It was May, and sweet with flowers even in the gloaming dusk. Maeve stood at the stone windowsill, staring out at the gathering twilight. She ignored the excited twittering of the girls in the chamber behind her, flinching slightly at a sudden high-pitched burst of giggles. She never was one for that kind of behavior. Even now, after living among these people for four years, she still hadn't picked up much of their mannerisms. She still didn't like to talk much, or contribute to the conversations that were punctuated by much giggling and, to her mind, no actual thinking. She couldn't understand the attraction it had for her fellow female novitiates.
Soft grey evening blew in the window, and Maeve sighed as she breathed it in. The air was clean and sweet in the evening as it was at no other time. Dawn wasn't soft like this—spring dawn, even as late as May, was chilly. But evening still held the warmth of day, punctuated by the soft song of late birds. The lark had long since hushed its raucous cry, a piercing sound associated with bright yellow light and misty mornings, and now the air was filled with the evening song of the night birds and the deep, hoarse call of the crow.
"Maeve, aren't you even the slightest bit excited?" Nora, a small, pale redhead asked. "Today is Beltane! And you're of age this year. Don't you want to go into the village and take part in the holiday?" A smattering of nervous, excited giggles erupted inside the large dormitory chamber again, along with the flittering of the young girls flying from bunk to bunk.
The tall redhead turned from the stone windowsill, dark eyes landing on her younger schoolmate and remaining. Their brown, liquid depths blinked once.
"And come home bulging with child?" she asked, her face impassive but her tone scornful. She gave an undignified snort. "Not bloody likely."
"Don't swear like a Breton, dear, it's vulgar," another girl observed from across the chamber.
"She's more interested in horses than humans," dark Anaí interjected. "She'll probably sneak out to go visit the grey king on the hill."
"He's probably a changeling fairy," a blond girl scoffed. "Careful, Maevelyn, or your king may draw you into the Shadowland."
Maeve ignored this and turned back to the window, staring out into the dusk. "Better that than a man," she whispered into the night. In truth she was curious—more than she would ever admit—about how it felt to lie with a man. But the urge to satisfy her curiosity was not the only thing she felt, nor was it the strongest. She knew well what happened when men and women lay together, and that oftentimes it led to a child. She did not want a child—ever. She was on her own, and having a baby would upset the balance of her life. So would having a man. She didn't want either, ever. "Better that than a man," she repeated, as if affirming it to herself.
A grey shadow detached itself from the building and, with a soft whicker, hurtled into the darkness.
A few hours later Maeve slipped outside the heavy oaken door of the courtyard and into the wilderness. The Haven bordered a bit of forest—small, but little traveled. It was adequate coverage for one young woman who merely wanted seclusion and a place to think, and it was to this place that Maeve stole, slipping into the relative sanctuary of the trees. No one would follow her—not this night. Not on Beltane. She wanted to be alone. Most of the women and older girls were at the village bonfire, and the novices too young to participate in the holiday were awake in the dormitory, chattering and chirping excitedly about what they imagined was going on in the village below. Maeve didn't want a part in either group—she knew very well what was going on in the village and she saw no need to gossip about which girls might return home with babes in their bellies.
"What's the use?" Maeve grumbled out loud as she stumbled on a patch of loose shale and pushed farther into the deep heart of the forest. Something neighed.
"It's all very well for you, horse," she said, pushing into a small clearing. The moon had risen by this time and doused the clearing with silver-blue light. The dew had not yet fallen, and the grass was dry. Maeve sat down with a thump. "You come into season, you find a stallion, you have a foal. It's not so simple for human beings."
A soft, sudden rustling sounded from the east. Maeve watched, tense, as a shape ambled into the clearing. If it was a drunken reveler, she could handle him. She really didn't want her solitary evening ruined, though. All she wanted was some peace and quiet in the forest.
As she watched, tense and searching, the grey pony stallion shouldered his way through the last of the bushes and regarded her with silver-lashed eyes.
"Oh!" Maeve grinned. The pony whuffled and stepped close to her, his breath gentle on her hair. "Hello, sweet. What are you doing here?" She reached up and scratched his silky forehead. "Surely you know it is Beltane. Where is your band of mares, little king? Shouldn't you prefer their company this night?"
The pony gave a sudden snort, sounding more like human laughter than a horse snort, just as a bright moonbeam splashed upon his sleek silver frame.
Maeve ruffled his tangled mane, absently picking gorse brambles out of its grey lengths. "At the Haven they say you are a fairy," she remarked, her nimble fingers working away at a horrible snarl of bramble and hair and mud. "But you smell equine enough to me."
The beam of moonlight suddenly intensified to a brilliance so bright that Maeve could hardly look at it. A soft buzzing sound like the drone of a summer bumblebee filled her ears. She stared at the horse, openmouthed, as it rose up on its hind legs and turned into a man.
He was beautiful, Maeve noted, as she sat rooted to the ground in shock. He wore a loose cream-colored shirt of soft linen and dark pants of a coarser material. Briefly she wondered where his clothes went when he was a horse. His hair was silver, though not with age, and it reached in soft, straight wisps to the lower part of his ears. It was tipped in black, as if he had dipped the very ends in a pool of midnight sky devoid of stars. His skin was fair, like any Celt, with light freckles across the bridge of his straight nose. His lips were a light pink color she couldn't ever remember seeing on a man before, and yet it fit him perfectly, almost like the soft pink of the stallion's nose. His eyes were dark, as dark as a horse's, with very little white sclera around the brown at all. He was well muscled, though graceful rather than bulky, and he moved with the liquid elegance of an animal.
Several minutes passed in silence so complete that Maeve heard it pressing upon her ears. She was not frightened by this apparition, for her people lived amongst the remnants of the Old Ones, and not a few stories of actual encounters were reported every year. He was a fairy, no doubt about that. There was no other reason for horses to go around turning into beautiful men—beautiful young men—without regard for people's feelings. Fairies were notoriously unaware of the strange turnings of human minds, and rarely did they take the time to sort out what might and what might not frighten the frail beings they shared their land with.
The fairy man turned his head to the side, regarding Maeve with his big dark eyes. Only faint flickers of white shone around the irises. Maeve stared back at him, refusing to make the first move.
"Are you frightened of me?" he asked suddenly, in Gaelic. Well you are stupid, Maeve told herself. What language did you expect him to speak? His accent was thick and slow, rather than the quick snap of syllables Maeve had procured in Dublin-town. His words were even slower than the country speech she'd accustomed herself to, with a musical lilt and cadence that made them sound almost foreign though she'd been speaking the same language her entire life. It made her own speech sound guttural and slow-witted to her own ears, made her sound like she was merely a student in a language he had mastered eons ago.
Perhaps she was.
Maeve pushed those thoughts firmly aside and snorted derisively, much as he had as a horse but a few minutes before. "Why should I be afraid of you?" she asked.
His silver hair hung around his ears. He shook it out of his face and continued to watch her with a strange, burning curiosity. Neither pair of dark eyes blinked.
A hoot owl screeched off in the distance, breaking the impasse. The fairy man grinned, showing two rows of straight, even teeth and a single dimple in his right cheek.
"If you are not frightened, then what are you?" he asked, still unblinking.
"Rather upset, actually," Maeve snapped irritably, rising to her feet. "Why didn't you tell me you were a fairy?" Her hands were on her hips, and she glared at him. He blinked, much as a young child would when faced with displeasure he is not quite sure he has earned.
"I didn't think you'd like the fairy," he said simply, giving a small shrug, "because the fairy is a man." He reached out and brushed the tips of his long, slender fingers across her cheek. "I've heard you speak your mind about men enough. I thought you'd like the horse better." He cocked his head to the side calculatingly, his eyes never blinking or leaving her. "But today, as you have already pointed out, is Beltane." He stepped closer and Maeve felt her heart begin to pound nervously with his close proximity. "Aren't you even a little curious about what it feels like to lie with a man?" Maeve's silence betrayed her.
"Today is Beltane. No one will care. It's natural, you are now of age, and I will not get you with child." He gave a small smile. "No fairy bairns for you…unless you want one."
"I don't want any babies, fairy or otherwise."
He raised an eyebrow. "You may change your mind about that someday." He blinked finally, and Maeve, without realizing it, mimicked the gesture. "Though not today."
"Not today," Maeve agreed, without moving toward him. "How did you know I was of age?" she demanded, trying to hold onto reason for a little while longer. The offer was tempting—he was offering her the chance to satisfy her curiosity without repercussions. No baby, and no man following her. Fairies did not stay with one person for very long—all he wanted, most likely, was a partner for this Beltane, and he would be gone in the morning. That suited Maeve just fine.
To her surprise, the fairy blushed slightly. "I've been watching you for a while, Maeve, and not just as a horse. I was watching you the day you appeared here, a dusty little waif running down the road. There was something…interesting about you. Something kept me watching you." His eyes met hers again, so deep, so dark, so full of immortal mysteries. "I know well that you are of age this Beltane."
Maeve frowned again. "Why me?" she asked, confusion coloring the two simple words. She thought of herself as she saw herself in the mirror—tall, muscular yet slim, with hair that didn't know if it wanted to be red or gold, curly or straight. Her eyes were dark, like mud, she thought, not like the emerald and sapphire eyes most of the other novitiates had. And her family background was disgraceful—not knowing her father, and having a conniving mother who would rather keep an angry drunk around than provide for her daughter herself. Was this fairy simply interested in slumming it, Maeve wondered? But, no. Even fairies wore their hearts in their eyes to those who had trained to read the soul's mirrors, and there was nothing in his eyes to suggest such a thing. So what was it?
He grinned softly and reached out with one finger, tracing the curl of a lock of her hair. "You honestly don't see it, do you?" he asked, without mocking. "You are a desirable woman, Maeve. Many men in the village down there would seek your company this night, were you so inclined to join them."
"I don't want their attention," Maeve replied, her eyes turning toward where the village lay, hidden by walls of trees. "Why do I have yours?"
"Because there is something about you I do not understand," he replied matter-of-factly. "And because you are beautiful, and tonight is Beltane. What is your decision, Maeve? What say you?" The fairy held out a hand.
After a long, silent pause in which Maeve was acutely aware of his breathing; the soft sound, his chest as it rose and fell beneath the thin fabric of his shirt, she took his hand. The fairy smiled, as did she.
"Tonight is Beltane," Maeve agreed.
The fairy led her into the woods by the hand, away from the bright expanse of moonlight. Maeve was thankful for this, since she did not care for the open feeling of the clearing. He stopped at the base of a large oak tree, its branches dark shadows above them.
"Come to me," he said softly, pulling on her hand. Then Maeve, without realizing just how she'd gotten there, was in his arms, and they surrounded her with warmth. He smelled of sweet woodbine and pungent heather, of open meadows and shadowed forests. Without truly thinking about what she was doing, Maeve buried her face in his neck and drew in a deep breath.
The fairy laughed. "What are you doing, dealan-dé?" he asked, his hands firm and gentle upon her waist.
"You smell nice," she said, her words muffled by his skin. He was warm, warmer than she'd thought, for it was said that fairies were often icy cold, but it felt nice to press her body against his. Slowly he drew his fingers up underneath her chin and raised her head to his. Brown eyes locked with brown and his mouth met hers in a soft, burning kiss.
Maeve had never felt the touch of a man's lips before in quite this way. There was something humming within him, humming to the rhythm of the earth beneath their feet. Briefly her mind wondered, as her arms wrapped themselves around his neck and shoulders, if he would always hum like that or if it was merely the fact that tonight was Beltane. Then he deepened the kiss, and she forgot to think at all. A cascade of new sensations and new feelings surrounded her as the fairy nibbled gently at her neck, kissed her chin, settled his mouth against hers again. His hands, which had settled against her waist, traveled upward, his thumbs sliding over her ribcage before his hands covered her breasts. Maeve pulled her mouth away from his, in nervousness rather than discomfort, her eyes unsure.
"I've never…" she began, but the fairy hushed her with a soft kiss. He smiled.
"I know, dealan-dé," he said. "I won't hurt you, I promise." He kissed her forehead. "There are benefits to your first Beltane being spent with a fairy."
He pressed his mouth to her throat, then, feeling the pulse of life within her body. "You are so warm," he whispered wonderingly, "so alive." Then her mouth locked with his again, and neither said anything more for quite a while.
The moon had set when Maeve turned lazily over within the possessive circle of the fairy's arms and rested her damp hair against his sweaty chest. He smelled of green and growing things, even stronger now, with his sweat clinging to his pale skin. She wondered briefly what humans smelled like to the fey.
"You smell like the rich earth after a spring rain," he said, his voice rising from his chest and piping softly in her ear. "You smell of secrets, the secrets of the earth."
Maeve chuckled lightly, her body moving slightly against him. "So you read minds too?" she asked, yawning slightly. He had been true to his word—the pain the novitiates had whispered about, the pain of the first time, had not been felt. She had felt nothing but pleasure from this man—this fairy—and from his insistence she got the distinct impression he felt the same.
"Mm. Only when you shout them at me," he said, chuckling a little. Maeve shivered as a light breeze blew through the forest, rustling the oak leaves above her head and causing her sweaty skin to bead up in little goosebumps. The fairy noticed this, and frowned.
"Cold?" he asked. "Allow me." He reached out, toward the tree, and suddenly there was a large swath of heavy green velvet in his hand. He wrapped it around their entwined bodies as they lay cradled on the earth under the oak tree. "Better?"
"Yes," Maeve mumbled, growing sleepier. "Thank you."
"You are quite welcome, dealan-dé."
Maeve moved closer to him, finding that the hollow between his chest and shoulder made an excellent pillow. His arms wound firmly around her, a protective, possessive hold. Maeve could hear the beating of his heart, and it drummed in rhythm with the earth beneath them. She was falling asleep. Suddenly a thought crossed her mind, something that jolted her sleepy mind back into wakefulness. She sat up on an elbow, her red hair falling around her shoulders. "What is your name?" she asked, almost sheepishly. The fairy threw back his head and laughed.
Maeve shifted away from him, affronted by his behavior. "It's not funny!" she protested, scowling at him. He reached out and slid his hand down her bare arm, rubbing the skin gently.
"Of course not," he said in a placating voice. He looked at her for a moment, no words being said. Then, "Do you know what it is when a fairy gives a human his name?"
Maeve shook her head.
The fairy reached out and pulled her to him again, settling her willing body in the curve of his side. "It is a declaration of trust, trust in the highest degree."
Maeve rolled over onto her back, stretching luxuriantly. "Why?" she asked.
"A fairy's name can be used to bind him. To harm him." The fairy reached out and traced a line up Maeve's bare ribcage, stopping at the base of her breasts. Maeve watched him, a vaguely sardonic look on her face.
"What possible harm could I bring you?" she asked matter-of-factly. "I know well what it is to depend on others to keep your secrets and save your life. I do not like the feeling—why should I put it upon you?"
"You could harm me," the fairy said. "More than you know, you could harm me."
"I will not."
He watched her, his eyes unreadable. "Do you know why my people seek out yours? Do you know why we lure you, sometimes, down into our world?" Maeve's eyes watched his, the soft brown depths unreadable.
"It is not to cause harm, nor is it for our amusement." His hand traced down her back, playing with the graceful curve of her spine. Maeve made a soft noise in her throat, his touch making her shiver. "It is because we need you."
"Need us?" Maeve frowned; this was news to her. Before this moment, she had assumed the fey folk were self-reliant and needed nothing save their own magic to survive. Perhaps it was not true.
"Yes, dealan-dé. We need you to remain the way we are. There is warmth in you—a life we do not possess. It is this life, this warmth, we require. I have felt it from you, Maeve, basked in your warmth. It is…a heady feeling, almost akin to what your men are feeling down in the village, the affects of their wine. But this is much stronger."
"Is that why you came to me this night?" Maeve asked, slightly offended. If all he wanted was warmth, some strange life-force she gave out…
"Do not be angered, dealan-dé. You did not—do not—want undying love either. You wanted the touch of a man, and I wanted the touch of a human woman. What we did was mutually beneficial."
Maeve had to admit he had a point and, while she was no longer angry with him over the horse-secret, she had to admit that their actions had caused no love to well up in her heart either. He was little more than a stranger to her, though his body had entered hers. He was an attractive stranger, yes, but a stranger nonetheless. And though she knew this thought should bother her, should make her uncomfortable, she couldn't dredge up the need to care. His body was warm and felt exquisite against hers, and the time they had spent together, learning each other's bodies and reactions, was burned into her memory. The comfortable silence stretched between them for a long while. Maeve had thought he was asleep when he spoke again.
"Do you know what your name means?" he asked, his voice far-away even as it sounded next to her ear.
"The first Maeve was a queen," Maeve replied, tracing invisible patterns on his chest under the blanket of green velvet. There was no chest hair, simply smooth skin covering the hard muscle.
"Yes, but do you know what the name means?" he asked again.
"No," she said, shivering lightly as one of his hands absently stroked her hair.
"It means many things," he said, his voice no more than the whisper of a summer wind. "It is a flower that grows in the very northern reaches of this land. It also means 'fragile.'"
"I do not believe I am fragile," Maeve said, smiling at that. She closed her eyes, concentrating on the beat of his heart.
"Really?" He sounded truly interested. "I know so little of human thoughts and feelings. To us, your kind are as fragile, as delicate as the flowers and insects are to you."
Maeve snuggled close to his shoulder, breathing in the strange, calming scent of his skin. "Is that why you keep calling me a butterfly?" she asked sleepily.
He chuckled. "Perhaps."
"What else does my name mean?"
The fairy stretched, settling her against his side more firmly, and tightened his arms around her. One hand came to rest just underneath her breasts, making Maeve suck in her breath slightly. He tipped her chin up, nipping at the exposed skin of her throat with infinite care. "Intoxicating one," he breathed against her skin, exhaling the words so that she shivered as his breath touched her skin. "And that one, I believe, you are."
Maeve chuckled a little, accepting him into her arms as her mouth sought his. "I've heard that fairies lie; now I know it for truth."
"No," he said, his teeth grating against the underside of her jaw. "Lies are for dancing nights, and promises of gold. The truth is for you."
With that he rolled over on top of her, and silenced any further remarks she might have made with a kiss.
"Colm," the fairy whispered softly to the sleeping figure in his arms, a figure half girl and half woman, with red-gold hair painted silver-purple by the blue moonlight and the shadows under the old oak tree. "My name is Colm, my treasure, and you are the one I have been searching for."
Maeve awoke in the middle of a wood, the chill of an Irish spring morning on the ground and in the trees. Even on this first day of May, it was still cold enough to raise goosebumps on her arms as she woke, blinking the last retreating haze of sleep from her smoky brown eyes. It was sunny already, the sky white—opaque, yet strangely clear, as if the sun were hiding the moon and stars behind swaths of the finest exotic silk, colorless as the moon herself. The forest smelled of the damp earth, of green, growing things, and underneath it all, the faint, pungent scent of wild heather.
Maeve's clothes were folded neatly by her side, she noticed as she rolled over on her back and took a general, languid stock of her surroundings. She remembered, through a foggy, sleep-induced haze as wooly as new lambs, having thrown them haphazardly around the forest the night before. She frowned in confusion, a small line appearing on her brow for a moment. The boughs of the oak tree above her creaked gently as a breeze blew through the woodlands, sounding slightly smug. She glared at the tree as she started to sit up. A covering of soft leaves and grasses rustled as it fell away from her skin. The cool air hit her body, and she shivered. She was alone.
Slowly Maeve stood, feeling a lingering weakness in her legs, but no pain. The fairy had been right; she had felt no pain during any part of the previous night, nor did she feel any now, after her muscles had been given a chance to rest. She gave a small smile as she thought of the fairy. He wasn't here now, and that was fine with her. She preferred waking up alone, and today it was especially nice to have this quiet time just after waking, time when she was quite solitary, time to reflect on what she had done the past night, and what had transpired, and how it made her feel.
Maeve pushed away the covering of leaves, and they whispered among themselves as they fell from her body and settled to the ground. She ignored their chucklings and reached for her folded clothes.
Something bright glinted, suddenly and brightly, from amid the rustling leaves. Maeve frowned and raised her left hand, something foreign and golden affixed to it. As the last of the leaves fell to the ground, a delicate gold ring appeared on the middle finger of her hand. It twinkled at her, its curious, delicate beauty catching her full attention as she paused to inspect the curious trinket attached to her slender finger. The band was thin, sparkling yellow gold, full of rich, full color, but that wasn't the thing that caught her eye. The decoration was a tiny, perfect rose, every detail chipped painstakingly out of a single sparkling ruby, the faceted stone bright, blood red against the pale skin of her hand. On either side of the jeweled flower sat an equally exquisite rose-leaf, tooled from emeralds greener than the rolling hills of Maeve's Eire. She stared long at the ring, remembering the passion of the night before, and wondering just what this all meant now.