The Changeling Bride(7)

By: Lisa Cach

She was also, she admitted to herself, getting tired of doing everything alone, and getting tired of hoping that she might meet the right man. There were times at the grocery store when she would pass by the bridal magazines and be unable to resist thumbing through the pages, imagining a fairy-tale wedding of her own. Maybe that was why she wasn’t more adamant with Jeff about the blind dates.

The perfect marriage, she mused, was an arranged marriage. No emotional agonies, just a commitment to a partnership with a firm basis in financial stability. The divorce rate was proof enough that marriages based solely on love led primarily to misery.

She stopped again and thrust the coupon into the air. “I’m redeeming my coupon!” she said to the towering Douglas firs. “I want my free husband. Give me a man who is civilized, owns a very big house, and doesn’t expect me to dote on him.” The trees dripped in response. She tilted her head back, looking up into the dark, greenish-black branches, the hood of her parka sliding off. “Do you hear me?”

Drops plopped on her face, making her blink. She lowered her head and pulled the hood back up. She gave the paper another little shake at the forested gloom. Nothing happened. Quiet and solitude surrounded her. The trees appeared unimpressed.

“See, Tatiana? Nothing.” She turned to look up the side of the hill, to where Tatiana had been digging near a fern, and gasped. A human face was staring back at her. He was no more than fifteen feet away, perched on the hillside, dressed in rags, his hair wild. Tatiana was beside him, sniffing curiously at his sleeve. Elle felt the panic flush through her, her skin tingling, her ears pricking in an atavistic response to danger.

His eyes met and held hers, and then she felt a tingle in the fingertips that held the coupon. She glanced down and saw the paper dissolve into shimmering pinpricks of light. Her eyes raised quickly to his, her lips open, her body cold with fright.

“She wants him,” the man pronounced.

“Oh, yes,” came a high voice off to Elle’s left.

“Indeed, she’s willing; she agreed!” came another from behind her.

She turned quickly to each of the voices, finding herself surrounded by derelicts, male and female, filthy and decayed. Her glance skipped from one to the other. With a sense of unreality she recognized the old woman from the bus, and then the man who’d followed her on the street. Their eyes were all the same glowing yellow-green.

“She agrees,” one said, the phrase repeated by another, and then yet another.

“She agrees, agrees, agrees,” they chorused, their voices filling her head—echoing, ringing—dizzying her. She couldn’t focus her eyes, her sense of balance was failing . . . and then the voices stopped.

Elle staggered, and her eyes cleared. She was alone in the forest. She took a deep breath, quivering. Tatiana sniffed at the space where the man had been.

A rumbling roar sounded from the hill that rose above her. She snapped her head up. Trees shifted. The hillside looked like it was coming towards her for a moment, trees and ferns and all, and then it stumbled, turning over on itself, becoming a wave of dirt and rock and falling trees, and she screamed. The wave washed over Tatiana, pulled her under in a flash of white, then hit Elle with such force that she knew only blackness.

Chapter Three

Elle woke to hands tugging at her clothes, stripping her. Her eyes opened to dim phosphorescent light glowing from the walls of a narrow cave. The hands belonged to dainty, fairylike men and women, their hair wild and uncombed, wearing filmy shifts that floated about them in the cool draft than blew through the cave.

Her brain felt about as clear as a bowl of oatmeal. “What are you doing?” she finally thought to ask. She felt weak, too weak to struggle against the hands.

A tittering of giggles met her query. They had her naked now but quickly dressed her again, this time in a loose, white garment. The others dragged her clothes over to a figure lying nearby and began to dress it.

Elle gathered her energy and rolled over on the rocky floor, stones pressing into her belly and ribs, to see the figure better. It was a woman lying there, her limbs unnaturally loose. Elle reached out and touched her arm. It was cool and slack.

“ ’Twas the influenza that got her,” one of the fairy women said.

“Influenza,” the others repeated, relishing the word.

“Is she dead?” Elle asked, her mind floating.

“Dead, yes yes, so dead, so very dead.”

Elle pulled herself up closer to the dead woman’s head. Her face . . . Elle frowned at the corpse. That was her face there, on the dead body. Her Grecian nose, her mouth, her freckles, her dull red hair.