Changeling: The Faerie Shadow

Changeling
Part 3: The Faerie Shadow
a free fantasy serial by Erin Zarro

Links to: Part 1 and  Part 2

Morning came, sunlight streaming through the windows of the palace. As I made my way to a formal breaking of the fast in the banquet room, I saw her in the shadows.

She was insubstantial, never in the light, and moved too quickly for me to track.

But she was there. I knew it.

I was barely awake yet, and Sorcha and some courtiers were discussing Faerie politics as I sat down in my place at her right side.

Ronan was already there.

“So, are there anyone new to Court?” I asked Ronan quietly as I lifted my spoon. It was filled with some sort of honey concoction and I realized the sleeve of my dress was practically trailing into my food. Oops.

“I’m not sure. Why do you ask?” Ronan chuckled and gently moved my long silken sleeve away.

The honey-thing went down smoothly. Almost too smoothly. Wasn’t there a legend that said if you ate Faerie food you’d never be satisfied with human food ever again?

Why was I thinking that? I was a Faerie princess; I wasn’t human.

“Aisling?” Ronan asked.

I blinked at him, startled. “Oh. Uh…well, I keep seeing someone in the shadows.”

Ronan’s eyes narrowed. “Probably just your imagination.”

“But I’m sure…”

“Aisling, did you sleep well, dear?” Sorcha broke in, giving me a bright smile. She was definitely a morning person.

I suppressed a yawn. Might be rude. “Not really. I’m still adjusting.”

“Adjusting to what?” Sorcha asked.

Ronan stopped eating and set his fork on his plate with a clank.

My stomach flip-flopped, and bile crawled up my throat. What was I adjusting to? There was a definite gap in my memory, something just out of my reach… “I – I’m not sure why I said that. I think the nightmare I had last night is messing with me.”

Ronan frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that. We have elixirs to help with that kind of thing.”

I smiled weakly. “Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind.”

I needed to get out of there. There was something niggling at the back of my mind, and I didn’t feel well. The food sat cold in my stomach, and I thought I tasted ash.

I glanced at Sorcha. “May I be excused? I’m not feeling well.”

Sorcha frowned. “Of course, dear. Maybe you could take a nap? I hope you feel better.”

“Thank you.” I stood and turned to leave.

“Aisling, it would please me greatly if you called me Mother.”

But you’re not my mother, I thought. Where did that come from? She was my mother, wasn’t she? I inclined my head to her. “Mother.”

She smiled. “I will check on you later, dear.”

I fled.

I didn’t realize anyone had followed me until I came out of my haze and heard footsteps. I spun around, half-expecting to see the shadow girl.

It was Ronan.

“Are you going to tuck me in?” I asked.

“No, I just wanted to make sure you’re all right,” Ronan said. “You seem a bit…forgive me, but totally out of it.”

“I just woke up,” I said through clenched teeth. “And I had a nightmare.”

“Fair enough. I’ll see you to your room.”

We walked in silence. I wasn’t sure why Ronan was so interested in me at the moment, but it felt very comfortable. As if I’d known him for years…

“We were friends before…you know,” Ronan said softly. Had he read my mind?

“No wonder why I feel comfortable around you,” I said as turned right into a brightly-lit corridor. One wall was entirely made of windows, letting in golden sunlight. It was a surreal haze, and I felt like I was in another dream. “But something’s wrong.”

Ronan stopped in his tracks. His face stayed neutral, but a flash of panic went through his eyes. “Nothing’s wrong, Aisling. I think you need some sleep.”

And sleep I did, leaving the strange morning behind me.

#

I settled into Faerie life fairly easily. There were nightly revels, which meant lots of eating, drinking, and dancing. The Faeries were constantly finding reasons to party. In some ways, it felt right, and in others, it felt wrong, as if I wasn’t where I was supposed to be.

But I didn’t know how or why I felt that. I was home, with my people. Everything else didn’t matter anymore.

One day about a week later I was exploring the palace. I’d thought I’d seen the shadow girl, but was starting to think maybe I was, truly, imagining things. As I rounded a corner, I knew I heard footsteps.

I also knew no one had been behind me.

I spun around, eager to finally catch her.

It was Mother.

“Mother? You…snuck up on me.”

Mother reached out and stroked my cheek. I wanted to recoil, but fought it. “I’m sorry, dear. I wanted to ask you something.”

I brightened. “I wanted to ask you something, too.”

“All right. You go first, dear.” Mother smiled.

“Was there someone in this hallway besides you and me?”

Mother frowned. “No. Why would you think that?”

Now I felt stupid. “I just thought…oh, never mind.” I focused on the floor so she couldn’t see the tears that filled my eyes.

She tipped my head up. “Are you happy here?”

It hit me almost like a physical blow. “Yes, of course.”

“You don’t seem to be, dear. I only wish for you to be happy.”

Mother left after giving me an awkward hug. It felt all wrong, and I was sure she’d been lying.

But why?

#

The next day, it happened again as I was headed out to the courtyard for tea. I’d heard footsteps, the sound of someone breathing, the whisper of silk on the floor, and I’d spun around and find nothing. This happened several times until I, once again, caught Mother following me.

Her dress was shorter and would not trail on the floor.

It hadn’t been her.

“Mother, will you please be honest with me? Someone was here. I could her a dress trailing on the floor.”

Mother looked surprised. “It was me, dear. I just changed dresses. It’s warmer outside than I thought.”

I nodded, but didn’t believe her. It was the way she wouldn’t look me in the eye, how her eyes darted around like the ones of a frightened animal. I just didn’t know what to do anymore.

I picked up my skirts and went in the opposite direction, down a hallway I hadn’t been before, and to the doorway of a room I’d felt strangely drawn to. I put my hand up to open the door –

“Aisling, no! Don’t go in there!” Mother stopped and grabbed my outstretched hand. “Please, don’t.”

I blinked at her. “Why not? It’s just a room, right?”

“Well, yes, but…I am having it redecorated for you. It was supposed to be a surprise.” She sighed and gave me a look that made me feel instantly guilty. “You don’t want to ruin the surprise, do you?”

“No, Mother.”

“Then come into the courtyard with me.” She turned and guided me down the hallway and away from the room.

Every step felt wrong.

Every minute was another I was in the dark about something.

She’d been lying.

So when she was busy socializing, I snuck away again.

And went to the room.

If it was being redecorated, I’d just act surprised.

I needed to know what lay inside; why I was so drawn to it.

I opened the door and stepped inside, my heart racing.

The room looked similar to the one I used now. There was a bed with curtains on all sides in gauzy fabric. A vanity with the largest mirror I’d ever seen was the focal point of the room, and jewelry of all different kinds, sparkling like trapped stars, laid out on the table. A jeweled brush and several colored ribbons sat next to the jewels.

Without thinking, I picked up one of the necklaces. Rubies and diamonds glittered at me, seeming alive. It was beautiful, and I felt a sense of history within its facets. Wouldn’t it look beautiful with my new red dress for tonight’s revel?

A gasp.

I spun around, dropping the necklace.

The shadow girl stood in front of me.

She was me, down to the long blonde hair and brown eyes. She possessed the same freckles dotting her lower arms as I did. She wore a flowered sundress and a diamond solitaire at her throat. A bit fancy for summer, but she was probably one of the highborn…who just happened to have a room at the palace?

Wait. She was my twin.

She was a princess.

My sister.

“Um…” I said, my tongue feeling heavy and numb. The room spun. “Are you…are you my sister?”

Her eyes were wide, her jaw slack. “Who are you?” She came forward, moving closer to me, and the air around us felt charged with energy.

“I’m Aisling,” I said, drawing myself up. “The Faerie princess. I’ve been gone for awhile.”

She frowned, looking so much younger than she must have been. “But I’m Princess Aisling.”

Okay, now I was confused. There were two of us? Identical twins, princesses, with the same exact name?

An eerie foreboding crept over me. No, there was no way Mother would name us the same name…there was something else I was missing.

I tried not to show how confused I was. “So, you’re Princess Aisling. Your mother is Queen Sorcha, right?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Yes, of course.” She moved toward the vanity, picking up the necklace I’d dropped. “And this is mine.” Her hand was a fist around the necklace, her knuckles white.

But the jewels didn’t sparkle for her. In her hand, they were as dull as plastic. In fact, they looked fake.

“What are you looking at?”

“Uh…nothing,” I said, averting my gaze. I didn’t want to upset her. She seemed a bit unhinged.

But then again, learning you had a twin who shared your name and tried to steal your jewelry might make someone a bit crazy.

There was only one person who could explain this. “Come with me. We need to talk to the queen.”

“No,” my twin said defiantly. “I don’t want to.”

“You have to,” I said, trying to keep my frustration out of my voice. I didn’t want her to know that anything was wrong, not yet. But I needed her with me to prove she wasn’t a fantasy but a real person. “Please.”

My twin’s eyes narrowed. “Is this a trick of some kind?”

“No. I just need to take you to the queen. You’ll understand when we get there. I think…she may be able to explain this.”

“This? I would like an explanation as to why you are usurping me. Yes, I will come.” She lifted her chin and led the way out of her room and into the hallway, never looking at me.

Okay, then. I followed her like a loyal puppy, gritting my teeth the entire way. She knew her way around, and within a short time we were outside in the courtyard, approaching the queen.

Mother.

She was talking to some highborn and the same courtiers that usually broke our fast with us.

Her eyes widened when she saw me with my twin, and her face paled. “Will you please excuse me? I have to speak with my daughter.”

“Of course, my queen,” one of the courtiers said with a bow. “I shall speak with you further tonight.”

“Indeed.” Mother stood and came to us. The others held back, obviously not wanting to intrude. She glared at my twin. “Aisling…why are you with…how did this happen?”

My twin pointed at me. “She was about to steal my necklace!”

“That’s not true,” I said, panic assaulting me. “I was looking at it. It’s very pretty. But Mother…who is she?”

“And who is she?” my twin asked, pouting.

Mother sighed heavily. “I’m not sure how to start. It’s very complicated.”

“We can keep up,” I said. “Just…explain this. Please.”

“All right, fine. But please do not get angry. The circumstances were very odd.”

Odd? They were downright unbelievable. I had a twin who bore my name. I had no memory of before I came back, and I knew there was something I should have known.

Mother looked uncomfortable. She seemed to be warring with herself, her expression almost guilty. She pointedly looked at me, probably to distinguish between us. “You had a habit of wandering around the boundaries of Faerie and the human world. One day, you just disappeared. We were devastated. So one of our mage faeries worked a spell to find you, but found the original Maria instead. See, there is always a human twin for each faerie born here.”

“So she is my twin then?” I asked.

Mother nodded. “Yes. It took awhile to realize that she wasn’t you. But it was too late to switch you two, so we just hoped you’d return to us.” Mother sighed. “And now that you’ve returned, we can send Maria back. You, my dear, have been living with Maria’s human parents.” She looked at me meaningfully. “The magic of Faerie may have erased those memories, but it’s all true, I swear it.”

My twin stomped her foot. “Return me? To a human family?”

“Your human family,” I murmured. Recognition of something hit me, but I didn’t have time to think about it.

Mother looked at my twin sadly. “You are not my true daughter. You are Maria. She is my true daughter, and the heir to the throne.”

“That can’t be true! I am your daughter!” my twin cried.

I was still processing this. “I have…parents? And they are wondering where I’ve been?” I asked slowly. “I was Maria? I have no memory of ever being here.”

“Yes, you were her. Living as a human,” Mother replied, wrinkling her nose. “But now that you’re back, things can be as they were meant to be.”

“No,” moaned my twin. “Send her back.”

“I can’t, darling,” Mother said. “I need Aisling, my heir, here with me.”

“But…” My twin’s protests faded into the background as I wandered away.

I’d been a faerie, living as a human?

Was that why everything seemed so wrong to me?

The magic of Faerie had messed with my mind, but I had always known I’d been missing something.

My human family.

I sighed as twinkle lights hovered around me. Faeries.

And then it hit me.

I had to go home.

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