Changeling: The Faerie Escape

Changeling
Part 5: The Faerie Escape
a free fantasy serial by Erin Zarro

Links: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

I turned to face the woman who claimed she was my mother, but didn’t feel like my mother at all. My twin was with her, looking terrified.

Mother was pale, and her hands were clenched into fists. “Aisling, what do you have to say for yourself?”

Ronan stepped forward, putting his hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged him away. “Mother, I am leaving here. I belong out there with my family.”

Mother sighed. “Are we going to do this yet again? Your place is here, with me, with your people. I can’t understand why you persist in thinking about these people who aren’t even your real family. Maria will be joining them soon.” She smiled an evil kind of smile, and it made me sick to my stomach.

“I am Maria,” I said. “I’m human with a human family. I’m leaving.”

Ronan took hold of my shoulder again, and this time I allowed it. “Why would the tree want you to heal it if you weren’t one of us?”

Damn that tree. And damn if I didn’t feel guilty now. I glanced at Ronan, wishing he hadn’t said that. “I don’t know.”

“I know,” Mother said. “Because you are one of us. And you are the one to heal it. Maria couldn’t do it; we tried many times and failed.”

I didn’t want to consider that possibility. I had family out there waiting for me, and while I enjoyed my time in Faerie, I wanted to go home. I felt for the tree, though – if it believed that I was the one to fix it, it was mistaken.

Another thought occurred to me. What if I really was the one to heal the tree? What if I really was Aisling, heir to the Faerie throne? What if I really wasn’t human?

What if I was delusional?

I had no idea what to believe anymore.

“Clearly, you are confused,” Ronan said. “Why don’t we go back to the palace and get some food into you? You’re probably hungry and tired.”

I wasn’t hungry or tired. I couldn’t see a supposed portal to the human world, supposedly I was a Faerie princess… I didn’t know what to do.

Heal me.

And now the tree was talking to me again.

“Aisling, are you all right?” Mother asked, reaching out to touch me.

I flinched. “I’m fine.”

“The tree was talking to her earlier,” Ronan said. Damn him. “Is it talking to you now?”

Was he a mind reader?

I sighed. “How did you know?”

Ronan took my hand in his. “I’m very sensitive to your emotions. And right now, your emotions are very strong. You’re confused. Angry, too.”

“Angry?” Mother asked. “About what?”

I shook my head, not wanting to get into it. “Nothing.”

“It must be something, for Ronan to sense it,” Mother said.

She wouldn’t understand anyway. “It’s nothing. I’ll see you at dinner.”

#

I had a plan. I would approach Maria with switching places. Mother might be able to figure it out, but I planned to be far away once she did.

It was the only way I could think of to get out of here with minimal fighting. Mother would not change her mind; I knew this. And Maria wanted to be the heir anyway. So we would both win.

The only thing that bothered me was the tree. The way it kept speaking to me in my head bothered me. It sounded sad, and desperate. I was pretty sure that I would need to do something about it before I left.

I caught Maria just outside her room on my way to dinner. “Hey, um, can we talk for a minute?”

Maria frowned. “What do you want?”

I understood her anger and bitterness. Hell, if I were her, I probably would have felt the same. “Actually, that’s why we need to talk. I want to make you the heir.”

Maria’s eyes widened. “Huh? Supposedly you are the heir – “

“But I don’t want to be,” I said. “I want to go home. So, it’s simple. You be the heir and I be you.”

Maria smiled. “That’s a great idea.”

“We just need to switch places,” I continued, looking up and down the hallway for anyone who could hear us – or Mother. “But Mother might be able to tell, so we have to find a way to do it so it sticks.”

Maria walked down the hallway, a bounce in her step. I followed her. “I know just the person to help us. She’s a witch. She can make us believable. And then you can go home.”

It sounded logical and reasonable. But I had a feeling that there was a catch. Maria was being too nice, too agreeable.

And a witch? Weren’t they dangerous?

“So we’re set then?” Maria asked eagerly. “We’ll meet at midnight tonight underneath the dying tree. I’ll make the arrangements with the witch.”

My eyes narrowed. “Is there something you’re not telling me? Like, how dangerous this is?”

Maria chuckled. “No, silly! Witches are safe here. I mean, a witch found me, right?”

I could have argued that point, but I let it go. “Okay, as long as it’s safe and everything…”

Maria’s eyes danced in the light of a chandelier. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything.”

#

Throughout dinner, my stomach twisted and churned with anxiety. Something weird was going on, and I couldn’t help thinking that it was a trap of some kind.

Or, maybe I was paranoid.

Maybe.

“…don’t you think, Aisling?” Mother asked. “Aisling?”

I felt eyes on me, and I realized that Mother – wait a sec, she wasn’t my mother. She was Sorcha. And she was talking to me. I blinked, setting my fork down. “I’m sorry, what?”

Sorcha chuckled. “Deep in thought, dear?”

“Something like that.” The clink of silverware on plates resumed. My hand shook as I speared the unidentifiable fruit on my own plate.

“I was saying that tomorrow would be a good night for our next revel,” Sorcha said, taking a sip of her blood red drink. “It’s been awhile since we had one.”

I hoped to be home by then. If all went to plan. “Sounds like a good idea.” I mock-toasted her with my goblet and took a sip of my own drink.

People murmured things, and one of the courtiers let out a shriek of laughter. Everything faded into the background as I watched Maria. She ate heartily and smirked as if she had a delicious secret.

I supposed she did.

She was about to become me.

“Aisling,” Maria said, balancing a piece of meat on her fork, “I think this dress I’m wearing would look perfect on you tomorrow. Why don’t you borrow it?” She gave me a knowing look, and I was pretty sure this was a coded message of some sort.

Was she saying we were good to go, that she would “borrow” my likeness tomorrow? Or was she saying that she failed, and I’d be here to wear the dress myself?

“I think it could transport you to another world,” Maria continued, her eyes narrowed. I could almost hear her telling me, don’t you get it already?

Yes. I got it. “That would be perfect. Thank you so much.” I smiled, and she grinned back.

“It’s so nice to see you two getting along so well.” Sorcha sighed sadly. “It is too bad that soon you will be parted.”

“I’ve realized my place.” Maria moved vegetables around on her plate. “Clearly, I’m not Faerie royalty. I don’t belong here.” She looked up and met my gaze. “And Aisling is your true heir. I get that now.”

Sorcha reached out and took Maria’s hand in hers. “I wish things were different, dear. But you both cannot stay here with me.”

“I’m sorry,” I murmured. “May I be excused?”

“You haven’t finished your meal.” Sorcha’s brow furrowed. “Are you feeling alright?”

“A bit drowsy.” I stood, pushing my chair away. “See you later, Maria.”

Maria waved lazily. “Buh bye.”

Something wasn’t right, I thought as I walked down the hallway to my room. The walls felt as if they were closing in and the room looked like it was underwater, bobbing and ebbing with invisible waves.

A few times, I almost stumbled.

When I got into my room, it took everything for me to get into bed.

And then darkness swooped in and grabbed me with eager hands.

#

“Wake up!”

The voice sounded familiar. I blinked sleep from my eyes and tried to sit up. “Wha…?”

I was in a room lit only by candlelight. Two figures stood in shadows. I was in a bed of some sort, covers smelling faintly of mothballs.

“It’s alright. She will be a bit disoriented for a while,” a woman’s voice said. It wasn’t the same voice that had commanded me to wake up.

“I wish it would work faster.” Maria! She didn’t sound happy. Her face came into view as she came to my bedside. “Aisling. Or should I call you Maria now? How are you feeling?”

“Strange,” I said.

“That is the aftereffect of the spell. It should dissipate in an hour or so. Just in time to open the portal and send you off.” The woman who’d spoken stepped forward, and I gasped. She wore a cloak, her face partially covered by a hood. Her face was a tangle of scars, her irises blood red. She lifted her hands to touch me, and I recoiled. She had talons for fingernails – long and sharp. “It’s alright to be scared, dear. Most people are.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I mean no offense. And thank you for your help with this.”

“Of course, of course,” she murmured, moving back into the shadows.

“So I guess I should explain,” Maria said. “Vidia here switched our souls. That means you are now human and I am Fae.”

My stomach twisted. I’d gotten my wish. I was now human, and could go home. But what about the tree? I didn’t want it to die. But I was no longer Fae, so I no longer had the power to save it.

“Say something,” Maria said irritably. “I’d think you’d be happy about this.”

“I am,” I assured her. “Really. I’m just thinking of the implications.” My head throbbed, and my vision blurred. “I still feel strange. And what about the dying tree?”

“What about it?” Maria asked with a shrug. “It’ll be fine.”

“Aren’t you going to heal it?” With my magic, I added silently. “Faerie will die if it dies, if you remember.”

Maria flicked her wrist dismissively. “Let me worry about that now that I’m the heir.” She came closer, and her eyes looked funny – as if there was nothing behind them, no soul. But she had mine, right? Maybe it was just the spell still messing with me. “Now, let’s get back to the palace before anyone realizes we’re gone.” She held out her hand to help me up, and I grabbed it.

Maria hustled me back to the palace. It was a dizzying, odd experience, stalking around in the middle of the night, and I was exhausted by the time we got to my room.

“See you tomorrow, Maria,” Maria said.

I pulled back the bed sheets.

And dropped them.

Of course. She’d taken me back to her room.

#

The next morning, I awoke to my first day as a human.

Servants were everywhere, carrying food and bed sheets and portable thrones and potted plants. I heard Sorcha in the background shouting commands, and I felt sorry for them.

I also saw Maria glued to Sorcha’s side, looking radiant in a simple red dress with her hair in an updo. A small crown sat on top.

I swallowed hard. This was it. She was me, and I was her.

Soon, I’d be gone from here completely.

Which was my wish. But why did it feel so wrong?

“Maria, there you are,” Sorcha said. “You must hurry and get ready to leave. We’ll be going to the portal soon.” She didn’t even look at me as she spoke.

A few servants came into my – Maria’s – room and helped me put on the clothes I came here with, denim shorts and a tee shirt. I looked completely out of place here, and again, it felt wrong.

What felt like minutes later, we were at the place where the portal was. Supposedly. Ronan was there, giving me odd looks. Sorcha and Maria were there, as well as a few servants and attendants.

“Well, this is it,” Sorcha said to me. “I am sorry this did not work out for you. But you are human, and not my heir.”

Maria smirked.

I blinked back tears. I didn’t understand. Why was I sad about leaving here? I was going home. “I am sorry, too,” I murmured.

Sorcha put her hand up. It glowed with white magic. A square appeared in the air, backlight by sunlight. Was that the portal?

“Go on,” Sorcha said. “I can only hold it open so long.”

“See ya,” Maria said, waving. “Have a nice life.”

Ronan said nothing, but gave me a little wave.

I took a deep breath and walked forward. My body hit the portal. It was like a solid wall. I couldn’t go any farther.

I looked at Sorcha. “Um, nothing’s happening.”

Sorcha glanced at the portal, then back at me. “I don’t understand. It should be open.”

Heal me, the dying tree said in my head. Heal me and I will let you leave here.

I swallowed, my gut going cold. I couldn’t tell them, because it would expose our ruse. But if it wouldn’t let me leave…

Damn.

“What’s happening?” Maria asked, her eyes wild with panic. “Why can’t you leave?”

I took a deep breath and prepared for the worst. “Um, it’s the tree. It wants me to heal it before it will let me leave.”

“How is that possible?” Sorcha asked. “You – you are human. You have no magic.”

I glanced at Maria. “It is apparent that I have some kind of magic in me.”

“But that’s impossible!” Maria stamped her foot. “We traded souls! I have your magic!”

Crap!

Sorcha rounded on me. “What? You traded souls?”

I didn’t meet her gaze. I felt strangely ashamed for this crazy stunt. “It was my idea to trade places so I could go home. Maria knows a witch who switched our souls.”

Sorcha turned to Maria, her lip curling. “You foolish child! A Fae’s magic isn’t in just her soul. It’s in her body as well. Aisling has magic still, and as such, must heal the tree. Why would you deceive me like this? You are human, and not my heir!”

Maria cowered under Sorcha’s onslaught. I almost felt sorry for her. Almost. “But I wanted – wanted to be the heir, the Faerie princess!”

“Well, you’re not and you never will be!” Sorcha spun toward me. “And you will never leave.”

I let out a breath. “But I have to leave. I am not happy here.”

Sorcha’s eyes widened. “How could you not be happy? You have the finest clothing, the best food, the most beautiful palace, and all the revels! And you are royalty!”

“I don’t want any of that.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wanted to go home. My parents and sister were probably worried sick, wondering if I’d gotten kidnapped. Or worse. Where were they now? How did time flow here anyway? I swallowed hard. Got back on track. “I want to go camping in my parents’ little camper. I want to play with my sister. I want to go to college. I want to eat a greasy hamburger at Joe’s Hamburger Place with a soda and equally greasy fries. I want to go to Prom. I want to have a boyfriend, not some guy I’m betrothed to.” I gave Ronan an apologetic look. He looked ready to puke. “I want to be utterly human with no magic at all. I want to be me.” Tears filled my eyes. God, I hadn’t realized how badly I wanted it until now. Until I was told I couldn’t leave. “The tree…” I glanced at the tree, and I felt its eyes – if it had any – on me. “I can heal the tree. But I’m leaving after that.”

Thank you, the tree said. If you give me your magic, you will be utterly human again.

I smiled. It was perfect.

“I cannot let this happen,” Sorcha said with a sigh. “We need you – body and soul – to be the heir. Maria won’t do.”

“But Mother,” Maria protested, sounding whiny. “I’ll be the best Faerie princess ever. You’ll see.”

Sorcha turned to Maria and put her hands on her shoulders. “Dear, you need to realize that you simply don’t belong here.”

“But I have her soul now!”

“That’s not enough. You need to be her. And you aren’t. I’m sorry,” Sorcha said apologetically. “I know it’s a horrible blow, but it’s the truth. There’s no point in pretending.”

“Maybe we can have the witch switch our bodies…”

Ignoring them, I went to the tree and put my hand on its trunk. If I do this, you will let me leave?

Yes. I will even freeze time so you can get away safely, the tree replied. We both can have what we want. There’s only one more thing. I must take your memory as well.

My memory? Why?

Because it is a part of your essence, the tree said. I wish I didn’t have to. But I must.

So… I’ll go home but I won’t remember anything?

Correct.

This was…not good. What if I got home but was dumped off somewhere unfamiliar and my family wasn’t around to claim me? I’d be lost, vulnerable…but I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be betrothed. I wouldn’t be the heir. I certainly wouldn’t be Fae anymore.

I’d still be me, deep down.

But my family…my memories of my family were what kept me going, kept me on this path. And they were good memories. I didn’t want to lose them. They’d be strangers to me. And I would be a stranger to them, too.

You must make a choice, Maria, before they realize what we’re about to do.

I nodded.

There really was only one choice to make.

#

There was sunlight. Green grass. The sound of dogs barking and children playing.

A small camper stood not far from me. It bore a cute sign with some names I didn’t recognize on it. It felt important somehow, but I couldn’t imagine how.

But something drew me to it, and I found myself walking closer. Just to see it up close –

“Maria! Oh my God, Maria!” A woman with short hair and brown eyes came flying at me. I recoiled, my heart in my throat. “You’ve come back! Oh my God! Alex! Come here!”

A tired-looking man came from behind the camper. His eyes lit up when he saw me. “Maria! It’s a miracle!” He, too, flew at me and embraced me before I could move away.

I said nothing.

“Maria?” The man drew back, his eyes narrowing. He touched my cheek; I recoiled. “What’s wrong, honey? Did something happen to you?”

I looked down at my hands. “I don’t know you. Or her. And who is Maria?”

It took a really long time for me to relearn and discover who my loved ones were. There were flashes of memory at times, but I could never quite grab them. They wanted to know what happened, and I couldn’t tell them because I did not know.

I knew nothing.

It was a different and strange world.

They said I’d changed.

I supposed that I did. Having no memories would do that to you.

The following year, we camped in the same campground and by some miracle, the same site. Or so I was told. Mom and Dad considered that a bad omen and almost wanted to leave. But Jane begged them not to. She loved it here. Supposedly I did as well.

I went wandering, something my parents told me not to do. But something niggled at me from the moment I stepped onto this campsite. Something important.

I sat down on the grass once the sun set. Watched the sky turn pink and lavender and the sun sink down the horizon, a big ball of yellow-gold.

And then I saw them.

Fireflies. They blinked bright yellow and then went dark. Blink, dark, blink, dark…

You’ve suffered enough for your sacrifice, a voice said. Please accept this gift as a token of my gratitude.

And then I remembered.

The forest where I learned I was a Faerie princess.

The dance where I lost my memories.

The girl who was my shadow.

The tree I healed and the portal that sent me home.

Blink, dark, blink, dark.

This time I walked away from them, the Faeries who were once my people.

I was me again.

Utterly human.

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