Deirdre slipped from the family’s cottage with the setting of the sun. Mother knew she went, she must have, trying as she was to soothe baby Aileen’s hungry fussing. Mother neither said anything, nor looked towards her as she stepped out into the dark night. The moon hid her light behind grey clouds, turning even her face away from them.
The first snow covered the earth, though that meant little. There was no crop this year, nothing to fill their bellies. They had none since they lifted the first of their potatoes the previous year and found it blighted, just as the papers had warned.
They had scraped and scrounged for food for over a year, but there was little and less of it. For them, anyway. Crispin, their landlord’s man, overseer while Sir Daven glutted himself in accursed England, seemed fat and happy enough. His round-cheeked daughter did not weep for the ache in her gut. The crops they grew for him; the sweet wheat, the peas, and beans, he packed neatly. Most had been sent away, off to the ports in the south and to tables in England. But some remained, stored and waiting.
Deirdre meant to liberate those stores.
She moved through the night to the storehouse quietly. She knew these fields and these hills; she had never been elsewhere in her seventeen years. She would break into the stores and take all she could carry. They could hang her afterwards, if they wanted. The food would be enough to get Mother, Colleen, Sean, and Aileen south, to a ship and a better life.
To any life at all.
Deirdre circled the copse of oak trees near the cattle pen, her mouth watering at even the thought of meat, and a whisper of music on the wind came to her ears. Soft and sweet, the music came from within the trees. She could not imagine who would be playing on such a cold, lightless night. Nor could she imagine why anyone would dare venture into the oak trees. Mother had always warned against it. Still, the music made her hesitate, even with hunger eating at her stomach.
It had been so long since she heard music. The notes drew her forward, under the boughs of the trees, dark and bare from the onset of winter. Mist hung among the branches. A bird fluttered overhead, stirring wisps of fog. Deirdre ducked under a branch, stepped over a root, peered around a twisted trunk, and found a woman.
Her breath caught. The woman sat, legs folded upon the cold earth, clad in fabric that shimmered in the dark. Her hair fell over her shoulders in dark curls, pooling around her legs on the bracken. Her skin was pale as moonlight, her face round, her nose upturned. She held a silver flute in her slim hands. A spring burbled beside her, one Deirdre had never seen. She never dared come into the woods before.
A branch broke beneath her foot and the woman stopped playing, her eyes snapping open; such eyes they were, huge and dark and shining. “My apologies, miss,” Deirdre blurted, sketching a hurried curtsy. “I did not mean to disturb you.”
The woman stood, her skirts whispering against one another, taller than Deirdre expected her to be. She eyed Deirdre, who rubbed her palms down her skirt. “I’ve not heard music in some time,” she said. “You have a talent for it.”
The woman cocked her head to the side and then smiled at Deirdre. She said, “Come and sit. Eat. I will play for you some more.”
And Deirdre sawthat a blanket was spread across the ground, piled high with fruits and breads, with butter and fresh milk, with a pie that steamed in the cold air. Spit flooded her mouth and her gut clenched. She knelt by the blanket, her fingers closing around a firm, red apple. She brought the fruit to her mouth, teeth aching for it, and stopped an instant before biting into the crisp flesh.
The woman stood over her, watching. Her dark hair fell over her shoulder. Her bare arms were long and lean. The cold seemed not to touch her. A circle of toadstools surrounded them and the spring. Deirdre lowered the apple—a trial—and swallowed.
“You’re one of the fair folk,” she said, cold and dread finding a home inside her ribs.
She stared down. “Do your folk still remember us, then?”
“Aye,” Deirdre said, thinking of Mother back home, of her brother and sisters. Would they think she had abandoned them if she did not return, if the lady swept her off to the faerie courts? “We remember. Please, my lady, will you let me go?”
“You are hungry,” she said, and Deirdre’s eyes fell on the array of food. There seemed more of it: a roasted chicken sat by her knees,a bowl of soup sat beside it. There was not a potato to be found. She nodded. “You are all hungry.”
“We are,” Deirdre said, for at least she still spoke, at least the world around them had not changed, though she had been so foolish as to step into a faerie ring. “Lady, I beg you, let me leave.”
“You mean to steal food to feed your family,” she said, matter of fact. Her voice sounded like music. Deidre winced at the beauty of it. “It will only soothe their bellies for a few days. And you will hang, when they catch you.”
Deirdre balled her hands into fists, pressed against her legs. She felt the bones beneath her skin. “Perhaps,” she said. “But—”
“I have watched your people since this world was young,” the elf-woman said, sitting once more. She reached for the apple Deirdre had held and bit into it. Saliva flooded Deirdre’s mouth. Her stomach gurgled. The elf-woman held out the fruit, the contrast of red skin against her white flesh striking. “Eat,” she said. “There is plenty of food in my realm.”
“You would trap me,” Deirdre said. The elf-woman just stared, her beautiful features impassive. Time stretched. Deirdre’s stomach rumbled. She would be caught. Everyone knew that if you ate of the food of the fair folk they would have a hold on you forever. But. She licked her lips. “Would I be treated well?”
The elf-woman tilted her head to one side. Her eyes were dark, dark and deep. Old. She said, “You would not starve.”
Hunger ate at her thoughts. Aileen’s skeletal arms waved in her mind. The stores waited in the barn. A few days of food would not spare Aileen’s life, or give the others the strength to reach a port. She swallowed saliva, terrible fear of the options set before her twisting in her stomach. She said, finally, “You say you have food. Food for how many?”
Mother looked up with hollow eyes when Deirdre returned. She held Aileen close, the girl finally fallen into a miserable sleep. “You must come with me,” Deirdre said, gripping Colleen’s bony shoulder and shaking her awake, moving on to Sean. “Right now.”
“Why?” Mother asked, but she rose carefully. Deirdre knew not how she held onto Aileen, thin as she had become. Colleen and Sean rubbed at their eyes, empty-cheeked.
“Because I do not know how long she will wait.”
“Who?” Colleen asked, swaying when Deirdre threw her cloak around her shoulders.
“Come quickly now,” Deirdre said, guiding Sean out of the door. She took Aileen from Mother, startled by how light the babe felt and the bird-fast beating of her tiny heart. Deirdre would have struggled to hold her, earlier in the day.
“Deirdre.” Mother’s fingers squeezed around her arm, the tips of her thumb and middle-finger touching. “What do you mean to do?”
“I mean to see us all fed,” Deirdre said, swallowing. She could see the fear in Mother’s eyes. And the hope.
“How?” she asked, quietly.
Deirdre’s tongue tangled around the words. Her jaw ached. But she found a way to speak. “I went into the oak trees,” she said. Mother drew in a sharp breath through her nose, her fingers bit into what remained of Deidre’s flesh like claws. “I heard music. And there was a woman there, and—”
“We cannot eat her food,” Mother said. “Those who eat the food of the fair folk are theirs. We would be taken away, never able to return—”
“What is there to return to?” Deirdre asked, the first time in her life she had ever dared interrupt Mother. “Besides hunger? Besides a grave near Father?”
Deirdre saw a fire, assumed long-extinguished, flare in Mother’s eyes, just for a moment, and thought she would be slapped. But Aileen stirred in her arms, with a whimper instead of a wail, and that fire faded away. “The fair folk cannot be trusted,” Mother said.
“I know.” Deirdre shrugged. “But is not the possibility of deceit better than the certainty of death?” She felt Colleen and Sean watching them, wide-eyed and sunken-cheeked. She breathed too hard. She wondered what she would do if Mother refused.
But Mother closed her eyes and nodded. “Very well,” she said. “We must tell the others.”
They hurried from cottage to cottage, the back of Deirdre’s neck itching with each second that passed. They were met with confusion and disbelief, but hunger beat them to every door. The memory of the dead won their arguments for them. The crowd around them—some little more than walking skeletons—grew and grew, until there were no more failing cottages to visit.
No one turned down their offer.
The trip through the dark went slowly. Colleen and Sean were clumsy and tired, and so were so many of the others. They made noise as they went, until Deirdre’s nerves felt fit to burst from her skin. She hushed and hustled them along, past the accursed fields and the cattle paddock, into the oak trees. Music filled the air. Mother shuddered beside her.
Deirdre led the way, around piles of bracken and low branches. Her heart lodged in her throat. She stepped around the gnarled tree, adjusting her hold on Aileen. For a moment she dared not look, but then she opened her eyes.
The faerie woman stood within her toadstool circle. A basket waited beside her, piled high with fruits. She held an apple in one hand. It had two bites taken out of it.
She gazed forward, her dark eyes taking in the sorry lot of them. Her mouth tightened and her eyes narrowed. And then she drew in a breath and her expression softened. “Come, folk of Éire. There is enough for all of you.”
Colleen looked up at Deirdre, pressed against her bony side. Colleen’s face was pale. Deirdre nodded, her throat too tight for speech, and Colleen darted forward, stepping neatly over the toadstool ring. The fairy woman reached into the basket and offered her an apple. The joyful sound Colleen made when she took a bite brought stinging tears to Deirdre’s eyes.
The others rushed forward, then, and there were apples for everyone, and the food brought color back to their cheeks, closed the splits in their lips, and eased some of the emptiness around their eyes.
Deirdre watched them, still tasting the sweet juice of the bite of apple she had taken on her tongue.
“Come,” the fairy woman said, when the last of them finished, the whole of every apple consumed, stem and seeds and core and all. “More awaits you.”
“Wait,” Mother said, staring down at Aileen, awake and not crying for the first time in too long. Tears shone in Mother’s eyes, but did not spill down her cheeks. “Why have you done this? Surely you can tell us now. We have eaten your food.”
The elf woman looked over them once more. “You think my people to be cruel,” she said. “And you are right to think so. But mortals are cruel, too. And we are not monsters. We miss the sound of the laughter of your folk and the way you used to dance. Pain and death are fine things. Necessary things—” she shrugged, “—but only when balanced by life and joy. Come. Eat. Sing and dance once more.” And she lifted Aileen then, without any effort, and turned, and when she stepped forward, a path lined by trees with golden leaves stretched out before her.
Warm air blew out against Deirdre’s face. She smelled flowers and baking bread. Birds in dozens of colors flittered between the trees. Delightful music hung in the air. There would be trials, she knew. She had heard all the stories. But there would be food, too. And music. And joy. Life, instead of empty death.
Deirdre stepped forward to follow the faerie woman, joined by all her folk.
The morning dawned grey and quiet.
No one limped from the cold cottages to scrounge for scraps of food or to see to the cattle, who needed fattening still for export to the tables of Britain. The quietness and emptiness of the day drew out Crispin, who finished a breakfast of quail’s eggs, sausage, and rich, dark bread coated in butter before sighing and going to see what new problem awaited him.
He found no workers in the fields. The cattle milled about, waiting to be let out to the grasses that they were yet denied. No smoke rose from the chimney in the nearest cottage. The door stood open. Crispin looked inside, a chill running down his spine.
No one lurked within. No one waited in any of the cottages.
He had went to bed the overseer of forty tenant farmers.
He found none of them in the light of morning. He found no sign of where they had went.
He turned in a circle in front of the last cottage, as though perhaps he would discover them lurking just over his shoulder. He only smelled apples and heard a whisper of music on the air, there and gone again.