had expected to join a priesthood or become a scholar. Both of his brothers had died waging wars for king and kingdom. When it became apparent that Rhys would become king after his father, he had to learn how to lead and rule. It was before he became heir presumptive that he had met Kieran.
It was during one of our conversations with Duke Nikola that the glimmers of light appeared again. As the duke spoke, images began to form around him then fade, one after another. I realized that I was able to examine the potential that he had left. It would be some time before he died, for I couldn’t see it. His Death, that is. From what I could tell, Duke Nikola would live for quite some time.
As we came closer to the home of the fae, the ambient noises began to dwindle. At the time, I hadn’t noticed it. No one had, but looking back on the matter I remember thinking that Caolán seemed more agitated the closer we came to the forest. It was Rhys who finally drew our attention to the lack of noise.
“It’s unusually quiet,” the king murmured. He glanced about at the trees, trying to find some form of life: birds, tree dwellers, fae, anything. He turned to Caolán. “Is it normally this quiet?”
Caolán shook his head. “No, it’s not. Something is wrong. I would think we would be greeted by more of the fae.” He sat very still in his saddle, as if searching or sensing for something. Shaking his head once more and giving everyone an apologetic look, he continued to lead the way forward.
We moved at a much slower pace, on guard for what could have flushed all of the fauna out of the forest. The further we made our way in, the more an uneasy feeling began to settle over us. More than once I found my hand straying to the dirk at my waist and assuring myself that my spear and shield were still with me. I saw the others do the same and I think we all had the same thought: we were walking into an ambush.
I first thought that Caolán was a part of it, that he was involved somehow, but he was just as uneasy as the rest of us. For someone leading us into a trap he wasn’t acting very confidant. His hand rested on the hilt of his silver blade and he sat tensely in his saddle. No, Caolán was just as wary as the rest of us.
Constantine drew up beside me. “This would be the perfect place for an ambush,” he muttered to me. He loosened the leather thong on the hilt of his sword and made sure he was able to draw it free of its sheath.
“I agree,” I murmured back. I felt my heart being to race, from fear or anticipation I wasn’t sure. I remembered the thrill of battle when I was a shieldmaiden, throwing myself into the thick of it. But this was different. I had two people important to me to protect.
We moved further onto the widening path and as soon as we were all in the small clearing, figures came crashing out from the underbrush with a shrill cry. I was aware of gangly limbs at odds with the body on many of them. I didn’t recognize them, but given their dark appearance my first thought of them were the Eaters of Men’s Hearts; creatures that I had only heard of but never seen but were the stuff of nightmares.
I didn’t have time to think beyond that. I saw that they were trying to topple the horses. Knowing I would be no good trapped under my mount, I grabbed my spear and threw myself from the saddle. I needed my shield and drew my dirk to slash at the closest creature before grabbing my shield from my horse. My only thought was to get to Kieran and Rhys.
I surveyed the situation and felt a sort of detachment settle over me. It was a familiar feeling, and one that I hadn’t felt in some time. I launched myself forward. I no longer had the godly abilities that I once possessed, but I still had all of the knowledge and skills that I had gained during my long centuries. I batted aside a dark creature with my shield, then fended off another with my spear. Another tried to take me down from behind and I lashed out with my shield arm, the dirk still in my hand, and heard a cry. Shaking the creature off, I forged onward.
I heard something shouting my name, but I didn’t check to see who it was until I reached my goal. Kieran and Rhys were within sight now. Taking down anything in my path, it seemed impossibly loud. The attacks where slow, and it seemed as though I could predict where the blow would land before it was actually made, allowing me to deflect and retaliate. There was a shout behind me and I felt another clawing at my back. Snarling, I tried to shake it off before jabbing my dirk into it. The thing fell back with a sharp cry, and without waiting I swung my shield back into the creature, the metal edging of my shield biting into flesh. Spinning about, I finished off the foul thing.
Constantine and Duke Nikola were shouting and gesturing to something behind me. I whirled around and quickly looked about. Caolán, Rhys, and Kieran were still fighting off the foul smelling things. Caolán was quick and deft, almost disappearing before attacking and dealing a fatal blow. Rhys seemed almost wild in his attacks, a departure form his normally calm demeanor. Kieran was out of arrows and was using a short sword to defend herself.
I didn’t hear what the shouting was about. I was aware only that there was shouting. All I cared about was that Kieran and Rhys were in danger and they needed me. I had to repay my debt to them for saving my life. I battered down another dark creature with a roar and I dashed over to Kieran’s side. As I arrived, I watched as she impaled on of the things under the ribs and push it away. I deflected an oncoming attack with my shield and finished it off with my spear.
It seemed all of a sudden as if the creatures disappeared, called off by some unseen force. The only proof that remained of the battle were the corpses left behind by them. We were still cautious, glancing about ourselves for another attack, wondering if the enemy was regrouping. Gathering around Kieran and Rhys, we checked our wounds and found that no one was seriously injured. We could travel if we wanted.
“What were those things?” Kieran asked in a hushed voice. She was the first to break our group, casting looks over her shoulder as she pulled arrows from the dead.
The fae prince said one word: “Goblins.” His mouth was set in a firm line, his brows furrowed. “Although why they’re here is beyond me. They’re not supposed to be here.” He walked over to one of the corpses and nudged it over with the toe of his boot, wrinkling his nose.
They were two, maybe three feet tall, thin, and a mottled combination of brown and green. Most were bald, and if there were females among them they were indistinguishable from the males. They were clothed in crudely tanned animal hide and their weapons lacked finesse in construction, but had talismans attached. I knew that they existed in two realms, similar to the álfar. They were part of the Mortal Realm but also the Fae. They were known to be fiercely loyal and most allied themselves with a particular sorcerer or tribe that had a strong connection to magic. They protected and served them as an equally allied tribe rather than servants or slaves. It was highly unusual that they would do anything on their own, unless something drove them to it. If they did anything, it was usually an order. I found the information troubling.
“Why aren’t they supposed to be here?” the duke asked, carrying over his shoulder what supplies he had left. He waited for Caolán to answer as he counted his rations.
“They’re a nuisance,” the prince spat out. “They weren’t invited to stay here. At least not these savages. The others were.” He marched over to his fallen horse stiffly and gathered what supplies he could. From his tone, he held goblins in little regard. Then again, he was a fae prince. Most everything was beneath him. “But why did they acting on their own? They’re usually allied another tribe or magic user.”
I glanced at the others, but no one else knew what Caolán was talking about. I was about to step forward and offer up what information I knew about them when Nikola did instead.
“There are more goblins?” he asked. “Different types?” he clarified, clarifying his question. He peered down at one of them laying nearby, then looked back to the prince. “And this behavior we’ve just witnessed is unusual?”
When Caolán was satisfied that he had all the supplies he could get from his saddlebags, he turned back to us. “Some are mischievous, like brownies, or have declared their loyalty to someone or a group. Those goblins are fine. The others… They have no place in this haven we are creating for ourselves.”
“And these?” Nikola gestured to the corpses laying about us. “They are the latter? Are they evil?” He peered down at the bodies, studying them as if to memorize what to look for in the future.
“No, not especially. But they aren’t the kind of creature you would want to deal with. Only the hardiest of souls dare strike a bargain with them,” Caolán replied. “This-” he gestured to the carnage around us “-is unusual. They don’t attack unless defending their territory, feel threatened, or are ordered to.”
“Then what are they doing here?” Kieran demanded. “I’m not comfortable with having these…creatures within the borders of my kingdom. I will not tolerate them establishing a territory in my kingdom. If we find that they are allied with a warlock, this may be a bid to usurp my authority. In that case, we will need to deal with the warlock and see about striking an agreement with them.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “I wish I did, but so long as these things are about we can’t enter the Fae Realm. The passageways leading home will be closed out of precaution, just in case this is an organized attack by someone. We should return to the fortress, resupply, and make our way to the shrine.”
“What shrine? Why should we go there?” I asked. It seemed odd to me that we should go to a shrine rather than find another way to Faerie or eradicate the goblin threat to the kingdom.
Caolán turned in what I could only guess was the direction of the shrine. “We get to Tinare Shrine and we can find another way in.” He turned back to us. “We can gather more reinforcements and push the goblins back or send them elsewhere.”
“Can we not be rid of them?”
“Not until we find where or when they’re coming from and if they are being controlled by a powerful magic user,” came the fae’s answer. “Until then, there’s not much that can be done.”
I thought it was an interesting way of phrasing it, the where and when part. There was more to learn about the fae. I would have to save my questions for later. Instead I said, “Then we have two options: return or forge ahead.”
We looked at one another, none of them waiting to make the decision. “How far is the shrine and do we have enough supplies to get there?” Rhys asked.
Caolán looked off into the forest again. “On foot, a day. Maybe two. We would need to be careful, though.” He waited until he looked at each of us in turn. “There are pockets of the Fae Realm that we could wander into. Days, months, or years could be lost to you in the Mortal Realm.”
More lost time. No matter where I went or when I was, time was always involved. There was the beginning of a feeling that I wouldn’t be able to elude it. Not any time soon.
“You’re saying that it could take longer.” It was Rhys who spoke. He didn’t seem pleased by the prospect and I could readily guess where he was going to cast his vote. He glanced over at Kieran, then nodded as some unspoken communication passed between the two.
“I’m saying that we need to be careful.” Caolán made sure to stress the difference. “I’m aware that loosing time for mortals in their home Realm is disconcerting and disorientating.”
“Supplies?” I reminded everyone.
“My horse ran off,” Constantine answered.
The duke gestured to where his mount lay. “I have enough rations to make it to the shrine. Returning from the shrine to the fortress will be a different story.”
“As is the same for me,” Kieran chimed in.
“I’m afraid I have even less.” Rhys’ voice was apologetic as he spoke.
“If we make it to this shrine,” Nikola began slowly, his gaze unfocused as he thought out loud, “we would be able to enter the Fae Realm and acquire more provisions, yes?”
Caolán hesitated. “Yes, but there’s no telling how much time will pass in this Realm. I wanted to take you to one of the lands where time elapses at about the same time as it does here. But if we go to the shrine, I don’t know which land we’ll arrive in.” He gestured vaguely about him. “It would be similar to walking into those pockets of the Fae Realm that I mentioned.”
“Then we return to the fortress. We know what we’re expecting now.” Kieran pointed first back in the direction we came from, then at the creatures. “We return better prepared and reestablish contact with the faerie and fae.”
He suggestion was met with agreement and we began the long trek back to the castle. We were ever on guard until we could hear birdsong in the air and the noise of other animals. We supplemented our rations with game that we found and berries we foraged. The fortress was a welcome sight when it was finally spotted. It was disheartening that we had to start over, but we at least knew what to prepare for.