Maeve Connor, once Queen of Connacht and now Queen of the Seelie Court, shifted on her throne. It seemed that when one was queen, whether it be in the mortal or fairy realm, one was fated to sit through endless hours of nonsense.
This present nonsense involved… Well, Maeve didn’t really know what it involved, since she hadn’t been paying attention. Two of her subjects were ardently making their cases, voices raised and arms flailing as each described how the other was in the wrong. Maeve imagined that it was a dispute over property, or perhaps a quarrel over livestock. Then she sighed; nothing that interesting ever happened here.
What I wouldn’t give for a cattle raid. Maeve leaned against the high wooden back of her throne, her eyes half-closed as she recalled her time as Queen of Connacht. She’d been a right terror, she had, with the surrounding kings so afeared of her attacks they’d slept with one eye open. Not that Maeve had ever been a terror to her own people; no, to them she was always fair and just, always seeking to do right by them.
Then there had been the white bull of Cooley, rumored to be the finest bull to ever walk upon Irish soil, and Maeve had to have it. It would have been her greatest victory, sneaking behind the old king’s back and absconding with his prized possession. And abscond she had, with nary a loss on her side.
However, her eyes had gotten bigger than her stomach, so to speak, and the theft of the bull proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s—bull’s—back. Her enemies, heretofore easy to handle, had had enough of her thieving ways and banded together against her. They’d even had the gall to send an assassin, a young pup who’d barely reached his manhood, to end the menace that was Maeve once and for all. The assassin wasn’t so much a threat, but the army at his back, threatening to kill every last member of Connacht if Maeve wasn’t readily brought forth, was worth a second thought. Maeve, ever one to weigh her options, took the matter under advisement, and decided that the best course of action was to flee, and live to fight another day.
Of course, the question then became: to where should she flee? The surrounding lands were full of her enemies, and Maeve was loath to leave her native Ireland for a haven across the sea. So her trusted commanders spread the word of her untimely death, and she went under the hill.
A fairy hill, or brugh as the countryfolk called them, was the equivalent of a mortal city, one of the main differences being that, whereas humans had sky above their heads, the fairies had dirt, roots, and the occasional burrowing creature over theirs. And, of course, the brugh was full of fairies, magical folk who spent their days feasting, drinking, and playing tricks on their hapless mortal neighbors.
In many respects, Maeve and the fairies weren’t all that different.
It was easy enough for Maeve to gain entry to the brugh. She merely lay on the grassy hillock, awaiting the sounds of revelry within. Mortals were often welcome at fairy banquets, either as servants or sources of amusement, and it was no trouble at all for Maeve to slip inside and join the merriment; after all, she’d done it often enough in her youth, before the demands of queenship had left her little time for such joys. Only this time, she didn’t withdraw as the sun rose.
Instead, she found herself a snug corner, and when the revelry began at next evening’s dusk she joined anew. After a score of nights spent this way, Maeve came to the attention of Eleanore, the Seelie Queen.
Eleanore was not pleased at having a mortal woman setting up house in her brugh and demanded that she take her leave. Well, Maeve was a queen herself, and wasn’t about to take orders from anyone, least of all a fairy. The ensuing battle was short, yet bloody, and ended with Maeve upon the Seelie Queen’s throne, her golden hair stained crimson with Eleanore’s blood.
There had been other opponents over the years, but they dwindled as Maeve’s time on the throne increased. After a time, no one challenged her at all, and her life had become an endless cycle of merriment and sleep, interrupted by the occasional, boring, dispute.
Who would have guessed that immortality would serve as its own punishment?
A commotion at the far end of the hall roused Maeve from her boredom; an interloper, it seemed, was scrapping away with her guards. She waved away the two bickering banshees, still oblivious as to the nature of their dispute, and indicated that the person in question be brought before her.
“He forced his way under the hill,” stated the captain of Maeve’s guard, a gruff man called Fergus. “When we told him we would toss him out on his arse, he said he’d like to see us try!”
“I’m all for you trying,” said the prisoner, who now had Maeve’s full attention. He was young, all wide eyes and gangly limbs, and covered in scrapes and bruises as well as filth. But his copper hair flashed in the dim light, and his eyes were the greenest she’d ever seen.
“What’s your name, boyo?” Maeve demanded. Most men bristled when called by such juvenile terms, but the prisoner smiled.
“Baudoin Corbeau,” he replied, bowing as much as he could while being held by the guards.
“And, Baudoin Corbeau, why have you found it necessary to infiltrate my home?”
“Legend says that the Seelie Queen is the most beautiful woman on earth,” he replied. “I had to see you for myself.”
“And?” Maeve prompted, raising an eyebrow.
“And,” he continued, his gaze heavy, “those legends do you no justice.”
At that, hot blood spilled up Maeve’s neck. She was no stranger to flattery, and rolled her eyes at most of it. However, something about Baudoin, something in his deep voice and emerald eyes, resonated within her.
“It didn’t occur to you to bathe before presenting yourself to this beauty?” Maeve quipped, struggling to regain her composure.
“Forgive me my slovenly appearance, but I was forced to dig my way into your hall,” he replied. In that moment, Baudoin accomplished what no other man had ever done–he rendered Maeve speechless. Her eyes flew to Fergus, who nodded.
“Like a bald mole, he scratched his way down from the surface,” Fergus explained. “Wasn’t even bright enough to use a shovel.”
“I didn’t need a shovel.” Baudoin cocked his head to the side, and Maeve saw a glossy black feather tucked behind his ear. Though it appeared thoroughly mundane at the moment, Maeve recognized an article of magic when she saw one.
“What…” Maeve cleared her throat, then continued, “Why would you dig your way, by hand, into a brugh?”
Baudoin shrugged. “I couldn’t find a door.”
Maeve threw her head back and laughed. “Well, it wouldn’t be wise for us to advertise the way under the hill, now would it?” She gave the interloper another long look, then clapped her hands.
“First, you’ll be needing to clean up,” she said, “then some proper attire. You’ll join us for our revels.”
“My lady,” Fergus said, “he wears cold iron!”
Maeve looked at the knife strapped to Baudoin’s forearm, then to her guards’ bronze swords. Fergus, for all his posturing, was terrified of iron, and of how it could render him helpless. Maeve, however, held no such fears. “Of course he does,” she admonished. “He’s a mortal.”
“He is too dangerous—” Fergus began, but Maeve silenced him with a gesture.
“He’s gone to all the bother of tunneling through the hill, the least we can do is feed him,” Maeve replied, rising from her throne and descending the few steps to stand before Baudoin. Now that she was so close to him, she realized he was older than she’d first thought, his wide grin having given him the appearance of youth. Slowly, she slid Baudoin’s iron knife free, smiling only slightly as Fergus cringed. “As my guest, I do expect you to be on your best behavior,” she murmured, gliding a fingertip across the flat of the blade before sheathing it at her belt.
“Of course, my lady,” Baudoin replied. “Anything for you.”
As Fergus and Seamus led Baudoin away, Maeve couldn’t help but wonder what “anything” encompassed.
After sundown the wine flowed freely, as it had last night, and the night before. Maeve sighed as she lifted her goblet; really, she had no one to blame but herself. She had known that for all their endless parties fairies were a boring lot, content to perform the same tasks, over and over until the end of time, unless a hapless mortal happened to interrupt them. Why, if Maeve hadn’t stumbled into the brugh, they’d have let that old hag Eleanore lead them right to the bitter end.
Maeve set down her empty goblet, and the elf to her left immediately refilled it. She fought the urge to knock the vessel away, to fling the contents into the serving girl’s eyes, but only just fought it. Angry and irritated, she snatched the goblet up, smiling when a bit of wine splashed onto the girl’s dress, and walked among her people.
Before long, she found the brugh’s newest resident, Baudoin, seated among her warriors. He was regaling them with stories of his past victories, likely all false, but he held his audience in the palm of his hand. He hardly missed a beat when Maeve sat beside him, only sparing the queen a sidelong glance.
“And that,” Baudoin concluded, “was how my family came by its emblem.” Awed murmurs rolled across the table; whatever story Baudoin had told obviously met with her people’s approval. “What have we done to earn a visit from our gracious queen?”
“Oh, just curious as to the sort of manure you’ve been spreading,” Maeve replied. Baudoin grinned, unoffended. “You look like you’ve bathed.”
“That I have,” he replied. “Allow me to thank you, my lady, for your most excellent hospitality.” He clinked his goblet against hers, then they both drank deeply.
“You’re not afraid of our food and drink?” Maeve questioned. “Haven’t you heard that you could be trapped with us forever as the price of your indulgence?”
“Forever with you would pass in the blink of an eye,” Baudoin murmured.
He smiled and ducked his eyes, and Maeve couldn’t help but smile in return. Through the haze of wine she examined his features, his strong jaw, marred by a tiny scar, and his bright, unruly hair, and sighed. He was nothing like the perfect fairy men she’d come to know, and that was the point. These fairies were so damn perfect that they were ugly; for all their magic, they’d never caught on that, sometimes, the flaws were what made one beautiful.
“Bow Dane,” Maeve murmured, elongating the syllables of his name. “Such an odd, unwieldy name you’ve been saddled with.”
“It’s French,” Baudoin informed her. “My surname means Raven.”
“Mmm. Bow Dane Corbeau.” Maeve shook her head. “Twice as unwieldy. I believe I’ll give you a new name.”
Baudoin raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“Oh.” A hundred names flitted through Maeve’s mind, all good, strong Irish names, and a fair few of them fairy in origin. None were right though; none quite suited the man before her.
“Beau!” Maeve said, laughing. “I shall call you Beau!”
Baudoin shook his head. “My mother won’t be pleased. I’m named after my grandfather.”
“She doesn’t need to know,” Maeve said. “It’s only a name for me to call you while you’re in my brugh.”
Baudoin smiled. “I like that,” he murmured, bringing his goblet to his lips. “I knew I was right in coming here, instead of visiting that other fairy queen.”
Maeve blinked, her shoulders squaring. “Wha—? Oh, do you mean Nicnevin?”
“Is that her name?” Baudoin asked. “She’s the one who claims she’s lovelier than you.”
At that, Maeve threw back her head and laughed. “The Unseelie Queen said that?” Calmed a bit from her outburst, Maeve wiped her eyes. “That one’s got hair like a horse’s tail and a smell like a barnyard, if I recall.”
A commotion at the far end of the hall drew their attention; it was Fergus, winning at dice yet again. Arms raised high in victory (really, it was only dice), he locked eyes with Maeve and smiled. Out of habit she smiled back, though from Fergus’s grimace she could tell that hers hadn’t quite reached her eyes.
“What are your plans for later this evening?” Maeve asked Baudoin, who nearly choked on his wine. “Not like that, you fool,” Maeve added, thumping him on the back.
“Then, how?” Baudoin rasped.
Maeve indicated the far end of the hall with her eyes. “After the brugh goes quiet, meet me before the crimson tapestry.” Baudoin nodded. Satisfied, Maeve rose, and added, “And Beau, don’t keep me waiting.”
The mortal stammered a reply, but Maeve was already walking away. She liked that her remarks had put the young man off-balance, almost as much as she liked the young man himself. Deep in thought about her coming time with Baudoin, Maeve didn’t notice Fergus until he stood directly before her.
“May I escort you to your chambers, my lady?” Fergus asked, his gaze heavy.
“Not tonight,” Maeve replied. She attempted to move past him, but he grabbed her arm above the elbow.
“And why not?” he hissed. “Found another, have you?”
Maeve looked coolly from Fergus’s hand upon her to his eyes. “Who are you to lay hands upon me?” she asked, loudly enough for those nearby to hear. “Who are you to question me, your queen? If I desire my rest, it is my right.”
Fergus, noting that they were now the object of several curious stares, abruptly released Maeve’s arm and backed away. “As ye wish,” he grumbled, before stalking away to the far end of the hall. With her head held high, Maeve exited the hall and entered her chamber, alone.
Perhaps it was because of the incident between the queen and Fergus, heretofore her favored companion, or perhaps the shorter summer nights were to blame, but that night the residents of the brugh went to their rest long before dawn. Maeve hadn’t slept a wink, fearful that she would miss the opportune moment to slip out unseen.
She stifled a yawn as she entered the darkened hall, the corner of her mouth curling upward as she spied Baudoin waiting for her. He, too, looked like he’d forgone rest, but no matter. The early morning air would revive them both.
“So punctual,” Maeve whispered, coming up behind Baudoin. “I worried you’d fall asleep with the rest.”
“I was warned not to keep you waiting,” Baudoin replied, extending his arm. “And what are my lady’s plans?”
“I thought we’d pay Nicnevin a visit,” Maeve replied, tucking her hand above Baudoin’s elbow.
“Is she expecting you?”
“Why would she? She hates me nearly as much as I hate her.” Baudoin raised his brow, but otherwise made no response. As they walked toward the brugh’s exit, Maeve added, “Besides, I’d like to know if you find the old witch fairer than me.”
“I can’t imagine that I will,” Baudoin replied. Maeve turned her head, hiding her darkened cheeks from her companion. Luckily, the hall was in shadows.
The walk across the rocky meadow was short, and the sun crested the hills as Maeve and Baudoin arrived before the Unseelie brugh. Maeve took a deep breath as she stared at the hillside; she’d only had one occasion to visit the Unseelie Court, and that hadn’t exactly gone smoothly. Still, she knew that Nicnevin, for all her spouting, was no match for her. Her confidence increased tenfold when Baudoin slipped his hand into hers.
“Shall we?’ he asked, indicating a chasm in the hillside. Maeve nodded, and together they descended into the darkness that was the Unseelie Court.
Unlike Maeve’s hall, suffused with the warm smells of bread and mead, Nicnevin’s home stank of brimstone and unswept floors. Maeve wrinkled her nose; it was as if these filthy fairies didn’t have the sense to use some of their human pets as housekeepers. Clearly, her rival was a fool as well as untidy.
Once Maeve and Baudoin turned the last corner before the great hall, Maeve had to clamp her hand over Baudoin’s mouth. He’d nearly cried out in shock at the sight of Nicnevin’s warriors, all strewn about the hall like dropped pieces of kindling.
“They tend to drink something fierce, and sleep where they fall over,” Maeve whispered in his ear. “Worry not, their heads are too heavy for them to stir.”
Baudoin nodded and followed Maeve as she carefully picked her way among the unconscious folk. Spread across the head of the feasting table was Nicnevin herself, lying atop her cloak of thorns. Maeve had no idea what caused the Unseelie Queen to be positioned so, what with her legs splayed outward and dress unfastened to there, but she whispered a few likely scenarios to Baudoin.
“I’m sure nothing of that sort happens at your court,” Baudoin replied.
“Never. We’re quite respectable, for a disreputable lot, that is.”
“Well?” Baudoin asked. “We’ve found her, and you were correct: she’s not half as lovely as you. Now what will we do?”
Good question, that. Slowly, Maeve grinned; she could think of one thing that would thoroughly incense and humiliate the Unseelie Queen. Maeve squeezed Baudoin’s hand, then bent over Nicnevin’s face and kissed her square on the forehead, leaving behind a shimmering, silver impression.
Maeve and Baudoin ran, hand in hand, away from the Unseelie Queen and her court. Once they exited the brugh they fell to the grassy meadow, laughing like two children who’d stolen a pie.
“Will it wash off?” Baudoin asked.
“No,” Maeve said, wiping away tears. “If I’ve worked it rightly, it will stay until the next full moon.”
“Wasn’t the moon full last night?”
“Aye,” Maeve replied, succumbing to a new fit of laughter. Then Baudoin was caressing her cheek, and pressing his lips to hers.
“Well?” he asked once they parted. “Is my mouth shiny?”
“Careful, or I’ll make it so.” Baudoin grinned and helped Maeve to her feet.
“Will you ever tire of being a queen?” Baudoin asked.
Oh, if he only knew the decades of boredom she’d suffered. But then, all of that had ended when a green-eyed man had dug a hole into her court. “Why do you ask? Are you the answer to my life’s question?”
“I don’t know any answers,” he replied. “But I’d like to look for them with you.”
Maeve smiled, and kissed him again. She liked kissing him, this mortal man that made her feel more alive in a day than any magic ever had. “An excellent notion, Beau.”