The Changeling Bride(8)

By: Lisa Cach

Elle reached out, gently touching the woman’s face, not quite believing that it wasn’t herself. The woman looked like she had been very sick, her eyes sunken in purplish circles. Her hair was in a loose braid, like Elle’s, only it was a foot longer. One of the fairies took the braid in his hand and sliced off the extra inches with a small knife, then looked at Elle and smiled a tight, strange little smile.

“Who is she?” Elle asked.

“She’s you,” one woman said.

“Or you’re her,” said another.

“Or will be, or were,” the others put in, giggling.

“I don’t understand,” Elle said.

They laughed. One of the women touched Elle’s forehead with cold, hard little fingertips, and her strength began to drain even further.

“Wait,” Elle protested. “I don’t understand. . . .” Her eyes drooped shut, and gentle hands lowered her to the ground.

When she woke again she was lying on a hillside with the dark night sky above, the fairies around her. She felt the way she did when awakened too suddenly from sleep, when the patterns of dreams still held sway over her mind and she could not form a coherent thought.

The odd people were giggling and whispering among themselves. The small hands helped her to stand, and she felt damp grass beneath her feet. Someone swung a dark hooded cape over her, concealing her white gown that glowed faintly in the night.

It was very dark: A quarter moon was the only illumination. There was no reflected peach glow from city lights, no street lamps visible in the distance. All she could see was the irregular line where the black horizon met the charcoal sky. She heard the wind, and the noises of night creatures: an owl, frogs, a dog barking somewhere far, far away. She shivered in the breeze, her feet already chilled by the damp ground.

They took her hands and led her down the hill. She had no sense of time, or of how far they walked in the dark. Eventually the grass and mud beneath her feet changed to smooth, unevenly set stones. When she looked up, a building loomed like a giant shadow against the sky and stretched off to either side in unfathomable dimensions of blackness.

All but two of the fairies drifted away from Elle, and the remaining pair led her to a door that they opened without touch. They took her inside, up two flights of stairs, and at last onto the thick wool carpeting of a hallway, at the end of which a candle burned in a sconce upon the wall. It illuminated a wide white door, its brass handle glimmering in the candlelight. It opened silently as they approached, revealing a large bedroom.

A low fire burned in the fireplace, its flames casting flickers of warmth upon the face of the woman who sat slumped in a chair beside it, fast asleep. She wore an apron over her long dress, and a white cloth cap covered most of her hair. Elle could just make out the shapes of the furniture, largest of which was the four-posted, canopied bed, its draperies pulled back and its soft white covers disarranged. A desire for sleep so strong that it weakened her knees swept through her, and she stepped longingly towards the mattress piled high with pillows, her two escorts pulling the hooded cape from her.

Her companions watched silently as Elle crawled into the bed, never once considering that it was not her own. She nestled down onto her side and watched from half-lowered lids as one of the youths approached her. The boy touched Elle’s forehead, and she sank into sleep.

The two fairies waited until Elle was deeply asleep, then with soundless steps they left the room, the door closing behind them. They retraced their route to the outside, where their compatriots joined them in the cobbled yard.

If anyone had been awake, they would have heard a faint, chimelike titter of laughter coming from a group of shadows that circled about each other, as if there were children out playing games in the dark. The shadows disappeared one by one, replaced by will-o’-the-wisps that bobbed and danced their way back across the fields and into the forest, leaving behind a house that had no notion that fairy spells had been upon it, or that a changeling was in its midst.

Elle woke several hours later, her mind clear. The first thing she saw was the bloated pink and white face of a man bending over her. He looked like the Quaker Oats man, only not so clean and wholesome. He was pressing a long, trumpet-shaped contraption against her chest, between her breasts. She yelped and slapped it away.

The man jerked away from her, even as a middle-aged woman rushed to the side of the bed. “Eleanor! This is no time to be difficult,” the woman ordered in a pronounced British accent.

Elle stared at the woman, then took in the posts and draperies of the bed, and the covers that were pushed down to her waist. A rush of panic swept over her, and the dreamlike journey of last night came back to her in frightening, disjointed images. A clammy sweat broke out on her skin, and her heart beat painfully fast in her chest.