Tirra stands at the edge of the field that she had sown three weeks earlier, watching ribbons push up from the earth and fly in the wind over the graveyard, the Murky Woods and, beyond that, across the ephemeral border between this world and Faeryland. Spell-ribbon for old-school witches. Soft pink ribbon for ballet shoes that will dance all night. Blue ribbon for tying boxes filled with stars. The air is filled with them, spiralling and dipping in the early morning light. This will be fine crop, she thinks, slinging the seed bag across her body and striding out across the day, the uncut rubies tinkling like tiny bells inside the coarse fabric. Are the seeds rubies, or the rubies seeds? After all these years, harvest after harvest, it doesn’t seem to matter. Between Tirra, the poppies that grow from the faery graves and the bees that pollinate the poppies’ ruby seeds, faery brides continue to grow here on the edge of Faeryland. There are no jewel-bright flashes of the bees among the ribbons this morning, but perhaps they’re among the poppies, instead.
Begin planting the next crop as soon as the ribbons fly from the first, her mother, Raewyn, told her long ago. So in the next field over, Tirra walks across the loamy soil, the sky wheat-gold above her and the honey-heavy smell of summer breezing past.
The rubies scatter across the earth, anywhere but the carefully lined furrows, and wriggle themselves into the soil. It doesn’t bother Tirra, for the seeds must do as they want to do. She smiles as her shadow skips along, singing to the ruby seeds in its oboe-low voice and listening for the happy burbling beneath the soil as they take root as creatures fresh and new. Her shadow is Tirra-shaped, of course, but wraith-shoots like climbing sweetpeas curl from its shoulders, hips, fingertips. It is happy to be out in the sunlight after its hibernation. Even shadows need their rest in this land.
The last of the ribbons twirl through the air and are lost from sight. Thick green stalks are waving in their place and the shadows that grow on them—dwarves and winged monkeys, worry-dolls to whisper children to sleep, women with the tails of snakes and hearts of daemons—will soon shake themselves free and follow the ribbons, to do bidding as wishes and dreams. Then, as the stalks wither and begin to compost, the crop of faery brides will pull themselves from the earth and knock at Tirra’s door, eager to claim their prizes. Why do they see human men as prizes, especially after the terrible Bride Hunts of yesteryear? Still, there has never been one who hasn’t gone willingly to her marriage. The fae are made of stronger stuff than any ordinary folk.
Tirra remembers the horror of 1872—she was only a girl then—and the rows of dead fae that were the first she and her mother buried. She remembers the murderers who organised hunting faery brides for sport and Raewyn’s decree that their punishment was to wander forever in the Tangled Maze. She remembers everything.
Tirra reaches the iron fence that surrounds the graveyard at the end of the field. It stretches out before her, irregular rows of tombstones and free-standing glass panes bordered in iron and filled with pressed-flowers, vellum love notes, locks of hair from long-dead fae. Although it is summer, the trees scattered between the graves are bare of their leaves. Snow lays in the shadows of the gravestones, stark against the blood-red poppies swaying gently in the afternoon. The seasons do not behave normally within the graveyard. Then again, neither do the dead.
Something isn’t right—it is too quiet, with none of the familiar buzzing of bees filling the air. Tirra’s shadow trembles as she opened the gate. “You can stay here, if you like,” she says. The shadow nods and sits down to wait, and Tirra walks through the gate alone. The earth feels different here. The fae rest in graves surrounded by iron fences to keep out old enemies who might want to feast on the corpses and end the marriages between fae and humans forever.
She whispers to the dead as she walks, reminiscing about the tin children who rusted under the earth and emerged again as a flock of silvery moths when it came time to harvest the poppies surrounding their graves. That whole crop of brides was petulant, with shining white hair. So different to the swan-women, who were buried in pairs—the poppies that grew over those graves had onyx seeds, instead of dark rubies, producing brides who went to men in need of a firm wife to keep them in line. Most, though, give rise to the poppies across the graveyard that perfume the air bitter and sweet, and whose ruby-seeds Tirra harvests then sows into the earth.
Even though the sun is warm and the poppies sway, Tirra shivers. From the Murky Woods float the sounds of jazz and the rattle of glasses. Nothing wrong there. In the field behind her, shoots push up through the earth from the wriggling seeds, just as they should. But her fears are confirmed—the bees have disappeared. Not one of the shiny amethyst and emerald insects bumbles through the air from the woods, to the poppies, back to the hive under the old sycamore tree. Heart pounding, Tirra runs towards the tree.
A breeze blows the sycamore leaves around Tirra as she sinks to the ground beneath the tree. Her throat tightens and tears well in her eyes as she presses her hands gently onto the bones that were long-ago bleached white by the elements. The gryphon’s skeleton has lain here ever since she was small girl. She had been charged with sitting with the gryphon until the creature’s death, stroking her fur and listening to her breathing getting shallower. Tirra had sat with her throughout the night, as the moon passed across the sky and the sun rose again, when the last breath rattled through the old one’s body.
The bones are sun-warmed. Here are forepaw bones, still tipped with claws too sharp to touch. There, the skull rests, grass and summer daisies garlanding the teeth and eyesockets. Most importantly, lying gently against the roots of the sycamore is the huge ribcage—but it is too still without the pale blue beehive that the ribs should safely encase. Instead, it is empty, with no sign of its bees which pollinate the graveyard’s poppies. There is nothing but silence, a cool wind and Tirra’s fear.
This place was made sacred by the gryphon’s death, for faery bees need faery bones in which to build their hives. No bees means no more poppies with their ruby seeds. No more ruby seeds means no more faery brides. And no more brides means the worlds will sicken again. Tirra wipes away her tears and stands up. There is no-one else here but her and the fae at their rest—fat lot of good they’re going to do me, she thinks. She looks across the graveyard and back toward the field, then over to the woods. But there is no clue as to who might have stolen the hive.
The sycamore rustles, a little irritably, and more leaves swirl around her. Perhaps she should consult the books back at the house? She feels a soft tapping on her ankle. Her shadow has slunk in, after all, and is pointing towards the sycamore’s roots. A tiny movement and Tirra sees a lone bee, a tiny amethyst jewel left behind looking for a trail to follow. It leaves a tiny purple trail of pollen in Tirra’s palm as she picks it up. Holding it to her mouth, she whispers to it then watches as it takes flight. Tirra and her shadow run after it, towards the Murky Woods.
In the dim green light of the woods the bee’s indigo light pulses just ahead, its flight erratically purposeful. Soft verdant moss covers the tree trunks and limns the stone pathways. Tirra is careful not to step on the dead bees that litter the path in a macabre bread-crumb trail. Hidden among the foliage are statues of faery brides of times past, wrapped in vines and the sparkling dew that never quite evaporates. Skeins of hair, silver-blonde, raven-black, flame-red, hang from tree boughs, tributes and offerings to the brides who have gone before. The light shifts and the skeins become fish scales, feathers, fox tails. Tirra feels as though the statues are watching her, disapproving of her failure to keep the hive safe.
She follows the bee as it alights on crumbling stone fountains, moon blossoms and tendrils of mist from across the border that have become something more corporeal in the ordinary world. A familiar buzzing just ahead grows louder as she leaves the path and follows the bee past a copse of yew trees and into a little clearing beyond, behind which a stream gurgles past.
The bee flits across to the far side of the clearing, to join its mates in the blue beehive propped against a tree. Her gut clenches; the hive has been split almost in two. The bees crawl frantically in and out of the hole, and golden honey spills out onto the grass and over the small axe lying next to it on the ground. Just to its left sits a mortal man with an old canvas bag by his side, head bowed and buried in his hands, which are nastily swollen with countless beestings.
“What do you think you’re playing at?” Tirra asks through clenched teeth, although doesn’t move any closer as the axe is within the man’s reach. He looks up and she sees his eyes are red, as though he has been weeping.
“She left me,” he says quietly.
Bride trouble, Tirra thinks and knows that caution is imperative. She peers at him. He does seem familiar. There is something about his voice, too, soft and plaintive—
“Your name is Pieter, no? ‘A bride with hair of flame, strong limbs, cunning mind and winning smile’.” She recites his wish from memory, as she remembers the wishes of all the men to whom her brides have been betrothed.
“Her name was Ilwyn. She was everything to me. I tried to make her happy…then last week, she discovered this.” He picks up the canvas bag next to him and tips it up. Red pelts scatter onto the ground, the fur still thick and glossy, tails like bottle brushes and legs tipped in sharp black claws.
Hot anger rises in Tirra: her shadow is shaking. “You mean to tell me that you asked for a cunning faery wife with red hair and you keep the fox pelts of dead faery brides in your home?” Her voice is low with fury.
“They belonged to my great-grandfather. I didn’t even know I still had them. I’m not proud of my family’s involvement in the Bride Hunts, but it was so long ago…”
Tirra’s thoughts race, blocking out Pieter’s ramblings. First the gangs brought brides over from Faeryland and hunted them for sport. Then, their false cries—“Nicolita spoiled our cow’s milk” and “Siobahn took my babe and left a changeling behind”—gave them an excuse to kill even more. She and her mother buried so many of them in the graveyard, fae bled out through bullet wounds in their chests or necks that had been inflicted on them in their animal forms. The swan maiden’s white skin splattered in red, the wolf women’s beautiful caramel-coloured limbs destroyed by hunters’ arrows and knives. The agreement for faery brides to be reborn from dead fae had been the only chance at mending the wounds between this world and Faeryland. Somewhere deep inside, Tirra’s anger explodes and next she knows, she is holding Pieter by his throat, against a large stone boulder as his feet dangle uselessly a foot off the ground.
“And now you’ve come to finish the job?” She feels an anxious little pat on her leg—her shadow points to Pieter, who is red and spluttering, unable to draw breath. Dropping him, she leans down to cup her hand in the flowing stream and holds the water to his mouth. Furious she may be, but she won’t turn herself into a murderer because of him.
He coughs, draws in deep breaths, shakes his head at Tirra. “I was just so lonely.”
At her feet, Tirra’s shadow comforts Pieter’s. She sits down between him and the hive.
“Well, faery brides are no cure for loneliness, there’s nothing surer,” she says.
“The night she found them,” he points towards the lifeless pelts strewn across the ground, “I’ve never seen anyone so angry. She took one of them and stormed out the front door. She stood on the porch and flung it across her shoulders…and then she wasn’t there anymore. Instead there was a fox that ran so quickly away from me, into the trees beyond, and in the moonlight, it was just the shade of her hair.” He shakes his head again, rubs at the stings on his hands.
“You know that they all leave sooner or later, don’t you Pieter? This is their chance for another life! Some disappear in the dead of night, slipping out as quiet as shy ghosts, others in a flurry of anger, casting curses at all and sundry. If they find their skins, they’ll be gone faster than you can call their name, off to live in the wilds of our world in their animal form.” And the rare ones, she remembers silently, are called back to Faeryland and disappear in a swarm of jewelled bees, the light refracting through their wings and staining the ground, leaving behind their only daughter to mourn the loss and tend the graveyard that is the one link between the two worlds. She sighs and leans over to the stream again.
“Here,” she says, tipping water over his hands, the swelling immediately dissipating. “So, trying to destroy my beehive was all for nought—you may want to have your revenge against me for your lost Ilwyn, but she would have gone, anyway.”
He laughs gently. “I don’t want revenge. I love her and don’t want to see her or her sisters risk themselves. I want to make good for what the old bride hunters did, once and for all. No more faery wives to be hunted down. No more of them for this world.” Pieter jumps up and heads towards the beehive, looking fierce enough to finish what he has started.
Tirra whispers quickly to her shadow, which snakes away from her. All the shadows in the clearing—the dappling from the canopy, the long shapes of the tree-trunks, the squat darkness beneath the boulders, even Pieter’s lithe shape—move across to the abandoned pelts. The skins puff up as though breath has been pumped into them; the darkness fills them up and they stretch their spindle-thin legs, run toward the hive and overtake Pieter. Ears pricked up and dark light staring out from the empty eye sockets, six shadowy little foxes are now blocking his way, snarling and snapping at his ankles.
He stops. “We can’t let you do that, Pieter. Our worlds are symbiotic—destroy that hive and you will destroy everything as your great-grandfather and his friends nearly did,” Tirra says. When the fae stopped coming and banned mortals from Faeryland, the crops really did fail and women became barren. All the colour bled from both worlds. The two each need a little of the other in order to survive and the graveyard became the link between them.
All her anger towards Pieter is gone. She understands loneliness and abandonment. She knows what it is to love the fae, only to have them slip away and wonders if it is worse to lose a wife or a mother. “What if I grant you a chance to get Ilwyn back?”
He turns and smiles hopefully. The foxes stop yapping but still stand guard around the hive, wary. Bees land on their ears and tails, only to be flicked gently away.
“What would you say to a quest, Pieter?”
Tirra sits under the sycamore as the sky turns gold and pink under the setting sun. The bees have calmed and are lazily buzzing around the gryphon’s bones as she carefully mends the hive with a finger-bone needle and strands of Pieter’s hair. Sacrifice, after all, is part of any good quest, as is burden and boon, by way of the pelts she has directed him to take along. It is up to him whether they will secure his safe passage or his doom.
She and her shadow sing softly, the gentle magic of their song helping to knit the hive back together and bind it to the bones. Somewhere deep in the woods, their song echoes and sighs.
Her shadow cocks its head questioningly at her.
“No,” Tirra says, “I don’t think he’ll like what he finds there. But he has to try. That’s how the stories go, isn’t it?” She walks back toward the path, her shadow whispering to the bees as they go. Perhaps they will carry the stories to her mother, but she can never be sure.
She wonders if Pieter will find jewelled boxes with the pearl tears of princesses inside? Will he be imprisoned by giants with golden geese and singing harps? Will Ilwyn forgive him or will he search forever for his lost fox-wife? Most of all, she wonders if he will meet a fae queen who is part sylph, part bee, who was once the faery bride and mother who charged her half-mortal daughter with bringing magic back to the ordinary world and the ordinary back to Faeryland.