The Night that Never Was
An Irish Fairy-Tale
by Kelsey Smith
a. k.a. Puckish-Elf
On the edge of the merciless grey waters of the North Atlantic is set a gem of an island--a place almost as cold and soggy as the sea itself, but green as an emerald and just as beautiful. Many folks call this island home, but most of them live clustered in the cities on the island's edges. The middle of the island is largely green, but there are brown places too: the peat bogs. However solid the ground might look in these bogs, it is never to be trusted, for one misstep can send a man sinking into layers of thick, black earth.
Which is, of course, a very good reason for these areas to be sparsely populated, and thus it should come as no surprise that a road crossing such a bog might be the only man-made structure as far as the eye can see in any direction. It should also be no surprise that very few people would choose to live in such a place--especially in these modern times--and thusly that a village set on such a road might be as tiny as only a dozen buildings clustered together.
The village called Abcoley is one such a village, with the chief structure in the area being the Pub, at which travelers may stop and refresh themselves on the long road from city to city. Naturally, the economic choice in a village with so few real estate options was to have the upper story of the Pub serve as an Inn, which is exactly how the citizens of Abcoley had built the place.
For several years, the Pub and Inn had been out of operation, on account of the old owner--a portly man who'd run the place since anyone could remember--passing away, as older folk are sadly wont to do. The sensible thing for the natives to do would be to step up and purchase the establishment in order to replace the childless old innkeeper, as the only other option to obtain a pint of fresh, foamy Guinness was to drive a good forty miles up the road to the pub in the next village. Unfortunately, the residents of Abcoley were largely peat-cutters--those who made their living by cutting turf from the bogs and drying it for fuel--and had no head for business, and they, being Irish, would not go without their daily liquid bread. So drive they did, for almost half a decade.
Until one spring, when a strange shift in the wind seemed to bring with it an outsider, a lass the likes of which the folk of Abcoley had never before seen. Not only was she an outsider, but she was American, and a pretty young thing at that, with shoulder-length, wavy chestnut hair, bright, olive eyes, and a no-nonsense, wry manner of humor that made her the instant darling of all the locals. She, unlike the natives, did have a head for business, and a university degree for it at that. Not only did she purchase the old Pub and Inn, but she fixed it up so well that it drew tourists from all over, Irish and foreigners alike. She had renamed the establishment The Dancing Pumpkin. When the locals first saw the new sign, complete with a painting of a Jack-o-lantern waving spindly arms and legs in mid-dance, they laughed at the silliness of it--but called the sign a mark of fortune indeed.
One evening in the middle of spring, the mists descended on the bog before the sun had even set. The American lass, Fiona Richards by name, had been running her pub all day and hadn't yet been outside, so she'd no idea of the early fog creeping over the bog. All she knew was that business had been virtually non-existent all day, and with night beginning to fall and no sign of the usual evening rush, it was time to start worrying. The Guinness had to come from somewhere, after all.
She looked up from wiping out an ale glass, her face brightening as the door to the pub swung open. The misty evening admitted one Connor O'Malley, one of the local folk, a peat-cutter like his father. Fiona had served Connor many a Guinness, but the young man kept mostly to himself and his kin. She suddenly found her worries sliding away, blessing the heavens for the fact that Connor and herself were now the only souls in the pub. Fiona had long been an admirer of Connor's lithe, well-built frame, his steady blue eyes, and his head of russet curls, and now she had a chance to take him in and talk to him without having to worry about serving other customers.
"Well good evening to you, Connor," she called out as he kicked clumps of turf off his boots. "Congratulations on having the place to yourself!" She gestured around the empty pub with a smirk. "A Guinness and a Cornish Pasty for you, as per usual?"
"Per usual," Connor replied, returning her smirk with a more weary version of his own.
Fiona hesitated before turning to fill his order. As he slid onto a barstool, she caught the wet, earthy scent of peat wafting off of him. She found it far from an unpleasant smell, especially when coupled with Connor's particular musk. For a moment, her mind flitted to her room upstairs, imagining him and her rolled up in a sheet, tumbling about in that scent. How her fingers itched to run through those dusky curls of his...
She turned away before he could catch her staring. First order of business was to start the pouring of the Guinness, a delicate and exact science that required waiting for that all-important foam to settle long enough to top off the glass. While she waited, she headed into the kitchen to grab a pasty from the oven, knowing she would still have time to chat before the foam settled.
"So, Connor," she began with a conversational smile, folding her arms under her breasts and leaning forward on the counter. "You look fairly worn out. Long day on the bog?"
His blue eyes darted down to her chest for just a moment, returning to his pasty as he sighed. He seemed to know she was doing that on purpose, and paid it no mind. "I only wish," he replied. "Th'trade's been slowin' with the passin' o'winter; not as many lorries comin' all the way out to us."
Fiona's flirtatious smile turned to a look of genuine sympathy. "That'll wear anyone out," she commented quietly.
"Aye," he sighed, "'eavy it weighs on me Da' an' I."
The young woman let out a sigh to match his own, knowing the sting of economic hardship all too well--and knowing also that Connor had not come here to dwell on such things. Which was why she returned to the tap, topping off the glass of Guinness with practiced precision, and setting it before Connor with a smile.
"Ah, thank ye," Connor said, accepting and sipping from the glass with a satisfied sigh. "Ye do pour a good pint o'stout, Fifi."
The young innkeeper let out a good-natured laugh. "Now Connor, I explicitly remember asking everyone not to call me that," she said with a wry smirk. "So what makes you think you can get away with doing it in my pub, hm?"
"Yer pub?" The blue eyes flickered up at her from over the pint, just a shadow of a smirk hiding within them.
"Yes, my pub, Connor O'Malley," Fiona returned, smirking a little bit wider. "I bought, paid for, and renovated this place with the last of my inheritance; I should think it is very much mine."
"Aye, tha' may be," Connor replied cooly. "Yer pub, yer inn, yer rooms for let."
"That's right," Fiona nodded, leaning back with an air of self-satisfaction.
"But ye're forgettin' somethin', Fiona Richards, tha' ye shouldn't." His face was completely composed as he took another sip of stout.
She arched one chestnut eyebrow at him. "Oh? And what might that be, exactly?"
The sound of the glass setting down on the bar echoed through the pub. "Tha' this may be yer pub, but 'tis no' yer bog."
Fiona let out a scoff, leaning back away from the bar a bit to plant her hands on her rounded hips. "Well of course it isn't," she shot back. "Now tell me, Connor--why would you say something like that?"
"No' that ye're not welcome in Abcoley," Connor replied quickly to assuage her irate tone. "The people here love ye, that ye know. But th' bog don' belong t'the people, Fiona." His eyes locked onto hers, unspoken meanings bubbling up from their azure depths.
"Well, who does it belong to, then?" she asked, no longer engaged in witty wordplay, but actually perplexed. "Some rich landowner in Limerick? Some fat jerk in Dublin? Who?"
Connor just shook his head, letting out a sigh before taking another draught of beer. Fiona scowled at him. "Is there something I'm supposed to know that I'm not getting?" According to her tone, this conversation was fast grating on her nerves.
"Aye," Connor replied. He hesitated a moment before meeting her eyes again, the blue as steady as ever. "Th'bog belongs to the Good Folk, Fifi."
She blinked. "What, you mean fairies?"
Now it was Connor's turn to scowl. "Ye don't call 'em that," he said gravely, "not if ye don' want te anger 'em."
Fiona blinked again at Connor's scowl. She held his gaze for just a moment, silence ringing between them. Then, she burst out laughing.
"You can't be serious!" Connor's gaze didn't waver in the slightest. Fiona noticed, and her laughter died. "...you are serious."
"As death," he confirmed. "As should ye be."
"Finish your beer, you nutcase," she laughed, though it had a nervous cast now. "I'm not scared of fairies."
Connor only sighed and shook his head again as he did just that, swigging down the last of his Guinness and swallowing the final bite of his pasty. "I did warn ye," he said, almost forlorn as he pulled out his wallet.
"Connor," Fiona began, a reassuring tone and smile coming to her words. "Thanks for your concern, but I think I'll be just fine. I'm a big girl and can fend for myself against ghosts and boogeymen."
For a moment, the innkeeper thought the young man was going to be offended again, if the flash in his eyes was any indicator. But he only sighed patiently as he stood, leaving his money on the counter. He met Fiona's eyes as he spoke, somehow able to captivate her gaze with his. "Ye should stay inside t'night. Th'early fog on th'bog is a bad portent. Tha' Jack-o-lantern sign o'yers may be ridiculous, but it wards off them Good Folk that aren't so good in intention."
Fiona blinked as he turned away, shaking herself off as if she'd broken out of a trance. "I'll be fine!" she told him again as he walked away. A sigh, and then, "Have a good night, Connor."
He waved at her over his head, not turning around. In the next moment he passed from the warmly-lit pub into the swiftly-gathering night.
Fiona heaved a disappointed sigh, staring down at Connor's empty glass. She couldn't help but kick herself with thoughts of how that conversation could have gone so much better. She dearly hoped she hadn't completely ruined her chances with the strapping young peat-cutter by not believing in fairies.
"I heard the Irish were superstitious, but this is getting ridiculous," she muttered to herself as she put the money in the register and began washing the dishes.
The minutes blurred into one another, hours sliding by in silence while Fiona waited for someone, anyone, to come in and buy a drink. Eventually, her impatience gave way to a lethargic, resigned acceptance, and she set about searching for something for her hands to do. She was on her knees, halfway into the oven, scrubbing furiously at a chunk of char that had probably been there since before she was born, when the noise began.
"Ack--!" The sound of something large and heavy crashing into the outer wall of the inn would have made Fiona jump about a mile, if she had a mile to jump. As she was, she ended up whacking her head on the top of the oven when she jolted. "Ow!" The innkeeper sat back on her rump, feeling for any blood that might have spouted, and upon finding that her injury was nothing more than a goose-egg, she stood, wiping her hands irritably. "What in the world--"
"What the hell IS that?!" Flinging her rag into the sink, Fiona dashed out of the kitchen, angry fires in her olive eyes. It sounded as if someone outside were lobbing cinderblocks at the walls of her pub. The first sound had come from outside the kitchen; the second, against the west wall of the building.
The third one seemed to hit right above the front door, rattling the windows with the force of its blow. Fiona dearly regretted not purchasing a firearm before opening the doors of the pub. And here she thought she'd be safe in the middle of the countryside.
"Whoever you are, buzz off!" the young woman shouted, emerging from behind the bar and heading towards the door. "You're a few months late for Halloween--and anyway, the trick isn't funny!"
"Alright--that's it!" Fiona pushed up the sleeves of her forest-green V-neck and stalked toward the door. "You have a problem with me, you deal with me, and leave my pub--!"
She threw open the door only to be greeted by a silent, misty night. Olive eyes darted right, then left, but not a soul was in sight.
A huffy growl escaped the woman. She refused to stand for some local punks playing brick-chuck-ditch with her pub, especially not when she probably knew all of their parents by first name. She wheeled about, pulled the door shut, locked it, and shoved the keys into her jeans pocket before she stalked out into the starless night, boots crunching angrily on the gravel walkway.
"Alright you little brats," she hollered into the night, "get your snot-nosed butts out here! I'll string you up by your toenails if you don't show yourselves right now!"
Her words were lost to the gloom, swallowed up by the thick mist.
Fiona shuddered. Telling herself that it was only the cold, she pulled her sleeves back down again, suddenly regretting her decision to not bring a jacket. Spring though it may have been, the last fingers of winter chill clawed at her, drawing goosebumps from her skin. The all-pervading silence that soaked the foggy air had nothing to do with the goosepimples at all--nothing at all, she told herself.
"I said come out!" the innkeeper hollered, crunching up the gravel walk until her boots hit the paved main road. "You're in for a world of hurt if you don't, believe me!"
She was answered by nothing but silence and stillness. Shivering again, Fiona turned to cast another look around, only to realize that the warm lights of the Dancing Pumpkin had been swallowed by the gloom. The light of the moon refracted weirdly off of each droplet of fog, making the air itself seem to glow with a dim, unearthly pallor.
"Alright, fine!" Her voice warbled a bit as she called out one last time. "I'll let you off the hook for now, but believe me, when daylight hits, I'll find you punks out, and then you'll be sorry! Mark my words!"
Fiona only managed to get two steps back onto her gravel walkway before she heard the whinny of a horse echo behind her. She whirled, and nearly fell over at the sight.
Standing less than five meters from the innkeeper were a horse and rider the likes of which no earthly being should ever have the misfortune to see. Both horse and rider were headless: the horse's severed head hovered in front of its black body, while the rider held up his head before him like a lantern. And indeed, the rider's head glowed phosphorescent, giving Fiona a perfect view of the way the patch of hair by which the rider held it was caked with blood, of the grey, mottled skin rotting off the skull in bat-wing-like flaps, of the single eye hanging from the skull by a single frayed nerve, and of the other eye, black as a carrion fly, darting and rolling madly in its socket. The head's mouth stretched in a manic, grimacing grin, the skin of its lips splitting and bleeding from the strain.
Fiona managed to pull her gaze away from that darting eye long enough to realize that the horse was just as ghastly as its rider. The ebon stallion stood on cloven hooves, cracked and broken with lichens growing in the crevices. The milky-white eyes on its disembodied head stared blindly forward as it snorted, lips peeling back to reveal pointed, needle-like fangs.
"I'm dreaming." The assertion didn't make her feel any better, especially as the ghoulish horse took a step forward, its cracked hooves crunching painfully on the asphalt. She tried again. "I'm dreaming." The black eye roved about as the bleeding grin stretched wider and wider. "I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming, I'm dreaming."
The headless horseman, still holding his head aloft, dropped the other hand and drew a sword. The blade gleamed in the pale light of the moon, looking very sharp, very battle-ready, and very real.
"Okay--not dreaming!" Fiona turned on her heel and bolted up the road.
The young woman's booted footsteps thundered on the pavement for a good ten seconds before she realized that she was not running back towards her pub, but it was too late for that now. She could hear the ghastly steed whinny eerily behind her, and even worse--a high, wild peal of cackling laughter that she could only assume came from the glowing head of the rider. Fiona pumped her legs faster, willing herself away from the phantom. As much as she now blessed choosing to run Track in college, she knew her chances of outrunning a huge stallion were slim.
And yet, she soon found the terrible clatter of hooves grow more and more distant behind her. The whinny of the ghastly steed became dim and panicked; the scream of the headless rider wrathful. It was as if Fiona had actually willed herself away from the pursuing Unseelie. But she neither stopped nor slowed, the sting of fear burning through her blood just as potent as the crisp night air burning in her lungs.
Until she heard the whinny of a horse again--this time from the road in front of her. She stuttered to a halt, the sight before her draining the blood from her face.
Out of the fog galloped another gruesome horse and rider. This rider, however, held his head out before him in a black, blood-soaked bag, for he didn't need his head as a lantern--his horse lit the night for him. The white mare, glowing and translucent as a ghost, had no flesh on her legs, only bleach-white bone showing above the hooves. Her flanks were riddled with wounds from whip lashes, each grisly line oozing with thick, black blood. She had no eyes at all, and her lips flapped loosely around her needle-like teeth, as if her skin could be peeled from her hide in one clean swipe. The rider did not laugh or scream like the rider of the black horse, but silently lifted a sickle as he galloped onward, ready to strike.
Fiona had only an instant to react. Thus far, she had stayed on the solid, asphalt highway, knowing it to be one of the few paths through the bog safe to walk on. But now she had an Unseelie bearing down on her from in front, and could hear the other phantom galloping up behind. She had only one option--to veer off into the bog, and pray the earth didn't swallow her whole.
To her surprise and intense relief, Fiona found the ground beneath her boots to be solid. The pale wash the moon cast over the world distorted distance and color, but she could see enough to know that the ground she ran over didn't hold the heather-brown hue that indicated boggy ground. It was green--blessed, blessed green, the green of grass, the green of safety. She kept on running at full tilt, praying that the horsemen would stay on the road, unwilling to chance taking their steeds across potentially boggy territory.
After she could no longer hear the stamp of hooves or the screams of a disembodied head, long after the night's silence enveloped her completely, Fiona finally slowed and stumbled to a stop. She dropped to her hands and knees in the grass, head bowed, and gasped down cool, clean air until her dizziness dissipated.
Fiona then sat down on the damp grass and took in her surroundings as she rested. She tried looking back the way she had come, and blinked, perplexed, to find that no strand of grassy green safety stretched out behind her--only heather-brown bog lay there, as far as she could see. She turned around, and in every direction lay the tell-tale heather covering black turf, with one exception. Had Fiona continued running, she would have run straight into the circle of hawthorn trees that stood only a few meters away.
"Oh, great," she grumbled aloud. "A fairy ring." She heaved a heavy sigh and clambered to her feet.
"Alright, I get it now," Fiona called irately into the darkness between the trees. "I believe in fairies, okay? You don't have to run me down any more. I get it. Can you stop messing with me and put that grass back so I can go home without falling into a bog?" She huffed a sigh. "Seriously."
At that moment, Fiona turned back towards the bog and let out a yelp, for standing a stone's throw away were the two headless riders, advancing with weapons drawn.
Olive eyes darted frantically about, but there was no escape. The two riders had the innkeeper pinned between them and the ring of trees. Every fairy story Fiona had ever heard forbade mortals from setting foot inside a fairy ring; highways had been built around hawthorn trees, so strong were the warnings against it. But the innkeeper's choice was clear: be cut down by the ghastly Unseelie, or step into forbidden territory and brave whatever might be inside. Fiona wheeled about and rushed inside the ring.
She'd not taken two steps before she ground to a halt, her heart leaping into her throat. The world around her had changed completely in the blink of an eye. Inside the ring, not only had the fog vanished, but so had the darkness. A pale golden light that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere permeated the air: warm like sunlight, distorting as moonlight, a steady, friendly radiance without an apparent source.
Fiona turned around and looked outside the ring. There lay the same bog as before, but the farther she looked, the more the ground and air blurred together in the wash of golden light. The two headless horsemen had vanished.
She turned back around and blinked to make sure she wasn't hallucinating. The level ground that Fiona had seen from outside the ring had become a raised mound with seven half-bowl impressions, each just the right size to comfortably seat a humanoid figure. Truly, it was the figures seated on that mound that stole Fiona's breath away. The lower seats were occupied by five female figures, each of them identical in shape--a shape of perfect femininity, with ample breasts, round hips, and a slender waist. Fiona almost didn't register the fact that all five were completely naked, simply because none of the five appeared to be made of flesh. One had a body comprised of interlocking leaves; another seemed a living sculpture of wood, the grains in her face shifting as she smiled at the innkeeper. A third had a body of pure, clear water that rippled as she moved; the fourth seemed comprised of solid fog, her form leaving trails of it as she shifted. The fifth was a curiosity that took Fiona a moment to decipher. Her coloring was solid ebony from head to toe, excepting her eyes, which contrasted the black in a soft heather-brown hue. Fiona realized then that the fifth nymph was made of peat--of the spongy, black, compressed plant material that the people of Ireland had relied on as fuel for thousands of years.
As breathtaking as the five nymphs were, however, it was the two figures seated on the highest part of the mound of thrones that captured Fiona's gaze: a lordly figure robed in gold and white, and a younger version of him seated to the lord's right. The robed figure had not a king's crown, but a pair of massive, stately antlers grew from his head, long and intricate enough to put the proudest of bucks to shame. His skin was of flawless ivory, and it shimmered a subtle gold, like the air in the enchanted circle. His eyes, old as the earth itself yet bright with the exuberance of youth, shone as green as a sloping Irish field after a spring rain. The younger lordling sat clad in all white and silver, his tunic and pants shining as if embroidered with magic. His eyes were the same brilliant green as his father's, though they lacked the depths of age, and held instead a merry, mischievous sparkle. Both males possessed flawless alabaster hair that flowed all the way to their elbows, and an expectant, almost hungry quality to their gazes as they examined Fiona.
"Welcome, Fiona Richards of Abcoley," the golden-robed lord called out in a voice as deep and clear as the Lakes of Killarney. "We are glad you have finally arrived."
"Very glad," agreed the water nymph, her smooth voice flowing out in a purr.
"Very glad," echoed the nymph of fog, her tone muffled as Fiona's own voice had been in the darkness.
"My daughters and son are happy to see you; aren't you, children?" the antlered lord said with a smile, spreading his arms out as if embracing them all. Each of the nymph-daughters sang out their agreement, their voices a harmony of nature, their smiles identical to one another--and like their father's in the hungry looks hiding under their eyes.
It took Fiona quite a long moment before she could gather the presence of mind to will her jaw shut again. Never mind that these otherworldly beings knew her name; after what she'd seen tonight, such a detail seemed trivial, almost expected. No, it was the second thing the lord had revealed that finally brought words back to Fiona's lips.
"You...knew I was coming?"
"Of course," the fae answered, still wearing that not-quite-genuine smile.
"So ...the path through the bog..."
"Was I." The lord put a hand to his chest, a tinge of pride coming to his perfect smile. "I had to make sure you were brought here safely, after all."
"Wait...brought here?" Fiona's brow furrowed for a moment before incredulous anger snapped onto her face. "Wait a second--you don't mean that those headless horsemen were your doing?!"
"Well of course they were," the golden lord replied, just as smoothly as before. "All the Fair Folk in this region, Seelie and Unseelie alike, are my servants. The Dullahan are no exception. Normally they serve as messengers of death, but tonight I put them to a different use."
The young woman suddenly found herself too angry to speak. Her face flushed, jaw working soundlessly for a few moments before she managed to choke out a single syllable: "Why?"
"For two reasons: First, to teach you a well-needed lesson. You're now certain we exist, aren't you?"
A chuckle ran through the lord's children. The chorus of voices didn't sound nearly so musical or benign to Fiona's ears anymore.
"And second, to ensure your swift arrival. You see, my son has finally made his choice, and he cannot be made to wait." The lord laid a hand on his son's shoulder, and the hungry glint in both father and son's eyes increased.
"What choice?" Fiona demanded, not bothering to try to reign in her venom. Forget that these otherworldly beings probably had power over her life or death: they'd made her angry.
"Why, his bride, my dear Fiona," the lord all but purred. "Or should I say--Daughter-in-law."
Fiona's jaw dropped open again. The lordling began to raise a snowy eyebrow at her before she could find her voice once more.
"You...you can't be serious." Her eyes landed on the younger male, her expression caught between baffled and livid. "You want to marry me? For one thing, I'm a human, and you're--not. For another thing, I just moved here, hardly even two months ago. I'm only Irish by blood, buddy, so if you're looking for a princess, you're barking up the wrong tree." The more she talked, the more anger and confidence overtook her tone. "And for another thing, if you know so much about me, you'll know that I have a life. I've got to run the Dancing Pumpkin. I don't get any breaks handling that place by myself, and I certainly don't have the time to be making trips into other worlds or whatever." She flung one arm out behind her, pointing at the bog from whence she'd come, livid olive eyes landing on the golden lord. "So how about you put that grass path back where it was and let me go home."
Silence reigned in the fairy ring. The smiles melted off the faces of the nymphs.
"I can see you're upset," the lordling said, his voice as clear as his father's, but possessing a gentler, more musical tone.
It affected Fiona none. "You're darn right I am!" she shouted. "Your dad chases me here with killer Headless Horsemen from the Underworld--"
"They are not Undead, they are Unseelie," the lordling corrected.
"Whatever!" Fiona erupted. "If you wanted to ask me out, you could have done like any normal guy does and picked up a phone! But I guess they don't have phones in--wherever this is," she said snidely, gesturing around the enchanted ring. "And that's another thing--you don't just up and kidnap your bride! How about asking me to dinner or something first?!"
The lordling blinked, his perfect emerald eyes holding an expression of perfect confusion. "So...you don't wish to marry me."
Slowly, the lordling's face darkened, as if a cloud had passed over a sunny meadow. "It is because of that...bog-boy, isn't it. That Connor O'Malley."
Fiona couldn't help it--she suddenly colored at the thought of Connor. "No," she blurted instinctively, a spike of fear rushing through her gut; what if these fae decided to take revenge on Connor if they couldn't get what they wanted from her? "Connor has nothing to do with this. Though if you must bring him up, at least he has the decency to be honest with me, instead of trying to trick me into getting what he wants! And that's another thing: he doesn't want anything from me! And if he did, I'm sure he'd just ask nicely!"
Why was she still talking about Connor? She couldn't help but wonder, especially since speaking of him only put him more at risk. Nevertheless, she found that the more she tried not to think of him, the more she longed to be back at the Pumpkin, chatting with Connor over a pint of stout, perhaps even reaching forward and finally running her fingers through his russet curls.
The golden lord's face darkened further than his son's, a storm cloud settling over his expression. "Ware your words, Fiona Richards," he boomed. "You would not wish to make enemies of us."
For once, the son's expression did not mirror his father's. His emerald eyes held a confused, almost heartbroken look. "I don't understand," he mused. "If you were to be my bride, I would grant you eternal life. You would be a princess, and someday a queen. You could have anything you wanted...you wouldn't have to waste your life working at that inn."
Fiona heaved a sigh, some of her anger bleeding away. "Man, you are really clueless, aren't you," she said, almost pitying of the fae. "That's the funny thing about us humans: sometimes we don't mind working hard our whole lives. In fact, most of us prefer it. It sure beats being bored. And I never said I wanted to live forever, anyway. See, that wouldn't make me happy. Now, working at something that I know benefits other people...and being with someone who won't just give me things, but will point out my flaws and actually help me grow..." Again, her thoughts flitted to dusky curls and steady blue eyes. "That would make me happy. I'm sorry to disappoint, but marrying you won't fit the bill."
A chorus of whispers broke out between the five nymph sisters, a quiet clash of wind and waters. The antlered lord scowled all the more fiercely, the golden shimmer on his skin turning to angry, dancing sparks. Flames seemed ready to spring into his eyes at any moment.
The son held out a hand between his father's wrath and the impertinent mortal woman. "Father, no."
The sparks died, quieting again into a gentle shimmer. The father's verdant eyes turned a questioning look to his only son and heir.
The lordling let out a deep, resigned sigh, his gaze dropping to the earth beneath his feet. "Father, I...have changed my mind. I do not wish to marry Fiona Richards."
An appalled look overtook the golden lord's face. He threw up his hands and turned his eyes to the heavens. "Chun an grá go léir atá naofa, boy! You'll never come into your inheritance at this rate!"
Fiona counted it a blessing that her anger hadn't totally subsided yet, or else she would have burst into chuckles at the sight. She'd already made the golden lord angry; she figured that laughing at him was probably a bad idea at this point.
The antlered fae lord let out an impatient, disappointed sigh at his sulking son. "Go, Fiona Richards," he said, waving a hand her way without looking at her. "Return to Abcoley." He shifted his emerald gaze, abruptly locking on to Fiona's olive eyes. Quite suddenly, she found herself unable to look away or even to blink. The lord's words echoed weirdly in her ears. "Return to your home as if you never left. Return to your home as if this night never was."
The last of those syllables roared in her ears, along with a rushing sound, a violent wind whipping through her mind though she felt nothing against her skin. Fiona's vision blurred until she could see nothing but the fae lord's eyes, burning as two green pinpoints of light amid a vast blackness. The darkened world pitched and tilted, and she felt herself falling...
Her body felt light, and her head felt heavy. Something warm and soft pressed against her cheek, and something else gently rocked her shoulder.
Awareness took its time in coming, but after a moment, Fiona realized that the warm, soft thing on her cheek was the back of her own hand. Her arms were folded atop a hard surface, her head nestled within them.
"Fiona. Wake up, ye're scarin' me."
She knew that voice. That was Connor's gentle brogue, and Connor's gentle hand shaking her shoulder.
"Huh?" The innkeeper raised her heavy head, strands of chestnut hair falling into her face. She swallowed the feeling of sleep out of her mouth and wiped her eyes. "Connor?"
"Aye," the peat-cutter affirmed, sounding relieved. In his next breath, though, he sighed reproachfully. "I know ye work hard t'keep th'Pumpkin open, Fifi, but ye could've slept in yer own bed, ye know."
Fiona brushed the mussed strands of hair out of her face and finally took a look around. Her eyes widened and her heart stopped.
She was back in the Dancing Pumpkin, sitting at one of the tables in her own pub.
"Aye, that ye did," Connor said with a shake of his head. "'Tis already eight o'clock in th'mornin'."
Shakily, Fiona got to her feet. She couldn't believe it. That whole ordeal...the Dullahan, the wild chase through the bog, the fae lord and his children...that had all been a dream? Her wide, incredulous eyes strayed around, taking in every detail of the establishment she owned as if that were the dream, as if it might vanish at any moment.
Connor stepped in front of her, his steady blue eyes studying her olive ones in concern. "Fiona? Are ye alright? Ye look like ye've ridden t'the land o'Faerie an' back an' hit some snags along th'way."
Once again, Fiona found herself held captive by his eyes. She let out a laugh, a half-relieved, half-exhausted sound that echoed heartily through the empty pub.
"Oh, Connor." Smiling, she reached up and dragged her fingers through his dusky curls, finding, to her delight, that they were just as soft as she'd imagined. "Have I got a story for you..."