I have to go home.
Memories crashed through my mind: my sister Jane laughing as I pushed her swing, her head falling back to gaze at the blue sky; our little camping trailer, old and worn but imprinted with the essence of us; my mom’s perfect hugs that I swore cured everything from hurt feelings to life-altering things; Dad’s garden filled with vegetables and flowers and bees in summer; the little house where I’d lived my whole life, from baby to now; ballet class, learning to ride a bike, school…
I did not belong here.
I never did.
The voice startled me, and I spun around to face the source of it. I’d managed to get away from Mother and my twin, but I was sure they weren’t far behind. It was Ronan, not them, and he was watching me closely, almost as if he knew what I’d been thinking about. “My name is Maria, and I’m going home.”
Ronan arched a brow. “You are home, and you are Aisling, the Faerie princess and heir to the throne. We’ve been over this.” He reached out to touch me, but I moved out of his reach. “Aisling, please. You know I am telling the truth.”
I looked into his eyes, and I felt the truth of his words. But the memories were real, and I knew it. “I remember my life with my parents and my sister. It’s real, but this is real, too…”
“Let me take you to your mother,” Ronan said, offering me his hand again. “She will help you.”
She’d only take the memories away. I could not let that happen. They were my only link to the outside, to them. I’d lost them once. I wasn’t about to, not again. He didn’t know what had just happened…that I had a twin who was going home in my place. “No. I want to know how to get out of here.” His eyebrows shot up, and I met his gaze squarely, no fear, even though my fear threatened to drown me. What if this didn’t work? What if I was stuck here? And did my family think I was lost, or worse, dead?
I’d get back, and soon.
Ronan chuckled and a shiver went up my spine. “There’s no way out, Aisling. You crossed the barrier and it closed behind you.”
My heart dropped to my feet, my insides twisting. “No, you’re wrong. I can leave, right? Somehow, some way, we can cross over the barrier again – ”
“Let me take you there, and I’ll show you.” Ronan took my hand and led me away, out of the Throne Room and deeper into the forest, the trees and twinkle lights of the fairies blurring, everything flashing in front of me. We were moving too fast and too slowly at the same time.
We came to the tree that Ronan had said was dying without me. I felt a stab of guilt. They needed me, and I was going to leave. But I’d spent my life with humans. And I cared for those humans, whether they were my real family or not, for seventeen years.
But the magic of the tree pulled me in. I felt compelled to touch it, run my fingers over the gray and brittle leaves, the trunk that felt like a skeleton.
“It’s been waiting for you all this time,” Ronan said softly. “All you need to do is heal it.”
Yes, the tree whispered in my mind. Heal me. Bring us all back to life, Princess.
“How do I heal it?” I whispered.
“That I can’t say because I do not know. I’ve heard rumors that you would just know how.”
How do I heal you? I asked the tree.
You give of yourself, the tree replied.
“I…?” I murmured.
“What?” Ronan asked, touching my wrist.
I turned to him, letting go of the tree. “The tree is talking to me.” I shrugged. “I have no idea what it means.”
“Come. Your mother might know.” He tugged on my wrist, but I stayed put.
“This is nice and all, but you were going to show me why I can’t leave.” I wasn’t about to let him squirm out of this one. If it was true, I wanted proof.
“Do you really want to leave?” Ronan asked. “I mean, look at all of this! The revels! And the food! And you’re royalty. You’ll be queen someday, Aisling. Why give all of that up?”
“Take me to the barrier, and I will explain.”
We walked in silence for a bit. The forest gave away to a waterfall and a stream, the water as clear as an aquamarine and quiet. The golden sunlight made everything sparkle, as if there were diamonds everywhere. The grass under my feet was warm and felt alive – moving with the motion of my feet. Flowers bowed their heads at my passing, and birds sang to me sweetly.
My head spun. I wondered if I should give all this up. It was beautiful, and magical, and I was a princess…
Ronan led me to a tree that was, thankfully, not dead. It was tall, its leaves colored like the ones in the fall, vivid reds, yellows, and oranges. It provided a nice shelter from the sun. While I loved summer, it exhausted me.
“We are at the barrier. I’m listening,” Ronan said.
How could I possibly explain such a thing in a way he’d understand? “I was told, just a few minutes ago, that I belonged here, in an entirely different world, even though I lived my life with the humans. I have a twin, and she’s the one who is being sent back to live my life. Try to imagine that for a minute. How would you feel, Ronan?”
Ronan stared at me. “I can’t imagine giving up Faerie, not for anything.”
“What if you had a family there who you remembered? Would you want to go home to them?”
“I guess I would,” Ronan replied with a shrug. “But I’d also learn to love where I was. I’d accept it.”
“That easy? No problem? Even though the memories of your family were taken from you and then came back, and you didn’t want to forget again?” My voice quivered, and my eyes filled with tears. I would not cry. I would be strong. When Ronan looked surprised, I nodded. “I know you guys tampered with my memories. It won’t happen again.”
“I cannot promise that,” Ronan said, and it sounded like he meant it. “It is not within my control.”
“Well, you need to talk to whoever is in control and tell him or her that I will not allow it to happen again.” Anger was rising in me, a burn in my blood, and I took a deep breath to try to calm myself down. “Taking away memories is like taking away who I am.”
“But without those memories, you can be who you are meant to be.” He gave me a piercing look. “You won’t remember the humans, and you can focus on your life here. I can help you do that.” He reached for me again, and I stood, putting some distance between us.
I shook with fury, my heart pounding, my mind racing. Something was going on with Ronan, and I was almost afraid of him. Could he hurt me? Would he hurt me?
“What is going on?” I asked, my mouth dry. I almost didn’t want to know.
Ronan inclined his head to me. “I am your betrothed.”
I recoiled. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
He had the grace to look ashamed. “With all that’s been going on, I didn’t want to overwhelm you.” He stepped toward me. “Aisling, I would never, ever hurt you. Please believe me.”
I needed to get away before he did something to me or my mind. But I had no idea where we were or how to get back to the palace. “Is this truly the barrier?”
“Yes.” Ronan pointed to a place just in front of us. It didn’t look any different from anything else. “Do you feel anything?”
I lifted my hands and ran them through the air, but I felt nothing. Just air, and devastation.
“If you belonged out there, you’d feel something.” Ronan smirked. “Being that you don’t…well…”
“That is not true. Where does this lead?” Stay calm, stay strong, stand your ground. This is your life, and your family is on the other side of that barrier. Fight. Fight for them.
“Where you stepped in.”
The campground, the trailer, my family was just beyond that barrier? The barrier I couldn’t feel?
I sank to my knees and looked up at Ronan. I hated this, but needed to do it. “Ronan, if you ever cared for me, show me how to get across that barrier. You will have my gratitude.”
Ronan looked down at me, and I thought I saw shadows in his eyes. “Now why would I do that, my betrothed? We’re going to rule Faerie together. It’ll be fun.”
“I don’t want to rule Faerie. I want to go home.”
Ronan waved at the barrier in disgust. “Go. It’s open.”
I stood on shaking legs. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Ronan said through clenched teeth.
“I will not allow you to leave, Aisling,” a voice said from behind us.